Star Trek has had a number of incarnations and has had a fair share of dud episodes, inconsistent ideas and poor choices. Nonetheless, it has pushed forward as a franchise that delivers interesting science fiction stories and ideas.
I believe we can draw a relatively neat circle around a current era of Trek that distinguishes it in time: the streaming era. In other words, those shows that have been created in recent years where the primary mode of consumption has been via online streaming services. This period started in 2017 with Discovery and since has included Picard, Lower Decks, Strange New Worlds and Prodigy. As I explained last November, I’m largely giving up on these series for practical reasons: I didn’t want to buy into another streaming service and these shows were moving to Paramount+ (Picard season 2 continued on Amazon Prime). I enjoyed to varying degrees Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks but not so much that I really wanted to fork out extra cash.
Each, in its own way, was dissatisfying. They had their moments and it was worthwhile to give each one time to find their pace. After all, previous Trek shows had initial wobbles and flaws. I haven’t seen any of Strange New Worlds and Prodigy and maybe these shows will have adapted but I’m not going to be checking them out in the near future.
Let me suggest though, that there is a broader issue at play with the three streaming era Trek shows I have watched. We can ignore the nonsense objections from the usual suspects: diverse casting isn’t the problem, nor is the inclusion of social issues. Those objections are both disconnected from the actual shows but also the history of Trek as a TV series. A broader criticism I will acknowledge is the conflict in the shows between nostalgia and fan service with doing something new.
However, my main issue is a broader one. I don’t think this current era of Trek has a clear idea of how it wants to tell stories in the era of streaming. That conflict is a structural one that impacts the storytelling. Streaming shows compared with the era of (US) broadcast shows have fewer episodes, fewer seasons and a bigger emphasis on story arcs.
Now that does not mean that streaming era Trek needs to follow that model. Being different can be an advantage. One of the key sci-fi shows of the streaming era of television is Black Mirror, which eschewed story arcs and even a regular cast. What it does mean though, is that shows intended for this new medium need to have a way of working in that medium. Disney+ has also managed to find an alternate route with The Mandalorian, which emphasised loosely connected individual stories, joined by an overarching quest. Overall, I think these Trek shows have dithered on the issue and have tried to split the difference. As a consequence, they have delivered neither consistently strong standalone episodes nor compelling ongoing stories.
Ironically, Lower Decks has managed this better than Discovery or Picard mainly by being happier with standalone episodes. Both Discovery and Picard though, keep falling through space between episodes that can stand by themselves versus holistic seasons with a strong season-long plot.
Looking at the premise of the most recent entries Strange New Worlds does appear to be making a more committed bid to encapsulate the nostalgia aspect of the new Trek. Prodigy could be interesting in that it looks like it is trying to model what Star wars has been doing now for many years with kid’s cartoons. That kids-TV approach to the question of standalone v arcs had an answer in shows like Clone Wars and Rebels: focus on standalone episodes with basic character continuity initially and then develop stronger plot arcs. This approach appears to be what Disney+ is trying with their live-action Star Wars shows, which often resemble grittier versions of the previous animated shows and actively include characters and lore from those animated shows.
I don’t know what the right balance of new versus nostalgia and stand-alone story versus long-form story arc is for these shows. I don’t think they have got the balance right on any of them though. I’m surprised they didn’t have a greater variation between those dimensions though (Discovery by season 3 had at least realised that it was a better fit for “new” rather than “nostalgia).