This Week in Trek: The Continuity Conundrum

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There’s a lot of backstory in this shot for a series that resisted serialization!

 

27 year ago this week, “Unification Part Two” premiered.  I love Unification, so much that I think it would’ve made a great movie (hey, bonus question: what episode would’ve made a great movie?).  Spock showing up was epic, but there are also some great scenes between Data and Picard and the Enterprise’s subplot is clever and fun.

Most important, the two-parter was groundbreaking for its time in that an iconic major character from the original series (Spock!) showed up on a different series. In this way, the episode “unified” the Trek universe in a way that had not been done previously.

When TNG started, how close to tie it to TOS was an open question. It seems hard to imagine now, but the wisdom of shared universes was an open question. There was quite a concern that by tying TNG to TOS too closely, it would both invite negative comparisons and discourage bold new storytelling. And yet obviously they couldn’t help themselves. DeForest Kelley (Leonard “Bones” McCoy) actually makes a cameo in the TNG pilot “Encounter at Farpoint,” but while his character certainly *could* be an aged McCoy (and all subsequent material has proceeded from a belief that it is), neither the dialogue nor the credits actually specify.

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The very next episode, “The Naked Now,” goes a little farther. In researching the episode’s dilemma, Picard actually reads off a computer screen “The Constitution class Enterprise, Captain James T. Kirk commanding.” That’s the first time a TOS character is mentioned by name.

But the floodgates were far from open. The next step between a truly shared universe doesn’t come until the excellent third season episode “Sarek.” Having Sarek be such a large part of the show, and having him absolutely being the same wonderful character from TOS, was huge. But even then, there was tension about how far to go. A parallel script where the Sarek character was a brand new character instead was developed alongside this one, because Roddenberry still had doubts about tying the shows together. Ira Steven Behr pushed for a mention of Spock in the episode, and the compromise was that Picard mentions Sarek’s “son” by not by name.

The next year, “Unification” brought us Leonard Nimoy and the doors burst wide open. There was finally permission for the characters to jump to different series whenever it made sense. Without this step, we don’t have “Relics” — which is not just a good Scotty episode but quite possibly a better Scotty episode than anything in TOS.

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Other “crossovers” followed, especially once there were two series on the air at the same time. O’Brien left TNG for DS9. TNG had an episode that featured DS9’s Bashir. Robert Picardo showed up on DS9 as a different but related character. Tim Russ showed up on DS9 as the mirror universe version of Tuvok. Ds9 made extensive use of three TOS Klingons (Kor, Koloth, and Kang) And both VOY and DS9 used the 25th anniversary of Trek to travel back into TOS — DS9 through incredible CGI and VOY through having TOS actors George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney reprise their roles.

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When ENTERPRISE started, however, there was a strange step back. One of the initially stated reasons for making the show a prequel was to distance it from the complicated continuity of the other shows (a strange claim, in retrospect, since everyone in our now prequel-laden cultural landscape knows that prequels are more beholden to trying to keep the story straight, not less). The show that eventually became “Star Trek: Enterprise” was originally just “Enterprise,” — as if dropping the “Star Trek” was going to either fool anyone?

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Enterprise — Seasons 1 & 2
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Star Trek: Enterprise — Seasons 3 & 4

But that didn’t last long. The first episode is full of TOS aliens, but TNG-era species like the Ferengi and even the Borg show up pretty quickly. By season 4, Enterprise’s defining characteristic was its continuity-heavy arcs where it attempted to tie together various parts of the Star Trek universe. For good or ill, that season is the closest thing to a televised trek novel — in that the novels are known for blurring the lines between series and plunging the depths of trek mythology for its story ideas.

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The MIRROR UNIVERSE version of CAPTAIN ARCHER wears the TOS CAPTAINS ALTERNATE UNIFORM while sitting in the captain’s quarters of the USS DEFIANT after it traveled back in time and across universes.  Tell me that doesn’t sound like geek paradise!

And despite on paper that being a dream come true for trek fans, the result of Enterprise’s mining of Trek history was very mixed.  The Vulcan arc of the fourth season is one of my favorite Trek stories ever.  But the Eugenics arc and the Klingon arc both feel chained to their sources and limp along tediously as if there is a checklist of references that has to be completed before they are allowed to go home.

Movies and televisions have always done straight sequels, but the web of a shared universe is something that didn’t really exist before the nineties. Trek and the Buffyverse pioneered it and Marvel of course made it cool.

At this point, we may have come full circle, in that some people feel that the Trek universe has become TOO insular and connected. There’s a good case to be made that the best parts of Discovery could have been done in a post Nemesis timeframe and that the TOS elements only serve to distract people from actually getting to know and love the new characters. That’s exactly what Roddenberry was afraid of back in the day. Did Michael really need to be Spock’s sister? Did we need to throw the Enterprise on screen at the end of season one, just as we were finally past the Klingons and the mirror universe and had the hope of telling all new stories?  The mirror universe was tired by the time DS9 got done with it, was Discovery dredging it up again worth it? The second season is going to feature Christopher Pike, which is cool because he’s still mostly a blank slate. But did it really NEED to be Pike? Is there anything that character is going to do that a new character couldn’t do as well? Are we now in a place where connections to TOS are tying Discovery’s hands rather than giving it inspiration?

Tell me what you guys think. What is your favorite episode that features crossovers between the series? And is there danger to too much continuity? Is your ideal version of Trek going forward one where the richness of the universe is present and influential, or would you rather see mythology placed on the back burner for the sake of originality? Make your case!

 

And now, a random image from Memory Alpha

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A Maquis wing of fighters gearing up for action. (TNG: “Preemptive Strike“)

In the shot are present:
*Three Bajoran raiders (top left and right, center)
*Three Bajoran interceptors (bottom left and right, center right high)
*Two Federation attack fighters (bottom center, center right low)
*Two Maquis fighters (center left high)