Now, here’s a thing. I know perfectly well that expressing an opinion with regard to ANYTHING Star Trek from ANY time or location is tantamount to throwing rocks a wasp nest… a really big wasp nest full of dopey, angry and confused wasps who are nevertheless extremely persistent. But — what the hell. Some days the rocks are right there on hand when you happen to be walking past the nest. What else can ya do?
I’ve been watching this show for a while now. As a long-time Trek fan, I was pretty excited by the promise of a new Trek series, one that was supposed to connect closely (timewise) with the Original Series upon which I cut my fanboy teeth as a child. I was even more interested when I heard that Michelle Yeoh was going to play a Starfleet captain. I’ve been a fan of Yeoh’s work since way back in the times she was playing opposite Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and considering the careers both those gents have had, I think Yeoh is seriously underappreciated.
Yet when the show aired, I found myself — well, disappointed. Not with the cast (go Michelle!) all of whom seem to be rather better than the usual first-season Trek crowd (how painful were most of the performances in the first season of Next Gen? Or Enterprise?) but with the show itself: the writing, the setting, and the tone. With it’s Trekness, in fact, or more accurately, its lack thereof.
Let’s make it clear. Any show that calls itself ‘Star Trek’ is referencing a long line of works much beloved (even revered) by a very large community of fans. Creating such a show is fraught: you need to introduce new and interesting elements to the central concepts, but you must also retain enough of the core material to allow the fan community to ‘fit’ the new works into the canon of the old. If you’re not going to do that, why bother invoking Star Trek at all?
Now, it’s true that there are familiar elements from Star Trek in Discovery. There are Klingons, for example, albeit a veritable rainbow of Klingon forms. But that rainbow is okay. If we accept radical racial diversity in Klingons, it helps explain why the Klingons began as vaguely hairy, greasy-faced humans in the original series, then morphed through a wild range of lumpy head topography, distressing teeth and ludicrous hair extensions across more than a dozen movies and three more TV series spanning who-can-remember how many seasons. I don’t mind the Klingon Rainbow. (Although I do strongly wish they’d dub the Klingon voices in post. Listening to those poor actors trying to talk through those ridiculous dental prostheses is painful. It sounds like an army of Daffy Duck lishp-alikes, except a couple octaves down)
There are Vulcans, too. And a Federation, and Starfleet, and exploratory starships, transporters, phasers, photon torpedoes… There are even a few iconic characters, including Spock and Captain Christopher Pike who featured in the unaired pilot which eventually contributed footage to an episode entitled ‘The Menagerie’.
But really, these are just decoration. We’ve had much-loved Star Trek series with none of the characters from Back In The Day. We’ve had upgrades to warp drives, improved cloaking devices, new villains, new technologies — all without losing the ‘Star Trek’ core.
So what is that core? Well, there’s been endless material written about this already which you can certainly go and dig up for yourself, but ultimately, the core of Star Trek draws on a kind of moral vision laid out by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original series back in the day. Star Trek is about ‘boldly going where no-one has gone before’, and it’s about bringing a particular set of human values into play in that process. (Yes, I know: Deep Space Nine was set on a space station. But they spent so much time zipping through the wormhole into another galactic quadrant that the ‘boldly going’ idea was well served indeed.)
Without getting too deep into the rabbit hole, I think it’s worth listing some of those values and ideas that Roddenberry tried — and seems to have succeeded — in bringing to the series. And what better way to start than “to boldly go”?
Exploration and boundless human curiosity are a critical part of the Star Trek concept. Star Trek is about people who just want to go a little farther, see a little more, experience more… it addresses a deep hunger that lives in most of us, and much of the joy of the series’ to date has come from vicariously exploring alongside our heroes as they ‘boldly go’.
After curiosity and exploration, I think the next key element of Star Trek would be a vision of tolerance and inclusion. As far back as the original series, the creators were making a statement by including people of different races and cultures aboard the Starship Enterprise. The inclusion of the young Russian character Pavel Chekhov, for example, during the height of the Cold War with Russia — that was a bold, clear choice. And even though Lieutenant Uhura was stuck with miniskirts and passive roles in the storylines, nevertheless her inclusion as an African-American woman was notable enough to apparently draw attention and approval from Martin Luther King himself, who asked Nichols to stay in the role as a model and icon when she was planning to leave and become a Broadway singer. (Read this article… especially the quote from King himself about the import of Star Trek)
The third core element of Star Trek is the concept of the crew as ‘family’; indeed of Starfleet and possibly the Federation itself as an enormous ‘extended family’. This dynamic has been commented on in so many places, by so many different people that I won’t even try to explain it further. All I will say is that this ‘family’ dynamic has been a critical, driving element of all four previous series (including the animated episodes of the original series) and all the movies with the probable exception of the most recent three.
