Since the debut of the CBS-All Access series “Star Trek Discovery,” I’ve read a lot of concerns on Twitter and message boards with some Trek fans having a hard time reconciling the various inconsistencies within the 51 year canon of Star Trek lore. In particular, the new series is drawing ire from fans who think that it’s just too far removed from the analog, tabulating computers and knobbed/button control panels of The Original Series. Especially since the new series is supposed to take place a decade before the adventures of Kirk and Spock’s Enterprise. I sympathize; as a lifelong Star Trek fan, it’s not easy to admit that your object of affection is sometimes less than perfect.
To be fair, continuity and historical glitches within the imaginary future of Star Trek are nothing new to Discovery. There are the 1990s Eugenics Wars of TOS that never happened, or did happen, but in a more X-Files-ish way (see: The Eugenics Wars/Khan trilogy of books by Greg Cox). There is the no-show launch of the Botany Bay in 1996, and the Nomad launch that never happened in 2002.
There’s also the “wall of Enterprises” we see in both The Motion Picture and Picard’s observation lunge version in Next Generation that omits the NX-01. TNG’s version of the wall also omitted the “ring-ship” Enterprise XCV-330 that we saw in TMP.
I still remember reading all about that ‘starliner’ Enterprise XCV-330 in Fred Goldstein and space artist Rick Sternbach’s “Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology”; a book that I bought as a kid back in 1980. It offered a fascinating alternate history of Star Trek, from the year 1957 (Sputnik) into the 2200s; including the discovery of fossilized life on Mars, intelligent signals received by SETI, an alien Alpha Centaurian version of Zefram Cochrane who didn’t speak English (!), the first transporters aboard the USS Moscow, and Venusian terraforming. A fun read, with nice illustrations and schematics by future TNG/DS9/VGR/ENT designer/artist Sternbach. I remember discussing the book with Sternbach in person at Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena (to celebrate the Curiosity Mars landing), and he told me the thing he remembered most about the book was about how hurriedly the paintings were done to meet the deadlines. Of course, none of that alternate chronology was ever used in future Star Trek series, but it was an intriguing book of what-ifs. Still have my tattered old copy, too…
As I already expressed in a previous blog entry “Retro-futures: reimagining the future from the past up…” Star Trek could just take the easy way out and reimagine itself and its future-history as a ‘retro-future’, like “Blade Runner 2049”; which takes place from the imagined future of the 1982 film rather than any actual projection of our future (though there are still many strong analogies and metaphors of our present to be drawn from the alternate future of Blade Runner). I argued that Star Trek really can’t do that, because it’s role is aspirational rather than fatalistic. Star Trek works best as a promise of a better future, not as a future to be avoided or dreaded. To be inspiring, it deliberately uses our own ‘real’ present as its past; to show that we can and will do better in the years ahead.
Star Trek says that there will be a future for us among the stars after we get our act together here on Earth. Money, poverty, hunger, racism and social inequity will all be outmoded relics by Star Trek’s 23rd and 24th centuries. Of course, it doesn’t tell us exactly how we will accomplish this (after all, it’s entertainment, not a religion), but it points the way; just as it once pointed the way towards mobile phones, hand-held computers, data discs and other technologies that were science-fiction in 1966. I’m not really sure that I personally believe humanity’s best days are ahead (the challenges of increasing tribalism, wars, climate change and social inequity are daunting, to say the least), but it’s a nice vision to keep in one’s sights. And who knows, maybe some semi-utopian version of it will happen.
Now, getting off of the soap box for a moment, I’d like to address the immediate issue and the reason for this blog post, which I almost titled “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Star Trek’s Flaws.”
Star Trek Discovery, which takes place 10 years before the original series’ date of 2266, has been justly criticized for looking far more sleek and advanced than the ‘future’ of even Jean-Luc Picard’s Next Generation, set roughly 100 years later. There is merit to this argument; Discovery has a version of TNG’s holodeck, holocommunications (which we saw as “new” technology in 24th century-set Deep Space Nine’s 5th season), and all sorts of other technologies that the series shouldn’t yet have if it were a true prequel to the original series.
To be honest? I was more than a bit disappointed to hear that Discovery would be yet another prequel series. After “Enterprise” (2001-2005), it felt Star Trek was boldly going to retread familiar territory. And with Star Trek’s minefield of history & continuity (well over 700 hours of movies and TV series), it was bound to trip itself up a bit. But what’s done is done; Star Trek Discovery is a prequel series and that’s the end of it. When I began watching, I tried (and am trying) to watch the series on its own merits, rather than in the shadow of other Star Trek. I’m liking what I’m seeing, too.
