Now This Is More Like It
“Now this is more like it.”
So read the first line of Janet Maslin’s 1982 New York Times review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It heralded the birth of Star Trek as a franchise.
The original “Star Trek” television series had been canceled in 1969 after three seasons of weak ratings. But in subsequent years, it gained a cult following, particularly among young people such as myself who watched it in daily syndication that ran in the late afternoon, just in time to tune into when you got home from school.
So ten years later, Paramount decided to give Trek another chance with a feature film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was not quite what anybody wanted: too pretentious and not enough fun. William Shatner later said that director Robert Wise seemed to be trying to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than taking inspiration from the Star Trek series. But the movie did just well enough at the box office that Paramount decided to give them one last chance.
Everybody knew that’s what it was: the last chance to keep the Star Trek characters and setting alive as an ongoing project. So producer Harve Bennett sat down in a Paramount screening room and watched all 79 episodes of the TV series, trying to extract the essence of their appeal. The result was Star Trek II, a blockbuster hit that led to a string of follow-on films and four years later the launch of a new television series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
It was the film the spawned a franchise, and a massive one at that. The result was ten feature films over the next twenty years, and for 17 years, from 1987 to 2004, there was always at least one Star Trek television series in current production.
It all ran out of steam in the mid-2000s. The franchise attempted a movie reboot with new actors in the original roles and then launched a new television series, “Discovery.” But the famously optimistic franchise had turned “darker” in tone; one of the new films was literally titled Star Trek into Darkness. They made the mistake of turning the movies over to J.J. Abrams, who has built up a solid track record of running beloved science fiction franchises into convoluted narrative dead ends. (See the last three main Star Wars films.) Aside from having a turbid story line spread over multiple seasons—the main reason I gave up on it—"Discovery” was also widely ridiculed as “woke” Trek, in which a “diverse” cast was summoned to tick the boxes for “representation” rather than to be interesting characters in a compelling story line.
Something clearly needed to be done, so Paramount developed a new series, “Strange New Worlds,” which premiered on the Paramount+ streaming service in May. As the name implies—the phrase is taken from Captain Kirk’s opening monologue—this series is explicitly intended to hearken back to and emulate the original series. Like Harve Bennett in 1980, they were trying to figure out why people love this franchise in the first place and recapture whatever that is.
Did they succeed? I’m about halfway through the first season, and so far “Strange New Worlds” is not perfect, but—well, it’s more like it.