In around a month’s time, fans will be sitting down to watch the latest entry in the Star Trek franchise – Star Trek Discovery. For a while now we’ve been teased with trailers and character information, all designed to whet our appetite for the main event. I’ve been dipping in and out of the news, but regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I’ve been on the fence about the whole thing. I love Star Trek, but dare I get my hopes up?
The general consensus from those in the know is that Star Trek Discovery isn’t really Star Trek as we know it – it’s more of an adequately entertaining generic sci-fi series that is Star Trek in name only. Certainly, what I’ve seen hasn’t filled me with hope– the starship is ugly, the new Klingons seem unappealing, and the dark and gritty aesthetic is far from Star Trek’s generally optimistic view of the future. Even shoehorning in yet another prequel series – this time a mere ten years before the original Star trek – seems like a poor decision.
But what, then, is Star Trek? What is it that makes this franchise so beloved, so distinct from your run of the mill sci-fi series? What gave the original series such popularity that even cancellation couldn’t stop the franchise from rumbling on and churning out thirteen feature films and four additional TV series, not to mention an animated series, hundreds of spin-off novels, various video games and vast arrays of merchandise?
As I’ve already mentioned, one of Star Trek’s greatest strengths has always been its optimism. It debuted in an era where most sci-fi was about alien attacks and abductions, and showed its viewers something different – a future where Earth had overcome its problems and successfully reached for the stars. On the bridge of the USS Enterprise, a black woman, a Russian man and even an alien served alongside white Americans, and no one batted an eyelid.
Of course, through modern eyes, Star Trek’s vision of the future does look a bit dated. White men were still in charge; we only ever saw one woman with a rank above lieutenant; women were largely present on the show to look attractive and sleep with Gene Roddenberry behind the scenes, and LGBT representation was non-existent. But perhaps that too held some key to the enduring popularity of TOS – it depicted a positive future, but it was also recognisably of its time. Viewers in the sixties could see traces of the society they knew, and perhaps imagine themselves travelling across the galaxy with Captain Kirk.
Of course, TOS was cancelled after only three seasons, but instead of sinking without a trace, the idea of Star Trek took hold. Star Trek lived on in the form of an animated series, and almost got a second TV show in the seventies. It was only the popularity of Star Wars that thrust the franchise in a different direction, with Kirk and crew instead graduating to the big screen.
The Star Trek movies kept the flame alive, and by the late eighties, the world was ready for another TV series. Once again, TNG encapsulated that magic formula – an optimistic future rooted in recognisable elements from the present. TNG’s future looked even more amazing than that of TOS. Starships were now much larger, and carried families on board. The Federation was not so much of a Wild West as it was a tame and civilised place. The Klingons, once sworn enemies of humanity, were now our friends – to the extent that a Klingon even served on the bridge of the Enterprise. As a reflection of the era of the boardroom, the senior crew now gather in a briefing room to discuss their options. Captain Picard prefers diplomatic negotiations to getting his shirt off and participating in oddly cheoreographed fights. Women now hold higher rank, albeit often in more caring roles like ship’s doctor. And since we’re all in touch with our feelings more than we were in the sixties, the presence of a ship’s counsellor on a bridge comes as standard.
The nineties were truly a golden age for Star Trek and its fans. Buoyed by the success of TNG, the franchise launched two more TV series – the darker, space-station based DS9, and the relentless drive to get home of Voyager. Neither series was perfect, and each had its detractors, but by and large, they delivered more of the universe that we had come to love.
By 2001, Star Trek had been on the air without a break for 14 years. Still, we were in for more, as a new series was commissioned – Enterprise.
Enterprise made life hard for itself in several ways right from the start. For the first two seasons it dropped the “Star Trek” prefix from its name, it had an unprecedented theme song with sung lyrics, and it was set in a whole new time period – the 22nd century. Yet, despite some misgivings and general fears about our precious Star Trek continuity being retconned in unexpected ways, fans such as myself decided to give it a go.
The first two seasons of Enterprise are largely mediocre – but to be far, the same could be said of our beloved TNG. But Enterprise was operating in a very different landscape. In TV land, Star Trek was no longer a novelty or a beloved, protected franchise – it was a show as vulnerable to cancellation to any other. But more than that, the world itself had changed – and not for the better.
As I’ve already said, Star Trek is a delightfully optimistic of a future where all of humanity’s disparate races and factions will finally learn to put aside their differences and learn to get along. But Enterprise was airing post 9/11, in a world where such a future seemed further away than ever. Maybe what we needed was to be reminded of Star Trek’s rosy future, but instead, what we eventually got with Enterprise was something that seemed designed to reflect contemporary events.
Enterprise’s third year follows a season long arc that describes its own “war on terror” – following an attack on Earth by the Xindi, Enterprise’s mission is changed from fresh-faced bumbling around in space to a dedicated search for the culprits. The limits that were tested with DS9’s Dominion War were completely smashed, leading us into uncomfortable new territory for Star Trek.
As an antidote to this, season four went in the other direction, including many arcs that were pure fan service, covering topics such as the Eugenics Wars, the founding of the Federation, the smooth-headedness of 2260s Klingons, and even the return of Orion animal women. It all smacked of trying too hard, and ultimately, Enterprise was cancelled.
Twelve years have passed since then, and Star Trek is finally ready to return to the small screen. Star Trek Discovery has already been labelled as darker and grittier, because the creators believe that is what will make it ‘of its time’ for the contemporary viewer. There’s an implication that we as an audience have perhaps outgrown the earlier series, that we must have something that better reflects our modern society.
I disagree. The essence of Star Trek is that very optimism – the belief that it’s worth reaching out to new people and making them your friends, or that round the next corner there will be some interesting new phenomenon to study simply for the sake of learning something new. In times like these, when we are surrounded by world events both depressing and distressing, an hour of such noble-minded escapism seems like just what we need.
The enduring popularity of the older Star Trek series suggests that we as an audience are not yet too jaded and cynical to enjoy the franchise’s optimism. But if we actually are, then should Star Trek really change the core of what it is in order to fit into our modern tastes? Should it become “just another sci-fi show”? I don’t think so. Better to not revive the franchise at all than to change it into something it was never meant to be. The Star Trek name may carry weight and popularity, but it also carries great expectations. Perhaps Discovery would have done better to go it alone, instead of hitching itself to the wagon of a franchise that already has such a distinct identity.
See you next month for my week by week blog on each episode of Discovery as it hits the UK.