One advantage of DSC’s serialized storytelling and slightly grayer morality is that it makes it easy to distance it from previous Treks. To some that’s a problem, but I tend to see it as an advantage; just as Deep Space Nine’s darker tone, serialized arcs and space station setting opened up opportunities for different kinds of stories to be told there as well.
And DSC’s recent foray into Star Trek’s infamous “mirror universe” (a hostile, savage, parallel reality to the series’ ‘prime’ universe) seems to have the show finally firing on all thrusters. This was a smart move that fits DSC as well as introducing Worf and the Klingons to Deep Space Nine fit that series.
Several other Treks have ‘boldly gone’ to the mirror universe, including several episodes of “Deep Space Nine” as well as very memorable two-parter of Enterprise’s 4th season (“In a Mirror, Darkly”) which established the entry of TOS’ USS Defiant (not the same-name DS9 warship), a Constitution-class starship that ‘phased out’ of our universe in “The Tholian Web” and phased into the mirror universe. This ‘advanced’ 23rd century starship landed backward in time to a savage 22nd century; where a mirror-Hoshi Sato assassinated her captain (mirror-Jonathan Archer), took command of the formidable new ship, and immediately established herself as Emperor.
But how does that pertain to the conflicting future visions of Star Trek, where a clunky, button/knobbed, analog-looking 23rd century is supposed to exist in the same timeline as ‘older’ yet far sleeker starships such as the Discovery and the Shenzhou? How do they reconcile that?
Well, the truth is they just can’t.
But I’m okay with that, and I’ll explain my reasons why.
First, it’s doubtful that a modern-made ‘future’-based Star Trek series could hope to lure new audience members by deliberately adopting a 1966 look to its fashions and technology. It works for the brilliant online 11 episode fan film series “Star Trek Continues” because it essentially preaches to the choir; it’s made by fans for the fans. It’s made for those, like myself, who’ve always wanted to see the prematurely canceled TOS get a proper finish. It’s not reinventing Star Trek. STC’s mission is to finish out the original series and give it a hell of a finale.
And in that regard, it succeeded brilliantly.
But a clunky retro-future may not be a good lure for modern audiences, who might get a chuckle at tabulating computers, beehive hairdos, go-go boots and flip-phone communicators. So the necessity of updating the look and technology of any new Star Trek series is kind of a no-brainer. Modern audiences can literally watch Star Trek on their phones now, so a new series has to be at least as tech-savvy as the audience whom it hopes to court.
And secondly, Star Trek kind of has a built-in fix for such discontinuities; TOS’ “Mirror, Mirror” (the original mirror universe episode) as well as TNG’s “Parallels” and the more recent Bad Robot Star Trek movies (2009-2016) have firmly established that Star Trek is a multiverse, and not just a universe.
Now despite the claims that both “Enterprise” and “Discovery” take place in the exact same ‘prime universe’ as Kirk, Spock and eventually Picard? I say that’s only half-right. Both series do take place within the prime universe…
…that is, the prime universe after it was forever altered by the events of the 1996 movie, “Star Trek: First Contact.”
In fact, I say that every series since First Contact was influenced/changed by the events of that film, which saw the cybernetically-enhanced humanoid species “Borg” travel back to Earth’s year of 2063 to prevent “first contact” between humans and Vulcans and undo the birth of what will become the United Federation of Planets (the Borg’s greatest resistance in our corner of the galaxy). The Borg’s attack from orbit damages warp-drive pioneer Zefram Cochrane’s prototype ship “The Phoenix.” The Phoenix’s historic faster-than-light spaceflight is what got (or is supposed to get) the attention of a passing Vulcan spaceship and led (or lead) to their first meeting with humans.
With the Phoenix damaged, and most of her ground crew dead, the flight is nearly ended before it begins. Jean-Luc Picard’s USS Enterprise 1701-E follows the Borg’s ‘temporal wake’ back in time, destroys their orbiting mothership, and beams down repair teams to help repair the Phoenix, motivate a dispirited Zefram Cochrane, and keep the ship’s date with history. The Enterprise crew pretty much throws their ’Non-Interference’ prime directive out the window in this movie.
At first Cochrane couldn’t care less about making history or repairing his ship; he’s resigned to drinking his sorrows away. The crew then makes an impassioned plea to convince him otherwise. They proceed to share all kinds of information about Cochrane’s future (“You told him about the statue?!?”). They also tell him about the new golden era for humanity that will be ushered in with the warp flight, and how first contact will eradicate poverty, hunger, etc. Eventually the very reluctant Cochrane is convinced (with a helpful phaser stun as an added incentive), and the ship makes her appointed warp flight…thus attracting the attention of the passing Vulcans, and voila! Star Trek future history is born…or rather reborn. So arguably there was some (very necessary) 24th century corruption to the events of First Contact.
Picard and crew return to find their 24th century seemingly unchanged.
