A Decade Without 'Trek' Part 2: Boldly going into the future

[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on May 14, 2015, before CBS announced that the Star Trek franchise would finally be returning to television. With the newest series, Star Trek: Discovery, premiering on Sept. 24 on CBS and CBS All Access, here’s a chance to revisit the last great period for Trek on TV and the reasons for its decade-long hiatus.] 

Previously on A Decade Without Trek: The Star Trek franchise returned to television with great fanfare in 1987 with the launch of The Next Generation, stewarded by Trek mastermind Gene Roddenberry and producer Rick Berman. Following Roddenberry’s death in 1991, Berman guided Star Trek’s four TV incarnations — Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise — until the latter’s final episode on May 13, 2005. Since that airing, Trek has been absent from the airwaves for ten years, even as the feature film franchise found new life courtesy of J.J. Abrams and his 2009 reboot, starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as the all-new Kirk and Spock.

If history repeats itself, the financial success of Star Trek and its 2013 sequel, Into Darkness, could result in the return of an ongoing series, in much the same way that Next Generation came about largely due to the popularity of the first four Trek features. But the when, where and how of Trek’s next TV incarnation remain very much up in the air. We asked our roundtable of key Star Trek creative personnel to talk about how the franchise may boldly go back to television and who might be the showrunner tasked to make it so.

THE LAST HURRAH: Enterprise, Season 4 (2004-2005)
While its three predecessors each enjoyed a seven season run, the writing was on the wall that Enterprise would be cancelled following its fourth year. Nevertheless, new showrunner Manny Coto intended to send the prequel series out with a bang rather than a whimper, crafting a season that would firmly connect the franchise’s past with its future.

Manny Coto (Co-Executive Producer, Enterprise): I wrote some episodes that I was quite proud of in Season 3, so Rick [Berman] and Brannon [Braga] decided to give me the reins for Season 4. That’s where I decided that Enterprise could be a vehicle that ties into the original series. The Star Trek universe is a rich universe and there’s a lot of past to draw on and stand upon — the history of Vulcan, the history of Earth, the Eugenics Wars. I wanted to explore Star Trek’s history but also tie it into the original series, which I had fallen in love with when I was a kid.

Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Staff Writer and Co-Producer, Enterprise): Manny had read our book Federation [a 1994 novel that tangentially unites the crews of Star Trek and The Next Generation] and called us in for meeting. Two weeks later, we met with him and Brannon, but after that, we didn’t hear anything.

Judith Reeves-Stevens (Staff Writer and Co-Producer, Enterprise): Then we got a call saying, “Can you come in right away?” We went in and were writing on the show within two weeks. They were shooting the third episode of Season 4, working on six in the writers’ room  and then we wrote episode seven, “The Forge.” We ended up writing or co-writing five episodes out of 22, so we wrote practically a quarter of the season. It was all about laying the foundation for the original Star Trek — the Vulcan Reformation, the beginnings of the Federation.

Garfield Reeves-Stevens: When we went in to pitch the story for “The Forge,” Brannon said, “People have been pitching me Vulcan IDIC [the basis of Vulcan philosophy] stories for years, and I’ve never liked any of then until this one.” So that was nice. With 200 years of Star Trek history, we thought it was time for someone to write a James Clavell novel tying the story of the IDIC to [the sacred Vulcan mountain] Mount Seleya. It was a privilege to be the ones to do that. But the ratings never really improved. For all the great reviews Season 4 was getting, it didn’t translate to an uptick in viewership. In hindsight, we knew [we were cancelled] the day they cancelled the fruit bowl in the writers’ room. There was enough time so that we all knew that the final episode of the season was also going to be the final episode of the series and the final episode of the Rick Berman age. Judith and I were actually part of the audience for Archer’s final speech.

Brannon Braga (Writer/Producer, The Next Generation; Executive Producer, Voyager; Co-creator and Executive Producer, Enterprise): The final episode was meant to be a valentine to Star Trek; that’s why we worked Next Generation into it. I remember a lot of people hated it. We probably should have just made an Enterprise finale, but our heart was in the right place.

