'Star Trek': The evolution of the Prime Universe

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

If you tuned in for the series debut of Star Trek: Discovery last weekend and wondered where the “Discovery” part of the title came in — don’t worry. The third episode, “Context is for Kings,” which premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access, finally introduces us to the latest vessel to take its place in the Federation’s fleet of starships, as well as Starfleet’s newest captain, Jason Isaacs mysterious Gabriel Lorca. It’s an information-packed installment that sets up where Discovery (both the ship and the show) appears to be going over the course of this freshman season, and illustrates how this new iteration of Star Trek both continues — and reinvents — the legacy of this venerable sci-fi franchise, which hit the big 5-0 in 2016.

To illustrate how Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future has changed over the past five decades,  Yahoo Entertainment has assembled timelines highlighting three specific elements from each of the six live-action Trek series that have aired to date. Considering the spirited debate and strong ratings that has greeted Discovery‘s arrival, expect Star Trek to live long and prosper for another 50 years.

 

The Captains
When Star Trek premiered in 1966, the series was captained by space cowboy James T. Kirk (William Shatner), who often took a daredevil approach to his five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. The next generation of Trek captains — starting with TNG‘s Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) — tried to be more diplomatic in their command. Starfleet also diversified its ranks as more Trek shows hit the airwaves, with Deep Space Nine introducing the franchise’s first African-American leading man, Benjamin Sikso (Avery Brooks), and Voyager putting a woman front and center in the form of Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).

Perhaps reflecting their respective places earlier on the Trek timeline, the prequel series Enterprise and Discovery once again place a white man in the captain’s chair, Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) and Lorca (Isaacs), respectively. Though it should be noted, of course, that Discovery‘s first two episodes featured Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou. Furthermore, the show’s central character isn’t a captain, but disgraced first officer Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green.

The Aliens
Maybe it was the eminently logical manner. Maybe it was the raised eyebrow. Maybe it was the pointy ears. (Yeah, it was probably the pointy ears.) Whatever the reason, Vulcan-born science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) immediately stood out amongst the already-diverse crew featured on The Original Series. Thanks to Spock’s popularity, it became Trek tradition to include one — and sometimes more — aliens in major roles on future shows. And those extraterrestrials became more elaborate in their makeup and mythology as time went on. TNG‘s Klingon security chief Worf (Michael Dorn), for example, revised and updated the already-changed appearance of the Federation’s longtime foes.

Deep Space Nine‘s Odo (René Auberjonois) was a shapeshifting Changeling and just one of the many alien races who populated that space station, Ferengi and Bajorans among them. Being transported to the distant Delta Quadrant meant that Voyager regularly came into contact with new aliens like Talaxian cook Neelix (Ethan Phillips). Earlier on in the Federation’s history, the Interspecies Medical Exchange was a good way for humans to mix with intergalactic medical professionals like Enterprise‘s Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), a kind Denobulan with a healthy appetite for Chinese food. Echoing The Original SeriesDiscovery once again assigns an alien to the position of science officer. Instead of a Vulcan, though, that role now falls to Saru (Doug Jones), a Kelpien who is the first of his species to achieve a Starfleet rank.

The Female Officers
It’s almost certainly not accidental that the 51 years separating The Original Series and Discovery are bridged, in part, by the prominent presence of two African-American women aboard their respective starships. Certainly, Enterprise communications officer Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) proved an inspirational figure to millions of women — Whoopi Goldberg among them — for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an otherwise largely male crew amidst the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. Discovery‘s Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), meanwhile, has to stand strong in the face of prejudice — not because of the color of her skin, but due to her actions aboard her former ship, which may have precipitated the ongoing Klingon-Federation war.

The decades between these two bookended series featured a variety of different women in different positions of authority. Lt. Cmdr. Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) tasks herself with keeping the TNG crew on an even emotional keel as the Enterprise‘s empathetic (and empathic) counselor. Bajoran officer Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) held down the second-in-command position aboard Deep Space NineVoyager‘s Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) proved that, with a little assimilation into a Starfleet crew, Borgs could be badass without necessarily being bad. And Enterprise established that T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), not Spock, deserves credit for being the first Vulcan to occupy the science officer position aboard a Starfleet vessel. Make a note of that in your Starfleet history books.

Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.

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