Fair warning – this post is going deep into Geek territory. If you’re not into Star Trek, you can probably safely skip this. This is a re-edit of a piece I wrote on Medium a few years ago. That said… here we go.
Late in 2017, the sixth major Star Trek TV series – Star Trek: Discovery – launched. And it was… fine. Like the rest of J.J. Abrams’ Trek storylines, it is set in the pre-TOS timeline. The way Viacom/CBS has pretty much abandoned “modern” Star Trek (that is, the entire post-TNG universe) has long baffled me. ST: Voyager wrapped up in 2001 and we had the “Nemesis” film in 2002, but since then, it’s just been the (relatively) short-lived “Enterprise” series and Abrams’ line of canon-immolating films set in the pre-Kirk era. In other words, almost as much time has passed since the last TNG-universe Trek content as between the end of TOS and the launch of ST:TNG (18 years).
This has always struck me as an awfully weird choice.
Like other millennials and Gen-Xers, I grew up on TNG, DS9 and Voyager. That’s canon. Enterprise, Discovery, and all the Abrams films just feel like retreading so much old ground, and I’m always irked by big plot departures they’re forced to take. (Let’s not discuss blowing up Vulcan.) In the last 16 years since Nemesis, there’s been nothing new built upon the post-TNG universe. So… here’s a pitch.
Star Trek: Frontier
The year is 2410, a little over thirty years since the return of Voyager to Earth. Since the Dominion War fell silent, the Alpha Quadrant has largely remained at peace. A new generation with no memory of a quadrant at war now operates, staffs and defends the quadrant’s Great Powers, led by a graying officer corps which has never forgotten.
All is quiet, it seems… but unease lurks not far below the surface. Political intrigue pervades the modern Federation. There are abrupt retirements and unusual maneuvering in Starfleet’s senior leadership. A sense of apathy and indifference now pervades Federation society, and signs of decline are easy to see.
Setting the scene: The Federation
Today, Starfleet Academy’s graduating cadets read about the Federation’s enemies in history books. Over time, the Federation Council has gradually adjusted Starfleet’s mission for new realities — more time, ships and resources are now devoted to humanitarian support, scientific research, policing minor squabbles along the Federation border, and even entertainment like ship parades and racing. A joke at the Academy now is that Starfleet is the quadrant’s premier VIP escort fleet. Application rates to the Academy are down sharply, and admissions standards have quietly been lowered to continue staffing the fleet.
Many of the 24th century’s major threats now seem antiquated and remote. Instead, holonovels, dom-jot and parrises squares, violent sporting events, trade and minor quibbles between Federation member worlds dominate the public attention. Billions of Federation civilians now regularly tune in to watch a remarkably, and controversially, violent Nausican gladiatorial series, while the Daystrom Institute is forced to relocate to a smaller venue for its annual conference, because attendance has declined. Older Starfleet officers grumble about the soft, untried and unprepared new Academy classes. Academy instructors worry that no new records in ship engineering, flight speeds or tactical simulations have been broken in over a decade. Starfleet’s original spirit of exploration has gradually dimmed.
Society on the fashionable worlds of the Federation now tilts toward indolence and hedonism, as the quadrant’s long peace leads many to wonder whether Starfleet’s mission of exploration, let alone defense, is still truly needed.
In 2410, as ST: Frontier opens, Andoria, one of the four founding members of the United Federation of Planets, gives notice to the Federation Council of its intention to withdraw from the UFP. It will be the first UFP member to ever do so. Rumors abound about why, and that Andoria’s move may be a sign of things to come.
The Alpha Quadrant
No one has heard from the Borg since Voyager’s dramatic return to Earth in 2378. It is assumed that the collective was devastated by the neurolytic pathogen that disrupted the hivemind’s link (VOY: “Endgame”), and without the transwarp hub lattice, the Borg are unable to travel easily throughout the galaxy. The question of the ethics of using such a bioweapon to destroy the Borg collective is now a popular, and heated, debate in elite Federation circles.
The Cardassian Union never recovered following the Battle of Cardassia in the last days of the Dominion War, when nearly a billion were killed in the Dominion’s final attempt at genocide. The Union has now devolved into a hodgepodge of independent planet-fiefdoms and single-system states, which constantly skirmish between themselves over resources and old grudges. No leader has been able to unify the Cardassian people since the destruction of the Union, and the Obsidian Order has seemingly disappeared altogether…
Likewise, the Romulan Star Empire has receded from the stage. Following the supernova that destroyed Romulus in 2387 (ST: Nemesis), the Romulan government has been reconstituted elsewhere in Romulan space — though no one knows where. The Romulans have retreated once again into near-complete isolation from the rest of the quadrant behind the Neutral Zone, which remains legally extant.
