With the release of new Star Trek properties, such as ‘Discovery’, ‘Picard’ and ‘Short Treks’, fans of the franchise have had mixed reactions. Some see the new products as a refreshing injection of modern media into an aging brand, whilst others do not believe that these new offerings measure up to older installments.
Arguments on social media repeatedly occur, often with the same points being made: either that these new shows are glitzy and glossy but ultimately shallow compared to old stories; or that Star Trek has always been awful trash, so modern iterations are simply staying on-brand by continuing that trend.
The truth is, Star Trek has been terrible since the beginning. It’s self-evident, and it’s actually a good thing that people like Alex Kurtzman and Michael Chabon and their new creative teams are refreshing the franchise to appeal to a broader audience in a more accessible way.
Here’s a list of all the ways that new Trek has been vastly improved over the last eleven years:
1 – The Special Effects
Cheesey, cheap special effects are a hallmark of classic Star Trek.
For example, do you remember how we would always see the same classes of ship over and over, because the studios were too hurried and poor to make more ship models?
For instance, in the top two images above, you can see all of the boring copy-paste fleets from Deep Space Nine’s ‘Call To Arms’, whilst the bottom two images show the benefit of a much more generous budget and the visual diversity to match it in Picard’s ‘Et In Arcadia Ego Pt. 2’.
(Which reminds me, have you noticed how much cooler the episode titles are in these new shows?)
The special effects in general are hugely improved. Take these two shots, from the 1996 movie ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ and the 2013 ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ nearly twenty years later. It’s clear just how far Star Trek has come visually in all of that time:
It’s pretty clear what kind of difference there is between a shitty cheap film with a budget of $75 million (adjusted) and a snazzy, glossy, expensive film with a budget of $190 million.
2 – The Cinematography
It’s not just the special effects that have benefitted from a modern, new, visionary creative team. Genius cinematographers, directors, grips and lighting designers have seen the show visually evolve beyond the drab, evenly-lit, flat-angled visual snooze fest in exciting and dynamic ways.
Just take a look at these shots from the older series:
I mean, just look at these dull, static shots, with the camera completely level. No tilting, no lens flair, no sweeping overhead shots. Just boring, careful positioning of the actors to show power dynamics and moral standings, so that the camera becomes part of the storytelling process.
Now look at what these newer shows have to offer, such as this shot from Discovery’s ‘Point Of Light’, which is UPSIDE DOWN as the cadets jog towards the camera, before it is followed with completely flat shots when Tilly starts having disturbing hallucinations:
Or later in the same episode, when Burnham and Amanda walk down a corridor at a normal pace exchanging small talk, but the camera begins pointing at the ceiling and then revolves and twists around as though it were following an aerobatics display:
‘Picard’ took things to a whole other level, by having this iconic scene from Picard’s ‘The Impossible Box’ in which a screenshot of Picard as Locutus is super-imposed over the face of an older Picard:
This kind of beautiful cinematography doesn’t come easily. In one beautiful image, we are shown that Picard was once Locutus, to remind people who watched ‘The Next Generation’ of what happened in that show. Without this incredible, visionary shot, you might easily forget that Picard was once Locutus, and that would require an entire extra line of dialogue later on to explain that fact.
Compare that to this terrible shot from ‘The Best Of Both Worlds’:
I mean, sure, the negative space around Picard might indicate his loneliness and isolation as a leader heading into a hopeless battle, and the fact that he has his back to the camera might be a subtle means of conveying a sense of departure, of stepping into the unknown, and the lighting might be set up to create deep shadows, adding to the sombre, foreboding tone of the scene. But you can’t even see Picard’s face! And there are no holographic computer terminals in sight. This is just cheap and boring.
Or how about this shot, from later in the same episode, where we first see the transformed Locutus up close:
And I know you might be thinking, “Wow, the low angle implies dominance and power, whilst the identical drones close in beside him emphasise the collective consciousness of the Borg, and the sickly yellow lighting highlights their truly unnatural and disturbing nature.”
But the camera is completely level! The shot is just one static angle, no dollying or panning or zooming or spinning. Just one boring shot with cheap lighting that focuses more on visual storytelling than it does on showing off a big budget.
