With CBS’s new Trek series, Star Trek is about to be updated to suit modern TV tastes and expectations. This bodes will for its success, but long-time fans need to prepare ourselves for just how different it will be.
To be sure, a lot will feel familiar: the costumes, the sets, the props, the dialogue. There are many early clues that even the classic Trekian themes will be on full display, despite our fears that CBS would try to go dark and nihilistic with a Game-of-Thrones-in-space knock off.
No, what will be different is much deeper than the color of the paint on the deck plates and the Klingon make up. It is the narrative structure undergirding the story that will be unlike anything we have seen on Trek in its 50 year history.
Two main reasons, the first of which I will discuss in this essay.
Like most streaming shows, DISCOVERY will have serialized seasons of 13 episodes. Each season will tell a primary, contained story. All of the episodes will be connected. There will be numerous story lines all woven together.
This is how most shows are written these days, but Trek was never like this. With all five previous Trek series, each episode told a contained story built around a theme or sci-fi concept or character exploration. The episode ended with the ship sailing off into space, and when we saw it again in the next episode it was as if that previous episode never happened. The idea that characters seldom changed for good–despite whatever bizarre or traumatic thing happened in any given episode–is widely mocked as the Reset Button. But it was how the writers and the studios wanted it, so that the episodes could be rerun in no particular order for syndication. (There is one striking example of serialization on TNG. The episode after Picard was assimilated by the Borg had him returning to his childhood home so his family could help him cope with the trauma, and I’ve heard that Roddenberry hated the idea.)
Today I think everyone is aware of the benefits of season-long serialization: richer and more complex character arcs; more dramatic stories with higher stakes. But there is one drawback that might sting Trek fans in particular. The concept of The Episode may lose its meaning in fandom. Most serialized shows, especially genre shows, do not really have episodes: they are 13-hour movies with credit sequences arbitrarily dropped in every 50 minutes or so. If Star Trek fandom is based on any common bond it is this phrase: “Remember that episode when…?” It is easy to remember that one where Kirk fought the Gorn; when Spock mind melded with the pizza-rug alien; when the crew got space drunk; when Picard was assimilated; when the crew got caught in a time loop and kept reliving the same day; when Beverly made love with a space ghost, and on and on… (I remember having these conversations when there were precious fewer aired Trek episodes than there are now!).
With DISCOVERY, this may no longer be possible. If it is one gigantic story that rolls into itself through each episode, it will be impossible to recall later where one episode ended and the other began. Not impossible–fans are known for their fastidious memory–but it will be pointless. And we DS9 fans know this. DS9 was worlds and away more serialized than any other Trek show, or any other genre show of its era. Most episodes were stand alone, but each season had a contained story arc. There were two instances where a string of episodes were fully serialized: the first six of Season 6, and the final nine episodes of the final season. These were wild rides to be sure, and exciting at the time and upon re-watch, but none of the actual episodes stand out in my memory. You recall the grand sweep–retaking the station from Dukat; defeating the Dominion and ending the war–but the particulars are all a muddle.
For a moment, just indulge a comparison of the DS9 finale and the TNG finale. TNG ended with a powerful but quiet moment: Picard sitting down with his crew at the poker table, having fully absorbed a lesson that was a theme of this one episode. DS9 ended with Sisko casting an ancient Bajoran holy book into an ancient Bajoran fire cave, the significance of which required many of the previous 8 episodes to understand. DS9’s finale did not quite work. It’s not that I am against complex stories. But when the writers know they have 9 or 13 hours of story to tell, they tend to focus on plot above all else. How else are you going to fill the time? When you know you have only 45-50 minutes, good writers first think of theme and character, and make sure the plot serves those ends. This is the danger of serialized seasons.
Star Trek has always been its best in those small moments of revelation brought about by a tightly focused 45-minute story. I’m not suggesting DISCOVERY will not pull off similar moments of revelation, but it may be delivered in a different way than we are used to.
It is said that TV series today are like novels. You do not think back on a novel and say, “I loved that chapter.” Instead, you loved the whole book and you recall certain scenes or moments fondly. Star Trek used to be like an anthology of short stories, and you could savor (or hate) particular outings. This is no more.
By the way: Mad Men is the only show I know of that successfully bridged this divide. Show runner Matthew Weiner’s directive was the each episode must be a self-contained story, and yet each episode was seamlessly serialized with the one before and after it, constructing a season-long story arc. DISCOVERY should follow this model.
One last point: There is also the impact on characterization. A series made of stand-alone episodes sacrifices having evolving characters and complex arcs in exchange for character-centric episodes. The writers say: “We’re not going to do anything shocking or radical with Scotty or Chekov or Data or Beverly or Geordie, or even Kirk, Spock, Riker or Picard, but we will devote entire episodes to them.” This will not happen with any of DISCOVERY’s 13 episodes. By my count there are now over 10 announced important characters. This will be a true ensemble, with some getting more screen time than others. The 3rd or 4th or 5th-tier cast member might get their own big part in a story line, but they will not get their own episode all to themselves. With only 13 episodes (compared to 24) there simply isn’t time.
Next up, I will explore more about one fascinating aspect of DISCOVERY’s characters, and one that will also be a radical break form all previous Trek: The captain is not the lead character, or rather the lead character will not be the one sitting in the center seat making all the decisions. How can this work?