While gazillionaires compete to launch the best private rockets, a space adventure has been conspicuously absent from this golden era of TV. Today’s Earthlings have our choice of lavishly produced shows about almost anything you can imagine, set in almost any time period, including a number of deeply dystopian stories about the future, where people are more likely to churn butter than travel at light speed.
Instead of outer space, TV has spent the past decade obsessing over inner space, the Philip K. Dick stuff, over and over. Who could ever count all the shows about time travel, time-shifting, time-jumping, digitized souls, reincarnation, alternative realities, parallel dimensions, artificial life, telepathic excursions — all of it sooner or later concerned with the nature of existence (synthetic or biological? Paper or plastic?). It’s all about the search for the true self amid the tangle of technology. “Westworld,” “Altered Carbon,” “Black Mirror,” “Legion,” “Mr. Robot,” “The Leftovers”: Our signature genre is existential dread, expressed in lines of code.
Meanwhile, the idea of human (or human-ish) characters getting on a spaceship and going somewhere tangibly adventurous has become — what? Too childish? Too corporate? Or simply too ambitious?
The notion of producing a really great, high-end space drama — something as good or better than HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” only set among stars and strange planets — must sound to network executives as cost-prohibitive and failure-prone as most NASA proposals sound to lawmakers. In either context, space is a huge investment of time and money. It’s a genre even the most profligate networks are content to leave to deep-pocketed film studios, which rely solely on proven franchises.
Only lately, as the race to dominate streaming content continues, have the networks started looking up and out for an original, live-action space drama. HBO this month outbid Apple TV for J.J. Abrams’s latest idea, currently titled “Demimonde,” that is reportedly about “a world’s battle against a monstrous, oppressive force.” (In somewhat related news, the creators of “Game of Thrones” just signed on to make some “Star Wars” movies.) Closer to realization, Hulu is making “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon’s “The First,” a drama about a manned mission to Mars, starring Sean Penn.
For years, TV took its cue from old “Flash Gordon” serials, scratching its space and sci-fi itch on the cheap. With the Space Age came “Lost in Space” and Gene Roddenberry’s pure, primordial “Star Trek,” starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
Spirit and verve made up for the shoddy effects. Such shows were aimed at kids, but the real fans turned out to be subsequent generations of high-IQ adults — the nitpickiest, quibbliest, hardest-to-please, ravenously excitable and most loyal fans ever to roam this planet.
When it comes to TV, they take their pleasures where they can find them. Rare is the show such as SyFy’s “Battlestar Galactica,” which ran for four seasons a decade ago, luring viewers who would never in a million years have thought they could be taken in by a cable sci-fi drama.
It’s been a long, lonely time since then. Syfy still delivers the occasional space-set series, but they usually lack a compelling reason to stick around. Originality is often a stumbling point, even in a genre that is particularly forgiving to both cliches and the derivative. What do we do in space, besides rebel against overlords? Or battle buglike creatures? Or succumb to terrifying alien infections? Who will save us, if not for the prison-sprung rogue and her gang of misfits in their rustbucket freighter?
You say: All right, smarty-pants. Here’s a legal pad and a pen. Come up with your so-called “Game of Thrones”-in-space on a sustainable, TV-series production schedule and budget.
It’s an interesting thought experiment. Before long, bereft of ideas, one heads to the DVD shelf, looking for something in need of a reboot. (“Dune!” “Aliens!”) Or one turns, if one dares, to the rows and rows of sci-fi bookshelves that groan with the weight of endless stories set in space.
The works of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last month at 88, would be a fascinating and timely place to look, with stories about other planets and cultures seen through a feminist and sometimes gender-fluid perspective. Le Guin, like a lot of other authors, wound up regretting most attempts to adapt her work to the screen. She particularly loathed how Syfy turned her “Earthsea” trilogy into a mediocre 2004 miniseries. (Even so, she was reportedly game to try TV again as recently as 2017, selling the rights to one of her best novels, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” as a potential series.)
The further you search, the more it becomes clear: Television only ever had one space saga that truly felt at home in the medium. It’s set in a distant yet palpable future, 250 or so years from now, in which Earthlings and others have formed an altruistic ideal of mutual respect and exploration — a Federation of planets.
Yes, all roads (and wormholes) eventually lead back to Roddenberry.
“Star Trek: Discovery,” Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s gripping and pleasingly clever revival of the brand, wraps up its first streaming season Sunday night on CBS All Access. As good as the show is, it carries with it some unique burdens. Not only must it please fans, it also has to be a “Star Trek” that can compete in the peak-TV era — while persuading viewers to pay for another new streaming subscription service ($5.99 a month, or $9.99 commercial-free).
