Ok, so we’ve established that Star Trek worked on the force of its characters. But what else led to it lasting 50 years?
Being able to move beyond the characters.
And now I’m sure you’re all saying “What the heck? He just told us the secret was characters. And now he’s saying that it moved beyond characters? Does he even know what he’s saying? Is he just typing whatever pops into his head?”
To which I say “Yes, I am. Sort of.” and “No comment.”
When Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired, it attracted it a lot of controversy. People were outraged at the idea that we could have Star Trek without Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. But somehow, despite a frankly disastrous first two seasons, the show succeeded. And we went on to have more spin-offs: Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. None of those shows went back to Kirk and Spock.
Every Star Trek show succeeds or fails on the strength of its characters, but every show needs new characters. Star Trek is a show about the future, about exploring, about moving forward and taking BOLD risks. Rather than attempting half-hearted imitation of the original, the creative forces behind Next Generation had the right idea: a new generation of characters, carrying on the legacy of the original series but moving it forward. This way Star Trek can adapt to be the future of the times rather than simply the future of the 1960’s.
Rather than the all-white, all-male trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, we can get Sisko and Janeway. Rather than being locked to the idea of an emotionless Vulcan, we can explore similar concepts in new ways with Data, Seven of Nine, and Odo.
Anything that has lasted for a long time needs to be able to change and adapt without loosing itself. Star Trek as a franchise was able to do that for a long time. I suspect that part of its eventual (temporary, I’m sure) failure on television was due to Voyager and Enterprise not being entirely willing to move past Next Generation and give us a new view of the future.
Drawing on the mostly-unintentional idea established when Pike and Kirk were made different characters rather than just replacing Hunter with Shatner as Pike, Star Trek made itself into a sprawling world where new things could be explored.
I think that’s rather fitting for a show based on the idea of exploring the final frontier.
(Is there a subtle criticism of the new films hidden in here? Well, I really, really liked Beyond, but… Yes. Yes, there certainly is.)