The only things that this kind of dull, old cinematography required was time and physical effort by dozens of people to carefully set up a scene and deliver a visual message. Such an amateur approach simply can’t compete with the glamour of countless hours of labour by underpaid CGI artists that show us one face superimposed over another face.
3 – Shorter Seasons
The fact is, the first season of every Star Trek series is always the worst, with the exception of the Original Series (because ‘Spock’s Brain’ exists).
But with the two new shows, ‘Discovery’ and ‘Picard’, the creators were able to condense the seasons down to more manageable levels, drastically increasing the quality of the series as a whole.
Take, for example, ‘The Next Generation’, which had a fairly terrible opening season all things considered. Of its 26 episodes, at least 18 of them were completely terrible, from the racially uncomfortable ‘Code Of Honour’ to the abominable ‘Encounter At Farpoint’.
That’s 18 terrible episodes out of 26. ‘Discovery’, on the other hand, had just 15 episodes in its first season, and only 12 of those were nauseatingly bad. This means that, sure, you’re getting fewer episodes overall, but you’re also getting fewer bad episodes, and that’s a marked improvement.
‘Picard’ doubles down on this tactic, with just 10 episodes in its first season, and only 9 of those were embarrassing to watch. That’s fully half the number of terrible first-season TNG episodes, which is an incredible achievement.
4 – Serialisation
The new shows have done away with that old-fashioned episodic storytelling in favour of serialised narratives, as pioneered in ‘Deep Space Nine’.
Whilst it’s still possible to dip in and out of older shows at random, not worrying too much about chronology, such casual enjoyment is no longer on the table for the new era of Star Trek.
Now, season-long arcs involving time travel, prophecies and deadly conspiracies mandate that audiences watch the full season in detail from start to finish.
‘Deep Space Nine’ failed to commit to serialised storytelling, instead including one-off self-contained episodes scattered throughout its run. You might think that this was a sensible approach, granting the audience a change of pace and allowing lighthearted episodes to coexist alongside heavier, more serious storytelling without either one undermining the tone of the other.
But, as we can see in Picard’s ‘Stardust City Rag’, it’s far more efficient and jarring to simply lump everything together, forcing audiences to watch gruesome body horror before flipping over to comedic French accents and silly disguises within a matter of scenes.
This style of gripping, fearless storytelling is truly bringing Star Trek into the modern era.
5 – Better Stories
Throughout its run, Star Trek has mostly been concerned with the human condition. The most iconic Trek stories focusing on some aspect of our frail human lives, and rarely feature much of a “plot” at all. ‘Darmok’ is a spotlight on how easily we take communication for granted. ‘In The Pale Moonlight’ is an examination of how evil deeds can be done merely by a series of tiny, incremental ethical compromises. ‘The City On The Edge Of Forever’ is a tale of fate and causality, of how our lives are unpredictable but never insignificant.
But all of this “thematic” storytelling is really rather juvenile. To quote the two greatest television storytellers of our time:
Ultimately, the kind of slow, plodding storytelling that used to work for old series of Star Trek just doesn’t cut it anymore. Take something like ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ from the last season of Deep Space Nine. Nothing happens! There is no mystery to be uncovered, no conspiracy, there aren’t even any fight scenes or spaceship battles. It’s just this stupid, boring character study of a young man dealing with the pain and trauma of a brutal war, which has left him grievously injured both physically and psychologically.
The writers of Discovery were smart enough to know that a story like that is wasted airtime, and so they take the same scenario, only it turns out that the traumatised soldier, Lorca, isn’t actually traumatised at all, but is actually a sociopathic racist from another dimension who is secretly trying to return to his home universe so that he can stage a coup and become a racist emperor. The physical wound that we believe he has is actually just a feature of his alternate-universe physiology.
This saves the audience from having to think about the story afterwards, or from empathising with any of the characters, or from changing how they think about an issue. Instead, we can just enjoy all of the awesome cliffhanger-reveals at the end of each episode, and then forget about all of it for the rest of our lives as soon as it’s over.
6 – Modern And Relatable Dialogue
With better stories comes a higher quality of writing overall. The writing teams behind the latest Star Trek stories have really brought Trek into a modern era, and the dialogue between characters is no exception.
