The problem with streaming era Trek

Star Trek has had a number of incarnations and has had a fair share of dud episodes, inconsistent ideas and poor choices. Nonetheless, it has pushed forward as a franchise that delivers interesting science fiction stories and ideas.

I believe we can draw a relatively neat circle around a current era of Trek that distinguishes it in time: the streaming era. In other words, those shows that have been created in recent years where the primary mode of consumption has been via online streaming services. This period started in 2017 with Discovery and since has included Picard, Lower Decks, Strange New Worlds and Prodigy. As I explained last November, I’m largely giving up on these series for practical reasons: I didn’t want to buy into another streaming service and these shows were moving to Paramount+ (Picard season 2 continued on Amazon Prime). I enjoyed to varying degrees Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks but not so much that I really wanted to fork out extra cash.

Each, in its own way, was dissatisfying. They had their moments and it was worthwhile to give each one time to find their pace. After all, previous Trek shows had initial wobbles and flaws. I haven’t seen any of Strange New Worlds and Prodigy and maybe these shows will have adapted but I’m not going to be checking them out in the near future.

Let me suggest though, that there is a broader issue at play with the three streaming era Trek shows I have watched. We can ignore the nonsense objections from the usual suspects: diverse casting isn’t the problem, nor is the inclusion of social issues. Those objections are both disconnected from the actual shows but also the history of Trek as a TV series. A broader criticism I will acknowledge is the conflict in the shows between nostalgia and fan service with doing something new.

However, my main issue is a broader one. I don’t think this current era of Trek has a clear idea of how it wants to tell stories in the era of streaming. That conflict is a structural one that impacts the storytelling. Streaming shows compared with the era of (US) broadcast shows have fewer episodes, fewer seasons and a bigger emphasis on story arcs.

Now that does not mean that streaming era Trek needs to follow that model. Being different can be an advantage. One of the key sci-fi shows of the streaming era of television is Black Mirror, which eschewed story arcs and even a regular cast. What it does mean though, is that shows intended for this new medium need to have a way of working in that medium. Disney+ has also managed to find an alternate route with The Mandalorian, which emphasised loosely connected individual stories, joined by an overarching quest. Overall, I think these Trek shows have dithered on the issue and have tried to split the difference. As a consequence, they have delivered neither consistently strong standalone episodes nor compelling ongoing stories.

Ironically, Lower Decks has managed this better than Discovery or Picard mainly by being happier with standalone episodes. Both Discovery and Picard though, keep falling through space between episodes that can stand by themselves versus holistic seasons with a strong season-long plot.

Looking at the premise of the most recent entries Strange New Worlds does appear to be making a more committed bid to encapsulate the nostalgia aspect of the new Trek. Prodigy could be interesting in that it looks like it is trying to model what Star wars has been doing now for many years with kid’s cartoons. That kids-TV approach to the question of standalone v arcs had an answer in shows like Clone Wars and Rebels: focus on standalone episodes with basic character continuity initially and then develop stronger plot arcs. This approach appears to be what Disney+ is trying with their live-action Star Wars shows, which often resemble grittier versions of the previous animated shows and actively include characters and lore from those animated shows.

I don’t know what the right balance of new versus nostalgia and stand-alone story versus long-form story arc is for these shows. I don’t think they have got the balance right on any of them though. I’m surprised they didn’t have a greater variation between those dimensions though (Discovery by season 3 had at least realised that it was a better fit for “new” rather than “nostalgia).


17 responses to “The problem with streaming era Trek”

  1. I have to agree that carrying the baggage of fan service, even shaping entire series (Picard) around it, has made many of these new Treks less compelling for me to watch, personally, and I haven’t.

    Just from a solipsistic point of view, I can’t explain why something marketed to remind me of what I enjoyed 30 or 50 years ago is expected to appeal to people who weren’t born til decades afterwards — and how can they be commercial successes unless they do?

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  2. There was an excellent article I read somewhere (and, naturally, I can’t find it now!) which talked about the problem of showrunning in a streaming age – mainly that the new shorter form of seasons means that writers rarely get to see their stories actually being made because mostly everything is written ahead of time and produced in a much more condensed way. Which means that it’s harder for writers to properly figure out what works for their show in this new form until it’s too late and, worse, they are sometimes finding themselves in charge of a show without having gone through the apprenticeship/journeyman stages of producing.
    (And considering that we’ve had close to half a century of evidence about how badly that works in modern corporate environments, it seems weird that media should suddenly have adopted it.)
    And, of course, a short form season means there isn’t nearly as much room for the stand-alone or ‘filler’ episode if they are also trying for long-form plots.

    Having said that, it does feel as though Trek have picked Akiva Goldsman to be their Kevin Feige and this may help with finding that balance – someone who is mostly at a step removed from being directly hands-on but who is making the broader directional decisions. This may or may not work out for them.

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  3. I haven’t seen it yet, but from the reports I’ve read it seems as though Strange New Worlds may hearken back to the ‘glory days’ of Trek. I’ll be interested to watch it.

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  4. Totally off-topic but the Black Mirror mention has me thinking it would be interesting if they did a free floating Star Trek series where it didn’t have to be the same cast each week. I originally thought the sets would cost too much, but the bridge and most of decks on the starships are going to be the same within classes and maybe slightly tweaked. Just have different ships on different missions on different planets or in different sectors. The variations might free up the creators.

