The message above was posted on social media earlier this evening. What follows is my immediate response – a somewhat unstructured, angry response. For a more structured argument about ViacomCBS’ mishandling of the Star Trek brand internationally, check out this article.
I cannot believe what I just read. Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season is not going to be made available on Netflix outside of the United States, and will only be available for international viewers sometime next year when Paramount+ arrives. I’m still digesting this truly awful news.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had a go at ViacomCBS – the corporation which owns and mismanages the Star Trek brand – for refusing to make Star Trek: Prodigy available internationally, despite that show being a co-production between CBS Studios and Nickelodeon… a ViacomCBS-owned channel that’s available in more than 70 countries around the world.
This Discovery news comes after Prodigy has been denied to international fans. Lower Decks Season 1 was also denied a simultaneous broadcast internationally, arriving almost six months later. So I can’t be alone in asking what the fuck ViacomCBS thinks it’s playing at. Are they trying to encourage piracy? Do they just not care about Star Trek? Perhaps they want to do as much harm as possible to their own brand, and that of their mediocre second-tier streaming platform at the heart of these problems: Paramount+.
To make this announcement less than 48 hours before Discovery’s fourth season was due to premiere is beyond insulting. It’s the latest and most egregious “fuck you” in a long line going back a couple of years at least from a corporation that doesn’t give a damn about Star Trek’s sizeable international fanbase.
Not only is Season 4 not going to be available on Netflix, but Seasons 1-3 have been pulled – or will shortly be pulled – from the streaming service as well, gated off behind a paywall that doesn’t exist because Paramount+ isn’t available here in the UK (and elsewhere) yet. It is at least possible to get the first three seasons of the show on blu-ray, so fans who want to watch or re-watch earlier seasons will be able to do so that way. But Season 4 isn’t available… or at least it isn’t available via conventional methods.
When corporations choose to become gatekeepers and refuse to share the content that they’ve produced with fans who are literally holding their wallets open screaming “take my money!” then piracy, by default, becomes the only option to access that content. Discovery actually will be available internationally, because this is the 21st Century and most folks have internet access. With a tiny amount of effort it’s going to be possible to pirate every episode of the show, allowing fans to enjoy Discovery while ensuring that ViacomCBS doesn’t see a single measly cent by way of profit. That isn’t the decision fans made, it’s the choice ViacomCBS made.
Star Trek became an international franchise at the behest of ViacomCBS and its corporate predecessors. They advocated this kind of corporate globalism because – like the greedy little Ferengi they are – they saw profit beyond America’s borders. There are Trekkies from Tierra del Fuego to St. Petersburg because globalism proved so attractive for ViacomCBS, but the corporation has once again proved beyond any doubt that it doesn’t give even the tiniest of fucks about anyone outside of North America.
So as I said a couple of weeks ago about Prodigy: it’s totally morally justifiable to pirate it. Go right ahead and pirate Prodigy, and pirate Discovery too. ViacomCBS has told us to keep our money and fuck off, so let’s make sure they don’t ever see another penny of it. What’s the point in continuing to support a corporation that leaves its international fans out in the cold because it can’t manage the incredibly basic task of broadcasting a television show?
Broadcasting and streaming is ViacomCBS’ entire business model – yet time and time again they fuck it up. Paramount+ is a mediocre platform at best that will never be the Netflix and Disney+ competitor that its corporate masters wish it to be. It arrived on the scene a decade too late, with too little original content, and its rollout even within the United States has been horribly mismanaged by a corporation that appears to be run by absolute morons. Paramount+ recently lost the rights to all of the Star Trek films for several months – despite ViacomCBS owning the rights to those films. And as we’re learning the hard way once again today, its international rollout has been pathetically slow.
It’s such a shame for all of the actors, directors, and behind-the-camera crew who clearly have put a lot of work into Discovery Season 4 that their work is going to be tainted by a truly selfish and shitty business decision. It isn’t their fault, yet their hard work is now soured in the minds of many of the show’s biggest fans because of incomprehensible corporate bullshit.
