Is a post-apocalyptic setting right for Star Trek?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery and Short Treks.

The trailer for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 can be found here:

In both the Short Treks episode Calypso and in the trailer for the upcoming third season of Star Trek: Discovery, we are given the impression that all is not well in the Star Trek galaxy. In Calypso, main character Craft tells the AI Zora of a war he’s involved in, and he later needs to use one of the USS Discovery’s shuttlecrafts to get home – his pod being slower and less advanced than a thousand-year-old shuttlecraft says a lot about the state of technology in this timeline.

Whether or not Calypso is fully canon, or whether its timeline has changed, and whenever it’s supposed to be set, if the trailer for Discovery Season 3 has correctly portrayed the environment they’re heading into and isn’t an elaborate deception, it seems that whatever era the ship and crew ultimately arrive in is also one where war and disaster have occurred. But is this kind of post-apocalyptic setting right for Star Trek?

The last few years have seen a glut of shows, films, games, and books choosing a post-apocalyptic environment. And many of these have been great – I Am Legend is a great film, The Last Ship is a great television series, and The Last Of Us is a great game, just to give three examples. Major franchises like The Walking Dead have helped popularise this sub-genre, and it’s become a popular choice for a lot of storytellers.It’s easy to see why – this kind of setting lends itself to high-stakes drama, and forcing characters to make life-or-death decisions. When survival is at stake, characters need to step up in order to just make it through the day, and that can be a strong driving force in any narrative when it’s done correctly.

The kind of post-apocalypse we seemed to glimpse in the trailer for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 might not quite be at that same level, where it’s day-to-day surviving at the end of the world, but it certainly seems as though something absolutely massive has happened since we last saw the galaxy in the 2380s. Whenever the USS Discovery emerges from the time-wormhole it entered at the end of Season 2, it seems they’re heading into a challenging environment. In the trailer, we saw an official who seemed to represent the Federation saying that Discovery was his last hope, and unfurling a flag with a Federation crest that seemed to be missing many stars – perhaps indicating the loss or secession of planets from the alliance. The Starfleet badge Burnham was wearing was referred to as a “ghost”, and Saru, in a pep talk to the crew, tells them they need to “make the future bright”. All of which strongly imply that the Federation in this era is in serious trouble – if it still exists at all.

But what’s just as telling from the trailer is what we didn’t see. Where was all of the new technology that should surely have been invented by then? At one point, Burnham and a new character are walking across a landscape – why could they not transport from point to point like we’ve seen across Star Trek (and especially with the “transwarp beaming” concept from the Kelvin films)? The weapons used in the trailer also seem to be little more than energy weapons already known to exist, and we didn’t see any new starships or stations or anything that indicated the galaxy has advanced significantly. In a few episodes of Star Trek in the past, particularly in Voyager and Enterprise, we’ve had glimpses of the Federation in the 29th and 30th Centuries – and it seemed not only to be doing great but to have time-travelling starships, and that time travel was so common a concept that it was taught in schools. In short, where is the technology?

Wars and conflicts, especially long ones, can be devastating. But from war, technology often emerges. In the real world, as destructive as WWII was, it led to the development of such things as rockets and computers. So even if the Star Trek galaxy plunged into war in the 32nd or 33rd Centuries, we should still see at least the level of tech they’d got to before the war, and perhaps the emergence of new tech as a result of research during it. The fact that nothing of the sort was in evidence is interesting, and that’s why I’m calling the setting “post-apocalyptic”. At the end of the day, if people of the 32nd or 33rd Centuries are living with a 23rd Century level of technology, that would be a huge backwards step for them, even if it still looks cool and futuristic to us. If we were sent back technologically to the 1950s or 1960s, that would look incredibly impressive to a Victorian, but would feel apocalyptic to us. It’s that principle that feels like it’s in play with Discovery.

Regardless of the exact details of how far technology has advanced or regressed by the 32nd/33rd Century (assuming that’s when Discovery is going to be set – see my previous article for my thoughts on that) it certainly seems from the trailer that something big has happened. The Star Trek galaxy and the Federation are not where we would have expected them to be. Is the Federation in decline? Has it broken up altogether? It’s not clear, but it is definitely facing huge difficulties if the “best hope” they’ve had in years is a 930-year-old ship and crew.

In a media landscape dominated by war and aggression, Star Trek has always shown a more positive vision of the future. Where The Terminator and The Matrix showed us rogue AIs killing humanity, Star Trek showed us Data, the friendly android. Where Star Wars had an evil empire ruling the galaxy with an iron fist, Star Trek had an enlightened democratic society. And where Twelve Monkeys and 28 Days Later had humanity on the brink of extinction, Star Trek showed humankind flourishing, having overcome countless obstacles. As Trip Tucker puts it in Enterprise: “war, disease, hunger – pretty much wiped them out in less than two generations.” This, to me, is the core of what makes Star Trek what it is. And I don’t necessarily think that gels with a post-apocalyptic setting.

