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Star Trek: The State of the Franchise

Anyone who’s read my novel Randoms has probably figured out that I’m a Star Trek fan. I love the franchise in (almost) all of its incarnations. I’ve seen every film and every episode of every television show ever produced. I’ve read a ton of novels and comics going back to when I was in middle school.

And as a fan, I can’t help but wish Star Trek would respect itself a little more. This is a long post, so let me give you my argument up front: Star Trek produces content that tells viewers, readers and gamers that it’s a second-tier property. It doesn’t act like it has greatness to offer, and, consequently, it is rarely great.

Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about a hugely successful intellectual property, with its principal characters and ship designs recognizable to countless people all over the world. At the same time, it is, in my view, one of the most poorly — or even the most poorly — managed intellectual properties of its type. In light of the very good recent Star Trek film, and the franchise’s return to television next year, it seems like a good time to explore what has gone and wrong with Star Trek.

Comparing the cultural saturation with other comparable properties shows just what a lackluster job parent companies CBS and Paramount have done. Step into any Target and you’ll see how brands like Star Wars, Marvel, and D.C. have licensed their characters for toys, party products, clothing, and games. Star Wars, since being sold to Disney, is a brand on the rise, but it went a decade without a film (and decades without a watchable film), yet still managed to keep itself current through licensing. Marvel has done a brilliant job of expanding its reach and turning little known properties, with virtually no name-recognition outside of serious fans, into household names. Star Trek, on the other hand, remains stuck in the past, with properties like Deep Space Nine and Enterprise barely recognizable to anyone but devoted followers.

Star Wars, Marvel, and DC have all done a better job marketing their characters and stories to children, which is a key component in keeping these properties alive. Star Trek, it could be argued, is aimed at more mature audiences, but I’m not convinced this explains anything. It has tried – generally clumsily – to reach younger audiences by including younger characters on its shows (especially Deep Space Nine and Next Generation). Other properties, instead of pandering to kids, have led with aliens, robots, and costumes with visual appeal to children. There are plenty of dark and mature stories across the Star Wars spectrum, but kids still like to play with light sabers. All of the other properties I’ve mentioned have in their arsenal stories that are great for kids, but also produce mature, edgy stories aimed at adults. There’s no reason Star Trek can’t do both.

There have also been some fundamental production problems that kept various Star Trek shows from expanding to a broad audience. Next Generation had uneven casting, with some characters portrayed brilliantly, others tepidly. Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise suffered from generally abysmal casting, and seemed to be populated with characters who were initially conceived only in terms of basic biological identity (It’s an alien! She’s a woman! He’s black!) and the writers had to add greater complexity and depth as they went along. That meant that it often took a few seasons for the shows to gear up to full speed. The first two seasons of both Deep Space Nine and Next Generation are pretty abysmal, though both went on to become genuinely great and ground-breaking programs. Voyager started out unwatchable and improved somewhat, but never really dug itself out of its hole. Enterprise was only just hitting its stride in its 4th season when it was cancelled. I watched every episode of that show, and by the end there were main characters who I still thought of as “that guy” and “that other guy.”

There’s no denying that Star Trek maintained a consistent strategy of producing undercooked shows and hoping the audience would stick with them as they found their way. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t worked out so well, which is why we’ve gone more than ten years without Star Trek on television.  Compare the first episode of any of the Star Trek spin-offs with, say, the first episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. If there were a Nobel Prize in casting, Firefly would have won. Every character is fully fleshed out from the beginning, and every character is portrayed by an actor who breathes life into writing.

Marvel and DC are now enjoying a period of expansion with film and television programs, but of course the comics have always been the creative heart of their operations. Star Trek relies on film and television to cook up new properties, and these are, of course, much more expensive to produce than comics, and they require much larger audiences to be successful. Star Wars, however, has managed to keep many of its fans engaged with its novels and comics, all set within a single expanded universe – one that was considered canon (yes, I know it’s been scrapped and rebooted, but still…).   Since the film Nemesis, Star Trek has attempted to do the same thing, with on-going and continuity-driven novels that continue the stories of the various films and television programs. Unfortunately, this project has produced mixed results.

Star Wars comics and novels have jumped around in time, telling stories set long before the first movie and projecting the stories out into the future. Star Trek novels, however, generally tend to advance one timeline incrementally, giving each of these books the stodgy feeling of a single episode with little room to tell big, sweeping stories. Occasionally there are crossover events that are meant to give the series an epic feel, but are so tied to the main continuity that new readers dare not jump in. The major exception here are the Original Series novels, but these are almost always joined at the hip to particular episodes or films, and giving the books a feeling of tepid and sluggish nostalgia.

There are some exceptions. I think the Vanguard series of novels does an admirable job of excavating fresh material in the Original Series timeline, and the Lost Era books also have a little more freedom with which to explore. The main problem, however, tends to be the quality of writing. Many Star Wars novels are written by people who have successfully established themselves with their own original novels. Doctor Who recently brought in some of the best names in British science fiction to write novels. Star Trek, on the other hand, now relies almost exclusively on writers who make their livings working with licensed properties. This doesn’t make these people bad writers. Many of them seem to be genuinely talented, but the problem is the pressure these writers are under to produce, often churning out a half dozen or more novels a year.  The end product is, quite literally rushed, and that shows. There was a time when solid genre authors – James Blish, Ben Bova, Barbara Hambly, Vonda McIntyre – were brought in to produce original Star Trek novels, with obviously superior results to what now seems to be an assembly line catering to die-hard fans only.

Then there are the comics. For years Dark Horse produced Star Wars comics with a huge fan following. Now Marvel has taken over, and they’re generating stories that explore various characters and expand the existing canon. Star Trek comics, on the other hand, are much more limited in scope and ambition. The most successful offerings are somewhat cynically conceived and gimmicky crossovers – Star Trek meets Doctor Who or the Planet of the Apes – meant to shock an apathetic audience into paying attention.

And let’s not forget the games. This post is getting long, so suffice to say Marvel, DC, and Star Wars all produce successful games that excite and expand the fan base. Star Trek games have existed and do exist, but again, they seemed to court only those already invested.

All of this reveals a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems to me that CBS and Paramount see Star Trek as having limited ability to succeed with a wide audience, and accordingly, they aim low, targeting, rather than attempting to build, an audience. The forthcoming television show, Discovery, seems doomed to be just another missed opportunity.   The setting is, thus far, still a secret, but there have been strong hints that the story will be set prior to the Original Series. Prequels don’t have to feel constrained, but they often do, and I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that Star Trek is willing to take chances within that sort of framework. More worrying is the fact that Discovery will air on CBS’ subscription-only All Access channel.   Yes, some fans will fork over the $5.99 a month to watch a Star Trek show, but it seems pretty obvious that more casual viewers will be left out.

As a fan, this limited thinking frustrates me. Why not take advantage of a known property to take risks instead of constantly playing it safe?  Star Trek offers instant name recognition and audiences interest. That means CBS could produce adventurous, challenging television guaranteed to generate interest.   Star Trek novels could be first-tier science fiction authored by writers willing to invest the time and energy to make the universe come alive. As long as Star Trek continues to see itself as niche, it is going to stay that way.

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