The Case For DISCOVERY

A lot of old-school Trek fans seem to really, really hate Star Trek: Discovery.

As it happens, I’m an old-school Trek fan myself and I like it better than any of the (official) new Trek shows in the last thirty-some years. Here’s why.

*

To begin with, let’s dispose of the most frequent complaint I’ve seen — “It’s too dark.”

Really? Darker than “The Conscience of the King,” which brought us Kodos the Executioner and his psychotic murderous daughter? Darker than “The Enemy Within,” wherein we discover that James Kirk harbors rape fantasies about his cute yeoman?

Darker than the Dominion War? The Jem’hadar? The Borg and their countless acts of planetary genocide? The most popular episode of any Star Trek series ever, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” is a tragedy where in order to save all history, Captain Kirk is forced to condemn the woman he loves to an untimely violent death.

So don’t talk to me about ‘dark.’

Well, yeah, I hear some of you saying, but this is different. The HEROES are dark. It just feels wrong for Star Trek.

Let’s unpack this a little. I suspect that the real trouble fans are having with this is the nature of television itself has changed — a LOT — since Star Trek premiered in 1966. For that matter, it’s changed a lot since The Next Generation premiered in 1987. Something TV producers have learned in the intervening decades is that viewers don’t necessarily need to like the protagonist of a show… they just need to be interested enough in that person to tune in week after week. Likeability used to be a requirement and now it’s not. Exhibit A: Mad Men. Exhibit B: Breaking Bad. And so on.

But I don’t actually care about that because Julie and I find that we really do like all these new crew members, as we are getting to know them. They aren’t as noble as previous Starfleet crews have been– but they are trying for nobility and I think I like that better. Their flaws aren’t just quirks, like McCoy’s suspicious attitude toward technology or Data’s naivete about humanity; they’re real faults, and as such they are interesting and human and relatable.

Stamets, the pissy gay engineer, started as someone really grating but we got to like him rather quickly; Tilly we loved from the get-go, as we did Saru. (Tilly is my wife Julie in a Starfleet uniform, swear to God. It’s uncanny. Same idealism, same nervousness, same lack of any filter, same awkward giggling in moments of tension.) Sure, Captain Lorca’s a bastard but he’s a fun one. Anyway, bastard Starfleet Captains aren’t unheard of. After all, guys like Ron Tracey and Merik and John Gill were all Starfleet, too… and two of those three were the creations of Gene Roddenberry himself.

As for our main protagonist, disgraced former Starfleet officer and parolee Michael Burnham — well, it helps to know that originally she was going to be Number One. The first one, that is, the character Majel Barrett played in “The Menagerie.” (When you know that, the raised-by-Sarek connection seems a lot more plausible.) I assume that idea got tossed out when they cast Sonequa Martin-Green, but they kept the Sarek/Vulcan backstory anyway. Whatever. It’s not a deal-breaker for us the way it seems to be for some people. More to the point, though, it became obvious after the second episode that the whole show is about Michael Burnham being tested, possibly to destruction.

And that, for me, is what makes it not just Star Trek but quintessential Star Trek.

Let Captain Kirk himself spell it out for you:

That has always been the mission statement for all of Trek, as far as I’m concerned. Any of them. Next Gen, DS9, Voyager, the comics and cartoons, whatever. How do we advance? How does humanity move forward? We go out there and look, damn it, and we take whatever the universe throws at us. If we stumble, well, tough universe, kid. Pick yourself up and get on with it.

Writer David Gerrold, certainly an authority on what is and isn’t Star Trek, puts it this way: “Space is not the final frontier. The final frontier is the human soul. Space is just where we will meet the challenge.”

This is an idea that I have often thought Star Trek, as a franchise, has really needed to get back to… especially after the execrable Into Darkness. Too often in the last three decades, Star Trek stories have been about good and noble Starfleet people teaching evil and ignorant aliens and others the error of their ways, and then phasering them into ash if they don’t straighten out. Rarely if ever do starship crews have to confront the consequences of their actions or defend the nobility of their beliefs. I was encouraged by Star Trek Beyond, but it was Discovery that made me lean forward in my chair and say YEAH. Because they get it.

Get what, you ask? This–

If Star Trek, as an artistic endeavor, is about anything, it’s about the idea that humanity needs to be better. To try harder. To –yeah, I’ll say it– to reach for the stars. You look at Star Trek Discovery, really look at how it’s built, and you can see that everything in the show is aimed at examining that idea. Burnham is trying to be better, Saru is trying to be better, Tilly is trying to be better, Stamets is trying to be better, and even nasty Captain Lorca’s trying to be better (only in his case he thinks that means winning at any cost.)

Cynical? Not on your life. This is the most idealistic Trek we’ve seen in years — because the whole show’s ABOUT idealism, for God’s sake. That’s the engine that drives the fucking thing.

We love that. As long as they keep to that course, we’re in.

*

There are some other gripes I’ve heard that strike me as silly, but sure, I’ll answer those too.

It’s not Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Oh please. I’m not going to litigate this whole thing again but I will say that on the original series, the stuff everyone loves and remembers was about equal parts Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana, with additional significant contributions from David Gerrold, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, and Harlan Ellison; Wrath of Khan was Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett; The Next Generation was largely the brainchild of David Gerrold; and so on and so on. Left to his own devices, Gene Roddenberry’s vision tended to be glacially slow and heavy-handed and humorless. On the whole, Trek was better when it didn’t have Gene Roddenberry micromanaging it. ‘Not Roddenberry’ is a feature for us, not a bug.

