“Old” versus “New” Star Trek

Spoiler Warning: While this essay doesn’t go into many plot details, there may be minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise, including for Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery.

I’ve seen a number articles and videos over the last couple of years, really since Star Trek: Discovery premiered, looking at how the Star Trek fanbase has become divided into fans of “old” Star Trek and “new” Star Trek. However one may feel about the various films and series, it’s undeniable that there are many Trekkies who have jumped ship over the years and do not consider themselves fans of the franchise’s newer iterations – as well as plenty of casual viewers who have seen one series but not others. Given that the franchise is well past its fiftieth anniversary, perhaps that’s fair enough. But I did want to take a look at the phenomenon for myself and give my thoughts on how the franchise is split, some of the possible causes, and what that split could mean for the franchise going forward into the 2020s and beyond.

True hipster Star Trek fans only watched Star Trek when Jeffrey Hunter was in it. William Shatner? Pfft. Newbie.

Firstly, the question often asked in these articles is “how can everyone come back together?” Writers will often set up that question, pretending that they’re going to answer it fairly, only to basically end up saying “everyone will come back together if Star Trek does everything my way and gives me everything I want.” That just isn’t realistic, I’m afraid. And as with many cases of division, the reality is that there may not be a way to bridge the gulf and reunite everyone around one new Star Trek series or film. That may sound depressing, and it is in a way. But we have to be realistic – there are some people now who are literally making money from running anti-Star Trek groups online, and if anyone expects someone in that position to suddenly turn around and say “hey guys, I just saw the latest episode and it was amazing!” well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. The truth is that some people aren’t interested in fair criticism. They have decided they want to hate, and just like fans of a football team could never support a rival club, no matter what, their hatred for the current and upcoming lineup of Star Trek shows and films will continue. It’s part of the tribal mindset that we as human beings all end up subscribing to in one way or another: “I support X, which is opposed to Y. Therefore, I can never ever like Y, because it would go against how I define myself as a person”. That’s true in sport, it’s true in politics, and it’s true in entertainment as well.

But before we can look at divisions in the fanbase, we need to examine the basic concept: what is “old” Star Trek, and what is “new” Star Trek? It’s a far more complicated question than it seems, and the answer will vary depending on how old a person is, and when they first encountered the franchise.

The bridge of the original USS Enterprise in the episode The Corbomite Maneuver. For many fans, The Original Series and its crew were irreplaceable.

There are several “turning points” in the history of Star Trek where fans jumped ship, and the easiest way to look at them is in chronological order. The first one was in 1987, when The Next Generation premiered. Until this point, Star Trek had been The Original Series with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the 1960s crew, and while there was excitement for Star Trek’s return to television – just as there was in 2017 – that was countered by a vocal number of fans who believed ardently that the original characters were the beating heart of Star Trek – and were irreplaceable. These people may have watched The Original Series and the first four Star Trek films (The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered County were released after The Next Generation premiered) but simply had no interest in a new crew, a new ship, and a new century. Indeed, Sir Patrick Stewart himself has said many times that he believed The Next Generation would not be a success – and would run for perhaps two seasons at most.

The NX-01 Enterprise leaves its dock in Broken Bow – the series premiere of Enterprise.

The second turning point is the one I’m most familiar with – because it’s the point I came very close to jumping ship myself: 2000-2001, when Enterprise was announced and entered production. In the aftermath of the disaster that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999, a prequel was just something that many fans, myself included, had little interest in. Star Trek – as I have often written here on the blog – had always been about pushing forward into the future, and yet here was a show that wanted to look back at its own past. This kind of navel-gazing just didn’t feel like a good idea, and the aesthetic of the show, with its boiler-suit uniforms, clunky starship design, modern (for the time) computer screens, and overreliance on not-quite-good-enough early-2000s CGI was not inspiring. There had been some real stinkers in the Star Trek canon when it came to individual episodes and stories – Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Grey, Threshold, and Move Along Home to name but a few – but this was the first time that the premise of a series itself seemed unexciting, at least for me. The introduction of Scott Bakula as the captain did go some way toward lifting the show for some fans who had been on the fence, but I confess that during Enterprise’s original run here in the UK I only tuned in sporadically, and it was only when I got the series on DVD a few years after it went off the air that I watched it in its entirety. Nowadays I often cite Enterprise as an example whenever I hear the argument: “nobody asked for this”. Nobody in 2000 was asking for Enterprise, yet it actually told some interesting stories and had a great cast of characters. I’m glad to have seen it, I’m glad it existed, and ultimately I feel its strengths far outweighed its weaknesses. Giving it a second chance was a good decision – even if the only reason I bought the DVDs was to complete my Star Trek collection!

