CBS (NYSE: CBS) just made a lot of Trekkies dreams come true by announcing that it wants to bring out the first new Star Trek TV series in over a decade in January 2017.
A lot will be riding on the series including the future of a popular franchise and the profitability of CBS’s streaming video service. Not surprisingly a lot of people will be wondering what will it take to make the new Trek work? The blogosphere is already filling up with suggestion lists of what the series should contain here’s mine.
As somebody who’s been watching Star Trek for well forty years or so I have a few ideas on what works in the series and what does not. Here’s what I think the new Star Trek series will need to succeed:
- A lot of really great drama. At the end of the day Star Trek is basically a drama, a drama with a space opera back drop but a drama nonetheless. Some of my all-time favorite Trek stories such as The Drumhead, Family, and In the Pale Moonlight featured little more than actors sitting around talking yet they seem to be burned into my memory. Meanwhile I can barely remember a lot of the major space battle stories. That means the producers should concentrate on making a really great drama because it is what really drives Star Trek. All the special effects and action in the world will not make the series work, only great drama will.
- Some really great actors. The original Trek succeeded because of the magic trio of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Deforest Kelley, The Next Generation worked because of Patrick Stewart, Brent Spinner and Michael Dorn and Deep Space Nine was great because of Avery Brooks, Armin Shimmerman and Rene Auberjonis among others. For all their weaknesses, Enterprise and Voyager were saved by great cast members particularly Richard Picardo who played Voyager’s doctor and Scott Bakula on Enterprise. So find some really great actors for the key parts. My suggestion find some really great character actors for the supporting roles even the relatively obscure ones.
- Really great writing. The best Star Trek series were The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine because they were well written. Voyager did not work because it was often poorly written and the writing on Enterprise like that of the original was sporadic. One suggestion the man who revived Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies is a huge Star Trek fan and he’s not doing anything right now so get him into the writing room. He’s had a proven track record reviving a sci-fi classic and creating a consistent well-written series that pleases both hardcore fans and mass audiences, get him involved.
- New original characters, plots and situations. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine worked because the Producers went with new characters, they did not give us a new Kirk or a new Spock. One reason why the movies do not work is that they are full of cheap imitations of old favorites. The later series worked because we were given some interesting new characters in a new totally background that was very different from the original. Create new ships, new characters, new enemies to fight and new problems to deal with.
- No connection to the current movies. J.J. Abrahams’ Star Trek is corny, nihilistic, formulistic and boring. Let’s face it, the current Trek films do not work as Star Trek they sort of work action movies but that would not work on television because the plot is too thin, so make no connection with them. There’s precedent for this, Star Trek: The Next Generation, worked because Gene Roddenberry basically ignored the movies and did something very different. The next Star Trek needs to do much the same. Why not create a new series set a few decades after Voyager
- Keep nostalgia to a minimum. If the new Star Trek turns into the old favorite of the week it will not work because nostalgia kills creativity and turns off many viewers. Nostalgia plagued franchises often become a sort of secret lodge only accessible to fans rather than popular entertainments. Nostalgia can quickly turn a series into a cheap imitation of the real deal that will drive everybody including hardcore fans away. Keep classic plots, guest star spots from actors from previous series, allusions to classic episodes and so on to the minimum. The last thing we need is eighty year old William Shatner and 75 year old Patrick Stewart embarrassing themselves. The new Doctor Who, the second Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation worked because producers put up a firewall between the new version and the original series. Such a firewall is needed to keep the new series from getting bogged down in the nostalgia that killed Enterprise.
- Return to the original Star Trek universe not the current movie universe. The last thing we need is the dreary backdrop of the movies played out on the small screen. Nor do we need the kind of video game action featured in the movies, if fans want that they’ll just go and play Halo instead.
- Star Trek’s values. One reason why the recent movies don’t work is they lack the values of the five TV shows. Those series worked because they all had a strong commitment to Roddenberry’s vision of progress and a society based on certain basic values such as freedom and hope for the future. We need that back, particularly in today’s increasingly violent and cynical world. The kind of hope Star Trek offers for a better future is much of its appeal. The new Doctor Who works because its creators are committed to the original series’ values, Star Trek needs to learn the same lesson.
- Limit appearances of the Borg. The reason why the Borg were an effective villain on The Next Generation was that we did not see them very often. They were a fearsome menace because they were sparingly used when they appeared the Borg were shocking and even scary. When the Borg started appearing every other week on Voyager they degenerated into a cliché much like the Daleks on Doctor Who another effective villain destroyed by overuse. Save the Borg for the big specials and instead concentrate on more human and sinister bad guys like the Dominion and the Romulans that pose more of a moral threat to the Federation. The Dominion which is a sort of evil counterpart of the Federation completely lacking in ethics and driven by fear, deception, treachery and brute force is my all-time favorite band of Star Trek baddies. It would be the perfect antagonist for a new Trek series.
- Create some new aliens particularly new bad guys. One reason why I think Enterprise failed and the franchise eventually got cancelled was that it got too cozy and comfortable. We knew everybody and everything. One of the reasons why both Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation worked was that they were full of surprises – often shocking ones. We need that back, particularly in today’s TV world full of dark edgy series.
- The willingness to explore serious issues and ask deep moral questions. One of Star Trek’s best attributes has always been its willing to deal with deep moral and philosophical issues in a serious and adult way. It wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions and deal with the often messy answers in an intelligent which often went far beyond the “this good, that bad” brand of morality that defines most television series. The original series took on racism, war and Cold War politics. The Next Generation dealt with drug abuse, terrorism, ageism, and human rights among other deep issues, Deep Space Nine explored colonialism, religion, war, violence and race and the limits of human freedom among other issues even Voyager and Enterprise had their moments. A modern Star Trek needs to take on issues like artificial intelligence, technocracy, war, surveillance, income inequality, terrorism, corruption, violence, political and religious extremism, poverty and racism.
Okay this is a tall order but Star Trek has done it before and succeeded. I’m convinced that the franchise can do it again, largely because it is optimism not dillithium that really propels the Star Ship Enterprise and the franchise. Hopefully the old Star Trek magic will work yet again in 2017 because we need this magnificent franchise with its morality and commitment to the future in today’s dark and cynical world.