However, a few years later a Star Trek series airs called “Enterprise” debuts, and it chronicles the adventures of the ‘first’ starship Enterprise that is not the USS Enterprise commanded by Christopher Pike and James T. Kirk.
This new ‘first’ Enterprise is designated the NX-01 (not the NCC-1701). As mentioned earlier, this is a ship that we never saw on either of Picard’s ‘wall of Enterprises’ in his observation lounge on the Enterprise-D and later the Enterprise-E (these were the “little ships” as Lily derisively refers them when she meets Picard). The NX-01 is never referred to in Star Trek lore prior to 1996, and no mention is ever previously made of his ‘historic’ captain Jonathan Archer. We’ve never seen any trace of the NX-01 before, not even on the walls of James T. Kirk’s Enterprise in TMP.
So while the movie “First Contact” repaired the prime timeline enough for most (or all?) of TOS/TNG/DS9/VGR’s major events to still occur? It also subtly altered things as well.
There is now an NX-01 that is considered the first ‘real’ starship Enterprise (still no ring-ship, though) to bear the illustrious name.
So to me, every Star Trek movie or series that references the NX-01 timeline, even JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot (which mentions Admiral Archer’s prized beagle) is part of this post “First Contact”-altered timeline.
And everything prior to First Contact is the last of the true ‘original’ timeline.
The last episodes where we ever saw 24th century Star Trek crews interacting with TOS-era settings prior to “First Contact” were 1992’s “Relics” (TNG) and 1996’s “Trials and Tribble-ations” (DS9’s “Trials” came out in September of 1996; “First Contact” premiered several months later).
After that, there is also ENT’s “Through a Mirror Darkly,” parts 1 and 2. But even that episode still fits within the theory, since it took place in the 22nd century’s mirror universe (arguably a mirror universe affected by its own version of the events of First Contact, perhaps?). The old, Constitution-class USS Defiant was simply a curiosity from the original prime timeline that washed ashore within the mirror universe, just as Prime-Spock fell into (or created?) the alternate reality of Star Trek 2009.
As we’ve seen many times before in Trek’s multiverse, objects/people from one reality can cross over into another, since the alternate timelines still exist alongside the newer ones. DS9’s Ben Sisko found himself back in 2024 San Francisco and had to pretend to be pivotal human rights’ activist “Gabriel Bell” (when the real Bell was killed defending Sisko and Bashir) in DS9’s terrific time-travel two parter “Past Tense.”
In fact, when Sisko and his officers returned to the 24th century, a picture of Ben Sisko as Bell now appears in the historical text. This is precisely what I believe happened to all of Star Trek post-First Contact: The timeline was trampled on a bit, but ultimately came together enough to “resume its shape” (to quote the TOS’ ‘Guardian of Forever’).
So, against the laws of entropy, the post-First Contact altered prime timeline (PFCAPT) somehow ‘healed’ itself enough to allow many major events to still occur within the prime timeline (such as Kirk’s captaincy of the Enterprise, Picard’s birth, etc).
And that’s how I personally reconcile the increasing discontinuity between the various looks and technologies of Star Trek. The newer shows won’t fit if you think of them as part of the same exact universe as the knobbed/button/analog version of TOS, so I prefer to think of them as existing within a newer version of TOS’ timeline that perhaps more closely resembles something seen in the Bad Robot movies.
So, instead of a clunky, analog-looking 23rd century that looked like this…
…the PFCAPT 23rd century 1701 probably looked something more like this:
The altered prime timeline probably had the same adventures (more or less), but with a bit of a jump in technology, thanks to the TNG’s crew tipping off Zefram Cochrane about his own destiny (a big Temporal Investigations no-no, according to Deep Space Nine).
I know the easier (and more accurate) explanation for all of Star Trek’s discontinuities are far more….well, economic. TOS was made 51 years ago on a very modest budget using the techniques of the time. Even the subsequent TOS Star Trek series were all made on relatively lower-than-average budgets. To quote longtime Star Trek production illustrator/designer/author Mike Okuda, “Star Trek has always been a low budget TV series.” This was from the guy who literally wrote the book on Star Trek, “The Star Trek Encyclopedia” (a revised version of which just came out last year).
Over time, television and movie production technology has gotten (much) better, and the cost of CGI FX have lowered. Kids can make FX-laden videos today for YouTube that are more sophisticated than most of what I saw on TV back in the 1990s; hell, even my phone can shoot in HD-video…
And now, Star Trek Discovery is the beneficiary of all of that heightened production technology, as well as an average production production of $6 million an episode (about 6 times the cost of a TNG episode).
While budgets and technologies are the real reasons for why Star Trek looks sleeker and more advanced than its older versions, I also have my head canon PFCAPT rationale for it as well.
Frankly, either or both explanations work for me.
Live long and prosper, folks!