I’ve been disappointed with ViacomCBS for a while for their pathetic mishandling of the Star Trek brand, but this latest attack has come as a body blow. I’m angry – actually legitimately angry – with a cowardly corporation that doesn’t have the faintest idea how to operate in a 21st Century television and streaming market. Their mismanagement will continue to harm Star Trek – perhaps fatally so.
I can’t speak for every Trekkie, but a lot of Star Trek’s international fans are losing patience with this corporation. It’s long past time for ViacomCBS to get a grip and start managing the franchise properly – before too much harm is done. Star Trek is an amazing franchise that everyone should be able to watch together and share with one another no matter where they’re from – but disgusting and insulting corporate decisions continue to get in the way and actively harm Star Trek.
Lower Decks is so much less than it could and should be entirely because ViacomCBS fucked up its international broadcast. The same will be true of Prodigy – a decision compounded in that case by the utterly ridiculous broadcast schedule. Four episodes, then a two-month break? What fuckwit came up with that idea? And now Discovery.
Here’s a newsflash for the ViacomCBS board: fans aren’t going to wait for the mediocre Paramount+ to arrive. A lot of Trekkies will pirate the show, and a lot of viewers who had been looking forward to seeing it on Netflix just won’t bother; they’ll have forgotten all about it by next year. So let’s all sarcastically applaud ViacomCBS for hammering a nail into the coffin of Star Trek. I hope someone out there with a modicum of business acumen will be able to step in and save the day – but I’m not holding my breath.
The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
The video referenced in this article can be found below.
I sporadically check in with fan project Star Trek Axanar. After Tim Russ’ and Walter Koenig’s Star Trek Renegades, Axanar was the fan film I was most interested in seeing when it was announced a few years ago. I was surprised to see Alec Peters – the creator and star of Axanar – had released a video titled In Defense of Alex Kurtzman – Why Star Trek is going to be OK on the fan film’s official YouTube channel a few days ago, and while I don’t normally do “responses,” I thought it was very interesting and worth drawing your attention to.
If you aren’t familiar with the development of Axanar, here’s a quick recap – and it should explain why the aforementioned video came as a bit of a surprise. In 2014, a fan film titled Prelude to Axanar was released. Produced by Alec Peters, the film served as a prologue to a longer crowd-funded fan film he and his team hoped to create. Star Trek Axanar would look at Garth of Izar, the famed Starfleet captain who was encountered by Kirk and co. in The Original Series’ third season episode Whom Gods Destroy. Fleet Captain Garth was the hero of an event known as the Battle of Axanar, and Peters intended to depict the events surrounding the battle in this fan film, which would feature a number of Star Trek actors.
However, CBS took exception to Axanar and ended up suing Peters and the team behind the fan film. The details of the lawsuit are complicated, but suffice to say CBS went after the production on copyright grounds, and the end result was a set of rules handed down that all fan films would be expected to follow. In addition, the Axanar team lost a lot of time and money that had been originally intended for the film.
All of this took place in the run-up to the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, and proved incredibly divisive for the fan community. Many folks backed Peters and Axanar, feeling that CBS was being unfair and attacking Star Trek’s most passionate fans. Others suggested that the motivation behind the lawsuit was that CBS was concerned that Axanar would be better than Discovery. Though it wasn’t the main reason why some Trekkies aren’t fans of Discovery and other modern Star Trek productions, the real-life battle over Axanar was certainly a factor.
CBS – now ViacomCBS – has certainly been tone-deaf when it comes to the fandom on occasion. I’ve talked at length about the decision to broadcast Lower Decksin North America only, and we can also point to things like the forced shutdown of fan project Stage 9 at a time when ViacomCBS doesn’t seem to be making any Star Trek games or comparable interactive experiences. So I can certainly understand the position of fans who took an anti-CBS position in the wake of the Axanar lawsuit.
