A daily occurrence I find myself confronted with is an ongoing Facebook battle with supposed ‘Trek ‘fans’ who are bound and determined to shit all over everything Star Trek: Discovery, still weeks out from the shows debut.
Sure, I could just scroll on by when I see phrases like “This show is going to fail and kill Star Trek with it.” or “This show is being made by greedy producers who have no idea what ‘Trek is supposed to be” and my personal favourite, “The writers are just lazy, going back to the Pike era. If they had any talent they’d go forward, not backward.” I could scroll on by, but that robs me of the opportunity to bring my incomparable ‘Treknowledge to bear and utterly destroy those nay-sayers with observations steeped in facts and canon. If someone wants to express an asinine opinion about Discovery (hereafter DIS) they are of course free to do so, but then I am also free to express my intense mockery and harassment if their opinion is more “feels” and less “facts”. In my world, you’re not entitled to any opinion, you’re entitled to an INFORMED opinion. And if you aren’t informed, prepare for ridicule!
This brings us to one of the most heated debates of all as we await DIS: How it fits into (or supposedly violates) ‘canon’. Typically I don’t provide definitions or synopsis of things (I trust that my audience is informed, see the benefit of the doubt I give you!?!) but for the sake of this discussion, let’s set our goalposts. Using just a single Google, the internets tells us that canon is:
“A general law, rule, principle or criterion by which something is judged” and “A collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.”
In this case, the longstanding rule of ‘Trek is that if it appears on screen, it’s canonical, meaning it must be considered as accurate and relevant as anything else officially seen on screen. Every TV episode and every movie are canonical in the ‘Trekverse. Anything else; books, comics, fanfic/films, roleplaying and video games are not ‘canonical’, despite most often being based entirely on canonical material. This permits the creators of the shows and movies to stick to the most commonly absorbed material (more than 720+ TV episodes and movies at this point*) while not having to study all the auxiliary materials.
[* – The Animated Series, TAS, is the only exception to this rule, as Roddenberry himself expressed that he didn’t want TAS considered canon because of the content of some of the episodes produced. Most of fandom accepts the stories from Spock’s youth featured in the TAS episode ‘Yesteryear’ as canon, and similar cherry-picking of important bits occurs throughout that series. This includes the ‘Antares’ class starship, which was alluded to in the TOS episode ‘Charlie X’ yet never seen on screen, but was shown to us in TAS. When it came time for the TOS remasters, the TAS Antares was modeled and inserted into the remastered episode, retroactively making the TAS vessel canon. I personally think MOST of TAS can be considered canon, and that which I find doesn’t fit I simply ignore, it’s not hard.]
Canon is important to ‘Trek because for more than 50yrs a great deal of effort was made to ensure that all of ‘Trek occurred in the same universe. At first canon was not so important, as it was seen as possibly being detrimental to the debut of TNG. If they were hamstrung by needing to stick to everything TOS established, TNG could never grow as it’s own show. But by TNG’s debut in ’87 the world had already seen 3 seasons of TOS, 2 seasons of TAS and four films, all of which stayed within the continuity of each other rather well. Not perfectly, but well enough for the tradition to continue. Continuity and canon in ‘Trek really took off with the arrival of DS9 in ’93, a show running concurrently to TNG, which needed to make sure that what it established for the universe didn’t contradict what TNG & TOS had already set out. Because ‘Trek is ostensibly about ‘our future’ the notion that shows happening in the same universe along the same continuity should fit together was perfectly reasonable at the time, and by and large still is now. Eventually ‘Trek movies ‘Generations’ through ‘Nemesis’ stuck to this (mostly) and VOY did a good job of incorporating what was already established into its own framework (and setting VOY 70K lightyears away from all the other stories was another decent way to dodge having to make sure everything matched flawlessly.)
This was compounded by ‘Trek visiting itself, particularly the DS9 episode ‘Trials and Tribbilations’ which inserted DS9 characters into the TOS episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’, effectively cementing the notion that everything occurs in the same universe. The VOY episode ‘Flashback’ went further by giving us a story that occurs during the events of ST: VI, of which we were unaware until this episode decided to shine some light on that time.