Besides the Federation, the only great Alpha Quadrant power still intact is the Klingon Empire. The Klingon-Federation peace treaty has endured, and while some wariness lingers, the Klingons’ attention has been focused more on reclaiming territory lost to the Cardassians during the Dominion War and avenging honor feuds against the Breen. Klingon attack squadrons still raid, provoke and avenge losses against various ragtag Cardassian planet-states in a semi-permanent state of low-level hostilities.
The Breen returned to reclusive, non-aligned status after their defeat in the Dominion War. Hostilities occasionally flare up between Breen and Qo’noS, but neither side has seemed interested in escalating into full-out war. The Breen are suspected of maintaining a high level of military readiness and advanced technological capabilities. A monument to the Breen attack on Earth now stands in San Francisco.
The Dominion remains in power in the Gamma Quadrant, but has remained in its former territory, per the instruments of surrender. Diplomatic relations are conducted via a permanent Vorta presence on Deep Space Nine, but otherwise, relations have remained icy. There are rumors that the Dominion itself is in a state of flux, with the Founders — as a result of Odo’s return and influence — slowly changing the nature of their rule towards solids. Alpha Quadrant powers are allowed unfettered, peaceful access to Gamma Quadrant space.
The ship: U.S.S. Frontier
For the first time in many years, Starfleet has assigned a new mission of exploration into the outer fringes of Alpha Quadrant space. The “Frontier Mission,” which departs from Deep Space Nine, is tasked with exploring the largely unknown, ungoverned reaches of previously Cardassian territory bordering the Gamma Quadrant, and beyond. The fringes of this region of space were once controlled by the Cardassian Union, but since its demise, are now considered no-man’s-land. Beyond Cardassian territory, one crosses shortly into the Gamma Quadrant proper, beyond which almost nothing is known for nearly 20,000 light years between there and the wormhole’s terminus.
This time, no fancy new starship like the famous Enterprise series is built, as the Utopia Planetia shipyards are in disrepair and no longer capable of such grand construction without lengthy retooling. (Indeed, they have lain dormant for some time.) Instead, an Archer-class cruiser, a configuration almost twenty years old, is retrofitted with updated technology, like sensors, propulsion and weaponry. Its name is the U.S.S. Frontier. It is not designed for long-term self-sufficiency in deep space, and is expected to rendezvous with Federation outposts and friendly ports from time to time. (Much like the Enterprise did in TNG.)
Starfleet’s first mission of deep space exploration in a decade or more does not attract the same number of applicants from the Academy past missions have. Many cadets, who joined Starfleet in search of comfortable, uncomplicated jobs, prefer to stay closer to the major, cosmopolitan Federation planets and posture themselves for later opportunities after their tours of duty. Thus, the mission receives a motley complement of fresh officers: some oddballs who are still inspired by the traditional vision of exploration Starfleet embodied; some whose past indiscretions with the law didn’t give them any choice; and a few who expect their family’s name or pedigree will give them an easy tour and special privileges with the CO.
I am mostly agnostic as to the crew’s makeup and demographics. As always, there should be a good mix of genders, ethnicities and species between them.
- CO: An older, seasoned veteran of the Dominion War, s/he is deeply committed to the ideals of Starfleet and the Federation, and to the values of duty and honor. S/he recognizes the former’s slow decline for what it is, and is inwardly conflicted on how to oppose it, even becoming a bit cynical. For that reason, s/he has privately resolved this to be their last mission in Starfleet. In the course of this mission, the CO will be confronted with an impossible choice: to honor their oath to the Federation, or obey orders they know to be wrong.
- XO: An upwardly mobile career officer, the XO had hoped to make their own command, but reluctantly agreed to the Frontier post as a stepping stone. S/he has served on Starfleet vessels for almost twenty years, and considers him/herself experienced — but has never been in combat. S/he originally resents the CO for getting the command over him/her, but slowly learns to respect them, and realizes how much s/he still has to learn.
