STAR TREK Commentary: New Frontiers on a New Frontier

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The big news yesterday was that CBS will launch a new series of STAR TREK in January 2017. It even trended on Twitter for a while. The reactions were mixed, mostly positive that CBS was creating a new series but often negative that they were making it available only on their streaming service — this despite that there is a major movement away from cable and satellite subscriptions toward live streaming.

But here’s my problem: Where can they possibly go thematically from here? There have been five STAR TREK  series: STAR TREK (the original, 1966), STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987), STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993), STAR TREK: VOYAGER (1995), and STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE (2001). As a teen, I was one of the original Trekkies, watching the premier of the series on September 8, 1966, with a friend on his color TV and very excited for a serious serial science fiction series. And after a dearth of STAR TREK – I was never anywhere near a television station that played STAR TREK in syndication that actually made STAR TREK a phenomenon – I was excited about the creation of STAR TREK:  THE NEXT GENERATION. Then over time, as producers tried to expand the franchise, the series seemed to slowly run out of steam.

STAR TREK started out as adventurers going where no one had gone before. It was trend-setting television. It explored new worlds both literally and figuratively. By the time THE NEXT GENERATION came on board, the themes turned more dark and the Federation was more engaged in wars and battles than exploration. DEEP SPACE NINE stopped exploring all together and became a stage for an invasion of species. They brought the universe and its troubles to us. VOYAGER got knocked out of Federation space and spent its seven years trying to get home and fighting for its life, not a very uplifting theme. One two-part episode was titled “Year of Hell,” in which the characters spent a full year under attack, trying desperately not only to get back home but simply to survive. By the time ENTERPRISE came to the airwaves, covering the early days of the STAR TREK story line, I just couldn’t get into it anymore.

So where does this leave the writers to go now? According to news accounts, they will return to the show’s original mission of exploring the universe “to seek out new worlds and new civilizations.” I hope they also return to its positive, uplifting point of view. Not that I want them to ignore contemporary issues — the original series did that well and this new series should do so, too. But the old series did more than explore the issues, they resolved them. In fact, the whole make up of the crew resolved age-old human issues, which was a positive point of view in itself.

Where new Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman has an interesting opportunity is that he produced and co-wrote for the J.J. Abrams STAR TREK motion pictures, and the Abrams motion pictures opened the STAR TREK universe into whole new possibilities by rewiring the STAR TREK canon when renegade Romulan Nero took a wormhole back through time to kill off Vulcan, rebooting what happened to the all the familiar old characters afterwards. And that provides some unique opportunities to rework the original STAR TREK universe. Thank you J.J. Abrams!

To recap then, I’m very hopeful for the new STAR TREK series. It sounds as if the producers want to return to its original vision of exploration and discovery. And it has opportunities to both go to new places and re-envision old places. And this could be a weird and wonderful new experience, despite STAR TREK running out of steam after so many series before.

Now if we could just talk CBS out of limiting viewership to its streaming service. That seems to me to be a dead end. I know streaming is the newest thing, and probably for CBS shareholders that seems like a bold new trek into profits. But one Twitter follower told me there are almost 100 streaming services, and right now Nextflix and Amazon Prime are among the leaders. CBS Access has a long way to go to catch up. Are people really willing to pay almost $6 a month simply for a STAR TREK reboot? Especially when CBS doesn’t even play back episodes for all of its current programs? That $6 a month is a lot to pay for one program.

Right now, the buzz is good for the new STAR TREK series. Let’s see if it continues. CBS will premiere the new series on the CBS Network before launching the rest of the episodes on its streaming service. Then we will see if these new frontiers streaming on a new frontier can live long and prosper under limited availability.

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