“…this whole business of “canon” really originated with Gene’s errand boy. Gene liked giving people titles instead of raises, so the errand boy got named “archivist” and apparently it went to his head. Gene handed him the responsibility of answering all fan questions, silly or otherwise, and he apparently let that go to his head.” (David Gerrold ‘Interview about Star Trek The Animated Series’)
Online articles discussing ‘Star Trek Discovery’ comment sections are filled with assertions like the following: “Discovery isn’t Star Trek”, or “If you want to watch Star Trek then watch the Orville”. Now in a sense this debate is absurd. Obviously there is no Star Trek out there in the universe and hence no fact of the matter as to whether the Orville or Discovery is a member of the Star Trek Universe. The debate is usually framed interms of the spirit (what philosophers would call the essence) of the fictional Star Trek world.
A lot of Trek fans would trace the essence of Star Trek to the intentions of its creator Gene Roddenberry. However, as we all know a person’s intentions don’t remain static throughout his life, a person could hold a view x about y over a period of 5 years and hold different views about y over the next 5 years. So after that person has died can we say that view x or view z are his true intentions? In Roddenberry’s case we know that his views about Star Trek changed between The Original Series and The Next Generation (henceforth TOS and TNG). When doing TOS he just viewed it as a television show; but later in life he believed he was selling a way of life. Which is Roddenberry’s true intention? The earlier view and intentional states towards those views or the later ones?
An example of Roddenberry’s different intentional views about Star Trek can be seen in differences between TOS and TNG. In TOS there was conflict between the crew of the Enterprise which was missing from the first two seasons of TNG. In TOS crabby doctor McCoy and Mr Spock didn’t see eye to eye and had a lot of arguments over the years. But in the first two years of TNG such conflict was minimized by Roddenberry because it conflicted with his vision of the future where humans would have evolved beyond these petty disputes. Now if your argument is that true Trek is the Trek that corresponds to Roddenberry’s intentions then you need to decide which set of his intentions is the one that must be sacrosanct. There seems to be little way of deciding which of Roddenberry’s intentions are his true intentions and hence no way to use Roddenberry’s intentions to pick out the essence of Trek.
But there is a sense in which it doesn’t matter that we can’t pick out Roddenberry’s true intentions re-Trek philosophy. Virtually all Star Trek fans would argue that both TOS and TNG are true Trek despite the divergent philosophies. This divergence disappeared once Roddenberry died and TNG writers allowed tensions between the characters in TNG. Yet very few people would argue that TNG isn’t true Trek today.
There are possible points of disagreement as to whether TOS or TNG are both Star Trek. But it is safe to say that most fans would agree that they are. Few debate the issue today and would include both TOS and TNG in the cannon. Most fans would agree that DS9 is Trek; but there is less consensus that it belongs there than there is with TNG. Why? Well a number of reasons. Firstly anybody who has watched DS9 will know that is gritty. TNG tried to be more confrontational than it was in its first two seasons, but overall it portrayed humans in a fairly utopian light. DS9 on the other hand portrayed humanity in a darker way than TNG did. Thus in an episode of DS9 called ‘Hard Time’ Chief of Operations Miles O Brien tries to return to normal life after a period of incarceration. The episode culminates with O Brien confessing to (virtually) murdering his cell mate, while incarcerated. O Brien makes the following point: “we in the federation think we are so great and evolved; but take away our creature comforts for a while and we are no different from the Cardassians or the Klingons”. In a later episode ‘In Pale Moonlight’ the Captain of DS9 conspires to trick the Romulans into joining the Dominion-Federation war. The trick results in a Romulan ambassador being murdered. At the end of the episode Sisko notes that the murder had a high moral price but that the price was worth paying if it helped win the war. In general DS9 blurred the boundaries between the humans and the aliens much more than either TNG or TOS did. DS9 gave us the infamous Section 31, a covert federation intelligence agency which engages in assassinations, destroying of enemy technology, destabilization of governments etc. The introduction of Section 31 into DS9 split a lot of Star Trek fans. A lot of people believed that Section 31 betrayed Roddenberry’s utopian ideals. For these Star Trek fans DS9 had betrayed a key factor that is essential for something to be Trek; viewing the future of humanity as a utopia where we moved beyond our baser instincts.
But the blurring of the boundaries between humans and alien (bad guys) wasn’t the only reason that DS9 is considered less Trek than TNG. Another reason is the origin of DS9. As every nerd knows the classic Scfi show Babylon 5 was originally pitched to Paramount. As folklore has it Paramount gave Babylon 5 a hard pass. They thought it was too much money to create a new franchise. But a clever executive hit upon the idea “we own this Star Trek show; what if we just make Babylon 5 a part of the universe?”. So if you believe the folklore; DS9 was just another show stolen and transplanted into the Trek Universe. Then you have to dismiss it as a Trek show. In his ‘Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5: Remarkably Similar or Similarly Remarkable’ Rich Handley noted a lot of similarities between the two shows. (1) Both were set on space stations with single digit names, (2) Both stations were used to foster peace between former enemies, (3) both were administered by an earth government but were located outside of earth’s territory, (4) both stations had massive weapons upgrade at the midpoint of the shows, and formed an alliance with former enemies to win a battle against a new foe, (5) both shows centred on a deeply religious people who were formerly enslaved and were trying to assert themselves now, (6) Both shows features god like entities who were worshiped by less advanced races, (7) Both shows had a shadow department of earths main government (section 31, and bureau 13), (8) Both shows’ pilots featured an alien shape shifter in its first episode. Handley goes on to point out many more similarities between the shows, which we don’t need to go into here. The point is that for many fans DS9 was not really Trek, as it was basically a rip off of another show and it featured a much more dystopian philosophy than a typical Star Trek does. For these reasons a minority of Star Trek fans dismiss DS9 as not true Trek.
But his move has a price. There are causal interactions between the shows. The vast vast majority of Trek fans (maybe 95 percent of fans) will admit that TOS, TNG, and Voyager are in the Trek Universe. But whether they like it or not there have been causal interactions between the characters in those shows and in DS9. Piccard was in DS9 and played a role in the psychological development of the star of DS9 (Captain Sisko) life. Characters from Voyager appeared briefly in the DS9 universe. DS9 had characters who were in TNG; O Brien, and Worf. Major Kera was originally supposed to be a character from TNG Ro Laren, but when the actor who played Laren turned down the role a new character was created instead. DS9 even had an episode set in TOS where one of the characters (who was also in TNG), commented on the different appearance of the Klingons in TOS, TNG, DS9. Now given these causal interactions between the characters, between the shows it is hard for a fan of TOS and TNG to deny a place for DS9 in the cannon. So even though there are a few hold outs most Trek Fans are on board with DS9 as cannon despite some misgivings about both its underlying philosophy and its alleged nefarious origins.
Predictably as we move further from the original series people diverged further. Star Trek (by Trek here I speak of the company not the essence of the word) has four phases (1) TOS, (2) TNG, DS9, Voyager, (3) Enterprise (4) Discovery, New Picard Series etc. Discovery was explicitly created to be a part of the Trek Universe it was meant to be a prequel to TOS. Now there is very little debate re the first two phases (except DS9). The show Enterprise was to some degree more Trek than DS9, it wasn’t an idea taken from another series co-opted for Trek. It was created and conceived by Trek people, and they worked their asses off to match the facts of the Trek Universe (conceived as TOS, TNG, DS9, VOYAGER).
Now most fans of Trek are ambivalent about Enterprise, but they grudgingly accept it as a member of the universe. They just don’t like the show and pretend it didn’t exist (because it was garbage). Ok so given all this history we have a set of shows (TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise) which 80 percent of fans would agree are members of the Trek Universe. DS9 is the most controversial member of the list of cannon shows but the vast majority of fans would even accept that it is a member of the Trek Universe. With the invention of Discovery things changed. Here again I am pulling numbers out of my ass. But I would think that at least 50 percent of fans argue that Discovery isn’t Trek. In fact these people argue that ‘The Orwell’ is the true heir of Trek.
The owners of Trek define anything as cannon that is either one of their TV shows or one of their films. Thus on their view books written about the show, comics etc are non cannon. By this criterion Discovery is cannon and the Orville being a different franchise isn’t. But whatever the pronouncements of the owners of Trek make; fans will argue the point and a lot of them disagree with the owners pronouncements.
Some fans argue that despite what the current owners may declare about cannon the real way to decide the issue is to go to Roddenberry’s intentions. As we saw above this approach has its problems as Roddenberry being human had shifting intentions throughout his life time. It is impossible to distil essence of Roddenberry’s intentions re- the Star Trek universe. Furthermore, Roddenberry had a cavalier attitude based on his particular likes or dislikes on the day. So, for example, because he recognised that the conflict between the characters on board the enterprise in TOS conflicted with his new philosophy in TNG, Roddenberry at one point declared that TOS wasn’t cannon (Star Trek Cannon Wiki). It would be a hard pill for a Trek fundamentalist to have to follow Roddenberry in this respect and deny that TOS was real Trek.
Roddenberry’s intentions seem too arbitrary to fix the cannon of Star Trek. Similar considerations apply to the decisions of the people who own the legal rights of Star Trek. They can legally define anything they want as Star Trek. But such definitions amount to nothing more than stipulations as to what should or should not count as Star Trek. Such stipulations have no real normative force. If the company which owns Star Trek decides to buy the rights of Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’, and calls it ‘Star Trek Tidying up’, but in no way connects it with the Star Trek universe very few people would consider it Star Trek cannon no matter what the executives claim.
Based on Roddenberry’s intentions it is difficult to know how he would have viewed The Orwell and Discovery. Though given Roddenberry’s utopian leanings it is probable that he would have considered The Orwell closer to the spirit of Star Trek than Discovery is. The Orwell is basically intended to be a rip off of TNG written to be a bit more comedic than TNG. It shares a similar structure to TNG. Each episode is a self contained story where the characters meet challenges and overcome them in a single story arc of one episode. There are aliens and androids in the show who serve as outsiders who help us look at humanity in a new light. The heroes of the show work according to enlightened rules, which focus on respecting the autonomy of other cultures. They must sometimes bend these enlightened rules but they do so for typically noble reasons. It is hard to watch the show and not be reminded of the TNG.
Discovery is very different in tone and execution than any of the previous Trek shows. In tone it is closest to DS9 because of its much darker take on humanities nature in the future. However, it is much darker than DS9, while DS9 had dark episodes; these episodes were the exception to the general Trek utopian fare. In Discovery, dark episodes are the rule. Furthermore, the structure of the show was changed for Discovery. While all of the previous Star Treks were episodic in nature; Discovery is serialized. Each episode is a link in an overall story arc that spanned the entire season.
However, it wasn’t just Discoveries serialized nature, and its darker tone that led to fans dismissing as not really Trek. Discovery was sold as a prequel to Star Trek set prior to TOS. However, Discovery radically re-designed one of the main species ‘The Klingons’, so that they didn’t even resemble what Klingons originally looked like. Discovery had technology which seemed inconsistent with other Trek shows. Given Discoveries, different tone, different structure, different technology, etc to a lot of fans it just didn’t feel like Trek. The Orwell, on the other hand, was strangely familiar.
Hence you get Trek fans shouting in forums ‘DISCOVERY ISN’T REAL TREK’, or ‘THE ORWELL IS THE REAL TREK SHOW’. These people of course face the same problems that were faced by people who argue that DS9 isn’t real Trek. Discovery has causal interaction with the other Trek series; Spock, Sarek, and Amanda are characters who were in TOS, TNG, and Discovery. Despite the complaints of Trek fans Discovery will be held as cannon by the Trek franchise and it will continue to intermingle with the characters and themes from other Trek shows and films.
A typical response of the Trek fundamentalist will be to say that they don’t care what the execs do; they are not going to view Discovery as real Trek. The reasons that are typically given to justify those stances are the ones I outlined above. However, these reasons don’t really stand up to critical scrutiny. So, for example, it is true that the Klingons in Discovery look very different than the Klingons we are used to seeing on Trek. But the same could be said about the Klingons in TOS these Klingons were barely distinguishable from humans. It was only in the Star Trek movies that we see the heavily rigged brows of the Klingons that we are familiar with today. TNG, DS9 and Voyager all followed the movies in the way they designed the Klingons. So if a person wanted to argue that change in appearance of Klingons is the reason that Discovery isn’t Trek, then if they are reasoning consistently they will have to argue that all shows (and movies) except TOS aren’t cannon Trek. This is a pretty desperate move but it can be avoided by arguing TOS like Discovery isn’t Trek. It is doubtful any Trek Fundamentalist would place so much weight on the appearance of the Klingons. They would probably just argue that the look of Klingons in Discovery is just a mild irritant and not a reason to block it from being cannon.
