Warning: SPOILERS below for Star Trek: Discovery!
As exciting as the prospect of a new Star Trek series is, Star Trek: Discovery arrives in a nebula of controversy and suspicion among many hardcore Trekkers. The first issue revolves around CBS's decision to make Discovery the flagship show of its streaming service CBS All-Access to entice Trek fans to subscribe. Only the first hour of the series will be aired on CBS for free, with the rest of Discovery available exclusively on CBS All-Access in the United States. This marks Discovery as the first Star Trek series to not be broadcast on free television, and many fans are not happy about having to subscribe to another streaming service just to get a new dose of Trek.
The other issue that has sparked ever since Discovery's trailer first aired is the question of what timeline the series is set in. Discovery's producers - original showrunner Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), who parted ways with the series last year over creative differences, and current executive producers Alex Kurtzman (The Mummy), Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts (Pushing Daisies) - have each insisted Discovery takes place in the Prime Timeline of Star Trek. However, the visuals of Discovery alone lend some doubt to that claim.
Star Trek: Discovery is a prequel series set approximately 10 years before the Original Series' first five year mission of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the Starship Enterprise. This also places Discovery roughly a century after the Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula)-led Star Trek: Enterprise in the Prime timeline. While Discovery's cool and sleek starship design and blue uniforms do aesthetically meld as continuations of the designs of Star Trek: Enterprise, its visual style and bombastic special effects seem to make it more akin to the J.J. Abrams-produced Star Trek films, which are set in the rebooted Kelvin timeline.
Now, Discovery's slam-bang, Abrams-movie-like visuals may be simply due to modern special effects being leaps and bounds beyond what was possible in the 1960s through the 1990s, as well as a way to meet the heightened expectations of fans more familiar with the most recent trilogy of Star Trek movies. However, the suspicion of many fans is that Star Trek: Discovery doesn't truly adhere to its promise of being part of the Prime timeline.
THE PRIME AND KELVIN TIMELINES
At first, there was only one Star Trek timeline (besides the Mirror Universe - but that's a whole other story for another time). The Original Series of Star Trek ran for three seasons from 1966-1969, and was later joined by 7 seasons each of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), and a 4 season prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005). All of those series, plus ten feature films (6 about Captain Kirk's original crew and 4 about The Next Generation's crew) comprise what's considered as the Prime timeline of Star Trek, which spans from the 22nd century of Jonathan Archer's voyages to the 24th century. Star Trek: Nemesis, released in 2002 as the final film starring the crew commanded by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), remains to date as the final Star Trek story set in the canon of the 24th century. Everything since has been a prequel or a reboot.
The J.J. Abrams feature film reboot of Star Trek in 2009 introduced what became known as the Kelvin timeline, named for the U.S.S. Kelvin, the starship briefly commanded by George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), the father of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). The Kelvin encountered a Romulan ship commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) that time traveled from the 24th century at the start of the film. When Nero destroyed the Kelvin - and killed the elder Kirk - it changed the timeline as William Shatner's Kirk had grown up with his father. This event created an alternate universe where many things significantly changed - from how Jim Kirk joined Starfleet; to when he becomes Captain of the Enterprise; to when the Enterprise crew encountered the villainous Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) - all became events that happened much sooner and differently than in the Prime timeline.
One of the most significant changes the Kelvin timeline made was the destruction of the planet Vulcan by Nero, which reduced the Vulcan population in the galaxy to less than ten thousand. However, for a time, this ended up including two Spocks: the younger Spock of this time period played by Zachary Quinto and the elderly Spock from the Prime timeline played by Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy's Spock followed Nero back in time to the 23rd century and inadvertently helped create this alternate reality, in which he then resided until Nimoy's death in 2015 resulted in 2016's Star Trek Beyond revealing the older Spock died as well.
WHY ARE THERE TWO TIMELINES?
As for why J.J. Abrams and his filmmaking team created the alternate Kelvin timeline to begin with, the answers to that can be found in the confusing real world issue of who owns of the rights to Star Trek: Paramount is the wholesale owner of the Star Trek property; Paramount in turn was owned by the Viacom corporation, which also owned CBS. In 2005, Viacom underwent a corporate split: a new Viacom was formed and the ownership of Paramount was transferred to it. The previous entity called Viacom was renamed the CBS Corporation. When this occurred, ownership of the Star Trek feature films made before 2005 was transferred to Paramount but ownership of all of Star Trek's trademarks and intellectual properties now belonged to CBS Corporation.
However, in order to make any new Star Trek movies or television series, Paramount has to license the rights to Star Trek from CBS. This is what happened when J.J. Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, embarked upon making his Star Trek film; Paramount and Bad Robot licensed the rights to create an alternate Star Trek copyright from CBS, in part to enable Abrams' desire for his film to be about a younger version of Kirk and Spock, which would radically change established canon. Hence, Abrams created the Kelvin timeline, which allows him and his successors like Star Trek Beyond's director Justin Lin to do whatever they pleased with their version of Star Trek, since the results of this creative freedom would not conflict with nor infringe upon the canon established in the Prime timeline. It's worth noting that with the declining box office performance of the Kelvin timeline-set Star Trek films, the Prime timeline solidly remains the more popular version of Star Trek.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR STAR TREK: DISCOVERY?
Like Abrams' Star Trek films, Star Trek: Discovery was made under Bad Robot's license of Star Trek from CBS. Bad Robot and Paramount wanted to continue their license to produce more Star Trek outside of the increasingly expensive feature films. CBS is happy to use Star Trek: Discovery as a means to promote CBS All-Access, but Paramount and Bad Robot own the series, the production costs of which were largely financed by Netflix, which paid an exorbitant amount for the rights to distribute Discovery internationally.
However, it's because Paramount and Bad Robot own Discovery, not CBS, which owns the Prime timeline Star Trek, that there was doubt among skeptical Trekkers about Discovery's producers' long-held claim that Discovery is set in the Prime universe and will synch up with the established Prime timeline canon. As a prequel, Discovery can claim that it begins in the Prime universe (as J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek did for the first few minutes), but does the series remain in the Prime timeline?
Judging from Star Trek: Discovery's first two episodes, the answer thus far is Discovery seems to be set in the Prime timeline. There is no indication (thus far) Discovery is another reboot. It's spectacular visuals simply seem to be a benefit of modern day special effects. However, this isn't to say there aren't divergences. The stark visual difference of the Klingons from established Prime canon isn't explained in the first two episodes, and there is technology on the U.S.S. Shenzhou that doesn't line up with canon, such as the holograms Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) uses to communicate with Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico). That kind of holographic technology shouldn't exist for another century, when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced it on the U.S.S. Defiant. This may be a clue that the destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin that occurred in 2233 affected the timeline of Discovery, which takes place in 2256. Time will tell, but going by Star Trek: Discovery so far, it ought to be a hell of a ride.