As we approach the 56th anniversary of Star Trek and the mammoth franchise it launched, it is a good time to reflect on where Star Trek is going. Specifically, the franchise’s fascination with prequels.
When Star Trek was at its height back in the ’90s, each new TV show featured new, original characters and situations. For the most part, the premise was basically the same: a starship and its crew exploring the unknown cosmos and meeting new aliens. This premise has continued to this day, but a common wrinkle with the franchise is to look back and dwell on characters and situations that made it so popular. Look at, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, the latest Star Trek series, which won a lot of acclaim from fans and critics for its back-to-basics approach in episodic storytelling and doubling down on established characters like Christopher Pike and Spock. Meanwhile, the biggest buzz going on in Trek circles has to do with a third season of Star Trek: Picard that will reunite the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Strange New Worlds Revisited
There has been a tendency with Star Trek shows, starting with Star Trek: Enterprise in 2001 and most recently this year with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, to serve as prequels to the original Star Trek, which took place in the mid-23rd century. Even the recent films have taken place during this time period, although those films were reboots that officially took place in an alternate universe. Some fans have an understandable disdain for prequels in general for many reasons. Prequels are forced to follow a certain continuity to line up with the original film or TV show. Also, much of the tension is gone with prequels when it comes to established characters and situations. Take the Star Wars prequels. They featured younger versions of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker before he turned to Darth Vader. Going into the films, everyone knew that Kenobi would survive the films and that Skywalker would eventually become evil. This fact robbed the films of some tension if the fate of these characters was preordained. Going back to Star Trek, with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and Star Trek: Enterprise there was some uproar over how the alien Gorn looked compared to their appearance in the original Star Trek. The real-world reason for the disparity between how the Gorn looked was due to improved budgets and special effects. The original Gorn was a stuntman in a cheap suit, and recreating that look would lead to unintentional laughter among viewers instead of fear. Still, this lack of continuity has irked some fans.
Another problem with prequels is the implication that the powers-that-be have run out of ideas. This was evident in the early episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, which were usually tired retreads of previous Trek episodes. It was not until its later seasons did the show break free of its worn formula and embraced the potentials of prequels with episodes that neatly lined up with the original series.
If a prequel is done well, it can be an excellent way to evoke foreshadowing and to help develop characters and situations. With Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, an intriguing storyline has it that Pike knows his future, which was a grim one as shown in the original Star Trek. Throughout the first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Pike internally debates if his future is set. Can he change his fate? Should he? This dilemma was the basis of one of the show’s best episodes, “A Quality of Mercy”, which explored the result of Pike altering his future. Hint for anyone who has not watched it, things do not end well for a certain other character.
Then again, if a prequel falters or tries to be too different, it will alienate fans. Star Trek: Discovery suffered heavily in that while it was a prequel it strayed too far from established Star Trek lore. The technology and overall look of the show was too advanced when compared to the original Star Trek, though it took place about a decade before the old show. The look of the Klingons was radically different from the established look of Klingons in traditional Trek, although to be fair the look of the Klingons was wildly different from the original Star Trek and later incarnations. Again, improved budgets were the cause for the disparity. There were distinct continuity deviations, notably the fact that the show’s main character, Michael Burnham, was actually Spock’s step sister. Keep in mind, this family relationship was never hinted at in previous Trek shows and films. These deviations might have been overlooked if Star Trek: Discovery was clearly established as a reboot like the recent films or if the show was actually good. Star Trek: Discovery escaped from the storytelling limitations of prequels by having their characters flung into the far future. This was an excellent idea since the show would not be bound by continuity, but thanks to poor scripts the show has become unwatchable. Star Trek: Discovery was doomed from the start not because it was a prequel, but because of its execution.
There is not anything wrong with doing prequels or revisiting characters and situations. Doing so helps explore the many interesting facets of the Star Trek universe. Many of the most popular films and TV shows have successfully pulled this off and will continue to do so. As to whether or not upcoming shows or films will be prequels is not clear, though if one wants to accept Star Trek: Discovery as canon then given its far-future setting, any show or film set before the current episodes of Star Trek: Discovery has to be considered a prequel.
