While ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has by and large been well received so far, the show hasn’t been without its share of controversy within fandom. Much of that has to do with the discomfort some fans feel have felt with the liberties the show has taken with the franchise’s established continuity (to say nothing of how liberally it has done so). Specific criticisms have focused on everything from specific narrative elements (lead character Michael Burnham being as Spock’s heretofore unmentioned adopted sister) to more general choices, such the design of the Discovery having next to nothing in common with the original series’ Enterprise. This, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that the original series takes place a mere decade after ‘Discovery’.
Now, to be fair, I can’t imagine anyone honestly expected the show to slavishly replicate the aesthetic of a fifty-year-old sci-fi program that had to make do with a notoriously tight budget. That being said, this is a problem that the show created for itself. By choosing to set the series so close to the original series, the producers created a situation in which they would either have to carefully tread the line of designing sets, props, etc that could believably evolve into what we saw on the original series in the space of ten years (something ‘Enterprise’ pulled off fairly well, though that show being set a century prior to the original gave it considerably more leeway) or they could ignore that line entirely. Unfortunately, they often seem to have chosen the latter option.
It would be one thing, though, if ‘Discovery’ simply looked “too advanced”. That would be weird, but ultimately forgivable. The larger sticking point among fans has been the show’s portrayal of Starfleet technology generally, which has frequently included tech more advanced that that seen in the original series, or indeed even beyond that seen in the ‘Next Generation’ era. While there are any number of examples, arguably the most significant is the ship’s spore drive, given its prominence in the season arc, to say nothing of the implications such tech would have on “later” shows. The drive, which allows for near-instantaneous travel to virtually any location would fundamentally undermine the premises of shows like ‘Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Voyager’. This makes the very existence of the spore drive yet another hole the writers of ‘Discovery’ have to dig themselves out of. Fortunately, they seem to be keenly aware of that, as producer Aaron Harberts indicated in some recent remarks:
“We have ten years until the original series comes into play. It is a challenge creatively because we have lots of choices, in terms of how do we reconcile this [spore] drive? This surrogate daughter of Sarek? How do we reconcile these things the closer we get to the original series?
That’s going to be a big discussion that we have in season two. What’s so fun about the character of Michael, just because she hasn’t been spoken about, doesn’t mean she didn’t exist. A lot of the writers on our show are deeply involved in ‘Star Trek’, their knowledge is some of the finest around, they really do help us find areas where we can steer around things.
But the spore drive? Who knows. It could be classified. There are many options. Some of the best ideas come from all over the place, not just in our writers’ room. So I love hearing about the fan ideas and theories. We’ll have to see.”
While it is encouraging that they intend to address at least some of the show’s apparent discontinuities with past ‘Trek’, it’s a bit troubling (though not entirely surprising) that the powers that be have apparently introduced plot elements that – as noted – would fundamentally break other ‘Trek’ shows without having thought through a resolution.
Of course, there is one fairly obvious solution to nearly all of the show’s continuity issues, though it is unfortunately long since off the table. That would have been to set ‘Discovery’ after the ‘Next Generation’ era shows rather than developing it as a prequel to the original series. Harberts, however, would seem to disagree. Addressing the question of the show’s setting, the showrunner had this to say:
“I’m glad that it is because it set up the parameters for us. Let’s say we set it a hundred years after ‘Voyager’. The canvas is so broad. To try to contemplate, you’re creating a whole new mythology really.
I think Bryan [Fuller] was interested in the original series and I think he was interested in the lead up to where the original series is. I think he was very interested in the Klingon/Federation conflict, but I don’t know definitively why he picked that.”
That is where I have to disagree with Harberts. While I can certainly see how such a “broad canvas” could be creatively intimidating, the entire point of setting a show in the franchise’s future is to embrace the possibilities that come with it. Setting the show in that future would have allowed them the freedom to (within reason) do whatever they wanted in terms of narrative and technology. More importantly, it would have allowed them to do so without the need to reconcile it with what came before.
I can only speak for myself, but this has always been the most vexing thing about ‘Discovery’. While I don’t exactly hold it against the show (in fact, I’ve mostly enjoyed it so far), the simple fact is that with the possible exception of specifically using the Klingons as antagonists, there is absolutely nothing in ‘Discovery’ that wouldn’t work at least as well – if not better – had the show not been put in the position of having to eventually reconcile itself with the franchise’s established lore. And let’s be honest, the Klingons we’ve seen on the show have barely been recognizable as such. Everything from the makeup to the culture to the designs of their ships and weapons… it all feels as though it was concocted by someone who had only ever heard of Klingons by rough description.
Regardless, it’s good to know that the creative powers behind ‘Discovery’ seem to be responding to fan feedback as they prepare for their second season. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how ‘Discovery’ fares going forward, not only in terms of its approach to continuity but of course in how the show’s story unfolds over the coming seasons.
‘Star Trek: Discovery’, which stars Sonqua Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Shazad Latif, and Mary Wiseman, airs exclusively via the CBS All Access streaming service. The series is currently on a midseason break, and will return on January 7, 2018.