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To Boldly Go

Is Star Trek Unpalatable to the Television Industry’s Modern Tastes?

Spinoff Online raises an interesting question: is there anything on television these days that’s like Star Trek? And are our current crop of successful television shows teaching executives that something like Star Trek doesn’t work?

Graeme McMillan‘s argument runs primarily on the unique structure of Star Trek shows. Technically the show is a procedural: thing-of-the-week episodes are the norm, generally the setting and cast of coworkers remains the same from episode to episode, and while the occasional two-part season finale or opening brings the characters to levels of thrilling suspense from dangers greater than they have seen all season, there isn’t a overarching plot to the series that must be furthered in some way every episode.

At the same time, the shows presented a wide range of tone from episode to episode, from various forms of comedy to various forms of drama, which McMillan lays out amusingly as including, but not limited to, the “This is an allegory for a real-world situation and we shall all be making a Very Serious Point” variety, the “We’re trying to make a suspenseful thriller, so expect long looks punctuated with stirring soundtrack strings” variety, and the “Want an action movie in less than an hour? We’ll do our best, but don’t judge us too harshly” variety.

These two factors, the shows’ procedural natures and the unpredictability in tone, McMillan says, sets Star Trek apart from pretty much anything on television these days. We’ve certainly got plenty of procedurals, what with being able to watch some kind of Law & Order or CSI at pretty much every hour of the day, and that’s discounting all the similar clones like NCIS and Cold Case and The Closer and Criminal Minds. But the lesson the success of those shows teaches is that viewers will come back for each episode because they know exactly what they’re getting. Twenty minutes into the episode? Nah, this guy can’t possibly be the killer. Time for another crime lab montage set to techno music!

At the same time, when was the last time we saw a successful science fiction show that didn’t take its meta-plot very seriously? Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica (and though it’s only got one season under its belt and its secrets are already out, one could argue that Game of Thrones belongs in this category, too) were successful not least because watchers became obsessed with the long game of whittling secrets out of the intricate plots. It’s been a long time since The X-Files captivated by only teasing us with it’s long plot once or twice a season and giving us monsters the rest of the time.

Speaking of the X-Files, there’s one other long dead show that fits McMillan’s description of Star Trek. A procedural with wildly varying tone from episode to episode that only occasionally spent time furthering a larger plot once or twice a season. Here’s hoping that at least one of the CW’s Deadman and Fox’s The Spectre and ABC’s Hulk and Jessica Jones series pick up this legacy.

In any case, we think McMillan’s really on to something here in explaining why nobody in the television industry is really gung-ho to put Star Trek back on television, when every Star Trek show out there is like nothing that’s on TV these days. Just on Netflix, thank Q.

Read the whole article at Spinoff.

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  • CrisisOn∞Midlives

    Well, if Star Trek were reintroduced in more of a BSG style with a more decompressed style of story telling, would it lose so much as to make it unrecognizable?

  • Shard Aerliss

    Yup, been saying this for a while now. So fed up with meta plot, secrets piled upon secrets and everything being oh so SERIOUS. There aren’t any sf/f shows on any more that are monster-of-the-week and bounce between utterly silly and very dark like Star Trek did. Even the anime world seems to have lost interest in good old pulpy sf/f.

    I miss shows like Trek, Farscape, SG1, X Files, Cowboy Bebop, BtVS, Sliders, Trigun, Quantum Leap, Red Dwarf (though that was silly all the time), Firefly and Dollhouse, and going further back; original BSG, Blake’s 7 and Buck Rogers. Alphas looks like it MIGHT be more monster of the week than most other sf/f outings we’ve had of late, but still bringing in the meta-plot, just not as heavily. You came back to these shows not for the uber story arc (even though there was some in there) but for the characters and a new story revolving around them each week.

    I watch shows now and the characters all blend into one another or are completely boring/irritating (there are some exceptions; Doctor Who, The Fades, Alphas and even though I don’t like them; Being Human and Torchwood). The Walking Dead is my prime example. I don’t know any of the characters’ names, I couldn’t describe their characterisations outside of their looks and familial associations. Hell, if I’m not looking at the screen when someone is talking I can only tell you that they’re male or female. I can’t even distinguish the token ethnic characters (which is, I suppose, a positive feat… in some warped way). If I don’t care about the characters then I’m not going to be able to care about the show, no matter how AMAZING the series arc is.

    Well, that came out a whole lot more ranty than I was planning…

    If you’re looking for good new sf/f TV, turn to the internet and indie companies. Sure, they’re not as slick as anything coming out of WB or Fox, but they’re made with passion and love for the genre and format.

  • gabby nicasio

    This analysis ignores something really important, though: Deep Space Nine. The most critically-acclaimed Trek series was far less thing-of-the-week (although this still featured a lot, but certainly to a lesser extent than in TNG, Voyager, etc.), and far more arc-driven. The fixed location of the station and its placement as a hub between political and cultural rivals made for an ongoing, evolving mythos. AND it didn’t get so in love with itself as the X-Files that it forgot how to balance that seriousness out. 

