Star Trek is heading back home to the small screen… but how can the new series live long and prosper?
Well friends, you may have heard the extremely surprising news that we’re getting a new Star Trek show that’s set to make its debut in January 2017. While we don’t know much, we do know that Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness) will be the executive producer and it won’t be directly connected to Star Trek Beyond.
But by the time the new series airs, Star Trek will have been off television for twelve years. There are a lot of mistakes that led to that drought, which led up to the cancelation of Star Trek: Enterprise. We want to examine those pitfalls and figure out what makes Star Trek not only great, but capable of enduring for fifty years when so many franchises haven’t.
So, why don’t you want it to be like the movies? Do you mean the reboots?
We don’t mean the reboots. We mean all the movies.
Why is that?
Well, despite some rather spectacular films Star Trek has often struggled to make the transition from television to the big screen. Only about five of the twelve films could be considered legitimately great films, while the rest flounder between “alright” and “downright dreadful.”
And there are two interconnected reasons why the Star Trek films have such large discrepancy of quality on film rather than on television.
What are those reasons?
The first is that more is expected from a film. A major motion picture is an event with a ton of money and hype for a two hour story. The stakes have to be bigger, the emotion grander, and the scope more epic in order to justify making a film.
As a result, you see a lot of the Star Trek films play it safe with very derivative action stories that fail to capitalize on what made the franchise great. Yes, sometimes the filmmakers nail that formula (First Contact, Star Trek 2009), but most of the time it turns into an awkward mess (Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek Into Darkness).
… which leads us to our second point.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best thing and the worst thing to happen to Star Trek.
It’s best in that if perfectly delivered the cinematic experience the Star Trek films needed to hit, but worst in the fact that almost every film since then has been chasing its greatness by trying to replicate it beat for beat.
The simple fact of the matter is that antagonist based revenge stories have become the norm for the films… and Star Trek is so much more than that. Even Nicholas Meyer, the director of Wrath of Khan, made a completely different kind of film (a Cold War thriller) with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. If the new series follows that formula Wrath of Khan nailed, which has thus far defined the Abramsverse, it’s destined for failure.
So, you don’t think the new show should be set in the Rebooted universe?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter. We know some people feel very strongly one way or the other, but either universe is capable of hosting good Star Trek stories. For all intents and purposes, Star Trek: The Next Generation took place in another timeline with very different players. Yet, despite all its differences from the Original Series, Next Generation told equally good tales in the spirit of the franchise.
Why is that?
On television, you can’t quite have the same flashy visuals as you would in a film due to budget constraints and time restrictions for episodic production. So, TV is more reliant on dialogue, character, and exploring ethical dilemmas than a blockbuster film. Strong characters, good dialogue and interesting moral problems don’t date a project like special effects can. It’s the reason why The Original Series and the 90s shows are still very watchable (and popular) today.
The Original Series caught on not because it had phasor fights and space battles every episode. Viewers fell in love with the three man decision making squad of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Every week, the show would offer those characters a problem to solve… and most of the time the solution came from discussions between their different points of view on the subject.
When it came to The Next Generation, how many times did you see the crew talking about a crisis around a conference table or Picard’s office? A ton. Films often can’t afford to do that, but it’s the life blood of a good TV show.
So, what would be your advice for the new show?
Don’t focus on spectacle. Don’t try to make every week into a big cinematic experience. Every so often you can blow us away with a great space battle, but having them all the time makes them lose their drama and impact on the audience. Instead, focus on giving our characters a dilemma to solve that makes them question their world views.
Use the science fiction setting to deliver a look at our culture through the lens of another. Star Trek has managed to have episodes about war, racism, gender equality, AIDS, and drug addiction that manage to promote discussion without offending anyone. Why is that? Because when social issues are effecting Klingons and Romulans you’re not viewing them with a personal bias.
In closing, we’d like to point out an episode that encapsulates how to make perfect Star Trek in the current climate of the franchise: Deep Space Nine‘s “In The Pale Moonlight.”
Set during the backdrop of the latter half of the show that featured an epic (and we mean freaking epic) war where the Federation fought against an implacable space empire called the Dominion. By the time of this episode, the we’ve already had episodes that featured massive fleet battles and state of the art effects, but they all paled in comparison to “In The Pale Moonlight.”
The series protagonist, Federation Captain Ben Sisko, realizes his side can’t win the war unless they become allies with the Romulan Empire… who have a treaty with the Dominion. Sisko has nothing to offer that would bring the Romulans on their side… so he decides to create false evidence the Dominion are going to break their treaty.
What follows is an hour of a man living in a utopia (the Federation), breaking almost every rule that utopia has in order to protect it. The episode is dark, it tears the characters apart from the inside out, and in the end you learn more about them than you ever thought possible. It’s considered by many to be the best episode of Star Trek ever…
.. and it doesn’t feature one ship battle. The whole episode is people sitting around and talking. And we’d rather watch it than all the space battles they could throw at us.
Don’t make an action show. Don’t make a procedural. Make a compelling drama and the viewers will come.
Don’t make a cinematic experience, make a theatrical one.