It’s a good time to be a Star Trek fan. We’re in the middle of what feels like a Trek Renaissance, with the franchise enjoying a popularity it hasn’t since The Next Generation’s heyday in the '90s, thanks to the big-budget movies on the big screen - and a new series just over the horizon in 2017.
It couldn’t come at a better time, really. The world is a scary place, and getting scarier. We need good television. We need Star Trek. And the formula for hitting that bullseye isn’t as complex as you might think. If #StarTrekDiscovery is going to be the smash hit we know it can be, the steps are clear.
It’ll need just three very important ingredients:
- That elusive sense of ‘Trek-ish-ness’
- Writing continuity and character development
- A balance of intensity to hope
Let’s Boldly Go
First of all… what makes us trek through the stars? What makes it ‘feel like Star Trek?’ The Original Series was all about exploring, inclusion and dreaming about what could be. (Also, tribbles.) Depending on who you ask, the franchise might have lost its way for a while, but the most recent feature film, #StarTrekBeyond is a very good sign that we’re back on track.
The most recent member of the Trek film family was received so well by fans because in a sea of cookie-cutter action flicks, it recalled the sense of awe, excitement and optimism that made Star Trek so beloved in the first place, 50 years ago. (And, yes, it was pretty and fun.) I’m confident that this will carry over onto the small screen as well.
It Is Linear
The second element is a confirmed go. Discovery’s first season is set to be a thirteen-chapter story - told in one continuous arc. We’ll get that ongoing story and character development. And it’s a good thing, because that’s what we need for real, meaningful character development and storyline depth.
The anthology episodic style used by The Original Series and The Next Generation won’t work for every series - it didn’t showcase Voyager to the show’s full potential, and the fact that Discovery is using this connected-arc story format is a good sign indeed. Trek fans haven’t seen anything like that since the later seasons of Deep Space Nine and its fantastically intense, intricately-written and powerfully dramatic Dominion War arc, in which entire seasons became continuing narratives. It worked incredibly well, and this specific element of deep storytelling is what Star Trek, and television in general, has been missing.
We Will Find Hope In The Impossible
And lastly… that linear-arc style hints at an intense, dark story that Bryan Fuller is known for. He might not be showrunner anymore, but he’s not abandoning the series either (hooray for 'remaining deeply involved!'), and the man knows drama.
Also, that Dominion War arc I mentioned in DS9? Incredible. Arguably one of the best pieces in the entire Star Trek narrative. And one of the darkest. Audiences were skeptical when DS9 originated an extended war story in Star Trek - especially since one of the writing rules in The Original Series and The Next Generation was ‘no interpersonal conflict.’
Creator Gene Roddenberry's original idea was to represent a utopian society, so the Enterprise crews (both of them) weren’t allowed to have serious arguments. We were supposed to have grown beyond that by the 24th century. Also, things like poverty, war, and fashion sense.
But engaging fiction is made of conflict, and Roddenberry relaxed this particular rule eventually - and TNG got a lot more interesting. The next show, DS9, was built on conflict, and it had high stakes fright from the pilot.
But there’s a balance. If Discovery is going where I think it’s going, it’ll need that balance between ‘it’s getting dark and real now,' and 'here's why life is worth fighting for.’ It’s a tricky operation. But #BryanFuller's experience is more than proven - and Discovery will be following the plan he's already laid out. I think ST:DIS has a great chance of learning from the shows that have come before, and hitting that sweet spot.
Because… Who Are We Again? Resistance Is… Something
I can tell you exactly when Star Trek started to grow out of the one-shot formula, and why Discovery getting rid of it is the best thing that could happen.
The Next Generation, Season 3 finale/Season 4 premiere, ‘The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 and 2.’ That ‘Part 1/2’ is important. It’s continuous. A story like this has to be.
As soon as the Borg threat escalated seriously and Picard became Locutus, it cranked up the tension up to where it had never gone before. From that moment on, Star Trek started to get darker, more action-packed, and intense. And that's awesome. But if you're going to start a major conflict, like a war or a decades-long journey home, a show made of singular episodes doesn't work anymore.
The one-shot #TV format works for most other shows. It even worked for TOS, and it didn't really hurt TNG’s early seasons, because for the most part (until a serious adversary like the Borg started showing up on the regular!) they weren't trying to tell one major, ongoing story. It's fine if we're just doodling around in space, a different adventure every week. But it didn't work as well for later-series TNG, and it won't work for Discovery. The minute we fire up the nacelles and kick it up to eleven, and especially if we want to show the passage of time and how everyone changes, we need that ongoing 'previously-on' style, because war changes people.