Rick Berman (Executive Producer, The Next Generation; Executive Producer, Deep Space Nine; Co-creator and Executive Producer Voyager; Co-creator and Executive Producer, Enterprise): I take full responsibility for the idea of using the Next Generation characters [Riker and Deanna Troi] in the Holodeck looking back at how the Federation began. It seemed like a great way to consolidate time, seeing it through the eyes of people 200 years in the future and where all of us began 19 years earlier. I still think it’s not a bad idea, but it was met with a lot of criticism. I know that some of the Enterprise actors felt like we were taking the spotlight away from them. We did the best we could.

Coto: That finale was Rick and Brannon’s baby. I did love the ending with Archer’s speech, and the way we saw the different Enterprise ships. It was a valentine to the 19-year run of the Rick Berman era of Star Trek. The sense of it all tying up and coming to a close was affecting.

Braga: I stand by Enterprise; I think it’s a really good show and there are episodes in there that are as good as anything I ever worked on in Star Trek. I was at a convention in London recently, and there were more people in Enterprise costumes than anyone else. I learned that, in England, they didn’t know they were supposed to hate it! [Laughs] I hope people continue to give it a second chance. I’ve never had so much freedom in storytelling and so much fun.

A DECADE WITHOUT TREK: 2005-2015
As Enterprise wound down to its conclusion, so, too, did UPN. The struggling network became part of the CBS Corporation, which orchestrated a deal with Time Warner’s equally ratings-challenged WB network to form The CW. UPN officially broadcast its last transmission on September 15, 2006 and the rights to Trek were set to go to CBS. But Paramount Pictures president Gail Berman asked network head, Les Moonves, to give her time to get a new feature film version in the air before moving forward with another TV incarnation, like an oft-rumored Starfleet Academy series. Enter J.J. Abrams, who successfully recast the original crew with fresh young faces on the big screen. 

Berman: By the time Enterprise went off the air, there was no more Paramount Television. It had been absorbed by CBS, and we had an entirely new team of studio bosses and there was not even an iota of any feeling from them about developing a new series at that point. I had another year and a half there, and I spent my time developing other ideas, some with Brannon some with other people. But none of them managed to get on the air. We were all a little bit burned out after 19 years, seven of them doing 52 shows a year.

Garfield Reeves-Stevens: There was a sense at the corporate level that Star Trek was seen as this rare and important jewel in Paramount’s crown, but nobody really understood it. The sense was, “Let’s give Star Trek a break. Maybe if we held back 5 years, there’ll be more interest.”

Rene Echevarria (Story Editor and Executive Story Editor, The Next Generation; Co-Supervising Producer, Deep Space Nine): Those four shows had a cumulative run of 19 years and I think there was a sense with the fans that it was just getting harder and harder for that particular core of creative people to keep it fresh. It became harder and harder to come up with great stories.

Ira Steven Behr (Producer, The Next Generation; Executive Producer, Deep Space Nine): It was too much Trek! We were overplowing the field. People are going “There hasn’t been a show on for 10 years.” Well goddamnit, there should not have been a show on for 10 years! There had been too much Star Trek to begin with and it had gotten ridiculous. Let the fanbase build again, and let people want Star Trek instead of forcing them to swallow more and more of it.

Coto: I kept lobbying Rick to start up another series. He was a little bit reticent to jump back in because of the ratings [on Enterprise] and what have you. My feeling was, you get another one on the air and maybe that one will click and it will help Enterprise. You could sense in the air that Paramount had decided to move past the Rick Berman administration into something new. It wasn’t just the show that hadn’t done well — the last Next Generation feature, Nemesis, also hadn’t done well. So you could smell where this was going.

Phyllis Strong (Staff Writer and Story Editor, Voyager; Staff Writer and Co-Producer, Enterprise): We had always heard about a Starfleet Academy [series]. It’s a great arena, but I didn’t know anybody who was involved in developing it. As far as I knew it was never real.

Berman: A couple of people who came to the studio were given, as part of their deals, the approval to develop pilot ideas for new Star Trek shows. There was somebody who had a script having to do with Starfleet Academy, but there was also one that existed before Next Generation started. I believe it had been created by people involved with the original series. Neither of them ever got off the ground.

