Essays · TV

The Art of Maintaining Star Trek’s 50 Year Franchise

Living Long and Prospering in The Final Frontier is the result of a rabid fandom’s desire to reach the utopia of the 23rd Century.
By  · Published on September 6th, 2017

Living Long and Prospering in The Final Frontier is the result of a rabid fandom’s desire to reach the utopia of the 23rd Century.

Twelve years after the last series was canceled, and a year after the last cinematic installment, Star Trek returns to television on September 24th with Star Trek: Discovery. Sort of.  The pilot episode will air on CBS, but like the craftiest of drug pushers, a second taste will cost you a subscription to their All Access streaming service.  A gamble?  Naw.  Trekkies will pay.  We always have.  For our fix, we’ll increase our cable package, double/triple dip on physical media, expand into spin-off novels, video games, action figures, and Tiki-glasses.  But are we enough to sustain a new platform?  Hmmmmm….I’m not sure how long these various outlets can bear their myriad splinters, but Star Trek is not disappearing anytime soon.  It’s the franchise that refuses to die and in an era when every studio is fumbling to replicate a shared universe, Paramount will milk its most innovative property for every last cent.

As we build towards the 24th, we’re going to be celebrating Star Trek all month long.  What is it about Gene Roddenberry’s vision that still resonates in our current pop culture climate?  Can we love Star Trek and Star Wars or is that tired dispute doomed to plague fandom until the sun blinks out? As we march towards a dystopia, do we still have room in our hearts for a utopian dream?  In my own life, Star Trek is a necessity. I could not walk out the door, let alone turn on a news channel or pick up a paper without the promise that Star Trek has instilled in me. I want that hope to spread and that’s a lot of pressure to place on Discovery.

How has Star Trek lasted all this time?  The truth is that since its very inception, Star Trek has struggled to survive.  While it may have been an instant phenomenon in 1966, by 1967 the original series was losing its mainstream appeal rapidly. NBC attempted to cancel the show during the second season, but a letter writing campaign led by Trekkie superfans John and Bjo Trimble managed to keep the show afloat for another year.  That third season (as weird and awkward as it might have been – uh, the vanishing of “Spock’s Brain” is an oddity highlight) was crucial in securing syndication. Those re-runs kept the series at the forefront of geek culture long enough for Star Wars to revolutionize the bankability of sci-fi obsession.

1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not the first time creator Gene Roddenberry reimagined his “Wagon Train of the stars” adventure show (see the aborted Phase II production), but it did achieve the necessary next level recognition the franchise so desperately needed to continue. Stripping Starfleet of its bright primary colors, The Motion Picture is a dreary, sanitary exploration of the final frontier. Draped in almost indiscernible white, beige, and brown uniforms, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are attempting to philosophically step beyond the infinite of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and earn the box office dollars of George Lucas’ phenomenon. It accomplished neither but ranked for years as Star Trek’s largest earner before J.J. Abrams relaunched the series in 2009. If the film proved anything, it was that fans were ready to show up for whatever adventure Captain Kirk would take us on.

The Motion Picture was where Gene Roddenberry fully embraced the utopian ethos of the 23rd Century. While the truncated 5 Year Mission of the original series served as a social Petri dish shuttling every kind of human across the galaxy, the week-to-week narrative was still pretty much a sci-fi western. For this next stage in the evolution of Star Trek, Roddenberry wanted to portray the inevitability of our moral ascension. We’ve eradicated racism, poverty, and war on Earth. He could conceive skirmishes with alien races but wanted the first cinematic outing to epitomize a Kumbaya spirit amongst the crew. Kirk’s ego is challenged a bit when he resumes command of the Enterprise, but for the most part, internal conflict was forbidden. Even the “action” was portrayed through rose-tinted glasses, the Cowboys vs. Indians punch-ups were replaced with an alien catalyst that challenged our very notion of exploration. An audience still riding high from Death Star trench runs found themselves nodding off.

For the sequel, Star Trek had to reinvent itself yet again. The Wrath of Khan saw Roddenberry taking a backseat as Executive Producer while television guru Harve Bennett was brought on board to keep the budget low and the action thrilling. He hired director Nicholas Meyer after he successfully adapted his own novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to the silver screen, and the two men reached back into Star Trek lore to resurrect a proper villain for Captain Kirk to square off against. As deliciously diabolical as Ricardo Montalban is as Khan, Meyer understood (without being a diehard Trekkie himself) that character was what kept audiences glued to their television sets.  We’re here for Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Manipulating Horatio Hornblower for Nebula warfare was all well and good, but our hearts break when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Watching Kirk confronting his own mortality and the loss of his best friend was what brought Trekkies to tears.  Khan’s endless depths of hate helped get us there, but Scotty’s bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace is what haunts us.  Also, ditching those god-awful tan and boring uniforms from The Motion Picture for the Naval dress of The Wrath of Khan was a necessary step.

Star Trek II was so good that it kept the fans coming back when the odd film sequels misfired (this is a myth I’m happy to debunk in another article later this month, there is value in The Search for Spock…and dare I say it, The Final Frontier).  Gene Roddenberry would return front and center for The Next Generation, a television show that urgently wanted to exclaim our righteous rise as a species, but wouldn’t find its footing until its characters were actually allowed to behave like recognizable human beings.  Television has always appeared to be the proper place for Star Trek.  There the characters were allowed to navigate concepts beyond fisticuffs, and the need to replicate a nemesis like Khan was unnecessary.

For whatever reason, the films insist on global catastrophes and a mean face to punch. J.J. Abrams’ 2009 sequel/reboot pushed the violence even further, cramming his Spielbergian sensibilities into a franchise that ached for a rejuvenating shot in the arm. The results were mixed (the less said about Into Darkness the better), but the thrills were unlike anything experienced on Trek’s previously much smaller scale, and Abrams earned several unexpected emotional beats. Frankly, I’ll love the ’09 film forever after witnessing the cold open heroism of Geroge Kirk.

Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond was more of a nostalgic trip than I was expecting. Thanks to a fanboy script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, Beyond managed to recapture the adventurous spirit of the original series without neglecting contemporary desires for whizzbang set-pieces. Stranding Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto together on the alien planet highlighted the cantankerous joys of Bones and Spock, and achieved character through action in the same manner that Nicholas Meyer understood in The Wrath of Khan. Too bad the film failed to soar at the box office as another series of films in this fashion could have achieved a new high-water mark in Trek. At the very least, these last batch of films wetted our appetites and had us critiquing the medium in which Star Trek should be distributed.

When Star Trek: Discovery was first announced under the guidance of showrunner Bryan Fuller, an oath was given to return Star Trek to its roots in social science-fiction.  Speaking to a San Diego Comic Con crowd in 2016, Fuller stated that Star Trek was “Fifty years of a promise of planet Earth uniting its citizens under one flag as a species going into the galaxy.  Just take a moment and think about that.  Two hundred and fifty years into the future.  Think about where we are today, think about what’s happening in America, and think about the promise of Star Trek and what we can all do to get there.”  Of course, Fuller has since departed, and we have no idea how closely Discovery will adhere to his promise of Star Trek. The trailers showcase a diverse cast of characters essential to the makeup of Trek, but we also see a whole lot of new-fangled Klingons to war against. Action and adventure are a-ok. It’s as necessary as the hope promised, but we need the ideals of Star Trek today more than any other.  We need the dream.  I need the dream.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)