Why Star Trek: Discovery Needs to Break With Tradition

I watched Star Trek Beyond over the weekend, and it’s a really good time—a definite step up from Into Darkness and a worthy piece of Trek for the franchise’s 50th Anniversary. The deaths of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin cast a shadow over the movie, but both are acknowledged with compassion and grace, the central plot is thematically chewy and fun, and Kirk’s emotional arc across the three reboot movies to date pays off here in an extremely satisfying way. It also has, flat out, one of the most air punch victory moments in the franchise’s history, as well as a beautifully timed tip of the hat to Spaced, the epochal sitcom in which Simon Pegg first made his comedy mark.

But it also highlighted the unique problem that Star Trek as a franchise has: it has to please not one, but three separate audiences. Namely long-term fans, fans of the new, rebooted material, and people who are entirely new to the concept as a whole.

That’s one of the few areas where Star Trek Beyond fails. It’s a great sequel to the previous two movies and honors the original franchise very well but its connections to and dependence on the past is not entirely welcoming to—and may come close to being incomprehensible for—newcomers not already steeped in the previous movies and the Trek universe in general. The plot explores the changing role of a starship captain, the continued viability of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, and whether or not a soldier can ever truly lay down their arms. In formation with the other movies it works brilliantly. As a movie for new arrivals, it’s a little like watching a surprisingly violent but well-choreographed Cirque du Soleil show set in space.

Which brings us to Star Trek: Discovery and what it both does and doesn’t need to be.

Discovery, the new TV series scheduled to premiere worldwide next year, is already breaking new ground. We have a new ship, a new name, and a new format, with the show having been confirmed as a serial in the style of the uniformly excellent Marvel Netflix shows.

That’s the first piece of good news. With the exception of the Xindi plot in Enterprise, Star Trek has rarely experimented with long form arcs. It makes particular sense with a new show, a new ship and crew, and possibly a new time frame, too. We need to spend time getting comfortable with these people, so the show spending time with them working on a overarching predicament or situation makes perfect sense.

That structure also speaks very well to the new production team’s approach to the past. Five decades of continuity haunts Trek’s corridors like the ghost of Season Finales Past, and the franchise is almost always at its worst when it bows under that massive weight. The colossal misstep of the Khan plot in Into Darkness showed just how badly a story can go sideways, and it’s heartening to see that lesson has been taken to heart. It’s a big universe, and it makes sense for the new show to tell new stories in new ways. At the time of writing, rumours persist that the show is either set prior to every other version of Star Trek we’ve seen or in the time period immediately following the TOS-era crew’s scenes in Generations. Either option represents new ground, and either would work very well.

There is one element of Beyond that Discovery needs to share. As was pointed out on the excellent School of Movies episode discussing the film, Beyond does some quietly subversive stuff with gender norms—Sulu’s husband and daughter are already a matter of record, but there are several other moments where the film makes it clear that heterosexuality is not the only normal there is.

Of course it’s not perfectly handled—the studio’s annoyingly coy approach to Sulu’s husband mirrors the way a Korra/Asami romance had to be sketched in rather than handled overtly in the closing seasons of Legend of Korra. But given the ways that Next Generation, in particular, explored issues of sexuality across much of the LGBT spectrum, there’s a lot of precedent for Discovery to do the same. Not to mention the original show’s pioneering diversity in terms of both cast and characters. In short then, Discovery needs to have a crew which is diverse across multiple axes to mirror the realities of in modern life. Trek is a series based on hope, and that hope needs to be reflected in a crew that speaks to everyone. Happily, the recent announcement from producer Bryan Fuller that the show will feature an openly gay character speaks pretty clearly to that.

Then, of course, we must consider the issues at the heart of the story. Trek is the textbook example of using drama as a means of exploring the issues of its day. Deep Space Nine was based around the chaotic frontiers of Europe in the wake of the Communist bloc collapse, while Next Generation delved into everything from the unique pressures of cutting edge academic life to mortality, PTSD, multiple explorations of multiple sexualities, and the ethical questions inherent in the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. Every incarnation of Star Trek has been defined by the events of its time: the Vietnam War, the events of September 11th, the curiously mundane and horrifying final moments of a lost astronaut, the rights of holographic life forms, the way our stories are deformed and twisted by history and memory. All of these and so many more have been covered in Trek’s five decades worth of social concerns. Discovery will undoubtedly continue that tradition, both embracing and in turn, being defined by, the issues of the current day.

So that covers what the show can, and should do. What it shouldn’t do is both simpler and far harder to accept, at least for one of the audiences it needs to reach…

Discovery cannot be set in the same time period as any previous show.

I’ve seen numerous fan requests for the series to be set post-Nemesis, or during the Romulan war, or concurrent with the Next Generation-era trio of shows. If you set the show during a time designed to please existing fans, you’re assigning the audience that’s new to Trek homework they neither want nor deserve. It’s essentially giving the show an entrance exam and in order for it to reach the audience it needs, that simply can’t happen. Besides, if Discovery performs well then every other previous show will get a bump as new fans go forth and investigate the five decades of stories waiting for them—but they’ll get to do so on their own terms.

That isn’t to say the new series can’t draw on elements from the show’s history, and the “31” in Discovery‘s registry number has already been heavily hinted as being a reference to Starfleet Intelligence’s Section 31. But the show has to play with old toys on new terms or it will be measured against the franchise’s past in the exact way the reboot movies have and, at times, been found wanting. Again, Fuller’s recent announcement that the show will be set ten years before the original series and in the original timeline is absolutely in line with this hope. While initial reports suggested it was being designed to fit into the era briefly seen at the start of Generations, this is, if anything more interesting. There’s ample opportunity to farm the nostalgia of the past, but even more to break new ground. The fact that Discovery has also been confirmed as not featuring a Captain as the lead character further drives home this willingness to find new perspectives on old ideas.

This is ultimately why Beyond lets down new viewers, because it’s designed to appeal to those who are already on board. For it’s built-in audience, that’s very much a feature not a bug, give that it’s the third movie in a loose trilogy built on extended riffs and alternate versions of the original timeline, after all. But if Beyond pleases the fans already steeped in its mythology and references, Discovery needs to move forward, in a new direction: it has to break new ground in story format, casting, theme, and time period.

In other words, Discovery has to be both the ship’s name and the show’s mission statement. In order to win new viewers and please old it needs to do one thing; go, boldly. And I can’t wait to see where we end up.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.