Shared universes are all the rage at the moment. Between the MCU, the revamped DCU, the slowly building Tolkien Cinematic Universe, and the ever-rolling behemoth that is the Star Wars universe, viewers barely have enough time to watch all these streaming shows, movies, and other random assorted bits of content if they want to keep up.
Then there’s Star Trek. Despite being well over 50 years old, this shared universe is bigger than ever and riding high on the success of its latest offering, season 3 of Picard. Most importantly, it’s doing things a tad bit differently than the other big-brand universes currently out there. In fact, Star Trek has become a shining example of how to pull off a shared universe on television.
What Star Trek Gets Right That Other Shared Universes Don’t
One reason for Star Trek‘s recent success is simply that the schedule and release of new shows has been carefully planned and spread out so as to not overwhelm viewers. With the exception of 2022, in which all five current Star Trek series released episodes and it was barely off our screens, Star Trek has traditionally staggered the release of new material since the franchise returned to television with Discovery in 2017.
Four shows have or will release new episodes in 2023, most of them 10-episode seasons (with the exception of Prodigy, whose second season will likely run into winter 2024). With no movies either on the big screen or in special presentation format, and no other significant bits and pieces of Trek outside of non-canon games and novels since the cancellation of Short Treks in 2020, this should be a manageable amount of viewing for most fans. But far more important than the schedule, though, is the fact that you do not have to watch every single Star Trek show in order to enjoy any of them.
The need for variety in such a big franchise is well known and recognized. The MCU, for example, has built itself on offering a wide variety of genres, tones, and stories (from spy films to space opera to sitcoms). Star Wars has slightly less variety in tone but, like both the MCU and Star Trek, offers a combination of live action and animated shows, and like Star Trek, it has stories spread across different points on its timeline, some following legacy characters, others following new ones.
But offering up a variety of shows loses its biggest advantage if viewers have to watch every show in order to keep up. The whole point of giving people options regarding what to watch and in what order is that not everything needs to appeal equally to everyone. There will be some fans who watch everything connected to a particular franchise no matter what (and if you are reading a website called Den of Geek, there is a high likelihood that’s you!). But there are many fans who prefer to just watch the specific shows and/or films that interest them the most. Viewers who dislike space opera might want to skip Guardians of the Galaxy, those who dislike sitcoms might not want to watch WandaVision or She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, or those who are not big fans of animation might skip all of the animated series in any franchise.
But this becomes a problem when the writers and producers assume everyone is watching everything. Casual viewers wanting a night out at the cinema might feel cheated when they learn they need to have first watched WandaVision to follow a storyline in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Streaming viewers who are enjoying The Mandalorian but do not want to watch The Book of Boba Fett may stop watching all together when they realize major story developments from the first show took place in the middle of the second, and they missed them.
Star Trek has an edge here, because none of the currently streaming television series assume knowledge of any of the other current series. Yes, Picard and Lower Decks are targeting a particularly nostalgic group of fans, specifically of the shows that aired during the 1990s (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager). It’s fair to say that many of the jokes in Lower Decks especially will be completely lost on anyone who has not seen those series.
But at the same time, none of the five modern Star Trek series – Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds – require anyone to have watched any of the other current shows in order to follow their storylines. This means that viewers who do not want to watch a child-friendly animated show made for Nickelodeon (Prodigy) do not have to; viewers who do not like Discovery do not need to watch it to enjoy its spinoff Strange New Worlds (the pilot does a great job of explaining the timey-wimey Captain Pike conundrum on its own!), and viewers who just want new stories and crews do not have to watch Picard. There are no Star Trek films being made at the moment, but the most recent three took place in an entirely different universe all together; if anyone does make any more, they might not be quite that disconnected, but they seem unlikely to be required viewing for any of the shows.
If there is one major flaw in the current setup, it is that some current Star Trek series are not spread far enough apart from each other on the timeline and can end up affecting each other in negative ways. Story-wise, the biggest issue is spoilers. Strange New Worlds and Discovery are far enough removed from the others not to be affected, but we have already seen some this problem come up with Picard and Prodigy. The latter has already been spoiled by the former because Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) has been mentioned multiple times across Picard in the present tense. In Prodigy, which is set nearly 20 years earlier, Admiral Janeway is trying to find her erstwhile First Officer, now-Captain Chakotay, who has managed to lose first a ship and then himself in Delta Quadrant for the second time. Chakotay has become trapped in the future – will Admiral Janeway find him there, only to become trapped herself? Will she die in the attempt? I guess not, because she’s referenced several times two decades later!
