On Sunday night Star Trek: Discovery debuts in the US, followed by an international debut on Netflix less than 24 hours later. Expectations are... mixed, to say the very least. Some people seem adamant that the series will be a spectacular failure, while others hold out hope that it will be a return to form that we haven't really seen on TV since the Voyager finale.*
The problem is a return to form isn't always a good thing. What I specifically mean is that if Discovery mimics other Trek series exactly, it's not going to make a good first impression. Let's be honest, every Star Trek series started off pretty poorly.
*Yes I know Enterprise has been and gone since then, but let's be honest even at its best it wasn't enormously great.
The Next Generation
The best place to kick off this argument is, surprisingly, not the original Star Trek series from the '60s. I'll get to that in a bit, but discussing The Next Generation is the best place to start. Why? Because it's a show that literally has a trope named after the fact its second season is noticeably better than the first. 'Growing the Beard' is considered the opposite of Jumping the Shark, and was named for the fact that the second season featured the debut of Jonathan Frakes' glorious Riker beard. While it was surely a coincidence, this new wardrobe choice coincided with a massive improvement in the series' writing.
There are a lot of things to hate about the second season of TNG, like the uniforms, Doctor Pulaski, Wesley, and the fact that a writer's strike out a hamper on script development. But it's more than fair to say that the first season was even worse. It featured even more Wesley doing astonishing things that made everyone hate him, dudes randomly wearing skirts for some reasons that are never actually explained, and the fact that the crew are all over the place. Geordie is on the bridge as a helmsman for some reason, and to this day people can't work out what the hell is going on with Miles O'Brien during those initial 25 weeks.
A lot of problems can also be blamed on the fact that Gene Roddenberry was insistent upon the fact 24th century humans had evolved beyond conflict. That Utopian vision of the future is inspiring to some, but it makes for pretty boring television. Star Trek is, after all, a drama, and if everyone is wandering around like a group of space hippies universally preaching peace and love things get very stale very quickly.
Conflict, after all, gave us some of the better episodes of TOS, often with Kirk removing his shirt somewhere along the way. Plus, who can forget how Bones would constantly (and often futilely) shout at Spock for various reasons.
Yes this is the Abrams movie not the TV show. Sue me.
Gene is often credited with causing a lot of friction behind the scenes of TNG, with stories of him being too demanding, rewriting scripts, driving away the talent, and generally trying to avoid all the things people liked about TOS. Hell, he apparently even tried to prevent Riker from smiling. A lot of people also didn't like the fact that his personal lawyer, who was brought in to negotiate his salary, ended up editing scripts with impunity. There's a documentary about the whole situation (made by William Shatner) if you're interested in hearing more. It's called Chaos on the Bridge, and it's on Netflix.
Season 2 coincided with a decline in Gene Roddenberry's health, which meant he wasn't as involved with the show as he had been. With less of his alleged meddling, the series improved over the course of Seasons two and three.
Season one was bland and forgettable, and aside from Encounter at Farpoint (The first episode, with the first appearance of Q) and The Naked Now, I can't remember a single episode. The series was by no means perfect, and had some issues through its entire run (like Dianna Troi being shit and generally useless), but the first season was without a doubt its lowest point.
Season 3 was where things really improved though, with Michael Piller taking on the role of head writer and switching to a more character-driven show that wouldn't have worked under the direct control of Roddenberry. The show stopped being an 'alien of the week' situation and actually started going somewhere. It also became the season where writers were able to introduce the Borg (first teased on the season one finale), and where the Enterprise crew got some uniforms that weren't glorified wetsuits that looked ridiculous.
The Original Series
Trekkies like to hold the original Star Trek series in very high esteem. To serious fans it's the gold standard of Trek television, paving the way for everything that cam after it. But when you remove the nostalgia goggles it's clear that Star Trek has not aged well. If you're watching it for the first time as an adult in the 21st century, it's pretty crappy. Heck, that was even acknowledged in the Futurama episode Where No Fan Has Gone Before, which features an insane amount of fanboying over the show.
Enjoy this simple video without context pic.twitter.com/uZlVB8IerE
— Tom Pritchard (@tepritchard) August 10, 2017
Fry has a point. For every Space Seed there's an Assignment: Earth, for every City on the Edge of Forever there's a Spock's Brain. The best thing to compare it to is probably classic Doctor Who, which is very similar to Trek. Both feature special effects that are rudimentary and downright laughable by modern standards, and have varying levels of quality throughout their entire run. Both series have stood the test of time, but its the people that watched them 'back in the day', so to speak, that seem to enjoy them on a more personal level.
