If not a second pilot episode, Star Trek: Discovery certainly delivers a brand new mission statement with Season 2 premiere, ‘Brother’.
Looking back on the first season of Discovery, it was not only the strongest first season of a Star Trek show since 1966, it was also the most radical. Trek’s return to television under the original auspices of Bryan Fuller, later with significant support from Alex Kurtzman after a difficult road has now emerged as show runner and steward of Trek’s modern TV revolution on CBS All Access, was designed as a refreshed update from the era that spanned the late 1980’s through to the mid-2000’s. Gone were the stand-alone episodes, the 24/25 episode seasons, even the traditional structure of network television with one eye on syndication. Discovery was living in the now.
Season 1 threw a great deal at the wall. A ship and Captain we didn’t even see or meet until the third episode, allowing the first two episodes to serve as more of a prequel epilogue than a traditional Star Trek two-part pilot of old; pure, serialised storytelling which contained character development and story tropes such as the time loop episode within a broader season-long arc; and in particular, the Captain of the ship—the inviolate hero of all Trek series of old—turned out to be the villain of the piece, not to mention the fact our main character turned out not only to be of lower rank, but a mutineer to boot! Not all of it stuck, but Discovery from day one broke the Star Trek rules with a casual, F-bomb dropping swagger of its own.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of ‘Brother’, therefore, is just how hard it works to feel like the Star Trek that long came before Discovery.
What many Star Trek fans considered an unlikely impossibility has finally, it seems, happened: the franchise is well and truly back on TV, and here to stay.
When Star Trek: Discovery launched at the tail end of 2017, after several delays, it ended the franchise’s 12 year exile from television screens following the slow demise of Star Trek: Enterprise, and the Rick Berman\Paramount TV dominance of the late 80’s and 1990’s – if not the most iconic in terms of popular culture, then without question the most successful era of Star Trek in its half a century of history. Discovery was a symbolic return for one of television’s most legendary series and, as every Star Trek sequel series has done over the decades, it divided opinion.
If you put aside Discovery’s quality, and the difficulties behind the scenes in bringing it to bear, one fact is indisputable: it has triggered a revival of Trek which is now heading in some very unexpected directions.
Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice. The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand.
Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?
As all new Star Trek television series Discovery closes out its opening half-season, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this momentous point in modern television. That’s a big word – momentous. The return of Star Trek to the small screen, however, surely fits that description. Without the cultural impact of the original 1960’s Star Trek, television would look a great deal different in the modern day. Star Trek stands as, easily, one of the key pop-cultural touchstones of the 20th century and for all its success as a movie franchise across three separate retinue of actors, television remains and always will remain the true home and heart of Star Trek. Any appearance of the franchise on television is a big deal, and Discovery has been many years in the making.
The wilderness years of television Star Trek were long. Following the transition of Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, subsequent series failed to match the commercial success of the first sequel series to Gene Roddenberry’s original. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both had levels of critical or commercial success (less so Voyager) but neither made the same kind of impact on the cultural storytelling landscape, while Enterprise—the first Trek voyage into the 21st century—was hampered out of the gate in attempting to tell a 20th century style of Star Trek in a rapidly changing television and real world political and sociological landscape.
2005 was the darkest year. Enterprise was cancelled in its fourth season, the year ironically it finally began to find its creative feet and place within the Trek universe, and mirrored The Original Series in how it began a long period of the franchise away from television. Not quite as long as the eighteen years between the end of TOS and the launch of TNG, but it took twelve years for Star Trek to make a return with Discovery, a show which had an enormous legacy to live up to in a world where Trek has experienced significant evolutionary growing pains. You only have to consider the polarising fan reaction to Star Trek 2009 and its subsequent J.J. Abrams led sequels, which repurposed Trek as an action adventure science-fiction franchise, to feel that divide.