It was sad news for Trekkies last week as is was announced that Star Trek: Discovery, the new series from Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller and Star Trek 2009 co-writer Alex Kurtzman, would be delayed five months. January was looking a little soon for a series that hasn’t even announced a cast yet. In fact, all we know about Discovery so far is that it features a female lead who isn’t the captain, and that it takes place a decade before the voyages of the original starship Enterprise. If setting a new series in the Kirk era seems bold, it’s actually not. As Trek’s waited quietly in hyper-sleep for its TV return, two of the biggest ideas offered has involved a Kirk some capacity.
Like many long-running franchises, there have been several spin-offs from Star Trek that never saw the light of day. The most well-known of these may be Star Trek: Phase II, a sequel series to the original developed in the 70s that chronicled the next five-year mission of Kirk’s Enterprise, many of the ideas for which were recycled for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There was also Assignment: Earth, a proposed Harry Mudd series, a Spock on Vulcan show, and recently talk of a “Captain Riker” and “the Adventures of Worf in the Klingon Empire” series, but for these purposes, we’re going to focus on two major proposals that have come about since the end of Star Trek: Enterprise.
The first of those ideas was being developed while Enterprise was still sputtering to an abbreviated end in 2004, and it came from a man who had already developed an expansive space opera universe of his own. Obviously, if you’re going to create a sci-fi series, you couldn’t do much better than J. Michael Straczynski, whose Babylon 5 helped redefine the genre and the role of showrunner in the 90s. Straczynski was gold at this point in this career, and together with Dark Skies co-creator and Crow: Stairway to Heaven showrunner Bryce Zabel they went boldly to propose a simple idea: reboot the whole dang thing.
Before J.J. Abrams relaunched the original crew in 2009, Straczynski and Zabel offered to do it for TV in a simple 14-page treatment that you can find online now quite readily. The basic premise would be the same as the TV show, with Kirk and crew would heading out into the galaxy on a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, but there would be a twist: the main purpose of the mission would be to discover the ancient race who left clues to their existence in the DNA of dozens of space-faring species and contact with whom could lead to wealth of advanced knowledge and technology. The series would be structured like The X-Files with a mix of mythology episodes and standalone stories.
Leaving aside the fact that this story was pretty much done in a single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Chase”, one can’t help but see the tendrils of Straczynski’s Babylon 5 impulses tie around Star Trek ideas. Perhaps he was justified, especially if you buy into the idea that Paramount wholesale ripped off Babylon 5 in making Deep Space Nine, but it’s hard not to see shades of B5, particularly its promising but short-lived spin-off Crusade, in Straczynski’s outline. There are some good ideas, particularly in opening up the show to prominent genre writers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King (like how Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison contributed to the original series), but given the timing, it’s not hard to understand why this didn’t precede any further than the outline stage
That brings us to another idea that came from the collaborative minds of Bryan Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, and Robert Meyer Burnett (Free Enterprise). With writer/actor Geoffrey Thorne, the trio pitched a bold idea called Star Trek: Federation, which didn’t look to Star Trek’s past, but rather to Star Trek’s far future. For anyone looking for an imaginative and ambitious shake-up of Trek lore, Federation is the best series never made, but it did have one important piece of nostalgia at its core: a captain named “Kirk.”
Remember all the fat, happy humans in floaty chairs in WALL-E? That’s more or less the human race in the year 3000 according to the Singer/McQuarrie/Burnett/Thorne outline. As detailed in an extensive review on TrekMovie, the series is set in a era when the Federation is in decline, the Ferengi have replaced them as the galaxy’s influence-maker, the Romulans and Vulcans have re-unified combining the best (and worst) of both races, and the Klingons have evolved into a “civilization of warrior mystics” but still with an appetite for conquest. Into this reshuffled galactic mix come “the Scourge”, who attack a Starfleet vessel called the Sojourner and leave only one survivor, Alexander Kirk.
In Federation, Kirk and the new crew of a new Enterprise must figure out the mystery of the Scourge while dealing with the tenuous political situation, the growing threat of the Klingons and the internal disgruntlement in the Federation. It’s hard not to feel the influence of Battlestar Galactica in the treatment, the creeping feeling that the problems are so overwhelming that our heroes are always on the brink of losing even when they’re winning. In that, Federation promised to keep up another Star Trek tradition, reflecting the political and cultural environment of the present in its fictional future.
But amongst these vastly different enterprises (heh), up to and including the current film series and Fuller’s current work on Discovery, are a couple of ideas: Star Trek was never better, smarter or purer than it was in its original incarnation, and Kirk is the chosen one. Compare these ideas with what’s going on with the Star Wars franchise’s development, and how the various spin-off movies so far take place in only one era. Whether it’s Rogue One, the young Han Solo movie, or that Obi-Wan Kenobi trilogy, all these ideas take place in the years prior to A New Hope. Of course the saga films deal with Anakin Skywalker and his descendants, which is not uncommon for something mythically inclined like Star Wars, but not something that teeters more towards hard sci-fi like Trek. Heck, when Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek: The Next Generation, he went out of his way not to use any specific details from the original except the name of the ship and who they worked for.
While a reboot of the original was probably inevitable, Star Trek, at its best, has always been forward looking. Note that the one time a Star Trek series got an early cancellation (aside from the original, of course) was with Enterprise, a prequel series designed with the intent that modern audiences would connect better with Star Trek’s past than its future. It seems that logic doesn’t work with Trek, and while I have faith in Fuller and his team, it does us well to remember that in the case of revisiting what Star Trek‘s done before, all fans seem to respond with is “been there, done that!”