Star Trek is finally returning to TV

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Nearly 12 years after Enterprise left the air, Star Trek will finally return to TV in January 2017. TV is the franchise’s natural home, so this is fantastic news whether or not you like the current batch of movies. At its best, Star Trek holds up a mirror to our times, and TV allows it tell a variety of small stories without the pressure to offer action-adventure again and again. Its voice on the small screen has been missed.

However, it’s not strictly returning to television. CBS, who holds the rights to the TV side of the franchise, will in the US present the new series exclusively on their dedicated streaming service, CBS All Access. With no obvious free-to-air or cable home for the series these days, streaming makes sense for Star Trek and its typically tech-literate audience.

Other than that, we know very little about the new series. But let’s dig into what this announcement means and what we can potentially expect.

Why it’s happening now

In 2005, the rights to Star Trek were split up, with CBS taking the TV rights and Paramount the film rights (or leasing them from CBS for a finite period, it’s not clear). CBS has been rumoured for years to be unable to make a new Trek series until Paramount was done with the film franchise, which Vulture journalist Joe Adalian recently corroborated. Contractually, ‘done with’ may mean until they’d released three films, which is now a standard number for talent deals and other logistics.

The new series has only been announced following the end of production on Star Trek Beyond, the third film in Paramount’s series, meaning it’s now highly likely to meet its July 2016 release date and CBS won’t have to delay their launch. January 2017 may even be the earliest CBS is able to debut a new series: the contract may have required the home video release to be given some breathing room before a new series distracts us all from it. The tight timing begs the question of whether CBS would have already released a series if they could have.

Whether Paramount will make any more films is unknown, although they’ve secured Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto for a fourth film and tentatively dated it for 2019. But if Beyond underperforms or a sequel is too expensive, they may hand the Trek baton to CBS.

Who’s making it

Developing the new series is Alex Kurtzman, one of the writers of Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek into Darkness. Absent though are JJ Abrams’s production company, Bad Robot, Kurtzman’s former writing partner Roberto Orci, and any other connections to the current films.

Although Star Trek into Darkness was a solid financial success, it was arguably deficient in imagination and good judgement. Without reigniting that debate, let’s just say that Kurtzman isn’t a choice that all fans and critics will applaud. CBS hiring him sends a strong signal that they’re not looking to reject everything about the films. Perhaps quite the opposite.

Striking though is that Kurtzman’s involvement seems almost coincidental. CBS’s rights to the property are quite separate to Paramount’s for the films. Bad Robot and Orci are gone, and there’s no guarantee the new series is even allowed to have anything to do with the reboot films. Kurtzman’s involvement seems in no way obligatory.

He may have been hired on his own merits and the series will be entirely his baby. Or he’s there to  to provide some connective tissue with the films, either narratively or because CBS likes their approach if they’re prohibited from a direct narrative connection. Or perhaps he’s there for the PR benefits: CBS can say the new series comes from one of the forces behind the current film series.

Deadline report he’s been meeting with writers. Is this for a writing staff that he’ll lead? Or is he really just lending his name and sending the boat off, hiring a new captain to run the writing staff and do the legwork of developing the new premise? Either is distinctly possible, but Kurtzman has so many irons in the fire that his running the show seems unlikely.

The premise will also largely be determined by CBS. They’ll have a strong idea of what exactly they want Trek’s return to TV to be from a business standpoint. This will likely be a fairly loose and traditional premise that gives writers flexibility without scaring away viewers with something idiosyncratic. So the show probably won’t be about 30th century Klingons or a West Wing-style show about Federation politics.

Any hindrance that Kurtzman may or may not pose will hopefully be mitigated by a premise that allows other writers to shine or Kurtzman himself to deliver something fantastic away from the pressures of a mega-budget film franchise.

What it might be about

Given Kurtzman’s involvement and the mainstream regard for the current films, it’s reasonable to assume the new series will be set in that timeline, either concurrent with the films or in their future.

But we don’t know if CBS has permission to use that timeline, assuming a tangent universe can be encompassed by a contract. It may count as intellectual property created for the films and this IP may be exclusive to Paramount.

CBS may prefer to use the prime (ie: original) universe anyway. Even if they are forbidden from using the Abramsverse timeline but want to benefit from audience familiarity with it, if they set the show far enough in the prime universe’s future it won’t matter. The casual viewers brought across from the Abrams films wouldn’t know the difference, and classic fans will be made aware that their beloved prime universe is back. If CBS are interested in aping anything about the films, it will be their style and approach rather than their position in the Trek multiverse.

Beyond that, who can say what the series will be about. A classic exploration series for a new generation makes sense, a Next Next Generation of sorts. This is what Joe and Jane Public expect from Star Trek, and TV conventions and production values have changed so much in the last 20 years that this will automatically mean we’re watching something fresh. Our world has changed a lot too, so there’s plenty for a new set of writers to get their teeth into.

The key creative obstacle may be CBS itself. Do they want a formulaic space adventure with something for everyone with little thought required? Or will they see value in Star Trek’s idea- and character-driven heritage and want it to differentiate the series from the films? The next few months will start to give us a sense of that.

How we’ll get to watch it

CBS All Access is a US-only service. Internationally, the new Trek series is just like any other TV series and will end up on TV or on a streaming service, depending on your country. I bet good money it’ll be released weekly, unlike Netflix’s all-episodes-at-once approach, which will sync up well with international broadcast partners.

But the main reason would be to bolster All Access and the subscription revenue Trek brings in: three to five months worth of fees instead of just one. All Access has far less catalogue content than Netflix did when they launched House of Cards, so they could afford to drop the season all at once because new subscribers had plenty more to stick around for. Unless it greenlights several more shows in the next few months or greatly expands its catalogue content, All Access won’t have that advantage. Plus, Trek has typically been a story-of-the-week show, but you can guarantee there will be some serialisation.

In Australia, given how tech-oriented many Trek fans are and the franchise’s historical relegation to late-night timeslots, it seems certain it’ll be best served by a streaming service.

Netflix may swoop in and acquire all non-US rights for the territories it operates in, as they have a good relationship with CBS. It may turn out that not offering the new series to Netflix in the US too was a mistake if All Access turns out to be a dud. At the very least, CBS may be inclined to sell it to Netflix internationally as some insurance.

If not, it could turn up on Stan or Presto. Stan has a lot of CBS shows and is the only Australian SVOD service to have any Star Trek, but Channel Ten has an output deal with CBS and may soon have a stake in Presto now that Foxtel have a stake in them.

Regardless, the series will surely be fast-tracked and on a reasonably priced streaming service, giving Australian Trek fans a better deal than they ever had with the previous shows.

Now we wait

There’s plenty of reasons this new series may be disappointing, but there’s plenty more to be excited about its potential. In the right hands, Star Trek could again become the bastion of intelligent, provocative science fiction on TV. If CBS can bring enough users to All Access and justify not selling the series to Netflix, Trek may also have one of the most apt delivery platforms it’s ever had. The next year will be fascinating.

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