One of the most persistent topics of conversation regarding ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has been the show’s distribution through CBS All Access. While some fans lamented being asked to sign up for yet another streaming service, still others wondered – often loudly – why the show wasn’t airing literally anywhere else. Last week we got an answer from CBS head Les Moonves, who spoke on the matter at an investors’ conference (short answer, to give All Access a boost).
But what if it had aired elsewhere, say on CBS itself? Sure, we would have lost the first f-bomb in ‘Trek’ history, but would the show really have had to change that much? Apparently yes. In a follow up to his earlier remarks, Moonves explained how the show might have been different had it aired through a more conventional outlet, and there’s one difference in particular that stands out:
“‘Star Trek’ could have gone on CBS… There is a distinction. ‘The Good Fight’ is a spin-off of a successful CBS show. It is sort of different on All Access, they can be serialized. On CBS we try to avoid that generally. Network television generally works better when it is not serialized.”
I imagine the folks responsible for the Fox Network’s uber-serialized ’24’ (which spans eight seasons, a telefilm, a revival season, and a single season spin-off) might beg to differ. As I’m sure, would the minds behind shows like ‘Lost’, ‘Prison Break’, and ‘Heroes’, all of which were heavily serialized ratings successes that aired on networks. And the list would only grow if you factored in cable stations like AMC or premium channels like HBO, including some of the most critically and commercially successful shows of the twenty-first century. Even restricting the argument to the history of ‘Star Trek’, you have ‘Deep Space Nine’ (which grew ever more serialized over its seven-year run) and ‘Enterprise’, which took a hard shift toward serialization in its final two seasons (coincidentally the best received of its short run).
So Moonves’ assertion that serialized storytelling doesn’t work on network television is patently absurd, revealing more about his own shortsightedness than anything else. But the funny thing is, ‘Discovery’ may actually have benefitted from a (slightly) less serialized approach. While the show’s debut season was strong overall, the serialized nature and often breakneck pacing of the main narrative left precious little time to slow down and get to know our characters. While the core cast (including Burnham, Stamets, and Saru) have been fleshed out to varying degrees, supporting characters like Airiam, Rhys and Detmer (to name but a few) have been left woefully underdeveloped, some having little more established than their names.
This approach has also limited the ability of the show to deal with stories or sci-fi concepts that didn’t fit neatly into the larger story of the Klingon war or the Discovery’s sojourn into the mirror universe. Given that, it’s probably not a coincidence that some of the best received episodes of the first season were standalone affairs like ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’ and ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’. While I’m generally a fan of serialization, the next season of ‘Discovery’ could definitely use more episodes like those.
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is due to begin production of its second season in April. The new season, which will feature returning stars Sonqua Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Mary Wiseman, and Anthony Rapp, is expected to air on CBS All Access in late 2018 or early 2019,