- Helm/Engineering/Tactical/Ops/Medical: standard senior staff roles, some filled with fresh Academy graduates, and some transfers from other ships. I would eschew very exotic species choices in lieu of a mix of backgrounds, not all of whom get along
- Starfleet Diplomatic Liaison: this is a new position created for missions exploring uncharted space who are likely to make first contact with unknown species; it is also the perfect position for a Starfleet Command mole. Like a Seska or BSG’s Gaius Baltar, the audience does not like this character — s/he is duplicitous and untrustworthy. But slowly, s/he is forced to grapple with the consequences of their choices to undermine the Frontier’s command. S/he finally must choose which side they really stand on.
- Ensigns: In this series, unlike previous ones, the audience is introduced to several ensigns fresh from the Academy, who have limited exposure/interaction with the senior staff. We see their lives “below decks” (similar to the much-loved “Lower Decks” episode of TNG), as they carry out the commands of the senior staff, wrestle with their own allegiances and concerns, and perhaps even romantic lives. Some of these “red shirts” can probably be killed off, too.
There are numerous levels of plotlines at work at any given time.
Episode-scale: The streaming format allows for some classic ST “alien-of-the-week” and “space oddity” episodes, but by releasing whole seasons at once, it also permits building longer, season-long plot arcs. The Frontier must negotiate and maneuver through a complex landscape of post-empire warlords and unknown space, but also run special errands for Starfleet from time to time.
Season: the streaming format is ideal for telling stories with multiple threads and subplots with deep character development. 12 episodes of 45 minutes each is essentially a 9-hour-long movie. This can allow for recurring minor characters suited, for example, to a particular season’s plot arc. Here are a couple of example storylines that almost write themselves:
- After departing DS9, the Frontier navigates the remote Cardassian hinterlands, which are rife with internecine warfare, dire poverty, refugees and need, lingering hostility to the Federation and even some subjugated species. A demagogic leader from a poor colony gains support, with great ambitions of reconstituting the Cardassian Union. (Opportunities for Obsidian Order plotlines are obvious.)
- Renegade Federation archeologists (think Vash), who ventured into the near-Gamma Quadrant years ago, make contact with the Frontier to report new findings.
- The Frontier discovers the homeworld of the Hur’q, the mysterious, now-extinct Gamma Quadrant species that overran the Klingon homeworld over a thousand years ago. Ancient Klingon artifacts are recovered, triggering delicate, and dangerous, negotiations with the Klingon Empire.
- Responding to a weak distress call, the Frontier discovers an escape pod in a foreign region of space, with Commandant Tuvok, Head of Starfleet Intelligence, inside. They learn that he has been quietly convicted in abstentia of treason under “classified” circumstances. The crew of the Frontier must help Tuvok uncover a far-reaching plot within Starfleet, with his friend, the retired Admiral Janeway, and choose between duty and their oath to the Federation
Series: While Frontier does not have a singular plot arc in the sense of VOY (or a series like BSG), its key themes are also better crystallized than TNG, DS9 or ENT: they are “explore unknown space” and “save the Federation.”
Chief villains in this series could be known hostile aliens: I would like to see more done with reintroduced powers like the Breen, pirate Cardassians, renegade Jem Hadar/Vorta/Founders, or even someone relatively unexplored, like the Gorn or Tholians. But in addition, we now also add villainous Star Fleet leadership. There should be at least a few arch-villains in Starfleet who the audience is taken to understand do not have the Federation’s best interests in mind. (Founder plant? Species 8472? Power-hungry opportunists?)
Section 31 is an obvious component to the “save the Federation” plot arc. While not known for above-board tactics, the agency’s stated goal is to protect the Federation by whatever means necessary. They know there are duplicitous forces at work within Starfleet, and will be key allies in saving the Federation from itself.
Broadly, this series works because it is not only layered into episodic, seasonal and series-long arcs, but because it is also, at its core, optimistic. The Frontier Mission looks forward, into the unknown. We’re working with tabula rasa. They also become a symbol of inspiration through the “save the Federation” plot arc, helping right the wrongs of their time and show Starfleet the true path forward. Like DS9 did through its “long war” arc, Frontier brings out the best in its crew, less with spectacular space battles (though of course there must be some of those) and more through the power of example and the wonderment and awe of discovery. Frontier becomes a key force in leading the Federation into a new era, just as big changes are on the horizon for the Alpha Quadrant and its relationship with its neighbors.