When details about Star Trek: Discovery first emerged, fans and critics alike paused for a moment to scratch their heads. The series — the first new Trek show since Enterprise concluded in 2005 — promised a stunning reimagining of the existing Trek universe. From sleek CG and intricate costumes to a complete makeover of one of Trek’s core races, Discovery was supposed to bring the 51-year-old utopian franchise fully into our glittering technological present. The two-hour premiere delivered on that promise, but there was one problem: the events of Discovery are supposed to take place less than a decade before the original series begins. Apart from Enterprise, which imagined a pre-Federation Starfleet, Discovery is a prequel to everything else we’ve seen in Star Trek. So how could its shiny uniforms and ships coexist with the terrycloth mock-turtlenecks and beep-boop cardboard control panels of the 1960s original?
CBS anticipated the questions, and in September 2017, two days after the show’s premiere, a tie-in novel penned by a renowned Trek author “explained” the overlap. The book does a thorough(ish) job of justifying the coincidences of the two series. (It’s still vaguely suspicious that Klingons can simultaneously be imposing, bulbous-nosed, ridge-foreheaded onyx aliens and elfin, white human males, but then, there’s a lot of variance in human body shapes and colors, too.) Nevertheless, the elaborate fix raises the question of whether it was really necessary for CBS to overcompensate. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the network could have avoided the issue altogether, simply by setting Discovery a few more centuries into the future, after the events of every other Trek series thus far. (Or even sometime between The Original Series and The Next Generation, which begins in 2364.) It would explain everything, from the more modern-feeling uniforms and technology to the reimagined Klingons. It would have allowed Discovery’s showrunners and writers to stretch their futurist legs and nod to previous series and films without yoking themselves to the existing canon.
Discovery isn’t the only recent Trek series to fall prey to needless continuity backflips. J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the original series did the same, explaining the filmmakers’ choices with a time-travel plot and an entire alternate timeline. It’s not just Trek, either: over the past 20 years, mainstream science fiction creators have largely handicapped their work by situating their stories within known timelines. Reboots and prequels dominate the day, from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant to a reported live-action Jetsons series (no, really). And when creators tell new stories — think Her, Ex Machina or Black Mirror — they’re generally set in the proximate future. Near-future tales are compelling and even necessary, since they let creators suggest the consequences of our current choices in an era when they seem particularly urgent. But the fact remains that most recent mainstream science fiction, like Orphan Black or Westworld, has stuck close to the present, and close to familiar technological and societal parameters. Hollywood rarely ventures into the unknown, into centuries and concepts never explored — truly, where no one has gone before. Why?
Producers likely have a host of excuses. First line of defense: money. CBS Interactive’s CEO, who oversees Discovery’s dissemination via CBS All Access, recently said broadcast TV has never been, and likely never will be, a particularly friendly place for science fiction. The genre is expensive, often requiring designers to literally create worlds. Immersive far-future science fiction usually involves putting a great deal of time, materials, money, and scrupulous attention to detail into everything from alien sets and makeup to completely unknown technology. The closer a future is to our own, the easier it is to design and execute. And expensive far-future flops like Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, or the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending show the potential downfalls of taking audiences too far from the familiar. Science fiction movies and TV do better with mainstream audiences when they explore new ideas while staying grounded in the familiar.
Nostalgia culture only compounds the issue. Reboots, prequels, and adaptations have overtaken Hollywood. This summer, Den of Geek counted 124 remakes and reboots reportedly in the works. Derivative culture comes with popular characters and built-in fandoms; more importantly, existing properties provide definitive boundaries and proven rules of play. It’s easier to create stories that are just variations on existing themes, and risk-averse Hollywood executives certainly consider it safer.
But this isn’t all Hollywood’s fault. Science fiction has always had a knack for getting in its own way. It’s a major paradox: the genre exists almost exclusively to envision the merits and dangers of a radically evolved future, but a staggering amount of science fiction literature has proven that its imagination is often only slightly bigger than its non-genre counterparts. (For instance, both versions of The Handmaid’s Tale model their dystopias on American slavery narratives, but put the focus on white characters.) There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, and the landscape has been shifting more rapidly than ever, pushing progressive, inclusive science fiction toward the mainstream. But the publishing industry, which operates free of massive Hollywood budget concerns, still continues to publish writers who can’t or won’t see the whole picture, to the detriment of those who can. When that mentality is translated to a larger, more expensive scale, it can spell disaster. (This issue is why Star Trek was so radical when it debuted: it broke social taboos and made its audience face an egalitarian, post-racial, post-nationalist future. That choice didn’t please everyone who watched the show, but it aimed at holding science fiction to exceptional standards.)
One potential explanation for Hollywood’s fear of the far future goes beyond the usual constraints of creative work. In this era of rapidly encroaching climate change, nuclear threats, and relatively negligible success in achieving anything even close to space travel, it’s harder than ever to believe in the extended future of the human race, let alone predict what it might look like thousands of years from now. Today, many of the technological promises of classic science fiction have come true. We have mountains of empirical evidence of our ability to turn science fiction into science fact. But with idealism has also come the dystopian: intentionally or not, our efforts to realize our flashy dreams of smartphones, AI assistants, and one-hour grocery delivery have also realized the economic and racial inequality foreseen by stories like The Hunger Games, the concern over eugenics spotlighted in Brave New World, and the catastrophic climate change predicted in Blade Runner. The future of our species is in question like never before, which has made farsighted optimism an unusual challenge. When tangible signs of humanity’s collapse are omnipresent, it can feel impossible to imagine humans surviving the next hundred years, let alone emerging into a utopic technological wonderland in the 26th century. This goes for consumers just as much as creators; truly imaginative futures like that of Valerian, for example, bomb with audiences for being too far-flung without real critical purpose. They’re untethered and tone-deaf to the existential issues we’re facing in this very instant.
To be clear, there is no shortage of futuristic ambition in Hollywood. So many new franchise reboots wind up in the hands of eager fans bursting with enthusiasm, and determined to make a unique mark on a story they love. But that passion is often hobbled by fears of fan blowback and series derailing, which results in decisions like the spliced canon and split timelines of Abrams’ Trek films. And that enthusiasm is hardly limited to big names; SyFy’s current lineup alone proves there are plenty of visionaries ready to explore mainstream science fiction through the millennia. Even though tastemakers seem to feel an instinct to stay close to home, series like Star Trek: The Next Generation have proven that looking beyond today’s dire circumstances can give us all comfort, assuring audiences that humanity is capable of saving itself, and that great things await us on the other side.
So the question remains: as Hollywood enjoys the spoils of this creative boom, can’t it afford to take risks on smaller, more daring projects, in hopes of creating a legacy that will last? Never mind production budgets; the original Star Trek reused sets from other Paramount and NBC shows all the time, and it did more to push the genre forward than anything else on TV during that era. Trek has persisted for more than half a century because it dared to go further into the unknown, to show audiences a universe they’d never experienced before. It endured a rocky start, but over time, its preservation eventually spawned a multibillion-dollar franchise that changed the course of mainstream science fiction storytelling. Investing in the far future will always be a gamble, but history shows it can pay off handsomely, sustaining stories and creators into their own far futures.