I’ve written previously about divisions within the Star Trek fandom, and how people often present it as “old” Star Trek versus “new” Star Trek. Since 2017 Star Trek has been, in many respects, different from how it was in the 1960s or even the 1990s. And as I always say, individual tastes are subjective – we like different things, even within a single franchise. Some fans love The Wrath of Khan, others like The Motion Picture, just to give a single example. As the Star Trek franchise approaches its fifty-fifth anniversary and its 800th episode, it’s no wonder there are debates about which series or style of storytelling are the best!
What I was so pleased to see from Alec Peters and Axanar in this video was a respect for what ViacomCBS and the Star Trek franchise are doing. Alex Kurtzman’s leadership has seen three new Star Trek shows premiere, with at least four others in the pipeline. It looks certain that the franchise will live to see its sixtieth anniversary in 2026 with new episodes still being broadcast, and as we enter the 2020s the franchise is, perhaps, on the cusp of a new era that could rival its 1990s heyday.
There is room within a fandom like Star Trek for Discovery and Axanar to coexist. We aren’t gatekeepers, telling other Trekkies that they aren’t “real fans” because the show or film they like best isn’t “real Star Trek.” That has never been what the franchise is all about, and anyone saying such nonsense has missed the point. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees; to get so bogged down in the minutia and detail that we miss the big picture.
The Star Trek fandom has always been a welcoming community. I remember my first visit to a Star Trek fan meetup in England in the mid-1990s, and as a younger guy I was welcomed by other fans to their event. This would have been sometime after Star Trek: Generations has been in cinemas, and while I was a huge fan of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I wasn’t fully caught up on The Original Series outside of its films. Despite that, fans of The Original Series who I met didn’t tell me that I wasn’t a “real fan” or that I had never seen “real Star Trek.” They were incredibly welcoming, and most people seemed thrilled that the franchise was still alive and kicking.
The Next Generation was controversial when it premiered in 1987. People who entered the fandom in the 1990s or later – as I did – missed that controversy, but it happened. Deep Space Nine was controversial too, with its static setting and darker tone. I know some Trekkies who utterly hated the Dominion War arc, feeling it went counter to the franchise’s optimistic tone.
The point is that we all have things within the franchise that we like and things that we aren’t keen on. But we would never dream of telling someone who’s a fan of The Next Generation and Voyager but dislikes Deep Space Nine that they somehow aren’t a “real fan.” And the same is true of the Star Trek projects of today. Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks are “real” Star Trek, just as much as any other series or film. It’s okay to disagree about every aspect of those productions, and people will always do so. But they are part of the franchise, and just because they aren’t to some people’s taste doesn’t make them invalid.
Alec Peters and the team behind Axanar have largely avoided commenting on Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks. I was pleasantly surprised to see them do so this time, and even more so to learn that Peters is a fan of Picard. There is a lot to like in modern Star Trek, and a lot to like in past Star Trek too. And Axanar still looks like an interesting proposition, one I will certainly tune in to see when the final version of the film (or episodes) are released.
There are so many things in the modern world to divide us. But I would argue that, as Trekkies, we have much more in common with one another than we do with, for example, fans of celebrity reality television shows! There are, sadly, people who have begun to make money cashing in on this division, widening the gap between different groups of fans and trying to convince their audiences that only one kind of Star Trek fan is a “real fan.” I’m glad to see that Axanar isn’t on board with that, because there is room in the franchise for all of us. We can be passionate about what we like and dislike, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions about what makes for a good Star Trek story. But there’s no need to get nasty or aggressive toward someone who expresses a different opinion.
Watching the video I was struck by how mature Peters was in his tone. Axanar may have been controversial, but there’s no denying that he – and the team he built to bring the project to fruition – are deeply passionate Star Trek fans. What I took away from his video, though, was that he can appreciate that Alex Kurtzman is a fan too. Kurtzman and Peters may have very different attitudes to Star Trek and storytelling, but to express respect across that divide is something I believe many fans needed to see.
