Trek and Canon

Posted: 2022-12-01
Word Count: 1885
Tags: doctor-who star-trek tv

YouTube Considered Annoying

Honestly, I’m not a big Star Trek fan. I was more into Doctor Who.

Still I’m enough of a fan of Lower Decks and Prodigy that, when I should be doing someting productive, I watch YouTube clips and even read the comments. (Which is my big mistake.) A lot of criticism of Lower Decks boils down to the following:

  1. It’s just a Rick & Morty version of Star Trek.

  2. This wasn’t Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

  3. It’s making a mockery of Star Trek!

  4. It’s not really canon, so it doesn’t matter.

I’ll address the idea of “canon” later, but to the other points:

  1. Honestly I’ve seen only the first episode of Rick & Morty and hated it. I got through the first season of Solar Opposites, but the bleak humor didn’t really appeal to me, so I gave up on it. Yet I like Lower Decks.

    All three shows are about dysfunctional people (or aliens) who don’t seem to be going anywhere and create their own problems. Unlike those other shows, though, Lower Decks has the optimism of the best of Trek, and over the course of three seasons we’ve seen some of the characters start to grow out of their dysfunctions, or at least recognize they are dysfunctions.

    I wonder if people react to the animation style and producer’s name rather than, I don’t know, watch the show (closely). Granted, the first episode hadn’t nailed the Piller/Berman Trek aesthetic quite yet, so maybe that’s where they stopped.

  2. In “Gene Roddenberry’s vision” I could never figure out how humanity got from the 1960s (or 1980s or 2000s) to a post-scarcity, moneyless, work optional, essentially utopian society. The movie First Contact presented a transition point: World War III destroyed the old nation-states, leaving enclaves of survivors rebuilding a vanished civilization. After First Contact, technology, Vulcan guidance, and centuries of peace apparently transformed humanity’s circumstances. But people were, ultimately, still people, and even in TOS we saw irrational, greedy, and short-sighted humans.

    According to rumor, in the early days of Star Trek: The Next Generation someone (often said to be Roddenberry) forbade conflict within the crew. Which was a ridiculous rule (if it existed) because The Original Series included lots of conflict within the crew, notably Spock and McCoy butting heads. Yet it was ultimately productive conflict between people who wanted to do the right thing but disagreed on methods. Even in the 23rd century people didn’t become perfect beings who agreed about everything. (That’s the Vulcans, except later shows revealed they aren’t either.)

    The scripts definitely got better starting in TNG’s third season. Those later seasons – and DS9, VOY, and ENT – were all the better for featuring people with different goals and perspectives, even within the Federation, who argue and sometimes (like the Maquis) take up arms against each other. DS9 even introduced Section 31, an ultra-secret black ops organization with dubious ties to Starfleet that protects the Federation through illegal and immoral means.

    Even if we take Lower Decks’s comedic dysfunction literally, it’s still oddly comforting to know that a near-utopian society still has room for people with issues. (And Beckett Mariner has several long boxes worth of issues.)

  3. Some Star Trek fans seem incapable of separating humor about their show from mockery or denigration of it. Some parts of TOS just did not age well: low budgets, tight schedules, cheap sets, primitive special effects, and social commentary hamstrung by conservative censors or the writers’ own cultural blinders. TNG, DS9, VOY, and (especially) Enterprise also have some less than stellar episodes. That’s just the nature of television: showrunners under pressure to produce 22+ episodes a year within a budget, writers who are stuck for ideas (or just not suited to the show), scripts that unintentionally contradict canon, executives meddling to avoid controversy (or just because they can), and actors who leave for various reasons and change the character dynamics.

    Lower Decks loves to point out those things, but also embraces them. Does Starfleet have non-commissioned officers? A recent episode retconned NCOs seen in a few TNG episodes, notably former Chief Miles O’Brian, to say “yes, but you’ll be stuck in a windowless transporter room all shift.” What happened to those alien parasites that threatened to take over the Federation in the TNG episode 1x25 “Conspiracy”, but were never mentioned again? That was only a conspiracy theory, unless it wasn’t. Lower Decks brings back comical and/or cringeworthy menaces like Armus (TNG’s “Skin of Evil”), old school Ferengi with space whips, a supposedly godlike glowing ball of energy from the TOS era (which Mariner threatens to stuff into a can unless it grants her wishes), and Q who messes with Captain Freeman because he’s bored with Jean-Luc. Ambitious Starfleet officers mimic the infamous Riker leg lift1 as the way a Real Captain sits in a chair. In a recurring theme, the Cerritos revisits planets and species that Kirk and Picard supposedly dealt with, only to discover problems remain: the people of Beta III reactivated their computer god Landru, and the Pakleds (from “Samaritan Snare”) graduate from minor nuisance to significant threat.

    If the creators of Lower Decks were merely mocking Star Trek, would they sneak obscure references from multiple Trek shows into each episode?

  4. As for canon


So I said all that to say this: “canon” isn’t real.

