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How Star Trek fans helped change TV forever

The original series was nowhere near an instant hit; early Trekkies saved it from obscurity to jumpstart the beloved franchise we know today.

Star Trek Paramount

“The television writer-producer faces an almost impossible task when he attempts to create and produce a quality TV series. Assuming he conceived of a program of such meaning and importance that it could ultimately change the face of America, he probably could not keep it there.”Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry

When Star Trek: Discovery made its long-awaited CBS All Access debut on Sunday, it entered on decidedly unsteady ground.

The outlook had hardly been sunny from the get-go: Though J.J. Abrams’s reboot films have seen overwhelming success under Viacom in recent years, Paramount Television and CBS Corporation’s last attempt at a TV series was a painful one. Star Trek: Enterprise held on for four seasons, but it brought the Trek universe’s Nielsen ratings, which had been falling steadily since the early ‘90s, to an all-time low. Since its cancellation in 2005, it has easily taken root at the bottom of even casual fans’ power rankings, below the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager (often outstripping even The Animated Series).

Drama has plagued Discovery itself from the moment it was announced back in November 2015. The caveat that it would only air on CBS’s new streaming platform, forcing audiences to pay for another subscription service, was the least of the show’s worries: As Discovery began production in early 2016, showrunner Bryan Fuller was onboard; by October he was pulling back, and by December, he was out entirely. Meanwhile, production schedules almost immediately proved overly optimistic; by February 2017, when the show was originally slated to debut, the premiere had been pushed back twice, and its final date had still not been confirmed.

Then, earlier this summer, Fuller detailed the creative differences that forced his departure, painting a picture that would make fans of any franchise worry, let alone one with so much utopian, forward-thinking cachet, reemerging at a moment when its progressive ideals have become more urgent than ever, in Hollywood and beyond. CBS had insisted on a tight production schedule despite the fact that Fuller was already at work on Starz’s American Gods when Discovery was announced. On top of that, he said his wishes had been repeatedly denied — from his preference of directors, to his implied request for a more ambitious budget, to his desire to make the show an anthology series that would expand the Trek universe.

Yet since its beginnings on NBC half a century ago, a strained relationship between creator and network has practically been a cornerstone of Star Trek’s very existence. Its history abounds with tales in which creator Gene Roddenberry, his showrunning successors, and the production studios that bankrolled them came up against objections and affronts from networks in their struggles to get what would become the franchise’s most successful entries to the small screen.

Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the original series’ modest yet industrious and deeply loyal fan base, Star Trek might have faded into obscurity within its first two years. Now, in this radically transformed era of television, their influence can still be seen everywhere, from Discovery’s casting choices and writing staff to the cascades of Twitter reactions to last Sunday’s two-episode premiere. Just two episodes in, the showrunner-network-fan ecosystem has already made clear how it will ultimately shape Discovery’s future, for better or worse.

How Trekkies helped birth the modern fandom era

Star Trek’s unique relationship with its fans began as early as 1964, soon after Roddenberry first pitched his new show idea to Desilu Productions with a gross understatement: Star Trek, he said, was a “Wagon Train concept” — a Western set in space. Together, the studio and Roddenberry pitched the same idea to NBC, which was initially intrigued and commissioned a pilot.

What the network got was “The Cage,” a disturbing, bizarrely existential hour of television that was vastly more “cerebral” than the space Western that execs had anticipated. Nevertheless, they were interested enough to commission a rare do-over. The result, “Where No Man Had Gone Before,” featured a new star and an almost entirely new cast; the cool and collected Captain Christopher Pike was out, the more impulsive, cowboyish, relatable James T. Kirk was in. (A female first officer was also absent, after her presence was deemed too progressive for NBC audiences.)

After Star Trek debuted as part of NBC’s fall lineup in 1966, however, ratings remained fair at best, and by the end of the second season, NBC was ready to cancel the series and move on. Fans were devastated. As one, Betty Jo “Bjo” Trimble, has explained in the decades since, they knew that a two-season run meant the network would likely decline to air reruns, and Star Trek would be relegated to the dusty, forgotten coffers of TV history.

Together with her husband John, Trimble organized what is now recognized one of the first grassroots fan campaigns in Hollywood history: a letter-writing chain petitioning NBC to renew the series. The network received more than 110,000 postcards and letters (when I interviewed her in 2013, Trimble said an NBC employee told her that the final count was exponentially higher), and were ultimately swayed into ordering a third and final season.

While this sort of collective action is taken for granted today as just one thread in the fabric that is backlash culture, in an era when Hollywood had almost unrestrained power and audiences had such limited programming options, the idea that viewers could lobby a major television network — and win — was nothing short of revelatory.