Lost Era Explored
One prequel idea that can be explored would be to set a potential show during the so-called Lost Era of Star Trek. This is the time period set between the last Star Trek film to feature the original cast, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is a significant time gap of several decades and a show set in this Lost Era of Star Trek could answer some questions. For instance, what happened to the Enterprise-B? What were the early missions of the Enterprise-C? What was the Tomed Incident involving the Romulans? What was the political situation in the Alpha Quadrant? What was the fate of the original Enterprise crewmembers like Chekov or Uhura? The show could explore the early years of Jean-Luc Picard, Kathryn Janeway or Benjamin Sisko. Just recast the roles with younger actors. Other things that could be examined include the occupation of Bajor, Federation conflicts with the Cardassians, Tholians and other enemies, the early years of Noonien Soong, the possiblities are endless with a TV show set during the Lost Era of Star Trek. Such a show would serve as a prequel to the later shows while being a sequel to the original Star Trek. The show could adapt the novels set during this time period or be completely original just as long as the continuity lines up.
Star Trek has demonstrated throughout the years the merits and detriments of prequels. When done correctly, the Star Trek prequels are not just fascinating companion pieces to older shows, but legitimate storytelling vehicles that fully explore the rich world of Star Trek.
I love classic Trek and STTNG. Modern Trek though has been a mixed bag at times with its fixation on prequels. Discovery wasn’t really my cup of tea, season 2 of Picard was a bit of a disappointment as well, but Strange New Worlds has been great with its intriguing premise. It feels more like proper Star Trek to me, all that violence and swearing in Discovery and Picard didn’t sit well with me at all. I’d love to see some of your suggestions like Enterprise B and C eras explored. Wasn’t there a proposed Captain Sulu show at one point also, wonder what happened to that one?
I remember reading that George Takei pitched the show idea but as usual Paramount wasn’t interested. It’s too bad since there was a lot of fertile ground to cover and would have offered something new.
For sure, a captain Sulu show with the crew of the Excelsior would have been brilliant. Guess we can only wonder what might have been eh? Still, it’d be fun if they did that as a comic book series wouldn’t it? As for the TV shows, I like Strange New Worlds, but next I’d love to see Star Trek move away from Prequels and move into the future. They’ve done it before with STTNG, so I really hope that’s where they take Star Trek next and keep boldly going.
I think that Discovery fell into this heavily serialized season trap. Every episode was beholden the season plot for better or worse and that didn’t leave much room to explore anything else. The season plot now determines how good the season is and the writers of Discovery have not really chosen great season plots at this point in my opinion. It is hard to watch and enjoy an episode if you don’t care about or like the season plot.
I think Star Trek is best when it is in the episodic story play format, and not trying to be as serialized as a show like the Walking Dead. I was very happy that Strange New Worlds returned to this format and I could focus on the story of the episode and not keep worrying about continuity with the half a dozen season plot arcs. I look forward to more Strange New Worlds, but care less about Discovery.
Trying to fit a series into that era between the original cast series and movies and TNG would be a continuity nightmare for the writers. Watching it, I think I might become distracted all the time about if this particular thing matches what was done in the other series. They may have to pull a Voyager and get so far away that they can do their own thing in continuity peace.
One thing is for certain, we are living in bountiful times for Star Trek, so there is plenty to choose to watch or ignore.
Strange New Worlds came at the right time since so many of us practically gave upb9n Star Trek. The episodic storytelling is probably the best format for Star Trek and as you mentioned at least we have plenty of shows to choose from and ignore the ones we don’t like.
I agree that Discovery has become unwatchable. SNW has been great so far, and I am intrigued as to how they will handle Pike’s fate, plus Spock’s and T’Pring’s relationship.
I meant to do a write up about the latest season of Discovery but it was so bad I didn’t even finish it and felt it was not worth writing about. The second season of Picard was a huge disappointment but Strange New Worlds came at the perfect time and salvaged Trek. Let’s hope the second season continues to deliver quality episodes.
I agree S2 of Picard was disappointing, but knowing that the entire crew from TNG will be in S3 has me VERY excited!
Sci-fi prequels are known to be a gamble and certainly with Star Trek and Star Wars. I can agree that Strange New Worlds has salvaged my Trek spirit, along with Prodigy. In regard to how easier it can be nowadays to choose between what to watch and what to ignore with our enduring sci-fi legacies, Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who fall most easily into that category. Thankfully there are still good stories that may resonate with people. Certainly enough for this new generation of fan film creators like for Star Trek Axanar and Doctor Who Velocity to be inspired to make their contributions. I’ll always be grateful for proof that so long as our purest sci-fi hearts stay in the right places, then it will count for something.