Star Trek has spawned numerous spin-offs and continues to be popular with a diverse audience. Despite many of its underlying concepts being rooted in the mid-1960s and a continuity that has experienced numerous revisions and re-envisioning, it remains one of the most successful SF franchises of all time.
In 2005, Star Trek: Enterprise ended a problematic but successful run. A new series of movies began in 2009. These action-oriented films take place in an alternate timeline, and do not directly affect the rest of the franchise. For several years, fans had no licensed dramatic presentations that took place in the canonical universe or connected definitively to the Star Trek they knew and loved.
In 2017, Paramount released Star Trek: Discovery. It drew new viewers and divided old ones. As of this writing, it is poised to begin its fourth season, and thus will last longer than the iconic, original show.
The first season showed the kind of representative cast that the original series only hinted at, and showcased production and effects about which previous shows could only dream. It also took on a more contemporary TV sensibility, with less cohesive crew than we've seen in the past (They also use swear words).
The show takes place about a decade before the original series, at a time when the Enterprise was already flying under Captain Kirk's predecessor, Christopher Pike. The Federation may be boldly going, but the Klingon Empire wants war.
Although it's fair to say the show features an ensemble cast, the stories (and much of the cosmos, it would seem) often centre on someone other than the captain: Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human raised on Vulcan as Spock's hitherto-unmentioned adopted sister. Other characters include Doug Jones as a rather fascinating alien named Saru, the problematic first captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Issacs), Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts), Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), Gen Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) R.A. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe), Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), Nahn (Rachael Ancheril), Airiam (played by both Sara Mitich and Hannah Cheesman), and the enigmatic Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).
Not everyone would make it through the series.
Season One: Growing Pains
Some people took to the show immediately. It grew on others. A sizable faction, however, immediately rejected it, often rallying around Seth MacFarlane's Trek tribute series, The Orville, as the true successor to Gene Roddenberry's vision.
Complaints fell into four broad categories:
1. Aspects which reasonably might be regarded as flaws and missteps.
2. Aspects which contradicted established Trek canon and expectations.
3. Aspects that intentionally contradicted established canon and expectations, and which were actually clues to mysteries that were a part of the first season's story arc.
4. Whiny rants about teh SJWs taking over Trek.
I will attempt to address each, briefly:
1. The characters, in particular, experience growing pains, and it was hard, initially, to like anyone. Ensign Tilly, written as socially awkward, initially comes off as annoying, and not someone you'd want on a starship. The tensions created on the ship by certain aspects addressed under #2, meanwhile, also make it difficult to show the characters getting along. Burnham, meanwhile, commits mutiny, plays no small role in starting a war, and still gets reinstated.
2. The show takes place at the same time as the Christopher Pike Enterprise, yet the design of the uniforms and ships does not match. We see advanced holographic and robotics technology beyond anything evident in the original series, and it gets used routinely on board. Discovery has an experimental drive based on, uh, space fungus and tardigrades, that works far better than anything we've seen, even in spin-offs set generations later. The Klingons receive yet another redesign: hairless, with more prosthetics and skin-colors than previous incarnations.1 Burnham has her strong familial connection to Spock that, apparently, no one felt the need to mention in any of his appearances. Fan favorite Harry Mudd turns up, retroactively a vicious and nearly-psychopathic criminal instead of the comic relief grifter depicted previously. Some changes in design and sensibility reflect the era in which the show is made, and make sense when viewed in this way. Other changes occur for no particular reason at all. The revised appearance of the Klingons and the uniforms, for example, baffled long-time fans without adding anything.
3. Several characters act in off-putting ways, not suited to Starfleet officers. I don't want to give spoilers. We're supposed to notice these things. The story's planned twists address these matters. However, they tried the patience of fans who hadn't seen a new Trek series in a while, and wanted Federation heroes boldly going and upholding the show's values. Those who stayed with the show at least saw some complex plotting beyond anything even arc-heavy Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had attempted.
4. Women and men received equal representation, and we saw greater diversity than in past series. Of the most prominent white men, one was a complete jackass, a second behaved suspiciously, and a third had a husband. The main character, a Black woman, was a wild card with a male name.
People, especially those convinced that Social Justice Warriors and "wokeism" are the root of all evil clutched pearls, especially online. Manly heterosexual pearls, of course.
The first season ended better than it had started, but I would have to call it, at best, uneven. The series fired its showrunners after one year, replacing them with Alex Kurtzman.