The 2009 redesign of the USS Enterprise – and re-casting of the original crew – was too much for some fans.

Next comes our third turning point: when Enterprise went off the air, a spell was broken. Star Trek had, in some form, been in continuous production for almost two decades, beginning with pre-release work on The Next Generation in 1986 running all the way through to 2005 when the final episodes of Enterprise were produced and released. The cancellation of Enterprise was symbolic – the end of an era. And in that moment it seemed as though Star Trek was dead and not coming back. But it didn’t stay that way for very long at all, and within a year or so of Enterprise’s cancellation, word started going around about a new film – one which would be a reboot, recasting iconic characters like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. For many long-term fans – including some friends of mine – that was a bridge too far, and they were never interested in what would become 2009’s Star Trek and the “JJverse” or Kelvin timeline that it spawned. For others, Star Trek was too much of a departure from the rest of the franchise, with its visual overhaul and action-heavy story, and some fans who did give it a go were underwhelmed and didn’t come back for more.

The USS Discovery, as seen in the first official teaser trailer in 2016.

So we’ve reached the final turning point. 2017, and the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery is the moment that many of these articles and videos use when dividing “old” Star Trek from “new” Star Trek. Discovery had a somewhat troubled production, with Bryan Fuller departing before the show aired, and controversy surrounding CBS All Access as a platform for the show in the United States. There was also the “prequel problem” that plagued Enterprise, and as more details came out about the series, the visual style being more in line with the JJverse than The Original Series also became a bone of contention. As with each of the three previous turning points, a number of fans decided that Discovery just wasn’t for them and simply opted out.

The point of recounting this history of the Star Trek fanbase and the points at which some fans chose not to continue with new iterations is simple – this is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before in Star Trek, and, if we’re lucky enough for the franchise to continue into the future, it will undoubtedly happen again sooner or later. None of these moments destroyed the franchise or ruined the fanbase, nor drove Star Trek’s creators and promoters out of business for the simple reason that the fans who jumped ship were in the minority. A vocal minority, perhaps, but a minority nevertheless. And it’s the same with those who haven’t watched Discovery and Picard – and of course, those who make a big fuss about not supporting “new” Star Trek in online groups and on YouTube channels: they’re a minority.

“Real” Star Trek fans love The Final Frontier.

Trekkies have always been a minority of Star Trek’s audience. It’s a commercial product; a series designed to have appeal beyond a small niche of convention attendees. If it didn’t appeal to casual viewers it would never have survived or been reborn in the first place, at any of the points mentioned above. So to say that because a small number of Trekkies who liked the TNG-era shows don’t like Discovery there’s somehow a massive problem and that Star Trek today is fundamentally broken is nonsense. A minority of a minority, no matter how vocal they may be with their criticism and hate, don’t matter to ViacomCBS’ bottom line in any material way.

But do they have a point?

It’s a tough one for me to answer, and if you’ve been here before you’ll know why: I’m a big fan of “new” Star Trek, just as I’m a fan of “old” Star Trek too. I can see the point of view that says the newer shows and films are bad, but generally I don’t agree, so from my perspective they don’t have a point. Especially to those people who pre-judged Discovery and Picard based on what they read in anti-Star Trek groups online and never even watched the shows in the first place I’d really say they don’t have a leg to stand on in this argument. How can they possibly sit there and say something is bad when they haven’t given it a try for themselves? The biased “reporting” of some anti-Star Trek YouTuber is not the same as experiencing the film or series for themselves, and I’d really encourage everyone who falls into that category to at least stick with Discovery beyond its opening two episodes, which I fully concede were especially weak.

This actually ties into another point – most Star Trek series, with the exceptions of Deep Space Nine and Picard – opened quite underwhelmingly. And it took more than a few episodes for all of the Star Trek shows to really find their feet. The Next Generation’s first season isn’t anywhere near as good as its third, fourth, or fifth, for example, and Voyager similarly took at least a full season to get up and running. Even the beloved Original Series got off to a rocky start – so giving up on Discovery or Picard after one or two episodes isn’t really giving those shows a fair shake.

Lorca and Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.

Part of this is to do with binge-watching culture. For many Star Trek fans – and I include myself in this category to an extent, especially when it comes to Enterprise – they missed out on seeing most or all of “old” Star Trek when it originally aired. They could pick and choose which episodes to watch from DVDs or on streaming platforms, and watch them anytime they wanted to. Star Trek, to many Trekkies, was a complete product. Seven seasons of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, as well as three of The Original Series and four of Enterprise is a lot to wade through, and an individual bad episode is just a blip when you don’t have to wait a week for the next one and can skip ahead to another episode on the disc.