Coto: [The fan films and web series] have helped keep it alive with the hardcore fans. And the Star Trek novels are vibrant and tell some great stories. That’s how it was in the ‘70s; they weren’t producing [television] episodes, but there was always something creatively going on with Star Trek. That helps during the dry spells.

Brannon: The production values [of the fan films] are pretty jaw-dropping, even though, with all due respect, the acting often isn’t all that great. They are obviously filling some kind of void, because people are making them. There’s a stop-motion Enterprise web series that uses action figures and it’s really well done!

Echevarria: Some of the fan-made videos are astonishing, and it’s just people doing them on their computers at home. Technologically, it’s a golden age of being able to do what you want to do. So many times [on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine] we were counting phaser blasts! “How many shots do we get?” “12. You can only shoot 12 times because each one costs $10,000.” Nowadays it’s the stroke of a pen on a computer screen.

Coto: I predicted at the time of Enterprise’s finale, “They’re going to clean house and bring in some young filmmaker to take over the franchise, mark my words.” And I was right!

Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Writer, Deep Space Nine): [Paramount] was very interested in re-launching the movie franchise. The Next Generation movies had done well, but not as well as they would have hoped, and there was no appetite to do movies of Deep Space Nine or Voyager or Enterprise. They were looking for way to re-launch Kick, Spock and McCoy and they wanted the movies to be that vehicle. That was percolating for a few years. I was aware of it and ended up pitching one of the various attempts to do that. I can’t remember all the details, but basically it was not dissimilar to what the first J.J. Abrams movie ended up being, which was the idea of meeting the characters in the Academy and then launching them on some adventure. I had some nice meetings, but those were meetings in support of an attempt that never really went anywhere. When you’re handing the keys of a billion dollar franchise over to someone, it needs to be someone you can be supremely confident in. Paramount needed someone like J.J. Abrams to come along, who they trusted and who had a passion for it.

Berman: All four Next Generation movies were done on shoestring budgets. With a new leadership at Paramount’s motion picture division, they’ve allowed these Star Trek new films to have the same kinds of budgets as Star Wars and all the Marvel movies. They’re able to make much more exciting and larger-scale films than we made.

Behr: I’ve seen both Star Trek films and the strengths for me were in the rebooting of the characters. For the most part, that was very successful. I thought McCoy and Spock were really fun to watch.

Echevarria: I’m not sure I understand well enough what the implications of the movies are, but I enjoyed them quite a bit. Ron, Brannon and I went to see them together and had a great evening out. But we all walked out saying, “Wait a minute, did they just erase Next Generation?” [Laughs]

Strong: After the first Star Trek, the rumors came up that they were going to launch a new series. That’s what everybody believed. It’s a little bit like Disney with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the DC Universe at Warner [and The CW]. They have to be so careful of how their movies interact with their TV series. The reason I think a Trek TV series is more likely now than within the last ten years is because Paramount has started getting back into the TV business and are mining their movie library, with shows like Minority Report. What’s in their movie library? Star Trek. What do they need for their TV business? Star Trek.

Ronald D. Moore (Staff Writer and Supervising Producer, Next Generation; co-Executive Producer, Deep Space Nine; Writer, Voyager): I’m confident it will come back to TV at some point. I know there are people sitting looking at ledgers going, “Star Trek equals dollars.” And I think its important for the franchise to return to television, because ultimately, Star Trek is a TV show at its heart. The features are great and they’ve done some memorable stuff, but ultimately they have to be these big action-adventure shoot ‘em ups. The heart and soul of Star Trek was not that; they are morality plays and smaller stories about ethical dilemmas. You could never do a lot of the Deep Space Nine stories in the movies, but a lot of that stuff is what made fans devoted to the show.

BOLDLY GOING INTO THE FUTURE: 2015 and Beyond
2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, which seems like the prime occasion for Paramount and CBS to announce the franchise’s return to television. But it’s an open question whether Trek would still find a home on a network, or if cable and streaming are a better fit for the kind of series the creators want to make and Trekkies want to see. One thing that everyone agrees upon is that Star Trek’s core idea has been strong enough to power the franchise for 50 years and will almost certainly keep it aloft for 50 more.

