Coming to terms with Star Trek’s visual reboot

 

Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘Relics’, is something special. It features James Doohan, reprising his original series role of Scottie, revived in the present day after being frozen in time for almost a century in a transporter beam. And while it’s a joy to see one of the original series’ supporting cast headlining an episode,  it’s special for another reason. It shows the bridge of Kirk’s starship Enterprise for the first time outside of 1960s Star Trek. It is a recreation on the holodeck but to see the interior of that ship again – all orange and grey with lovely buttons – is meaningful.

After becoming a movie franchise, Star Trek had left its kitsch behind. While the basic shapes of the ship and even of the configuration of the bridge remained, the look had become more subdued. Robert Wise, director of The Motion Picture, was a serious filmmaker and made a serious film with some serious greys, whites and beiges. There was an in-universe explanation for all of these changes, of course. Following Kirk’s legendary five-year mission, the Enterprise was refitted with all new parts, leaving only the bare bones of the original ship. Does this make total sense? Well, not completely. It’s close enough in shape but everything is a little bit different. They really would have been better starting again. But still, as a viewer you understood, the Enterprise looked different because it had been given a makeover. That old bridge was in the past, but the past remained in tact.

From that first seed of acknowledging the visuals of old in ‘Relics’, they were further embraced by Deep Space Nine in the wonderful ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’. The episode celebrated 30 years of Star Trek by having the DS9 cast inserted into footage of the  much-loved TOS  episode ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ and enjoying a parallel but related story. It is beautifully done and the nature of it meant that they had to embrace the 1960s aesthetics, but boy did they embrace them. The set recreations were flawless, the hairstyles were period accurate, the tricorders had a black finish and silver highlights.  They didn’t try to change or update the exterior models of K-7 and the Enterprise either, just made nice recreations for the modern era. This, more than anything, cemented classic Star Trek and the new era as part of a continuing timeline. They were now fully integrated.

And that integration continued with the prequel series Enterprise. While you could argue that the aesthetics  were in some ways more advanced than TOS, it was all physical buttons, little screens and cramped spaces, like a space shuttle got pumped up. In season 4  Mirror Universe-set two-parter ‘In a Mirror Darkly’ the evil Terran versions of our crew discover the USS Defiant, a vessel of the same class as the original Enterprise which had slipped into another universe and back in time following the events of TOS episode ‘The Tholian Web’ (looks it’s both indulgent and overly complicated but just go with it). Essentially this was an excuse for the cast to dress up in TOS era costumes and camp it up on recreations of the sets of the original Enterprise. But you know what? It looked pretty good. They used modern lighting and obviously filmed on digital but if you commit to the aesthetic and make it part of that built world, it doesn’t really matter if the buttons look like wine gums. We don’t know what they do. It’s no more or less plausible than TNG’s impossible buttons with tiny numbers on them. It’s just different.

Which brings us to Star Trek Discovery. When the show begins, it’s set around a decade before the original Star Trek. Does that mean that it looks anything like the original Star Trek? No, of course not. There are design concessions to the classic era with the phasers and communicators being modern versions of the originals. But overall, the feel is completely different and not just on the title ship but all across Starfleet. Discovery’s bridge is absolutely massive. It is dark and covered with shiny surfaces and bright lights. The uniforms of TOS are gone, replaced by a dark blue, which perhaps feels more in line with those of Trek’s original prequel show – Enterprise.  The technology is clearly more advanced with the viewscreens of old replaced by holographic communications, even though in this fictional world, screens were standard 100 years later.

Now, there’s a school of thought that says, if you’re setting something in the future, it should be more advanced than what we have today. After all, if we learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that video calls are possible. But you know what they can’t do? Communicate across the vastness of space in real time. That is something that’s beyond us. Have you ever seen us trying to communicate with astronauts? It’s not exactly flawless.

And the same goes for the massive increase in size of the spaces within the ships. Kirk used to be able to kick Sulu in the back. Now he’d need a really big stick and that’s just not practical. A bridge is useful as a command centre because you can easily communicate with each other. Shouting across 20 metres seems absurd. I understand for aspect ratio, a wider space works better but it still all feels way too big, just done because they can, not because it makes any damn sense. The Enterprise of Star Trek remains a futuristic phenomenon that we can’t even begin to comprehend creating. Look at what we have in space at the moment in the International Space Station. It is the height of our technological advancement but it’s basically some tin cans strapped together and made airtight. Is it really so hard to believe that a big ship might just be packing them in and not have unlimited space?

So what happens when Discovery’s new aesthetic crash into the old one? Well, we found out after the Enterprise appeared in the final scene of the season 1 finale. Captain Christopher Pike, played by Anson Mount, was the first thing in the show to feels straight out of the 1960s. He has the charisma of an old movie star and somehow he physically embodies a classic era more than any design ever could. With the arrival of the Enterprise, more nods are made to the classic designs without actually being them. Pike says a line about the crew having the new uniforms and there’s a return to the bright yellow, red and blue of Star Trek. When we finally get on board the ship in the two-part season 2 finale, we get back on the Enterprise for the first time since Deep Space Nine. It is far more than just a nod to the old design. The bright orange of is there, the bridge layout is the same as it was before, if massively expanded, the captain’s chair has the same wooden surround, there’s little coloured squares around the consoles, and the doors make that ridiculous swishy noise.

