What Is “Real” Star Trek, Anyway?

Connor Ahluwalia
Star Trek TV
Star Trek TV

Any new release in a popular franchise receives unrelenting scrutiny. And Star Trek fans can be among some of the most critical fans of any fandom. The debate over what constitutes “real” Star Trek has raged since Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s premiere 30 years ago. But now we’re seeing a sharp divide in the fandom, with some embracing Star Trek: Discovery, and others holding up The Orville as the true successor to the Star Trek mantle. So what is “real” Star Trek anyway? It’s time for fans to reevaluate what they think they know about the franchise.

But What Is “Real” Star Trek?

Regardless of whether fans liked Star Trek: Discovery or not, their responses are overwhelmingly about what Star Trek “is” or “should be,” as if that can be objectively measured.

Likewise, critics also focused on the idea of “true” Star Trek. In a glowing review, Geek.com’s Bob Chipman declared that it was good to have “the genuine article” back on TV. In a mixed review, Den of Geek opined that “the philosophy of Star Trek: Discovery is clearly a confused one that has little so far to do with the principles embodied by the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Even a column here on FANDOM declared that the show “isn’t helping the franchise move forward” and is “keeping the franchise from being true to itself.”

Jason Isaacs as Captain Lorca
Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca in 'Star Trek: Discovery.'

Is there a one-size-fits-all description of Star Trek? Can a franchise that’s over 50 years old be put in a definitive box?

Brawn vs. Brains

Discovery and the reboot films are criticized for emphasizing action as opposed to ponderous sci-fi. Upon inspection, this doesn’t hold water. For example, Star Trek Into Darkness pauses between action beats for a thoughtful discussion about the morality of drone warfare. Similarly, a major plot point of Discovery concerns the ability of mold spores to create an intergalactic travel network — an idea grounded in real scientific theory. In both cases, they strike a balance between spectacle and smart sci-fi.

Star Trek Discovery Tardigrade
The tardigrade “Ripper” from ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is based on real science.

But even if action is the primary focus, how is that bad? Action has been a fundamental part of Star Trek since the beginning. NBC executives passed on the “too cerebral” original pilot back in 1965. They only picked up the show because the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” climaxed with a brutal, no-holds-barred brawl between Captain Kirk and Gary Mitchell. On the flip side, the most thoughtful and intellectually stimulating Star Trek film is unquestionably Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which fans greeted with a resounding yawn upon release.

Cynicism vs. Optimism

Some protest the dark and “gritty” approach that the new show has taken. Here, at least, the doubters have a legitimate argument. Before Deep Space Nine, Star Trek held a firm utopian vision populated by square-jawed heroes. Deep Space Nine’s descent into moral complexity and nihilism set the tone for the shows that followed.

Voyager and Enterprise both wrestled with how to exist in the less clean-cut universe DS9 had handed them. They suffered because they tried to straddle the divide between DS9’s angst and The Next Generation’s woke optimism. Discovery, having learned from this, dives headlong into DS9-style darkness.

'Deep Space Nine' and the original 'Star Trek' are polar opposites, but both are Star Trek.

Whatever Star Trek looked like originally, it has evolved. Each installment has added something new, making the franchise more complex. It has embraced darker storylines, action, and new visions of the future. Discovery understands that, but the response from its detractors is that Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, a show explicitly designed to cater to “disgruntled” Trek fans, is the “true” Star Trek.

What’s the Appeal of The Orville?

the-orville cast
'The Orville' cast.

Why do some fans hold up The Orville, a critically-panned show that is transparently ripping off Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the real successor to the Trek legacy? And why do other fans — the ones who like Discovery — disdain The Orville for aping TNG? The simple answer is that there is a generational divide.

TNG is not only the most successful iteration of Star Trek. It’s the Star Trek that the current generation of writers, directors, and the majority of fans grew up watching. It’s the one that set the tone not just for modern Trek on TV but modern televised sci-fi. When it debuted in 1987, science fiction had no place on TV. TNG proved science fiction could succeed on TV in a way it never had before. Fans who remember that revel in The Orville’s nostalgia factor.

