By 2018, when Chris Chibnall commenced the third primary creative era of the modern Doctor Who, media franchises were not so much increasingly the norm as wholly established as the norm. These were the days when high profile returns of long dormant franchises were the norm, whether in the form of outright revivals as things like Murphy Brown and Roseanne staggered from their graves for a new season, or in the ever popular form of reboots, with Lost in Space, Magnum, P.I., DuckTales, Charmed, and She-Ra all making returns. Film was much the same—nine of the top ten films in 2018 were installments of pre-existing franchises, four of them based on Marvel Comics properties. (This was in fact low—2017 and 2019 were each ten for ten, where 2018 had the differently nostalgic Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody to break things up.) These are the sorts of facts that make you start to sympathize deeply with Alan Moore at his crankiest.
Curiously absent from this tendency thus far was Star Trek. Sure there’d been the three Chris Pine movies set in what is apparently widely referred to within fandom as the Kelvin Timeline, but this was a shocking meager return—three films from 2006-2016—for one of the two most iconic American sci-fi franchises, especially in an era when fandoms and franchises were so very much the norm. And so it was much overdue in late 2017 when CBS launched their streaming exclusive Star Trek: Discovery, the first attempt at a Star Trek TV show in over a decade. Unfortunately, the result had much to say bout the painfully cynical nature of franchise media in the late 2010s.
To start, the show had what can only be called a troubled development. It was originally the product of Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller, who pitched an anthology series that would move to a new ship and era of Star Trek history with each season, starting just before the original 1960s series. Fuller worked on the show for the better part of a year before being sacked for failing to adhere to CBS’s over-ambitious production timeline for the show, and was replaced by Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harbets, who would eventually find themselves sacked for going over budget and for stories of abusive behavior during production. A microcosm of the tensions in play here comes with the discussion over uniforms, with Fuller originally wanting something that was based on the brightly colored 1960s uniforms, while CBS insisted on a more austere and military-style uniform, continuity (and for that matter nostalgia aesthetics) be damned. It’s a small thing, but indicative—the sort of thing that quietly speaks volumes about just how cynical an effort this actually was.
So it’s not a surprise that the resultant show was not good. If anything it’s a mild surprise that it was not bad either. Instead it hovers along at a vague watchability—a level that’s clearly tremendously disappointing from any perspective that holds a lot of hope about what Star Trek could be in 2017. This is not a show with ambitions beyond “being a Star Trek show that can help drive subscriptions to CBS All Access.” Its commercial purpose is its artistic purpose. We’ve seen this before—a similar accusation can be leveled against Class and efforts to launch the online-exclusive BBC Three as a serious concern. Obviously, this cannot be done successfully with a bad show. But it does not strictly speaking require a good show either, and Star Trek: Discovery threaded that needle with an almost grotesque degree of precision.
The result is a sort of strange, uncanny valley version of contemporary understandings of good television. The basic markers of what “good television” looks like in 2017-18 are all there, and executed with confidence, but there’s nothing else there. The show is just a series of formulaic “good television” plot beats with the iconography of Star Trek serving in place of actual content or ideas. Where Mr. Robot was “good television” about capitalism, identity, and the digital world or Succession was “good television” about the petty sociopathy of wealth or Killing Eve was “good television” about sapphic obsession and self-destructiveness, Star Trek: Discovery was “good television” about being Star Trek.
What this meant in practice was a sort of high octane flood of major revelations and plot twists that piled one on top of another without exploring them. The show began, in a trio of episodes Fuller got some writing credit on, with a high paced premise: Michael Burnham, the second in command on a Federation ship, becomes the first Federation officer to be jailed for mutiny after she incapacitates her captain to open fire on some Klingons. She’s eventually rescued out of a prison ship by the mysterious Captain Gabriel Lorca, who runs a ship with (and here’s the show’s most delightfully barmy idea) a mushroom-based drive that can effectively teleport.
All of this happens at high speed, but fine, that’s what setting up your premise is like. In the normal order of things you then slow down and, you know, tell some stories with that premise. But no. Instead we get a bewildering series of escalations. Klingon conspiracies! Lorca is actually from the Mirror Universe! Michael’s boyfriend is actually a mindwiped and genetically altered Klingon warrior being used as a spy! It’s a lot, to say the least, and leaves one wishing you could just have a nice quiet episode where people turn into horny salamanders again. You know, like the good old days.
But no, those days of “planet of the week” Star Trek where the show was just allowed to be a vehicle for trying to tell science fiction stories of wildly varying quality are long gone here. Sure, occasionally we do actually get a self-contained episode with a weird time loop or an alien planet, but for the most part this is Star Trek as continual event—everything designed to be shouted in capital letters, but no actual content to the message.