I liked what he had to say about giving Kurtzman time, too. Though I don’t necessarily agree that every Star Trek show’s first two seasons “suck,” as Peters put it, we certainly should give the new team at ViacomCBS time to tell more of the stories that they want to tell. For a lot of younger fans, Star Trek has always been a complete product. Every episode was available on DVD or streaming, and it’s easy for someone younger to look back at the franchise as a single entity, not appreciating the decades of work that went into it. Star Trek developed gradually, over a long period of time, in order to become the franchise it was in the 1990s. For fans who didn’t see any part of that process, for whom Star Trek has always existed in its current form, it’s perhaps easier to criticise modern productions as they find their feet and grow.
We are certainly in a new era of television storytelling, and this is another point Peters brought up. Star Trek – like any franchise – has to adapt to meet audience expectations in the 2020s; many episodes and stories that we look back on fondly would struggle if made today. As Trekkies, we’re a tiny portion of Star Trek’s audience. The franchise has to have broad appeal to a wider audience beyond this niche if it’s going to survive, and someone like Alex Kurtzman was brought on board because the people at ViacomCBS believe he has the creative vision to help the franchise grow. It’s never nice to be told “this wasn’t made for you,” but in a sense it’s true – and always has been. Even The Original Series was produced with a wider audience in mind, and we can trace the franchise’s move away from ethereal sci-fi toward more action-oriented stories to at least 1982’s The Wrath of Khan.
The point is, Star Trek has always been evolving. It’s a franchise that has tried many different things over the years, and the current era is no different. As Alec Peters pointed out, Kurtzman and his team are listening. That’s why we got Strange New Worlds, that’s why some of the storytelling decisions were made in Discovery, and even while Kurtzman and his team focus on bringing Star Trek to new fans and a wider audience, they are trying to balance that with feedback from fans.
It’s not up to Alec Peters or myself to defend Alex Kurtzman and his vision for the franchise, at the end of the day. It’s okay to dislike Discovery, Picard, or any other Star Trek project that you feel didn’t appeal to you or didn’t work very well. But I think we could all agree that the fandom would be a nicer place for everyone if we didn’t try to play gatekeeper and tell genuine Trekkies that they aren’t welcome because they like the “wrong” show or film. It’s a big galaxy, and there’s room for all of us.
You can find Alec Peters’ video embedded below.
The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. Star Trek Axanar, Prelude to Axanar, and the Axanar logos were created by fans. The video above is hosted on YouTube, and merely embedded (linked) here on Crazy Uncle Dennis. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: While this essay doesn’t go into many plot details, there may be minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise, including for Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery.
I’ve seen a number articles and videos over the last couple of years, really since Star Trek: Discovery premiered, looking at how the Star Trek fanbase has become divided into fans of “old” Star Trek and “new” Star Trek. However one may feel about the various films and series, it’s undeniable that there are many Trekkies who have jumped ship over the years and do not consider themselves fans of the franchise’s newer iterations – as well as plenty of casual viewers who have seen one series but not others. Given that the franchise is well past its fiftieth anniversary, perhaps that’s fair enough. But I did want to take a look at the phenomenon for myself and give my thoughts on how the franchise is split, some of the possible causes, and what that split could mean for the franchise going forward into the 2020s and beyond.
Firstly, the question often asked in these articles is “how can everyone come back together?” Writers will often set up that question, pretending that they’re going to answer it fairly, only to basically end up saying “everyone will come back together if Star Trek does everything my way and gives me everything I want.” That just isn’t realistic, I’m afraid. And as with many cases of division, the reality is that there may not be a way to bridge the gulf and reunite everyone around one new Star Trek series or film. That may sound depressing, and it is in a way. But we have to be realistic – there are some people now who are literally making money from running anti-Star Trek groups online, and if anyone expects someone in that position to suddenly turn around and say “hey guys, I just saw the latest episode and it was amazing!” well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. The truth is that some people aren’t interested in fair criticism. They have decided they want to hate, and just like fans of a football team could never support a rival club, no matter what, their hatred for the current and upcoming lineup of Star Trek shows and films will continue. It’s part of the tribal mindset that we as human beings all end up subscribing to in one way or another: “I support X, which is opposed to Y. Therefore, I can never ever like Y, because it would go against how I define myself as a person”. That’s true in sport, it’s true in politics, and it’s true in entertainment as well.
