Star Trek: Discovery is delayed yet again. A beloved Next Generation actor was reportedly offered an insulting amount of money to appear on the show. It lost a showrunner with a well-deserved fan base of his own. And CBS has made poor marketing decision after poor marketing decision. So, how screwed is this show? Short answer: Very.
Star Trek: Discovery was initially announced in late 2015, with a vague description mentioning new characters and worlds and “dramatic contemporary themes.” CBS made sure to mention was that the new show would have nothing to do with Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond, the movie due out in 2016.
The other big bombshell in the announcement was that the show wasn’t going to be on network television or even cable, but on CBS All Access, a streaming site that CBS would be charging a monthly fee to watch.
Even back then, this seemed off. It felt like CBS wanted to shunt Star Trek off to the side and/or like CBS was trying to beef up sales of its subscription service by counting on the famous devotion of Star Trek fans. It partially worked, in that even though I said it seemed weird, other fans told me they’d pay, and happily. It’s literally less per month than what I pay for coffee, someone said.
Part of the reason for that confidence was the announcement made in February of 2016 that Bryan Fuller—formerly of Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, currently of American Gods—would be the showrunner for the new series. Fuller worked on Deep Space 9 and Voyager, but even without that specific experience, he was a genuine fan of Star Trek with a number of shows under his belt that are remembered fondly. Not all of them lasted as long as their fans would like, but their quality inspired a confidence in a Fuller-led Star Trek that few other names would have.
Everything Fuller said sounded right. His hiring was accompanied by a quote where he said, “It is without exaggeration a dream come true to be crafting a brand-new iteration of Star Trek.” In another interview, Fuller said, “Absolutely. I think the progressive audience that loves Star Trek will be happy that we’re continuing that tradition.” At San Diego Comic-Con, Fuller talked about his connection to the franchise and that he had a lot of new things planned for the new series, now officially titled Star Trek: Discovery. Every time he talked about the show, his words definitely came from a real fan who proved that he got Star Trek in a way that we hadn’t seen in far too long.
CBS also had The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer on board as a consulting producer, a name who could do nothing but reassure fans that this could be the Star Trek we’ve wanted for years.
However, there were also constant signs that things were going wrong. Little things, but things that showed that CBS was mismanaging things. The show was announced in November 2015 with a release date of “January 2017,” which was described by the president of CBS as “on the heels of the original show’s 50th-anniversary celebration.” The 50th anniversary was in September, so that’s... less true than it is an attempt to make a marketing point. In January of 2016, the president of CBS said that the show was entirely in the hands of All Access, even though the pilot would be on the channel. So All Access, which hadn’t made an original show before, was entirely in charge and CBS, which has been doing it forever, was not.
There was also the fact that show was slated to be released in January, but no one had been cast. It was sort of expected that we’d get more news at San Diego, but all we saw was the ship, the name, and the timeline the show would take place in. Then, it seemed like the obvious time to announce a cast would be for the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Or to do, you know, anything with it.
That didn’t happen either. Instead, “on the heels of the original show’s 50th-anniversary celebration,” CBS announced that the show had been delayed to May 2017. A few months later, Bryan Fuller left his job as Discovery’s showrunner.
The delay of the premiere was at this point a foregone conclusion, since we were only a few months from the stated release date and hadn’t had a single cast announcement. The loss of Fuller, who did have a number of other projects on his plate, was a much bigger problem.
Initially, Fuller’s departure was framed as more of a stepping back. He’d written the first two scripts and, said CBS, would continue on as an executive producer and planning out the rest of season one’s story arc. It was merely the “day-to-day” bits that would be handed over to Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, who were close with Fuller.
That said, both the Variety story that broke Fuller leaving and a later Newsweek article said that it was CBS that was impatient to get the show up and running, and that was what prompted Fuller’s exit. And the Newsweek interview had Fuller make clear that he wasn’t still working with the team at CBS All Access. “I’m not involved in production, or postproduction, so I can only give them the material I’ve given them and hope that it is helpful for them,” said Fuller. “I’m curious to see what they do with it.” He also said they knew how to contact him and he’d be there for whatever was needed for a second season.