And by back in the day I mean during the initial run, and '70s syndication that caused a resurgent popularity in the show.
But despite the fond memories the early episodes of Star Trek were quite inconsistent. Remember the uniforms in season one? One episode they'd be those beige jumpers, the next they'd swap to the classic red/blue/gold tops, after which they'd switch back. Plus a lot of the jargon got jumbled up during early weeks. For instance the Federation doesn't get mentioned until the 23rd episode of the first series. Before that Kirk used various vague references to 'United Earth' or just Starfleet.
And let's not go into The Menagerie, the two-part episode that canonised Star Trek's unaired pilot The Cage. In that Enterprise crewmen talk humans breaking the 'time barrier' being broken, and how fast human beings can travel through space. Later Trek series, and the episode Metamorphosis would introduce Zeframe Cochrane - the man who invented warp drive (on Earth, at least) in the late 21st century, which enabled humanity to start leaving the solar system. Also Spock regularly showed emotion, which is completely anti Vulcan.
Despite its flaws in the early days, however, there was one thing that remained noticeably absent. The overacting that William Shatner is well known for was mostly absent in the early days of Star Trek, but the further forwards you go the more pronounced and obvious it gets
In summary, Star Trek obviously had a lot of problems in general. Problems that are either ignored or worked around with more recent franchise instalments. While many of those problems persisted through it's three-year run, there's no denying the fact that the first season, especially the first half, has more than its fair share of issues. Hell, even William Shatner admitted that Star Trek was basically dead, and it was only the popularity of Star Wars that caused Paramount to start caring about the franchise again.
Trek fans will always have a special place in their heart for Star Trek, good parts and bad, but you can't really argue that the everything was of dubious quality - particularly in the first half of the first season. Really the Trek people know and love today didn't really exist until the films. Or more specifically, The Wrath of Khan. Which leads me on to:
The Motion Picture
While I've been arguing that the first season of each Star Trek TV series have all been rubbish, the films certainly don't get a free pass. We can't forget about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, even though most people would like to.
— Tom Pritchard (@tepritchard) August 10, 2017
I have a friend who likes TMP because, as he puts it, "it's just a giant episode of TOS." Skip back to the previous section if you don't know why that would be a problem. Mainly because it's a Plato's Stepchildren of an episode, not a Mirror, Mirror.
TMP is dull, convoluted, and necessarily padded out with lengthy scenes where nothing happens. Scenes that, to me, seem like an attempt to make a TV script feature-length, and/or show off the fact that the producers had a proper budget to work with and wanted to show off the fact they didn't have to rely on the same primitive effects as the TV series.
Plus, look at these goddamn pyjamas they thought would look good as uniforms. I suspect the costume designers, and the producer who signed off on them, were taking something.
The worst part is that a similar design made a comeback on TNG, albeit tighter and worse-looking.
Then Wrath of Khan came along and changed everything. It was everything a Star Trek film needed to be, with a great villain, a legible plot, and a sense of nostalgia for one of TOS's best episodes. Even though it featured the controversial death of Spock during the final act, the film is widely regarded to be the best Trek film. The positive experience on set even convinced Leonard Nimoy, who has admitted he initially didn't want to be in the film at all, to return for subsequent instalments.
TMP was the first film in the Star Trek film franchise, and Generations was the first to bring The Next Generation cast to the big screen. While it's not the worst Trek film, it wasn't a particularly good one either. Especially not after the pretty stellar TV finale All Good Things...
Plus there wasn't much consistency on-screen. While the plot itself wasn't too dissimilar from episode of TNG, the fact that the uniforms keep changing throughout the film was distracting. Particularly when you realise most of the cast didn't get their own uniforms made. They were just borrowed from the set of DS9, which is why Riker's looks hilariously small, and Geordie looks like he's wearing hand-me-downs.
In the same way that the various TV series needed time to find their footing, the cast of both Star Trek series needed some time to work things out on the big screen. While the attempt to mingle the old and new cast might have worked had the Enterprise-D crew been completely fresh and unknown, after seven years on television they didn't really need the original cast there acting as a send-off. While it did reveal the fate of Kirk following Star Trek VI, something TNG had avoided, none of it was necessary here.
