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By going dark, Star Trek: Discovery freed itself to look at the future in a new way

When Star Trek: Discovery launched on CBS last September, it went where no Star Trek show had gone before. Instead of focusing on standalone episodes like its predecessors, its first season was a single, extended story arc about a war between the Klingons and the Federation. Rather than scientific exploration, cultural exchange, and diplomatic missions, the USS Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, was hell-bent on defeating the Klingons, even when it meant venturing into ethical gray areas. Over the course of the first season, the show repeatedly pushed the crew (and sometimes the audience) beyond their comfort zones, with episodes that dealt with rape, torture, and the systematic exploitation and consumption of intelligent races. Even scientific and technological advances, which had so often gone hand in hand with utopian visions of the future, was refocused on military research.

Star Trek: Discovery marked a huge tonal change for the long-running franchise, but it’s only the latest in a series of science fiction revival shows that have taken a darker, more serious tone to reinvent themselves for a new era. The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica and the last entry in Syfy’s Stargate franchise, Stargate Universe, followed the same course by taking familiar themes into grittier and more unfamiliar territory. The Battlestar reboot was hailed as a new classic, while Stargate Universe was compared to shows like Galactica and Lost. In each case, the show’s creators stepped away from the familiar concepts of an existing series and reinvented them for a new audience.

Image: Universal / SCIFI

Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica looked different from other science fiction shows: the colors were muted, the uniforms and sets were designed with an eye toward realism, and the starship Galactica was designed to operate like an aircraft carrier, while realistic physics informed the show’s space battles. After humanity is all but wiped out by a surprise attack from the advanced robots called Cylons, the new Battlestar follows a waning group of human survivors. They field continual attacks from their Cylon enemies, but they also have to deal with lethal internal conflicts and moral conundrums, to the point where they’re forced to fire upon and destroy one of their own civilian ships to escape. Similarly, in the first couple of episodes of Stargate Universe, a group of Stargate personnel flee to a decrepit starship, find that air and water are in low supply, and have to take drastic measures to survive, including potentially sacrificing people to give the larger group enough time to fix the ship.

Science fiction has a long history of telling excellent stories on television, but the trend toward season-long story arcs is relatively new. The original Trek, Battlestar, and Stargate franchises all initially followed a predictable formula: each episode raised a challenge that was usually resolved by the end credits. The approach let first-time viewers drop in on new shows easily, which helped producers shows sell their shows into syndication later on. This began to change in the 1980s and ‘90s as science fiction shows like Babylon 5, The X-Files, and the Star Trek spinoffs The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine began to embrace multi-season story arcs, letting characters develop over time. These changes let writers develop more complicated characters, who could feel the effects of their own choices. When any given choice might have long-term ramifications, the stakes were immediately higher. But these shows still largely used standalone episodes to tell longer, ongoing stories. With the introduction of shows like ABC’s Lost and HBO’s Game of Thrones and the advent of on-demand viewing, the formula for television storytelling changed in favor of heavily serialized narratives.

Star Trek: Discovery is the biggest change to the Star Trek franchise in years, adopting the same attitudes that the showrunners for Stargate and Battlestar used: putting an emphasis on agonizing decisions that challenge the characters in complicated ways. At New York Comic Con, Discovery executive producer Akiva Goldsman explained that the new version was putting an emphasis on its characters. “If Jim Kirk had to deal with Edith Keeler’s death in ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ as if it were real life, it would take a whole series or a season,” Goldsman said. And that’s not a bad thing; Kirk’s ability to fall in love, create a meaningful relationship, lose his partner, and emotionally reset by the beginning of the next episode always made his connections seem shallow, no matter how hard the writers tried to make them real.

Image: CBS

But these kinds of connections and losses became the basic emotional building blocks for the reboot series to draw on while adding a new focus on realism. Battlestar Galactica drew heavily from the structure and dilemmas of modern-day militaries. Stargate Universe looked at practical details like the number of bullets its stranded expedition carried. In Discovery, the crew faces an all-out war between the Federation and Klingon Empire and addresses how a crew of scientists and explorers would deal with situations where the usual Star Trek skills and attributes aren’t needed, or even desirable.

These new angles also let the writers make the conflicts on these shows more relatable. To that end, Discovery’s creators made an early editorial decision to allow for inter-crew conflicts, pitting characters against one another, and forcing them to focus on difficult emotional problems rather than the franchise’s more straightforward logic or technology puzzles. Protagonist Michael Burnham, raised by Vulcans, enters Starfleet with a Vulcan mindset but abandons it as she realizes that logic alone won’t solve all the problems that she faces.

The lasting consequences of mistakes or imperfect compromises decisions matter in all three shows. On the original Trek, a few redshirt deaths on the surface of a planet never carried much consequence, but in Discovery, the characters’ actions often inform some of the longer storylines. The discovery of a tardigrade-like alien or a character who is captured and tortured might have made for a traditional situation or creature-of-the-week episode. But consumer habits have changed: shows no longer need to get a random viewer up to speed who happened to catch that night’s broadcast. As show creators are freed up to focus less on standardized episodes, they can stretch out the character’s decisions and actions into storylines that grow across their seasons. They can approach a show’s traditional conventions with a new eye, rather than recycling decades-old stories for a new audience.

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Rating: 8.7 out of 10

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