How can we make Star Trek: Discovery canon?

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Nov 25, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery's midseason cliffhanger has come and gone, and Trekkies are left with more questions than ever. Star Trek fans have fought an ongoing war about what's canon and what's not for decades. Discovery is just the latest battlefront when it comes to retconning, changing, or ignoring Trek history, and after 50 years, 13 movies, and 734 hourlong TV episodes, there's a lot to keep straight.

The showrunners of Discovery swear that the new series is set in the same universe as The Original Series in 2256, 10 years before Kirk's five-year mission. If you've seen 10 minutes of the show and are familiar with the adventures of Kirk and crew aboard the original Enterprise, you're probably a bit confused on how Starfleet, the Klingons, and basically the rest of the Trek universe is going to regress technologically, look different, and wear different uniforms when it's their turn at the helm.

There's been tons of infighting in the Trekkie community on why Star Trek: Discovery can't be canon, but we want to bring a little positivity to the conversation. Let's instead try to look at some of the more glaring aspects that seem to stand in the face of canon and figure out how they can fit in the Star Trek universe.

Why Does the USS Discovery Look So Much More Modern Than the Original Enterprise?

In a tradition set down by the beloved Star Trek Enterprise, Discovery has starships that are supposed to predate The Original Series which look like they should be alongside the Enterprise-E fighting a Borg Cube or docked at Deep Space Nine beside the Defiant. The USS Discovery doesn't go quite as far as the NX-01 in retconning earlier starships to be much sleeker than designs we're used to from the time, but it still looks very odd considering the Constitution-class (including the Enterprise) would be in service at the same time.

Hull Composition

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The most significant discrepancy between the Enterprise and the Discovery (and the rest of the Starfleet ships we see on the show) is hull composition. The USS Enterprise has a smooth light gray hull, which is only broken by windows and equipment. The Discovery, on the other hand, has a bare-metal shell that looks more like a Constitution-class refit as opposed to the original configuration. Other Federation ships we see in the new series also have that bare-metal look, so what gives?

The difference in material between the Discovery and the Enterprise could be explained away by the fact that we only see two types of Federation starship in The Original Series: The Constitution-class, and with the Remaster of TOS, the Antares-type. Both of these ships have the same, mostly featureless, light gray hull, but we don't see enough of the rest of the fleet in The Original Series to determine if this is the standard finish or if it's reserved for special ships.

The most straightforward conclusion to draw in the absence of data is that for some reason certain ships, including those of the Constitution-class have some special finish applied to their hull for reasons unknown, while others (if not most) don't.

Configuration and Design

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This issue is a little easier to bring into perspective. Both the Enterprise and the Discovery share the common Federation starship configuration: a circular primary saucer where the bridge and other command systems are found, a secondary hull where engineering systems are located, and warp nacelles connected to the secondary hull by pylons.

The USS Discovery has a much smaller primary saucer than the Enterprise and much longer and narrower warp nacelles. It also has its primary hull split into two sections, with the outer one rotating when the spore drive is engaged. The USS Discovery's odd configuration, even in comparison to other Federation ships we've seen on the series can be explained relatively easily. It's built around the spore drive.

It's likely that Starfleet modified the Discovery at some point between 2250-2255 to be a testbed for the spore drive technology. We know that after the Discovery's sister ship the USS Glenn was destroyed, the Discovery was the only ship remaining in the fleet with a spore drive. However, the Discovery is a Crossfield-class ship, and in Starfleet, the first vessel of a class always carries the class name.

We haven't heard anything about its destruction, so, there's a USS Crossfield out there somewhere, and it's very likely it looks more like a regular Starfleet vessel. As a newer class, the USS Crossfield might be built with the same aesthetic of the Constitution-Class we're used to, and the rest of the ships we've seen are just older models which were built before the Federations started finishing their ships in the new material. 

Are These Klingons Real Klingons?

The portrayal of the Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery is probably the most controversial aspect of the new show. Klingons are the most established non-human race in the Star Trek canon, and fans were shocked to see that Discovery's Klingons aren't anything like what we're used to. This isn't the first great retconning of the Klingon Empire.
 

Klingons vs. “Klingons”

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When the race first appeared on The Original Series, they were just humans in dark makeup and terrible applique facial hair. Then, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture rolled around, we saw what would become the standard Klingon look. Gone were humans with lousy spray tans to be replaced by long-haired warriors with bony ridges on their foreheads.
 
This would be the Klingon look for every Star Trek production until Star Trek: Into Darkness, in which all Klingons were bald and wore strange helmets, but were still reasonably humanlike. Klingons, even the odd ones in Into Darkness, are human in anatomical structure and appearance besides having pointed teeth, and ridged foreheads. Excepting the Into Darkness Klingons and General Chang from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, all Klingons have had hair as well, with Klingons after The Motion Picture preferring to wear it long.
 
