Star Trek: Discovery is shedding a creative restriction that’s long frustrated top writers on previous shows in the franchise.
Showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg — working from a creative roadmap laid out by executive producer Bryan Fuller — are delivering a Trek saga that gets rid of one the franchise’s decades-old limitations in an effort to evolve the series.
As part of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future (and one that Trek franchise executive producer Rick Berman carried on after Roddenberry’s death in 1991), writers on Trek shows were urged to avoid having Starfleet crew members in significant conflict with one another (unless a crew member is, say, possessed by an alien force), or from being shown in any seriously negative way.
This guideline wasn’t strictly followed across all 700 previous franchise episodes, of course (there are especially some notable exceptions in The Original Series). But in an aspirational effort to make the future more idyllic, Starfleet crew members typically weren’t supposed to demonstrate baser human flaws. For writers on Trek shows, the restriction has been a point of behind-the-scenes contention (one TNG and Voyager writer, Michael Piller, famously dubbed it “Roddenberry’s Box”). Drama is conflict, after all, and if all the conflict stems from non-Starfleet members on a show whose regular cast consists almost entirely of Starfleet officers, it hugely limits the types of stories that can be told.
So for the CBS All Access series coming Sept. 24, that restriction has been lifted and the writers are allowed to tell types of stories that were discouraged for decades.
“We’re trying to do stories that are complicated, with characters with strong points of view and strong passions,” Harberts said. “People have to make mistakes — mistakes are still going to be made in the future. We’re still going to argue in the future.”
“The rules of Starfleet remain the same,” Berg added. “But while we’re human or alien in various ways, none of us are perfect.”
The handling of these inner-Starfleet conflicts will still draw inspiration from Roddenberry’s ideals, however. “The thing we’re taking from Roddenberry is how we solve those conflicts,” Harberts said. “So we do have our characters in conflict, we do have them struggling with each other, but it’s about how they find a solution and work through their problems.”
Another major change is the new series is heavily serialized, unlike all the previous iterations which mostly consisted of close-ended episodes (with occasional story arcs that were two or three episodes long, plus Deep Space Nine‘s more ambitious Dominion Wars arc, among other examples). Serialization likewise makes it very difficult to keep all conflict from external sources because Discovery isn’t telling a new destination-based adventure each week. When you create dramatic storylines among the crew that spans an entire season or more, there should be some real friction and not just have the crew sitting around cheerfully playing tri-dimensional chess whenever they’re not under direct attack.
There’s also the fact the last Trek series (Star Trek: Enterprise) went off the air 12 years ago and the TV drama storytelling has evolved to be more realistic since then — and so has sci-fi. A former Trek writer, Ron Moore (who, like Piller, was outspoken about Trek‘s limitations), conceived of his acclaimed 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot as a way of telling the types of morally murky stories that Deep Space Nine and Voyager wouldn’t allow. Moore, Piller and Discovery‘s Fuller all worked on late 1990s Trek shows, collectively trying to push the format’s creative envelope in bold new ways. Mind you, Discovery isn’t nearly as dark as BSG — it’s very much Star Trek and Starfleet officers have still evolved in all respects from where we are now. As always, they’re admirable people you wish you knew in real life. But the show’s producers will have the freedom to depict a wider and more realistic bandwidth of human (and alien) drama.
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On Monday, CBS announced Star Trek: Discovery will debut Sunday, Sept. 24 (first on CBS, then shifting to CBS All Access streaming service). EW has more to come, follow @jameshibberd for the latest.