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Pike standing with M’Benga on a snowy planet with the Enterprise looming in the background in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Photo: Marni Grossman/Paramount Plus

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Star Trek has truly reinvented itself

The sci-fi franchise is all TV these days, and there’s something for (almost) everyone

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Here’s a wild statistic: There are nearly as many currently running Star Trek television series as there are completed Star Trek television series. The first 40 years of the franchise’s history include five live-action series and one animated spinoff, totaling 725 episodes. In the past five years, five new series have launched (six if you count Short Treks as its own entity), airing a cumulative 130 episodes as of today. Star Trek as a brand is busier than it’s been since the mid-1990s, when Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and the Next Generation TV series were all running concurrently and shops around the world dedicated entire displays to Star Trek toys, novels, and video games.

Of course, television is an entirely different beast today than it was when Star Trek died its second death with the cancellation of the prequel series Enterprise in 2005. Like practically everything worth watching in the year 2022, Star Trek is now a product for paid subscribers, and it’s in the interests of intellectual property owner Paramount to have something new for Trekkies 12 months out of the year. Like the Star Wars and Marvel lines on Disney Plus, Paramount Plus maintains its grip on Star Trek fans via a constant flow of new seasons of different series. All five current Star Trek series have debuted episodes this year, their seasons usually overlapping for a week or two in order to discourage subscribers from lapsing. Since August 2021, there have been only nine weeks without any new Star Trek.

Most importantly, this prismatic approach to expanding the Star Trek universe has allowed franchise custodian Alex Kurtzman and his team of producers to experiment with a variety of formats and tones, enabling them to triangulate what it is that fans are looking for. This past year — its fifth since the relaunch began in September 2017 with Star Trek: Discovery — has seen that experimentation pay off in the form of the franchise’s best-received new series in decades, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

The modern Star Trek family now includes an ongoing series for every taste: Discovery for those who enjoy the high stakes and high drama of the modern feature films, Strange New Worlds for those who prefer the classic format and a lighter touch, Lower Decks for die-hard, trivia-loving Trekkies, Prodigy for young newcomers looking for an introduction to the universe, and Picard for… someone, theoretically. It’s been a long road getting from there to here, but the Star Trek franchise seems healthier than it’s been in ages, with each stumble along the way offering guidance so that the next season, the next series can better capture the feeling of hope, wonder, and family that has enraptured fans since 1966. The first five years of modern Trek have been a crucible, a shakedown cruise that has proven that Kurtzman’s blueprint is, on the whole, spaceworthy and poised to accelerate into further frontiers.

Boldly blazing the trail

Four members of the Discovery standing in a hallway holding up flashlights and gizmos, looking at bodies and sparks on the ground in front of them Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS

It’s expected for any new Star Trek series to face heavy scrutiny from fans who are itching for a reason to disqualify it from the canon. Every single television installment has been initially rejected by the old guard of fans, even the now-sacrosanct Next Generation. (How can you have Star Trek without Kirk and Spock? Who’s this bald guy?) However, it’s fair to say that no new Trek series has endured as much loud and sustained vitriol as Discovery. One should immediately dismiss the outrage of anyone decrying that Star Trek has “gone woke,” as if progressive politics and racial and gender inclusion are not essential to the very essence of creator Gene Roddenberry’s stated objectives for the original series. (Even original star William Shatner refuses to see this.) These complaints about Discovery, which stars Black actress Sonequa Martin-Green in the lead role, became the bedrock for a loud and loathsome new subsection of Trekkies whose YouTube channels insist that no one watches “NuTrek” and that all these shows are going to be canceled any day now. (Of the five new series, only Picard has wrapped production, and that likely has something to do with its leading man turning 82 years old this summer.)

It can’t be ignored, however, that Discovery is a significant departure from previous Star Trek series in ways that could still put off a seasoned fan who engages with it in good faith. Discovery imported the visual language and aesthetic of the J.J. Abrams-produced reboot film trilogy (also hated by some Trekkies) into the “prime” Star Trek universe. With the glossier look also came a faster pace, heightened emotions, and a TV-MA rating as the producers attempted to bring the family-friendly franchise into the Game of Thrones era of prestige television. Discovery dove headlong into serialized storytelling, into which previous Treks had only dabbled. It was also the first Star Trek series that fans had to pay to watch, itself a source of frustration and controversy. Star Trek has always incrementally evolved, but Discovery was more different from its immediate predecessors than any of its older siblings were.

