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CBS’ small screen “Star Trek” revival continues. At this year’s Star Trek Las Vegas convention, actor Patrick Stewart, star of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (henceforth “TNG”), made a surprise appearance to announce there was a second “Star Trek” series coming to CBS’ All Access streaming service. Reprising his role as the wise and steady Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the new show will be a sequel, set 20 years after the final “TNG” movie installment (2003’s “Star Trek: Nemesis.”)
It’s a dream come true for a generation of “Star Trek” fans who grew up on the rebooted concept as well as spin-offs “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.” But it also represents a retreat by CBS from the progressivism of its first series on All Access, “Star Trek: Discovery.”
Though there are no public scripts as yet, Stewart confirmed the show will explore the later life of the beloved icon he spent 15 years playing. He also hinted that his character, who was the captain of the latest iteration of the USS Enterprise the last time he was on screen, might no longer be in command or even part of Starfleet. Stewart has insisted for years that he would never reprise his “Star Trek” role. So why the change of heart? The actor suggested the recent shift in the political and social climate helped change his mind. In a statement posted to Twitter, Stewart said he felt it was time “to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine in these dark times.”
“TNG” arrived in 1987, when the country’s conservative turn under President Ronald Reagan was feeling more and more entrenched. The show championed liberal values, but its the cast was more than 75 percent white and male, and the production team behind it was 100 percent both. With liberals feeling increasingly under attack again, a “TNG” reboot feels timely — perhaps even comforting. It is, in other words, the opposite of an authoritarian dystopia like “The Handmaid’s Tale.” As a bonus, Stewart himself is openly liberal, championing women in the #MeToo era, discussing the lasting effects of domestic violence on society and campaigning for equality for all. He is that rare A-list celebrity who remains unsullied by scandal or hypocrisy.
But CBS isn’t just bringing back Captain Picard because of the current political climate. It’s actually one of four rumored “Star Trek” shows for the All Access channel, including a teen-oriented series which will probably resemble what already airs on sister network The CW. The fact that Stewart’s show was announced first could be coincidence — but it’s probably not. More likely, CBS is using the nostalgic reboot to placate the (white, male) demographic that felt alienated by the network’s first Trekkie reboot “Discovery,” a show which was legitimately diverse and therefore immediately controversial.
A show focused on an aging white male hero, known for his calm equilibrium and wisdom, is a sharp U-turn from “Discovery,” which stars a diverse crew focusing on a young woman of color, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. After 50 years of paying lip service to equality and a future where sexism and racism were problems of the past, this new series features a cast that matches the rhetoric. The decision also dovetails with recent efforts by franchise rival “Star Wars” to improve its casting diversity.
Much like Lucasfilm, the producers of “Discovery” also found themselves running up against the same small group of toxic vocal white males for whom opening the fandom in this manner was anathema. (And worryingly, the show seems to already be backtracking somewhat on that initial diversity.)
But while “Star Wars” may feel free refuse to heed the trolling masses (a billion dollars or two at the box office will do that), “Star Trek” has less wiggle room. “Discovery” is a series designed to pull in subscribers to All Access. CBS boasted this spring that the debut of “Discovery” drove the highest amount of subscribers to its service so far, and, according to CBS TV president David Stafp, the new goal is to have “something Star Trek on all the time.” But it seems that CBS, a network struggling with diversity problems and allegations of institutional sexism, remains committed to appealing to its older white fans.
It’s a frustrating dichotomy. Stewart’s new series will almost certainly appeal to at least some of the holdouts who refused to sign up for “Discovery.” Especially when “The Orville” — a gentle “TNG” satire starring Seth MacFarlane — was free on Fox. Stewart, who is viewed as a savvy Hollywood player, hopefully has enough control over the new show to steer it in a legitimately progressive direction, under the guise of a “white male hero” premise. Indeed, many fans want to see “Star Trek” continue to push forward in this arena, with some arguing that shows like “Discovery” need to evolve further, not backtrack. One can only hope CBS hears them when it comes to this new series too.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA’s TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.