Three episodes in and I’m hooked. As the camera panned out from the U.S.S. Discovery in the closing sequences of “Context Is For Kings”, I sat back, smiled and thought, “This is great.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of getting home from work, hurling myself on the sofa and tuning into a brand new episode of Star Trek. As Sam Kurd recently mused, the new series is having something of a marmite reaction. There are plenty out there claiming that it’s not “real Star Trek“, or it’s “too dark” or “too serious”. Many others are – like myself – riveted and enjoying every second.
As I reflected on the latest episode, I found myself wondering whether Gene Roddenberry would see the show as a suitable sequel for the universe he created. Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity just ten years after the events of Star Trek: Discovery does, after all, paint humanity in a rather glowing light; up-standing members of the human race peacefully exploring the galaxy with heroic bravery and noble virtue. We got the obvious tension between Kirk/Spock/McCoy but ultimately these were three people whose personalities both complimented and clashed, but who never lost sight of their mission, even if their interpretations and opinions varied.
Star Trek: Discovery is very different.
In Michael Burnham we have a deeply scarred and flawed main character, whose own personal struggles have left her judgement apparently compromised, despite years of Vulcan training. Gabriel Lorca, although we haven’t seen much of him, is painted as a military commander rather than a stereotypical Starfleet captain, whose ‘the ends justify the means’ mentality looks set to push Starfleet rules and regulations to the limits. Science officer Stamets – Trek’s first openly gay character (a first of which Roddenberry would certainly approve) – has a touch of the Rodney McKay about him, clashing openly and quickly with Lorca’s militaristic approach.
The producers said before the show aired that they weren’t scared to show these characters as genuine human beings, whose flaws cause conflict and drama. Whilst much of Roddenberry-era Trek was an examination of the human condition provoked by holding up non-human characters as comparisons, Discovery looks set to take a somewhat different approach and allow the humans to explore and expose their own flaws all by themselves. Thus far, the magnificently portrayed Saru feels most at home with previous incarnations of the series.
Whilst this approach is by no means a bad approach, it does stand at odds with Gene Roddenberry’s vision. That being said, Star Trek had already begun to explore this in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. One need only think back to the seminal episode, In The Pale Moonlight as Sisko wrestles with his conscience over the decision to remain silent over the murder of a Romulan senator in order to trick the Romulans into joining Starfleet’s war against the Dominion. In some senses, it’s nothing new. However, often Sisko’s moral debates and decisions were forced upon him by the actions of another (in this case Garak). In Discovery, my early impression is that the internal flaws of the human characters will precipitate morally ambiguous decisions.
I can understand why this might make some people feel uneasy. After all, this crew seems much closer to the 21st Century than Kirk’s original Enterprise, or indeed the intrepid explorers led by Jonathan Archer in Star Trek: Enterprise over a century before. It does seem odd. It feels different. And I can understand why to some – at first glance – it might appear like a wilful ignorance of not just canon, but the central essence of what made Roddenberry’s Star Trek so endearing: the hope that we can improve as a species.
Whilst I understand this opinion, I don’t agree with it. I read a comment earlier this week where a long-time fan noted that Discovery feels like the birth of a third era of Star Trek. First we had Roddenberry’s vision through The Original Series, its films, and then The Next Generation. You then had the Rick Berman-era with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (although really the show-runners here were left to their own devices), Star Trek: Voyager and finally the much-maligned Star Trek Enterprise.
Stylistically, it’s obvious that there has been an effort to tie Star Trek: Discovery into the Abrams film series. The warp effects, the camera angles, the sound effects and editing… it sits nicely as a successor to the films, even though it’s supposedly set in the Prime Universe and not the Kelvin-timeline in which the films continue. The likely reason for this is that something wildly different to the films may make the show too bewildering to new fans who’ve come on board in the last eight years and followed Chris Pine’s Kirk. The Discovery itself feels like it could logically precede Abrams’ Enterprise by ten years. Shatner’s flagship seems like a tin can in comparison.
I don’t see this as a problem. It’s simply not possible to create a TV show in 2017, make it look like it was made in the 1960s, and expect it to be a success outside of a very small, hardcore band of fans who now are likely in their mid to late sixties. Star Trek has to evolve. Whilst Discovery is a new series set in the Trek universe, it is also a television show made in 2017. It has to be modern, it has to feel real, it has to look brilliant. Provided it is consistent with itself and doesn’t blatantly abuse the shoulders it stands on, I don’t see any issues with this. The Next Generation was a very different ship and universe from The Original Series and Gene Roddenberry happily launched that new vision to the world.
Roddenberry also intended Star Trek to encourage thought and debate about events in the world at the time. The vision of a Russian on the bridge of the Enterprise at the height of the Cold War was startling at the time. The appearance of an African American woman on the bridge held in high esteem was similarly radical. Star Trek after all famously featured the first interracial kiss on American television. In short, it broke new ground. It told stories that provoked thought, and encouraged people to see shades of grey in a time when dichotomies had perpetuated for too long.
Star Trek: Discovery could do the same in 2017. In the era of Donald Trump and ever-increasing fears of a nuclear North Korea, Discovery boldly launches with a female Asian captain and a war against an enemy that has been silent and ignored for some time. The Klingons in Discovery have been treated by Starfleet for decades with a kind of “if we don’t bother them, they’ll go away” tactic, but to no avail. I do wonder what contrasts Discovery will explore, and how Burnham’s prejudices against the Klingons will be challenged along the way. I have no doubt that they will be. Perhaps Lorca’s burning desire to win at all costs will trigger a reluctance in Burnham, and her Vulcan training will come to play an important part in being trapped between a bloodthirsty conflict she helped to start, but one she has now matured to see is unnecessary, and unwinnable. Ater all, we already know that neither the Klingons nor Starfleet will be annihilated.
There’s no doubt that Discovery is different. It’s modern, it’s dark, it’s edgy. It’s the adrenaline shot Star Trek has needed for twenty years. It will walk a tightrope between abandoning the core ethos of Roddenberry’s vision, and bringing it masterfully up to date into a dark political climate. With some of the names behind the project (Roddenberry’s son, for one), I have no doubt that it won’t abandon the Star Trek that came before. Whether it succeeds in its mission remains to be seen, but if it does, then I have no doubt Gene Roddenberry would be proud.