The thing to remember is that when you crank up your stakes, you have to adjust your writing accordingly. The trouble comes when that doesn't happen. One show in particular really was good, because it had two out of three ingredients: Voyager was Trek-ish, all right, and it maintained a sense of undaunted determination and hope for a return home. But it was missing the third ingredient that kept a good show from being a great one - and what Discovery learns and uses here, combined with its own original flavor, really will be the best of both worlds.
Boldly go and read more about Star Trek:
- In Space, Star Treks You: Is Gene Roddenberry's Vision For The Future Communist?
- A Trekkie Checklist For The New 'Star Trek'
- Why 'Star Trek' Is Still So Relevant 50 Years Later
What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Voyager was born with outstanding raw concepts, but the execution didn't fit the single story the show had to tell. This was a show about some lost people trying to find their way home. More than any other #StarTrek series, Voyager was missing two things it needed to fully launch into greatness: ongoing narrative arcs, and consistent writing.
Voyager’s timeframe spans years, much longer than the time we’re shown onscreen. But aside from the major events, like Kes leaving the show and Seven of Nine joining at the end of Season 3, the show pretty much ends the way it began, with the same group of people and the same cast dynamics. Nobody really seems to personally grow, change, or form a significantly different opinion in all this time. Harry Kim is still an Ensign, and this is after giving his life for his ship on four separate occasions, give or take a reality.
And it's not the fault of the crew, the actors, or even the writers - it's that their format didn’t fit their story. All of this could have been changed for the better if we'd essentially hit 'save game' after each episode, if each one were part of a continuous plot.
The one time we get a hint of one of these ongoing arcs, the 'Year of Hell,' the majority of the action happens in timeskips offscreen. It might be dark, but that kind of extended cause-and-effect is what Discovery needs to truly shine. It needs deep, intense storytelling and character development you can really only get through ongoing arcs, written by core writers who intimately know the characters then give them time to grow.
Discovery will have that. And it should be amazing. Just hopefully not another Year of Hell. And there is one more Star Trek series from whose legacy Discovery can draw inspiration. And knowing Bryan Fuller’s history, probably will.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay As They Should
You might notice a pattern in my logic so far. Let's add this up.
...Okay. Let's simplify:
- One-shot episodes + universe to explore = Profit!
- One-shot episodes + big, intense story = ????
- Connected episodes + character development + big, intense story = Fascinating!
It's a simple equation. If we want these people to seem real, and want their struggles to matter, the small stories need to fit into a bigger whole. But even in an otherwise masterfully-crafted show, it’s easier said than done.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, however...
Got it right. The story was exciting and sweeping, but tight and focused at the same time. It showed off the huge galaxy and the people in it, all living together on one station. It had the most multicultural cast (human and nonhuman) of any Star Trek series before or since. It threw TNG’s original ‘no interpersonal conflict’ rule out the nearest airlock - and that made for fresh, dramatic stories. Also, connected stories. Even where you didn’t expect them.
Take Nog, for example. Over the course of the show, we watched him grow from aimless, mischievous punk kid, to determined and idealistic Starfleet cadet, to disillusioned, scarred, but unbroken soldier.
Of any Star Trek character, in any series, Nog’s personal transformation is the most dramatic, and also the best-written and acted. Aron Eisenberg's performance rang so true that several combat veterans wrote in thanking him for his realistic and powerful portrayal of PTSD and recovery. This storyline was an incredibly important piece of television, one that impacted real lives in a meaningful way. And it would not have happened without the combined elements I’ve described in this article.
DS9 was dark. It was real. Everyone in the entire cast ended a different person than they began. It showed just how deeply this galaxy is connected. It showed that we can survive anything together.
That’s what we need in Discovery. Character-driven plots, consistent story development, and balance between darkness and hope. Inclusion. Realism that doesn’t shy away from conflict, but maintains an ultimate core of resilience and Trekkie optimism.
To Discovery... And Beyond.
The future of Discovery looks bright indeed. It feels so good to be excited about Star Trek again.
This is how we make Star Trek feel like Star Trek again. This might be how we save #television in general. This is what we need now, more than ever.
Make it so.