Then ENT came along and some ‘fans’ became upset with what were seen as canon violations. Now I love all ‘Trek, but even I will admit many episodes of ENT have their problems, especially in the 1st & 2nd seasons, but those problems are typically story issues. There are some incongruous canon elements in ENT as well, but since they fit ‘Trek’s canonical requirements (appears on screen) a way must be found to reconcile what appears to be errors with the ‘factual’ ‘Trekverse record. “Romulans aren’t supposed to have a cloaking device until TOS ‘Balance of Terror’ even though a warbird equipped with one appears in the ENT episode ‘Minefield’ – Answer: It was a prototype, and being secretive as fuck, the Romulans managed to keep the whole thing under wraps for more than a century. Archer probably filed a report on the incident and the technology, but of course, at the time Starfleet was encountering new, dangerous races and enemies on a near daily basis so it’s no surprise that knowledge of this single encounter with an unknown species technology became lost in the archives.” See, it’s easy to apply a logical explanation to a canon issue that permits both pieces of canon to technically be accurate, even if they contradict each other. The ENT writers/producers realized their mistake, and when the Romulans appeared again at the end of season 4, we don’t get any cloaking devices. So while things aren’t perfect, nothing here violates canon in any appreciable way.
This also explains the ‘Kelvin timeline’ from Abrams ‘Trek ’09 and onwards. Wanting to ‘reboot’ ‘Trek after forty years seemed like a non-starter for most fans (I personally wouldn’t’ve minded myself, the originals all still exist, but whatevs) so instead they used a tried and tested ‘Trek staple, time travel, to open up a new universe where they did not need to adhere as closely to canon, as events would follow their own path in these new films. Like them or hate them, Abrams Trek films do a good job of sidestepping canon issues while remaining internally consistent. The Enterprise and crew have been time travelling since the 4th aired episode ‘The Naked Time’, so this is an amazingly familiar and versatile approach.
So now we reach ST: DIS, and people are whinging about all sorts of things they see as violations of canon. The uniforms don’t match those worn by the Enterprise crew in the ‘The Cage’. The ships look too much like Kelvinverse ships or ENT ships. The bridge is too shiny. The Klingons look different. “EVERYTHING IS WRONG” they declare, shaking their tiny fists at the stars. “Don’t these people know ANYTHING about Star Trek!?! I’ll never watch this show!” An empty threat, I’m sure. Peeps said the same thing when TNG was announced, and folks lost their minds over how ‘un-Trek’ DS9 was at first (now regarded by some – me at least – as the greatest of all ‘Trek shows…) So people complaining about ‘Trek isn’t a new thing, but frankly I’m fed up with it, because most of the complaints are asinine, petty and in many cases, uninformed.
How so you ask? Let’s look at some of the most grievous offences.
Point of contention: This uniform from DIS –
doesn’t mesh with these uniforms from TOS ‘The Cage’ –
On first glance, sure, seems like there’s a significant disconnect here. Should I run to FB and pound out my outrage, or should I look a little deeper?
Oh ho, what’s this? Two Starfleet officers from different ships/assignments, in the same time period, wearing two different uniforms!?!* Why who cut together this absurd – oh what? That comes from a CANONICAL source, the VOY episode ‘Death Wish’? Go figure. So now we have canonically established that Starfleet crews can utilize variations in uniforms across different assignments at different times. Sure we never saw any other uniforms in the Pike era, but we have seen that it is not out of the question that different ships might have different uniforms at the same time.
[* – Some will argue that Riker & Janeway were put together by Q in this episode, and that it’s possible that Q changed the uniforms for… reasons, but this is not borne out by the episode. The writers go out of their way to establish that this is in fact the real Riker, and not a Q illusion. Q even says he will erase Riker’s memory before returning him, so as far as the episode establishes we are to accept that this is the real Riker, in his real uniform.]
Some people have issue with this:
Existing in the same time frame as this:
And yeah, I’ll admit there’s a difference in aesthetics between the two, but we know the Constitution class was a very special endeavour by Starfleet, among the first of its truly independent exploration heavy cruisers. It’s no surprise to me that vessel designs and aesthetics following this lineage:
would still be in service 100yrs later, (I mean, the Excelsior class was in service for more than a century, and it didn’t exactly match the design lineage of other ships from the same era) Moreso, it’s not difficult to understand that Starfleet’s latest and greatest achievement, the Warp 8 engine, would be built into a bright, new design that tries to step away from the older, utilitarian appearance. Starfleet and the Federation want to put their best foot forward with ships leading their quest to ‘Explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilizations’. They aren’t sending the functional work-horses on this mission, they’re presenting their sexiest, flashiest take on a starship to wow the rest of the galaxy.