TNG Is Only One Kind of Trek

Star Trek: TNG Cast
The cast of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'

To those fans, TNG is “true” Star Trek. It’s the one that hews closest to the utopia that Star Trek initially aspired to be. It eschewed action and special effects in favour of ponderous monologues and moralizing. Even its aesthetic, with wood panelling on the bridge and potted plants in the corridors, stands in stark contrast to every incarnation of Trek before or since. It’s the exact opposite of The Original Series.

TOS featured entire planets being destroyed in the blink of an eye, a clown car full of maniacal Starfleet renegades and scientists, gratuitous fight scenes, and (sometimes problematic) machismo that belied the equal-opportunity utopia it supposedly portrayed. So, at the time of TNG‘s debut, it was so different from TOS that many fans rejected it — just as TNG fans have rejected Discovery.

There was a time when people said this was not “real” ‘Star Trek.’

But the swashbuckling, Horatio Hornblower-esque approach of TOS typified Star Trek long before TNG, and J.J. Abrams revived it in 2009. When the 2009 film advertised itself as “not your daddy’s Star Trek,” it wasn’t distancing itself from TOS. It was distancing itself from TNG. This approach is being carried on (minus, hopefully, the backward attitudes) by Discovery. It is just as valid an interpretation of Star Trek — if not more — than TNG. This is why the gatekeepers, who claim to know what “real” Star Trek is, are always wrong.

Gene Roddenberry’s Vision

Something that critics of newer Trek hold up as a trump card is “Gene Roddenberry’s vision.” The idea is that the basic principles that should govern any iteration of Trek are laid out in Roddenberry’s original concept for the show. Roddenberry envisioned a utopia, one where humanity had evolved past greed and war, money is obsolete, and violence is a last resort. Roddenberry was a secular humanist, so Trek’s characters tended towards atheism. Godlike entities like Apollo, Landru, Vaal, V’Ger, and so on existed to be defeated by more enlightened minds.

Roddenberry favoured sci-fi that spoke to fundamental questions of justice, morality, and the human spirit. He wanted his characters to be paragons, free from interpersonal conflict. Each time that Star Trek has deviated from these principles — Sisko’s ascension as a messiah on Deep Space Nine, the reboot’s embrace of flashy action, or the moral grayness of Discovery‘s crew, for example — there are those who decry the violation of Roddenberry’s vision.

Roddenberry Had His Limitations

Khan
Can you believe that Gene Roddenberry didn't like this?

Gene Roddenberry was a visionary, to be sure. And fans should be grateful to him for fighting to keep Star Trek alive, and growing when no one in Hollywood cared. But the franchise would do well to remember his limitations as a storyteller.

Do you like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Roddenberry certainly didn’t. He dismissed the characterization of the franchise’s most iconic villain as “flimsy” and disliked the emphasis on action. By that point, however, he had lost control of the franchise, relegated to the position of “Executive Consultant.”

Roddenberry is the real reason we lost Lieutenant Tasha Yar.

The early seasons of The Next Generation, which Roddenberry did have creative control over, fell flat with fans due to the lack of drama and dry storylines. Remember the episode where Riker single-handedly teaches a matriarchal society what democracy is? Veteran writers like David Gerrold quit because Roddenberry forbade any kind of interpersonal conflict between the crew. The characters were ciphers, so shallow and unlikeable that actress Denise Crosby quit, and Jonathan Frakes complained about how “stiff” his character was.

Star Trek Is More Than One Man’s Vision

None of this is meant to denigrate Gene Roddenberry. He changed the face of science fiction forever and was Star Trek’s greatest champion during some of its darkest years. Fans owe him a lot.

But there are two things that need to be understood. Star Trek was never the product of one person and, therefore, has never been defined by one vision. And invoking some singular idea of what it should look like — particularly by referring back to its creator — inadvertently excludes the material that many fans hold up as being “true” Star Trek.

If you don’t like Star Trek: Discovery, then I’m truly sorry. I like it a lot. If you disagree, then do so. But don’t tell people it’s not Star Trek. Just as Star Trek has never been one single person’s vision, it also has never been consistent. Discovery fits into that tapestry just as surely as The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. I, for one, eagerly await the next chapter.

Connor Ahluwalia is a Fan Contributor at Fandom. He is a lifelong Trekkie and a devoted fan of the Arrowverse. Connor is always looking for good sci-fi, fantasy, or political drama (or all three).
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