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‘Star Trek’ Has Never Been “Prestige TV” — So What Is ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Trying To Be?

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Star Trek

CBS dropped the very first official trailer for Star Trek: Discovery yesterday. Visually, it’s big and bold and beautiful to look at. There are stunning starscapes and sharp looking new uniforms. We get our first look at the main characters, Sonequa Martin-Green‘s First Officer Michael Burnham and Michelle Yeoh‘s Captain Georgiou. We see familiar faces, like James Frain’s Sarek, and familiar foes, like all those Klingons. It’s great, I think, but I don’t know. It’s nigh on impossible to figure anything substantive about the show from this sizzle reel. We can’t tell if it will be good. We can’t tell if it will be bad. The only thing I could really cull from the teaser is a definitive reminder that Star Trek has never been “Prestige TV” and it never will be.

Yeah, I said it. An oft brilliant, but sometimes dopey, space series with furry things called tribbles and cunning heels with big ears named “Quark” was not built for the Golden Age of TV.

We’re living through a very specific time in television history. Streaming platforms, premium cable, and cable networks themselves have offered us a never-ending buffet of what the critics, like myself, like call “Prestige TV.” It started in earnest with the likes of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and now the term applies to all those color-corrected, star-studded, short-seasoned shows that love to titillate our brains more than our hearts. The drama is dark and the shots are even darker. This style has even permeated the world of comedy. Now, the best “comedies” don’t make us laugh; they make us confront our generational malaise. You know we’re reaching peak “Prestige TV,” because now the backlash has begun.

Photo: CBS

As a collective audience, we’ve spoiled by the Prestige TV boom to expect a certain polish, a astute smartness, and a very specific brand of cynicism from television. Therefore, a Twin Peaks revival feels at home in our current television landscape and Star Trek: Discovery feels a little…off. Oh, this new trailer has got the polish and the Star Trek brand has inbred intelligence, but more than anything else, Star Trek is a title that scoffs at cynicism, irony, and despair. Star Trek is the franchise of hope. It’s set in a utopia where people don’t have to squabble over class, race, gender or any other thorn in humanity’s side.

The most important science fiction show of the 21st century has been Battlestar Galactica, a show born out of the frustrations of Ronald D. Moore, a major Trek showrunner who wanted to bring dirt to the stars. Battlestar Galactica helped forge the way for our current TV landscape and inspired a trend wherein darker, crueler, and more serious approaches to genre were lauded. They were more “mature.” That’s how we got Netflix‘s Marvel titles, FX’s Legion, SyFy’s The Magicians and The Expanse, and HBO‘s Game of Thrones. Today’s audiences want edge with their fantasy and nightmare fuel with their science fiction.

Given all that, how does — or how will – Star Trek: Discovery fit in with our current zeitgeist?

Photo: CBS

Star Trek: Discovery is going to have to pull off the trickiest job of any other Star Trek title. First of all, it’s never going to please all of the Trekkies. That’s impossible now since Star Trek’s tone has shifted over the years and so the Star Trek fandom is splintered on what constitutes pure, honest Trek. Is it the thoughtful philosophical Trek? The swashbuckling Trek? The “steeped in political intrigue” Trek? Is it J.J. Abrams’ lens flare-rich Trek? Based on the trailer, it looks like Star Trek: Discovery is attempting to be all of the above and it’s trying to cater to a crowd used to having some SERIOUS DARKNESS with their sci-fi.

This is what fascinates me the most already about Star Trek: Discovery: how will it bridge all these tonal worlds? The tensions are there in the trailer. As lush as the environments we see are, as esteemed as the cast is, and as expensive as it looks, it’s already failing the “Prestige TV” test. The colors are too bright, the dialogue’s a little too stage-y, and it comes with the rousing, and inspiring, old school Star Trek theme. It’s a motherfucking space adventure show and not a thinly-veiled philosophical discourse on the meaning of life. This isn’t a bad thing. I, for one, miss being inspired by science fiction, and by extension fantasy. I actually hope that instead of fighting Star Trek’s inherent “kind of campy,” totally dorky vibe, Star Trek: Discovery winds up embracing it.

Game of Thrones

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Something has to be the light in our present-day dark, brooding television landscape. Maybe Star Trek: Discovery will be it.

Star Trek: Discovery will debut on CBS All Access this fall. 

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