Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism

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.

15 thoughts on “Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism

  1. This is a very compelling reading, and speaking, also, as a long-term fan of this show (I’m a little older than you, and grew up watching TOS reruns on British TV with great pleasure, but I only really woke up to the show with TNG, and more specifically with the first Borg storyline) — and speaking as a fan I certainly take the force of your main argument. But I’d be more convinced, I suppose, if DISC’s specific references to TOS were tonally more of a keeping with the rest of the show. But I’m not convinced they were: they were either jokey, in the manner you describe (accurately) with the TNG “Trials and Tribbleations” ep — and here I’m thinking of the Harry Mudd episode, or the various in-joke easter egg elements — or else they were undertaken in a spirit almost of reverence: so the final scene in the final ep, where Discovery chances upon the original USS Enterprise, is left as a cliff-hanger designed to evoke a reverential excitement in the breast of true fans. The show as a whole was neither of those two things, I think, tonally speaking.

  2. It will be really interesting this revisit this when we see if the second season shifts the series towards a more TNG-style episodic paradigm, as rumored, especially as the war has ostensibly ended and most anti-TNG characters have ether been ejected from the series (Lorca, Ash/Voq) or significantly softened (Burnham reinstated and de-embittered, the mutiny forgiven).

  3. An episodic paradigm in itself is still compatible with exploring TOS-era themes, but you’re right that they are definitely setting up a change in tone. I wonder if the random encounter with the Enterprise (and presumably Spock) might serve as a substitute for real engagement with TOS, in a return to the TNG-era strategy. In any case, I am going to enjoy watching them break the fans’ hearts by showing a redesigned Enterprise interior.

  4. DS9 Deep Space Nine was the number one syndicated first-run show most of the way through. Hardly unsuccessful or a simple spin-off.

  5. Adam Roberts: I think that they made Harry Mudd genuinely sinister in the time loop episode. In addition to the deadly seriousness with which they took the Mirror Universe premise, they took the idea of a surgically altered Klingon spy (from the silliest episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and the idea that the Klingons have a mind-reading/destroying device (from “Errand of Mercy”) and combine them into a hellscape of trauma and lost identity. In general, they take the Klingons as a fearsome enemy much more seriously than even TOS does — retrospectively giving greater meaning to the achievement of peace in the TNG era. Burnham’s arc recapitulates Spock’s outsiderness and daddy issues in a way that I think has more coherence and impact than the isolated episodes on Spock’s background. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about — yes, they did do Easter eggs and throwaway references, but the deep structure of the plot is building on the stuff that TNG-heads find weird or impluasible in TOS.

  6. DS9 didn’t do TNG numbers after TNG ended, but it maintained numbers pretty close to X-Files’ best right up until the series finale (and much better than X-Files’ lowest) and I’d be hard-pressed to relegate X-Files to simply ‘cult classic’ status (but maybe we have different definitions).

  7. Star Trek, of all things, inspiring reflexive pedantry? Perish the thought!

    On the topic, of course the Fukuyamaist sense of inevitability is the TNG era’s defining quality: beyond the neutered food-court Klingons, by the end of DS9/Voyager the Federation has all but destroyed the Cardassians, thoroughly out-manipulated the arch-manipulative Romulans, and decisively clipped the wings of the supposedly more powerful Borg and Dominion… then Voyager and Enterprise lock in this inevitably by introducing time-traveling Starfleet personnel from the future, charged with enforcing Federation law and order throughout history the way their ancestors do throughout space. The ethically ambiguous shade DS9 casts over the Federation’s sunny self-image is no real obstacle either, since it never provides an actual alternative to the Federation’s manifest destiny, and even echoes TNG’s Picard/Q arc in granting Federation hegemony (specifically the very Starfleet officer most heavily implicated in DS9’s ethical ambiguity) something like a divine mandate.

    Discovery comes in at a real-world moment when the Fukuyama consensus is as shaky as it’s ever been, and liberals are frantically grasping back to the early Cold War era trying to fathom what went wrong with their ’90s dreamworld, desperate not to topple any of the ideological Jenga towers they’ve erected to support it. Not only does the depiction of the Soviet-analogue Klingons insistently reassert their once existential threat to the Federation, it also reasserts TOS’s liberal Orientalist thesis of Marxist “totalitarianism” as a savage premodern Eastern despotism, this time with a more directly populist/anticolonialist “Jihad vs. McGalaxy” flair; the other main historical thread of real-world anticommunist rhetoric, Marxism as the catechism of an excessively modern/scientific Jacobin-style fanatical Church of Reason, seems just as underemphasized in Discovery as in contemporary ideological baby-food like Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, unless a future plot arc is set to reveal some other group of triple-parentheses-aliens responsible for orchestrating the Klingons’ belligerence from behind the scenes. (From Vulcans/Romulans to Ferengi to Bajorans to Founders, Trek has never lacked alien races able to stand in for various ideological caricatures of Jewishness.)

    I also agree that maybe the most interesting point is Discovery’s treatment of the Mirror Universe, the TOS version of which was Trek’s most directly revealing glimpse into liberalism’s immanent colonialist-fascist underside, in the vein of Dialectic of Enlightenment or even Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History. This is also probably why the TNG era chose to avoid the Federation-Empire issue altogether, with a dark-Fukuyamaist Mirror Universe where the Terran Empire had been conquered by an ur-totalitarian horseshoe theory alliance of the Klingons and the Nazi-analogue Cardassians, of course led by a Bolshev… I mean, a Klingon. In that vein, Discovery’s key potential ideological breakthrough from the US liberal mainstream would be a Losurdo-style understanding that in some unavoidable sense, the liberal Federation and the fascist Terran Empire were always already (sorry) one and the same — which is why I don’t expect future seasons to deal in any satisfactory way with the Emperor’s role in defeating the Klingons, tacitly or explicitly casting it as an Imperial skeleton in the Federation’s closet on its mostly stirring, sometimes disquieting, but always inevitable march to the end of history.

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