Star Trek’s journey to “crown jewel” status — and how it led to The Next Generation’s one weird (syndication) trick

After that third of Star Trek season aired, the original series drew such excellent ratings in broadcast syndication for the next two decades, while subsequent films did so well at the box office, that by 1986, Paramount — having absorbed Desilu in 1967, just a year into Star Trek’s existence — was proudly referring to the series as its “crown jewel.” By the late 1970s, the studio was working with Roddenberry on a new Star Trek series; though that one ultimately failed due to budgetary and rights concerns, Star Trek remained a priority. A few years later, Roddenberry and Paramount developed Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Again, despite Star Trek’s by then well-established profitability, networks were mysteriously reluctant to greenlight The Next Generation; NBC and ABC wouldn’t order more than a pilot, while CBS and newcomer Fox each offered half-baked, partial commitments, like offering to try it as a miniseries first. Unsatisfied with their options, Paramount and Roddenberry finally opted to circumvent the networks entirely.

To do this, they constructed a unique distribution strategy: Traditionally, TV shows had been distributed by the Big Three networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — to smaller stations around the country, which would supplement them with local content or syndicated shows that independent stations could purchase at will. But Paramount and Roddenberry were able to capitalize on goodwill and an unusually high demand for Star Trek from individual network affiliates and independent stations, who were profiting from reruns of the original series, and sell The Next Generation directly to those stations. Effectively, they distributed the show straight to fans, based on known interest, while circumventing major broadcasting corporations entirely.

The move paid off handsomely. The Next Generation debuted in the fall of 1987 on 137 local stations nationwide, and in the end, it was the most successful Star Trek series of all, running seven seasons and maintaining massive ratings throughout, even after Roddenberry’s death in 1991.

Both of The Next Generation’s successors — 1993’s Deep Space Nine and 1995’s Voyager — could have likely benefitted from riding its wave of success, but at that point, Paramount had already developed a penchant for cutting out the broadcast network middleman; Deep Space 9 took The Next Generation’s straight-to-syndication path, while Voyager was designed to debut via Paramount’s new TV arm (and CW predecessor) UPN, eliminating the need to vie for network approval at all.

Meanwhile, the Star Trek convention culture had exploded; after the first-ever event in 1971 — a fan-programmed affair whose attendance far outstripped organizers’ expectations — convention companies like Creation Entertainment and other groups of industrious Trekkies had started hosting multiple events every year worldwide. Together with general sci-fi conventions, these events were pulling in millions from licensed Star Trek merchandise, to say nothing of the secondary income sources photo-ops and signings created for often underpaid or underemployed genre actors.

By the time Enterprise wrapped its second season in the spring of 2003, UPN was practically a network in its own right; though Paramount would ultimately shutter UPN just a year after Enterprise’s eventual cancellation, UPN had assumed the position NBC had been in with the original series, facing down all-time-low ratings despite the existence of a loyal Star Trek fan base. But in this case, the studio decided to compromise: Rather than choose between granting one more season and canceling altogether, as NBC had done with the original series, Paramount allegedly threw fans a bone by giving Enterprise two final seasons — the last two seasons of Star Trek to have graced the small screen, pending Discovery’s arrival — that aired at half the length of previous ones.

What Trek and its fans hath wrought, and what Discovery stands to gain — or lose

Though shortened final seasons are of course a lot more common today, the modern television landscape would be practically unrecognizable to the Gene Roddenberry of 1964. CBS Television — which absorbed Paramount Television when CBS and Viacom merged in 2000 — has maintained its usual control of the new Trek property, taking the strategy one step further by keeping it exclusively behind a CBS All Access paywall. The franchise may no longer have a conservative parental adversary in NBC, but CBS TV seems to have recreated that same dynamic with Fuller anyway; in a Hollywood that overflows with more serialized TV content than viewers or creators know what to do with, the Fullers of the world can afford to abandon projects, as precious as they may be, should their creative vision be threatened.

This entertainment world is one that might never have existed without Trek fans’ persistent haranguing — whether through letter-writing campaigns or the unusual amount of interaction they enjoyed with showrunners as the Star Trek convention scene grew. Audiences, through social media, have since established an increasingly direct feedback channel with TV studios and creators.

The creators’ firmament, meanwhile, grows more diverse by the day, intensifying competition but also softening the ironclad gatekeeping laws that governed Hollywood in the late ‘60s. If and when CBS pushes back against Trek productions now, it can’t defend regressive decisions with ratings fears or limited options for profitability. Whether they like it or not, showrunners and networks alike have a crystal-clear view of core audiences’ expectations for a beloved franchise rooted in hyper-progressivism — and of the consequences that come from getting it wrong in an era when those values are in jeopardy.

In a sense, Star Trek: Discovery was born under the most ideal circumstances the Star Trek universe has ever known, so the stakes have, in a sense, never been higher. As a franchise that, by nature, asks humankind to be better, Star Trek has demanded these power dynamics from its inception, regardless of whether its creators’ limited imaginations or resources were able to provide it. After all, what would a post-capitalist space exploration utopia be without at least a little institutional opposition?

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are released each Sunday on CBS All Access.

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