United Earth President and President Rillak standing and facing each other with a line of Starfleet officers standing behind Rillak. Behind them you can see the starry sky of space Photo: Marni Grossman/Paramount Plus
Spock standing with his arms behind his back on the bridge, while Pike, Kirk, and Uhura look at him from the side Photo: Marni Grossman/Paramount Plus

It’s also the show that’s evolved the most since its launch, in many ways in a direction closer to its ancestors, becoming more optimistic and colorful and leaping ahead in time to avoid conflicts with established continuity. After years of dramatic retooling, Discovery has finally settled into a rhythm under co-showrunner Michelle Paradise, who took over managing the series in season 3. Where its first season was built around seeing how much shock and punishment its protagonist (and its audience) could endure, Discovery has since committed hard to the exploration of empathy and the celebration of love. It has become Trek’s most earnest incarnation, as occupied with big feelings as it is with big ideas. It may not be all the way great television, but it feels much more like the old familiar Star Trek than it did at the beginning without losing too much of its modern feel.

Arguably, Discovery has played defense for every Star Trek show that has followed. Without Discovery, not only would the acclaimed Strange New Worlds not exist as we know it, but it would likely have been subject to a slew of criticisms to which it now seems to be a response. Had Discovery not relaunched Star Trek as a modern serialized drama, would we be as happy to see Strange New Worlds return as an old-school procedural? If Discovery hadn’t thrown out the visual style guide and introduced new, “anachronistic” uniforms and technology, wouldn’t Strange New Worlds have taken more heat for its own design revisions? As lovable as we may find Anson Mount, could Trek’s legacy as a diversity-forward institution have survived if the face of its long-awaited return to television had been yet another straight, square-jawed white man? As the vanguard of modern Star Trek, Discovery has taken nearly all of the punishment, broken almost all of the new ground, and made it possible for the franchise to thrive in its wake.

Creating new legends

Picard flying a ship with a pop up interface in front o f him Photo: Trae Patton/CBS

Where Star Trek: Discovery was initially a prequel to The Original Series featuring a totally new set of characters and only a tenuous connection to the classic cast, Star Trek: Picard was the first modern Star Trek series to carry the continuity of the universe forward in the traditional way, with a mix of new and familiar faces. The first season of Picard, run behind the scenes by author Michael Chabon, catches up with a retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) after 20 years of failure in both his personal and professional lives, finding a new purpose amongst a young motley crew.

Picard follows the now-familiar path of the “legacy sequel,” in which the star of a long-dormant series returns to pass the torch to a new generation. With one important exception: It never actually passes the torch. Over the course of its first two seasons, Picard fails its own characters time and again, unable to commit to a steady characterization or cogent story arc for anyone except for Alison Pill’s Dr. Agnes Jurati — who, like most of the new breed, has now been written off the show so that the entire Next Generation cast can reunite in season 3. The tragedy of this isn’t just that a troupe of actors have just lost their jobs to an ensemble who’s been dragged out of retirement, but that these discarded characters will not be missed. No one will be too choked up that Elnor and Worf won’t be charging into a fight together, or that we’ll never see Cristóbal Rios at the poker table across from Will Riker, because the gang from La Sirena has never felt equal to Picard’s Enterprise family. The second season simply made it clear that passing the torch was not a priority, and that the show’s younger cast was merely the backup band for Patrick Stewart and perpetual Special Guest Star Brent Spiner.

Photo: Trae Patton/Paramount Plus
Beckett blushing and glaring at Brad and Rutherford Image: CBS Studios
Dal sitting with his hands folded and resting his chin on them while he thinks. Kate Mulgrew looks on at him with her arms folded in the background Image: Nickelodeon

Happily, other branches of the franchise have found a much healthier balance of nostalgia and newness. The decision to make Discovery’s Michael Burnham the adopted sister of Spock seemed a bizarre one at first, but their relationship has turned into a boon for both characters, adding texture without becoming a distraction. The animated sitcom Star Trek: Lower Decks is absolutely littered with callbacks, cameos, and references to Treks past, but its lead characters, Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), have nevertheless emerged as true stars, and the series sports modern Trek’s most robust and memorable secondary cast. The kid-targeted animated adventure Star Trek: Prodigy features a returning Kate Mulgrew as a holographic Janeway, but her role as a mentor rather than a lead has allowed the show’s new characters to thrive in a way that Picard’s never did. Even Strange New Worlds, which features multiple “legacy characters” (Pike, Spock, and Uhura) in its ensemble, shows the same amount of love and care to those that it’s broadly reinvented (Una, Chapel, and M’Benga) or created whole-cloth (La’an, Ortegas, and Hemmer).

