How Star Trek's streaming television rebirth could change the franchise

With talk of the Star Wars sequel films continuing to dominate the zeitgeist, it seemed that legions of momentum-deprived Trekkies comprising the other half of the traditional geek franchise equation could only look forward to a potentially inauspicious (odd-numbered) movie sequel next year in Star Trek Beyond. However, Monday’s official announcement has given those proverbial emaciated urchins a delectable helping in their sparsely filled porridge bowls with the news they’ve been waiting more than a decade to hear: Star Trek is setting course back to the small screen!

But it's not as straightforward as all that. It seems that property owners CBS will be dealing out this sensational gift with a critical caveat involving your coffers, with the show set to stream exclusively on their pay service, CBS All Access, which runs a monthly fee of $5.99. Nevertheless, the news is inspirational for anyone who has fumbled with plastic Vulcan ears, pretended a jacket pin was a communicator or whimsically yelled “there ... are ... four ... lights!” in a crowded theater. Thus, deep-pocketed, self-proclaimed Starfleet reservists will likely shell out for the show, despite sporadic dissent. However, the question remains, will they like what their money has bought them when the still-untitled series makes its debut in January 2017?

Promisingly enough, the show will apparently revolve around a completely new cast of characters and, based on a vague description, we may see a return to the exploration ethos for which the series became famous. However, potentially enraged purists may be wary of the idea that Alex Kurtzman, writer of the reboot films Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, as well as the first two Transformers films, has been tapped as the show’s executive producer. While it is far too early to determine the show’s stylistic leanings, we can safely speculate on what the shift to a streaming format will mean for the once-well-oiled Star Trek serial machine.

The die has been cast in Abrams-esque lens flare


Interestingly enough, part of the rapturous reaction to the new series seems to revolve around the idea of the Star Trek property returning to old form by virtue of this traditional serial format. The last time a new episode of any Star Trek series graced the small screen was when the May 13, 2005 finale of Star Trek: Enterprise clocked its final, hastily-unraveled moments. Much has changed since then, to say the least.

While outraged, petition-happy fans protested Enterprise’s premature axing after just four seasons, the ratings had plummeted tremendously and it was clear that audiences outside the hardcore coterie of Trekkies had become bored with its pedantic space operas after 6 films and 4 separate long-running series rolled out over 18 uninterrupted years. Thus, the once-mighty, indomitable sci-fi king, passed tragically with an ignominious whimper.

In the wake of that sad end, the perennial geek favorite franchise underwent a necessary metamorphosis that would (metaphorically, of course,) see it replace its Coke bottle glasses with contacts, start working out, and toss its asthma inhaler in the trash bin. Indeed, with the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie and its 2013 sequel, the man we have to thank/blame in J.J. Abrams gave the fatigued franchise an injection of adrenaline, sacrificing most of its nerdy nuances for popcorn audience accessibility, sexiness and ‘splosions. While the move successfully managed to bring the continuity’s fake 23rd century firmly into the real 21st century as a once-again bankable property, the perceived dumbing-down was met with controversy from the same purists whom CBS’ upcoming show will presumably court.

Consequently, those purists may have to come to terms with the fact that the dynamics which contributed to Star Trek: Enterprise becoming the shortest-running modern Trek series in 2005 are even more emphatic in 2015. Thus, it seems likely that much of the heightened elements of the so-called Abramsverse will be here to stay in this Star Trek small screen homecoming. Yet, when dealt in reasonable doses in the small screen serial format and disciplined by budget constraints, this aspect could become something more palatable for the hardcore audience than a two-hour montage of frenzied cinematic madness.

Streamlined and cinematic for the small screen


Throughout its various television iterations across the decades, Star Trek has traditionally adhered to a season-conventional, September-to-May schedule, serving up around 25 episodes per season. While the same could be said of just about any television series since the advent of the medium up until the last few years, it’s still hard to imagine a season of Star Trek unravelling in a way that won’t keep us coming back on a week-to-week basis. Well, that method of viewership will likely get sucked out the shuttle bay doors should the new CBS series embrace the binge-watchable, one-shot, instantly-gratifying seasonal streaming splurge that has become so successful for outlets like Netflix.