But before we can look at divisions in the fanbase, we need to examine the basic concept: what is “old” Star Trek, and what is “new” Star Trek? It’s a far more complicated question than it seems, and the answer will vary depending on how old a person is, and when they first encountered the franchise.
There are several “turning points” in the history of Star Trek where fans jumped ship, and the easiest way to look at them is in chronological order. The first one was in 1987, when The Next Generation premiered. Until this point, Star Trek had been The Original Series with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the 1960s crew, and while there was excitement for Star Trek’s return to television – just as there was in 2017 – that was countered by a vocal number of fans who believed ardently that the original characters were the beating heart of Star Trek – and were irreplaceable. These people may have watched The Original Series and the first four Star Trek films (The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered County were released after The Next Generation premiered) but simply had no interest in a new crew, a new ship, and a new century. Indeed, Sir Patrick Stewart himself has said many times that he believed The Next Generation would not be a success – and would run for perhaps two seasons at most.
The second turning point is the one I’m most familiar with – because it’s the point I came very close to jumping ship myself: 2000-2001, when Enterprise was announced and entered production. In the aftermath of the disaster that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999, a prequel was just something that many fans, myself included, had little interest in. Star Trek – as I have often written here on the blog – had always been about pushing forward into the future, and yet here was a show that wanted to look back at its own past. This kind of navel-gazing just didn’t feel like a good idea, and the aesthetic of the show, with its boiler-suit uniforms, clunky starship design, modern (for the time) computer screens, and overreliance on not-quite-good-enough early-2000s CGI was not inspiring. There had been some real stinkers in the Star Trek canon when it came to individual episodes and stories – Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Grey, Threshold, and Move Along Home to name but a few – but this was the first time that the premise of a series itself seemed unexciting, at least for me. The introduction of Scott Bakula as the captain did go some way toward lifting the show for some fans who had been on the fence, but I confess that during Enterprise’s original run here in the UK I only tuned in sporadically, and it was only when I got the series on DVD a few years after it went off the air that I watched it in its entirety. Nowadays I often cite Enterprise as an example whenever I hear the argument: “nobody asked for this”. Nobody in 2000 was asking for Enterprise, yet it actually told some interesting stories and had a great cast of characters. I’m glad to have seen it, I’m glad it existed, and ultimately I feel its strengths far outweighed its weaknesses. Giving it a second chance was a good decision – even if the only reason I bought the DVDs was to complete my Star Trek collection!
Next comes our third turning point: when Enterprise went off the air, a spell was broken. Star Trek had, in some form, been in continuous production for almost two decades, beginning with pre-release work on The Next Generation in 1986 running all the way through to 2005 when the final episodes of Enterprise were produced and released. The cancellation of Enterprise was symbolic – the end of an era. And in that moment it seemed as though Star Trek was dead and not coming back. But it didn’t stay that way for very long at all, and within a year or so of Enterprise’s cancellation, word started going around about a new film – one which would be a reboot, recasting iconic characters like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. For many long-term fans – including some friends of mine – that was a bridge too far, and they were never interested in what would become 2009’s Star Trek and the “JJverse” or Kelvin timeline that it spawned. For others, Star Trek was too much of a departure from the rest of the franchise, with its visual overhaul and action-heavy story, and some fans who did give it a go were underwhelmed and didn’t come back for more.
So we’ve reached the final turning point. 2017, and the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery is the moment that many of these articles and videos use when dividing “old” Star Trek from “new” Star Trek. Discovery had a somewhat troubled production, with Bryan Fuller departing before the show aired, and controversy surrounding CBS All Access as a platform for the show in the United States. There was also the “prequel problem” that plagued Enterprise, and as more details came out about the series, the visual style being more in line with the JJverse than The Original Series also became a bone of contention. As with each of the three previous turning points, a number of fans decided that Discovery just wasn’t for them and simply opted out.
