How Star Trek’s revival is killing the franchise

Back in 2012, I wrote a piece on this site called “Will Star Trek ever come back?” At the time, Trek had been off broadcast TV for seven years, and only the reboot movies showing up in theaters. I wrote then, “If Trek does come back, it needs to be done right. It really needs to cast off the outdated constraints that were pulling the old series down and hold fast to the elements that made Trek so compelling to begin with. That’s not an easy balance to strike.”

Five years later, Star Trek did, indeed, come back. Star Trek Discovery launched on CBS’ streaming platform in 2017, giving viewers the first new Star Trek series since Enterprise went off the air in 2005. Faster, prettier, darker, and serialized, Discovery leaped out of the gate with a much different feel and attitude than the six series that came before it. I was genuinely excited to watch this new chapter of Trek and rooted for it to succeed, but as the first season went on, I became unsettled and disquieted. Yes, Star Trek did cast off outdated constraints… but it also was missing something essential to what made the previous films and series, well, Star Trek. It didn’t get the balance right.

I thought it was brilliant to have the show focused on a disgraced first officer rather than a captain, and as Discovery’s first season progressed, I found moments and characters that I delighted me. Yet over all of that was this shadow cast by show creators who were eager to drag Star Trek into the grimdark television landscape of the 21st century. The second I saw a character’s body turned inside-out or witnessed nude Klingon sex or heard f-bombs dropping in the engine room, it was clear that this couldn’t be a show that I’d be sharing with my children. Heck, I didn’t even want to keep going after a point.

The second season was… well, it was better. Somewhat. They got a captain on loan from the Enterprise who actually seemed like one of those bold, clever captains of old. There were a few genuinely great episodes and some nice character development. But it still felt wrong. It didn’t feel anything like Trek, even allowing for a jump into a new decade and a more modern way of delivering stories. It was Star Trek decor wrapped around, I don’t know, Battlestar Galactica. The crew of a science vessel wasn’t doing much in the way of exploring strange, new worlds or letting us get close enough to really know its characters.

I wasn’t alone in feeling unsettled. The Star Trek revival has fractured and frazzled the fanbase, with many fans struggling to love something that they just couldn’t. Articulating why and how Star Trek was failing them proved to be more difficult, but let me just say that I am far from the first to write on this subject. At the core of the problem isn’t the “adult” tone or technology that looks far too advanced to be a prequel to Jim Kirk’s era, but rather a failure to hold on to the principles of Star Trek and gracefully transition them into new and updated entries.

Because Star Trek has always been about boundless optimism for the future, a huge emphasis on self-improvement, and crews that are family. There’s always been conflict and some level of hypocrisy even from the Federation and Starfleet, but it’s been tempered by wisdom, wits, and a sense of wonder. Star Trek got me through my awkward teenage years because it offered a vision of a future that seemed so upbeat and cool that I imagined being a part of it. That’s just not the type of Star Trek that we’re getting today.

And despite fan and critical rumblings, new Star Trek has been a hit in the ratings and prompted CBS to go whole hog in revving up the franchise machine. Star Trek Picard came out earlier this year with fan-favorite characters and our first look at a post-Nemesis landscape. Some people loved it, while others thought it greatly tarnished the character of Picard and the Federation (I’ve only seen the first episode, so I can’t comment on this fully). CBS has also released several “Short Trek” episodes and is developing three additional series: Strange New Worlds, Section 31, and Lower Decks. Disenfranchised Trekkies are placing a lot of hope that Strange New Worlds, with Captain Pike, Number One, and Spock, will reclaim that optimistic spirit and episodic format.

Listen, I’m no geeky gatekeeper. I have to allow that reboots and revivals are going to be different in tone and approach — and that’s exactly what I wanted to see with Star Trek. But when something is clearly going off the rails, constructive criticism should be applied. Star Trek’s new handlers have clearly indicated in interviews that they don’t quite get what make old Star Trek special, and that’s very dangerous for new Trek’s future. I hope they do get it and work to restoring a good balance instead of burning down the franchise and remaking it into yet another gritty scifi outing that loves its swear words more than it does Gene Roddenberry’s original vision and adhering to continuity.

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