Star Trek: Discovery as a Return to Form

Discovery is the first Star Trek series since the Original Series that is written and produced to distinguish itself—to fight for its life—against an established and comfortably popular television landscape. Like TOS, DSC must stand on its own terms in a way that the four intervening series never did. In the 60s, Roddenberry worked hard to convince audiences who liked westerns and Word War II stories to follow the exploits of a starship crew set centuries after those two historical settings. Brain Fuller’s DSC faces a similar hurdle.

In the late 80s, when Roddenberry was producing TNG, he did not need to worry about selling the series over The Love Boat, MacGuiver and Knight Rider. All TNG had to be was an updated version of TOS, and the fact that so many early TNG episodes could have been TOS episodes proves the point. Of course, TNG became a megahit, partly because it had captured some of the TOS magic, but also because of its own unique strengths, such as the characters and the cast who played them. When DS9 and Voyager came around—at TNG’s cultural peak—it was enough that they had Star Trek in their title. When Enterprise came round, the writers’ mistake was that they assumed all they needed to grab an audience was Star Trek in the title—that’s not totally accurate because the show was initially only titled Enterprise. They assumed that warp nacelles, phasers, and Vulcan ears were enough. They were not. But long before ENT was canceled, the media landscape had changed. Just being Star Trek was not enough anymore.

A few words about what it was like in the late 50s and early 60s to dream up and write a science-fiction show like Star Trek.

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Roddenberry’s first sci-fi TV pitch came in 1955, a pitch to an anthology show called Science Fiction Theater, which was a precursor to The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone (his story was about a deivce that would eventually be Trekified as the Holodeck, but which put me in mind of the Bradburry story The Veldt, the one where the spoiled children send their parents into the family holodeck to be eaten by lions). Other than the anthology format, there was no serious science-fiction action-drama on TV. And most sci-fi was horror in heavy makeup. Roddenberry was inspired by science-fiction to be sure, but mostly literature and full-length movies: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the novels of Robert Heinlein, and the film Forbidden Planet. There was nothing on TV like the show he wanted to write.

TV at the time was Wagontrain, Have Gun—Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Dragnet and The Lieutenant. (Roddenberry wrote the majority of Have Gun scripts, and was the reason that The Lieutenant was canceled, for having written a script about racism in the Marine Corps.) It makes sense that Lucy Arnaz, who greenlit Star Trek, initially thought it was a show about Hollywood stars on an SGO tours in the South Pacific.

Although Roddenberry pitched it as a “Wagontrain” to the stars, it’s ironic that the episodes that were actually filmed would not be too different from the setting of a WWII battleship in the South Pacific. Except that—and here is Roddenberry’s oft-touted Vision—though his characters served aboard a ship very similar to a modern Navy/AirForce vessel, and they spoke and behaved as modern military officers, they claimed an enlightened sensibility, a cosmic humility that would have been impossible for any other character on TV at that time. They mugged like most characters on TV—their western frontier or military counterparts—but their fundamental beliefs were radically different, rooted in the idea that our political and religious views will simply be radically different centuries from now. Individual people will not be different, but society and its institutions will be. That was the essence of Star Trek’s optimism.

In any case, Roddenberry knew that he could not sell all of that without making his show synch with the rythym of what was currently popular. It contained elements of the western and the WWII ship drama that made the moral dramas palatable to his audience.

Which brings me back to Star Trek: Discovery. Brian Fuller has committed himself to write a Star Trek show true to those original values, but also to appeal to the sensibilities of the modern TV-viewing audience–Exactly as Roddenberry had to do 50 years ago. But today, what is our western, and what are our WWII touchstones?… Even if you have answers to those questions (dark psycho-dramas of our era like Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones etc., and Middle Eastern terrorism wars) how does that square with the classic Trek formula of a crew on a battleship/submarine–style vessel exploring the depths of space? I don’t know. But Fuller is having to solve story-telling problems that no Trek writer/producer has had to solve since 1966.

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