With Star Trek: Discovery, CBS Discovers That TV Ain't Easy Anymore
Television: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the legacy broadcast network CBS. Its apparently never-ending mission: to explore strange new revamps of old shows, to seek out fully integrated distribution models and new revenue streams. To boldly go where, to be honest, a few other networks with studios and a couple powerful streaming video on demand services have already gone before. SHWOOOOM!
“Shwoooom,” in this case, is Klingon for “another Star Trek prequel show.” It’s Star Trek: Discovery, which premieres on CBS on Sunday night—y'know, on an actual broadcast network—and thereafter will stream on All Access, CBS’ $9.99-a-month subscription service ($5.99 if you're OK with watching commercials).1 Set a decade before the first Trek series (and therefore 90 years after Star Trek: Enterprise, the sixth and most recent Trek series), the show has all new characters, with the exception of two-time Kirk adversary Harry Mudd and Sarek, Mr. Spock’s dad. And plenty of angry Klingons, comin’ atcha like a bat’leth outta hell.
There's trouble in them thar stars, though. The aim of TV networks—sorry, "content creators"—is to make good shows, reach a broad audience, and make money. Except in the modern era of streaming video, like the old saying about home repair, Hollywood tends to pick any two. As an experienced industry insider tells me, “television is on fire, and everyone is running around flipping tables.” With Discovery, CBS is, like some remote starbase, hoping the United Federation of New Subscribers will come to its aid. Will they?
Three words: Shields up, everyone.
Discovery faces not one but two implacable foes. (Three if you count Klingons.) It enters the upside-down business landscape of episodic television: The studios that produce the shows also own the networks that distribute them, a streaming service co-owned by a lot of broadcasters just won all the Emmys, a former DVD mail-order business makes the best programs, and a cell phone company is about to spend $1 billion just to get into the game. Oh, and all the budgets and viewership numbers are either secret or wrong.
Now that you're panicked about the business, consider too that the show has some hard storytelling spadework ahead. As a prequel, it burrows into one of the most picked over, obsessed-upon, fan-fictionalized, head-canonized story universes ever built. Perhaps relatedly, the series has had a turbulent start. Even before leaving spacedock, it lost its first showrunner, Bryan Fuller, and went through numerous delays; the show was supposed to launch All Access and instead ceded that ground to The Good Fight.
The current team has been sanguine about all that in its press-tour platitudes—creative differences, still owe a great debt to Bryan, making the show we want to make, etc.—but Fuller has a reputation for blowing schedules and budgets, and rumors about the show’s early development suggest a gladiatorial circus so chaotic that a smart Gamester of Triskelion could have really raked in the quatloos, if you know what I mean. And I know you do.
Mark DeBevoisie, president and COO, CBS Interactive
A new Trek show always had to be about more than delivering a dilithium infusion to fans. Conventional wisdom maintains that Trek comes with a built-in audience; that’s why Paramount used Next Generation as an experiment in straight-to-syndication hour-long dramas, and Voyager to launch the nascent UPN as a challenge to the more established broadcast networks. While Discover’s audience arguably has a similar floor, though, no one knows where its ceiling will be in this hyperfragmented age.
So when the studio side of CBS started talking about a new Trek show, all the pieces of CBS’ distribution portfolio got as hot as replicated Earl Grey tea. “When we thought, what if we put Star Trek here,” says Mark DeBevoise, the president and COO of CBS Interactive, "I think we all got incredibly excited about that robust fan base. That’s an attractive proposition for both converting and retaining subscribers, and it’s an attractive proposition for the show to be done in a new and different way.”
Attractive yes, but the streaming-platform game isn't exactly paradise right now. When Netflix came along, it gave broadcast networks a sorely needed way to leverage their back catalog and create a long tail of content. Then Netflix started to get very, very rich, and the studios realized their long tail was wagging the dog. That’s why Disney is consciously uncoupling from Netflix: to reclaim its margin on Disney, Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar content.
And that's just movies. TV is even weirder. If the studios make episodic TV and put it onto a streaming service—Netflix, Hulu, or an owned-and-operated one like All Access—their broadcast divisions scream about the lost advertising revenue. But streaming is where the action is, and it also (thanks to binge-watching) can build audiences for broadcast. If they were in a buying mood today, maybe Disney wouldn’t have bought ABC and Comcast wouldn’t have bought NBC; they’d have just launched their own streamers.
This is not that timeline, though. “We’re approaching cordcutters and superfans. The internet allows us to go direct to them and charge a fair rate for those services,” DeBevoise says. All Access won’t just have Discovery. It’ll have all the Trek shows. And a big chunk of the rest of CBS' back catalog. Fans of procedural one-and-dones, have I got a streaming service for you.
Except CBS wants more than just a place to play the back catalog—like everyone else, it wants prestige. It's good for the brand. “Not that CBS broadcast television isn’t high-quality and the best stuff on TV, but there are certain aesthetics that the premium services and Showtimes of the world can do because they’re behind the paywall and don’t have the strictures of broadcast,” DeBevoise says.
