‘Star Trek’ Keeps One Foot in the Past As It Looks to the Future

We discuss all the 'Trek' news from SDCC and what it means for the future.

San Diego Comic-Con took place this past weekend, giving us no shortage of things to look forward to. From the excitingly diverse (and surprisingly spooky) Marvel slate to the latest blockbuster productions from HBO, it was a stacked weekend of announcements. But perhaps most intriguing of all was Saturday’s Star Trek panel, in which we got a whole host of trailers, sneak peeks, and teases.

The real showstopper of the event was, of course, the latest trailer for Star Trek: Picard, which not only ses the return of Patrick Stewart‘s iconic Captain but also features familiar faces like the previously deceased Data (Brent Spiner) and Voyager‘s Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). We get a better sense of what old Jean-Luc has been up to all these years, how a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) inspires his return to the skies and how she may or may not have some relation to the imposing Borg cube seen later in the trailer.

The most noteworthy moments in this trailer come from the returning cast members. “What the hell are you doing out here, Picard?” Seven asks, suggesting that either she’s been assigned to track him down or is an old friend, looking to help him on his mission (or some combination of the two). Ryan’s return to Star Trek is an unexpected delight, not only due to her status as a fan favorite but also because it opens up the door for any number of potential comebacks, regardless of whether they’ve previously shared screentime with Picard.

Which brings us to Data, who we first see as a disassembled set of limbs, likely the result of his sacrifice in Nemesis. But in the final moments of the trailer, we see him fully formed, playing poker with Picard. Speculation has been all over the place, with some theorizing that we’re actually seeing Lore or B-4, Data’s identical brothers, and others claiming this to be a holographic recreation. The latter probably seems more likely, especially given Picard’s dialogue here. “I don’t want the game to end,” Jean-Luc tells his android friend, suggesting that their reunion will be a short-lived one.

And if that wasn’t enough, we also learned that William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) will be joining their former Captain once more, in addition to Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), the castaway Borg drone who befriended the Enterprise‘s crew in the TNG episode “I, Borg.” All this is very exciting indeed, and if played right, these returning characters will slot nicely beside the new faces, in a show that honors the past and future of the franchise.

On to Discovery, which didn’t show anything quite so splashy, but still gave us some details about its much-anticipated third season. Having jumped 1,000 years into the future in the Season 2 finale, the show will now have to make it on its own merit, no longer able to lean on 23rd-century characters and settings. The first indication of this comes in the casting of David Ajala (Supergirl, Jupiter Ascending), of which Deadline broke the news on Saturday.

Ajala will play a new character called Cleveland Booker, also known as Book, described as follows:

“Smart and capable, Ajala’s Book has a natural charisma and devil-may-care attitude that tends to get him into trouble as often as it gets him out.”

A handful of promo photos also show what may be his first meeting with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) on an all-new planet, shot on location in Iceland. This is exciting for a number of reasons — on the one hand, because it shows Discovery now unshackled from its restraints and ready have new adventures that aren’t so tied to the existing canon, and on the other, we’re seeing new characters introduced on a show that has maybe drawn too heavily on existing ones up to this point.

But those legacy characters won’t be too far from our screens, as a new teaser for the latest batch of Short Treks demonstrates:

Here we see all manner of familiar iconography, from the newly redesigned Enterprise to those pesky Tribbles. Captain Pike (Anson Mount), Spock (Ethan Peck), and Number One (Rebecca Romijn) are all featured heavily in this trailer, suggesting their presence will live on beyond their run on Discovery. Alex Kurtzman even confirmed that half the upcoming six Short Treks will feature this crew, while two are animated, with the final one tying into Picard.

A lot of the fun of these minisodes is that they can be about any character in any time, making them the perfect place to try out new things and while indulging in some fan service, too. And while it’s nice to see the new iterations of classic characters again (especially the underutilized Romijn), it’s important to remember the need to also look forward and tell new stories, something which, by all indications, these new episodes will be doing.

And finally, we come to Lower DecksStar Trek‘s second foray into animation, from Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan. The show, loosely based on the TNG episode of the same name, takes place after Nemesis and follows Ensign Tendi (Noël Wells), Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome), and Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid), a group of young Starfleet officers on the bottom rung of their ship.

Rounding out the cast are senior staff members Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), Commander Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), Lieutenant Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), and Dr. T’ana (Gillian Vigman). Little else is known about Lower Decks at this moment, but a handful of images were revealed on the panel, showing a vibrant style reminiscent of Rick and Morty (eagle-eyed fans will also note that the uniforms bear a resemblance to the scrapped designs from Generations).

All this is very exciting, as, for the first time since the 1990s, we’ll be seeing multiple Trek shows at once, each offering something unique. After years of prequels and reboots, we now have three shows going further into the timeline than ever before, advancing the overall story instead of filling in the gaps. The franchise is once again stepping forward into the future, although it’s keeping one foot in the past for the time being.

Picard will do this by bringing back the fan-favorite Captain and throwing him in with an all-new crew, dealing with new problems, while still catching up with old faces along the way. And since many of these characters didn’t get the triumphant send-offs of the Original Series crew, this is a chance to give them just that. Meanwhile, Discovery, a show that initially wrote itself into multiple corners, is now free of all past connections and ready to take the adventure forward.

Despite this, the show will always be tied in some way to the 23rd-century, as demonstrated by Short Treks remaining in that era. Ever since Discovery‘s second season, fans have been clamoring for a show on Pike’s Enterprise, which despite the obvious appeal does feel like a “be careful what you wish for” type situation. If we want new stories, it’s probably best to leave old things behind. But that doesn’t mean we can’t return from time to time, and there are few better ways to do that than in these short episodes.

Lower Decks is perhaps the most interesting one of all, since that show, as far as we know, will feature no existing characters and will revolve entirely around new heroes. Despite being based on an existing premise, it’s the best example here of Star Trek looking forward, in the same way TNG did back in the day. Being an animated show with a smaller budget probably helped its case, with there being less pressure to tie into existing continuity, allowing it to truly stand alone.

Of course, in the long run, this approach could have its drawbacks. Patrick Stewart’s return feels more like a one-time thing than anything else, and there’s only so long you can rely on the old characters to prop up new shows. Making the bold strides in Discovery and Lower Decks necessary for the future of the franchise. If Star Trek really is to be the franchise that Kurtzman and CBS envision, it’ll have to strike the perfect balance between nostalgia and innovation. Something which this wave of new information is (hopefully!) representative of.

Hayden Cornmell: Sometimes knows what he's talking about.