All Generations really was was an excuse to give Kirk a more dramatic send-off than TV would have allowed. It just so happens that the whole thing ended up being a extended version of a rather average TNG episode. At least Generations paved way for a much better Star Trek film to come along. A film that's, dare I say it, better than all the others. Yeah I went there. Suck it Wrath of Khan.
DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise
Well now the classic films are out of the way, it's a good idea to take a look at the Star Trek series that never got the chance to grace the big screen. Starting with DS9.
If TNG had those big explosive jumps in quality during the second and third seasons, it's probably better to describe DS9 as more of a slow burn. It even had its own literal Growing the Beard moment, when producers finally let Avery Brooks grow his trademark goatee (season 3, episode 22). And then again when they let him shave his head (season 4, episode 1), leading to the look you can see above.
That last part also coincided with Michael Dorn joining the series as Worf, which can not be coincidental
All TV series need time to settle in and figure out what they're about, and that was very much the case with DS9. It was the first Trek series not to live up to the franchise name, with no titular ship gallivanting across the quadrant in search of brave new worlds and civilisations. It was about life on a space station occupying a single spot in the galaxy, and that was brand new territory for the people responsible for bringing Star Trek to life. This, along with the story arcs that continued throughout its seven year run, made it very political: even before you brought the Dominion into the fray.
While Kirk and Picard encountered major characters in multiple occasions, Sisko's unique position meant that the same things would crop up time and again. He was responsible for monitoring the wormhole for Starfleet, he was emissary to the Bajoran prophets, and he was the negotiator tenuously trying to keep the peace between Bajor, The Federation, and The Cardassians (With Ducat wanting nothing more than to retake Bajor and push all humans away from that part of the galaxy). Trek was always very diplomatic, particularly in TNG, but nothing really emphasised that more than DS9.
Even from a character perspective those early days were noticeably worse than later seasons. The character of Jadzia is one of the best examples, since she has a drastic character change when the second season came about. In the first she was a more serious wise Spock-like character, but from season 2 onwards she became more adventurous and free spirited. Frankly that actually made her an interesting character rather than a hald-baked Spock rip-off, and it showed that the writers were still working out what they needed the show and its cast to be.
The only exception to that is Miles O'Brien, who starts off more fully-formed and remains fairly consistent throughout the series. Surprise surprise, he's the only character to have been introduced in a previous Trek series. A Trek series that struggled to find a place for him in the early days.
Voyager was an even more slow burn than DS9, which probably contributes to it being one of the most divisive Trek series in terms of fan reception. While it has callbacks to TOS in terms of pure deep space exploration, there are plenty of growing pains that make some of the early seasons rather painful viewing.
The longer the series went on the better it became. The cast become more comfortable in their roles, and the crappier characters became a lot more bearable. Harry Kim became less completely useless, Tom Paris became less of an arrogant ass, Janeway's hair got less ridiculous, and Neelix just spent a lot less time on screen. The seventeenth episode of the third season reintroduced the Borg, followed by several recurring stories featuring the collective and the character of Seven of Nine.
Seven was a replacement for Kes, who was generally a pretty crap and useless character (though some of that might be due to her association with Neelix). She ended up being a much more interesting and flawed character, particularly with the conflict generated by her attempts to adjust to life outside the Borg collective. Her skillset and intelligence also made her a valuable asset to the Voyager crew.
Like the other series the first season of Voyager was a little lacklustre because it's a whole new cast and crew making the damn thing. That's to be expected. It also suffers the same problems as the first two seasons of TNG, in that it's more focused on one-off 'alien of the week' stories rather than seeing the bigger picture and taking advantage of ongoing themes and plot threads - barring the obvious 'trapped in the 'Delta Quadrant' thing. But that thread is only really used to cruelly tease the ship's crew possible routes home, then snatching them away at the last minute.
It's also the season where Janeway put the entire crew at risk so she could get her hands on some coffee. What kind of responsible captain does that?
By the time season 2 rolled around things were a little different. The series embraced the recurring themes, particularly with the Maquis/Starfleet tensions that weren't fully utilised in the first year. The second year together also means the writers and cast were able to improve the relationships between characters, which is always helpful with a character-driven tale like this.
Then again it also had the Tuvix episode, so like TNG it wasn't completely perfect.
Enterprise is a bit of an odd situation, since it's the only Star Trek series to get cancelled since the original. Obviously both TOS and the little-known animated series were given the boot, but TNG, DS9, and Voyager lasted a full seven years before their respective series and plot threads came to a close.
