By Ryan Fleming
In 1966 US television viewers were first introduced to Star Trek. The voyages of the starship Enterprise on her five-year mission exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilisations, and boldly going where no man had gone before were like nothing those viewers had ever seen before on the small screen. Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future earned good notices, but the ratings were never strong for a television network that had little faith in the programme, and it was cancelled after its second season.
For ninety-nine out of a hundred television programmes that would have been that, but not Star Trek. The fans it had built up in two short years were so against its cancellation that through a massive letter writing campaign they were able to save their favourite programme. A stay of execution was all they got, since the network brought it back in an unfriendly timeslot where ratings declined further, and it was cancelled at the end of its lacklustre third season.
For nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand television programmes that would have been that, but not Star Trek. It would be revived time and again, first as an animated series in the early 1970s, before making the transition to the big screen before that decade was out. What truly marked the series out as something timeless though was the sheer number of live-action spin-offs without the original cast that would come to the small screen.
Every decade since the 1980s has seen the debut of at least one new live-action Star Trek series starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. It would run for seven seasons and would be joined in the 1990s first by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and then by its replacement Star Trek: Voyager, both of which would last for seven seasons each. Enterprise would arrive in 2001 following the end of Voyager and would run for four seasons. A long dry spell would follow but in 2017 Star Trek: Discovery would premier and its third season is expected this year. It would be joined in 2020 by a direct sequel to The Next Generation in the shape of Star Trek: Picard. Picard has already been confirmed for a second season and Star Trek is also expected to return to animation later this year with the debut of Star Trek: Lower Decks.
Seven distinct live-action television series; thirty-one seasons and counting. Each series brought its own distinct flavour, but each and every one of them could have been a very different programme to the one that eventually reached our screens. Either at some stage of their development or even when they were already on the air the creative and/or broadcasting forces behind the programmes intended to take each series in a different direction. It’s a trend that goes all the way back to the original that made it to air in 1966.
For The Original Series we already have a window into that very different programme that might have made it to the airwaves. The USS Enterprise led by William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk was not the version of the programme that was originally pitched to the network. The original pilot submitted to NBC, titled “The Cage”, saw Jeffrey Hunter star as Captain Christopher Pike in a very different style the what would come later.
Though the look of Star Trek evolved across its first season and the familiar supporting cast not fully present until the second, plenty was already in place by the time production on the series proper began. The aforementioned Kirk as well as James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott and George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu, though the latter was originally a physicist and not yet in his familiar role as helmsman. None of these characters were present in the original format presented in “The Cage”, though there was one character that survived the transition from the first pilot to the second.
Mr. Spock, as played by Leonard Nimoy, would become the show’s breakout character and the alien physicist and first officer would also become well-known in mainstream pop culture perhaps more than any other character or aspect of the franchise. It can be surprising to learn that the network strongly felt the character should be eliminated between the first and second pilot. Rodenberry was adamant the character be retained, so the network offered a choice. There were two characters the network did not care for, one was the alien science officer and the other was the cold, calculating first officer. In the original pilot these were two separate characters, Spock was still the science officer, but the emotionless first officer role was instead filled by the enigmatic Number One, played by Majel Barrett.
Had the series been greenlit for production after “The Cage” it is possible Star Trek might still have seen a power trio of main characters. Instead of Shatner as Kirk, Nimoy as Spock, and DeForest Kelley as Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy who joined in the series proper might the show have been led by Hunter as Pike, Barrett as Number One, and Nimoy as Spock? NBC were against both Number One and Spock, but if they give an order for production on “The Cage” instead of exercising their option for a second pilot they might be more amenable to both characters. Rodenberry at least might be successful in keeping both characters in an argument. Though Barrett may be recast, apparently the network did not object to the character so much as the actress.