But there are changes in the way Star Trek has told stories over time, and we do have to acknowledge that. There has been a move away from episodic storytelling (aka the “monster-of-the-week” format) in favour of season-long story arcs and a serialised format. I confess I have a preference, in some cases at least, for episodic television. It’s nice to be able to jump into a random episode of a series without needing to know or remember everything that happened leading up to that point. It makes Discovery and Picard season-long commitments, instead of something fans can jump in and out of. And because, as mentioned, a lot of folks are used to Star Trek shows being complete products and in addition are used to binge-watching, having to wait a week between episodes of a partially-complete story can be annoying I suppose.

There has also been a shift away from the more ethereal, philosophical, and thought-provoking storylines that Star Trek used to do. Ironically, many of those stories and episodes are less popular among fans – The Motion Picture is always considered a poor relation to films like First Contact and The Wrath of Khan, which are both much more in the action-sci fi genre, just to give an example. I discussed this in a little more detail in my 40th anniversary look at The Motion Picture if you’re interested to read more. But there’s no doubt that Discovery and especially the JJverse films have gone in a much more action-centric direction, and for people who wanted to see more of the slower paced, thought-provoking stories, action-sci fi maybe doesn’t “feel like Star Trek” in quite the same way.

Kirk and Scotty in The Motion Picture – a less popular film than its sequel with many Trekkies.

Now we come to what is the single biggest point: nostalgia. People like what they grew up with. Heck, the whole reason Star Trek is being made again now, more than fifty years since it was first created, is because nostalgia is incredibly powerful and there’s money to be made from it. But nostalgia is a double-edged sword. Some people don’t want to see an “updated” version of the franchise they loved from childhood or young adulthood. If they want more of it in the first place, they want to see it exactly the same as before. No changes, no iterations, no modernising – a carbon copy of what came before. And that isn’t realistic.

Television storytelling has moved on since the 1960s and the 1990s – which are the two “golden ages” of Star Trek, depending on which fans you ask. Expecting to see The Next Generation Season 8 in 2020 was an unrealistic expectation. The way stories are told, and what television audiences expect from their shows, are just different nowadays. For fans of episodic television that might seem disappointing, but as with Trekkies in general we’re in a minority there. Shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and of course Game of Thrones had such a huge impact on television that they fundamentally changed the way audiences approach their favourite franchises – and in order to stay competitive, Star Trek has to recognise that and keep up.

There are undeniably a lot of positive feelings attached to a franchise from childhood. The return of Star Trek (and other franchises too, like Star Wars) was designed to play on those positive feelings to sell a product – that’s basically the point of resurrecting franchises in the first place. For a minority of fans who only liked things when done the old way, that hasn’t worked and the updates and changes mean they don’t get the same feelings that they do when re-watching an old episode or film. But for a lot of people, these shows have been a hit. They hit the mark where it mattered and got many fans clamouring for more. And in a few years or a few decades from now, Discovery-era fans will be just as excited for the return of Burnham and Saru as I have been to see Picard and Seven of Nine.

Seven of Nine returned in Star Trek: Picard.

In fact, one of the things I was genuinely concerned about with Star Trek: Picard is that they were going to fall into the Star Wars trap of overplaying the nostalgia card. I didn’t want The Next Generation Season 8, because that show has ended. It’s over. What Picard represented is something practically no other series or franchise will ever get – a new iteration. Picard is the same man, and he’s the core of the show as he was in The Next Generation. But surrounding him are new characters, and I wanted to make sure that they would have the chance to become fan favourites for the next generation (pun absolutely intended) of Star Trek fans.

My introduction to the franchise was The Next Generation. And it wasn’t until a few years later – probably in the mid-late 1990s – that I got around to watching any of The Original Series. For some people, Picard and Discovery will be their first port of call as Star Trek fans, just as The Next Generation was for me. Those of us who’ve been around Star Trek for twenty-five years or more still have a place in the fandom, but things are changing. With new shows in production, new fans are coming on board who may not be aware of Picard’s top-secret mission to Celtris III, or that Kirk and his crew once visited a parallel universe where magic is real. If we try to be gatekeepers and say “you aren’t a real Star Trek fan because Discovery isn’t as good as the show that I like” then the fandom isn’t just going to be divided, it’s going to become toxic. Instead of being a “big tent”, recognising that the franchise means different things to different people, some folks seem to want to claim the fandom for themselves and exclude anyone who doesn’t share their belief about what Star Trek means.

And frankly, that’s just sad.

Star Trek has always tried to use its science fiction setting to tell stories that reflect contemporary issues. There are countless examples, and this could be an essay in itself, but suffice to say many of those stories resonated with fans in the past. The Original Series challenged the Cold War concepts of superweapons and mutually assured destruction in the episode The Doomsday Machine to great effect, and fans will laud that. But when Discovery uses Ash Tyler’s trauma as an analogy for underreported male sexual abuse, those same folks scream about “too much politics”. As I’ve said before, to anyone who says there’s “too much politics” in modern Star Trek I’d ask one simple question – “have you seen Star Trek before?”

Spock and Kirk at the end of The Doomsday Machine from Season 2 of The Original Series. They talked about nuclear weapons – a massive issue in the 1960s.

The problem here is that, when it comes to The Original Series and the shows of The Next Generation’s era, we’re watching them decades on from their original release. Many of the people complaining about politics in modern Star Trek weren’t even born when The Next Generation and its sister shows were first on the air. And very few people now can remember watching The Original Series when it was new. The political themes in many of those episodes are less prickly and less relevant today, and though they would be instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences, watching them today fifty years later or thirty years later, they’re harder to spot. And if someone is watching an episode for the tenth or twentieth time, an episode they first watched at age five or six, it’s even harder to be objective and pull the themes and messaging out of the drama and presentation. Taking a step back and looking at a favourite show or episode objectively is very difficult. I made an attempt to do so when I re-watched The Measure of a Man from The Next Generation’s second season, but it wasn’t easy.

Star Trek has always been a political show, even if as kids we didn’t realise it. And it has always taken a “progressive” political position on contemporary issues. If an individual can’t stand that, and is only content to watch entertainment that is either wholly politically neutral or agrees entirely with their own political biases, then that’s okay. No one is forcing anyone to watch a television show that they don’t like. And if they don’t like something, it’s easier than ever to change the channel. They can pick a new show on Netflix or Amazon Prime or CBS All Access and watch that instead, or go back to a previous Star Trek series that they do enjoy. Modern Star Trek is not mandatory viewing, and from my own point of view I can tell you I’m pretty brutal when it comes to switching off a show that I find boring or that I’m not enjoying for whatever reason.

In 2020 we live in a world where there is an insane amount of entertainment available to watch – and much of it can be found online for free with a basic knowledge of computing. So I don’t really understand why people would want to spend a lot of time watching a show that they don’t enjoy, then jump online to share their dislike with others – not when there are so many other things to watch. A few people who run websites, groups, or YouTube channels, make money by doing this. And I guess that’s fair enough – if people will pay for it, and you can make money at it, that’s okay. But for everyone else, I don’t really see what they gain from it – aside from the feeling of inclusion being part of a “tribe”, or perhaps a feeling of superiority to think they know better than the show’s creators?

Some people have been unhappy with Star Trek: Picard.

To get back on topic, and draw this essay to a conclusion, there are differences between Star Trek today and Star Trek in the era of The Original Series and The Next Generation. For some fans, the difference is too stark and they don’t want to watch whatever they consider to be “bad”. I’m okay with that – we can all have our own opinions about the franchise. I just don’t like the toxicity and gatekeeping that has plagued some – thankfully small – groups within the fandom.

Speaking for myself, I’ve enjoyed Star Trek’s return to television. Star Trek: Picard has been the better of the two offerings so far, but I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of a Capt. Pike series and at Lower Decks’ different take on the franchise. It’s a great time to be a fan right now, simply because there’s so much Star Trek – and sci fi/fantasy content in general – in production. We won’t always be so lucky to have this, and even though I wasn’t a big Enterprise fan during its original run, I was still sad when it went off the air and there was just a big void of nothing. That isn’t a scenario I’m keen to see repeated, and while I admit there have been hits and misses in modern Star Trek, I’d rather see it continue to be made than simply scrapped. By diversifying the kind of stories it tells – Picard and Discovery are very different in tone, for example, and Lower Decks will be something different again – hopefully Star Trek can build on what has been accomplished already and bring in more people. If some people decide not to stick with it because of the changes, that’s okay. But I firmly believe that the core or the heart of Star Trek is the same as it was in the 1960s – and that it has remained that way for its entire run.

Star Trek is a complicated franchise that means different things to different people. But there is room in the fandom for everyone – at least, everyone who wants to participate. If someone dislikes Picard or Discovery but loves The Next Generation, as fans and as people who know how to behave civilly, we can still have a great conversation about Star Trek without treading on each others’ toes. And it’s my hope that there’s more that unites us as fans of this great franchise than divides us – after all, Discovery and The Next Generation have much more in common than The Next Generation does with, say, the latest iteration of some celebrity reality show. At the end of the day, I’m happy to share a franchise and a fandom with some very passionate people – even if we can’t agree on a lot of things.

The Star Trek franchise – including all series and films mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.