Echevarria: [A new Star Trek series] would probably not be on a network. You don’t want to turn a franchise that valuable over to politics you can’t control. Next Generation was a pioneer in first run syndication partly based on the Star Trek name and we created a model that lasted for 10 to 12 years that was ultimately more lucrative to Paramount than a network show would have been. So the franchise could be used to launch some kind of streaming thing.

Braga: It’s interesting; when we created Enterprise, there were networks interested in it, and NBC was one of them. The question becomes, what are the ratings? And how would Star Trek do in primetime? I know it would succeed in cable; the ratings aren’t as intense. Streaming is a fascinating concept — to have all the episodes ready to go would be kinda cool.

Wolfe: On [Deep Space Nine] we did 26 episodes a year and you could certainly do something on that model. A 13-episode streaming or cable series would be fun, too. The important thing about any potential show is, who’s buying it? If Paramount and CBS want to put this on CBS in the fall, that’s a different kind of TV show. Or, if they make a deal with Netflix or Showtime, that’s another different show. If its on Syfy, it’s a different show, and there’s also no money! [Laughs]

Coto: We just did a summer event series of 24 on Fox, and it was a big success. CBS has also done it with Under the Dome. The networks are looking for a 12-epiosde summer vehicle. There’s no question in my mind that if a big network decided to do a 12 episode Star Trek series over the summer, ratings would go through the roof.

Strong: Broadcast [ratings] have shrunk and Star Trek has stayed the same. If I had the series, I would pitch it to the networks. I will say that cable or streaming might safeguard the creative talent behind it. There’s a sense that they leave you alone. TNT has The Last Ship, Falling Skies and stuff like that. A&E would be thrilled to get them. You can make a list. They’re not going to go to Lifetime or Bravo!

Behr: I’d hate to see it on a network unless the network would say, “Look, we’re dealing with one of the most amazing franchises in entertainment history. Let’s hire people who care about it, and give them some autonomy.” Whether that could happen at the networks I have my doubts. But I’d love to see it as a cable show. I’d like to see it where there’s the best chance of doing something really interesting and not surface interesting — not being able to go where no man has gone before.

Garfield Reeves-Stevens: As we see what’s happening with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and what Disney’s doing with Star Wars, I think we have to start thinking of Star Trek as this huge storytelling arena. Every two years we can have a huge spectacle-driven movie that’s not going to interfere with a 12-episode event TV series. There’s so many ways people can access entertainment these days. They know there’s a difference between watching Avengers: Age of Ultron on IMAX and watching Daredevil on Netflix, but they’re all part of the same storytelling continuum. Star Trek is perfectly poised for that. The storytelling possibilities of the universe are huge.

Wolfe: You’re not going to get Chris Pine to do a TV show, so it’s not going to be that Kirk. Maybe it’ll be a different Kirk. That’s the kind of thing that corporations take a very strong interest in and it would be the first thing I would ask. Do you want established characters from any version of Star Trek or are you looking for something completely new? If they said, “We don’t know,” I’d probably come up with new characters.

Strong: When I’m looking at a big screen and I see Chris Pine, I’m not thinking of William Shatner. But if those actors were to move to a weekly series called, Star Trek: The Reboot, it would affect how I’m watching them. I think there’s the possibility to come up with some terrific new characters if you have the right creative vision. And you could bring Patrick Stewart into the mix to reboot his character, like Leonard Nimoy in the movies. Just to have him there for continuity would be great.

Echevarria: It’s hard for me to imagine they would remake or reboot Next Generation. But you could reboot Picard and those characters, I guess. The idea that someone else would ever play Kirk never entered my mind, but Chris Pine brings own thing to it. He’s got that essential sense of swagger and mischief that Shatner had. So I suppose its possible they could try to reboot the Next Generation timeline. It does give you something to start with; there are some classic episodes you can remake every now and then.

Braga: I never thought about recasting Picard or any of those Next Generation characters, but, of course, you can. It’s hard when you have such incredible performances from people like William Shatner and Patrick Stewart and Kate Mulgrew, who made an enduring impression as their respective captains. I always said that Star Trek is only as good as its captain. [Personally] I would go back to its core and at its core were high-concept allegorical episodes. I think Star Trek is at its best when it does that kind of episode. I don’t know that I would go hard-core on the continuity.

