Last time we looked at how well the Star Trek-like show The Orville managed its world building. Today we’re going to pop back to Star Trek’s real universe in Star Trek: Discovery and see if they were more or less successful in their world building efforts. I’d like to reiterate that this critique is not measure the success or failure of the show overall, merely how it handles its universe. I’ll try my best to keep my feelings toward the show neutral, though a bit’s going to leak through probably when we get to the Klingons. There will be a discussion on the klingons.
Fair warning: there will be some spoilers for the show.
For those of you who aren’t avid Trekkies, here’s a little background. Discovery takes place after Enterprise but before Star Trek the original series (TOS), primarily during the Federation/Klingon war. This means that the Federation and Starfleet are in place and decently stable, the Klingon Empire is not yet unified, and the Khitomer Accords aren’t even a gleam in old Curzon Dax’s eye yet. The first two episodes are, in fact, how the war begins.
Now we’re going to have to face facts here and call Discovery out on a few things right off the bat. Discovery is meant to fit neatly into the existing timeline, and that was a problem they could have avoided when deciding on a new Star Trek. Every series wants to create new technology or aliens to differentiate it from previous Star Treks. The Next Generation (TNG) had the holodecks, Deep Space Nine (DS9) had the wormhole and the Jem’Hadar, and Voyager had an entire quadrant of new aliens, not to mention temporal everything. I’m pretty sure Janeway beat Kirk in most time traveling incidents by the end.
But when you put a series in the past, things get trickier. Enterprise had this problem, as well. It’s hard to create new, better technology when its future doesn’t have it. Now, I’m not referring to the spore drive, since they did a fairly good job of explaining for the time being why only Discovery had such an advanced engine and why there probably wouldn’t be another, considering it takes genetic engineering with unknown consequences to even get it to work. And (though not confirmed) if Discovery is a Section 31 ship, then it would also explain why there are no records of its existence.
No, the earliest problem with continuity is much smaller and could have been completely avoided if only it hadn’t been put before TOS. If it had been any time after DS9, this wouldn’t even be an issue. Communication holograms. Walking, talking, real-time on the bridge holograms.
Once again, you can’t have cooler technology than the future if you are putting it into an existing timeline. DS9 is the first Star Trek to introduce a holographic communication set up, and even that was available only in one set part of the ship in a stationary location. It was also an achievement at the time. If every ship in Discovery has this technology, which it seems so, why would it never appear in TOS, TNG, or be so rudimentary in DS9? Pretty as it looks, it doesn’t fit.
This is a constant problem with Discovery‘s universe. Cinematic effect takes precedence over existing Star Trek history. You can see it again in what is perhaps my least favorite scene in Discovery: Burnham’s court marshal.
In every previous series any court proceedings involving Starfleet are conducted in the open. They present a sense that for all the import of the trial, Starfleet is a organization that values fair and just hearings that are conducted in a practical manner.
Burnham’s court marshal was presented with all the openness and fairness of a Cardassian interrogation. Apparently only one lightbulb was working in the court that day, and the idea of council for the defendant or any clear record of a sentence as dire as life in prison wasn’t a concern for Discovery‘s Starfleet. Cinematic effect mattered more than adhering to the set principles of the world it is supposed to exist in.
That problem also includes . . . the klingons. I told you we’d get to them. Aesthetically, they aren’t klingon, but I don’t want to focus too much on that directly. After all, people probably felt that way when TNG presented their forehead-ridged klingons after people were used to TOS. Advances in makeup abilities and CGI allow for some creative license in design.
But when the changes are so drastic, you have to address that. Eventually, the Star Trek universe did address the differences in between TOS and TNG klingons, making the TOS klingons an experiment, not “true” klingons. This became an opportunity for Enterprise to explore and a joke for DS9’s infamous “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode.
Discovery’s klingons are neither TOS nor TNG klingons, and are being presented as what all klingons are with no explanation why they don’t fit into the timeline they claim to exist in. Now I had read in some press releases that they gave the explanation that these, too, were a group isolated from the rest of the empire. Yet, when the beacon calls all the houses together there was no difference between these offshoot klingons and those who joined them.
Aesthetics aside, Discovery’s klingons lack any of what I like to call the “joyful arrogance” of the klingons that exists in both TOS and TNG and served as a bridge to make the race feel similar even if it looked different. Even if the Klingon Empire as TOS and TNG knew it hasn’t formed yet, Discovery is not so far into the past to account for so extreme a cultural shift. And there is a massive cultural problem when the first person to note that it was dishonorable for Kol to steal T’Kovma’s ship from Voq by means of food and not combat was the Vulcan-raised human and not one of the many klingons.
The fact is these issues could have been solved in one of two simple ways:
- Admit that this is meant to be a part of the Star Trek cinematic universe, which can be agreed is wholly different from the TV series. It would probably cost any chance of a new Star Trek show set in the universe Trekkies are familiar with, but it would allow them to create any continuity they want. It is obvious they want to call back to the movies and not the TV shows.
- Set it in the future, beyond Voyager and DS9, and they could have explained a great deal of cultural, physical, and technological changes. If they went far enough ahead.
Overall, while The Orville leans too heavily on call backs to Star Trek to create its universe, Discovery seems to try too hard not to be a Star Trek show. It’s universe is sacrificed for the sake of cinematic effect, which leaves the world too unfamiliar to the established universe.