    It remembered what people (okay, I) want in Trek: ALIENS and SPACE ADVENTURES. Humans were the least important species on the show, and that was to the show’s benefit. A great example of missing this point is Terra Nova. I tuned into the pilot because DINOSAURS, and was treated, in a 2-hr pilot, to about 3 minutes of dinosaurs. No, thank you, Terra Nova.

    If a new Trek series took note of the way DS9 handled its seasons-long arcs and character development, then it could do just fine in the current TV climate. Especially if it also followed in the footsteps of its diverse casting, and its wide variety of prominent female characters. 

    Also Cardassians. TV always needs more Cardassians.

  • Shard Aerliss

    Cardassians. Yes! Easily one of the most complex and interesting species popular scifi has ever come up with. MOAR GARAK!

    DS9 didn’t start off terribly… arc-y though, did it? The over arching storyline was kept very much in the background and was often little more than a McGuffin, a pretext for episode plots that worked perfectly as stand-alones. It wasn’t until the Dominion Wars got into full swing, (what season 4 maybe? Been a while since I watched any episodes in order) that the wider story came to the foreground, and as you say; it didn’t completely take over, there were still the odd off-topic episodes… mostly in the holodeck in that blasted bar, but whatever.

    It’s a fine line, and while some shows can tread it well, others can’t. Also; DS9 is the marmite of Trek. You either love it, or have a big hissy fit because OMG they’re not on a space ship! >_>

    Glad you mentioned Terra Nova, just another mark against me bothering with it.

  • Anonymous

    The moment I finished reading the article I said “DS9 did it differently” and I saw your comment, and I have to say- I agree with you completely. Deep Space Nine got it right with the Dominion War Arc right from the very beginning, though I know you don’t need me to tell you that.

  • gabby nicasio

    People who don’t like DS9 and Marmite are simply wrong, and I pity them their empty lives.

    I’m actually re-watching the series on Netflix right now (on season 4 currently OH GOD SO GOOD), and I was surprised to recall that they jump right in to the season-long arcs! Straight from the pilot it’s clear that the show will revolve around the evolving political situation that exists between Bajor, Cardassia, and the Federation. There are, of course, one-off monster of the week type episodes, but it’s very clear that the writers were invested in a larger story from the get-go.

  • gabby nicasio

    Also, I would love nothing more than an entire show abut Garak, oh dear Lord, yes.

  • Anonymous

    Um, what about Doctor Who? I think it fits that description perfectly: ‘A procedural with wildly varying tone from episode to episode that only
    occasionally spent time furthering a larger plot once or twice a season.’

  • Anonymous
  • Francesca M

    Great now I’m going to have nightmares of Star Trek as modern BSG. >_< Gag. I'mma gonna watch me some DS9 on netflix. I'm just going to cringe everytime Jake comes on. However Cardassians and Ferengi for the win.

    Also.. Alexander Siddig. *sigh happy* 

  • Pepijn

    Terraxos scooped me, but just to emphasize the point: yes, there is: Doctor Who! Although possibly you meant *American* TV?

  • Anonymous
  • Samantha Wilson

    “Doctor Who! Although possibly you meant *American* TV?” Same can be said for Merlin?

  • Erik Ian Eastham

    Thank you, all I could think about during that blog post was Deep Space Nine had the ongoing story arc thoughout the season, sometimes seasons.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    I don’t think we’ll see anything like the original series on the air–that era of SF (That included Lost in Space and the original Who) is over.  But if we’re talking the new series or DS9, with it’s occasional metaplot but more flexible show routine, I think Eureka or Warehouse 13 (from what I saw of them) are fairly similar.

  • Quimbie Mchaffie

    I think it has nothing to do with that era of sci-fi being over it has everything to do with how tv shows are rated these days.  Traditionally sci-fi and fantasy shows take time to build an audience. They also tend to preform better when they are syndicated offering different viewing times, and reach to a wider number of people.   Let’s face it, it’s not hard to find people willing to watch show about who is dating who, or people eating bugs for money. It’s little harder to find people interested in show that has a you know plot, and asks it’s viewers to actually think while they view.

    In this day and age with instant ratings and shows getting cancelled barely half way through season is it any wonder sci-fi is hurting.  It’s era of fast food tv that hurts the prospects of shows like Star Trek.

  • Anonymous

    I think what made DS9 work so well was that the long-plots were actually character arcs; Kira’s progression from angry, suspicious terrorist to calm civil servant; Sisko learning to embrace his role as the Emmisary; Dukat’s obsession with Bajor going from paternalism to monomania; even Nog’s seasons-long transformation from illiterate thug to Starfleet officer. Too many modern long-plots are all about evil conspiracies and who will fall in love with who. Which gets really boring if the characters never undergo any growth or change.

  • Kimberly

    My life is just fine without marmite in it, and I think it may stay that way.
    I do have to look into Deep Space 9, though, now that everyone is saying how good it is. I’ve always wanted to watch some Star Trek, but there is so much of it and I wasn’t sure if I should really watch all of the really old stuff or not.