The show also birthed Short Treks, a fascinating, ongoing series of stand-alone stories set throughout the Trek-iverse. Many of these tied in directly with Discovery; others did not. That series has several advantages. The episodes are short and, so long as one has some acquaintance with Star Trek or at least its related concepts, they need not worry about the time-commitment. Since the stories often focus on original or secondary/tertiary characters, outcomes remain uncertain. It remains one of the more original things Trek has done.
Season Two: Boldly Going
The second season features some essentially stand-alone episodes with conventional Star Trek plots. It spends a good deal of time, however, on a story arc involving Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck) and a strange angel-like figure, and addressing retroactive continuity. It also includes guest appearances by the U.S.S. Enterprise, then under the command of Christopher Pike. Anson Mount plays Pike to perfection; Rebecca Romijn plays his "Number One" and the pair demonstrate exactly the chemistry one would want between a Captain and Second-in-command.2
Along the way they address several continuity issues. It turns out that the Enterprise, being a flagship, received the new uniform design ahead of others, which is why the Pike-era crew wears familiar TOS uniforms while everyone else has the ones created for Discovery.3 The Klingons of the era shaved their heads before going to war, and are now regrowing their hair. Complications caused by the elaborate holo-system lead to the Enterprise deactivating their version of it, some years before Kirk takes the bridge. The Discovery's unique drive and the crew's involvement in certain activities has to be kept a secret for specific reasons, and the ship itself goes missing in time at the season's end.
New characters include comic and actor Tig Notaro as Jett Reno. Sara Mitich returns in a new role (one requiring far less make-up), Nilsson. David Benjamin Tomlinson begins turning up as a Saurian named Linus.
The pre-Kirk Enterprise crew, meanwhile, proved so popular that Paramount greenlit their own series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it hopefully will meet the interests of many fans, whether pro- or anti- Discovery, who would prefer to watch the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Season Three: Back to the Future
Many people had complained that the original season might have made more sense if set in the future of Trek, rather than pre-Kirk. Season Three pushes them into the far future, post-Federation. Earth has become an insular backwater. An alliance of Andorians and Orions holds considerable power. Complex holographic technology may be found everywhere but dilithium crystals are rare, limiting transwarp travel. The crew of the Discovery take a lead in reuniting the Federation, thus revisiting the premise of Gene Roddenberry's other space-exploration series, Andromeda. The changes provide a stage to space frontier adventures more typical of Star Wars, but underpinned by the ethics of the original Star Trek.
New characters include David Ajala as Cleveland "Book" Booker, Blu del Barrio as non-binary Adira Tal, and director David Cronenberg as the mysterious Kovich.
The third season has its flaws, but it works better than the first two. What Season Four will do remains, as of this writing, unknown, though-- if continuity counts-- we know from Short Treks that the Discovery will end its voyage at some point in this distant future.
1. The show's limited budget is the reason why Klingons exist at all. "Errand of Mercy," their first appearance, allegedly had been conceived as a Romulan episode, and it certainly plays like one. However, the first season's budget, already stretched, could not easily accommodate the make-up for quite so many Romulans. They decided on another race who would just look kind of "Oriental." John Colicos, who played Klingon governor Kor suggested they be made to look like alien versions of Ghenghis Khan and the Mongols. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) added a version of the forehead ridges. Later incarnations revised the ridges and gave the Klingons a preference for heavy metal biker hair. That look defined the race; when Kor and other TOS Klingons turned up in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, they had bumpy foreheads and Steppenwolf coiffures. Discovery's redesign, given that it takes place a short time before the original series, seems utterly bizarre. Why bother?
2. Jeffrey Hunter and Majel Barrett originated these roles in the original, rejected Star Trek pilot. Roddenberry and company recast and tried again. NBC accepted the new incarnation. Footage from the original pilot appeared in the two-part episode, "The Menagerie," using the presence of Leonard Nimoy's Spock in both incarnations to link the stories.
3. Fans love to nitpick, and who am I to ignore tradition? They still got the uniforms wrong, and not because of the slight redesign to better reflect the show's twenty-first-century visual style. They got them wrong because they based them on the familiar TOS uniforms. However, the familiar TOS crew's first appearance in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and the flashback to the Pike-era Enterprise in "The Menagerie" both use a noticeably different design. Properly, they should have based Pike and crew's uniforms on those.
SciFiQuest 3021: The Quest From the Black Lagoon