Why ‘Star Trek’ Canon Feels Like Homework

The final frontier has a history, and future, of tricky continuity.

This fall, after a twelve-year absence, Star Trek will return to television. The new show, Star Trek: Discovery, is a prequel set roughly ten years before the events of the original series. That means the entirety of the sprawling franchise is set in this new show’s future, further expanding a canon that has become incredibly complicated and intimidating for newcomers.

This is a problem that stretches back generations. In May of 1990, Mark Lenard reprised his role as Spock’s father Sarek in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it caused a shitstorm for the writers at the time. In 1999, writer Ira Behr [revealed](http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Sarek_(episode) it was a “major taboo” for the writers on The Next Generation to directly reference original series characters. It took work, but Behr eventually got the powers that be at Paramount to permit Picard (Patrick Stewart) to say the name “Spock,” which he believes helped “start to push open the door to what was a very, very closed and narrow franchise.”

But was it a pandora’s box? In 1990, Star Trek was totally gun shy of self-reference, but these days it seems to revel in it.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his father, Sarek (Mark Lenard) in 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.'

“By the time I was finished with Deep Space Nine, I just felt there was so much,” Ron Moore tells Inverse. Moore was hired onto the writing staff of The Next Generation during its third season and went on to become an executive producer and pen several memorable episodes, as well as co-write two of the Star Trek feature films, Generations and First Contact. A long time fan of the original show, Moore feels that the “very dense mythology” began to hinder Star Trek. “At the end, I walked away going, ‘It’s time to wipe the slate clean and start over on the Star Trek universe,’” he says.

Today, the complicated Star Trek universe lives on, and not just in TV shows and movies. A contemporary mobile roleplaying game called Star Trek Timelines provides a dizzying approach for dealing with the complicated continuity: just have everything happen all at once.

Captain Sikso (Avery Brooks) of 'Deep Space Nine' time travels to meet Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in "Trials and Tribble-ations."

The premise of the game rests on the notion that a big “temporal anomaly” has caused all the time periods of Star Trek to converge at one point, creating a kind of permanent crossover fan-fiction event in which Captain Kirk can go on missions with Captain Janeway with little explanation. “The hardest part of keeping Star Trek history is not becoming lazy,” Jessica Sliwinski, the lead narrative designer for the game, tells Inverse. “We have a plot device to justify anything we dream up, but it’s also dangerous because it’s so easy to explain away contradictions, retcons, or characters just plain not acting like themselves.”

Sliwinski’s dilemma is, in some ways, the reverse of what J.J. Abrams faced when putting together the first Star Trek reboot film. Sliwinski’s game needed to allow all existing characters to do new things without violating the canon. Abrams, on the other hand, wanted to create new versions of old characters but also avoid violating the canon to the point of pissing off fans.

Instead of a full remake, which ignored all previous continuity, 2009’s Star Trek placated fans by having the plot of the film focus on the creation of a divergent timeline. Moore feels that the Abram’s solution only went halfway.

The destruction of the USS Kelvin created a "new" timeline in J.J. Abrams's 'Star Trek' (2009)


“Where it fell down for me was when they tie [the movie] into the continuity and say that this is a branch. It’s like a timeline thing, and that there’s a Spock, and that it is connected to the original,” Moore says. “I felt like it made it needlessly complex, and just makes it harder to take it in as someone who’s new to the whole franchise.”

Moore also points out the very real fact that the original Star Trek series essentially made up its own continuity as it went along in 1966.

“If you watch the first season, they don’t even mention the Federation for awhile,” he says. “You watch them just kind of figure out the mythology along the way.”

The difficulty of the contradictory mythology in early Trek is confirmed by novelist David Mack, who has written numerous tie-in Star Trek novels. Though Mack’s latest Trek book is about the secret organization Section 31, he is in the process of writing a novel set in the Discovery continuity. Mack tells Inverse that writing in the Discovery timeline was “tricky to get right.” Part of this he attributes to the time period, saying that the setting is in the year 2254: “It is light on detail and almost unique within the Star Trek continuity. That made it a challenge to represent that era faithfully while also staying true to the new elements being introduced in the two-part pilot of Star Trek: Discovery.”

Will any of this matter when Discovery airs? Moore thinks it depends on which kind of fan tunes in. “Fandom is a very big spectrum, and I think we tend to focus on the most outrageous elements or the ones that yell the loudest, or the ones that seem more obsessive and nerd-like than others,” he says.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy) mind-melds with Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) in the two-part crossover episode "Unification."


But as Moore points out, some Trekkies are more chilled out than the most hardcore set. “Those are the people who generally give all that a pass, and they enjoy the show, and they enjoy the deeper themes of the shows and the characters.” Still, for viewers who know nothing about Star Trek, Discovery is possibly the most complicated installment of the franchise yet, and in terms of continuity, the furthest thing away from a reboot of any kind.

Though Moore said it would be a “blast” to return and write for Trek again, he remembers how difficult it was to write the show when he was still in the Trekkie trenches. “I thought it would feel like too much homework at that point.” For now, the amount of homework viewers will have to do before Star Trek: Discovery remains to be seen.

Star Trek: Discovery airs on CBS All Access sometime in the fall of 2017.

Related Tags