Here’s the greatest point of contention, and I admit I can understand how some people might be trepidated about the new appearance of the Klingons. I don’t agree, but I understand. In order to put this in perspective, let’s look at a few things:
First, any ‘Trek fan worth their latinum knows that the Klingon makeup has changed over the past 50 years. When ST: TMP arrived in ’79, larger budgets gave the production team the chance to make Klingons look truly alien, as opposed to being sun-loving folks who didn’t trim their eyebrows. For the next 25 years ‘Trek fans simply accepted that the appearance of Klingons changed with the advancement of makeup and budgets. In the previously mentioned DS9 episode ‘Trials and Tribbilations’ Worf even gives the issue a nod by stating, when asked why he doesn’t look like the Klingons on Deep Space K7, that Klingons “Don’t like to talk about it.” It was a funny bit of fan service, and everyone was in on the joke. And let’s not forget how this issue was compounded by the guest appearance of three TOS era Klingons in DS9, with the modern makeup.
Until ENT S4, when one story arc about Eric Soong, the Eugenics wars and super-human augments was rolled into a story about Klingons attempting to recreate the same in their genetics. When this went south, a genetic disease was unleashed on the Klingon population that destroyed their distinctive head ridges. It was a nice way of using an ENT story to explain away this difference that fans simply accepted out of course.
Apparently that was the worst possible thing Manny Coto and the writers on ENT S4 could have done for some fans, because it codified the idea that any visual inconsistencies within ‘Trek SHOULD be explained away. It unintentionally handicapped anyone who wanted to make aesthetic changes in the future by solidifying the notion that ‘Trek’s canon is static, and not evolving.
But here’s the thing: Canon is only useful as long as it serves the story and the production. To adhere to it unequivocally and without flexibility is to miss the point of why canon is there in the first place.
Remember this guy?
Ambassador Odan from the TNG S5 episode ‘The Host’. He was a Trill ambassador who surprised the entire Enterprise crew when he revealed he was actually a symbiotic being, a host body for a helpless, long lived symbiotic organism.
Now what about her?
Also a joined Trill, but no weirdo head bumps, only super-sexy body spots. What gives?
Well believe it or not, this was the original makeup for Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax:
Original Trill head bumps and all. Now that’s canonical. What the hell happened? Who screwed the pooch and fucked up canon so bad on this one?
The writers and producers. They wanted the fascinating story elements of the joined Trill, the symbionts and the characterizations these would add to Jadzia’s character, but they hated the way the (even reduced) makeup changed Terry Farrell’s face. So they made a decision: Trill were no longer head-bumpy guest aliens, now they were Human’s with cool spots. The original Odan makeup was fine for the guest actor of the time, but the producers wanted to maintain the aesthetics of their talented actor, and made a change. Last I checked there was no army looking to crucify the DS9 producers for making a production choice about this appearance. In this case, the pressures and requirements of production necessitated this change.
But everything else about the Trill stayed the same. The symbiont was the same, the mechanics of the joining were the same, the potential complications for Trill’s becoming friends and intimate with non-Trills were the same. As far as story canon was concerned, everything was the same. From there on, all Trill were body-spot people, and the head-ridge Trill never made an appearance again.* There was also the need to explain how the Trill were a mysterious fringe species in TNG, but apparently were a widely integrated part of the Federation for centuries in DS9. Curzon Dax himself even served as a Federation ambassador to Qo’nos for decades prior to being re-hosted in Jadzia. For the sake of expanding the mythos and enriching the story, changes were made to canon.
[* – This is the currently the holy grail of ‘Trek retconning to me. I’m still formulating an occam’s razor-esque in-universe explanation for the divergence in Trill appearances. My current theory involves a Trill splinter species and outcast symbionts, but that’s for another article.]
Or what about this: How does this guy –
Turn into this guy?
They’re both accepted as Zefram Cochrane in ‘Trek canon, but they look COMPLETELY different. The in-universe explanation (provided by fans, not the show itself) is that the Companion being that rescued and cared for Cochrane after his shuttle crash morphed… his appearance… because reasons… Yeah. It’s an acceptable explanation as it’s vague enough to cover the issue, without introducing any new elements. Yet even this issue was further canonized by ENT when they mention that Zefram Cochrane did indeed go missing near the end of his life. If we’re to follow the approach of the nay-sayers, once Glenn Corbet passed on in ’93, the character of Cochrane should’ve never been seen again, since he would look different, and the writers should’ve been forced to leave this character out, rather than write ‘First Contact’.