While the Eye Network will actually broadcast the new series’ premiere episode on the airwaves, the airing will merely serve as a teaser preview designed to corral subscribers to CBS All Access, where the rest of the season can be viewed exclusively, albeit for the aforementioned monthly fee. Interestingly enough, CBS did not reveal the number of episodes ordered for the new Trek series. However, it would probably be safe to deduce that with the season presented in one bingeable shot, the streaming series would likely be trimmed down to the same tried and true 13 episode upload splurge that seems to work well for Netflix.

Much like the Enterprise D when relieved of the bulk of its cumbersome, family-housing saucer section, a streamlined Star Trek season could give us a more compelling, formidable foray into the realm of cinematic television. While Trek series’ show the slow evolution of their characters on a season-to-season basis, a trimmed, streamable season could focus on moving forward quickly with the overarching plot of the series. For a show like Star Trek, which traditionally indulges in nuanced episodic detours that arguably alienate casual viewers, this could be a step forward in terms of gaining the wider audience accessibility that the Abramsverse movies seem to covet.

Filler episodes could become a thing of the past


On the flip side of the potential laser-like focus that could result from shorter seasons, there is something that stands to be lost; something that has been seen as an indelible part of the Star Trek franchise presentation: Filler episodes. Of course, shows running a 25 episode, September-to-May seasonal schedule need to pace themselves, moving the plot forward at a manageable speed, while taking sporadic weeks to pull to the side of the proverbial road to indulge in an episode not related to the greater plot. These episodes can also be expedient for behind-the-scenes purposes as the episode focuses on one particular character while other members of the cast take time off. Sometimes, blatantly enough, these can also manifest as brief wraparound stories for Trojan-horsed clip shows.

While filler episodes are hardly a practice limited to the Star Trek shows, they also seemed to facilitate the kind of character development that ultimately proved critical for a franchise that carries the kind of devoted, detail-oriented fanbase that Star Trek does. After all, could you imagine a scenario in which Captain Kirk and company didn’t take that trip to Deep Space Station K7, where the Enterprise ended up with a furry infestation of tribbles, while solving the mystery of the poisoned quadrotriticale? Would our view of Jean-Luc Picard be the same if we never got to see an alien probe give him a lifetime of experience as a flute-playing family man on a drought-plagued planet? Tell me that the Deep Space Nine “Niners” Holosuite baseball league didn’t manage to crack a memorable smile or two? Plus, aren’t we grateful that we can joke about the time that sexy subterranean aliens stole Spock’s brain?

Thus, the tailoring of the new series for binge-watching could also require a blood sacrifice of signature nuance and eccentricity. While character development will obviously still occur, molded by the greater plot, we should probably expect this new Star Trek series to stay clear of the type of watering down used in full season orders. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how well the new series can juggle character development and compelling plot within a limited timeframe.

It won’t be the Star Trek that you used to know… and that’s okay

Speculation aside regarding the potential structural alterations to the television franchise, the overall prospect of Star Trek returning to the small screen is absolutely fantastic. This idea becomes especially true with the last cinematic iteration of the franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, generally being seen as a disappointment, and the rumors that next year’s Star Trek Beyond will deviate even further from traditional Trek tropes.

The takeaway is that, while purists should be advised to hold their horses in regards to how much the new series will hearken to the past, they should also be optimistic for the future. While Star Trek has experienced a transformation that was absolutely necessary for its continued existence, the franchise has finally found a platform that will allow it flourish not only from an artistic standpoint, but also in the aspect of reaching its target audience efficiently. CBS’ streaming strategy actually places Star Trek into a television dynamic that is not hampered by the big-brass politics of air dates, hammocking, tent-polling and other scheduling strategies that can often sink good shows.

The result is something that gives us the best of both worlds (no pun intended) with the immediacy and impact of a Star Trek big event movie with the more deliberate pacing that, most purists will agree, was lacking in the Abramsverse movies. That’s something worth toasting with a couple glasses of tranya.


Have any expectations/fears for the new Star Trek series? Head down to the comments section, which doesn't require permission to speak freely.

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