Novel Pre-Production

The “Whole Audience Thing” through the Lens of Star Trek Discovery

I’m trying to be a student of Sterling & Stone’s Smarter Artist approach to indie writing. One of their core concepts, just after “Know your why,” is to know your audience and to write material they’d want to read.

Not sell yourself out by writing junk you think might sell, but by finding your audience, a group of folks who want to read the kinds of things you want to write, and writing for them. It’s an important rule, and like all rules, only a master can break it with hope of success.

For example: When Harlan Ellison wrote the original script for Star Trek’s (original series) episode City on the Edge of Forever, legend has it that he had crew members on the Enterprise dealing drugs. The Star Trek audience wouldn’t have accepted that, because that’s not the world Gene Roddenberry envisioned for Star Trek. Harlan Ellison* criticized the decision to change his script, but in the end, Roddenberry and associates won out to protect the integrity of their vision. Otherwise, they would have disconnected from their audience.

As I’m building the world for Divinity Falling, I saw the official first look trailer for Star Trek: Discovery. I wondered why I disliked it so intensely. Stars I like hold the leading roles. The special effects look like they’re top notch for today’s technology. But you know what?

It’s not Star Trek.

Even though it says Star Trek right in the title, it is not Star Trek.

First, Star Trek is about the ships. I can tell the difference between the Constitution-class Enterprise and Enterprise-A; the Excelsior-class Enterprise-B; the Ambassador-class Enterprise-C; the Galaxy-class Enterprise-D; and the Sovereign-class Enterprise-E. I can even identify the NX-class Enterprise by sight. Maybe because of the tireless work of the designers since the original series, the ships of each era had distinctive characteristics. At a glance, you know that the USS Reliant from Wrath of Khan was a contemporary of Enterprise-A, or that the Defiant from Star Trek Deep Space Nine was a contemporary of the Enterprise-D. The ships and their related technologies like Star Bases gave the world of Star Trek a distinctive and comfortable feel. Not only the ships, but their interiors, especially the bridges, were part of a continuity. As a fan, I loved that.

I’ll bet you can tell at a glance what period a ship comes from. Check out this image from Deviant Art. Don’t read the caption. Just at a glance, what period is it from?

The Discovery doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in that timeline. Watching the official first look trailer, I felt like I was watching something from the Kelvin timeline. It’s nothing like what I’d expect for a bridge that existed before the Enterprise of the original series. If anything, I’d expect it to share updated characteristics from the Enterprise shown in The Cage. Truth be told, I’d love to see a resurrected design like that!

Technology changes, you say. I can’t expect a series produced in 2017 to use such outdated visuals, you say.

Sorry, I ain’t buying it!

The Star Trek Next Generation episode Relics showed the original series Enterprise bridge in a Holodeck simulation, and it never looked better. And if you want to be part of Star Trek, be part of Star Trek! Don’t make something that looks like a cross between Dune and Star Wars A New Hope! Both are great franchises; but neither are Trek.

The second characteristic of Star Trek has survived almost all of its television incarnations, even to a lesser extent through Enterprisesocial awareness and commentary. Whether they’re protesting the war (like the war contemporaneous with the original series, which was Vietnam) in A Taste of Armageddon, exploring the insanity of racism in Let This Be Your Last Battlefield, or the implications of disability (like deafness) in Loud As a Whisper, Trek often dove into these topics. That’s part of its timeless appeal. Did you see anything like that in the Kelvin timeline? I didn’t. This is only conjecture, but I’m betting that’s part of why the latest movies haven’t spawned the kind of merchandising success that we saw for previous efforts.

As a part of the original Trek audience, I can say that those forays into social commentary are what stay with me.

I look at the official first look trailer, and I don’t see anything that speaks to me. And lest you think I’m just being a typical old curmudgeon yelling at the new series to get off my lawn, consider: I watched Prelude to Axanar, and I see what could have been if the powers that be doubled-down on the core Trek audience. I even watched the trailer for a Trek spoof called The Orville, and I’m excited! That’s more Trek than Discovery!

Be honest. Watch the official first look trailer:

Then go watch Prelude to Axanar:

Heck, go watch the trailer for The Orville:

Please, be honest.

Which of those three shows look and feel the most like Trek?

I’ll tell you my opinion: Axanar first, Orville second, and that’s it. I don’t think poor Discovery feels at all like Trek.

If Harlan Ellison, a Science Fiction Grand Master and one of the most prolific and imaginative writers of our time, had to respect his audience with “City on the Edge of Forever,” then I’m betting that Discovery will have to as well. That is, if the show hopes to succeed.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on an unproven series? Does Discovery’s current masters seem to lack respect for the Trek universe? Or am I setting up a false dilemma? Let me know in the comments!

* If you’re interested learning more about Harlan Ellison and his colorful personality, I strongly recommend Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I re-watch it when I need a creative boost.