For me, the final critical element of Star Trek is a kind of benevolence — a desire to help others less fortunate. The patronizing, neo-colonial qualities of that concept were recognized as far back as the Original Series day, leading to the creation of Starfleet’s “Prime Directive”, which is basically: “Don’t interfere with other folk’s cultural biznitch”. The tension between that Prime Directive and the desire of captains and crews to ‘do good’ and to save other species and cultures from disaster has long provided a rich vein of storytelling content, including plenty of particularly chewy ethical discussions. It’s certainly a defining element of what makes a Star Trek series.
So, where does that leave Discovery?
Well, they certainly got the ‘tolerance and inclusion’ thing in their vision of Starfleet. The Klingon rainbow looks like a shabby grey-scale reproduction next to the crew of Discovery. That seems reasonable enough. I can put it alongside the updated visuals and technical effects. It seems to me that if Roddenberry could have incorporated such diversity in his original vision, he would likely have done so with the same eagerness that he would have certainly shown to high-end CGI and visual effects.
But that’s where it ends.
Exploration and ‘boldly going’? No. Discovery is pretty much constantly at war, despite having the wildest space-drive in the galaxy, capable of crossing whole quadrants in the blink of an eye. No — in keeping with modern TV, Discovery is all about the ‘long arc’, and the simple joy of exploring and encountering new civilisations just doesn’t cut it, apparently.
And that concept of crew-as-family? That’s not only abandoned, it’s explicitly devalued. Far from cleaving to her Starfleet ‘family’ for support, the central character of Discovery — Michael Burnham — is at war with much of Starfleet in the form of Section 31, the internal security division first revealed in Deep Space Nine, here grown to fleet-sized proportions in its own right.
Michael’s relations with those around her in Starfleet are… problematic. Her mentor (Michelle Yeoh) dies and is replaced by the unpredictable and amoral ruler of the infamous Evil Mirror Universe of hoary Star Trek infamy. More important to Michael are her adopted family (Spock and his parents) and later, her own biological mother. Spock himself, a touchstone of the entire Star Trek canon, has repudiated his place in Starfleet, taking his place as brother to Michael Burnham in preference.
And the questions of benevolence versus non-interference? The courageous moral and ethical decision-making? Fuhgeddaboutit! Discovery is about a grim, frantic effort to survive. The one character who stands out as part of the classic Star Trek ideals, Captain Pike… he gets an absolutely glorious moment. Tasked with acquiring a vital plot device, Pike is shown an explicit vision of his future: horribly scarred, disabled, deformed, restricted to a high-tech wheelchair, unable to perform even the simplest functions for himself. It’s horrific, and Pike knows absolutely that if he does his job and takes up this particular plot device he may be able to save everyone else… but he will certainly become the crippled, agonized thing of his vision.
And he hesitates… barely long enough to remind himself aloud that he’s a Starfleet Captain, and this sacrifice is nothing more nor less than the definition of a Starfleet Captain’s job, and character. And he picks up the plot device and accepts his horrifying future precisely because he is a Starfleet Captain of the Federation, and for him that is the proudest and greatest thing he can conceive.
It’s a powerful moment, and should have been a series-defining scene. It isn’t, though. The viewers (and one sympathetic Klingon) are the only ones who have any idea of what’s going on, and a short while later the episode turns in a direction which makes Pike’s acquisition of the Plot Device completely pointless. The plan for which it was intended can no longer be carried out. Too bad. (No doubt the Plot Device will surface again. But Pike’s sacrifice has already been trivialized.)
So that’s where we stand. And I guess your mileage may vary, but for me? Nope. Sorry. I gave Discovery a series and a half, and whatever it is, it isn’t Star Trek. Yes, it’s Klingons and warp cores and transporters and phasers and shields and ever so many fabulously diverse crewmembers, but the essential heart of Star Trek just isn’t there. To draw an analogy: you could take a Ferrari shell and (with some work) stick it on the chassis of a Japanese commuter car… but it wouldn’t be a Ferrari. It might look the part, but the moment the little four-cylinder engine coughed, you’d know.
Discovery looks like Star Trek, but it’s something else altogether. You may argue that if enough of the current audience thinks it’s Star Trek, then, you know, obviously it must be — but that’s a desperate, specious argument. Crowds and audiences don’t create the inner life of an artwork. That comes from the creators. Crowds and audiences certainly bring their own interpretations and extract/construct their own meanings — but they don’t change the fundamental nature of the work. You can, for example, choose to interpret the Bible as a comedy — but that won’t change the words on the page, nor the stories. Star Trek stories share a core of easily identifiable ideas which contribute to the concept of ‘Star Trek’ as an identity, and Discovery simply doesn’t share that core of ideas.
Discovery isn’t Star Trek. What it may be, and whether it constitutes interesting SF television, are matters for another time. Right now it’s getting late and I have other things to do.
I might even go watch an episode of The Orville…