One reason for the rejection of “The Cage” was that the network felt it was a bit too cerebral for television. Some involved with the production actually agreed, but when “The Cage” was eventually retooled for flashbacks in a two-part episode of the series proper, under the title “The Menagerie”, it was very well received. We might still get many of the episodes we saw in the first season, only with a different cast and perhaps a different look. The series also might be even more willing to produce high concept ideas, there was a lot of literary science fiction influence in the early years and that might be an even bigger influence.
How long might Star Trek fare as a series based on “The Cage”? Things might indicate it would not last as long as the version produced from the second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. This might have less to do with the quality of the programme and more to do with the willingness of its star. Jeffrey Hunter was contractually bound to appear in the series if the pilot was picked up but was not required to participate in the second pilot. Therefore, he decided to leave the project to concentrate on films and thus James T. Kirk was born to fill the captain’s chair. Part of this also might be down to disagreements between Hunter, Rodenberry, and Hunter’s wife/manager Joan Bartlett. It’s possible if the series is cancelled at all after the first or second season Hunter walks away, and a new lead would still be needed.
Historically Jeffrey Hunter would die in 1969. He would suffer a skull fracture that happened in a fall following an intercranial haemorrhage at his Los Angeles home. He may have been susceptible to such a stroke following a severe concussion he received filming the Italian crime thriller Cry Chicago in Spain. His ventures into European films came following a messy divorce in which he lost most of his fortune to Bartlett. Things may had been different had he been in the captain’s chair on the set of Star Trek.
Outside of the change from Pike to Kirk between “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” there has never been any change in lead actor on anyStar Trek. It’s never really been a possibility, with maybe one exception.
By 1990 The Next Generation was in the middle of its third season, but it was still seen by plenty of fans as the poor cousin to the 1960s original. First run syndication was not quite as glamorous as network television, but even beyond that there were issues. The quality of the first two seasons was up and down, the latter further hindered by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. It also saw quite a few cast changes in its early years.
Denise Crosby departed in the first season; her character Tasha Yar was killed off as a result. Gates McFadden was fired after season one, her character Beverly Crusher replaced by Katherine Pulaski (played by Diana Muldaur) in season two, before being brought back for season three. It’s no small surprise then that when everyone sat up and took notice at the cliffhanger ending of season three there were strong rumours series star Patrick Stewart would not be returning.
“The Best of Both Worlds” was the first time a season ending cliffhanger had been attempted in Star Trek. It saw Captain Picard captured by the Borg and assimilated as one of them, intending to be a harbinger of their invasion of the Federation. The power of the opening part still exists today, and this is testament to the strength of Michael Piller’s script. You really get a sense of finality throughout it with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) carrying the episode as he considers leaving the Enterprise and the introduction of newcomer Lieutenant Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) seemingly primed to step into his shoes.
Throughout the summer between the cliffhanger and the beginning of season four speculation was rife that Patrick Stewart would not be returning full time, and that Jonathan Frakes would be become the lead as Captain Riker with Elizabeth Dennehy joining the cast full time as first officer. This never happened, though Patrick Stewart was in contract negotiations and supposedly feeling creatively unfulfilled around this time his continued participation in the show was never really at risk. It might not have taken much though, a new offer of work, any number of personal reasons, for him to wish to step away from the lead role.
Immediately this has some pretty profound effects on The Next Generation, but it would be even more impactful a few years down the line. Unlike most other programmes The Next Generation was not cancelled because of a drop in ratings or because the writers felt it had reached a natural conclusion. Rather, The Next Generation was brought to a close because after seven seasons the actors’ salaries had simply grown larger than the producers were willing to pay.
In a universe where in addition to the departure of Crosby and the firing/re-hiring of McFadden Patrick Stewart had also departed from a full-time role might a more flexible, rotating cast have become the norm? The salaries for seven actors after seven seasons are something that might stretch the purse strings; salaries for four actors after seven seasons, one actor after four seasons, and two actors after three seasons might be a bit more palatable. If Stewart sets a precedent, then maybe we might see other actors want to step away from acting on the programme full-time. Both Frakes and LeVar Burton (Lieutenant Commander La Forge) took opportunities to direct episodes of the series and would direct many more on other Star Trek programmes. Would they maybe take an opportunity to direct more and act less on The Next Generation?
