‘Star Trek’ was canceled 50 years ago. Now, the franchise is flying warp speed ahead
It was 50 years ago that “Star Trek” died.
The William Shatner-led, at-times kitschy sci-fi series that launched in 1966 stayed on the air only until 1969.
Yet, today, the franchise is more alive than ever.
“The fact that the streaming world has eliminated the lines between movies and television allows for big universes like ‘Star Trek’ to thrive in a way they really couldn’t have before,” says franchise honcho Alex Kurtzman, an executive producer of “Star Trek: Discovery.”
That CBS All Access show has weathered some turmoil (at least five reported changes in its showrunning teams) and is set to explore new ground in Season 3. Meanwhile, Kurtzman is overseeing an unprecedented expansion of the “Trek” TV universe, while two films are in some stage of development. It’s a far cry from the franchise’s past presence in film and TV.
An animated “Trek” series by Kevin and Dan Hageman (“Trollhunters”) is in development for Nickelodeon. Kurtzman promises it’s nothing like the cartoon series of the 1970s: “I can’t reveal details on that one, but it’s something that has never been done before in ‘Star Trek.’ ”
Another animated series, “Lower Decks,” is coming to All Access from Mike McMahan, a writer of the irreverent Adult Swim series “Rick and Morty.” Kurtzman reassures, “It’s a total love letter to ‘Star Trek’; there’s no mockery.”
Two untitled live-action series have also been announced for All Access. One continues the story of franchise favorite Jean-Luc Picard (with Patrick Stewart returning in the role) and one follows the mysterious organization Section 31, featuring Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Georgiou is a “Discovery” character who died in its first episodes, only to return — sort of — as her less-nice self, a scheming empress from the franchise’s Mirror Universe (introduced in an “Original Series” episode).
And Kurtzman says there are still others in development that have not yet been announced.
For a franchise that never had more than two series on the air at the same time before, that’s a trip through the wormhole. Kurtzman says the three live-action shows will rotate on All Access, rather than airing simultaneously. He declined to provide plot details of either new show, but confirmed the Picard series will bow later this year.
“The mandate was to make it a more psychological show, a character study about this man in his emeritus years,” he says. “There are so few shows that allow a significantly older protagonist to be the driver.”
Not that it would be “Matlock in Space.” “What happens when circumstances have conspired to not give him the happiest of endings? Hopefully, it’s a reinforcement of [‘Trek’ creator Gene] Roddenberry’s vision of optimism. He’s going to have to go through deep valleys to get back to the light.”
In a shift from more traditional series development with a showrunner at the helm, this one is “being shepherded by a communal effort,” Kurtzman says, rattling off six names, including his own along with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon.
“It’ll be very different than ‘Discovery.’ It’ll be slower, more meditative. It speaks to the rainbow of colors we’re playing with in all these different shows. ”
But does having so much in development amount to too much of a good thing?
Harry Doddema, who co-founded the online Trek encyclopedia, Memory Alpha, has a mixed take.
“I’m immensely curious about how they are going to do the Picard series,” he says. “Having Patrick Stewart back is a major, major vote of confidence in everything they’re doing. I’m a bit more cautious about the Section 31 series. It seems really weird to have a literal genocidal mirror-universe emperor apparently the main character, and on top of that, it’s about joining a team of nasty secret operatives. Maybe I’m wrong and they will actually add some positive characters to the mix, but I’m worried the cool factor of being an evil (by Pike, Kirk and Picard’s standards at least), black-leather-wearing spy will override the generally positive outlook of Star Trek.”
Perhaps the mirror Georgiou isn’t exactly evil — just freed from Starfleet’s rigidity. After all, in “Trek” mythology, humans of that parallel universe may be far more aggressive and warlike than in Roddenberry’s idealized Federation of Planets (instead, belonging to the Terran Empire), but they’re still the heroes of their own stories. Kurtzman points out Empress Georgiou may have been notoriously ruthless, but her effectiveness has already greatly helped the Discovery when she’s working on their side.
“People locked in on Georgiou as being a wonderful oddity. She is wicked, devious, manipulative and yet somehow radiates this incredible heart. People love her,” says the showrunner.
“We looked to shows like ‘Killing Eve,’ to franchises like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ things that were complicated on a plot level but also a character level. I think it’s fun for people to see a show with a protagonist who’s entirely unreliable. At the end of the day, she’s going to do the right thing, but in the exact wrong way.”
On the film front, Paramount remains tight-lipped. The fourth in the current, “Kelvin” timeline (with foundational characters such as Kirk and Spock, but in the alternate timeline generated in the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot movie) has hit a snag. The reported plot involves Kirk (Chris Pine) traveling to the past to team with his now-dead father (Chris Hemsworth), but contract talks with both actors are at an impasse. If the film indeed gets made by slated director S.J. Clarkson (Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”), it would mark the first time a woman has directed a “Star Trek” movie.
The second film fascinates: Director Quentin Tarantino pitched an idea that intrigued the studio enough to allow him to assemble a writers’ room. Paramount could not confirm to The Times that Tarantino would direct, nor that the studio was open to an R rating as rumors have had it, but did confirm both projects remain in development.
I think for now there’s no real danger of too much ‘Star Trek’ … There’s so much to explore, if done right.
— Harry Doddema
Either would be a massive gamble. The most recent entry (2016’s “Star Trek Beyond”) was the lowest grosser of the new movies. Its $343.5 million fell more than $100 million below its predecessor, franchise high-watermark “Star Trek Into Darkness.” A fourth movie in the series, potentially with new actors as the father and son Kirks, would be a roll of the dice. And the concept of a Tarantino entry seems off-brand, considering the inherent darkness of the auteur’s oeuvre and the inherent positivity of Roddenberry’s vision. An R rating would certainly boldly go where no “Trek” has gone before.
Meanwhile, “Discovery’s” reception has been — if not cold as the vacuum of space, not hotter than a star, either. Streaming services rarely release viewership data, but CBS All Access has said its debut caused the service’s largest subscription spike. Critics have received it warmly (82% on Rotten Tomatoes), though fans are divided (only 48%). And an Emmy campaign is in the works, including a “Discovery” exhibit at the Paley Center in Los Angeles.
Doddema says “Discovery” is “definitely interesting in how they mix the established canon with a whole new visual look, almost like we are now watching a 4K remastered version of the whole ‘Star Trek’ universe.” He praises the characters and the show’s optimism, but adds, “It occasionally gets too carried away with its own cool tricks and visuals, and it seems to generally have less common sense than the older series.”
Kurtzman, who now shares showrunner duties with writers’ room recruit Michelle Paradise, is confident “Discovery” has found its stride. Season 3 will take off in a new direction, he says, following the Season 2 conclusion that hurled the ship hundreds of years forward.
“Now that we’re free from canon, we get to ask ourselves some incredibly bold, complicated questions,” he adds. “We get to dive deep into our imagination and think about what the universe would look like 950 years” after Season 2.
Doddema thinks the future is bright: “I think for now there’s no real danger of too much ‘Star Trek’ … There’s so much to explore, if done right.”
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