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.