Could Star Trek Discovery Be the First Prestige Drama for Millennials?
I don’t usually wade into pop culture commentary. But I’m going to make an exception in this case, because I have a point to make that touches on two topics near and dear to my heart: generational theory and Star Trek.
As you may be aware, CBS All Access is about to premiere a new Star Trek series in September, dubbed Star Trek Discovery. Having seen the trailers and read dozens of interviews with the cast, writing team and production staff, it’s clear to me that the show’s producers are attempting to reinvent Star Trek as a modern prestige drama. That’s what I would do if I were in charge of the franchise at this time.
Prestige dramas typically feature top notch writing, casting and production values; serialized storytelling with well structured arcs and high stakes for the major characters; and engagement with complex moral, social and political dilemmas. You might say that prestige drama is the high literature of television.
Many pop culture commentators trace the origins of the modern prestige drama to HBO’s The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999 and paved the way for subsequent shows like The Wire, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, House of Cards and more. This is far from an exhaustive list of examples.
But if you run through the best known examples of the genre over the past 20 years, it’s easy to see why prestige dramas also have come to be strongly associated with complicated and conflicted anti-heroes; gritty, cynical, exploitative, and survivalist themes; as well as amoral approaches to sex, drug use and violence.
Let me suggest the possibility that these dark themes are not defining features of prestige drama, but rather are defining features of prestige dram in this era. They are, in fact, a reflection of Generation X’s cultural tastes, which are prevailing in this era of American television history. Gen X’s tastes will not dominate our television landscape forever, nor even necessarily for much longer.
As a reactive or nomad generation, according to William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory, Generation X’s cynicism, amorality and grittiness are well documented. It should come as little surprise that Gen X’s media tastes — both as media producers and consumers — might skew in that direction.
Just as there are natural and predictable periodicities in every generation’s life cycle (as Strauss and Howe discovered) and political life cycle (as my own research has revealed), we also can find patterns in each generation’s cultural tastes and reach.
While it’s always possible to find exceptions that defy the prevailing winds, Gen Xers for the most part have set the thematic tone of American television in the 2000s and 2010s, just as Baby Boomers did in the 1980s and 1990s, Silents did in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Greatest Generation did in the 1940s and 1950s. These date ranges are rough approximations, marked by gradual transitions from one era to the next.
With the 2010s soon coming to a close, Gen X’s dominance of the American television landscape soon will begin to wane, eventually giving rise to a new era of television catering to Millennial preferences and tastes.
Already you can find a host of popular shows aimed predominately or exclusively at Millennials — airing both on television and on various online streaming services: The Big Bang Theory, The Flash, Stranger Things, Girls and many, many more.
My expectation is that the next few years will see the premieres of the first successful prestige dramas of the Millennial era. The dark, amoral and exploitative themes so prevalent in the prestige dramas of the past two decades will soon begin to share the spotlight with similarly prestigious shows defined instead by their optimism, progressivism and inclusiveness.
Which brings me back to Star Trek.
Never in American history has there been a television franchise so thoroughly defined by its optimism, progressivism and inclusiveness. If Star Trek Discovery’s writers, producers and cast embrace these values and do their jobs well, the show could turn out to be one of the first successful prestige dramas of the Millennial era of American television.
To capture the imaginations of a new generation of Millennial fans, Star Trek Discovery will need to stay true to the franchise’s founding ideals while boldly going where the show has never gone before. If this new series can reinvent Star Trek as a prestige drama, while reinventing prestige drama in Star Trek’s image, it could be the catalyst that propels American television into a bold new Millennial era.