When Star Trek was in its heyday, it was vaunted as one of the most optimistic franchises around. Both The Original Series of the '60s and then The Next Generation in the '80s and '90s offered a pointed look at our future, one that suggested humanity will shed its flaws, its inner conflicts, and unify itself into peaceful co-existence.
It’s been 50 years since the start of classic Star Trek, and even 30 years since The Next Generation debuted, and though there were three successive TV series to varying degrees of success and quality, much of the Star Trek brand is still largely associated with those two iconic shows — and their fundamental optimism for humanity. Even though it has been decades since these shows have been on the air, this hopeful outlook still provides a balm to a culture in turmoil, as we are in desperate need to believe things will eventually get better.
Times have already changed pretty dramatically in the years since The Next Generation premiered. What’s more, a regular Star Trek series hasn’t been on the air since the early 2000s, and both the television and landscape and the world around us have evolved. Discovery debuted as the franchise's long-awaited return to television, and it has no doubt been weighed by these issues. And one of the most striking things about the series is how much it stands in contrast to the idealism of classic Star Trek.
Discovery Is A Different Kind of Star Trek
From the show's premiere, one thing has been enormously clear about Discovery: This isn’t quite like any other Star Trek we’ve gotten in the past. It is heavily serialized, more lead-driven than ensemble, the main characters have tense and complex relationships, and the Federation itself is seen committing less-than-moral acts in the cause of war. All of which is to say, it's a pretty far cry from much of what defined the adventure-of-the-week fare in TOS and TNG.
This has already proven to be off-putting for many a Star Trek fan — those who grew up during the era of the hopeful space exploration and adventure the early franchise was built upon. Star Trek was noted for its idealism, creating a pinnacle of humanity and our interactions with others, one that we could look up to and emulate. Yet Discovery is interested in being something almost entirely different altogether.
So the question then becomes, do we shun Discovery for not being “proper” Star Trek? Do we hold it up to The Orville — a far more joyful, TNG-like experience — and find it wanting? And what does it even mean to be considered “proper” Star Trek anyway?
Star Trek Is A Broad And Diverse Concept
While it’s fair to say that the franchise’s reputation is built upon the optimistic spirit, it can also be argued that it’s not the only defining quality. What’s more, it’s perhaps far too restrictive to say that a universe as vast as Star Trek can be limited only to the adventure-of-the-week idealistic future. It’s a valuable part of the whole, but it’s not the only thing it can offer. What's more, it also provides a foundation that specifically allows for further entities to go in differing directions.
Deep Space Nine is perhaps the most significant precursor to Discovery, and a valuable part of the discussion, as it is the one Star Trek TV series with the most complicated history. Back in the day of its airing, it largely flew under the radar in comparison to its older sibling The Next Generation. While the latter was a mainstream, iconic hit, DS9 was dismissed by any number of fans for reasons similar to the skepticism surrounding Discovery. Its primary criticisms came both in the decision to have a static setting, as well as the decidedly darker turn it took, with increasingly serialized storytelling, and a much harsher look at the seedy underbelly of the previously-idealized Federation.
And even years before with the debut of The Next Generation, there was concern expressed by fans at having a new Star Trek series altogether. Fears about dismissing or replacing the iconic characters that had come before, and whether or not there could ever be another crew on a ship called the Enterprise not led by Kirk and Spock.
Not only did both TNG and DS9 endure, but they succeeded in significant ways — as the latter became, if anything, more popular than its predecessor. While DS9 took the franchise in interesting new directions, both shows expanded upon the Star Trek universe is substantial and exciting ways.
With TNG and DS9 the Star Trek universe was granted characters and concepts not to replace what came before, but rather to enhance them — to build an expansive universe that allowed for co-existence between multiple properties, with differing tones and perspectives, thereby enriching the whole as a result. The optimistic model is what allowed for the darker tone to flourish, creating a complementary co-existence between the TV series. And ultimately, this demonstrated the possibilities for how fluid a concept Star Trek really is.
Change Can Be A Hard Thing To Accept
Much of the distress among fans regarding Discovery likely also comes due to the nature of change. This is an understandable concern, particularly given the nature of the JJ Abrams rebooted films, which demonstrated that you can have the Federation, the Enterprise, and Kirk and Spock at the center of your story, and still not be proper Star Trek. The failure of these films to chime with the fanbase was in large part due to the focus on action, with the science fiction mechanics largely falling by the wayside.
So one of the hardest challenges facing Discovery here is whether or not fans of Star Trek can accept change. While the optimistic spirit of TOS and TNG was a pivotal part of what made them great, it was also indicative of their time. That kind of cynicism-free worldview isn’t one that currently sells in the mood reflected by our pop culture. We live in different times, and a darker take for the franchise is not only appropriate, but in some respects rather refreshing.
Beyond that, it's also worth taking into account that Star Trek has thrived when it was willing to be something new. TNG took the original ideas of peace and diplomacy offered by the classic series and developed them, building a role for the Federation as an major interplanetary power. DS9 became a cult and critical hit because it radically challenged the nature of Star Trek, all without losing the optimistic essence of the franchise. At the other end of the scale, Voyager and Enterprise were both more comparative failures because they clung too hard to the past, falling back on recycled concepts from TNG and TOS — which about ended the entire franchise in the process.
Star Trek: Discovery needn't be hopeful and optimistic, nor does it demand an idealized view of the Federation, in order to be true to the spirit of this beloved franchise. Indeed, a hard reboot of concepts, a different tonal approach, a radical new narrative structure, and the timely discussion of war is exactly what Star Trek needs. This means that Star Trek is successfully adapting itself to our time. And its success means that fans of the franchise can expect more to come — Star Trek is no longer just a thing of the past.
What do you want to see from Star Trek: Discovery? Shout out in the comments below!