The most defining moment in film the last 10 years was probably at the very end of Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson walks out of the shadows as Nick Fury and tells Tony Stark that he wants to talk about something called “the Avengers Initiative.” Comic book movies had fun before dropping little hints about a bigger superhero universe outside their immediate area, but here, Marvel Studios boldly said, “We’re going to show it to you!” As Marvel showed more, Hollywood got the hint, “Let’s make all the universes!” they shouted. As always though, Star Trek got there long before we knew what to call an “expanded universe.” Too bad they can’t get back there…
The tweet has long since been deleted, but last Saturday night Collider editor-in-chief Steve “Frosty” Weintraub said that he bumped into Bryan Fuller at a Hollywood premiere, and he was “so angry” about the way Fuller said he was treated by CBS while working on Star Trek: Discovery. The reason this didn’t make a bigger splash was likely because this was the same night we got initial impressions from the first screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but more than a few Trek forums noticed. The assumption, from Weintraub’s now disregarded statement, was that CBS wanted Fuller to work on the quick and the cheaper, and Fuller, already dealing with a full-plate as showrunner on American Gods, didn’t want to play ball. Ultimately, CBS canned him for those that would.
Evidently, CBS was balking at the cost of Discovery, a sci-fi series that has to be built from the ground up complete with sets, costumes and props, and that’s before the greater cost of visual effects gets factored in. Although the series is shooting in Toronto to take advantage of lucrative tax incentives, it’s still a pricey endeavour because, let’s face it, people expect more from Star Trek. It’s top shelf space opera, and CBS can’t put cheap wine in an expensive bottle and tell us its vintage because the discerning pallets of today’s fan will most definitely be able to tell the difference.
By comparison, in ye olden days of Trek, Paramount could cut corners. That’s not to say that they were purposefully being cheap, but if, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation required a new ship, or the new set for a ship, there was always extra stuff lying around from the movies. How many times was the bridge from the Enterprise-A reused as the Enterprise-D’s battle bridge, or the bridge of some other Starfleet vessel? Did you notice that the hallways for the Enterprise-D were used for the Enterprise-A in Star Trek V? Did you note how Voyager’s sickbay is also the sickbay for the Enterprise-E in First Contact? It happened. Reduce, reuse, recycle has been a Hollywood thing for decades, and Star Trek did it better, and more incestuously, than most.
How? Two words: “expanded universe.” Nobody thought to call it that at Trek‘s peak, but that’s basically what they were doing through the 90s. Whether it was movies featuring the original crew in film while The Next Generation was on the air, or the overlapping runs of Deep Space Nine and Voyager while the Next Gen crew was making movies, they were all adventures happening concurrently, and that were informing one and other across film and television. And isn’t it weird that as every Hollywood studio is scrambling to capitalize on the new “Marvel method”, CBS and Paramount seem incapable of realizing that they had once done this before with some success yet seem fundamentally unable to do it again?
It should be so easy. How many cop shows are on TV right now? Every cop show is predicated on the same idea: A group of police officers, anywhere between two and many, solving crimes. The shows that separate the proverbial rubber from the road tend to combined compelling characters with a provocative central mystery or investigation, like The Wire, True Detective, or Hannibal. Is Star Trek really any different? Just get a group of people on a starship and send them off into the galaxy to explore strange new worlds!
It’s a little more complicated then that for sure, but we’ve reached a time and place where the only impediment to make something is the limit of the creator’s imagination. But CBS executives have a dreadful lack of imagination really seeing as how most of their prime time line-up, drama-wise, are cop shows, some of which are spin-offs or remakes of earlier cop shows. Occasionally a Supergirl, a Person of Interest, or a Good Wife makes it through the development process, but CBS clearly knows what it wants and what it’s good at. And that’s fine, CBS stands as America’s most successful broadcaster, they clearly know what they’re doing and who they appeal to. But despite that, are we to believe that they didn’t know what they were getting into making a new Star Trek?
While CBS seems obsessed with the bottom line, they miss the real opportunity with Star Trek: how it’s as franchisable as any NCIS or CSI. Look at the Trek novel lines where you’ve got book series like New Frontier and Titan, which are about other crews on other starships. You have the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series and The Department of Temporal Investigations, which shine a light on little seen specialty services inside Starfleet. You also have the Vanguard series, which follows a number of characters on a Starfleet starbase during the original series era. And the Klingon Empire series, which is about the crew of a Klingon ship seeking out strange new worlds to conquer. There’s also lots of opportunity to crossover, along with the continuing missions of the Next Gen crew Deep Space Nine and Voyager all in the mix.
The point, if there’s ever a point, is that this should be easy. CBS understands the idea of taking a basic premise and stretching it out across multiple shows, and Hollywood studios are eagerly looking for ways to combine several big tentpoles into massive expansive universes; the math should be easy on Star Trek‘s account. We can only assume that the ongoing rocky relationship between the two sides of the Viacom empire might be somewhat to blame, Paramount and CBS have a kind of church and state relationship under the Viacom umbrella as in “separate but equal.” Taking advantage of Star Trek’s bounty would require more co-operation than they seem to be capable of, which is a shame because the opportunity is there waiting to be realized.
As for Star Trek: Discovery, here’s hoping that CBS, if they are indeed partaking in self-sabotage, shatters all expectations. Casting The Walking Dead’s criminally underused Sonequa Martin-Green as the main character this week added some much needed intrigue, so despite Weintraub’s (and Fuller’s) concerns, it seems that CBS is following the game plan Discovery’s creator laid out. Perhaps success will breed opportunity, perhaps if enough people follow Discovery to All Access in the same way they followed Star Trek to syndication in the 70s, the people who hold the purse strings might loosen that grip a little more. There are still a lot of strange new worlds to explore…
The Trek Bastard column will be back in the new year, but in the meantime, enjoy some Christmas Trek cheer.
Trek Bastard is bi-weekly column that will look at the issues, history and art of Star Trek over its first 50 years. Trek Bastard will be back on January 8.