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Star Trek is returning with a new TV series — on a streaming service nobody uses

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  • Producer Alex Kurtzman is working on developing a new Star Trek television series.
  • The show will premiere on CBS in January 2017, but after that will be available exclusively through the network's over-the-top streaming service CBS All Access.
  • Kurtzman wrote the screenplays for Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the new series would presumably be set in the new timeline he established for those films.
  • According to CBS, the new series "will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966."
  • Kurtzman has significant television experience; he currently executive produces Hawaii Five-0 and Sleepy Hollow and in the past worked on Alias and Fringe.

Why a new Star Trek series is great news and makes tons of sense

First and foremost, Star Trek is great. Second, Star Trek belongs on television. As I argued at obscene length two years ago for Slate, the main theme of Star Trek is utopia, and utopia doesn't work on film. Movies require action, suspense, and drama. But Star Trek is about depicting, in a sustained way, life in a better tomorrow. That requires the kinds of quiet moments that television can provide — random episodes about an android bonding with his cat, say, or a bartender’s schemes to increase his profits. You can’t make a lucrative sci-fi flick about people sitting around in a conference room debating options for resolving the situation peacefully — but peacefully resolving problems is important.

Meanwhile, in commercial terms, the prospect for Star Trek on television has never been better, thanks to the proliferation of channels and rising viability of niche products. Even the least popular Star Trek series, Enterprise, regularly drew more viewers than a modern-day cable success story like Mad Men.

Why the show will air exclusively on streaming instead of on traditional TV

According to CBS, the new program will be the first original series developed specifically for its fledgling streaming service, CBS All Access. This means essentially that the point of the show is to be very appealing to Star Trek superfans and convince them to sign up. It's an HBO-style model where the size of the audience matters less than the depth of that audience's commitment, and that's exactly what Star Trek needs.

Additionally, Star Trek is an extremely well-known property that is sure to boost the profile of CBS All Access, which just launched in 2014 and has yet to establish even close to as much clout as bigger players like Netflix and Hulu. While many Star Trek fans might be frustrated that they have to subscribe to a new streaming service to watch the new show, it's a shrewd move on CBS's part to help draw new users to CBS All Access.

Why I am worried

CBS is the most old-school and mass-markety of the television networks — home to megahit The Big Bang Theory and a million generic police procedurals. You can see why that might make it want to try something different with the Star Trek approach, but it also means that it's not clear that the network really has the know-how or institutional culture to get a streaming TV series done.

And Kurtzman's contribution to the franchise as a screenwriter has been precisely to water down what's uniquely Trek about Trek in favor of a more broadly appealing sci-fi romp. Star Trek's return to television should be a triumphant moment for the franchise's fans, but it might be the nail in the coffin that ensures that the unique tone set by Gene Roddenberry ends up firmly buried beneath generic action/adventure space cowboy stories.

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