The first reboot to look at is a venerable series that has had its ups and downs over the years. First aired in 1966, Star Trek was originally proposed to NBC as Wagon Train to the Stars, taking advantage of the popularity of Westerns at the time to sell the show. The show would be an science-fiction anthology as the crew of the USS Enterprise explored "new worlds and civilizations". The ratings weren't as high as executives wanted, but the demographics strongly favoured educated men 18-30. Letter writing campaigns saved the show once, but could not rescue the series after its third season.
Star Trek then fell into syndication, airing on local stations to fill in time slots. Its popularity grew, drawing in more fans, some of who started writing fanfiction for self-published fan magazines ('zines). A certain type of fanfic received its name from the pairings involved: Kirk-slash-Spock. (Yes, Star Trek spawned the name for homoerotic fanfiction.) The fandom spread despite the lack of Internet. Conventions popped up throughout North America. Fanfiction spread around through the 'zines. Star Trek inspired a good number of people to get into science and space exploration. The series broke down social barriers and examined social taboos; Star Trek was the first show on television to have an interracial kiss. And, in lesser influences, where would cell phones and tablet PCs be without Star Trek? (Am I the only person disappointed that my cell phone doesn't chirp when I open it?)
With the increasing popularity, Filmation created a Saturday morning cartoon, Star Trek: The Animated Series. Although stock footage recycling was heavily used (Filmation was well known for reuse of footage), the series brought in science-fiction authors including Larry Niven. The animated series lasted two seasons and only one episode of it ever was considered canon ("Yesteryear"). An attempt to reboot the series as live action came about in the late 1970s. The result of this became Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. However, the scripts for the reboot, Star Trek II, remained.
In 1987, Paramount brought back Star Trek, and this is the reboot being examined in this column. The new series advanced the timeline of the show about 100 years and brought in new actors. One of the bold moves with the new series was to introduce a Klingon Star Fleet officer serving on the Federation's flagship, the USS Enterprise. The scripts from the previous reboot attempt were recycled, with lines changed or swapped around to reflect the new characters. The series became popular, and, because it was syndicated, didn't have as much problem with network executives as the original series had.
There is no denying that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a successful reboot. The series had many things working in its favour: it was the first new weekly Star Trek series since the animated series; it had the same creative minds behind it as the original series; the cast was solid and grew into their characters as the show progressed. The first episode had DeForest Kelly reprising his role as Dr. McCoy as a way to hand off the Enterprise from one generation to the next. The cast, with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, came together and had on-screen chemistry. Once new scripts were filmed, the characters started looking less like Spock Jr and James T. Kirk XV and more like the Data and Riker fans enjoyed.
There were some bumpier parts to the show. One character, Wesley Crusher, was not well received by the fan base. Part of the character's problem was that the writers made him far more useful than the rest of the crew. Wesley was smart, but he didn't have the experience that LaForge did in engineering. However, too many writers made the leap from smart to knowledgeable and threatened to turn Wesley into a Mary Sue. Another problem came from the reuse of scripts for the Star Trek II series. Those scripts were written with Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Xon (who would replace Spock with Leonard Nimoy not available). The new cast, Picard, Crusher, LaForge, Riker, Yar, Worf, and Data, did not map one-to-one on the originals. There would be episodes where Riker fell into the Kirk role, which didn't fit the character.
The creative team behind Star Trek: The Next Generation managed to avoid many potential pitfalls. The big one was not having the original cast and crew from the Original Series. Would the audience accept the new cast? Coupled with the script reuse previously mentioned, it'd take some time for the characters to establish themselves. On top of this, the original cast could still be seen in feature films and in syndicated reruns of the original series; competition from within both new and old. Another potential problem was not having the backing of a network. Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated from Day 1, forcing it to be aired in non-standard time slots, such as Sunday afternoons or weekday evenings around 7:00.
Not having the original crew didn't seem to harm the series. Once the actors grew comfortable with their roles and the scripts reflected the actual characters instead of reskinning the previous incarnations, fans had accepted the new cast. The quality of stories, while a little hackneyed by recent storytelling techniques, were classic Star Trek, keeping the fans interest. Sydication helped the series; there were no network execs trying to meddle with the show. Fans who wanted to watch were able to, and individual stations could adapt their available schedule to accomodate the fanbase if they so wanted. Other than a few clunky episodes and a some aliens that weren't immediately appreciated (like the Ferengi), the show took off.
Overall, the heart of the original Star Trek remained; the Enterprise still explored "new worlds and civilizations" but became more recluse as it boldly went, "where no one has gone before." Even with the aliens and the android, the show remained focused on what it meant to be human. What we as a geek audience can get out of Star Trek: The Next Generation is that when the heart remains, when there's an audience hungering for more, when you have a good cast and good writers, then a successful reboot will happen. Star Trek: The Next Generation succeeded because it built on top of a good foundation and expanded.
Next time, a look at television's longest continuously running science fiction series.