Serialized, expensively shot, often sexy and violent premium streaming? Cool, sure. A question, though: Can you also make all of that happen on a spaceship making pew-pew noises against scary men with weird foreheads?
Actually, a second question: Can you get people to sign up for it when Chris Pine is their Kirk?
Just to get this out of the way: I'm going to watch Discovery. The brilliant thing about being an old nerd in 2017 is that you can be utterly sanguine about beloved franchises, because timey-wimey and this has all happened before. Don’t like this particular Doctor? Wait for the next regeneration. Rogue One not to your liking? Just hang tight for Star Wars: The Return of the JJ. So, yes, CBS, here is my credit card information. Star Trek is my first memory of television; it’ll likely be my last.
But, corollarily, I know a lot about Star Trek. Not everyone does, and they probably couldn't care less about the show's narrative burden. Which is…not light. “Fundamentally, we’re trying to use canon. And by canon I mean not the books but all the shows, including the animated series. And Enterprise,” says Akiva Goldsman, an executive producer on Discovery. “It’s pretty circumscribed, because we know we know a lot, but that’s also the delight. You have to work within canon, but you get to work within canon. The limitations are also the gift.”
When Paramount rebooted the original-series universe in 2009, the writers faced similar boundary conditions. They wanted to reveal the origin of the relationship between Kirk and Spock. But (spoiler!) Kirk had died at the end of the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations. (Timey-wimey.) Hence the previously non-canonical death of Kirk's dad and destruction of Vulcan. “We know that Kirk dies, because Malcolm McDowell throws a boulder on him,” says Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the first two rebooted Trek movies and is an executive producer on Discovery. “That led us to the alternate timeline.”
The same problem—or was it an opportunity?—happened on Discovery. Except this time, the timeline stays taut. “There are many things in canon that have been alluded to but never shown, and that is the open door through which we walk on Discovery,” Kurtzman says. The new show delves into the the relationship between the Federation and the warlike Klingons. “You’ve seen the original series. You know the Federation survives and is in an earned standoff with the Klingons,” Goldsman says. “You know everything that’s coming. So our job is to tell you in a fun way how they got there. And if we didn’t know we were going for a happy ending, we would never have done it.”
Candidly, I don’t know if it'll work. I believe in the devotion of Discovery's writing team to the Trek-verse, but for now at least those story constraints don't seem like a welcome mat for new fans. As for me, I’m as interested as the next nerd in why Klingons don't like humans and what really happened when Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru Simulation, but the way that all went down used to be part of my head canon, my own personal fan fiction. Now it's dogma.
The new dogma will feel different, though. Discovery’s 15 episodes are going to be heavily serialized, something other Trek shows have only tried occasionally and that the original series didn’t do at all. When Trek premiered in the 1960s, pretty much everything on television (with the exception of soap operas) wrapped up stories in their allotted hour. Everything reset at the closing credits. “You fell in love with the characters,” Kurtzman says of Trek, “but because the stories were close-ended you weren’t allowed to—the best way to say it is, that’s not how people watch television anymore."
Akiva Goldsman, Executive Producer, Star Trek: Discovery
Take “The City on the Edge of Forever,” one of my favorite episodes from the original series. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go back in time to 1930s Earth—and to ensure that the Federation gets created, Kirk’s girlfriend Edith Keeler has to die. “Jim Kirk can be held fast while Edith Keeler is run over and it can shatter him, but next week, he’s fine again,” Goldsman says. “I’d like to believe that he would have withstood it, but somewhere along the way his knees would have hit the ground. And then he would have stood up again. We intuit that about him. But there was no way to tell that.”
Now there is. In modern storytelling on TV, especially premium streaming, emotional arcs carry across not just episodes but seasons. For a show fundamentally about the humanistic tension between emotion and logic, that change could be amazing. “We are not particularly swear-y or naked or violent. We’re still Star Trek and we’d like everybody to be able to watch together,” Goldsman says. “We’re trying to go as deep as the original series did, but because we get to do it for longer the hope is you don’t have to reset your emotions every time the credits roll.”
If it works. The writers' commitment to Star Trek ideals with more mature emotional stories could mean a warp-speed trip to Planet Awesome. On the other hand, the Kobayashi Maru outcome would be that the show ends up not that great. CBS has been cagey; critics didn’t get screeners, and reviews from a theatrical premiere of the first two episodes are embargoed until air time. Which means the network really is boldly going where no one has gone before. No one knows if a streaming, subscriber-only, premium Star Trek will grow an audience beyond the Trekkie faithful. No one knows if cord-cutters are looking for a collection of single-serve brands to replace their cable bundles and borrowed passwords.
It looks like it’s going to take a Federation starship to find out.
1 UPDATE 9/22/17 1:34 PM Added the cost with ads included
NASA Fact-Checks Star Trek's Starship Enterprise
Warp speed, deflector shields, teletransportation– what's real and what's not in Star Trek? No one better to tell us than NASA's engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab.