When the Starship Enterprise launched on its maiden voyage on September 8, 1966, it launched without precedent, without canon, and without expectations (except perhaps from Gene Roddenberry and the network executives). Star Trek fulfilled its mission to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Until a decade after its cancelation Star Trek: The Motion Picture retreaded a classic episode starring an earth probe that gains intelligence during its long voyage out and back. But much of the future of Star Trek remained original, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, to Deep Space Nine, to Voyager. All of those shows boldly went.
And then Enterprise. Then the J.J. Abrams films. Then Discovery. Then Lower Decks. Then Picard. Then Strange New Worlds. Names and places associated with the original Star Trek were brought back, recycled, and slightly remixed, often explicitly or implicitly to play to the fan base, to offer what has become known as fan service like a tether around the Enterprise’s nacelles.
Since Enterprise, though I know some will argue, Star Trek has been stuck orbiting itself. Even Discovery’s time leap, beyond the highly implausible big bads of all its seasons, remains firmly tractor beams to the Star Trek original timeline. Even when it trashes it by firing photon torpedoes into any canon that remains.
What we haven’t seen is a new movie or series that uses a different ship, to tell peripheral or future stories that leverage the Star Trek universe without the need for connections to the members of any of the series, except perhaps in passing like, “Did you hear the Enterprise met Apollo?” or “I hope we don’t meet any Tholians or Gorns.” (And yes, I know).
And while Star Trek: Strange New Worlds thankfully returns to the episodic formula that allows for real adventure and exploration, it still does so with a captain and a starship that we know perhaps too well. Lower Decks better than any other outing aligns with this suggestion, but its solid tongue, sometimes in an actual cheek or elsewhere, remains a one-off—but a one-off pointed in the right direction for the franchise.
Imagine Strange New Worlds as the story of the Federation’s Vulcan crewed starship Intrepid, or the Exeter-B, or some other ship, say the Neil deGrasse Tyson that reinvents the cosmos without breaking the past as Enterprise did with an incursion to Earth by the Xindi, a race no one in Kirk’s time ever mentions. Ever. Let audiences see what happens in the microcosm of a mission to survey a new planet, or to engage in first contact (which BTW, can run over multiple episodes because it probably would, but make it a working thing, not THE thing). Develop stories that explore the vastness of the universe through the eyes of the diversity of entry points that exist in that universe.
And that brings me to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Well, almost. Let me just point out literature. Yes, just literature. Look at all the amazing stories that exist on Earth that have nothing to do with each other. Sure, there are trilogies and longer series, but those punctuate a universe of hundreds of millions of words, pages, and characters that have absolutely nothing in common save their humanity (or their human writer in the case of science fiction or fantasy).
Star Wars chose a single entry point, the family named Skywalker and built all of the peripheral stories around that family. Like Star Trek, the original Star Wars, while paying homage to old serials, launches characters into a universe that no one knows. But now it can’t escape its own legacy.
The original Star Wars, like Star Trek, acts as a creative gravity well around which all the properties orbit, expanding mostly by telling slightly adjacent stories or filling in blanks. The problem is we all know where those narratives end up. The storytellers can’t get out of the way of their own fandom to create new narratives, on planets we don’t know, in situations, we haven’t seen, with characters we haven’t met.
Of course, I am watching Obi-Wan Kenobi. But I don’t care as much, I think, as Disney wants me to. I know the story of Luke and Leia. I know a lot about Obi-Wan from the prequels and the animated outings. I don’t need to know more, about his connection with Leia as a child or his contentious overseeing of young Luke whom he can approach no closer than the length of gaderffii. But Obi-Wan Kenobi presents new Star Wars, and fans will watch it because even bad Star Wars is better than most other viewing options.
To the point of reinvention, George Lucas did that in the first Star Wars movie—not Episode IV but Episode I. Audiences were introduced to new planets, and new species—some of that continued through the first three movies. Clunky dialog and overly curated production aside, Lucas created new worlds—but those worlds were, alas, connected to the overall Skywalker narrative and led to The Return of the Jedi at the time. Regardless of the side trips, we already knew where the story was taking us.
The recent shows from Disney don’t point a camera at the galaxy far far away and peer in on what it sees. They point a camera at people and things we know to deepen, to retcon, to embellish, but not to surprise or introduce.
The one exception is The Mandalorian and that success largely falls upon Grogu’s shoulders, the not-Yoda child who does manage to dazzle. The Book of Boba Fett, which purported to be The Godfather in Space, offered none of the Godfather’s drama or subtly—the origin story dragged on like an injured Bantha dragging its tale across Tatooine until the producers decided the show was better replaced mid-season by an abbreviated The Mandalorian run with Boba relegated to a largely “appearing as” role.
Obi-Wan Kenobi has a Star Trek problem. It’s trying to create excitement and intrigue like an old t-shirt, rediscovered at the back of the closet—so worn that the owner no longer cares where it came from it but still holds enough fond memories that it can’t be thrown away.
Star Trek keeps taking us to the vintage store and asks us to accept old t-shirts as new again, and so too does the Star Wars franchise. At least Star Wars was always comfortable with the battle-damaged look and wears better than some of the recent Trek outings that color so far outside the lines that the universe appears like a surreal version of the familiar. Obi-Wan Kenobi on the other hand feels too comfortable as it colors in the lines on pages we never felt like we needed to return to, especially in a book that sat in the darkness at the top of the closet for so many years.
- Included with Disney+