Star Trek: Discovery

“Why did ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ have to end up on CBS All Access?”

This has been a recurring objection from fans ever since ‘Discovery’ was announced. And frankly, it’s hard to blame them. After all, who among us isn’t weary of the increasingly balkanized streaming media landscape? But then the powers that be at CBS have never exactly been shy about the answer. ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ airs via All Access for the same reason that ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ aired on UPN twenty years ago: to draw audiences to a new platform. And to that end, it seems to have been a resounding success, with the service seeing record signups in the wake of the show’s premiere last September.

But were there creative reasons as well? That might seem like a strange question. ‘Star Trek’, after all, has a long history – nearly all of its history, actually – on network television. If that’s proof of anything, it’s that it’s not hard to tell a ‘Star Trek’ story within those confines. So maybe the budget would have been tighter, and maybe they wouldn’t have been able to drop the first f-bomb in ‘Trek’ history, but would ‘Discovery’ really have had to change that much if it aired through a more conventional outlet?

Your knee-jerk answer to that question is probably “no.” I know mine is. But according to the series’ showrunners, ‘Discovery’ did, in fact, benefit from the creative freedom offered by the streaming platform. Speaking at a “For Your Consideration” event held as part of the show’s Emmy push, Aaron Harberts gave an example of the sort of creative choice that might’ve been difficult to sell at a network:

“One of the big buzzwords on network TV is likability of a character. And our character Michael Burnham commits a mutiny in the very first episode. I don’t think a lot of networks would have been game for that, but it really did allow us to tell a pretty exciting chapter for that character and a journey. And they were absolutely willing and on board to things like that.”

Choices like this are the sort of creative freedom that tends to get overlooked in these sorts of conversations. Often, the focus instead falls on things like sex, violence, and language, in other words, the obvious differences between, say, network and cable programming.  But there are sometimes less obvious considerations. If ‘Discovery’ had been forced to start with Burnham in a more conventionally likable position, or to reveal the mutiny through flashbacks (or even lose that plot point altogether) it would have radically altered the shape of the first season’s narrative. Whether that would have been for better or worse is impossible to say.