CBS launches a new Star Trek television series in January. It’s unrelated to the current batch of J.J. Abrams movies in that it takes place in the original, parallel, Trek universe and, from what we’ve heard about Star Trek: Discovery so far, it’s like nothing the fifty-year-old franchise has done before. This weekend, at the Mission New York convention, STD writer Nicholas Meyer urged fans to lower their expectations for the new show. That’s good advice based on what happened before when a successful TV franchise radically changed their successful formula.
‘Discovery’ on a Different Kind of Trek
Showrunner Bryan Fuller says he’s building a very different Star Trek. Whereas all the previous series were episodic in nature, Discovery will follow a serialized format. It will feature a single story told over 13 episodes. Fuller’s also dropped hints that the series won’t be much of an ensemble piece. Every past iteration of Trek had, at its core, a handful of crewmembers and officers. Their personal stories wove through the “Alien of the Week” format. Fuller says his Trek will focus on a single character point of view, a lieutenant commander. “To see a character from a different perspective on the starship, one who has a different dynamic relationship with a captain, with subordinates, it gave us richer context.”
We’ve already seen this exact scenario play out in recent Sci-Fi TV history. Another long-running franchise attempted a similar makeover. It did not go well.
Is STD the Next SGU?
In 2007 the Stargate franchise remained one of the genre’s top performers. The wildly successful series Stargate: SG-1 had just ended after a decade on the air. Syfy (then known simply as Sci-fi Channel) renewed spin-off series Stargate: Atlantis for a fourth season. TV movies were in the works for both series. The show’s very simple episodic premise – SG Team goes through the gate, fights bad guys, comes back through the gate – served it well, first on pay-cable channel Showtime and then on commercial cable.
Despite their success, producers Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper wanted to create “an entirely new flavor from what we’ve done before.” Thus Stargate: Universe was born. Instead of the “planet of the week” episodic format of the successful shows, they mixed the episodic with an overarching season-long storyline. Instead of a small team of friends facing external threats, most of the drama came internally. The “team” became a group of military and civilian personnel trapped on a starship and constantly at odds with each other. They had a Stargate like the other shows but reduced it to the status of furniture in many episodes.
Variety’s Laura Fries summed up the result of all this futzing with the formula in a 2009 review.“It all makes for an intriguing setup that doesn’t quite gel, even by the end of the third episode. Sure, SGU is grittier, darker and psychologically deeper than previous versions. But so far, it’s also a lot less fun.”
The show isn’t bad. It’s well written and has an excellent cast. SGU still stands today as quality genre television, but it doesn’t feel like the Stargate formula which hardcore fans loved. As a result, SGU only lasted two seasons.
‘Open Minds and Open Hearts’
Showrunner Bryan Fuller’s “different” version of a beloved franchise may not run up against SGU-type problems. Television in 2016 is very different than when the last episode of a Star Trek show aired in 2005. The most popular genre shows still attract large live-viewing audiences, but most folks curate the content they watch through DVR or on-demand viewing. Star Trek: Discovery is designed specifically for this brave new TV world. While the first episode will air on the CBS network, the rest will be available exclusively on the CBS All Access streaming service.
Radically changing the familiar Trek formula may not matter quite so much now as it did for the Stargate folks because Fuller is less beholding to episode viewing numbers, but his is still the rockier path. Success for Star Trek: Discovery is measured in dollars directly. How many viewers are still willing to shell out $6 or $9 a month for the All Access service once they’ve seen a few episodes? If the show doesn’t live up to expectations, it hits CBS immediately in their bottom line.
As Star Trek: Discovery writers Nicholas Meyer and Kirsten Beyer addressed the crowd on Saturday, they seemed to realize that fan preconceptions are their greatest hurdle. “It is a symbiotic relationship,” Meyer said. “If you go in with open minds and open hearts, you may be rewarded. Whereas if you go with a set of impossible to realize expectations, which even you cannot specifically define, then we’re bound to fail.”