2016 might have been Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, but 2017 was the year when no less than three shows reinterpreted, reimagined, or paid homage to Gene Roddenberry’s classic science fiction series. Each one follows the show’s familiar blueprint, joining the diverse crew of a starship as they zip around the universe. But each show also has their own new take on what Star Trek means, taking the classic form of the franchise and molding it in some new ways.
Star Trek: Discovery, the first official Star Trek show in over a decade, launched last fall on CBS, while Seth McFarlane’s interplanetary comedy The Orville debuted on Fox. And then there was Black Mirror’s dark take on the franchise in the episode “USS Callister.”
“USS Callister” is by far the most meta take, and it opens on a tonally perfect analogue of the original 1966 Star Trek series. It’s not until later in the episode that we learn that it’s all a video game that’s been lovingly crafted by a genius programmer with a childhood love of the show. Shy and underappreciated at the company where he works, he exorcises his workplace frustrations by cloning his coworkers into the procedurally generated VR universe, where he can control and abuse them as both hero and god.
The obsessed, regressive fandom on display is a pointed jab about nostalgia and fans who resist changing their ways, making this episode a commentary not only on the
show, but about the toxic individuals who inevitably emerge in any fandom. (There’s even a neat little nod at the end to the newer Kelvin universe created by the J.J. Abrams movies, where the simulation receives an update.)
When Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane first announced The Orville, it sounded like it would be a Star Trek parody in the vein of his animated show, packed full of weak jokes and shallow characters. Now that the show is finished with its first season, however, it has become the most faithful of the three to the original Star Trek and its successors (and reminds me quite a bit of Star Trek: The Next Generation). Rather than satire, it feels more like an earnest love letter to a beloved, influential franchise, but without some of the moralistic bumpers that Gene Roddenberry installed.
My wife described it best: it’s a more down-to-earth version of what people aboard a starship like the Enterprise would do had they not lived in the utopian world that Star Trek portrays. The crew watches old movies on the bridge’s central screen, makes pot brownies in the food replicators, and plays some pretty cruel practical jokes on one another. It’s a “what if” reimagining of Star Trek that takes its components and gives them a playful spin.
Conversely, the most radical departure from classic Star Trek is the latest official entry in the franchise, Star Trek: Discovery. While each successive series has changed up the canon in its own way, Discovery overhauls not just the look and feel of the universe, but the way the stories are told. Discovery’s bold new step is a result of its format: a streaming show debuting in a modern television environment. The show famously removed some barriers set in place by Roddenberry, allowing characters to refer to God and use profanity. The showrunners also changed up the form of the show, abandoning the done-in-one episodic model, which came out of the show’s original pitch as an anthology, in favor of a narrative arc that builds from week to week. The show introduces daring new crew members like we’ve never seen before, from the battle-hungry Captain Lorca to the disgraced mutineer Michael Burnham.
Despite the huge changes that it’s introduced, Star Trek: Discovery still carries its love of the franchise on its sleeves. The idealism of the Federation is front and center in the pilot episode, where Burnham and Captain Philippa Georgiou rescue a primitive species from destruction, while the episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” returns to the familiar theme of the crew getting caught in a time loop. There are bigger, classic Star Trek themes running through the show as well: the tension between scientific discovery and exploration is constantly butting up against more expedient and pressing dangers for the crew, like war with the Klingons, and survival. At its heart, Discovery is about maintaining the core mission of Star Fleet in the midst of adversity.
While each has a different take on Star Trek, it’s clear that each show is rooted firmly in a love of the franchise. It’s notable that each of these projects came out in the same year, after more than a decade of the show’s absence. The last series, Enterprise, went off the air in 2005, and the last film, Star Trek: Nemesis, aired in theaters in 2002. Trek had reached a point of transition, and the last offerings didn’t quite meet the expectations of its fans. J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the franchise changed that, both by going back to the show’s roots with the familiar characters of the original series and updating the look and style of the universe with a more modern face.
This year’s slate of Star Trek-derived offerings has done the same: Black Mirror, The Orville, and Star Trek: Discovery each put a distinct spin on the show’s legacy by looking to the past, the present, and the future. There’s more on the way as well: both The Orville and Discovery have been renewed for second seasons and Quentin Tarantino’s idea for a new Star Trek film was compelling enough to begin development. Thanks to all of these new interpretations of an old favorite, the future of Trek looks brighter and more vital than ever.
Update January 13th, 2018, 10:15AM ET: This article previously stated that The Orville was midway through its first season. It’s actually completed its first season.