Wikipedia informs us that the word “canon” comes from the Greek word κανών, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”. (citation provided)

In 382 the Council of Rome defined the Christian “canon”, what we now call the Bible, for what was then the One True Christian Church. Even the split between the Eastern and Western churches didn’t (yet) affect the Bible used by Orthodox and Catholic Christians. The Protestant Reformation introduced Martin Luther’s version of the Bible, which retranslated Hebrew and Greek sources into German and moved the Book of Revelations to an “appendix”. The Council of Trent in 1542 reaffirmed the Catholic version of the Bible, while various Prostant sects relegated some books to “apocrypha”: good, but not canon.

In 2000 Lucas Licensing began building a continuity-tracking database called the Holocron. (citation provided) It divided the large number of works set in the Star Wars galaxy into five categories, the highest being “George Lucas Canon”: the (then) six Star Wars movies and any statements by George Lucas. They later added a sixth for the animated movie and series Star Wars: the Clone Wars which superseded all but Lucas’s. Below that came all the current official licensed Star Wars books, games, comics, cartoons, and so forth, then older works like the Marvel Star Wars comics (written when Lucas hadn’t yet defined his world), material from Star Wars Detours(?), and finally “non-canon” works like the Infinites comics set in alternate histories, deleted scenes, canceled works, and the like.

In 2014, the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm redefined “canon” as the (still) six movies, Star Wars: the Clone Wars, past works consistent with those sources, and future works like Star Wars: Rebels and the new series of Marvel comics. All other past works, notably the Expanded Universe novels and comics set after Return of the Jedi, are relegated to “Legends”, i.e. still entertaining but not canon.2

According to this unofficial wiki Doctor Who “canon” is essentially whatever the BBC says it is. Generally that includes the TV serials from 1963-1989, the 1996 movie, and the new series that began in 2005. The Expanded Universe of books and audio dramas and the 1960s movie series with Peter Cushing, for example, aren’t. Yet recently remastered episodes replaced low-budget old series spaceships with better-looking ones copied from the 1960s movies. Steven Moffat’s accalimed “canon” episode “Blink” was based on a non-canon short story in Doctor Who Annual 2006. Paul Cornell adapted his Expanded Universe 7th Doctor3 novel Human Nature into the 10th Doctor TV two-parter “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood”. Honestly I don’t think Whovians see the point of “canon”, given that the Doctor can change the history of entire planets.4

As for Star Trek

According to Memory Alpha Star Trek canon is divided into “alpha canon”, the TV shows and movies, and “beta canon”, licensed works like novels, comics, and games that don’t contradict the ever-growing “alpha canon”. Paramount removed Star Trek: The Animated Series from canon in 1988 but reinstated it recently. Robert Orci implied in 2012 in an interview that comics and games he had written were considered canon, but later retracted the statement, misquoting Emerson’s (in?)famous quote, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds […].

As I argued in Trek-Nature, it’s absurd to assert that a television show produced by the copyright holder and (reasonably) consistent with previous series in the same universe isn’t “canon”. But perhaps it’s more absurd to assert that a One True Holy “Canon” exists at all. Star Trek, I’m sorry to report, is fiction. A whole bunch of people spread over 50+ years have written the supposed “canon”. Internal inconsistencies will creep in. New owners will strike previously “canon” works out of canon, and add their own new works, based on their concept of the fictional world, to the “canon”. None of it is real, so just choose what you enjoy as your personal “canon”, or what some people call their “favorites”, and allow others to do the same.


Note that I’ve mainly been defending Lower Decks here, since it seems to get the most online hate. But this also applies to Star Trek: Prodigy, which is “only a kid’s show” and yet will almost inevitably tip someone’s sacred cow. Some might claim the main characters’ designs are “too cartoony” or somesuch, or point to robots and aliens that wouldn’t seem out of place in Star Wars. Good thing YouTube doesn’t allow comments on videos for kids.

Oh, and Paramount announced characters from Lower Decks will appear on Strange New Worlds. So either Lower Decks is canon, Strange New Worlds (or at least that episode) isn’t … or “canon” is whatever someone says it is.

  1. Jonathan Frakes apparently injured his back before filming of TNG. Standing was painful, so he’d rest his foot on part of the scenery – rock, console, what have you – to take the pressure off his spine. Apparently bending to sit normally caused similar pain, so he’d instead bring his leg over the back of a chair and plop down into it. ↩︎

  2. Including Karen Traviss’s many novels about Mandalorians, referenced in other “Expanded Universe” (now “Legends”) works, which was partly contradicted in The Clone Wars. That show portrayed Mandalore as a bombed-out wasteland and a (brief?) era where a pacifist ruler curbed her people’s warlike ways – and became “canon” – so she stopped writing Star Wars tie-ins entirely. This, to me, is a cautionary tale about writing in a world someone else owns, particularly if the copyright owner is a corporation. Your moral may vary. ↩︎

  3. For those who have never seen the show, The Doctor is an alien who “regenerates” to survive life-threatening conditions. The process gives them a whole new body and altered personality (i.e. actor). (A plot device necessitated by the First Doctor William Hartnell’s declining health in 1966.) The Nth Doctor is essentially the Nth actor to play the role “officially”. Wikipedia has more. ↩︎

  4. Just not Earth’s past … mostly. ↩︎