clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What the new Star Trek TV series can learn from Fargo and True Detective

Look out. Here comes the Enterprise.
Look out. Here comes the Enterprise.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Star Trek debuted on television on September 8, 1966. The original series was a cult hit, barely eking out a three-season run until syndicated reruns made it ubiquitous. Paramount, which owned it, took a chance on a Star Trek feature film in the late '70s, and a cult property became a cultural phenomenon.

The early '90s brought the height of the franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a legitimate sensation, the sixth Star Trek feature film debuted to good box office (just under $75 million in 1991 dollars and just under $150 million when adjusted for 2015) and warm reviews, and Deep Space Nine (arguably the best Trek series) was being prepped.

And now Star Trek is about to begin another new chapter.

In 2016, Star Trek turns 50, and after the latest installment of the new movie franchise, Star Trek Beyond, is released in July, CBS will debut a brand new Star Trek TV series in January 2017.

This is exciting news! In an era when the passing of Leonard Nimoy is greeted with mourning from the president himself, television is exactly what Star Trek deserves. As my friend David Sims brilliantly articulated at the Atlantic last year:

[T]elevision is a much better sandbox for the broad universe of the show. While [J.J.] Abrams's recent films took advantage of big budgets to give viewers cool action storytelling, that's nothing a thousand other franchises can't do. But Star Trek could always attempt much more than that, exploring ethical dilemmas of diplomacy on a galactic scale. And it did that in a much more conservative era of television. The one time Star Trek really tried long-form serialized storytelling was the Dominion War arc in the later seasons of Deep Space Nine — absolutely the series' highest point. As TV, especially online networks like Netflix, embrace serialization, imagine what more could be accomplished.

But I'm going to go one further than Sims. Yes, Star Trek belongs back on TV. The film franchise can continue as is, as an occasional punctuation mark to whatever happens on the new series (though CBS has specified that the new series is not related to the upcoming feature film). But CBS should also lean into Star Trek's malleability and turn to something that has become a TV trend in recent years — the anthological miniseries.

Here's what the new Star Trek series should look like.

The True Detective or Fargo of science fiction

True Detective HBO

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey starred in the first season of True Detective. They were great. As you'd expect. (HBO)

The anthological miniseries was invented by FX's American Horror Story in 2011, then popularized in 2014 by HBO's True Detective and FX's Fargo. The idea is that each season tells a new serialized story, featuring new characters and settings, often with entirely new actors. (American Horror Story often reuses actors; the second seasons of both True Detective and Fargo feature entirely new casts, though True Detective season two was not nearly as successful as Fargo season two has been so far.)

The anthological miniseries has found a way around one of TV's most persistent problems. Yes, a show can tell a compelling story, but if it's a success, then it could also run forever. That inhibits attempts to tell incisive, to-the-point stories across many years.

All stories need endings, but if writers never know when that ending will come, it's much harder to build effectively to said ending. This has always been American television's Achilles heel. Even TV's best shows have flab here and there, episodes that could have been trimmed or even cut entirely.

The anthological miniseries gets around this pesky detail by allowing a show to become more of a format than a constant. True Detective isn't about following the same characters through the same wacky adventures, year after year. It's about establishing a vibe and then staying true to that vibe. Each season can tell a big, bold story, and then the next season can become even bigger and bolder. (Or at least that's the dream; True Detective season two turned out to be a mess, but the idea of starting over with a new story and a new cast was great.)

Of course, the anthological miniseries is already drowning in shows that have taken this method and applied it to crime stories, because TV knows how to make crime stories. What it desperately needs is proof that it can be applied to other genres and forms, American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy's occasional experiments with campy horror notwithstanding.

Sci-fi, with its millions of worlds and millions of stories, is a natural fit. But the genre could also use a recognizable brand name, something that would immediately tie together our hypothetical sci-fi anthological miniseries in a way that would let people know instantly what to expect, while still allowing for thousands of possibilities.

Sound like any shows you know?

Shaking up the format even more

Star Trek

You could even use this title screen. (Paramount)

But I want to go one better yet again. Instead of just shaking up the cast with each season, let's also shake up the showrunner (the head producer and writer), drawing on the rich community of Star Trek alumni in the TV writing community.

Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote and produced 2009's Star Trek and 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness, will executive-produce the new CBS series at the outset. But why not hand the reins to someone else in season two?

Hannibal and Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller (a Star Trek alum), for instance, would love to make a Star Trek series with Angela Bassett as captain of a starship. With the anthological miniseries format, both Fuller and Bassett could squeeze a 10-episode season into their busy schedules.

Or think of what Battlestar Galactica's Ron Moore (who worked on many Star Trek series before BSG) could do by returning to the universe that gave him his big break in television, with everything he's learned since. Wouldn't you kill to see him reunite with the Next Generation cast for one last big adventure?

The wickedly sly and funny Jane Espenson, who's written for everything from Buffy to Once Upon a Time, also worked on Star Trek. Give her a dream cast and the budget to make a series of adventures featuring that cast, and I'd bet you'd see something amazing, and possibly more comedic than Star Trek usually gets.

Or just return to the roots of the anthology drama itself, to shows like The Twilight Zone, where the premise and characters changed not with every season, but with every episode.

Have one showrunner (Moore, perhaps?) gather a bunch of their favorite writers to come up with one killer Star Trek episode each. Hell, maybe even bring back William Shatner for one of these episodes, as a sort of "Captain Kirk in repose" hour. (Yeah, the series sorta tried that idea in Star Trek: Generations, but it's still a potent one.) Just 13 singleton episodes of Star Trek, featuring all-star writers and actors. Not only would such an approach infuse some new life into the franchise, it'd align perfectly with the upcoming series' home on a streaming service, where more casual Star Trek and sci-fi fans could drop in for just an episode or two to try it out.

An anthology-style Star Trek makes even more sense now that the show's original iteration is an uneasy fit with the kinds of serialized dramas that have gained such cachet since the last Star Trek series (Enterprise) ended in 2005. Yes, shows like Deep Space Nine and Enterprise featured longer arcs, but they were nowhere near the complexity that fellow sci-fi shows like Battlestar or Lost managed.

When Enterprise left the air, it was due to lousy ratings (though that show struggled to find its footing and arguably chased its audience away). At the time, the sense was that TV had moved past Star Trek, that the more episodic, one-and-done format of the show was in the past. But TV is cyclical, and the pendulum has swung back the other way — just not in the way anyone might have expected. Plus, as Sims points out in his Atlantic article, cult properties — with prebuilt names and audiences — are much more valuable in a world where the audience has splintered into thousands of niche viewerships that streaming services can cater to.

That's why the anthological miniseries fits Star Trek so well. It allows the show to tell small, closed-ended stories, while nonetheless sitting comfortably within current TV trends. It lets the series explore an entire universe, while still giving audiences characters worth caring about.

And then, hey, if one of these new casts really pops, why not break them out into their own show? There will always be more room to explore on Star Trek.