It’s important to remember Variety initially reported that the reason Fuller left is because CBS was unwilling to delay the premiere to give him more time to properly make the series. The network’sunwillingness wouldn’t last.
When casting finally started happening, CBS also kept slipping in announcements about delays. James Frain was cast as Sarek, Spock’s father, and CBS slipped the news that show now had a “flexible” premiere date. Part of the reasoning given this time was that lead Sonequa Martin-Green was currently on The Walking Dead, and they didn’t want to promote her in one show while she was on another, presumably because the public doesn’t know how acting works and also it’s always a mistake to capitalize on your star also being on a staggeringly popular show.
The casting has been a bright spot: all the names and characters sound perfect and exactly like what we want from Star Trek. There are aliens, women, nonwhite humans, a main character who is gay. And yet, the weird way CBS has paired announcements with delays and the way they keep information back and release it in drips and drabs hasn’t helped us get a sense of this show at all.
The release date’s been made even fuzzier because of an interview CBS Interactive president Marc DeBevoise gave to Vulture, which was published last week:
As you said, we’re not tied to any specific release date. It’ll be there when we’re ready to do it, and when we feel it’s in a great place. We’re not worried about anything here. We’re excited, and we’ll have more specifics as we get closer to what will likely be the release dates.
Is it likely going to be the fall?
We’re not stating.
In addition to the constant delays, the loss of a creative mind that they claim to like the work of, and the blown opportunities to celebrate a franchise I keep seeing referred to as their “crown jewel,” there’s this comment from CBS Interactive CEO Jim Lanzone:
Scifi is not something that has traditionally done really well on broadcast. It’s not impossible, for the future, if somebody figures it out. And things like Lost and Heroes have had parts of, you know, scifi, but historically, a show like Star Trek wouldn’t necessarily be a broadcast show, at this point. And so, you kind of look at the other networks we have, CW and Showtime, it just fit with the digital audience and having that digital Star Trek audience.
That doesn’t make any sense. Just as one example of why everything he said makes no sense: science fiction doesn’t fit on the CW? A channel that is about 90% genre shows right now? Demonstrably untrue. Here’s another: it fits digital better than Showtime? Pay cable networks like HBO and Starz have anchored their premium cable channels with genre shows—Game of Thrones and Westworld for the former and Outlander and soon American Gods (who’s the showrunner on that, again?). The idea that Showtime shouldn’t broadcast a new Star Trek TV series, especially one that we were told over and over again was going to be darker and more adult, is nonsense.
Whatever else CBS has done with Star Trek in the last couple of years, they’ve managed to turn Discovery into a joke. In the comments here on io9, in conversations with other fans, and in conversations with my coworkers, the most said phrase is, “We are never going to see that show.” It’s like a myth: we’ve all heard about it and have been told it’s wonderful, but no one has any actual proof it exists.
And even if it’s good, who is going to see it? CBS has burned through so much good will at this point that they’ve done the impossible and managed to make Star Trek fans unenthusiastic. The recent story about how little they offered The Next Generation’s Michael Dorn to play Worf’s ancestor is not helping, either. It’s hard to imagine Trek fans paying for All Access to see the show—not with the way CBS rushed the show into production, lost a showrunner because of it, and then still delayed it over and over again.
CBS will be shoving Discovery behind a paywall but it’s done everything humanly possible to make the idea of paying them monthly for it unappealing. Not even bringing back Sarek, Amanda, and Harry Mudd can really make up for that. Not even for a cast that is as diverse as Star Trek should be.
I want it to be good. We both deserve and need Star Trek right now. The world is horrifying. Genre television is taking over, but is bleak as hell. Star Trek, with its constant affirmations that human beings can get through the worst and overcome our baser instincts, belongs on TV right now. But, at this point, the show is going to have to be iconic in its own right to clear all the hurdles CBS has needlessly shoved in its path. If Discovery goes badly, there’s only one entity to blame: CBS.