Star Trek: Discovery Evolved the Concept, And Flipped It
Discovery is the least episodic series in the franchise by a mile, and as stated previously, has been defined by favoring season-long arcs that deal with the consequences of decisions and actions in an unprecedented way (for Star Trek). The choice to send the Discovery 950 years into the future and erase the possibility of its return not only sewed up loose ends with Star Trek canon, but it also reinvented a Star Trek series in a wholly new way. The reset button was definitely hit, but instead of returning to the homeostatic normalcy that defined a show like TNG, Discovery gave itself a true final frontier to explore.
Not only will Discovery wind up in a largely unexplored quadrant, they will land in a completely unexplored time period. After 50 years, Star Trek will explore further into its own future than we’ve ever seen outside of the Temporal Cold War storyline on Enterprise. Since the Kelvin movies premiered in 2009 with a reimagining of the Original Series, not to mention the announcement that Discovery would take place ten years before the events of TOS, a decent-sized contingent of fans expressed frustration that it had been way too long since Star Trek had developed “new” material.
As enjoyable as many of the nostalgic callbacks in Discovery have been, the show’s never really been about scientific discovery in the way the previous series were. Its heavily serialized premise and significantly shorter seasons meant there would be less opportunity to explore certain topics, and its place in the Star Trek timeline (not to mention its launch in an age of nostalgia) ensured it would be somewhat forced to reintroduce familiar faces and conceits. Why put the show ten years before TOS and take advantage of the opportunity to revisit iconic characters like Spock, or fill out underrepresented but significant characters like Christopher Pike? Discovery season 2, and much of season 1, felt like a study in how to do this the right way, despite the remaining fervent fan objections to Spock’s new sister as well as Discovery’s canonical conflicts and design choices. That said, as much as we like Pike and how fluidly the character of Michael Bunrham was written into Spock’s greater characterization, a key element of Star Trek the show was missing is written right into its name: discovery.
Because the Discovery ship was so intertwined into the continuing mysteries of the Red Angel and the signals that appeared to follow her, that’s where the narrative focus remained, at the expense of strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations. Case in point: the ship travels to an incredibly remote part of the galaxy, only to find… more humans. Discovery was shaping up to be a canvas for nostalgia, not a series that had its own original contribution to make to the Star Trek legacy. That’s why it’s incredibly exciting that the showrunners chose to abandon the nostalgia that’s defined so much of the show in favor of what's an almost completely blank slate. It’s a choice that could signal the onset of a big evolution for the franchise, and we’ve seen that once before exercised with great success.
When The Next Generation premiered in 1986, reactions from fans to the entirely new cast and time period were mixed. In fine Star Trek fashion, fans literally took to the streets to express their displeasure at the idea to not bring back Kirk and the original Enterprise crew. But what was a very risky decision proved to be one that only further solidified Star Trek’s position as a beloved and historic part of pop culture.
It’s big risks like that that allow shows and franchises the opportunity to transcend their original programming and (hopefully) become something greater than the original premise. It deepens our investment when we know not everyone will be safe and sound at the end of the day – that actions and decisions have real consequences, just like in real life. Ultimately that kind of storytelling is more reflective of human experience, and thus typically makes for much better drama. There’s a reason the Red Wedding put Game of Thrones on the map for so many people – when you change the rules so drastically in any narrative, people pay attention. Discovery just threw the rulebook out the window and there’s reason to believe that’s the best thing Star Trek’s done for itself since introducing the Borg.