Of course, we might even end up in the situation where the salaries still grow too large but rather than cancelling the programme the studio decides instead to retool the programme with a largely new cast. It’s feasible that in this method The Next Generation could run from 1987 to sometime in the 00s when franchise fatigue inevitably sets in. Though The Next Generation never underwent a complete re-tooling during its lifetime it’s two spin-off programmes saw changes hoisted on them by the powers that be, with very different results.
Deep Space Nine and Voyager differed from both their predecessor shows in concept. Neither was set on a ship called Enterprise, instead being set on vessels reflected in their names, and one of them did not even see much seeking out of new lifeforms and civilisations. Both committed to their concepts with varying degrees, but in both instances as a bid to improve ratings changes were asked of the writers throughout the runs of both.
Deep Space Nine differed from every other Star Trek location by being set in the one location. The titular space station in orbit around Bajor, recently freed from occupation by the Cardassians, who were also the builders of the station. Being set in one location meant that the crew could not just solve the problem of the week and then set out on new adventures, so a more serialised structure developed around the crews involvement in Bajoran politics and religion, their wary interactions with their new neighbours the Cardassians, and the discovery of a wormhole leading to the Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy, which would itself lead to the introduction of the Dominion as the new major threat in the series.
Almost immediately people in power started to get cold feet about such a departure. There was almost an edict to take it down a line more like The Next Generation hence early episode appearances by staples from the former programme like Q (John de Lancie) and Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett). These stopped once the characters found their groove, but still the studio was concerned and asked if they could just strap engines to the station and fly it through the wormhole. The USS Defiant was added to the programme as a compromise. Still the concerns kept pouring in, and eventually the writers were told to ‘do something’ to shake up the series for its fourth season.
What they did was add the character of Worf (Michael Dorn) from The Next Generation and bring in his race the Klingons as a regular fixture. These weren’t the same as the iterations fans had seen for years before, both Worf and the Klingons had new developments unique to Deep Space Nine. With the studio placated the writers were able to proceed forth with their planned storylines, but Worf and the Klingons became permanent and much beloved fixtures on Deep Space Nine.
It’s easy to imagine this pressure resulting in a decline of quality. If the writers had given in and strapped engines to the station, then it would have just become like any other Star Trek series. If they had followed the edict to make it more like The Next Generation the morally complexity the show became known for might not have ever become a thing. There was faith in the concept, but the same cannot be said for Voyager.
Voyager was similar to previous shows in that it would see a vessel of the United Federation of Planets exploring strange new worlds and new civilisations. The difference would be that it would be further from home than any other programme, truly where no one had gone before, and that the crew would not exclusively be of Starfleet but mixed with the rebel Maquis that had been seeded across The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. A very interesting premise even without being Star Trek, but already beginning to slip by the end of the pilot when the Maquis crew readily adopted Starfleet uniforms.
The changes or alternate versions of Voyager have a lot less to do with executive interference, though that will become a factor, and more to do with conflicting visions of what the programme should be from its writers. Some wanted interpersonal conflict between Starfleet and the Maquis and to have many characters of dubious loyalty, some wanted serialised aspects, some wanted to show the risks and considerations that would come from dwindling resources in uncharted, hostile space. Producers were keen to stick to the formula of The Next Generation, so rather than the concept freeing the writers from the confines of that programme they were instead locked into it. Everything was reset by the end of the episode as the crew blasted off to a new adventure.
Ratings struggled for the first few seasons, so the network stepped in anyway and ask again that something be done to shake up the show. The decision was made to introduce the Borg, fresh of an appearance in the film Star Trek: First Contact, and the character Seven of Nine played by Jeri Ryan. This did provide, in addition to precipitating the political career of Barrack Obama, a short-term ratings boost but the constant need to wrap everything up by the end of the episode with no consequences.