This is an example of the handcuffing effects of canon. Most individuals in the Industry, in production, realize that for the sake of making a good story, canon is a guide, not a restraint. Where canon matters most is keeping the story consistent. If Picard’s mourns the anniversary of his father’s death one week, we can’t have him sending a message home to Dad next week. That’s what canon’s purpose is, to keep story elements consistent, not to discourage innovation and progress in a visual medium designed to entertain. Star Trek is one of the best franchises in terms of keeping its canon straight, and I often feel this effort has bred a terrible entitlement into some fans. Talk to a Gundam fan about canon and continuity and they’ll laugh you off, considering how many conflicting story lines, arcs and interpretations there are of Gundam in its own universe. ‘Trek fans are spoiled rotten compared to those counterparts.
In the ‘Metamorphosis’ & ‘First Contact’ example with Cochrane above, we can see canon being employed properly, instead of fanatically. When we first meet Cochrane in TOS, Spock addresses him as ‘Zefram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri’ which was just fine until ‘First Contact’ where we learn Cochrane is a Human from Earth. This is an obvious break from accepted canon at the point in time the movie came out, but ‘First Contact’ is widely regarded by many as the best of the TNG films. There’s an old phrase in the Industry, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Without the retconning of Zefram Cochrane being from Earth, we would be without a whole chapter of the Trekverse experience. Canon was even aligned by ENT when they drop the line that Zefram Cochrane went missing after leaving his retirement home on Alpha Centauri. Rather than forgetting about the character completely, and his incalculable contribution to the Trekverse, because the actor who played him has now passed on, circumstances are changed to suit the story, and corrections are made after the fact. In this case Zefram Cochrane is still the inventor of Earth’s warp drive, and he will still become the man trapped on an asteroid in Gamma Canaris by the 2260’s. Canon was made to work FOR ‘Trek, not the other way around.
So back to the Klingons. The Klingons aren’t the Trill, they’ve had a much more consistent history throughout the show than other aliens, and are the backbone of so many stories and events that it’s impossible to sum them up here. But some things we do know about the Klingons: Honour is good. Honour is used to justify essentially anything and everything in Klingon culture, the way Vulcan’s appropriate logic and real-life Human’s pervert religion. They are a warrior-heavy race that eschews most modern medicine and science beyond that which advances their aggressive ambitions. They are divided and united by the familial houses they are born into, and follow an authoritarian social structure.
‘Trek has spent 50yrs creating this back story, and now it looks like the Klingons are about to get another amazing reinvention. Roddenberry always wanted the Klingons to be more alien after the end of TOS, and ST: TMP gave him the chance to do what he always wanted. Then for 30 years the Klingon’s pretty much stayed the same, visually. Sure a certain writer/producer, Harve Bennett and a certain director, Leonard Nimoy may have completely fucked with the Klingon canon in ST: III when they gave them a ship called a ‘Bird of Prey’ (a reference originally used for the Romulans) as well as giving them a CLOAKING DEVICE, which was NEVER Klingon technology, until it was, but we as fans also forgave that pretty quickly as well, didn’t we? ‘Trek has altered and retconned canon as needed for decades, and the new show will function no differently I’m sure.
Now I’m the type to avoid most spoilers and ‘leaks’. I’ve seen the DIS trailers, but that’s it. I don’t read much about it and I don’t go searching for details, because I want to be surprised when the show comes around. But I have heard through the grapevine a bit about the Klingons; how we’re seeing a physical disparity based on differing Klingon houses, how these Klingons are a more isolated off-shoot of the empire, and so on. When TNG came around and gave us Worf, we watched the Klingons change from sinister villains to complex characters. The same thing happened with the Ferengi when Quark took centre stage in DS9, and again to the Borg thanks to Seven of Nine on VOY. Now we’re being given the chance to go even DEEPER into one of ‘Trek’s longest lasting adversaries, explore their society even more than we have before and learn new things not revealed to us. The fact that the Klingon look has progressed again is also a great opportunity. They wanted to make the Klingons look more alien once 38 yrs ago, and now we’re being given that chance again. And let’s be real, these Klingon’s aren’t purple with tentacles and three heads, they’re still ruddy skin, head ridges and attitude. As long as they are still Klingons, driven by honour and aggression, preferring hand-to-hand combat over ranged weapons and confident to a fault, they’re fine in my book, because that’s what canon says they are. If DIS tries to give us Klingons who are servile, money grubbing fools, then yeah I’ll have a problem too. But that’s not what I’m seeing with the new show and the new look. I’m seeing Klingon’s looking cooler than they have in a very long time.