But it is a clash. 1960s design meeting 2020 doesn’t really work. In some ways, it feels overdesigned. It’s too much. All the things that were there before but with a million extra bits .

Back when JJ Abrams rebooted Star Trek for in big screen in 2009, he described what we were seeing as the same things we’d seen decades earlier but now it was like seeing it in HD. There were more details, little symbols on the uniform. Everything looked better. I mean, it’s a nice explanation, but they didn’t have to explain anything. Just like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, they had an excuse for things to be different. It was a whole new timeline so they could mess with anything they wanted without treading on the past. Discovery and Strange New Worlds don’t have that excuse.

I think my main problem with Discovery’s design is that it just looks like a generic sci-fi set. Say what you like about Star Trek, either in the original form or The Next Generation, but it always had a distinct look. No one before or since has used that much carpet. Discovery is all dark metal, flickering holograms and shiny lights. It could be set at any time in the future. and they basically conceded that  point themselves in Star Trek: Picard with the Discovery set doubling for Riker’s ship, the USS Zheng He. Almost 150 years in Star Trek’s future, the exact same set  was supposed to represent the “toughest, fastest, most powerful ship Starfleet ever put into service”.  That’s weird, it looks ancient mate.

Of course, Star Trek has a tradition of reusing sets and models and movie designs popped up in TNG all the time and it probably wouldn’t really make sense to build a new bridge for a single scene. But it’s a generic set and those generic visuals somewhat damaged Discovery’s storytelling. When they venture to the far future in season 3, imagine how cool it would have been if they’d turned up with their 1960s design. They would have looked and felt out of time; they would have been relics. Instead they traded one generic sci-fi look for another further-into-the-future generic sci-fi look. Everything slotted in just fine, except now that had worse viewscreens made from programmable matter. With Discovery sent into the future, the Enterprise  remained and Pike declared  he much preferred viewscreens to holograms so canon was restored in what is perhaps the weakest retcon of all time.

Which brings us nicely onto Strange New Worlds. They are essentially making Star Trek. It’s about the Enterprise on a five-year mission. It just happens to be the mission before Kirk took command, and you can fully expect a number of familiar characters to pop up. So essentially, things should look as we remember. But of course, they don’t. And I understand why they don’t. There is no reason that a show produced in 2022 should be restricted by the limitations of 1966. If the people in 1966 could have had more resources to make the ship look better, they would have bitten your hand off.  It’s one thing to pay homage for a single episode compared to the weekly production of a TV series.

The closest comparison I can think of is Red Dwarf. In series VIII, the show revived the original crew who had been killed off in the first episode. Over a course of a decade, the show’s look had evolved from studio sitcom to grungy sci-fi. So they didn’t quite bring back the same thing, but a more polished and credible version of it, in essence it was more believable… more real.

And you can see the love that has gone into the designs for Strange New Worlds. They care about the past and give it so much respect. The detail that has gone into the production design. Just looks at these props. They look more like the ones from the classic show than the actual props.

Of course the sets need more detail. It will be shot with the cinematic sensibilities of the day and the effects shots will look as this century demands, all murky and dark but don’t get me started.  Of course everything shouldn’t be blinky lights and jelly bean buttons.

And yet, I feel like Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future. I’ve come home again but everything is different. It’s not my world any more. It’s all changed. Am I supposed to believe this is the bridge the Kirk commanded? Was I seeing it wrong? Was my vision blurry? Are all stories just seen through the lens of perception? None of this actually matters. It’s a TV show and artifice is at the heart of it. But they have gone back to something established and so it is going to provoke feelings. And also, it actually does matter.

It’s interesting to compare this to The Mandalorian, the Disney+ Star Wars show. When I see the screens, sets and effects which lovingly (or even slavishly) recreate a fifty year-old design, I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret at the direction in which Star Trek has moved. Star Wars have taken an aesthetic and embraced it. Did Star Wars always look better than old Star Trek? Probably, it was later and a film so maybe it’s not a fair comparison. But maybe, with the recycling of characters and planets, they’re just stuck in the past.

I don’t have a solution. I’m fascinated to see what they do. I want to see a show that is a nostalgic version of Star Trek, that fills me with wonder, presents me with moral dilemmas, brings me a smile and makes me believe in a better world. Ultimately, I have to want to spend time on that ship, to walk its corridors and become friends with the crew. It’s the ideas that matter, not the bits of wood that the actors walk around. But to my nerdy mind, they are walking through established history and in a lot of ways, I wish they had just left it alone. But I’ll be watching, but I might screw up my eyes a little so it looks a bit more like I remember.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is streaming now on Paramount Plus and arrives in the UK on 22 June 2022. Thank you to the world’s greatest Star Trek resource, TrekCore for all the screencaps.