For long-term Star Trek fans, there’s certainly a lot to pick over in Star Trek: Discovery. The show is both a new Star Trek show and a prequel, which raises the question of how much it adheres to Star Trek canon, and how it affects the existing Trek narrative. From a design perspective, Discovery’s ships appear far more advanced than the Enterprise from the original 1960s Trek, set 10 years after Discovery. And the entire mission of the USS Discovery seems focused around developing a radical new form of space travel that hasn’t come up elsewhere in the franchise. Fans have repeatedly raised the question of whether Discovery’s timeline really meshes with previous Trek series, and how. But how much do continuity and canon actually matter for a show like Discovery?
The discontinuity between Discovery and old Trek suggests that the canon isn’t entirely a concern for the showrunners. Series protagonist Michael Burnham is a narrative surprise: as a child, she was adopted and raised by Sarek and Amanda, the parents of original 1960s character Spock. While Spock in The Original Series is notably quiet about his family, it’s still odd that his adopted sister never came up on the show — especially after Discovery’s third episode reveals he was close enough to Michael that Amanda read them bedtime stories together.
Then there are the Klingons. Basically everything about the Klingons — their religion, technology, visual design, and culture — doesn’t gel with The Original Series’ Klingons. It’s hard to see how Discovery will manage to reconcile that, short of some sort of alternate-universe reveal like the one that gave us J.J. Abrams’ rebooted film series.
But here’s a thought that may seem controversial, depending on your take on Star Trek: maybe the showrunners are right, and Discovery doesn’t need to worry about making its story fit every other existing Trek series.
From a practical perspective, there’s simply no way around the fact that the original Star Trek was released more than 50 years ago. Entertainment technology has changed radically since The Original Series launched, and the mechanics of creating props, practical effects, and CGI have changed as well. Episodes like Deep Space Nine’s “Trials and Tribble-ations,” which was intended as a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the franchise, intentionally chose to replicate the retro style of The Original Series. But Star Trek’s general ethos has been to look toward the future, not replicate the past. Discovery applies that to its technological design as well: things The Original Series took as futuristic — like instant communication, or even printing physical objects out of thin air — are now commonplace in our current reality, so it has to go further, peppering the ship with holograms and giant, transparent screens to keep ahead of the times.
To take an even colder, harder perspective, the budget offered to a new Star Trek series in 2017 is far, far bigger than it was for the original show. In 1969, there was simply no way to make the kind of incredible space-battle sequences that Discovery features, nor was the cash available to make elaborate modern sets. Even things we probably take for granted, like facial prosthetics for Doug Jones’ Saru, or the cranial ridges for the more-alien-than-ever Klingons, were impossible on the older series’ limited dime. Star Trek: Enterprise ran into a similar problem, and ultimately split the difference — canonically, it fits in, but there are clear cracks where technology simply looks more advanced than what Kirk or Spock had available. Besides, do fans really want a Star Trek prequel that looks like it was filmed in the ‘60s on a shoestring budget, or a Star Trek show that actually looks like the future it promises?
Continuity is a crucial part of building a franchise like Star Trek. It’s a common, recognizable, relatable thing that makes Discovery a Star Trek show, instead of an imitation like Seth McFarlane’s The Orville. But unlike, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean films (which I investigated for similar crimes against continuity earlier this year), Discovery isn’t really that connected to any of the other Star Trek series. It uses the same basic trappings, and the producers swear it's in the same chronology as the other TV series. Those are good building blocks to start on, especially as a shorthand for worldbuilding, and an opportunity to further expand the existing Trek world.
But ultimately, it looks like the story Discovery is telling can live independently of the rest of Star Trek, in a way that doesn’t apply to the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, with its extensive reliance on and callbacks to previous films. It’s the difference between using earlier stories as a foundation to tell new ones vs. using them as a crutch to continue limping forward.
