Sunday night marked the first return of Star Trek to television in 12 years with the release of the pilot of Star Trek: Discovery. Star Trek has always been my favorite science fiction franchise. (Yes, better than Star Wars. I regret nothing!) I absolutely love what I call “strange new worlds” sci-fi that Star Trek exemplifies, and it is a franchise that has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years. Despite a trio of reboot movies, which average out to be pretty good, I like the original Trek timeline better, and I really want to see the serial format again instead of yet another big action plot.
I was really excited when the new Star Trek: Discovery series was announced—and then less excited as I learned the details, but I still watched the pilot, and I liked it. It was more of a dark, Deep Space Nine-style wartime Star Trek, but I know from experience that that can be pretty good, too.
Short version: in the year 2256, nine years before Captain Kirk’s five-year mission begins, the Federation is locked in a cold war with the Klingons, who haven’t been seen in person for 100 years and are known only as brutal and intractable warriors. Commander Michael Burnham (a female Michael), First Officer of the USS Shenzhou, who happens to be Spock’s adoptive sister, encounters a Klingon warrior on an Object of Unknown Origin and semi-accidentally kills him in a scuffle. It turns out the Klingons are back, which is bad news for the Federation.
On its merits, I give it 3.5 out of 5. Decent, but not great.
Now, for the deeper problems.
There were a lot of nasty rumors of executive meddling swirling around this release. I won’t bother digging up the links because they honestly aren’t that important, but I personally heard, among other things, that they were moving the show from the original timeline to the reboot timeline (False), that they replaced a lot of the actors and writers halfway through production with choices the fans disliked (I don’t know), and that they changed things up to unnecessarily politicize it (Mostly False). It is true that the Klingons we see are a weird, breakaway, purist religious sect and have had a serious makeup redesign…Yeah, there are some issues. But I really don’t think the show deserved the rumors that were being told about it.
No, this was not the show’s great failing. In my opinion, and that of many other fans, the greatest drawback of Star Trek: Discovery is that it’s available exclusively on CBS’s paid streaming service, All Access. In other words, it’s not available on broadcast, nor is it available on any generic paid platform like iTunes or Amazon Prime, and you instead have to subscribe to a separate service to watch it. (It is on Netflix, but only overseas.)
I suppose CBS All Access is not all that expensive: only $6 per month. But there are also only 15 episodes in a season. (Season lengths have been annoyingly going down for a long time. I remember when 26 episodes per season was standard, then 22, then 20.) If you keep your subscription continuously, that’s $4.80 an episode over the course of the year. For comparison, can buy TV shows on iTunes for $3 an episode in HD. Even so, for most people, it’s probably not a great burden.
But it’s still drastically reducing the fan base that will actually see it! Just because most people can afford to subscribe to All Access doesn’t mean that they will, even among fans—especially since the entire franchise has really been hit-or-miss on quality since Deep Space Nine ended in 1999. There’s not a lot of trust there. CBS All Access only has 2 million subscribers, not all of whom are Trekkies, whereas the last time Star Trek aired on TV with the final season of Enterprise in 2005, it was regularly getting over 3 million viewers. Just like that, they’re cutting in half the ability for a new generation of fans to see one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time.
That is why I fundamentally disagree with the decision to move Star Trek to All Access: not because you have to pay extra to see it or even because it’s a clear moneymaking move, but because hiding the show behind a paywall restricts the audience, ultimately hurting both the franchise and the fan base, even if the wall itself isn’t that high.
Maybe I’m fighting a losing battle here. After all, exclusive online content platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are the wave of the future. But you know what? I haven’t signed up to any of those, either. It’s funny: I may be a nerdy astrophysicist, but I’m a late adopter when it comes to the latest technology. I didn’t even buy a smartphone until 2016, and that was only because my old flip phone couldn’t handle modern text message protocols. I never spent more than a few minutes a day on Facebook, even at its height, and this blog is the closest thing I have to a real social media presence right now. I’m just not interested in paying for All Access. People who either aren’t tech savvy or who don’t want to bother with so many online subscriptions, like me, aren’t going to get into it.
But even discounting that, I personally have not signed up for All Access to see Star Trek: Discovery for exactly the reason I cited above: too much of the Star Trek produced in this century has been sub-par. To be sure, there were many great moments in Voyager and Enterprise and most recently the excellent Star Trek Beyond, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the consistent quality of the TNG and DS9 years. I just don’t trust the studio to put out a quality show that’s worth paying for until I see proof. Once the reviews for a few more episodes come in, I will reevaluate my decision.
Until then, live long and prosper.