Partly, Star Trek’s optimism is a product of its 1960s origins. At the height of the Cold War, there was the legitimate possibility of nuclear war causing the end of human civilisation, and with TOS premiering a mere four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world as close to that fate as it arguably ever came, the need for optimism was great. But that optimistic approach has been a constant thread running through the franchise ever since. It’s been the one consistent thing in all of Star Trek, even at the height of the Dominion War in DS9, humanity was still there, and Earth was still a paradise worth fighting for. The drama in that story came from the existential threat to the optimistic future humanity had built, not from that future already being torn down. That’s what made it work as an exciting narrative within the framework of Star Trek’s optimistic take on the future.

A post-apocalyptic setting is, by its very nature, the exact opposite. Where Star Trek has presented an optimistic vision of humanity overcoming obstacle after obstacle, any post-apocalyptic setting says that the obstacles got the better of us. We went up against something – be it a disease, technology, warfare, etc. – and lost. Star Trek says that whatever life threw at us, we came out on top. That cannot be true in a post-apocalyptic setting, where we will have lost.

This represents a fundamental change to the nature of storytelling within the Star Trek franchise, greater than arguably any change made thus far. Enterprise took the franchise backwards in its own timeline, the Kelvin films were not only an alternate reality but changed the storytelling to be more action-heavy. But even these are not as major as changing the entire underlying premise of a positive vision of humanity’s future. In both 2009’s Star Trek and Enterprise, as well as the Dominion War arc of DS9 mentioned above, the basic concept that humanity had not simply survived but was thriving in the future was unchanged. The drama, tension, and narratives all came from challenges humanity faced within that framework, not that we’d failed or that something had beaten us.

Such a significant change risks Star Trek losing its uniqueness and, from a commercial point of view, one of its key selling points. Without its positive vision of humanity’s future, a fundamental part of Star Trek is missing – and without it, will the franchise still work? If Star Trek loses the one thing that makes it stand out, and continues its transition to primarily action-oriented stories, it risks becoming just another work in the generic sci fi and/or post-apocalyptic genres, losing its uniqueness and fading into the mass of action/sci fi franchises which already occupy that space.

Some fans would claim that this has already happened, due to a combination of the Kelvin timeline, Discovery, and even Enterprise taking the franchise to different places and by modernising the storytelling. But that alone isn’t enough to fundamentally change Star Trek. And at the core of Discovery and the Kelvin films, that optimism and positive outlook was still present, even if it wasn’t front-and-centre in the way it had been in prior series.

Taking a bleak setting, where the Federation is shattered and life for humankind is going backwards just doesn’t feel like Star Trek. Perhaps it could be a solidly entertaining sci fi series, but one of the core tenets of Star Trek would be lacking, and I’m certain that would be noticeable.

There’s another problem with this post-apocalyptic theme, too. As things sit right now, Discovery is the only Star Trek series taking place in that time period. Picard and Lower Decks both take place after Nemesis, and the Section 31 series is assumed to take place in the era Discovery left behind. With a second season of Picard on order now, all of these series will basically be prequels to Discovery – and if we see Picard and his crew fighting for the future of the Federation, when we know that actually the Federation has no future because we’ve seen in Discovery that things go very, very wrong, there’ll be a sense of “well what’s the point of this?”

I wrote previously how splitting Star Trek up into three timelines and two parallel realities is a bad decision for a franchise. With three live-action series in production practically simultaneously, there’s just no way to make them line up, let alone allow for any crossover of characters, plot points, and themes. It will make it harder for fans of one show to jump across to another, and will put off new fans altogether at a time when the shaky nature of CBS All Access in the midst of the “streaming wars” means they need those people more than ever. And having one show set in a future that’s potentially saying that everything that happens in the other shows comes to nothing is bleak, depressing, and offputting for both fans and casual viewers alike.

Now that all that’s been said, it should be pointed out that the trailer for Discovery‘s third season may be deliberately misleading, having been cut in a certain way. There are other explanations for what we saw in the trailer that don’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that we’re looking at a fractured Federation and a post-apocalyptic setting. And we won’t know for sure what’s in store until we see Discovery on our screens later in the year. But of all the seasons of Discovery so far, this is the one that has me feeling the most nervous. I want the show to succeed because I want the franchise to succeed so we can continue to enjoy new stories in the Star Trek galaxy for a long time to come. I’m just not convinced that this is the way to do it. And by abandoning one of the core parts of what makes Star Trek, well, Star Trek, the producers are taking a massive risk that could backfire.

As I’ve said several times before, I dislike the expression “nobody asked for this”. And there are two reasons for that: firstly, plenty of shows and films that “nobody asked for” actually turn out to be phenomenal. And secondly, because in a lot of online fan communities, the things that people are actually wanting and asking for are absolute crap. So in principle, the fact that I wouldn’t have chosen this route for Discovery and the Star Trek franchise doesn’t necessarily make it invalid or mean it will be bad. And I hope to be pleasantly surprised, because I’m always hopeful that new Star Trek will be enjoyable. But at the moment, I’m just not convinced it’s the best idea.

So what would I have rather seen? Anyone can complain and whine about what they don’t like, but not enough people are proactive in putting their own ideas forward for what they’d do instead. It’s easy to be negative and tear down someone’s ideas, but it’s much harder to imagine and create something.

So stop by next time and I’ll throw some concepts your way, both for Discovery and for the Star Trek franchise in general.

The Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Discovery, is the copyright of ViacomCBS. Star Trek: Discovery is available on Netflix in the UK and around the world, and on CBS All Access in the United States. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.