Are there benefits to tying Discovery into the series it’s supposedly setting up? Undoubtedly. One of the major benefits to Star Trek is the vast universe that’s been created over the years, and tying Discovery more closely to that could mean exciting possibilities down the line. Chronologically, the Enterprise is already flying around out there, and even though Kirk isn’t helming the flagship yet, it could be fascinating to see what the famed ship is up to during the war under Christopher Pike’s command. Or maybe see how some of the other powers in the galaxy who show up later, like the Romulans, interact with the conflict between these two major forces.
But Discovery also has plenty to gain by simply taking some of the more basic concepts and running with them to do its own thing. The existing technological and chronological limits can hold the show back — and if giving the Klingons cloaking technology, or having a protracted conflict between the Federation and the Empire, can lead to a more interesting show, why not just do it, in spite of what TOS said 50 years ago?
As a counterpoint, as Discovery has progressed over the last few weeks, the show has been more overt in referencing the rest of Star Trek continuity. Harry Mudd, a character who appears in several TOS episodes, popped up as a Klingon prisoner. At one point, Saru peruses a list of decorated captains that reads like a list of Easter eggs, referencing Enterprise, The Original Series, and even The Animated Series. So it looks like Discovery is maintaining its ties to the franchise, even as it moves away from its most literal continuity.
But if at the end of the day, its story is worthwhile, then how exactly it puzzle-pieces into the rest of Trek can be figured out later. That said, Discovery itself still needs an endgame, and hopefully isn’t just making plot points up as it goes along, especially given that it seems to be taking a more serialized approach than previous Trek shows. (Don’t become Lost, Discovery. Please.)
Star Trek has always operated this way, at least in some sense: the current storytelling has always trumped canon, with showrunners figuring out how to reconcile any mismatches later. There’s no better example of this than the Klingons, who changed dramatically over the course of Star Trek, from the flat foreheads of The Original Series to the “knucklebone” ridges of the films and The Next Generation era to… whatever JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness Klingons were. The TOS Klingons were basically narrative stand-ins for the Russians, during the actual Cold War. As American politics and culture changed, the Klingons changed as well. Their culture and their distinctiveness from humanity was fleshed out, until the Klingons became a warrior race defined by a sense of honor borrowed from feudal Japanese culture.
The Klingons’ changing appearance was only explained in-universe years later, after extensive explanations and judicious retcons. Similarly, if it becomes necessary, someone will almost certainly figure out a way to rewrite and retcon Trek history to make Discovery fit the narrow box existing Trek has left it to operate in.
That narrow box does raise the question of why the creators chose to put Discovery in the same continuity at all. Granted, setting it in the Kelvin timeline of the movies would be a legal nightmare, since the rights to the movies belong to Paramount, not CBS. And designing the show as a standalone, outside TV continuity, would risk losing any of the advantages of starting with an established fandom, or a series of associations in viewers’ minds. For those new to Star Trek, whether Discovery lines up with Enterprise and TOS doesn’t matter, but the phrase “it’s a Star Trek prequel” still gives a good idea of what to expect.
Discovery’s showrunners have likely already thought of all this. It’s not exactly a secret that Star Trek fans are enthusiastic about nitpicking their way through the franchise. The writers may have a perfect explanation for how everything lines up — things like the spore drive may have been abandoned as not technically feasible on a large scale, and the Federation could have achieved peace between Discovery and The Original Series. Even the uniforms can be explained by the fact that Starfleet clearly has a problem when it comes to constantly rolling out new outfits for the fleet. But even in the worst-case scenario, where the showrunners are simply flying by the seat of their pants, that’s no barrier to Discovery being good, either. In fact, throwing out the continuity could help Discovery beat the eternal problems of any prequel, by moving away from the established ending that TOS sets as a goal post. (Mainly, the the Klingons and Federation back in an uneasy Cold War.)
Ultimately, Discovery needs to be good on its own, with strong characters and storytelling, and not a glorified Wikipedia entry that explains where Spock was 10 years before he met Kirk. If it can win fans and build a world while fitting in with the rest of the franchise? All the better. But it seems like the best course of action is to let Discovery focus on being the best show possible, and worry about the consequences later.