How much of a Star Trek fan am I? Let me count the ways. I own a tricorder (alright, a replica. Still counts). I have the uniform (Command, naturally). If I ever met a Klingon, I’d know what to say to him, in his native tongue. I’m an unabashed nerd and a huge fan, but I won’t be watching Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise’s latest iteration: By putting the show behind the paywall of their newfangled subscription service, CBS has stolen the soul of Star Trek.
I understand, of course, that the show is, to use the dreadful parlance of corporate drones, the network’s intellectual property, and that as such, it has the right to benefit from it as it sees fit, even if that means charging six dollars a month for a service that features almost no original programming and whose audio and video quality is about three decades behind the times. But like every cultural touchstone that merits our fullest emotional engagement, Star Trek resonates because so many of us are swayed by its ethos, and its ethos has always been about avoiding precisely the sort of prickish move CBS just pulled with their asinine paywall.
You hardly need to know your Borg from your Breen to appreciate that much of Star Trek’s appeal had to do with its progressive spirit. Originally helmed by two freewheeling Jews—William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy—the USS Enterprise was a vehicle for advancing liberal values, which is why it was host to the first interracial kiss on American television as well as home to a splendid cast of truly diverse characters. The show was never above making a buck—the Prime Directive of all TV shows being to boldly go where no ad buyer had gone before—but like the best of American culture, it succeeded in convincing its fans that it had a reason to be beyond making money. It was gospel. And gospel just can’t thrive on a hastily produced attempt to make a few more dollars by launching a me-too streaming service years after better competitors flooded the zone and holding your fans hostage in the desperate attempt that they’ll pay up to watch their favorite show.
To add insult to injury, the captain chosen to helm this newest voyage is portrayed by the eminently menschy Jewish actor Jason Isaacs, whose charms are now utilized not in the service of a deserving legacy but as an advertisement to corporate greed and ineptitude. It’s the kind of ploy you can almost imagine as a Star Trek plotline, involving, maybe, the avaricious Ferengi, for whom nothing is sacred save for the latest transaction.
This is particularly vexing because Star Trek was always appealing because it presented a future in which the universe’s various occupants have learned to put aside their difference and work towards the common good. As CBS now makes it clear, the future is much more likely to be about various corporations retreating from shared platforms and insisting that you pay them separately for their content. The power of television to serve as our common cultural agora will only continue to diminish, making it impossible, ironically, for shows like Star Trek to ever reach the massive audience they had back when we could all watch the same shows without paying each network separately for its goods.
I’m sure Star Trek: Discovery is going to be great. Its creators, Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller, are both talented storytellers, and the first episode, broadcast for free on CBS last month, looked promising. But the Star Trek I love is the Star Trek available to everyone, not only to folks who can pay for yet another premium subscription service. Those of us who care about the franchise and its heart can be excused for condemning Discovery to the Vault of Eternal Destitution.