To Boldly Go Where 6 Shows And 12 Movies Have Gone Before

An Open Letter to Alex Kurtzman, Bryan Fuller, & CBS

Star Trek has a decidedly mixed track record. I’m a devout Trekkie, but even I have to admit that there have been episodes, and even entire series, that are best forgotten. With the recent announcement that Trek will be returning to television, it seems like a good idea to review why Star Trek has such an enduring cultural legacy, where it fell short of its goals, and what you can learn from that.

“He’s Dead, Jim”

The original Star Trek series may well be the most iconic, even though it was also one of the most troubled. Despite uneven special effects and wildly uneven writing, everyone can recognize Mister Spock, and words like “Klingon” and “phaser” are part of our everyday language. During an era when most people expected nuclear annihilation at any moment, Star Trek gave us an optimistic vision of the future — a time when people weren’t perfect, but were definitely working on it.

“Make It So”

The Next Generation faced an uphill battle. It had an entirely new cast, and did things a lot differently than the original series. Instead of Captain Kirk, it gave us Jean-Luc Picard, a tea-drinking Frenchman with an English accent, who preferred to solve his problems with words rather than phasers. The interior of the Enterprise looked more like a cruise ship than a star ship. Don’t get me wrong : I love every one of those things, but they were one hell of a change.


That brings us to Deep Space Nine, possibly the most divisive part of Star Trek. The Next Generation proved that you could have a successful Star Trek series without the original cast, and Deep Space Nine set out to prove that you could do the same thing with no ship.

“There’s Coffee In That Nebula!”

Voyager may well have been doomed from the very beginning. It started out with a strong premise. The USS Voyager became stranded on the far side of the galaxy, and in order to get home, they had to team up with the very enemies they had been chasing. On a perilous 70 year trip home, they would cross through unknown territory, meet strange new races, and face dangers and challenges that were entirely unfamiliar. And then they threw almost every part of that premise out the window at the first opportunity.

“I Grew Up On A J-Class”

And now we come to Star Trek : Enterprise. In theory, Enterprise seemed like a great idea. Viewers were tired of absurd techno-babble, and a prequel with more primitive, realistic technology was very promising. It offered a chance to explore the formation of the Federation, and the history of humanity’s relations with species like the Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans.

“Space Is Disease And Danger Wrapped In Darkness And Silence”

The recent Star Trek movies have been a mixed bag. The 2009 movie made a few small mis-steps, all of which are outweighed by the entertaining story and excellent acting. Quite frankly, however, I think that this sort of “soft reboot” was the wrong direction for Star Trek. We learned back in the ’80s that you don’t need Kirk and Spock in order to have a successful entry in the Star Trek franchise. There have been 2 excellent Star Trek series that had little or nothing to do with the original crew, and 1 (or 2, if you count the Animated Series) that did.

You Dance With The One Who Brung You

It was the fans who turned a canceled science fiction show into a 50 year old multi-billion dollar franchise. You don’t have to pander to the fans, and you don’t have to give them everything they ask for (back in ’93, was anyone asking for a Star Trek that took place on a space station, and took a deep look at religion and politics?), but you do have to deliver something that will satisfy them. Don’t downplay your connection to previous Treks (as Enterprise tried to do), and don’t dumb things down to make them accessible to a wider audience (as Star Trek 2009 did with a number of things, like “red matter”). Speaking of which…

Smart Is The New Sexy

Shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even Archer prove that you don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator. Clever shows that deal in subtlety and nuance can be very successful. If the show is good enough, it will find an audience.

Character, Character, Character

Skilled characterization elevates good plots and witty dialogue, but it also makes it a lot easier to tolerate bad plots and leaden dialogue. The original Star Trek is beloved, despite episodes like “Spock’s Brain”, because people have a connection with the characters. On the other hand, no amount of wonderful writing can overcome weak characterization.