The nerve of it. The gall — moving network programming to a gated community. It made some of us wish “Star Trek: Discovery” would be a big dud.
And it seemed we might get our wish. With a list of producers and writers as long as a CVS receipt, “Discovery” premiered on the main network as a free sample with a hurried, confusing and poorly executed pilot episode that lacked “Star Trek’s” usual instincts for character and pace.
Without knowing that uncertainty and deceit would become “Discovery’s” prevailing themes, it was easy to sour on everything else about the glitzy new show. On top of that, “Discovery” seemed rinsed in a certain, ineffable “CBS-ness” in crucial matters such as dialogue and aesthetic.
“Discovery,” which takes place a decade before the original “Star Trek” series, introduces us first to its complicated protagonist, an anti-hero named Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a strident and cocky first officer aboard the USS Shenzou.
Orphaned as a child and raised by the Vulcan ambassador Sarek (James Frain), Burnham is urged by her mentor, Capt. Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), to reconcile her logic-driven personality with her human side.
The friendship between the two women seems to be the show’s anchor, except that, in an encounter with a dormant tribe of xenophobic Klingons, Burnham takes actions that start a war between the Federation and the Klingons, destroying the Shenzou and costing thousands of lives — including Georgiou’s. Sentenced to prison for treason, Burnham instead winds up as an ostracized temp on the USS Discovery.
To know much more than this, a viewer would have had to follow “Star Trek: Discovery” over its paywall, where, by the third episode (spoiler alerts, ahoy), it becomes a far more thoughtful and original addition to the “Trek” universe — and yes, worth subscribing to, long enough for a weekend’s binge.
The big secret aboard Discovery, it turns out, is a new kind of interstellar travel that chief engineer and science offer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) has harnessed using teeny-tiny space fungi — yes, a spore drive — to transport a starship from one end of the galaxy to the other in a snap.
The ludicrousness of the concept pushes past “Star Trek’s” usual respect for plausible science, and the middle episodes drift briefly into the procedural-adventure style of the older shows, in which planets are visited, encounters are made, and time is desperately running out to mend some momentary, life-threatening crisis. If that’s the kind of “Star Trek” you pine for, then look no further than Seth MacFarlane’s uncharacteristically reverent and tonally baffling Fox dramedy, “The Orville” — essentially a throwback to “Star Trek’s” 1990s iterations.
“The Orville’s” antiseptic nostalgia trip only serves to make “Discovery’s” longer, grittier story arc look like a powerful step forward. Drawing on a diverse team of writers, directors and cast, “Discovery’s” characters grapple with very un-Federation-like behaviors: The ship is full of anger, doubt, duplicitous colleagues and innate fear.
Doug Jones (who plays the amphibious creature in the Oscar-nominated “The Shape of Water”) gives a nicely measured, standout performance as Commander Saru, a member of a nearly extinct race of humanoids called the Kelpien, who were enslaved and herded for another species’ food supply. Kelpiens evolved an ability to sense impending death; in such moments, Saru’s neck bristles with “threat ganglia,” yet his anxiety management makes him an ideal, if conflicted, crew member.
The Klingons, who have been done every which way since the ’60s, grow more brutish with each outing; yet “Discovery” encourages viewers to give them more than a passing thought, presenting a belligerent race with a complex spirituality and a deeply wounded pride. What they fear most from the Federation’s peaceful assimilation of cultures is the loss of their Klingon heritage. It’s easy to imagine them marching around Civil War monuments with tiki torches; by the same measure, “Discovery” makes it possible to feel a tiny bit sorry for them.
It’s also worth nothing that, late in the season, a character whom viewers can’t help but like is revealed to be the ultimate impostor. Anyone who saw it had plenty to say about it, but how many people might never see it?
If CBS had been smart enough to air “Star Trek: Discovery” on plain ol’ TV, the show’s plot twists and big reveals probably would have been quite the talkers. “Discovery” often thrums and sizzles with TV’s modern moves — including a nod to our beloved, wait-what? adventures in inner space, when the ship accidentally spore-hops into an alternate universe. With their entire existence turned upside-down, Discovery’s crew must question and reaffirm Roddenberry’s central “Star Trek” values. And when they do, it’s a rather stirring moment for true believers.
And yet, as capable as it turned out to be, “Star Trek: Discovery” has only satisfied part of the deeper longing. It’s like staring up at the nighttime sky, wishing for a fantastic space drama among all the possibilities, and someone keeps pointing out the same point of light that is “Star Trek.”
Is that all there is? Are we really this alone?
Star Trek: Discovery (15 episodes) season finale streams Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.