In Discovery, though, Klingons have received a complete revamp into a species much more alien than the boisterous soldiers of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The Klingons Michael Burnham and the Discovery are facing off against are incredibly foreign. They have elongated heads, four nostrils, no hair, claw-like fingers, pronounced cheeks and chins, and are as alien to the species we know as Klingons as they are to humans. 
 

Retcon vs. Long Con

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The difference between the look of the Klingons in The Original Series vs. The Motion Picture onward was acknowledged and eventually retconned in Enterprise as being the result of an accident with Klingon genetic manipulation causing a virus containing human DNA to spread to several Klingon colonies. Those cured kept the human characteristics, while the core Klingon peoples remained physically still Klingon.
 
Rectifying the whole human-like Klingon issue was of course unnecessary. The real explanation is that The Original Series budget was too small to afford the elaborate prosthesis that were used on the Klingons in The Motion Picture. For years, we were just supposed to accept that Klingons always had ridges and pointed teeth. However, with the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” the problem was finally acknowledged on-screen. The issue was a point of fan contention for years, but instead of ignoring it, Enterprise finally laid it to rest, to the relief of most Trekkies.
 
It’s weird then that the people behind Star Trek: Discovery decided to once again reopen that wound with their interpretation of the Klingon species. With what we know now, it seems like it’s intended to be a visual retcon and we’re supposed to believe Klingons have always looked the way they do in Discovery. However, with the showrunners promising to reconcile the series with Star Trek canon, with a big focus on that being part of Season 2, I’d like to think there’s another explanation behind the startling changes to the Klingons. For now, though, the only way to reconcile these Klingons with the ones in the previous series with the info we have is that they have always looked like this.

What’s With the Weird Uniforms?

It was natural to expect that Star Trek: Discovery would feature the pilot variation of The Original Series uniform. After all, DSC starts in 2256, a mere two years after “The Cage” where we see Captain Christopher Pike’s ordeal on Talos IV. Instead, Discovery introduces another new uniform to the Star Trek canon. Starfleet officers in this series wear a dark blue jacket and pants, with a set of stripes down the left and right side denoting their department. 
 

Pike’s Enterprise vs. Lorca’s Discovery

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We’re also introduced to a new system of divisional colors in Discovery. Instead of the command-gold, science-blue, and operations-peach/tan of Pike’s Enterprise, the Discovery uses a system of command-metallic gold, science-metallic silver, operations-metallic copper. This is a system we’ve never seen before and will never see again, so odds are it was unpopular for one reason or another.
 
Also, in what is possibly the most confusing way to demark rank ever, Discovery uses a small series of pips on the Starfleet insignia located on a crewperson’s left breast. The pips are absolutely tiny and placed in maybe the most awkward place possible. Can you imagine how much of an issue it would be to have to oogle someone’s chest every time you needed to find out their rank? How would a superior officer react? It’s not like you’d know until you were about three feet away from them whether they were an Ensign or a Commander.
 
However, we know that the uniforms that Pike and crew wore on the Enterprise must have been just as unpopular. By 2265, Starfleet had adopted a variation on the outfits we saw in “The Cage” with brighter colors and the operations division changed to red.
 

Starfleet’s Fickle Fashion

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Discovery’s uniforms do represent a significant deviation from what we assume would be Starfleet’s standard of the time, but Starfleet has a long history of making sudden drastic uniform changes. In fact, the iconic uniform that Kirk and crew wore on their first five-year mission could have lasted no longer than ten years. We see the change from the Pike crew variation to the standard they would wear throughout The Original Series in 2265. However, by the time of the Enterprise refit in The Motion Picture, Starfleet is decked out in a hideous ensemble of gray, white, brown, and beige jumpsuits.
 
The uniforms introduced in The Motion Picture couldn’t have lasted more than five years. We see them in the mid-2270’s for the first time, but by the time of Captain Bateson and the USS Bozeman’s disappearance (seen in The Next Generation “Cause and Effect”) in 2278, Starfleet has already–wisely–moved to the double-breasted red jacket uniform introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
 
By the time we get to the late 2360s, Starfleet once again plays uniform roulette during Deep Space Nine. So, Discovery’s uniform design doesn’t necessarily have to break canon, even without explanation. It could just be that Starfleet is in one of its once a century tizzies about uniform design. 
 
Perhaps after the Klingon War, Starfleet got rid of the Discovery uniform design to help distance themselves from the military image. The non-canon Star Trek: Discovery novel Desperate Hours states that the uniform design of Pike’s crew was only worn by crews of Constitution-class vessels. In any case, given Starfleet’s erratic history with uniforms, we can fit Discovery’s new threads into canon without too much thought.

Why Have We Never Heard of Michael Burnham Before?

Michael Burnham’s existence itself is quite the quandary. She’s an accomplished Starfleet officer, played a pivotal role in the first battle of the Federation-Klingon War, is one of Starfleet’s few mutineers, and is Sarek’s adopted daughter. For playing such a large role in the history of the Federation though, we’ve never heard her name spoken once in the entire 50 years of Star Trek.
 

Sarek and Spock Never Talk About Burnham?