  • Shard Aerliss

    I’ll stand down to your fresher knowledge of the show. I’ll just say that it certainly wasn’t as heavy on the season-long arcs as say Babylon 5 (not a show I like, loved it’s awful spin-off Crusade though), New BSG, Heroes or Lost.

    A show revolving around Garak’s life (pre- or post-DS9, doesn’t matter) would be wonderful, though I’d settle for Robinson writing a sequel to A Stitch in Time.

  • gabby nicasio

    I’ve successfully brought several people into the Trek fold by starting them off with DS9. I think it holds up better than any of the other series (with the possible exception of TOS, which is a whole nother beast entirely).

    But really. Marmite. I’m just sayin.

  • gabby nicasio

    A STITCH IN TIME. Somehow I managed to stumble blindly through life without this book until just about a week ago. How did I survive until now? 

    Did you ever read The Neverending Sacrifice DS9 novel? Also really great stuff– follows the life of Rugal, the Cardassian kid who was raised on Bajor.

  • gabby nicasio


  • gabby nicasio

    Clearly we are the smartest, those of us in this thread.

  • Shard Aerliss

    No, but I just stuck it on my Kindle. I love the internet. Its going to take me a while to get to it as I just started a tome of a book, but it’ll be up next, thanks!

    Oh, this may have been a mistake. Many of the Star Trek Kindle editions are just over 1/2 the price of the paperbacks.

    A Stitch In Time is one of only three books/series I’ve read more than once. My original copy is pretty much dead. Yet so few people seem to have read it. At a con in 2002 I watched Sid and Andrew do a stage play based on some of what Andrew had written in A Stitch in Time and no one in the audience except my friend and I seemed to get what was going in.

  • Anonymous

    THANK YOU! Garak is my favorite character from DS9 but I never really got in to the DS9 books so I had no idea that A Stitch in Time existed. Will hunt it down ASAP!

  • Anonymous

    I will admit that when DS9 started with the season-long arcs, I stopped watching. Looking back, I think it was because I was in high school at the time and only caught the odd episode and couldn’t follow the complex plot lines. With no DVDs or streaming, there was no way for me to catch up on what I missed, so I gave up. I’m rewatching the series for the first time now that it’s on Netflix and though I’m only on season two, I’m betting that I won’t have any problem with the long arcs.

  • Anonymous

    One of the big problems I have with long arc-based shows is that you’re in it for the long haul.  I have the type of mind who can cope with two, perhaps three, long arc-based stories: that includes novels and tv series.  Thus, when you have a show like Star Trek, which can produce a single episode that isn’t reliant on any that came before and still be great, it’s a load of my mind.  Hence when DS9 started to get arcy, I started to panic about all the information I’d have to remember, but it was worth it, because DS9 was good.

    Now, as I said, I can cope with some arc-based shows, but it’s increasingly apparent that more shows are using this archetype, especially SF ones – and there are only so many hours in the week that I can devote to television, and so many neurons in the brain to devote to big long story arcs.  Back when there was a healthy mix of story-of-the-week and season-long-arc shows, I could pick and choose and not be too bothered.  But if there’s too much of one, I end up watching none of them, either because I’m completely uninterested, or because I just don’t want to commit to something that’s going to end up like Lost.

  • Shard Aerliss


    Another issue with shows being too reliant on long, intricate story arcs (that don’t just pop up now and again, maybe three episodes a season a la Red John in The Mentalist) is that I can’t wander in and out of the show. This might sound like something TV execs don’t want me doing, but honestly, if I can’t follow a show without missing the odd episode due to work/life getting in the way, I might not bother at all. Sure, maybe I’ll eventually get around to the DVDs one day, but that’s not good for ratings… and big TV execs like ratings.

    Most of the stuff I watch on TV (as opposed to on demand streaming, DLs or DVDs) are repeats. TV is my background music and I’ll happily watch random episodes of stuff while I do other things (mostly CSI, The Mentalist and Justified since Channel 1 and all it’s Star Trek was murdered by Murdoch). You can’t do this with shows like Heroes or Lost, it’s just not the same.

  • amber loranger

    Here’s what I say to the television industry – I watch very few things that are on now (though I did watch Game of Thrones and True blood) but I watch reruns of various Star Trek series ALL THE TIME. Make another Star Trek, kay? and +1,000 to MOAR GARAK. 

  • Kate Karlson

    …Doctor Who, guys? I’ve actually heard it compared to Trek before, somewhere; not in the plotline/mood/whatever of the show itself but in the place it’s taken in geek culture. Very episodic, monster-of-the-week but with drama and humor and basically everything this article is talking about.

  • Mike Conlin

    I think everyone tries to over analyse and quantify everything- We ALL watched these shows and we enjoyed them week after week – we all have our opinions and tastes but at the end of the day we can ALL agree that present day television is a corporate slush pit of garbage. The absence of thinking shows like Star Trek and others proves this… Ill take Terra Nova over Big Brother any day of the week and so will my wallet. mob wives? duck dynasty? really? a whole generation of intellect deficient lemmings that dont know any better.