Discovery far from a sure thing
Never mind the hype, of which there is plenty.
What chance for success does a “Star Trek” TV series in 2017 realistically have?
It’s not like the ’60s, when TV was still a new medium and the idea of televised sci-fi with a progressive, humanitarian bent seemed fresh and original.
There have been a total of seven Trek series — including one animated — and 13 feature films in the more than half century since, which is equal to roughly three times the life of my cat.
If you sat down to watch them back to back, it would take 549 hours or 23 days.
So, when “Star Trek: Discovery” debuted on the Space channel last Sunday, you could forgive an audience saturated by decades not only of Trek, but its legion of watered down facsimiles, for wondering what more there was to say.
Keep in mind that the last small screen venture, “Enterprise,” was cancelled three years early due to lack of interest, and that 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond” — the third of the J.J. Abrams reboot films — underperformed at the box office.
The clock, it seems, had run out on a series known for its optimistic view of the future and the collegial efficiency of its multi-ethnic, interplanetary crews spread across the 22nd to 24th centuries.
And now, from the detritus of a thousand failed revival plans, and lots of backroom bickering, we have “Star Trek: Discovery.”
It’s a tough place to be, reinventing the wheel on an iconic series, trying to make your mark.
And I’m not one of those people who longs for the past.
I loved the original series when it spawned a cult in reruns during the Watergate era, but recognize that by today’s standards, it registers mostly as camp.
And while I found “Star Trek: The Next Generation” groundbreaking during its 1987-’94 run, recent attempts to restoke my affection revealed a show creaky with signs of age.
I never had time for the convoluted, murky “Deep Space Nine,” with its revolving door of squabbling aliens, or the infantile, hectoring “Voyager,” with Captain Janeway lecturing her crew like the crabby head chef she plays on “Orange is the New Black.”
“Enterprise” was the one that caught my attention, a sporadically brilliant assault on Trek legacy steeped in post 9/11 paranoia that’s all but forgotten a dozen years after its untimely cancellation.
And here we are in 2017, when originality is considered a curse by industry button pushers, and the word “franchise” is the key to survival in a fractured marketplace with a thousand competing entertainment options.
This series’ producers know this, which is why they took two years to tweak the formula and aired but a single episode on onesize-fits-all broadcast TV, before flipping it to the nerd-friendly (and cost-saving) Space channel.
Star Trek’s audience today is niche: Hillary Clinton supporters, left-wing progressives, old farts who remember the original and pine for a cameo by bloated, puffy faced William Shatner. Do young people like it? It’s not like I’m polling people in the street. But I have yet to hear anyone under 50 express interest or awareness that this series even exists.
So, yes, skepticism is warranted.
And the doubleheader première that attempted to place the Trek universe in a modern context, while riveting in spots, didn’t completely allay my fears.
Was it a strong opening? 74 per cent on the aggregate site Metacritic. 10 million viewers.
Not spectacular, but it held its own. Did it break new ground? Sure, in very specific ways: First non-white female lead.
First Trek series not focused on a captain.
First Trek to portray two women commanding a starship.
Was it the same quantum leap forward as “Next Generation” was from the ’66 original? Not even close. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it’s unclear how many people will tune into a series that relies heavily on the same “we come in peace” formula that ran out of juice around the time Shatner was given the green light to direct “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” the only outright bomb in Trek history.
Fortunately, like all good Trek series, it has a secret weapon — Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the mercurial, committed first officer and lights up the screen every time she steps in front of the camera.
“We target its neck, cut off its head!” she shouts during a faceoff with adversarial Klingons that sees her in open conflict with her captain.
Genetically human, but Vulcan bred, she’s the perfect blend of guttural emotion and ruthless logic, a character as galvanizing in her way as Mr. Spock was on the original series.
And credit the show’s creators — vets like Nicholas Meyer, who helmed the best of the original films, 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the best of the reboot films, 2009’s “Star Trek” — with intersecting its fictional storyline, like all great sci-fi, with events in the real world.
“KLINGON SUPREMACY!” shouts one aggressive alien, determined to start a holy war against liberal-minded humans that is clearly an allegory for the U.S. under Donald Trump.
But this is key: even with their bulbous, lizard-like foreheads, they’re not entirely unsympathetic.
And it’s this attempt to find middle ground, to explore the nuances, that has always defined the show at its best.
“Star Trek in its heart and soul is about an understanding of what we perceive as The Other,” creator Kurtzman told media.
“If we’re going to tell a story about war, we want to tell a story about both sides in a complex way.”
Not that it will make a difference.
In this case, the show’s success or failure will likely depend less on quality than optics.
Can CBS marketing execs convince the fickle millennials coveted by advertisers that this aged warhorse — with its emphasis on phasers, transporter beams and lofty ideals about humanity — is a show for their time, their generation?
Or like the action-packed big screen reboots, will it provide a momentary thrill, a passing fancy, before sending them scampering back to their smartphones?
“What I want more than anything else is for the person who’s a diehard Trek fan to be streaming the show,” producer Aaron Harberts told CBR.com.
“And the kid walks through in front of the TV, or the wife, or the boyfriend, or the girlfriend, and says ‘What are you watching?’ and suddenly gets engrossed in the scenes enough to sit down.”
As the Beach Boys wailed in their plaintive, bittersweet ode to adulthood, wouldn’t it be nice.
“Star Trek: Discovery,” starring Doug Jones, left, Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh was riveting in spots with some Star Trek firsts.