Superficially, shows like Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds may appear to be more pandering and nostalgia-driven, but creatively, Picard is the far more cynical endeavor. Of the five modern series, it’s the only one that seems uninterested in being anyone’s first Star Trek, and is now doubling down on the novelty of the current “reunion series” trend. This isn’t to say that a final farewell to the Next Generation cast couldn’t be entertaining, only that it’s the least interesting idea that the Kurtzman era of Trek has yet offered. As the franchise branches out into multiple directions, exploring different eras, tones, and media, Picard is the only road that appears to be a dead end. However, with a new showrunner and a new (old) cast on board for its final season, there remains hope that the franchise’s weakest modern entry may come to a satisfying conclusion.

Approaching infinite velocity

Picard sitting in a chair in an empty, overgrown sunroom, with Q standing in front of him and holding his face in his hands Photo: Nicole Wilder/Paramount Plus
Uhura and Spock walking in the halls of the Enterprise; she is holding a tablet in front of her and looking at him, he is walking with his arms behind his back looking at her. There are other Enterprise personnel in the background Photo: Marni Grossman/Paramount Plus

Picard may be coming to an end next year, but Alex Kurtzman and company have no intention of letting the franchise lose steam. Kurtzman has spoken publicly about two live-action series that are currently in development, and has hinted that there are more that have yet to be announced. A Discovery spinoff starring Michelle Yeoh as the reformed interstellar tyrant Philippa Georgiou was intended to start production in 2020, but has been delayed by the pandemic and by Yeoh’s film career renaissance. Yeoh recently described her series, tentatively titled Star Trek: Section 31, as “Mission: Impossible meets Guardians of the Galaxy,” but there’s been no word on when she might have time to make it. There’s the long-gestating Starfleet Academy series, which is currently being developed by Absentia co-creator Gaia Violo after a version from Gossip Girl’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage failed to ossify. A long-rumored narrative podcast miniseries about the legendary villain Khan from Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer has just been officially announced. Kurtzman and company clearly intend to keep Trek running year-round on Paramount Plus until the wheels fall off, and if it continues with its current pace and variety, this may well be sustainable for another five years. (We’re looking forward to seeing Section 31 premiere on Paradiscovery Prime in 2026.)

The potential hyperspanner in the works is Paramount’s plans to supplement this with further Star Trek feature films. The conglomerate has promised stockholders a fourth film starring Chris Pine and the rest of the crew from the reboot trilogy, committed to a 2023 release date despite scheduling conflicts with the cast and a currently vacant director’s chair. New head of Paramount Pictures Brian Robbins has expressed interest in multiple new Star Trek films, both live-action and animated, on top of the nonstop rotation of new shows streaming on Paramount Plus. This suggests that Paramount intends to try yet again to build Star Trek into a franchise on the scale of Star Wars, something that no one but its stockholders is asking for. It’s miraculous that Star Trek has managed to expand in the directions that it has over the past five years, with five very distinct television shows appealing to different but overlapping audiences, but the thought of frequent theatrical films on top of this is, frankly, exhausting. There’s the ever-present danger of Trek’s value as a corporate property interfering with its capacity to tell interesting, even radical, stories. The more money there is in the Star Trek business, the closer scrutiny it’s sure to receive from on high and the less likely it is to challenge the status quo. Trek should always be about lessons first and lore second. Thankfully the current leadership seems to understand this, but leadership changes fast, particularly during the streaming era.

Nevertheless, it is an incredibly exciting time to be a Star Trek fan. There’s a new episode on TV every week, a movie in the works, and a genuinely exciting new comics series on the way, as well as the first new console video game in half a decade. 2023 will see the first legitimate crossover of the modern Trek era, between Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks, a pairing that makes a surprising amount of sense as both series have warmly embraced the campy and absurd facets of their universe. We have reached Peak Star Trek, and like Peak Anything, it cannot be sustained indefinitely. Like the golden era of the mid-1990s, this is a time that Trekkies should cherish. Either the quality or the quantity of new Star Trek is bound to decline soon, and the former is certain to precede the latter.

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