Whilst we cannot say with any certainty that Voyager would have been more successful, we can sort of get an idea how it would have felt in the early seasons of the 2003 Battlestar Galactica reimagining. Developed by Star Tek alumnus Ronald D. Moore, it sees the crew of the titular spacecraft forced on the run with dwindling supplies as the characters are constantly pushed to the edge. Though the two franchises are very different it can serve as a template for the feel Voyager would have had with such aspects.
Deep Space Nine and Voyager both saw trepidation and changes before and during their runs, and they would not be the last television iterations of Star Trek to start out as a very different programme from what they started out or what they were intended to become.
By the time Voyager finished its seventh and final season Star Trek programmes had been on the air for fourteen consecutive years between it, Deep Space Nine, and The Next Generation for a total of twenty-one seasons. Since then no Star Trek series has lasted as long as seven seasons, and in at least one case the network was forewarned of the strong possibility by the writers.
UPN wanted a new Star Trek series to air in conjunction with the final season of Voyager. The writers balked at the idea believing the time had come to give the franchise a rest for a couple years, feeling fatigue setting in after such a long time. As a compromise the writers would work on a new programme, but not until Voyager had concluded. This the season after Voyager had ended Enterprise began airing. It would be a programme in the traditional mould but would be differentiated by being set a century before the original series.
The writers originally wanted to differentiate it more from prior series by having most of its first season set on earth while the very first Enterprise was being constructed. The network and producers were worried about such a premise seeing it as being what led to Deep Space Nine’s lower ratings when compared to its stablemates. Thus, Enterprise began and beyond its status as a prequel it was very similar in content to The Next Generation and Voyager.
The writers were likely correct when it came to fatigue though, as the first three seasons saw plenty of underdeveloped ideas and formulaic episodes make it to air. Things massively improved for the fourth season, which would see greater ties to the original series as well as a greater focus on multi-episode story arcs. It was too little, too late however and Enterprise would be cancelled after its fourth season. Star Trek would disappear from the small screen for over twelve years.
If the franchise was allowed to rest for a few years after Voyager perhaps Enterprise would have been able to kick off with a quality closer to its fourth season than what we got in its first three. Then perhaps it may have lasted for longer and the entire franchise not gone into hiatus from television for over a decade.
When Star Trek eventually returned to the small screen with Discovery it found a very different landscape from the one it left behind. Streaming services were all but unknown when Enterprise ended, but when Discovery began, they were supplanting traditional television in many respects. Both it and later shows would premier on CBS All Access. Another trend that had begun by the time Discovery was conceived was the concept of seasonal anthology programmes. Those like American Horror Story, Fargo, and True Detective that would tell a different story in a different time each season but all set within the same universe.
Co-creator Bryan Fuller had originally wanted Discovery to be a seasonal anthology programme, with each season telling the story of a different ship of the same name throughout Star Trek history. It would start out with a prequel to the original series then one set concurrently with it, following by one set around the time of The Next Generation,Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. This idea was eventually abandoned, and Discovery has instead told a serialised story across multiple seasons, all set before the time of the original series.
Discovery was successful enough for Paramount to begin development of other programmes within the Star Trek franchise. The first new series to be developed was Picard, featuring the return of Patrick Stewart to the role of Jean-Luc Picard for the first time in eighteen years.
It seems as though audiences are in for the biggest glut of Star Trek content since the 1990s, with two live-action series already in production and an animated one on the way. Would we still be talking about it today if Star Trek had been developed from “The Cage” instead of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”? If The Next Generation had a revolving cast? If the writers had been unable to successfully placate the studio over Deep Space Nine or had committed to the concept of Voyager? If the franchise had been allowed to rest before the development of Enterprise? Or if Discovery had stuck with the idea of a seasonal anthology?
Some of these ideas might have proved failures, others might have proved more successful, but in a franchise that has been in existence for nearly sixty years across seven distinct live action series, thirteen feature films, and two animated series the alternate history possibilities are limitless.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP