I am a Star Trek fan, and I’m here today to talk to you about canon. But I will warn all the hardcore fans who are relieved to be on safe territory: my fandom has taken a strange form. When I was a kid, I was a loyal Next Generation viewer, and I even read a couple of the novels. But I only seriously dug into Star Trek as an adult, when The Girlfriend suggested we try a Next Generation rewatch—which inevitably turned into an epic journey through all the Trek series and movies. By that time, of course, I had been thoroughly trained in cultural analysis and critical theory, and I tended to read Star Trek “as literature.”
So when I talk about canon, I am talking about the strange claim that all of these different stories, written across the last fifty years by dozens of different people, are somehow all “the same” story, that they all fit together as a portrait of a consistent “universe” with its own history. I have already compared the Star Trek canon to scriptural canons in a scholarly article (paywalled journal issue link), and here I would like to pick up on a point that I briefly address there: namely, the tendency for sprawling scriptural canons to develop a “canon within the canon” that guides the interpretation of the rest. In Judaism, for example, the “canon within the canon” is the Torah, while Christians privilege the New Testament as the standard by which their hybrid canon is to be unified. And in Star Trek, of course, the “canon within the canon” for the vast majority of fans is Next Generation.
Next Generation (henceforth TNG) is the most successful Star Trek series of all time—indeed, arguably the only successful series—and it seems more fair to call the later series prior to Discovery (namely, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise) spin-offs of TNG rather than of the original Star Trek (TOS, for The Original Series). After the conclusion of TNG, subsequent films and spin-offs made this triumphalism more and more explicit. The first TNG film, Generations, brought Kirk on screen only to kill him, and First Contact made Picard and his crew a decisive factor in the most pivotal event in Star Trek’s internal history: First Contact with the Vulcans, an event that was actually invented for the sake of the film. The prequel series Enterprise (ENT) then promised to show us the early beginnings of the Federation in what felt very much like a sequence of TNG-style adventures—and indeed, the final episode confirmed this connection with TNG by portraying the ENT crew’s last mission as a historical hologram viewed by TNG characters.
The TNG era has basically been asymptotically approaching a logical endpoint of simply overwriting TOS, but there is also a recognition that such a move would be self-undermining in that it would call into question whether the TNG era is “really” Star Trek at all. The main strategy that the shows have adopted is to sprinkle references to TOS here and there to verify that it is still the “same” universe, while at the same time progressively neutralizing the influence of TOS by presenting it as a fun homage, an object of nostalgia, rather than a serious point of reference. This is clearest in a Deep Space Nine episode, “Trials and Tribble-ations,” where the crew goes back in time to the events of the TOS episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” using Forrest Gump-style editing techniques to integrate the characters into the original footage. The episode is enjoyable enough, but it treats TOS basically as a joke—not only do they choose the most kid-friendly episode, but they explicitly make wisecracks on screen about the uniforms, the general aesthetic, and (fatefully) the appearance of TOS Klingons, who do not have the elaborate forehead ridges familiar from later productions. (See the appendix below for more details.)
The result is to render TOS an inassimilable element, awkwardly placed smack dab in the middle of the fictional Star Trek timeline. And what is strange about this is that it was completely gratuitous: the original cast films tacitly “upgraded” the technology and aesthetic of TOS (i.e., they claimed that the Enterprise, Klingons, etc., had always “really” looked that way), and Discovery is taking up that retcon. That is to say, the earlier spin-offs had the option of ignoring the weirdness of TOS aesthetics, but they chose to emphasize its strangeness and foreignness—and I think the goal behind that was to distance themselves from some of the unsavory aspects of TOS itself, like the sexism, the tokenism, the imperialistic politics, the weird Orientalism of the portrayal of the Klingons, etc. By contrast, TNG was very self-consciously progressive—it was at this point that Gene Roddenberry started to think more and more of Star Trek as a serious utopian vision rather than a frame for Twilight Zone-style thought experiments—and by passing off TOS as a nostalgic joke, they were saying that they had outgrown all those silly costumes and the silly attitudes that went with them.
Discovery is not the first attempt to make Star Trek serious and morally ambiguous—both Deep Space Nine and the later seasons of Enterprise tried to do much the same, with varying degrees of success—but it is unique in seeing that doing so is actually a way of returning to the original sources of Star Trek rather than outgrowing it. To do this, it touched the third rail of Star Trek fandom—the conviction that everything on TOS really literally looked that way and that claiming anything else is a deep betrayal of everything Star Trek—and gave us a modernized aesthetic. That break with TNG precedent also betokened a broader break with TNG’s patronizing attitude toward its predecessor: Discovery takes TOS deadly seriously, very much including the elements that TNG wanted to dispose of.
The biggest difference between TNG and TOS, for instance, is that the Federation has made peace with the Klingons. Where TNG sees the Klingons as a fascinating foreign culture whose restaurants you would love to include in your space food-court (as literally happens on Deep Space Nine), TOS portrays them as a racialized/Orientalized Other, with whom the Federation is involved in an intense struggle for influence that always threatens to break out into war. So Discovery says: okay, let’s make them look like intensely racialized Others, and let’s lean into the Orientalism by making them religious fanatics parallel to Islamic jihadists—and then let’s still humanize them. Where TNG-era productions viewed the Mirror Universe (where the Federation is replaced by an evil Terran Empire and everyone has an evil counterpart) as a fun campy way for the actors to let off steam, Discovery says: let’s take the idea of a dystopia where our double are just like us but are going along with the evil, and let’s make it genuinely scary, and let’s live there for a while. More than that, let’s make it count for the Prime Universe by bringing in Mirror characters over to the Prime Universe, and let’s even have one of them seduce and fool everyone. And let’s have both our Mirror captains play a decisive role in the war with the bloodthirsty Klingons—which, by the way, posed a real existential threat to the Federation. (And for good measure, let’s make the Klingons the good guys over on the Mirror side.)
Why is this a big deal as something other than Star Trek inside baseball? Maybe it’s not. But if it is, it’s because something like the Original Series—which loudly proclaimed its progressive bona fides while nursing a reactionary underside—might be the perfect vehicle to capture the strange dynamics of our moment, where eight years of self-satisfied progressivism have been swept aside by a tidal wave of reactionary resentment, where we all feel like we have been transported to the Mirror Universe (but then, maybe our former captain was from there all along).
None of this is to say that the execution has been flawless—in particular, I was deeply disappointed with the final two episodes. But I still believe in the prequel concept despite it all. With a new series set in the future of Star Trek’s fictional universe, it would have been all too easy to buy into the providential narrative of TNG and just move the progress and utopia forward another notch. By returning, in our own era of intense conflict, to the only Star Trek show that was produced during an era of serious domestic political ferment, Discovery reminds us that our future is never guaranteed.
Appendix: One of the fan complaints about ENT was that it portrayed Klingons in TNG style, whereas “Trials and Tribble-ations” appeared to establish that Klingons literally looked like human beings with shoe polish smeared on their face. And so, in its final season, the writers engineered a plot where the Klingons are infected with a virus that gives them human DNA, taking away their ridges. Even leaving aside the foolishness of “explaining” something that was obviously meant as a joke, this retcon seems to undermine the magnitude of the rapprochement between the Klingons and the Federation that lays the foundation for the TNG era—as it turns out, the Klingons always had a little bit of human in them.