Behr: I doubt that [I’d be invited back]. But if I were, I would think, “Why the f–k not?” If I felt there was a chance to build on the Deep Space Nine of it all, meaning let’s not go backwards to Spock and Kirk, because how many Spock’s and Kirk’s do we want to have running around? Let’s find a new way, let’s take some chances, because if that’s not what Star Trek should be about, I don’t know what it’s about. Unlimited possibilities.

Echevarria: I have a couple notions [for a new show], and actually even notions that might not be the first series in a reboot, but something for if it was successful enough to have two shows. I suspect it’s going to be J.J. Abrams’ team. They might pick up somebody like Ron Moore, because Battlestar Galactica was so well-regarded by so many people. In some ways, that was Ron saying, “I’m going to do Star Trek my way without the Star Trek universe.”

Moore: It would be fun to go back and do Trek again, so yes, if the opportunity came I’d be thrilled. I think the one caveat would be that I’d need a good idea. I love Trek and I’d want to do it only if I had a great idea for the show. And in all honesty, right now I don’t.

Coto: I’d say yes to launching a new Star Trek show in a heartbeat. My chair would be spinning around like a Warner Bros. cartoon character and I’d be out of the frame. I have an idea that I’ve pitched to a couple friends and they thought it was great. I won’t share it, because it will never happen. I have a deal with Fox. It’s just my own little pipe dream that stays in my office. But I’ve worked with Bryan Singer a little bit and I know he has a huge respect for the Star Trek universe. He’d be perfect; he knows how to run a TV show and he loves Star Trek.

Judith Reeves-Stevens: [Whoever takes over the show] will be an emerging talent and someone who sees it in a different way. They need their own voices. If it’s a good universe, it can be reinterpreted over and over again. Star Trek has shown that already. There were vastly different showrunners and writers on each incarnation of Trek and they all find new homes and different viewers.

Berman: I have interest in seeing what form it will take, but I certainly don’t expect to be advised or consulted on it, nor would I want to be. I know that eventually a new group of people will come along and reboot the TV series in one way or another. When they do, I’ll be the first to tune in. I’m certainly happy for the 19 years I spent and have nothing but good wishes for whoever comes along and tries to create something new.

Strong: Star Trek’s best self are characters with moral dilemmas, who are passionate and have fights with each other and would die for each other. That’s what I want to see. Do I want to throw in crazy time travel? Sure! For me, that’s the backdrop to some great storytelling. I love Star Trek. I love it at its best and I understand when it doesn’t get there. And I hope to see a new one.

Wolfe: I root for Star Trek in all of its forms. I always want it to be good. It’s like rooting for your old college team.

Coto: Star Trek matters more than ever. The idea that mankind has a future and can overcome its problems and go forward into the future exploring the universe in a world where science and reason are forefront. Star Trek is aspirational and that’s really important.

Echevarria: Star Wars is about rebelling against power. In Star Trek, we have the power and the question is, how are we going to use it? I think it would be fascinating to update the idea of Starfleet, which presupposes a lot of things about civilization and the responsibility of power. It’s not dystopian, which has always been its allure. Sci-fi tends to go dystopian in its allegory; Star Trek has always been fresh because it asks what are the challenges of creating a well-ordered society where there’s not a big bad that you’re fighting.

Berman: We started in 1987 with a science fiction TV show when there were none on the air and hadn’t been for some time. Over the last 25 years, there have been dozens of sci-fi shows on the air. I can say that we were, in some way, responsible for that. Star Trek is unlike virtually any other science fiction show on television; it deals with a very positive, hopeful notion of the future. Gene believed that mankind was going to continue to evolve in better and better ways. That’s always made Star Trek unique, especially today when you turn on the television and so much of it is so dark, especially the stuff with elements of science fiction in it. The positive attitude that he insisted on is one of the things that has made Star Trek so endearing to so many people.

Star Trek: Discovery premieres Sunday, Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS and CBS All Access