The point of recounting this history of the Star Trek fanbase and the points at which some fans chose not to continue with new iterations is simple – this is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before in Star Trek, and, if we’re lucky enough for the franchise to continue into the future, it will undoubtedly happen again sooner or later. None of these moments destroyed the franchise or ruined the fanbase, nor drove Star Trek’s creators and promoters out of business for the simple reason that the fans who jumped ship were in the minority. A vocal minority, perhaps, but a minority nevertheless. And it’s the same with those who haven’t watched Discovery and Picard – and of course, those who make a big fuss about not supporting “new” Star Trek in online groups and on YouTube channels: they’re a minority.
Trekkies have always been a minority of Star Trek’s audience. It’s a commercial product; a series designed to have appeal beyond a small niche of convention attendees. If it didn’t appeal to casual viewers it would never have survived or been reborn in the first place, at any of the points mentioned above. So to say that because a small number of Trekkies who liked the TNG-era shows don’t like Discovery there’s somehow a massive problem and that Star Trek today is fundamentally broken is nonsense. A minority of a minority, no matter how vocal they may be with their criticism and hate, don’t matter to ViacomCBS’ bottom line in any material way.
But do they have a point?
It’s a tough one for me to answer, and if you’ve been here before you’ll know why: I’m a big fan of “new” Star Trek, just as I’m a fan of “old” Star Trek too. I can see the point of view that says the newer shows and films are bad, but generally I don’t agree, so from my perspective they don’t have a point. Especially to those people who pre-judged Discovery and Picard based on what they read in anti-Star Trek groups online and never even watched the shows in the first place I’d really say they don’t have a leg to stand on in this argument. How can they possibly sit there and say something is bad when they haven’t given it a try for themselves? The biased “reporting” of some anti-Star Trek YouTuber is not the same as experiencing the film or series for themselves, and I’d really encourage everyone who falls into that category to at least stick with Discovery beyond its opening two episodes, which I fully concede were especially weak.
This actually ties into another point – most Star Trek series, with the exceptions of Deep Space Nine and Picard – opened quite underwhelmingly. And it took more than a few episodes for all of the Star Trek shows to really find their feet. The Next Generation’s first season isn’t anywhere near as good as its third, fourth, or fifth, for example, and Voyager similarly took at least a full season to get up and running. Even the beloved Original Series got off to a rocky start – so giving up on Discovery or Picard after one or two episodes isn’t really giving those shows a fair shake.
Part of this is to do with binge-watching culture. For many Star Trek fans – and I include myself in this category to an extent, especially when it comes to Enterprise – they missed out on seeing most or all of “old” Star Trek when it originally aired. They could pick and choose which episodes to watch from DVDs or on streaming platforms, and watch them anytime they wanted to. Star Trek, to many Trekkies, was a complete product. Seven seasons of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, as well as three of The Original Series and four of Enterprise is a lot to wade through, and an individual bad episode is just a blip when you don’t have to wait a week for the next one and can skip ahead to another episode on the disc.
But there are changes in the way Star Trek has told stories over time, and we do have to acknowledge that. There has been a move away from episodic storytelling (aka the “monster-of-the-week” format) in favour of season-long story arcs and a serialised format. I confess I have a preference, in some cases at least, for episodic television. It’s nice to be able to jump into a random episode of a series without needing to know or remember everything that happened leading up to that point. It makes Discovery and Picard season-long commitments, instead of something fans can jump in and out of. And because, as mentioned, a lot of folks are used to Star Trek shows being complete products and in addition are used to binge-watching, having to wait a week between episodes of a partially-complete story can be annoying I suppose.
There has also been a shift away from the more ethereal, philosophical, and thought-provoking storylines that Star Trek used to do. Ironically, many of those stories and episodes are less popular among fans – The Motion Picture is always considered a poor relation to films like First Contact and The Wrath of Khan, which are both much more in the action-sci fi genre, just to give an example. I discussed this in a little more detail in my 40th anniversary look at The Motion Picture if you’re interested to read more. But there’s no doubt that Discovery and especially the JJverse films have gone in a much more action-centric direction, and for people who wanted to see more of the slower paced, thought-provoking stories, action-sci fi maybe doesn’t “feel like Star Trek” in quite the same way.
