Star Trek: Discovery recently had its curtain pulled back with crucial details dropped at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. The mysterious return of the Star Trek franchise to the small screen – headed by former Star Trek: Voyager producer and eventual producer of Heroes and Hannibal Bryan Fuller – is set as the launch centerpiece of streaming service CBS All Access in January 2017 and has been the focus of burning questions for inquisitive fans.
However, of all the revelations, the idea that its protagonist will not be the titular ship's captain but, rather, a human female “Lieutenant Commander with caveats” has been a dominant narrative. Given this and other tidbits, I’m going to risk donning my tinfoil hat to theorize something: This might actually be a character originally portrayed by the late First Lady of Star Trek Majel Barrett Roddenberry.
I’m not talking about Nurse Chapel or Lwaxana Troi, folks. Hardcore Trekkies might know where I’m going with this. This character was even recently name-dropped in The History Channel’s 50 Years of Star Trek special and would have been one of television’s most important female characters had her role in the original pilot “The Cage” continued. Yes, I’m talking about the ORIGINAL first officer of the USS Enterprise, the human female lieutenant simply known as “Number One” (the one not played by Jonathan Frakes).
One of the most prominent Discovery questions that left fans positively panicky was finally answered at the TCAs with the revelation that the series will take place in the “Prime” universe of the existing television shows, rather than the current “Kelvin” universe of the film series launched by J.J. Abrams. Thus, our theory gets its most basic shred of evidence.
While the idea of treading into canonical territory that’s so vastly charted might limit the scope of Fuller’s stories, it also allows the series access to a more prominent sandbox. The opening event of 2009’s Star Trek when Nero went back in time to 2233 using his advanced 24th century Romulan mining ship to wreak havoc, skewing the timeline into a tangent (to borrow a term from Dr. Emmett Brown), did NOT happen in the universe of Discovery. This fact adheres our speculation to acknowledged show canon, helpfully validating what limited intel we know about Number One’s path.
Within the Prime continuity, Discovery will be set, “about 10 years” before the five-year mission of The Original Series, which ran its course from the year 2265 to 2270. This leads us to another important era that’s conveniently situated during that time period with the events of Star Trek's original pilot “The Cage,” where segments of the crew rocked droopy beige turtlenecks and read scan reports off perforated paper spit out by trilling, light-blinking computers.
The events of the episode were later introduced canonically in “The Menagerie Parts I and II,” retconned as taking place in 2254; 11 years before the commencement of Kirk’s Enterprise command. During that era, the ship was under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) and Number One was seen as his second in command.
The idea that Discovery presumably starts approximately a year after “The Cage” is crucial, since it gives Number One time to complete the only assignment we ever knew she had as Enterprise first officer to Pike. Moreover, it also gives her one whole year to get promoted ("with caveats,") from her episode-acknowledged rank of lieutenant to lieutenant commander, fulfilling Fuller’s description of the Discovery protagonist. We’ll talk more about the subject of Number One’s rank later.
Here’s where it gets interesting. One notable detail of Fuller’s TCA revelations explains that an “incident” or “event” previously referenced in Star Trek history will be told though the eyes of the mysterious Discovery protagonist. Historical Star Trek events like the Kobayashi Maru, the Romulan War, or even the formation of Starfleet’s clandestine black ops group Section 31 (depicted on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,) were immediately discounted.
Consequently, we could use the confirmed time period to speculate that said incident might refer to the (intended) original incident of the entire Star Trek mythos in which a tragic ambush of USS Enterprise crew on Rigel VII cost the lives of three crew members, leaving seven (including Spock,) injured. That fresh emotional wound left Captain Pike tortured and riddled with guilt in the beginning of the episode. Relevantly, in “The Cage,” Number One was…well, Pike’s number one, serving as first officer. With that in mind, we could construe that the “incident” in Fuller’s description might see a revisiting of the Rigel VII tragedy – previously seen only as a Talosian illusion – through Number One’s eyes, revealing a possibly poignant personal role in the events.
It would be almost akin to Sisko’s character-establishing, tragic point-of-view flashback to Starfleet’s Wolf 359 battle with the Borg that kicked off Deep Space Nine.
As mentioned, Number One’s acknowledged rank of lieutenant linearly aligns “The Cage” with the launch of Discovery. However, her low rank of lieutenant for a first officer could also imply that her run as the Enterprise's "Number One" was temporary.
Conventionally, the second-in-command of a Starfleet ship holds the rank of commander – at minimum, lieutenant commander, as Spock initially was as Kirk’s first officer. Was Number One so overwhelmingly skilled at her job that higher-ranked personnel ceded the position to her? Granted, that might be possible, since even the Talosians said she possessed, “exceptional intelligence and rationality.” However, it’s also possible that she was covering for a (hypothetical) first officer who was one of the three killed in the Rigel VII incident. Keep in mind that in “The Cage,” the Enterprise – fresh from Rigel – was on their way to Vega colony for care and debriefing before they were diverted to Talos IV.
Why is this important, you may ask? Well, because it builds the case that, besides having matching attributes to the Discovery protagonist, Number One’s rank-unconventional first officer status appeared tenuous enough to fuel the narrative that she could subsequently transfer over to the USS Discovery. This is further boosted by the fact that the Talosians also revealed that she hid romantic feelings for Pike; something that’s best remedied with a clean break.
I should reiterate that this is just a fun little theory and no one involved with Star Trek: Discovery has even remotely stated anything that confirms this narrative about Number One.
Regardless, bringing Number One to life through a new actress on a new show would be a major nod to longtime Trekkies. It would honor both the late Majel Barrett Roddenberry (who passed away back in December 2008,) and the late creator, himself, Gene Roddenberry, who cast his wife for not only this way-back role, but as the Spock-enamored Nurse Christine Chapel on The Original Series, the scene-stealing Lwaxana Troi in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and as the ship’s computers on ALL the shows, including the 2009 J.J. Abrams Star Trek film.
Number One has her own subset of fans – just run a YouTube search when you have the time. While other forgettable characters from “The Cage” similarly didn’t make the cut to the William Shatner-starring sophomore pilot - like Dr. Philip Boyce and Yeoman J.M. Colt - Number One represented the earliest onscreen embodiment of Rodenberry’s vision of the future: a woman as first officer of a ship riding the cosmos on which an alien with pointy ears also serves. What could be more poetic than seeing that character fully realized?
While I could be DEAD WRONG on this (admittedly nerdy) theory, it would be undeniably cool to see the nascent history of Star Trek attributed in such a way on Discovery. In the very least, I hope it’s provided some food for thought.