“Star Trek: Discovery” arrives Sunday (CBS/2 at 8:30 p.m.) and rarely in recent TV history has such a short, declarative phrase as that had so much riding on it. Or so many words too: Worry, dread, fear, excitement, wonder, passion, and questions, questions, questions.
Trek’s TV universe wrapped 12 years ago, and while the movie franchise was reinvigorated, TV appeared to have reached the end of the line. A show with “Star Trek” in the title had aired on primetime for 18 years, from 1987 to 2005. Suddenly, it was over.
Now, it’s back, along with those questions. Starting with the obvious, why so long?
Cost had always been an issue, a major reason why “The Next Generation” — the first since “The Original Series” — lasted seven seasons. Cast contracts are typically renegotiated after the seventh season of any show. “TNG” had been a monster hit and new contracts would have reflected that. In the meantime, “Deep Space Nine” (1993-99) had been launched, then “Voyager” (1995-2001). For fans, their Trek cup had runneth over . . . and over.
These three series were sequels to the original “Star Trek” (NBC, 1966-69) but the last gasp would be a prequel: “Enterprise” (2001-05). (Likewise, “Discovery” is also a prequel, taking place roughly 10 years prior to the original.)
By 2005 the TV world had changed, and so had fans. “Enterprise” had a devoted base, but not quite a large enough one to sustain a commercial network venture — if modest since-defunct UPN could actually be called a “network.” Franchise creator Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, while longtime series showrunner Rick Berman — now 71 — had officially retired from the “Trek” factory line. Even in this reboot-crazy era, another “Trek” off the factory line seemed remote.
Then nearly a decade later, Netflix happened, and business models were inverted. Series with small passionate fan bases could sustain subscriptions, possibly boost them. CBS owned the rights to “Trek” and had launched its own subscription service, CBS All Access. A matchup was inevitable.
Sunday’s launch is a novel bait-and-hook. The first episode will air at 8:30 p.m. on CBS, then, the show will head into the final frontier: Streaming media. Viewers will be directed to CBS All Access for the second episode, while the third will stream there next Sunday. Naturally, there’s a cost: $9.99 without commercials; $5.99 with them.)
The series — described as the first full-fledged serialized “Trek” series — will stream 15 episodes. A renewal is considered certain.
But the Trekker fan is unlike any other fan. The five TV series and 10 movies comprise what’s called the Star Trek “canon” — an intricate interlacing web of details, facts, timelines, plots and characters. The three blockbuster “reboot” movies after 2009 — “Star Trek,” “Into Darkness,” “Beyond” — appear to sidestep canon by taking place in a separate timeline. But even a separate timeline doesn’t get them entirely off the hook: They still have to abide by the general principles of the Trek canon, while genesis characters from the original still exist within their broad framework.
Enter “Discovery.” The series would appear to avoid the canon thicket by taking place 10 years or so before the original. But the opposite may be the case. Vulcan and Klingon mythologies — or sub-canon — still have to line up with everything that’s known about them in later versions. Details about “The Federation,” the Star Fleet, and various technologies must still sync with more evolved versions. The core of Roddenberry’s philosophy — which can be reduced to one famous line by Alexander Pope, who noted that the proper study of mankind is man — must be absolutely preserved. His vision was utopian, constantly tested by the true nature of the human species.
“Star Trek: Discovery” must also explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before. But there are adjustments, too: An African American woman — Sonequa Martin-Green who plays first officer Michael Burnham, raised by Vulcans — will be at the controls.
That indeed is a first.
“Discovery” was announced a couple years ago, then sidelined at least once — reasons are complicated, hopefully irrelevant — because Bryan Fuller, who was appointed showrunner along with Alex Kurtzman, left.
There has been much speculation over the breach. In any event, he leaves a hole. One of the most original figures working in television, Fuller has a florid, complex, often beautiful, often brutal visual style (see “Pushing Daisies” and “Hannibal”).
To have lost Fuller was to have potentially lost that style. Fortunately, there were backups. Kurtzman was a producer on the first two movie reboots. Another producer, Akiva Goldsman — an Oscar winner and canon expert — had worked with Kurtzman on “Fringe.” The showrunners, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, are considered Fuller proxies: They had worked on “Daisies” and other Fuller projects. Their role, in part, is to preserve his vision.
Is that even possible? Again, he’s long gone so a logical, or Vulcan, answer would seem to be (well) logical: No.
But is it necessary? Fans will and must judge, but at the recent TV critics press tour in Los Angeles, Kurtzman insisted the Fuller-esque style will remain, saying “we all respect Bryan’s vision and because we felt that it was the best way to preserve that.”
Vision is one thing, story’s another. And story will be a bear. “Trek” has never been so deeply serialized before, which adds to the complexities.
The goal of “Discovery,” Goldsman said, is “to arrive at the principles — the utopian principles — that are endemic to ‘Star Trek’ and at the same time not to suggest that doing that is simple or easy.”
As always, shows rise or fall on story, but also on the stars. Along with Jason Isaacs — who plays Capt. Gabriel Lorca of the Discovery — and James Frain who plays Sarek, Spock’s father, Martin-Green is carrying the biggest load. This show is really Michael Burnham’s journey, as much as the journey of Discovery.
Here was her thought about the journey she’s about to undertake:
“Discovery,” she says, is about “war, the greatest conflict of all, but it’s also about profound questions of ‘Who am I,’ ‘who are you,’ ‘how do I relate to you?’ How do we live with each other? How do we make acculturation a two-way exchange rather than me dominating you or you dominating me?”
In “Discovery,” she says “we are aspiring to a utopia, but we haven’t reached perfection yet. Yet we are trying [but] you are going to see us try and fail and try again and fail again.”
Just don’t fail too much. Captain James T. Kirk is depending on you.