When ENT starting exploring T’Pol and the Vulcan’s, a lot of fans felt the show was not respecting canon. Many of the Vulcan’s behaved in a far more self interested, un-enlightened manner, despite the trappings of logic still being apparent. Soval is much more of an arrogant prick than any Vulcan we’ve encountered before, and the Vulcan Dr. Yuris helps us understand that in the 2150’s, the all classic Vulcan mind-meld is considered a disease. It seemed that they had got the Vulcan’s ‘wrong’. But then in S4 we are given a multi-part story arc about the teachings of Surak being re-introduced to Vulcan society, and how this changes the Vulcan’s into the more stoic individuals we know from TOS onward. Rather than simply treat them as a static species that haven’t changed since the great awakening, ENT adds layers to the Vulcan’s we never knew were there. After Tuvok in VOY, most probably thought the Vulcan’s were about as explored as we’d get in the show. Thankfully they were wrong. They are a dynamic species just like Human’s, with conflicts and difficulties that continue to shape their culture throughout time. Had canon been adhered to without fault, we would never have had this insight into the Vulcan’s, and missed out on some fascinating stories.
I believe we’re looking at a similar situation with the DIS Klingons. The writers and producers have looked through 50yrs of Klingon history, synthesized what we DO know about the Klingons thanks to canon, and determined where we can learn MORE, where there are more stories to tell and where the Klingons can be developed into even more interesting characters. And to boot, they get to look extra cool. If they still act like Klingons, behave boorishly and rude, then they are still adhering to the canon accumulated over the past five decades. We know of the great houses of Martok, Mogh, Duras and others, how wicked-cool would it be to see just how DIFFERENT each house really is, how the culture and style of each is a unique signature, rather than the same plastic body armor everybody wears. Moving the Klingons away from the typical ‘Trek monoculture and into a much more diverse arena is an inherent good, both for aesthetics and storytelling. ‘Trek has changed the looks of aliens before to suit the story, with excellent results and without disturbing the larger universe that we all know and love. It can’t be stressed enough, ST: Discovery is a TV show, and a TV is an art form (commercialized or not) and art needs to have an aesthetic quality thats appreciable, like it or not. Anyone dealing with art and aesthetics will tell you that if you spend 38 years (or more) going back to the same well of images you will become old, stale, irrelevant. Updating the ships, the look, the Klingons, while staying true to what canon says about the story is not just an option for a new ‘Trek show, it’s an imperative to be competitive in the modern entertainment market.
Canon isn’t about slavishly adhering literally to the visuals that came before. Canon is about keeping the story consistent for the fans, while giving the writers and producers a good foundation to work from. If you want canon to be adhered to without question or rationale, you’re missing the point entirely, and even ‘Trek may not be for you, considering they tweak their canon as the story requires. As. The. Story. Requires. That’s the key here, because ‘Trek isn’t a collection of sterile fake facts, ‘Trek is a storytelling universe that lives, breathes, and changes with the stories in it. ‘Trek spoils its fans by doing an excellent job of sticking to what has already been established, but also needs to maintain the freedom to tell a good story, and as any writer can tell you, being literally chained to what came before is no way to be creative. And ‘NO’, that’s not a ‘challenge’ that good writers should be able to overcome, because with 700+ episodes of ‘Trek already behind them, so much has already been done and explored that being a slave to all of it turns your stories into travelogues of a fictional universe, rather than compelling tales of morality, ethics and the Human condition. Everyone who isn’t a writer thinks that concocting a unique, intriguing and unpredictable story is easy as shit, and anything they don’t like is the fault of a lazy writer ‘only in it for the money’. Those in the know understand that this is so far from the truth it would be laughable if it wasn’t so pervasive. (Especially the money part…)
I won’t have the arrogance to pretend I know what’s best for ‘Trek. I’m completely satisfied with allowing DIS and its creative team to tell me what their ‘Trek is, rather than me demand they conform to my sensibilities. That’s called pandering, and any fan worth their spican flame gems will say they don’t want to be pandered to. Canon is a tool, not a straight jacket. And I can’t wait to see what new canonical revelations Discovery brings to the table.