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‘Star Trek’ Needs This New Show To Win The Next Generation

CBS announced Monday that it will release a new “Star Trek” television show in 2017, and it really couldn’t come at a better time for the franchise.

“Star Trek” isn’t ailing — the two most recent films got good reviews, and there’s still a massive fan base for “Star Trek” stories. But here’s the thing: “Star Trek” never did its best work on the big screen: The contemplative, forward-looking nature of the show, with serious philosophical problems chewed over in a far-future setting, has never really clicked in the movies. And while I’m the first person to defend the recent films — I’m on record as an absurd fan of “Star Trek” (2009) — it’s not like we’re plumbing the moral depths of mankind when Kirk nukes a bunch of Romulans. It’s just a different medium: It’s hard to develop a close bond in one two-hour sitting, and it’s not like a major American blockbuster will contain a nuanced interrogation of the Trolley Problem anytime soon. The die-hard fan base is from the television series, and it’s been awhile since we had a “Star Trek” TV show. Since the end of “Star Trek: Enterprise” in 2005, TV has been Trek-less.

So there’s an entire generation out there that hasn’t had the pleasure of new “Star Trek” episodes. Here’s the percentage of your life that included new live-action “Star Trek” episodes, based on your age:

hickey-datalab-startrek-1

A “Star Trek” show has been on TV for at least a large portion of most Americans’ lives. For a 28-year-old born in 1987, for example, a live-action “Star Trek” program was on the tube for 68 percent of their waking days! Our resident office Trekkie Ben Casselman has lived about half his life with a “Star Trek” show on TV.

But for the generation born after the early 2000s, the fandom-inspiring Trek — the televised Trek — hasn’t been a major presence. And that may be one reason we see this curve:

hickey-datalab-startrek-2

Last year, I inserted a question about “Star Trek” fandom into a SurveyMonkey Audience poll I ran about “Star Wars.” And there’s a pretty unmistakable problem there for the “Star Trek” franchise: Its fans are aging. Movies might stop the bleeding, but there’s an argument to be made that the only thing that can bring the fandom back is another show. That might be why CBS is making this play, and it also might inform why CBS is distributing the show on its digital platform: to reach a younger audience.1

“Star Trek” was always a forward-looking show. I first saw the classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Chain of Command” — a story about torture and detention — a few years ago with my roommate. Not knowing its production history, I told him I thought it was a good episode but way too much of a blatant commentary on the Bush administration’s torture policies. When he told me that the episode had come out in 1992, I finally understood why people loved “Star Trek”: The show had a special kind of foresight and ideals that are essentially eternal.

In the best case, this revamp will bring a show that was always ahead of its time back to the present. Here’s to whatever’s next.

Footnotes

  1. CBS reportedly plans to debut the show on network TV and move it to digital-only.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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