Content is canon, aesthetics are not: the pitfalls of selective nostalgia


CBS wants to Make Star Trek 2250 Again. But looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, taking the parts they like, and discarding the rest is an intellectually lazy exercise in historical revisionism that consistently delivers poor quality results whether it's applied to politics or to filmmaking.

Written on 2017-10-01.

In the context of the Star Trek universe, Star Trek: Discovery is a period piece. It is set a century after Star Trek: Enterprise and two years after the events of Star Trek: The Original Series' pilot episode The Cage, but about ten years before the events of most of TOS' episodes. This places the setting of Discovery more or less smack dab in the middle of TOS, and as such it was reasonable for fans to expect that the established look of TOS would be respected, as all previous Star Trek productions have for the most part.

However during preproduction of Discovery, the producers signaled on a number of occasions that while they would "respect canon," the "look needed to be updated." This attitude that content is canon but aesthetics are not is a hard right turn as compared to all previous Star Trek productions. In each of the past five Star Trek TV series, the look and feel of TOS was respected in a painstakingly accurate fashion whenever the period was revisited with flashbacks, time travel, or on the Holodeck.

It is now safe to reboot your science fiction franchise.

This attitude among the producers isn't new. The 2009 alternate universe reboot film and its sequels featured distinctly different aesthetics based on a similar attitude that the look of TOS needed to be updated. What was different back then though was those films were explicitly set in an alternate universe which provided plausible deniability for why everything looked different. What if industrial design fashion in the alternate universe was different than the prime universe? That seemed to settle it well enough.

But in Discovery there is no alternate universe excuse to fall back on. The story is explicitly set in the "prime" universe. It is also set in a time period with an established look and feel that Discovery violates in almost every way without even the slightest attempt to rationalize any of the visual continuity errors it creates in the story itself as past productions at least attempted to do most of the time. Discovery's attitude towards this stuff seems to be "screw it, we're not even going to try."

Admittedly, it's an entirely understandable impulse for a Star Trek producer to not want to be yoked to the horribly dated 1960s aesthetics of TOS. Not many people would want to watch a show set in this time period with 100% period-accurate visuals. Enterprise's In A Mirror, Darkly episodes along with other episodes from other Star Trek shows that went back to this period were a lot of fun, but they're sort of like dessert: enjoyable every so often, but you don't want it for every meal.

The producers have used that argument to justify "updating" TOS' look in this fashion, but a better choice would've been to avoid telling stories in this time period at all unless you're willing to do it correctly. (Rogue One would have been a good example to follow there.) Indeed, it wouldn't have required a lot of significant changes to the concept behind Discovery's premise to set it in the 25th century instead, where you can update the look all you want without creating continuity errors. There's plenty of room in Star Trek's canon for a post-Dominion War story about a resurgence of Klingon nationalism brought about by a charismatic Klingon leader who wants to Make The Klingon Empire Great Again leading his people into the dark recesses of selective nostalgia about a period of history that wasn't as great as they like to think it was.

Instead, ironically, it's the producers themselves who have failed to learn a key lesson from their own story. One of the core themes of Discovery's otherwise excellent pilot is a warning against toxic, tribalist nationalism, something that couldn't possibly be more relevant in 2017. But one of the most important lessons such a story should teach us is that nostalgia is almost never as rosy as it seems to be because people tend to do it selectively: cherrypicking the parts they like and discarding the rest. Selective nostalgia leads you down a dark path.

In this sense, the opening theme of Discovery is a perfect symbol of this contradiction. While it is refreshingly different in some regards, evoking a kind of James Bond aesthetic entirely new to Star Trek, it is also painfully ironic in another sense: it's a literally sepia-toned, Instagram filtered caricature of a Star Trek opening theme. It feels more like someone's nostalgic impression of what the Star Trek opening theme felt like than an actual Star Trek opening theme. Some might call that an homage. A better description would be empty nostalgia. Appealing on the surface, but the more you think about it, the more you begin to realize that it is utterly without substance.

Empty nostalgia is nothing new to Hollywood. The dawn of the 21st century seems to have inundated us with an endless barrage of reboots, prequels, and remakes, as though the very idea of telling an original story strikes fear into the hearts of the average filmmaker. In keeping with this seemingly primal aversion to originality, the early trailers of Discovery reveled in advertising that the new show would take place "ten years before Kirk!" as though some close connection to Captain Kirk is the silver bullet to making a story successful in the Star Trek universe. Likewise Michael Burnham's close connection to Spock through Sarek was similarly emphasized as a key detail, as though it should matter. Would it really have been so bad for her to have been raised by a different Vulcan family in a story set in the 25th century instead? Not really. But don't tell the marketing department.

The pitfalls of selective nostalgia extend well beyond merely enabling forays into shallow unoriginality though. The very existence of Discovery now threatens to diminish all five previous Star Trek series. If the writers don't make at least some kind of attempt to rationalize the visual continuity errors and especially if fans cannot cook up adequate headcanon rationalizations, the experience of rewatching each of the Star Trek TV series, especially in chronological order, will become an especially tortured exercise. The only way to enjoy it will be to emotionally detach from everything you see on screen. Sets? Uniforms? Props? None of it matters anymore.

It seems the producers of Discovery intend us to interpret everything we see on screen as just one possible way to visualize the stories they're trying to tell. Not a real, living, breathing universe the characters physically interact with every day. In that sense, the Star Trek universe will become more like a novel series than a TV series. In a novel series, aesthetics are unimportant. Everyone imagines what it looks like a different way, so how you imagine it looks is no more or less valid than how anyone else does. But if that's how we're supposed to view aesthetics in the Star Trek universe, it calls into question why they should even bother to tell their story on a visual medium to begin with. To treat aesthetic canon with such disregard is to abandon one of the most appealing features of the visual medium: that it is seen plainly rather than imagined and interpreted.

What's even more perplexing is the producers appear blind to the degree to which Star Trek fans in particular value aesthetic canon. The effort past series expended in order to pay homage to the visual continuity of their predecessors were not isolated examples of fan service, but a love letter to the sorts of fans who obsessed over every little detail. The kinds of fans who bought action figures, model ship kits, and pestered their seamstress grandmothers into getting the lines on their homemade Starfleet uniforms just right in time for Halloween. At one time, those kinds of fans mattered to the owners of Star Trek. They don't seem to anymore.

Of course, one can make a spirited argument about the tradeoffs of alienating one type of fan in order to bring in new ones. CBS is, after all, a business. But that kind of fallacious thinking is precisely why selective nostalgia is so dangerous. It's the same kind of zero-sum thinking that brought us a U.S. president who falsely believes immigrants diminish the naturally born. It's likewise a false dichotomy to assume that older fans needed to be alienated to attract new ones. This zero-sum game could've been avoided by simply setting the story in the 25th century and reworking the premise. Gene Roddenberry knew that when he created Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's a shame someone so wise isn't in charge anymore.