Don’t Start Fresh

A lot of amazingly talented people have worked on Star Trek over the years. No doubt many of them would be thrilled to come back. Quite a few of the actors, for instance, have gone on to direct. There are also a lot of writers associated with the franchise who would be ideal choices to help develop a new series — some of the obvious choices are Ira Steven Behr, who was largely responsible for Deep Space Nine, and Ronald D. Moore, who worked on Deep Space Nine, and ran Battlestar Galactica. There’s also Manny Coto ( @mannyhectorcoto ), who (I’m told) helped turn Enterprise into something watchable. Other strong candidates include Peter David ( @PeterDavid_PAD ) and Diane Duane ( @dduane ), who are responsible for the best Star Trek novels, some of which became New York Times best sellers.

Don’t Be Afraid

If there’s one thing that the history of Star Trek makes perfectly obvious, it is the need for boldness. Kill off a popular character. Stake out a position on a controversial issue. Try an unconventional story-telling technique. Do something the network won’t approve of. Split an infinitive. You may make a mistake, but you sure as hell won’t be boring.

Borrow From Other Science Fiction…But Not Too Much

Harlan Ellison wrote an episode of the original Star Trek. Isaac Asimov was a consultant on The Motion Picture. The Tribbles were (albeit unintentionally) borrowed from Robert Heinlein, and both Starfleet and the Federation economy seem very similar to other parts of Heinlein’s work. It would be foolish not to draw inspiration from existing science fiction. At the same time, you have to remember that you’re making Star Trek, not a generic sci-fi series. For instance, a major part of Star Trek has always been a relative lack of automation — people are responsible for even simple tasks that could be carried out much more effectively and reliably by robots or computers. Another example would be ship to ship combat — Star Trek has always treated it like naval warfare, without the high-speed fighters that show up in Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica.

“Serial” : Not Just For Breakfast

Good TV shows don’t have to be serialized. The Next Generation wasn’t. The X-Files and Castle both have it in small doses. Even Buffy The Vampire Slayer, often seen as one of the earliest mainstream shows to adopt serialization, had a healthy number of stand-alone episodes. The truth is, though, most popular dramas these days, especially ones that aren’t procedurals, are heavily serialized, and that’s what audiences seem to want. Just don’t go too far — the format of Star Trek is very friendly to stand-alones. Deep Space Nine is probably a bit too serialized a model to follow, while a show like Veronica Mars, for instance, isn’t quite serialized enough. Something right between those two would be perfect.

Listen To The Experts

Why would you ever want consultants on your show? They’re all nerds who don’t know anything about telling a good story. There’s some truth to that attitude — an obsession with technical accuracy over good story-telling is definitely the wrong approach. You don’t even need to go as far as Futurama, which was notorious for being as scientifically accurate as possible while also telling funny stories (don’t believe me? Look up ‘Keeler’s theorem’). At the same time, you do have to keep things relatively plausible.

Learn From Marvel

One of the most common demands from Star Trek fans in recent years has been an anthology series. It could devote one season to life aboard a Klingon warship, and the next to political intrigue in the Federation Council. This format seems ideal for Star Trek, but there are obvious production reasons why it’s unlikely. CBS should take a page from Marvel’s book : when Marvel brought their cinematic universe to television, the flagship show was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but they also had the Agent Carter mini-series, which aired during the Agents mid-season break. Marvel went on to make the Defenders macro-series — starting with a 12 episode Daredevil series, followed by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and then the Defenders, which will unite all 4 heroes. While only Daredevil has come out so far, it was truly excellent.

All Good Things

Star Trek isn’t just a TV show, or even a high-value media empire. It’s a symbol of hope for the future. That symbol has been entrusted to your care — treat it well. I’d love to leave you with my pitch for a 3 season ‘House of Mogh’ series (starring Michael Dorn — @akaWorf ), but let’s face it : that crosses the line from ‘reasonable advice’ to ‘creepy fan’ at Warp 9. I’ll wrap this up with just one small request that I’m sure is shared by Star Trek fans everywhere — for god’s sake, give us Summer Glau as a Vulcan. I don’t care what you have to do, just make it so.

My profile pic is from Tim Kreider, and is used without permission. May god have mercy on my soul.

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