Now we come to what is the single biggest point: nostalgia. People like what they grew up with. Heck, the whole reason Star Trek is being made again now, more than fifty years since it was first created, is because nostalgia is incredibly powerful and there’s money to be made from it. But nostalgia is a double-edged sword. Some people don’t want to see an “updated” version of the franchise they loved from childhood or young adulthood. If they want more of it in the first place, they want to see it exactly the same as before. No changes, no iterations, no modernising – a carbon copy of what came before. And that isn’t realistic.
Television storytelling has moved on since the 1960s and the 1990s – which are the two “golden ages” of Star Trek, depending on which fans you ask. Expecting to see The Next Generation Season 8 in 2020 was an unrealistic expectation. The way stories are told, and what television audiences expect from their shows, are just different nowadays. For fans of episodic television that might seem disappointing, but as with Trekkies in general we’re in a minority there. Shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and of course Game of Thrones had such a huge impact on television that they fundamentally changed the way audiences approach their favourite franchises – and in order to stay competitive, Star Trek has to recognise that and keep up.
There are undeniably a lot of positive feelings attached to a franchise from childhood. The return of Star Trek (and other franchises too, like Star Wars) was designed to play on those positive feelings to sell a product – that’s basically the point of resurrecting franchises in the first place. For a minority of fans who only liked things when done the old way, that hasn’t worked and the updates and changes mean they don’t get the same feelings that they do when re-watching an old episode or film. But for a lot of people, these shows have been a hit. They hit the mark where it mattered and got many fans clamouring for more. And in a few years or a few decades from now, Discovery-era fans will be just as excited for the return of Burnham and Saru as I have been to see Picard and Seven of Nine.
In fact, one of the things I was genuinely concerned about with Star Trek: Picard is that they were going to fall into the Star Wars trap of overplaying the nostalgia card. I didn’t want The Next Generation Season 8, because that show has ended. It’s over. What Picard represented is something practically no other series or franchise will ever get – a new iteration. Picard is the same man, and he’s the core of the show as he was in The Next Generation. But surrounding him are new characters, and I wanted to make sure that they would have the chance to become fan favourites for the next generation (pun absolutely intended) of Star Trek fans.
My introduction to the franchise was The Next Generation. And it wasn’t until a few years later – probably in the mid-late 1990s – that I got around to watching any of The Original Series. For some people, Picard and Discovery will be their first port of call as Star Trek fans, just as The Next Generation was for me. Those of us who’ve been around Star Trek for twenty-five years or more still have a place in the fandom, but things are changing. With new shows in production, new fans are coming on board who may not be aware of Picard’s top-secret mission to Celtris III, or that Kirk and his crew once visited a parallel universe where magic is real. If we try to be gatekeepers and say “you aren’t a real Star Trek fan because Discovery isn’t as good as the show that I like” then the fandom isn’t just going to be divided, it’s going to become toxic. Instead of being a “big tent”, recognising that the franchise means different things to different people, some folks seem to want to claim the fandom for themselves and exclude anyone who doesn’t share their belief about what Star Trek means.
And frankly, that’s just sad.
Star Trek has always tried to use its science fiction setting to tell stories that reflect contemporary issues. There are countless examples, and this could be an essay in itself, but suffice to say many of those stories resonated with fans in the past. The Original Series challenged the Cold War concepts of superweapons and mutually assured destruction in the episode The Doomsday Machine to great effect, and fans will laud that. But when Discovery uses Ash Tyler’s trauma as an analogy for underreported male sexual abuse, those same folks scream about “too much politics”. As I’ve said before, to anyone who says there’s “too much politics” in modern Star Trek I’d ask one simple question – “have you seen Star Trek before?”