It is just as important to ensure that viewers who do want to watch everything can do so without being spoiled as it is to ensure that those who do not watch everything can still follow the story. Lower Decks starts in 2380, Prodigy starts in 2383, and Picard’s first season starts in 2399. If all three followed entirely separate characters this might not be a problem at all, but both Prodigy and Picard feature legacy characters in main roles, and Lower Decks features some of those same characters in recurring roles (primarily Captain Riker).
But even though this collection of 24th century-set shows does reveal a kink in Star Trek‘s approach to its TV timeline, these series are also finally giving longtime fans the thing they’ve wanted most since Paramount announced the franchise’s return to the small screen: the opportunity to pick up where we left off in 2002.
The Future of Star Trek: The 25th Century and Beyond
When Discovery first came out in real-world 2017, it, like its immediate televisual predecessor Enterprise, was set before The Original Series, just before Kirk’s five-year mission, and its first season opened in 2256. But this was not well received by everybody. The timeline ’90s Trek fans had been following since the launch of The Next Generation had not been updated since the 2002’s Nemesis, leaving them wondering what had happened to their favorite characters from that era and why Paramount hadn’t picked up where the franchise had left off in the first place.
The writers of Discovery had an interesting reaction to some of the criticism of seasons 1 and 2. Feeling that enthusiasm for a prequel seemed to be waning, and realizing that their story was leading to the sort of continuity errors that frustrate fans, they decided to listen to requests that Star Trek go “back to the future.” But instead of following up on Nemesis, they jumped their ship and crew all the way forward to the 32nd century, a full millennium removed from the earliest years of the Federation.
In Star Trek, different eras on the timeline feel like completely different worlds. The Prime Universe (that is, everything except the three Kelvinverse films) takes places across a quite extraordinary period from 2151 (the first season of Enterprise) to 3190 (the fourth season of Discovery). The world of James T. Kirk, with its Klingon battles, secretive Romulan commanders, and Neutral Zone, is quite different from the world of Jean-Luc Picard, with his Klingon Bridge officer, Borg threat, and spectacularly beige spaceship. The 32nd century setting of Discovery, post-burn, with a much diminished Federation and a re-named Vulcan, is just barely recognizable as the same fictional universe as the rest of Star Trek.
For new fans, that can be a really good thing. You can pretty much jump in whichever era of Trek you want. But for longtime fans, there is an issue here. As Picard showrunner Terry Matalas himself has said of the beginning of the 25th century (where Picard finishes), “I always view it as the present day in Star Trek, for me. It’s where we all left off.”
He is far from the only fan to feel this way. Although Discovery and the new Starfleet Academy series’ 32nd century setting are all exciting in a different way, we cannot help feeling that it is not really what fans were after when they complained they wanted to go “back to the future” in 2017.
For anyone who watched those three core ’90s Trek shows, the early 25th century feels very much like Star Trek’s “present” because that is the appropriate amount of time after the end of Voyager and the release of Nemesis – the cast have aged in real time and the same amount of time has passed in the real world. Fortunately, Picard season 3 finally delivered the payoff we’d waited decades for, but as of yet there have been no official announcements about the potential Picard sequel/spinoff Legacy, even though a mid-credits scene in the final episode teased it.
None of this means we want to see the cancellation of any of the current shows. Strange New Worlds is just beautiful and has only just got going, and as a prequel series it is really doing its own thing anyway. The new Starfleet Academy series will be very good news for fans of Discovery and presumably will exist in its own little world, off in the very far flung future. Lower Decks and Prodigy are both great and we very much hope they will continue to be renewed for as long as their writers and showrunners want to keep making them.
We are keeping all our fingers and toes crossed, though, that Legacy will eventually be more than just a cool pitch, a bunch of tweets, and a fan petition. A Legacy series would allow us to continue our “present day” storyline and see more of what happens to, not just the legacy characters we love like Seven of Nine, but to the literal next generation made up of the offspring of the previous one as well. We would also tentatively suggest that when the day comes that Lower Decks and Prodigy do reach their natural end, perhaps the powers that be at Paramount might consider greenlighting another show in that same, early 25th century time period, but with fresh, new characters. A show that could carry on some of the same stories and themes but in new ways and through new people, like Deep Space Nine and Voyager did when they followed on from The Next Generation. If nothing else, it would save us a heck of a headache from trying to keep all these different timelines straight!