Wide Angle

Deep Space Whine

There’s a war over what’s “the real Star Trek.” It’s highly illogical.

A quadriptych shows the four characters in their familiar outfits. Tendi stands out most by being green and animated, while MacFarlane's blue shirt is almost indistinguishable.
Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery, Anson Mount in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Seth MacFarlane in The Orville, and Tendi from Star Trek: Lower Decks. Photos by Michael Gibson/CBS, Paramount Plus, Hulu, and Paramount Plus.

“What if we just did Star Trek?” That, according to executive producer Henry Alonso Myers, was the pitch for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, one of five new Star Trek shows to come out over the past five years as part of Paramount Plus’ franchise revival. Though Myers may not have intended it, that Strange New Worlds pitch, “What if we just did Star Trek?”, could easily be read as a rebuke to the rest of the current slate of Star Trek series. There are more Star Trek series running right now than there have been at any other point in the franchise’s history—and Star Trek’s identity has never been more hotly debated.

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Accusing new installments of a franchise of being somehow illegitimate is a time-honored fan tradition, and Trekkies are not immune. The Fifty-Year Mission, Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman’s two-volume oral history of Star Trek, recounts decades of skeptics dismissing various iterations as not “real.” Fans of the original series balked at the very idea of The Next Generation—a new Star Trek, without Kirk and Spock, was highly illogical. Deep Space Nine was met with similar skepticism from the outset, with a class full of schoolchildren writing to co-creator Michael Piller to beg him not to distort Star Trek’s vision by making it “dark.” Enterprise received voicemails from Trekkies enraged at how the writers had messed with the Star Trek canon: One just chanted “Vulcans don’t lie!” repeatedly, and another sent them a box full of trash accompanied by a note reading, “This is what you’ve done to Star Trek.”

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The first installment of the Trek renaissance, Star Trek: Discovery, was at even more of a disadvantage than most upon its premiere in 2017. Despite taking place shortly before the original series, Discovery’s darkened aesthetics, serialized format, and modern sensibilities announced it as belonging to the 21st century and the streaming era. (The characters say fuck!) The technology was much more advanced than some viewers thought it had any right to be, and the show’s star, a human sister Spock had never mentioned before, made it seem like the writers were stomping all over the canon. That protagonist was also played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a Black woman, and despite the fact that imagining a more diverse future has always been part of the Trek mission, it’s a mission that the worst of its fans aren’t always willing to accept.

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Still, Discovery’s biggest obstacle may have been its timing, premiering within days of another space-travel show, The Orville. The Orville is not technically a Star Trek show: The Fox series uses none of the Trek IP, and the producers have made a point of listing multiple sci-fi sources of inspiration. But Star Trek is its obvious muse. Not only is creator and star Seth MacFarlane is a known Trekkie, the show gained an air of legitimacy in fans’ eyes thanks to a stable of Star Trek alumni working on it both in front of and behind the screen. (The popular fan site Trekmovie.com even has a special section for it on its homepage.) An episodic workplace comedy that mixed the allegorical sci-fi of classic Trek with the broad humor for which MacFarlane has become known, The Orville’s first season offered exactly what the more complicated Discovery did not: levity, familiarity, ease. Comment sections and Reddit boards were quick to pit the two shows against each other—with The Orville anointed the “real” Trek.

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Paramount Plus seems to have taken the criticism to heart. After Discovery and Picard—the series that saw Patrick Stewart return to his Next Generation character—caught flak for being grim and unfamiliar, the showrunners changed course. In Season 3, Discovery got a soft reboot so that it was no longer a prequel constrained by past lore but a sequel set far into Star Trek’s future and thus freer to experiment. Things lightened up considerably in the franchise with the introduction of Lower Decks, the terrific animated adult comedy created by Rick and Morty alum Mike McMahan, and Star Trek: Prodigy, another zippy animated outing, this one for kids. (Ironically, while all this was happening, The Orville, now moved to Hulu, grew darker and more serialized itself.)

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And now there’s Strange New Worlds, a prequel to the original Star Trek series of the 1960s that features young versions of already famous characters like Spock and Lieutenant Uhura. The crew of the starship Enterprise wear the familiar red, yellow, and blue uniform color scheme that Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols used to back in the day. It’s a return to the episodic storytelling format of the original series and of Next Generation, made up of often-wacky planet-of-the-week adventures with some character development sprinkled in. Myers is right: It’s just doing Star Trek.

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Reviewers love it, and they can’t resist taking digs at its predecessors amid the praise. At NPR, Glen Weldon facetiously can’t come up with the appeal of Discovery beyond “space fungi” or “heavily serialized storylines that have a tendency to get way more complicated than seems strictly necessary.” “Why can’t they just make a normal Star Trek show any more?” RadioTimes’ Huw Fullerton recalls thinking, before introducing Strange New Worlds as the answer. “Hooray, Star Trek Feels Like Star Trek Again” cheers Vulture’s chat about Strange New Worlds, in which critic Angelica Jade Bastién calls Discovery and Picard Star Trek in name only.”

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Discovery and Picard have their flaws, to be sure. Still, the very philosophy of “just doing Star Trek” strikes me as not very Star Trek, a franchise known for the credo “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” In fact, the most critically celebrated Star Trek series of all time is probably Deep Space Nine, for which eventual showrunner Ira Steven Behr’s approach was explicitly: “Well, I don’t care if it’s Star Trek.” Debuting while the then-megapopular Next Generation was still on the air—turns out a Star Trek without Kirk and Spock could work after all—Deep Space Nine was much darker than either of its predecessors, both tonally and aesthetically. It didn’t take place on a starship, which led to a different style of storytelling; not being able to leave the space station meant that characters couldn’t leave behind the consequences of their actions from week to week. And it was political in a way that went much deeper than Strange New Worlds’ brief use of footage of the Jan. 6 insurrection to illustrate Earth strife, however much that particular scene might have irritated Fox News.

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Among the most beloved of the Star Trek movies is a fish-out-of-water, environmentalist buddy comedy that takes place, for the most part, not in the distant future but in 1986. Another is a political thriller and Cold War allegory. I don’t begrudge anyone their love of Strange New Worlds, which certainly has its charms. But a singular vision of what Star Trek can or should be is bad for Trek, and bad for Trekkies. Is there anything more Trek than the mission statement that’s been there since the beginning, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and to boldly go where no show has gone before?

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