A more common reason to doubt whether Discovery is cannon is to argue that its radically different tone doesn’t fit with the Trek universe. But again this reasoning is hard to sustain. The tone of DS9 was much darker than either TOS or TNG. The tone of TOS was different from the early seasons of TNG. So a different tone in the shows shouldn’t necessarily be a justified reason to push something out of the cannon. Now our fundamentalist could argue that the other shows may have had a somewhat different tone from each other at times but the difference was relatively small. Whereas the difference between Discovery and other Treks is very large; so large that this rules out it being considered real Trek. If our fundamentalist used this argument they would need to say how large the gap between a TV show and Trek cannon must be before we can say they don’t belong together. However no such criterion has ever been supplied.
The other piece of evidence that is offered to demonstrate that Discovery isn’t Trek is the massive continuity errors that exist between Discovery and the other Trek shows. However, this argument doesn’t really work either as these continuity errors also exist between all of the various different Trek shows; the Q continuum cannot reproduce in TNG but can in Voyager, First contact with the Borg was supposed to have occurred in TNG as a result of Q’s intervention, but the Borg are in the prequel Enterprise, and in Voyager we are told of humans encountering the Borg years before first contact was supposed to have occurred. In TNG Scotty asks about Kirks health but in ‘Generations’ we are shown Scotty witnessing Kirks death. There are countless other continuity errors between the various shows and films so it would be arbitrary to exclude Discovery as real Trek because of continuity errors but give the other shows a free pass.
In all of these debates about whether Discovery is real Trek or not it isn’t it is never made clear what could possibly count as an answer. The execs just stipulate what is or isn’t cannon as it suits their interests. While the fans seem to just rely on lose intuitions about what is or isn’t cannon. From a metaphysical perspective there seems to be no sensible way of making the distinction.
Since at least the time of Plato over two thousand years ago philosophers have been active in the search for the essence of our various different concepts such as Justice, Truth, etc. While Plato’s famous student Aristotle was sceptical about a lot of Plato’s philosophy he accepted the position that our concepts are like containers with which something was either a member of or wasn’t a member of. This view about the nature of concepts has been implicitly accepted by most scientists and philosophers over the last two thousand years.
However in the middle of the twentieth century Aristotle’s concept of concept came under pressure by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that we should view concepts interms of family resemblances:
“Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to all of them? Don’t say: “they must have something in common, or they would not be called games”- but look and see whether they have anything common to all of them-for if you look at them, you won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!-look, for example, at board games, with their various affinities. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all entertaining? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between the players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of singing and dancing games; here we have the element of entertainment, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many other groups of games in the same way, can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the upshot of these considerations is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: similarities in the large and the small.” (Wittgenstein ‘Philosophical Investigations p. 36)
This understanding of the nature of concepts has been empirically supported over the last 70 years with the work of Lakoff 1987, Hofstadter 2016 etc. And adopting this perspective allows the us to dismiss the type of debates that occur in internet forums. There is no such thing as Star Trek cannon. Just a series of stories held together by shared themes, and a roughly drawn shared history which is somewhat inconsistent at places. Instead of saying ‘Discovery is not Trek’, a better thing to say would be ‘Discovery doesn’t share most of the key features that I liked in the other trek series; in many ways The Orville resembles the Trek shows I liked more than Discovery’. This type of language may make online debates less vicious because people will no longer think that they are arguing for the essence of Trek. Rather they are just noting what series of properties within the various loosely connected series of shows and films appeals to them.
So there you have it. One Wittgenstein quote and I have brokered world peace between warring Trek Factions. I will be expecting my Nobel Prize in the post anytime soon 😀
 DS9 was a bit of a hybrid. While technically it was episodic; the Dominion war in the last few seasons was kind of serialized.