Hope and Discovery:
A Lifelong Trekkie’s wish for the future.
words | Rob Pollock
Energize. Engage. Make it so. These are not just random verbs and sentence fragments. These are words that I grew up with as a child of the 80’s and 90’s. A time when Star Wars mania was somewhat dormant, every kid wanted a Talkboy, and we all thought Donnie was the more talented Wahlberg brother. Oh! And did I forget to mention? Star Trek was considered cool by pop culture standards! It was a time when Captain Picard and his Enterprise crew adorned lunchboxes, LeVar Burton was better known as the guy from TV with that thing over his eyes, and American viewing audiences at large suddenly began to pronounce the word data as “day-ta” not “dah-ta”. The latter being a notable, unconscious, adjustment to American speech brought on by the existence of an android character of the same name as feature on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yes, Star Trek was a cultural phenomenon when I was a child. But then, as time went on, the hype train for Trek slowly started to die. Even after the three motion picture reboots, many self-professed Trekkies -- myself included -- have wondered in more recent years, if we had already experienced the peak of the franchise’s popularity. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, in late 2015, CBS announced their plans to produce and distribute the first new Star Trek television series in a little more than ten years. It would be called Star Trek: Discovery; A prequel series taking place before the adventures of Captain Kirk and his classic crew. Just as Trekkies had begun to wonder if our favorite explorers had warped off into obscurity, we received a possible sign of prosperity on the horizon. However, after multiple production delays, frequent behind the scenes creative reshuffling and a thrice-times rescheduled premier date, I have to wonder: Is there a reasonable chance for new life to be breathed into my beloved dying franchise? Or is all hope lost?
To better understand the significance behind the waning popularity in Star Trek, you first need to truly understand the full mark the franchise has made on our culture’s history. Have you ever heard the phrase Resistance is Futile? Beam me up? Or even Live Long and Prosper? Those phrases all come from various incarnations of Star Trek television and film media. Ergonomic designs for technology like iPads, USB thumb drives and flip phones were inspired by similarly-purposed items that originated onscreen in Star Trek. In one of the most famous examples of TV-to-real-life innovations, NASA, at the behest of a massive letter writing campaign, actually named their first prototype space shuttle project Enterprise in honor of the starship and crew featured on the original 1960’s television series. The original cast of that series, and even Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, were all present in California for the shuttle’s dedication. As I said, Star Trek was an undeniable cultural phenomenon. Its popularity grew through the convention scene of the 1970’s, continuing through to a saga of franchise films in the 1980’s and ultimately leading up to what many consider the apex of its popularity in 1996 with the release of the franchise’s eight feature film, Star Trek: First Contact. An impressive thirty years after its debut in the fall of 1966, a new Star Trek film was released in theaters while two spinoff television series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, were airing concurrently on network television. It was a great time to be a fan. Everyone and their dog could point out Spock in a lineup and knew the difference between a Klingon and a Vulcan. But the Trek bubble would slowly begin to burst.
Beginning with the release of the franchise’s ninth feature film, Star Trek: Insurrection, in 1998, the box office totals for Trek grew smaller and the television spinoff ratings would steadily grow weaker. In 2005 Trek would see its final television spinoff, Star Trek: Enterprise, cancelled after four years. For the first time since the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, there would be no more new episodes of Star Trek on TV. And with declining box office returns at the multiplex, Star Trek’s tenth franchise film released in 2002, Star Trek: Nemesis, appeared to be its last silver screen foray. Star Trek was seemingly done; destined to live out the rest of its life in reruns. A similar fate befell the original Star Trek series with its cancellation in 1969. But this time felt different. Star Trek had seemingly overstayed its welcome. During this new dark period for Trekkies we saw the lunch boxes fade away, reruns become less frequent, and a dampening of the general pop culture awareness for the brand.
It wouldn’t take long for salt to be rubbed in our wounds. Star Wars began to see a resurgence in popularity with the early 2000’s prequel films and associated media, the Sci-Fi Channel struck gold with a remake of Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who suddenly caught on like wildfire thanks to the easy accessibility of episodes via online streaming. Those who might have watched a new Star Trek in these modern times appeared to have moved on or forgotten the property altogether. Seemingly lost was a science fiction program that encouraged seeking out new life and boldly going where no one had gone before. In its place, we could now only rely on the hocus-pocus nature of Jedi Knights from a galaxy far far away, or the physics-defying powers of a wibbly wobbly phone booth and its time-displaced traveling occupant. The modern state of Science Fiction entertainment favored laser fights and fantastical adventures over self-discovery and commentary on the human condition. Even as famed Director, JJ Abrams, an admitted non-fan of the franchise, attempted to bring Star Trek back into the mainstream in 2009 with a complete universe rebooting film franchise, it became quickly evident that this new Star Trek cared more about emphasizing whizbang action set pieces and light character development over any kind of social betterment commentary or scientific awareness. While largely enjoyable, it just wasn’t Star Trek. Not my Star Trek anyway. And not what I think a lot of longtime Star Trek fans were looking for either. Now it seemed that a program that inspired so many men and women to take up an interest in career sciences. A program that inspired so much of today’s technology. A program that once aired 726 episodes on television. A program that gave the internet its most recognizable facepalm meme. A program that frankly, taught me a healthy amount of my own vocabulary! It seemed that despite all of its accomplishments, Star Trek, as longtime Trekkies choose to interpret the franchise, was over. But then there was a light in the darkness…
In November of 2015 CBS announced its plans to bring Star Trek back to TV with a new series entitled Star Trek: Discovery. My adulation was high! Finally, a new series after all these years! To sweeten the deal, CBS announced they had brought Star Trek movie director Nicholas Meyer on board, as well as established Star Trek television writers Joe Menosky and Bryan Fuller. Fuller was even set to show run. Unlike the recent reboot movies, this series sounded like it was being targeted exactly at the longtime fans of the franchise. As more and more news of the series rolled in, my excitement would continue to grow. However, the show wasn’t invincible. Bryan Fuller eventually left the project over creative difference to focus on American Gods, actors have been shuffled or even recast since the start of principle photography, early set photos have leaked that show a decisively incongruent look and tone on Discovery from the Trek I’m used to, and delays keep pushing the series premier date further and further back. Also, to add a puzzling element to all of this, CBS announced that only the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery would air on the CBS network, with all following episodes arriving weekly in the US on a new proprietary, subscription-based, mobile streaming service called CBS All-Access. With all of the behind the scenes changes -- and there have reportedly been enough to write a book about -- I’ve been getting a bit nervous about the outcome of Discovery. But now to be asked to have to pay a subscription fee for what could end up being a cobbled together mess of a TV show…? Well, it’s plain to say I’m apprehensive about that as well.
After such a long drought for the type of Star Trek that I grew up on, I just want and hope for Star Trek: Discovery to be the best it can be. There’s a lot riding on this franchise revival. Star Trek has been a series that has inspired and innovated. It’s a series that has challenged its audience to think critically and examine a problem from all angles. It’s a series that has made thoughtful and positive changes in our present as well as existing as a benchmark for the type of society we hope to achieve in a brighter future. While I may have my trepidations, this is a franchise that means a lot to me personally. I can’t wait to finally tune in on September 24th of this year and watch as a new era of one of my favorite franchises takes shape.
I want to learn, I want to grow, but once again, I want to boldly go where no one has gone before.