Photo: ‘Star Trek’
2009: The Year We Made Contact
‘Star Trek’ has been a part of the pop culture landscape more or less consistently since the original show’s premiere in 1966; indeed, the original show only got granted a third season because it had already developed a strong cult following. Between the original series, the short-lived (but with its own cult following) animated series from 1973, and the first feature film in 1979, ‘Star Trek’ popped into people’s minds, even during times when the franchise seemed close to hibernation. The big screen would provide a safe haven for ‘Star Trek’ during the years leading up to ‘The Next Generation’ (there were six ‘Star Trek’ films between 1979 and 1991 alone), but the franchise would also be most at home on the small screen — in the world of television.
If you’re someone of my generation, though, your first taste of ‘Star Trek’ was probably the 2009 reboot film, directed by J. J. Abrams, starring Chris Pine at the outset of his career. The film, a “modern” revamping of the Enterprise as helmed by Captain James T. Kirk, was a major critical and commercial success, making back more than double its budget globally; it would also, of course, make Pine a star. Perhaps most importantly, at least for fans, the 2009 film would breathe new life into the franchise; after the premature cancellation of ‘Enterprise’ in 2005, ‘Star Trek’ had come mighty close to becoming a dead franchise.
In 2013, Abrams would direct ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’, and this too would be a success — although noticeably less so than its predecessor, which perhaps served as a bad omen. While the new ‘Star Trek’ films were doing well, longtime fans were somewhat dissatisfied with the more action-heavy direction these films took, not to mention an overreliance on appeals to those who may have watched a few episodes of the original series, but could not be called “true believers.”
The Failure of ‘Star Trek Beyond’ and Return to TV
A change of pace was needed, although (for reasons we’re not quite sure of) said change would come at a cost. A third film in the reboot series, ‘Star Trek Beyond’, was released in 2016 to middling commercial reception; it didn’t even make back its budget stateside. While critics’ reviews were still largely positive, there was a general sense of fatigue surrounding this third entry — which, in my opinion, is a huge shame, as ‘Star Trek Beyond’ comes far closer to capturing the spirit of the original series than either of its predecessors.
For starters, Abrams was no longer in command (although he still acted as a producer), with Justin Lin directing this time; the different direction is evident, as Abrams’s quirks (gratuitous lens flares, shaky camera movement) are basically absent, replaced by Lin’s more steady hand. While the first two movies had mostly the same writing team (including future showrunner Alex Kurtzman), ‘Beyond’ was written by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (yes, the actor), who evidently are more fond of the source material.
Despite its virtues, ‘Beyond’ did not make big enough of an impact to warrant an immediate sequel, although the tragic death of Anton Yelchin probably didn’t help matters. There have been murmurs of a fourth reboot film finally seeing the light of day (with a 2023 release date, supposedly), but there will be a gap of more than half a decade between these two. ‘Star Trek’ seemed to be on precarious ground again, but this uncertainty would be short-lived; in 2017, the franchise would be getting a new show (the first since ‘Enterprise’), titled ‘Discovery’, premiering in 2017 on the newfangled streaming service CBS All Access. You might be expressing confusion, even befuddlement, at the name “CBS All Access” right now; don’t worry, it happens to everybody.
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While it would prove controversial with fans (for both good and bad reasons), ‘Discovery’ served well as the flagship series for CBS All Access — later rebranded much more intuitively as Paramount+. ‘Discovery’ is a prequel to the events of the original series, so naturally, it makes use of dramatic irony, along with call forwards; we see Captain Pike in the prime of his career, as opposed to being severely disabled by the time Kirk takes command of the Enterprise. As with the reboot films, ‘Discovery’ is considerably more fast-paced than previous ‘Star Trek’ shows; your mileage may vary as to whether this was a good idea or not. Regardless, the commercial success of this new series would secure a future once more for the franchise.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Being the most important sci-fi franchise in history that isn’t ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’ has properties in virtually every medium, from movies to video games to novels and beyond, but it has always been the best on TV. The original series, ‘The Next Generation’, and ‘Deep Space Nine’ are some of the greatest science fiction the medium has to offer, and the stock plots in ‘Star Trek’ (first contact, solving an ethical dilemma, technology running amok, etc.) are best utilized in bitesize chunks. After the success of ‘Discovery’, and with the need for original content on what is now Paramount+, the logical conclusion that we needed more ‘Star Trek’ shows. 2020 saw the premiere of two new shows, with ‘Picard’ as a follow-up to ‘The Next Generation’ (and, weirdly enough, also ‘Voyager’), and ‘Lower Decks’ as an animated comedy series for older audiences.
Surely three shows would be enough, but we have since gotten two more shows to add to the pile. The most obscure of the new ‘Star Trek’ shows is ‘Prodigy’, which, like ‘Lower Decks’, is animated — but this time with a much younger viewership in mind; I haven’t seen any of it yet. The latest release, and possibly the most anticipated of the bunch, is ‘Strange New Worlds’, so fresh that it hasn’t even come close to finishing its first season. Like ‘Discovery’, ‘Strange New Worlds’ is a prequel series (well, a sequel to ‘Discovery’ but still a prequel to the original series), this time with Captain Pike as the lead character (in both here and ‘Discovery’ he is played wonderfully by Anson Mount), and so far it looks quite promising.
A Little Something for Everyone
Admittedly, it doesn’t require too much cynicism to think that the recent explosion of ‘Star Trek’ content has to do with Paramount + struggling to make a name for itself as a host for original content. There have been a few high-profile releases at Paramount+, but the streaming service is more or less inextricably connected with ‘Star Trek’ — not helped by the fact that past shows like ‘The Next Generation’ and ‘Voyager’ now stream exclusively there as well. (Not ‘Deep Space Nine’, though, Netflix can keep that, apparently.) No doubt we are reaching a point of saturation where people will get tired of all this, and a few of the shows will get the executioner’s blade.
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Cynicism aside, though, it’s hard to be angry about such a varied lineup of shows; even if you don’t like ‘Discovery’ or ‘Picard’, you might like ‘Strange New Worlds.’ Conversely, if you’re looking for another animated ‘Star Trek’ series, then ‘Lower Decks’ gets the job done — especially with its second season, which is honestly stunning. My biggest reservation about all this content, aside from the saturation, is that so much of it cannibalizes pre-existing material; ‘Discovery’ and ‘Strange New Worlds’ cease to make sense without the original series, and the same goes for ‘Picard’ in its relationship with ‘The Next Generation.’ ‘Star Trek’ is all about exploring distant worlds with alien cultures, about discovery and wonder, and if we are to get more ‘Star Trek’ content (as we surely will), then we ought to see more of what makes the franchise work best.
You can watch all of the aforementioned shows on Paramount+.
By Brian Collins
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