The series itself wasn't very well executed, and didn't prove to be as popular as its predecessors. Strangely the overall quality was fairly consistent throughout the entire run, but sadly that quality just wasn't very good. The first season, however, certainly feels worse than the others. Part of that comes from asking people to readjust to a brand new time period that's so vastly different from everything that came before. The series is 80 years before Kirk's five year mission, and many of the staples of the Star Trek franchise are missing. There are no transporters, no phasers, no Federation, and a ship that so technologically inferior it doesn't even have shields.
There are also a bunch of popular Trek mainstays that were inevitably off limits for continuity reasons. Even though writers worked around that to bring in both the Borg, the Ferengi, and the Mirror Universe for solo outings, it wasn't really enough.
You also have the situation that damn near every TV series suffers from: particularly spin-offs. The cast are new to the roles and each other, meaning the first season needed time for them to adjust and work out precisely what they're doing. It also suffered from the fact that it was coming after three acclaimed series, ten films, and a fourth series that people still can't decide whether they like or not (Voyager).
Enterprise itself wasn't great. There's no denying it. While it brought Trek back to its roots as an exploration show venturing off into the vast unknown reaches of the final frontier, it was hindered by the fact it was a prequel series in a franchise that had been around for 35 years. That's also an issue it shares with Discovery, which might explain some fans' hesitance to accept it.
Enterprise did improve, particularly with the Xindi threat in season 3, but the fact remains that overall it squandered the potential it had - and the first season is as much to blame as anything else.
The only real exception to Star Trek's 'second time is the charm' trend seems to be the 2009 reboot that came courtesy of JJ Abrams. While the more hardcore Trekkies like to denounce the film for not being true to what Star Trek is, and thus doesn't count, it's still a good film. The denouncers make a good point, since the film is much more like a Star Wars film and was designed to appeal to a non-Trekkie mainstream audience.
Into Darkness took it a step further, trying to bring more people in, while using a story that was clearly meant to pander to anyone nostalgic about The Wrath of Khan. It ramped up the action sequences, then utterly failed to deliver a great film. It isn't anywhere near as bad as Star Trek V (not much is), but it wasn't a good film. What's more, attempting to remake The Wrath of Khan just pissed off the Trekkies. Clearly not what they were going for.
Many people will disagree with me when I say that the 2009 film is good. Not as many who no doubt lost their shit earlier when I said that TOS isn't as good as they think it is, but still a decent number.
Is this a real exception to the trend? I say yes. Other will say no. Some because it's a film, some because they don't consider it canon, and some because they flat out don't like it and don't consider it 'true' Star Trek. Plus Leonard Nimoy and uber-nerd Simon Pegg were in it, and if it's good enough for them then it should be good enough for everyone else.
As for Discovery, we won't really know until we see the whole season. The first two episodes are set to arrive on Sunday/Monday, and will hopefully give us a good idea of where things are actually going. While we won't see any pre-broadcast reviews from the press, the buzz behind the scenes is positive. Jonathan Frakes, aka Riker's Beard, says that the first episode is "amazing", and he's not been afraid to speak his mind when it comes to the quality of the series. He famously (and correctly) said that the Enterprise finale (These are the Voyages...) "stinks" and later referring to it as "an unpleasant memory."
Personally I'm trying not to be too pessimistic. There are people out there who seem to want Discovery to fail for some reason, but honestly I want it to be good. Even though I would like to see Trek finally go beyond the Voyager and Nemesis era, more Star Trek is a good thing, and if Discovery is a success then it opens the door for more. Enterprise ended on a particularly sour note, which probably didn't help any resulting attempts to launch a new Trek series.
We have no idea what the series is like right now, but we should be getting two episode on Monday to give us out first clue. Even if it's terrible, it's worth giving it a chance. History has shown us that Star Trek doesn't make very good first impressions, and if they can succeed then there's no reason why Discovery can't. History might not bode well for Discovery's first season, but I am hoping it can kick the trend and give us a great 15 episodes of 23rd century action.
But even if the first season proves to be lacklustre, that doesn't mean the end. It's all about the ratings, and with CBS's particularly lucrative deal with Netflix (which reportedly paid for the first season's entire budget) it means international rating probably matter more than ever. So it's up to you.
Star Trek: Discovery premieres in the US on Sunday night, and hits the UK Netflix catalogue sometime on Monday (sadly Netflix won't reveal exactly when).