The problem here is that, when it comes to The Original Series and the shows of The Next Generation’s era, we’re watching them decades on from their original release. Many of the people complaining about politics in modern Star Trek weren’t even born when The Next Generation and its sister shows were first on the air. And very few people now can remember watching The Original Series when it was new. The political themes in many of those episodes are less prickly and less relevant today, and though they would be instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences, watching them today fifty years later or thirty years later, they’re harder to spot. And if someone is watching an episode for the tenth or twentieth time, an episode they first watched at age five or six, it’s even harder to be objective and pull the themes and messaging out of the drama and presentation. Taking a step back and looking at a favourite show or episode objectively is very difficult. I made an attempt to do so when I re-watched The Measure of a Man from The Next Generation’s second season, but it wasn’t easy.
Star Trek has always been a political show, even if as kids we didn’t realise it. And it has always taken a “progressive” political position on contemporary issues. If an individual can’t stand that, and is only content to watch entertainment that is either wholly politically neutral or agrees entirely with their own political biases, then that’s okay. No one is forcing anyone to watch a television show that they don’t like. And if they don’t like something, it’s easier than ever to change the channel. They can pick a new show on Netflix or Amazon Prime or CBS All Access and watch that instead, or go back to a previous Star Trek series that they do enjoy. Modern Star Trek is not mandatory viewing, and from my own point of view I can tell you I’m pretty brutal when it comes to switching off a show that I find boring or that I’m not enjoying for whatever reason.
In 2020 we live in a world where there is an insane amount of entertainment available to watch – and much of it can be found online for free with a basic knowledge of computing. So I don’t really understand why people would want to spend a lot of time watching a show that they don’t enjoy, then jump online to share their dislike with others – not when there are so many other things to watch. A few people who run websites, groups, or YouTube channels, make money by doing this. And I guess that’s fair enough – if people will pay for it, and you can make money at it, that’s okay. But for everyone else, I don’t really see what they gain from it – aside from the feeling of inclusion being part of a “tribe”, or perhaps a feeling of superiority to think they know better than the show’s creators?
To get back on topic, and draw this essay to a conclusion, there are differences between Star Trek today and Star Trek in the era of The Original Series and The Next Generation. For some fans, the difference is too stark and they don’t want to watch whatever they consider to be “bad”. I’m okay with that – we can all have our own opinions about the franchise. I just don’t like the toxicity and gatekeeping that has plagued some – thankfully small – groups within the fandom.
Speaking for myself, I’ve enjoyed Star Trek’s return to television. Star Trek: Picard has been the better of the two offerings so far, but I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of a Capt. Pike series and at Lower Decks’ different take on the franchise. It’s a great time to be a fan right now, simply because there’s so much Star Trek – and sci fi/fantasy content in general – in production. We won’t always be so lucky to have this, and even though I wasn’t a big Enterprise fan during its original run, I was still sad when it went off the air and there was just a big void of nothing. That isn’t a scenario I’m keen to see repeated, and while I admit there have been hits and misses in modern Star Trek, I’d rather see it continue to be made than simply scrapped. By diversifying the kind of stories it tells – Picard and Discovery are very different in tone, for example, and Lower Decks will be something different again – hopefully Star Trek can build on what has been accomplished already and bring in more people. If some people decide not to stick with it because of the changes, that’s okay. But I firmly believe that the core or the heart of Star Trek is the same as it was in the 1960s – and that it has remained that way for its entire run.
Star Trek is a complicated franchise that means different things to different people. But there is room in the fandom for everyone – at least, everyone who wants to participate. If someone dislikes Picard or Discovery but loves The Next Generation, as fans and as people who know how to behave civilly, we can still have a great conversation about Star Trek without treading on each others’ toes. And it’s my hope that there’s more that unites us as fans of this great franchise than divides us – after all, Discovery and The Next Generation have much more in common than The Next Generation does with, say, the latest iteration of some celebrity reality show. At the end of the day, I’m happy to share a franchise and a fandom with some very passionate people – even if we can’t agree on a lot of things.
The Star Trek franchise – including all series and films mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.