Is this worth being upset about? At some point—and book twelve of this series is as good a time as any—we should maybe just admit that reviving a fifty year old franchise might not be the best thing to do in the twenty-first century. Alan Moore usually has a point, y’know? It’s notable that my examples of good serious TV were all original properties. Likewise, the show that had the same iron grip on the Hugo Awards as Doctor Who in 2006-12 during the years since Discovery premiered was The Good Place. For all the emphatic popularity of mega-franchises, they’re largely not where the quality is. Maybe you just shouldn’t have Star Trek come back.
The thing is, though, that Star Trek doesn’t really feel played out. Utopian space opera spent enough time out of fashion that it’s probably ready for a strong revisitation, in which case there’s going to be something to do with Star Trek, given how many of the standard genre tropes it established. Is that necessarily a better idea than just doing some new science fiction ideas? No, absolutely not. If you gave me the choice between getting to do a Star Trek reboot or getting to do the comic about a generation starship Penn and I want to do (to be called The Ark of Infinity, because I am incorrigible) I’d 100% decide to do the latter. But in the larger context of art getting made there’s absolutely room for both, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a pretty solid idea for what I’d do with Star Trek given the chance. (Bounce it forward to the 25th century and acknowledge the way in which the space future was rendered obsolete by the digital one we actually got by finally advancing artificial intelligences into being a major part of the Federation, probably by having the ships be sentient. Yes, this pitch is just “what if we made Star Trek into the Culture.”)
And yet there’s still a specter of ugliness hanging over this entire idea, and Star Trek: Discovery is a perfectly good metonym for it. Yes, it’s still perfectly easy to come up with good ideas for what to do with a beloved old franchise. And yet at around the quarter point of the 21st century it’s hard to look at longrunning franchises—whether in general or in most specific cases—and think “yes, this is good.” The streaming model, peak television, and the reduction of television to “content” have done very, very bad things to the industry, at least when it comes to the use of franchises as tentpoles. Discovery is very much the norm—what you can expect franchise media to be. It’s all cinematic universes and “properties” now. You can’t turn Star Trek into the Culture because what people want is for you to turn Star Trek into fucking Marvel. Indeed, what people want is for the entirety of fucking culture into Marvel.
I opened the Capaldi era with a discussion of the creative challenges facing Moffat. Here we have a different set of challenges—an existential question about what a fifty-five year old franchise can be. And the Marvel option is really, really popular. I remember a thing that went around social media a while ago—an excited “what if the BBC did a ton of spinoffs” thing that was edited to look just like Disney’s timelines for Marvel and Star Wars. And I get it. I get the enthusiasm and the earnestness, and I really want to stress that I’m not mocking it here, but…
Look, frankly, it makes me want to vomit. Doctor Who was born of the specific and idiosyncratic concerns of BBC television. It’s a product of those things—an amazingly, astoundingly flexible product of them, but still fundamentally its own thing. The last thing I want in life is for Doctor Who to just become the BBC’s Marvel. If that was what I wanted I’d just cover Big Finish. Where, of course, we got similar flowchart-based storytelling for the absurd Time Lord Victorious crossover, which, impressively, nobody could actually explain to me what the fuck was about even when it was about 2/3 over. (The Dark Times and abolishing death, apparently.)
And yes, spinoffs have existed, but first of all, let’s be honest, neither Torchwood nor The Sarah Jane Adventures aged especially well, certainly compared to Doctor Who during the same era. Second of all, those shows filled specific briefs in terms of what the BBC was during an expansionist period. By 2018 the BBC was more or less at “maybe if we’re transphobic enough the Tories will let us live,” which didn’t really generate any urgent need for Doctor Who spinoffs save, perhaps, one with a male lead to appease the TERF/#NotMyDoctor crowd.
But this was the gravitational pull on Doctor Who in 2018. This was what the world expects a science fiction franchise to be. And that in turn sets the expectations that Doctor Who needs to fight against in this era. What is necessary is simply to have an identity—to be a show with things to say about the world and a mode of existence that is something other than the BBC’s version of a giant franchise. More than absolutely anything, Doctor Who in 2018 needed to be itself, whatever that might mean. This was a time to pull away from gigantic considerations of lore, away from the mythos, and simply to tell stories with ideas in them—ones with a point of view and something to say. It was, in short, a time when the single most important thing Doctor Who could possibly be is “nothing like Star Trek: Discovery.”
These were dangerous and challenging times. I mean, that goes well beyond Doctor Who. This was America in the midst of a fascist takeover, with Britain in the midst of trying desperately and futilely to get the result of the Brexit vote to be anything other than an absolute calamity. 2018 was not a good year—a statement that seems faintly remarkable in the context of the couple of years that followed it, but was nevertheless the case. And in the face of that was one of the largest tides of genericization that popular culture had, frankly, ever seen. Making Doctor Who that rose to the challenges of the time was no small challenge.
Enter Chris Chibnall, then.