Gone is the musty, stale superiority of old Old Trek Self-Righteousness full of pointless technobabble. Now we have relatable, believable dialogue between relatable, believable characters. Here are just a few examples:
In the real world, most people do actually talk like idiotic teenagers, so I think it’s about time that the language of Star Trek was updated to be more relatable and in tune with audiences.
It’s easy to think that just because characters are aspirational, they’re somehow entertaining or fun, but really none of us characters we can look up to. We want gritty, emotional characters, who talk and act exactly as we do, worse even, because we want to relate to them.
We can see this direct improvement in the character of Seven Of Nine, who appears in both ‘Voyager’ and in ‘Picard’. In ‘Voyager’, she is recently rehabilitated from a collective consciousness, and has to learn what it means to be an independent human. She frequently brushes up against the seemingly arbitrary rules set by the other humans around her, and she struggles to cope with living in an environment of chaos and social nuance whilst at the same time trying to figure out who she is as a person.
And there’s just nothing there to relate to, y’know? Like, how are we, as the audience, supposed to engage with a character like that?
What’s far more engaging is her revised and updated character in ‘Picard’, in which she has become a vigilante justice-seeker in the criminal underworld outside of civilisation who brutally murders multiple other women out of vengeance. And there is just so much more there for the audience, especially young members of the audience, to relate to.
Y’know, Seven was this eloquent, intelligent woman who chose her words carefully and deliberately when she expressed her frustrations at coping in a world in which she never grew up, and her continuing struggle to discover herself in the face of adversity was truly aspriational and touching. So it’s really refreshing for the writers of ‘Picard’ to dump that musty old nonsense and instead make her this badass gunslinging thug who expresses herself with violence and shouting instead. It’s way more relatable.
7 – Progressive Representation
Star Trek has always had a terrible track record with progressive representation. Women have always made up a minority of casts, and when present have often been sexualised and objectified far more than the men.
And that’s to say nothing for LGBTQ+ representation, which has largely been absent altogether.
Fortunately, the latest Star Trek media products have brought the franchise forwards by leaps and bounds. ‘Discovery’ was a show full of women, even if they hardly ever spoke to one another, and it even had two openly gay characters, Stamets and Culber. After just five episodes, it is revealed that these two are a couple, and we get to see them as a couple a good five or six times before Culber is killed off a few episodes later.
Fortunately, Culber is brought back part-way through Season Two of ‘Discovery’, and at the very end he decides that he wants to stick around with Stamets, so we’re absolutely probably going to see a gay relationship return to ‘Discovery’ in some form or another most likely at some point eventually.
‘Picard’ goes even further, with a full-on lesbian relationship between Seven and Raffi Musiker. You can see the relationship in full below:
This is a resounding triumph for representation. To have two grown women clasp hands like this during a montage at the very end of the show demonstrates just how far Star Trek has come after so many decades. What’s even more incredible is that these two characters hardly interacted at any point before this, leaving their entire relationship a mystery to the audience, that we can gleefully imagine for ourselves just how beautifully this relationship would have been handled if it were actually in the show.
And it’s nearly as intimate a moment as the one between the same-sex couple two seconds earlier:
Y’know, ‘Picard’ is a product that was released in 2020, and I think that really shows in the way that it nearly featured an on-screen same-sex relationship.
It also shows in the way that characters in ‘Picard’ repeatedly assume that powerful and competent individuals must be men so that the audience can be shocked when powerful and competent individuals turn out to be women.
8 – A New Vision
One of the greatest strengths of Star Trek, and a key ingredient in the franchise becoming as iconic and meaningful to so many people as it has been, is the vision of the future that Star Trek presents.
And that vision sucked. It was really weird and strange, and full of things like the eradication of poverty, egalitarianism, a human society dedicated to exploration and diplomacy. All the criminals we saw were somehow righteous and fighting for a moral cause, or WERE victims of some illness or trauma which caused them to behave violently. Money was a thing of the past, and the human condition had improved to the point that drink and drugs were social pastimes rather than damaging addictions.
And there would be problems in this vision. Senior officers would consistently be making uncomfortable, even unethical decisions, as part of the bigger picture of maintaining the Federation. Captains might go rogue when they weighed up a situation and reached the wrong conclusion. ‘Deep Space Nine’ spent entire seasons examining the costs associated with maintaining Utopia – of how, even in an enlightened future, difficult decisions still had to be made to preserve humanity’s achievements.
