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Can Star Trek: Discovery win back fans’ trust?

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There are so many warning flags about this show, but so many promising aspects as well

Yesterday, CBS dropped the first real trailer for the upcoming subscription-only series Star Trek: Discovery, finally giving fans a idea of what the first Trek TV show since 2005’s Enterprise will look like. It’s a good trailer, showing off some of the characters, including Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) who in a series first will be a lead character who isn’t a Starfleet captain. Reportedly, Discovery will tell a more personal story focusing on Burnham, in additional to the general ensemble crew of the Discovery. That could be an interesting direction for a Star Trek show.

The Discovery trailer also shows a more diverse Star Trek than ever before. While original Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously broke ground for showcasing diversity on television, Discovery seems to be expanding on that theme, with a black woman (Martin-Green) in the lead role, and Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou. And like any good Star Trek crew, Discovery also features some new alien species, including Saru (who curiously describes his species as “designated” to sense death).


The trailer features plenty of throwbacks to old Trek, too: The trailer tells us Discovery is set “ten years before Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise.” There are appearances from Spock’s father Sarek (James Frain) and some bat'leth-wielding Klingon warriors, featuring a bizarre redesign somewhere between the smooth-browed 1966 Star Trek Klingons, the ridged-forehead Klingons from Next Generation, and whatever the hell Star Trek Into Darkness had going on.

So there is some intriguing stuff in the trailer, if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the fledgling series. But there are still plenty of reasons for fans to be concerned about Discovery.

First and foremost is the series’ long, troubling development process, which CBS seems to have completely mishandled from start to finish. Things started out great for Discovery. The show was first announced in 2015, and was set to premiere in January 2017, “on the heels” of Star Trek's 50th anniversary. (In hindsight, the show having been planned from the start to miss that anniversary entirely may have been a bad sign.)

Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, and American Gods creator Bryan Fuller — one of the hottest creators in TV today — was announced as Discovery’s showrunner. That reveal provoked a lot of excitement, especially given Fuller’s reputation for premier television and his history with the franchise. (He got his start in television writing for Deep Space Nine and Voyager.) And Nicholas Meyer, who wrote and directed the fan-favorite Trek films The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, was brought on as a writer. Plus, the show was announced to be set in the "Prime" timeline of the original shows and movies, not the "Kelvin Timeline" of the J.J. Abrams reboots.


But Discovery has been plagued by multiple delays — slipping from the January 2017 date to May, and then again from May to an indefinite release sometime in fall 2017. And Fuller was forced to leave the project entirely due to CBS executives’ concerns over his other commitments to shows like American Gods.

Most telling of all, even though Discovery is the first new Star Trek show in more than a decade, CBS seems entirely uncommitted to the series. From the beginning, the network has focused on keeping Discovery subscription-only, as a major draw for its CBS All Access on-demand service. Obviously, corporate concerns will always take precedence in show business, but it's not exactly a vote of confidence that in a media landscape where genre television is more prevalent than ever, Star Trek is getting shunted off broadcast TV. It’s hard not to feel like Discovery is getting relegated to All Access so CBS can cash in on fans' love for the franchise.

Also, comments from CBS Interactive CEO Jim Lanzone to Recode’s Peter Kafka seem to indicate that the network just doesn’t think science fiction works on TV anymore. According to Lanzone, “Sci-fi is not something that has traditionally done really well on broadcast. It’s not impossible, for the future, if somebody figures it out. But historically, a show like Star Trek wouldn’t necessarily be a broadcast show, at this point.”


Network concerns aside, fans have expressed some misgivings about the style of the show, based on the footage we’ve seen so far. Sure, the CGI is slick, but the gritty ship interiors and bland uniforms bring to mind the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot, or The Expanse, not the shining utopian future Star Trek tends to strive toward. It’s an aesthetic informed by more recent Trek ventures like Enterprise and the 2009 film reboots, though, so while it may not be in keeping with the continuity of past TV series, Trek fans will likely adjust to it after the first shock of the new wears off. And if Discovery can tell a good story, they’re likely to find the style less concerning.

But it's worrying that Discovery is returning yet again to the creative well of the original series’ Kirk/Spock era, instead of breaking new ground in another area of the universe. Between the 1960s Trek and its associated movies, the 2009 reboots, and now Discovery, it's the third major return to this time period. Which means Discovery could run into the same problems that any prequel has, in that we largely know what happens to this universe next, at least on a larger scale.

And while it's hard to tell how closely Discovery will hew to the broader themes of earlier Trek series, past shows have already repeatedly tackled the episodic adventures of an exploratory Federation ship full of Starfleet officers. Deep Space Nine showed that there are ways to tell different stories in the world of Star Trek, instead of just slapping a fresh coat of paint on the scaffolding that the original series and Next Generation built. (Voyager and Enterprise also failed to learn this lesson, but that's a conversation for another time.)

But for Discovery, in a franchise whose tagline has always been "to boldly go," it would be nice to see some more boldness from a storytelling perspective, along with the progress in representation.

Ultimately, I'm still cautiously optimistic about Discovery. Yes, there are concerns, and yes, it sucks that viewers will have to shell out for an All Access subscription. But hopefully Discovery can take the stronger parts of its foundation — the cast, the seemingly more personal stories, and of course, the tremendous ongoing potential of the Trek universe — and overcome the issues to bring about a triumphant return for Star Trek on TV. But it’s still got a ways to go to convince me — and all the other fans watching this new trailer with hopeful but skeptical eyes.