How do we make sense of the return of Star Trek? A new version of the science-fiction franchise – a television series called Star Trek: Discovery is in production, set a few years before the time of the original, which brought global fame for William Shatner and the character Captain Kirk. The original Star Trek television series was created by Gene Roddenberry as an expression of his vision of the future. He set the series in a galaxy where the people of Earth had solved their problems through science and technology. Religion, crime, racism, starvation, disease, money and sexual frustration were all things Earth and the Federation had left behind, and all members of the Federation were equally able to explore their desires and wants. The utopian philosophy clearly visible in the original series chimed with the first generation of fans watching it on their black-and-white television screen in the 1960s. This generation was the generation campaigning against American involvement in Vietnam, the generation exploring the expansion of their minds through drugs, the generation that took to the streets in 1968 across the world.
When Star Trek was cancelled, its syndication found it a new audience in the early 1970s, young people growing up inspired by the optimism of the narrative. This audience liked the idea that we could survive through the threat of the mushroom cloud, solve all our problems and reach space and meet aliens. Captain Kirk’s crew was multicultural, with the half-Vulcan alien Spock demonstrating the power of logical thinking and reason over irrational emotions. The continued success of Star Trek re-runs and Star Trek fandom led to the creation of Star Trek movies with the original crew. At the same time, Roddenberry created Star Trek: The Next Generation, a new version set in the century after the original series. Here he continued to insist in the optimistic, utopian ideal of the Federation, and this was reflected in the diversity of the crew and the faith in reason and discussion: many of the episodes in the series reached a resolution through talking through problems. But Roddenberry’s power and control over the new series was challenged by others involved, and he was side-lined before he passed away. The Star Trek franchise – now joined by two spin-offs and one prequel – started to introduce Starfleet officers behaving unethically because directors and writers believed viewers wanted to watch programmes that matched the reality of human nature, and modern life. The apogee of this was the criminal deception of Captain Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who went against his training and his moral compass to fool the Romulans into joining the war against the Dominion because it was necessary to do so.
When the previous prequel was cancelled, viewers were seemingly bored with Star Trek’s faith in science and faith in people working together. But Star Trek was too big to go away, and soon the franchise was re-booted in three films based on the original series that split the fanbase down the middle – between those who were happy to see new films that looked like Star Trek, and those who considered them abominations that strayed too far from the internal coherence of the canon. In that latter camp were people who objected to the re-writing of Star Trek’s in-universe history and the strange aesthetics, others objected to technological inaccuracies, and yet more complained that the ethics of Star Fleet and the utopian vision of the Federation were compromised.
With Star Trek: Discovery, the makers are keen to ensure they fit neatly into the canon. One of the main characters is Sarek, the father of Spock. The Klingons are again the rivals of the Federation in space. They want the series to fit into the franchise’s time-line and universe so they do not upset the die-hard fans. But they have also changed Star Trek’s look and philosophy, to supposedly appeal to contemporary tastes. So the show is being marketed as being dark and gritty, and the trailers show the Federation’s officers in conflict with each other, and going into battle with the Klingons. When the show comes out the marketing might prove to be a double-bluff, but Discovery seems far away from the joy of discovery at the heart of the original series.