But there was always this curiosity to the franchise. A constant “What if…?” approach to the characters we saw. What if society really was better than it is in the modern day? What if human civilisation really had developed to the point that people pursued ambitious careers for ambitions’ sake? What if poverty and ignorance and prejudice no longer held humanity back, and instead allowed a multicultural community to flourish, full of artists and scientists and historians and explorers?
Take Jean-Luc Picard. Probably his second-greatest pursuit, after his Starfleet career, was archaeology. He was passionate about the history of ancient cultures, and took every opportunity he could to learn more about the past. He collected relics and he treasured the artefacts he found. Out of the uniform, Picard was a curious, inquisitive scholar who was fascinated by the world around him.
But, y’know, that’s just so boring. And so difficult for audiences to engage with. But thankfully, modern Star Trek is revitalising this vision and making it more modern and futuristic, by bringing it much closer to the vision of our current society.
Now, we have a vision of the future that’s full of drug addiction and alcoholism. People drink Budweiser and use Nokia phones, riding around in taxis (admittedly, space taxis) and talking about how much money they owe one another. Picard has given up on his pursuit of archaeology to instead lounge around on his massive estate like the rich person he is, whilst underpaid dock workers of the future behave exactly like underpaid dock workers of the present.
Starfleet ships don’t explore anymore, they now do cool stuff like fight in wars and solve big mystery plots. Crews don’t spend their time playing instruments or cooking or composing poetry or any of that boring stuff, because now they go to bars and have bangin’ dance parties just like we all did in high school.
Essentially, people in the future aren’t different anymore. They’re just like us, and that’s so much better in so many ways. Nobody wants to watch a show about humanity’s potential to grow and develop – we just want to see mirrors of ourselves firing rayguns and flying spaceships. Society is essentially the same as it has always been, only with more teleporters and laser beams. And that’s so much more fun and interesting and… relatable.
9 – A Touch Of Class
Star Trek has always been a cheap, tacky entertainment franchise, so the last and most significant improvement that’s been brought about over the last decade has been a little je ne sais quoi, a little X-Factor, which has really elevated the franchise into a classy, refined artform.
There are so many subtle little ways that the new group of creators and producers have turned Star Trek into a respectable, classy affair.
Such as this adorable marketing campaign! Look at that little tyke, painting with Isa Briones, one of the actors from ‘Picard’! I’ll bet that little kid just loves Star Trek.
I wonder which was his favourite scene from the new show? Maybe it was this one, where a character played by Isa gets burned by acid?
Or maybe this bit, where Icheb’s eye gets ripped out?
Or maybe these scenes of suicide and self-multilation?
One the wall behind Isa and the kid is a picture of Captain Georgiou. I wonder if the kid also watched ‘Discovery’? I wonder if he enjoyed the bit where Mirror Georgiou describes her sexual experiences?
Or maybe this Klingon sex scene?
Or maybe this bit, where that same Klingon gets her face half-burnt off whilst she screams in agony:
Or this bit, because there ain’t no cream like eye scream, kids!
I’m so glad that they’re using children to promote these shows. I heard that the kid’s next gig is a live stream of him going fishing with Hafþór Björnsson to promote a new Gregor Clegane spin-off from ‘Game Of Thrones’.
And who could forget the amazing way that ‘Star Trek (2009)’ and ‘Into Darkness’ really made female roles more prominent and relevant to the story, so that they could include these two shots in the respective trailers?
I think the increased interaction between the fans and the cast and crew of the new shows is also to be lauded. Never before have the creative minds behind Star Trek been so accessible to the audience, and that’s brilliant. It’s actually better if major points of the story are answered in an FAQ like a fucking Warhammer 40,000 Codex update, really. Stories are better told in the form of patch notes, and I look forward to this new style of storytelling becoming the norm.
The show itself is no place for actual storytelling.
Overall, I think we can all agree that Star Trek is finally headed in the right direction, and there’s never been a better time to be excited about the future of the franchise. It’s so thrilling to try and guess at what violent, gritty, teenager-levels-of-edgy mystery plots we’ll get to enjoy in the future!