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The Sarek and Spock connection Burnham has seemed like a lot bigger deal than it is. Spock would be the most likely candidate to have mentioned Burnham since he gets so much screen time throughout the years. However, we have to view the whole situation through Vulcan eyes. 
 
In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, we meet Sybok, Spock’s half-brother. Despite Spock’s close friendship with Kirk and McCoy, they’re startled to hear that he has a brother. Vulcans tend to be very closed when it comes to talking about their personal feelings, which it’s evident that Spock has quite a few concerning Sybok. Additionally, there was never a logical time before The Final Frontier for Spock to disclose Sybok’s existence, so he simply never did.
 
As for Sarek, the few times we see him on screen during The Original Series and The Next Generation, it was typically during intense situations. There was no time on screen for Sarek to delve into his personal life, and again, as a Vulcan to do so without prompting wouldn’t be logical.
 

Why Doesn’t Anyone in Starfleet Mention Burnham?

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As part of the catalyst that set off the war between the Federation and the Klingons in 2256, Burnham would definitely be at least a significant footnote in history even if she did nothing else. You would think at some time during the many dealings with the Klingon Empire we see on-screen, that Kirk, Picard, Sisko, or someone else would have name-dropped her.
 
However, it’s very likely that Michael Burnham may be such a pariah that by the time we make it to 2363 when The Next Generation begins, she’s been scrubbed from history. Even though what we see of her on Discovery is heroic, she’s still a mutineer, which is an incredibly rare thing in Starfleet. 
 
We also have to take into account the fact that Lorca is her captain. When the midseason closed out, Captain Lorca wasn’t popular with the Admiralty, and it seemed that he was destined to be removed from command. With us only halfway through the first season, who knows what unsettling things Lorca might do in the name of winning the Klingon War. He may go so far that his dishonor overshadows any redemption Burnham may be able to claim. In which case, it’s likely that he and his crew aren’t looked on fondly in the future.

Why Do We Never Hear of the Spore Drive Again?

In the same fashion as the issues with Burnham is the experimental Spore Drive installed on the USS Discovery. This may be the most advanced form of travel we’ve seen on a starship in the Star Trek universe, but it’s absent from any other production. With so promising a technology, you would think that even if the Spore Drive on Discovery ended up being a failure, Starfleet would have continued to pursue it. However, there is a precedent for a new propulsion technology being completely glazed over before in the series.
 

The Great Experiment, or Whatever Happened to Transwarp Drive?

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In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock we see the USS Excelsior for the first time. At this point, it’s an experimental design that is equipped with a new type of propulsion called transwarp drive—not to be confused with the technology the Borg use. During the movie, the Excelsior gives pursuit to the stolen Enterprise as it’s leaving Spacedock. The cocky commander of the Excelsior, Captain Styles, believes that there’s no way the Enterprise can outrun him. However, when Excelsior attempts to use its transwarp drive, it fizzles out, and the Enterprise escapes.
 
That’s the last we hear of a Federation transwarp drive. For the rest of the movies, and the TV series that follow, we only ever hear of regular old warp drive being used in Starfleet. The odd thing is that the transwarp drive aboard the Excelsior was sabotaged by Scotty, so there’s a chance it would have worked.
 
Whether or not transwarp technology worked and was just redubbed warp drive, or if it was scrapped entirely isn’t confirmed on-screen. Since Federation transwarp technology is rarely mentioned again (except for the Voyager episode "Threshold," which most wish was non-canon), it remains a mystery, like the Spore Drive.
 

The Federation Hates Eugenics

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In the Star Trek universe, a group of genetically engineered superhumans conquered most of the Earth in the Eugenics Wars. They eventually turned on each other, and the last of them, Khan Noonien Singh blasted off into space aboard a sleeper ship. Since the Eugenics Wars, the practice of genetic engineering has generally been frowned upon by humans. While the Federation uses gene treatments for curing or preventing certain illnesses, any genetic manipulation to enhance human capabilities is forbidden.
 
Eugenics being anathema in the Federation is the subject of a whole subplot concerning Dr. Julian Bashir in Deep Space Nine. Even though he’s one of Starfleet’s up and coming medical professionals, he has to keep the fact that his parents had genetic treatments performed on him to counteract a learning disability a secret.
 
Chief Engineer Stamets aboard the Discovery has become the core navigation unit of the Spore Drive. He was only able to do so by having a treatment that infused his DNA with the DNA of the Tardigrade that initially was used as the navigational core. It’s a fact that he and the crew of the Discovery have to keep hidden because of the Federation’s attitude towards genetic manipulation.
 
It’s possible that either the crew of the Discovery never reveal the secret behind the navigational matrix of the Spore Drive, or the Federation refuses to use or research technology that has genetic engineering as a component. Even after being genetically altered, Stamets suffers detrimental effects when plugged into the Spore Drive system, and it's possible that these may never be overcome. We may never hear about the Spore Drive in the future of Star Trek because it could just be one more failed technology.