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  5. I don’t think it’s really a problem in the series structure that has affected the newer Trek series. The newer Trek series have had problems stemming from a problem that the Trek franchise has had in the modern age — they don’t trust Trek fans. They have all sorts of beliefs about who Trek fans are and what they want and those beliefs are often conflicting. They get too worried about serving up nostalgia. They don’t have an effective plan for their series; they have an idea and then they bounce all over the place. And they think torturing characters like a soap opera is what Trek fans want, which has never been the Trek aesthetic.

    Prodigy and Lower Decks have avoided this because they are cheaper, animated sitcoms who do have vision plans for what they are doing. Lower Decks is a loving satire of the franchise, geared for adults. Prodigy is about young people out in space learning about the Federation ethos, geared for kids. They’re the side projects and have been left to follow basic Trek ideas in new ways.

    Discovery, the first one, wasn’t allowed to use the regular Klingons and for some reason went with a weird, deeply racist version that sucked all the fun out of them. It had showrunner conflicts and kept struggling with nostalgia it didn’t even seem to like for the first two years. Then it jumped time and that let it come more into its own thing, though now it’s kind of fragmenting.

    Picard used nostalgia but was doing interesting things with it. It got a little bogged down but it was ultimately a Trek show — a band of characters dealing with space in hopes that the future can become better. It was poised to take the crew into space in the second season. And then they decided, naw, let’s imitate the old Star Trek movies for some reason and also try to be edgy.

    So it seems more the decisions of “what are we trying to do” have caused problems than simply short seasons. The shorter seasons aren’t an unusual thing — cable shows and British t.v. have used them all the time. And we used to call what Marvel et al are doing mini-series — re-fashioned “limited” series according to the Emmy Awards — instead of a two hour movie, you tell the story in a six-ten hour movie across multiple nights. So the mini-series are usually less episodic because that’s their type of structure. And Trek has done movies — they can do mini-series, though Discovery is more like a cable series, somewhat longer.

    But you have to know what you are trying to do. You have to have a plan and if it’s in an existing franchise, it does need to fit within the franchise but not just regurgitate the originals of the franchise, especially just the old villains. Even if it’s a more episodic format, you have to match it to the world building. Trek is not well set up to do anthologies — people like to get attached to the characters. Witness when Discovery first tried to not pay attention to the bridge crew. People didn’t like that, so the bridge crew started getting bigger roles and it paid off for Discovery. But they could probably do an anthology structure too if they have a plan and if the plan they have is neither let’s use Trek as a jumping off point for what I want to do — not dealing with the franchise — or let’s just recycle old Trek stuff half-heartedly because fans like that.

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  6. Nothing I’ve read/heard about any of the shows has made me want to watch them. Except maybe “Strange New Worlds”, because that sounds interesting if properly executed. (Big IF) Possibly the animated ones, because they’re coming at it from entirely different angles.

    I saw an edited version of the first season of Disco when it was used to fill time on CBS during the early part of the plague. It was… tolerable? It would have been better if they hadn’t gone for the massive retcon and also made it All About Michael, though NuSarek was good. Isaacs and Yeoh did their best and brought the show up out of boring background noise when they were on.

    In any case, I’m not rushing right out to sign up for Paramount Plus (“A mountain of reruns we never thought you’d pay for”, as Stephen Colbert once described it.)

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    • Lower Decks is delightful, Prodigy is okay. The first season of Discovery is a mess, though some of the swing for the fences stuff that Camestros documented was fun and the characters filled out over time. They started doing better on Season 2 and Season 3 freed them up completely and was pretty good. Season 4 should have been a lot of adventuring in the future, but they got clogged up in another tortuous, drastic mystery with an unknown antagonist. And that just got boring, even though they did stay very Trek in the plotlines. An overarching story can be okay, but at some point they need to stop making Michael suffer and let her be a captain.

      Picard was fun Season 1 and really dropped the ball in Season 2. But they’re having a TNG reunion for Season 3, their last season, so we’ll go ahead and watch it.

      I’m not watching the new one, though my husband is, because while the actors are nice, I have no interest in stories with doomed Pike and young Spock. I like seeing Star Trek develop its universe, not just retread. So I decided I had enough and will only watch any further ones that have a premise I find interesting.

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  7. Looking back I think DS9 has nailed the “overall arc but epsiodes”- thing figured out quite well, especially in the “war seasons”. OTOH Voyager and Enterprise got bogged down with a lot of formulaic epsiodes. Especially Voyager had the problem (imho) that the long voyage only consisted of somethings happening, only to be forgotten in the next episode. TMK Enterprise later adopted a more modern take with season arcs, but I have frankly given up on that point and havent really had the motivation to go back. I heard it improved the show though.If there is a problem with epsiodes, its that its harder to do something that the various shows havent done already.

    So I think its less a problem with streaming than with having no clear goal what they actually want. Picards 2nd season (and to a much smaller amount the first season) lacked good writing. I doubt a more episodic structure would have improved that at all. Discovery had a decent send and a good 3rd season imho, the first season had some questionable decision because the show runner didnt really know Star trek. And the 4th season had the main problem that the makers didnt want to take any risks – for a show set so far in the future there was very little new stuff going on.
    So I wouldnt blame the streaming, I blame the writers/showrunners and maybe CBS who also dont really know what to do with their IP.

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