Challenges Ahead for New ‘Star Trek’ Series on CBS All Access

Star Trek Discovery
Courtesy of CBS

It’s fantastic that CBS is rebooting the “Star Trek” franchise. But it needs to boldly go toward a different business model, while still embracing what made the franchise special in the first place.

“Star Trek: Discovery” will debut in January on CBS All Access, which means you’ll have to fork over $6 per month in order to see anything beyond the pilot (which will also be shown on the CBS mothership). And paying the monthly All Access fee doesn’t mean subscribers will get an ad-free experience.

At the recent Television Critics Assn. press tour, CBS Interactive president Marc DeBevoise explained that episodes of All Access originals — which also include “Big Brother” and a spring spinoff of “The Good Wife” — would carry an ad load of 12 minutes per episode.

Set phasers to stunned.

As it adapts to the non-linear age, broadcast television is not going to wean consumers from the habits they formed when they got hooked on Netflix, where you pay a monthly fee and see no ads. Even before Netflix had its own originals, the ad-free aspect of the service was part of what ensured that people kept paying for it. Not embracing this principle a long time ago held back Hulu, which is now playing a game of catch-up with not only Netflix but Amazon Prime, among other services.

Anecdotally speaking, I use Hulu much more now that I’ve got the ad-free option — and once people on my Twitter feed found out CBS wanted charge them to watch a new “Star Trek” show that would still carry ads, they laughed when they weren’t confused or shocked.

Of course, I’m well aware that networks are in the business of making money, and I don’t mind that subscription services, apps and the like are not going away any time soon. As we learned from “Star Trek,” it’s always good to be adaptable, and if these kinds of revenue sources help keep the lights on and ensure that a wide array of interesting television options are available to consumers, I’m fine with it. Within limits.

I asked DeBevoise if All Access might offer an ad-free option before the premiere of “Star Trek: Discovery.” “It’s something we’re likely to pursue in the near- to mid-term,” he said. “I can’t give you an exact time frame, but we’re looking pretty hard at it.” The ad-free option, which would cost more, could arrive “before January,” he added.

Make it so. Please?

Now that I’ve invoked the words of Jean-Luc Picard, it’s worth digging into why “Trek” remains beloved, especially on the small screen, where it has arguably done its best storytelling.

As a Federation nerd from way back, I was thrilled to hear that Bryan Fuller would be the showrunner for the new “Trek” TV franchise, which he is co-creating with Alex Kurtzman. Fuller is best known as the executive producer of lavishly imaginative programs like “Hannibal,” “Wonderfalls,” and “Pushing Daisies,” but some of his first TV credits were on scripts for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager.”

Fuller spoke at TCA as well and got the “Trek” fans in the room excited about what’s to come. But in other remarks he made earlier this summer, Fuller said that “Discovery’s” 13-episode first season will lean on the idea of serialized storytelling. That, frankly, gives me a bit of pause.

Don’t get me wrong, I can understand Fuller’s frustration with the idea that every story should be wrapped up in 43 minutes. One reason “Deep Space Nine” is my favorite “Trek” series is because the show did not hit the reset button every week. The deeper it got into its run, the more dense and complicated the series became, which allowed the writers to raise the stakes in believable and creative ways and create more memorable character arcs along the way. “Star Trek: Enterprise’s” final two seasons were also frequently more satisfying than the uneven, standalone-based seasons earlier in its run, and many “The Next Generation” classics were two-parters or involved recurring characters.

But hourlong morality plays were often the specialty of the “Trek” TV franchise, and at their best, they were exceptional freestanding installments that entertained even as they explored difficult questions. In a typical “Trek” episode, characters are faced with a dilemma or a confront the kind of challenge that throws them at first, and they have to figure out how to address not just the Federation’s priorities but the agendas of unfamiliar races, worlds and people. The men and women of Starfleet had to employ their curiosity, their intellect, and their capacity for compassion, and they often struggled with their decisions — which had to be made by the end of the hour.

In an era in which too many dramas are bloated and meandering and take a season to resolve anything of real importance, that kind of episode is becoming all too rare outside procedurals. It shouldn’t be.

Fuller wrote “Company Man,” a relatively self-contained hour that is easily the finest episode of “Heroes,” which proves that he himself excels at the form. I’m hoping he and his writers pull off at least a few similar feats with “Discovery.” There’s something to be said for non-procedural drama episodes that tell a complete story, but I fear that kind of writing is falling out of fashion, especially in the more ambitious realms of cable and streaming.

These days, we tend to view issues of right, wrong and murky grey areas in terms serialized arcs. In ensemble dramas and star vehicles alike, TV shows tend to focus on character journeys, and how individuals grow and change as they attempt to figure out what choices they should make in a confusing world full of conflicting messages.

Yet the Picard in the series finale of “TNG,” or in any of the movies for that matter, is essentially the same person we met in the very first episode of that show. His journey is not the kind of meaty, serialized arc that we’ve come to take for granted in the more ambitious arenas of television these days. But thanks to Patrick Stewart’s commanding yet subtle performance and the specificity of the character, he was a great individual to insert into different kinds of moral scenarios.

I fully understand that various “Star Trek” TV shows could be preachy and more than a little didactic, and I am absolutely in favor of the idea of depicting character growth over time. But there’s a lot to like about how the franchise approached storytelling on a week-to-week basis back in the day. Each week, you got a complete story that was usually focused on a small number of characters (“Trek” never felt the need to showcase every series regular in every episode, which is something many dramas now do to their detriment). Each week, a problem was presented and wrapped up — but as great episodes like “TNG’s” “The Measure of a Man” or “Deep Space Nine’s” “Duet” proved, a lot of thoughtful ambiguity and emotion could be baked into the development and endings of those hours.

If nothing else, “Star Trek” was bold because it didn’t dither. Characters had to take decisive action and live with the consequences of the choice they’d made. And it didn’t take them 10 or 13 episodes to make those calls.

To call a TV show a novel for television has often been the highest compliment given to one-hour dramas. But there is room for taut, well-crafted short stories as well, and at the moment, we need more of them. So let’s hope that Fuller and company don’t throw the baby out with the Klingon bathwater.

To hear me speak at greater length about “Star Trek,” especially the “Deep Space Nine” episode “Duet,” and to experience a “Star Trek” Fantasy Draft, check out this episode of the Extra Hot Great podcast