Oh Star Trek, how I’ve missed you so. Television just had a massive hole filled (okay, I’m talking about my heart) a few weeks ago with the introduction of the latest kid on the block, Star Trek Discovery. Going back to a time shortly before Capt. Kirk and his galactic, often promiscuous, adventures, Discovery seeks to not only bring the series back to television, but also to carve a new niche for the style of storytelling Trek embraces. Judging by the first few episodes, it’s obvious that this Trek isn’t the same as your parent’s. Whether it’s exploring complex, current social issues or breaking away from the utopian ideals the original series, The Next Generation, and the others were based on, Discovery has new priorities which has already caused some controversy in the ranks of fans.
Let’s forget all about that for a second. Whether you think this new direction is truly representative and worthy of the franchise name, you have to admit that a new Trek series means new, fancy technology. For Trekkies like myself, even the complex storylines can take a backseat to the shiny new curves of any starship that gets screen time. While I can neither confirm nor deny that I may have several official Star Trek “Ship Manuals” sitting on my shelf, let’s just say I have enough experience with these matters to appreciate the new toys and gadgets Star Trek Discovery is bringing into the mix.
Everything New And Old
In the 50+ years since Star Trek first came onto the small screen, it has had a love/hate relationship with real-life tech. As a science-fiction show, it includes technology that has yet to exist. In fact, Trek’s influence on our current technology is quite extensive. Back during the original series, this wasn’t the case. For a show that had handheld communication devices, small lasers and phasers, tricoder devices, and even just computers that weren’t the size of the typical family living room, all of this tech was beyond what most viewers were familiar with in their everyday lives.
Even the first few years of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were ahead of the curve in many ways. Picard had a laptop sitting on his desk years before they hit mainstream popularity. The series were even further ahead by showing us smartphones, tablets, and other peripheral devices long before we had iPhones, iPads, iPods, and iOther-Stuff-Yet-To-Be-Trademarked. And this isn’t even touching the otherworldly tech like warp drive, phasers, force fields, tractor beams, and of course, the transporter.
While Trek is still far outpacing modern technology in a lot of these areas, it’s obviously fallen behind with devices we now take for granted. The designers of Star Trek Discovery have faced the unique challenge of representing a future that has become outdated. If they were to use the same designs as the original series, it would be plainly obvious.
That’s the paradox: how do you represent future technology in a prequel? How can you make the technology look more advanced than what we have today while still being outdated compared to the technological wonders we saw in the 24th century?
Obviously, they can’t please everyone with the attempts they’ve made. From the greater reliance on holographic interfaces to force fields and matter synthesizers that seem to outpace what was on the original Enterprise, there’s only so much the designers can do to keep the technology more advanced yet outdated at the same time.
So how are they actually fairing?
The first thing to know about Star Trek Discovery is even though this is a prequel to the original series, much of the technology true Trekkies have familiarized themselves with over the decades is still present.
In fact, the episodes so far have done a good job of introducing technology that has existed from the start: tricorders, phaser pistols, torpedoes, and warp drives are all there. Sure, the visual effects are different, especially how the ships look in warp, but the fundamentals are the same.
For example, the USS Shenzhou was described as an older vessel using some outdated technologies such as antiquated transporters. In some ways, that ship was the Battlestar Galactica to the Discovery’s Pegasus: a vessel with a long history, getting by just fine with the older transporters, phase cannons, etc.
Even the design of many classic Federation ships have remained unchanged. While I still remain a harsh critic of the design of the USS Discovery, it is hard to argue that it’s not a Federation vessel.
Obviously, with each new Trek series, the designs and technology have changed. In previous series, it has been relatively easy to show the advancement of technology since shows like The Next Generation and beyond were all set after the original series. That led to the look and feel that many people, like myself, began to identify with Star Trek.
Making this type of show today is obviously a difficult task since technology should be more primitive than the original series, but still more modern than what we have now. This is the exact challenge that Star Trek Enterprise faced, and that was largely before we had the explosion of mobile technology. Back then, even flatscreen TVs and monitors were less common, so the designers could rely on this scarcity to make things look advanced without overshadowing the original series.
Star Trek Discovery has this challenge multiplied exponentially. This is partly do to the “reboot” of the movies beginning with Star Trek in 2009. Instead of simplistic sets, JJ Abrams gave us the deck of a reimagined Enterprise that looked more like a sleek Apple Store than the bridge the original Capt. Kirk had controlled.
Even though Star Trek Discovery is set in the original, prime universe, they still have this new design aesthetic to deal with, in part due to the fact that the timelines didn’t split until after the USS Kelvin was destroyed. If you don’t remember, that ship, presumably set in the same timeframe as Star Trek Enterprise, had the same windows, holographic interfaces, and other technology that put the original Enterprise to shame. Simply put, Star Trek is dealing with the usual paradoxes of time travel coupled with the additional paradoxes of a science-fiction show made when technology is outpacing our imaginations.
What’s so different with the technology and design of Star Trek Discovery? Let’s start with the obvious: holograms. Lots and lots of holograms.
The holodeck was introduced back in The Next Generation, which allowed crewmembers to enter a clearly simulated yet realistic world of their choosing. From a writing standpoint, it was a way to introduce new storylines and locations that otherwise didn’t fit on a starship. Beyond the holodeck, holograms were rare and more likely to appear in something like Star Wars. That is, until the Star Trek reboot in 2009. Star Trek Discovery has taken this up a notch by projecting holograms all over the place.
In fact, the overall design of ships, both Federation and Klingon (and presumably other aliens we have yet to encounter) has taken on new life. Discarding the questionable fashion choices with the uniform design, the show has set out to create a distinctive look for this time, even though it’s only 10 years before the original series. Everything about the interior layout of the ships like the Shenzhou and the Discovery is distinct.
All you have to do is check out the bridges of these respective ships to see the major differences. Among all the new, shiny and bright holographic displays is a sense of scale that previous Federation starship lacked. Stations are more spread apart. The windows are similar to the ones in the reboot movies where information, comms, and other data are displayed over physical glass. Even the location of the Shenzhou’s bridge was a first, being placed on the bottom of the ship instead of the top.
The design alone is where we can see the challenge of creating advanced technology in a time that predates the older series. Everything simply looks more advanced than tech presented in the previous shows and movies. That’s not even taking into account the technology that seems to outpace anything we saw before.
Klingon nationalists/arguable fanatics have cloaking technology. The Discovery is running off of “spore technology” that puts the ship (and the transporters) on overdrive, allowing them to travel instantaneously almost anywhere. Granted, the technology requires the use of an oversized spore/bug/microbe… thing, but the point remains.
Looking To The Future
Star Trek Discovery is providing a familiar sense of technology and design while obviously struggling with the challenge of creating something that is advanced for viewers while outdated in the overall Star Trek universe. Personally, I don’t find the presence of futuristic holographic interfaces and effects to be an issue. If anything, we can expect the writers to come up with a half assed attempt of an explanation to smooth out the canon. If not, at the very least, it creates a visual smorgasbord that we have yet to see on a Star Trek television series.
For true diehard fans and technophiles out there, however, this may be more challenging to accept. If we really need to know how the warp drive or transporters have developed over the century between Discovery and The Next Generation, we will have to wait for the inevitable Star Trek Discovery: Ship Operation Manual to be published.
Until then, enjoy the visual feast these holograms provide.