The Klingons are all wrong. Granted, I’m not crazy about the new makeup either, but come on. The Klingons haven’t looked consistent even within individual Trek series, let alone from one series to the next, or from TV to the movies. Or even from one movie to the next.

The continuity doesn’t make sense. Hello? Have you ever actually WATCHED Star Trek? For crying out loud, there are fans still trying to sort out Zefram Cochrane in “Metamorphosis,” Enterprise and First Contact. (Just as an aside, I like the way Cochrane’s history is outlined in the novel Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, and I don’t really care that the First Contact movie blew a giant hole in it. In my personal headcanon, the Reeves-Stevens Cochrane is the real one.)

That was the beauty of the Abrams movie reboot– it lets you handwave all that stuff away from the moment Nero blows up the Kelvin.

But the cast and crew are saying Discovery isn’t in the Kelvin timeline. Well, forgive me for saying this, but they’re wrong. I’ve been immersed in Star Trek lore for the last forty years, and I’d put my expertise in this area up against pretty much anyone not named Okuda. Based just on the visual aesthetic, it kind of HAS to be in the Kelvin timeline– after Nero’s arrival, but before the destruction of Vulcan. It’s the only thing that makes sense. And anyway, traditionally Star Trek actors are kind of famously ignorant about the lore of the show. (Ever been to a cast Q&A at a Star Trek convention? Invariably there’s a Sheldon Cooper who gets up to the mike to correct someone on the stage.) So that’s hardly an argument.

Yeah, but… even after all that, I just don’t like Star Trek Discovery. Well, I can’t help you there. But not everything has to be for everyone, you know. There are whole seasons of The Next Generation that I thought just sucked out loud, and it’s by far the most popular of the Trek shows. I don’t begrudge those fans their enjoyment, so there’s no reason those of us that are digging Discovery can’t co-exist with the rest of you. IDIC and all that. And hey, there’s always Blu-ray. Or books. Or comics. Or fan films. Or The Orville.

Back next week with something cool.

14 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    This comment is about this article itself. It is not an attack on Discovery since I haven’t seen past episode 1 (and that’s part 1 of the two-parter, not the whole thing) due to lack of opportunity.

    “Darker than “The Conscience of the King,” which brought us Kodos the Executioner and his psychotic murderous daughter?… Darker than “The City On The Edge Of Forever”…? “
    Well, there’s a difference between a few episodes being dark and the whole show being dark.
    I also thought DS9 was too dark overall.

    “Likeability used to be a requirement and now it’s not. Exhibit A: Mad Men. Exhibit B: Breaking Bad. And so on. “
    Neither of them shows I watch, and saying the protagonists aren’t likeable makes them even less appealing than they already were. In fact, I’ve complained about the abandonment of that requirement. (But I complain about everything, so take that with a grain of salt.)

    “They aren’t as noble as previous Starfleet crews have been– but they are trying for nobility and I think I like that better.”
    Oh. Okay, then.

    “Anyway, bastard Starfleet Captains aren’t unheard of.”
    … Have you ever watched SF Debris of Enterprise and ‘Duchess’ Archer? 🙂 Not to mention Janeway’s, uh, command style?

    “Space is not the final frontier. The final frontier is the human soul. Space is just where we will meet the challenge.”
    I like that. 🙂

    “I’d put my expertise in this area up against pretty much anyone not named Okuda.”
    🙂 And what do they have to say about it?

    “Based just on the visual aesthetic, it kind of HAS to be in the Kelvin timeline”
    Agreed. All too many people seem to think you can divorce the visual aesthetic from the audience perception of the movie – for example, Bryan Singer saying Superman Returns is a direct sequel to Superman II when it looks completely different. It just doesn’t work; and “even if you don’t notice, your brain will”. (attributed to Red Letter media.)

    1. M-Wolverine

      Having not gotten past episode 1 either, I can’t say how likable the crew is or not. But I will say your protagonist has to be likable. Do they have to be admirable? No. But if there’s nothing redeeming or charming about them it’s going to be a tough watch. Most people don’t want to watch awful people do awful things. Tony Soprano, Don Draper,, Hannibal Lector Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones…these are not good people. But there’s a charm to them, a magnetism that doesn’t justify their actions, but it makes you interested I. Following them.

      1. Le Messor

        And again – none of those shows are ones I watch. In part because I’d rather watch good people than ones who are just charming, maybe?
        I never watched Dexter, either.

        But the charm is also important, as you say. It might be why I liked the Joker so much as a villain, once, but don’t know.

        1. Maybe ‘likable’ is the wrong word. What I was trying to get at was the idea that for most of television’s history, and certainly for that of STAR TREK, it’s taken as a given that the protagonists are unfailingly noble; that being the ‘good guys’ is not just a given but an absolute. In STAR TREK’s case that has almost always meant the Federation and its representatives are always in the right, and that when individual officers go bad it’s an abomination, something furtive and secret; when the secret is exposed, they’re done. The idea that the military is still going to act like the military even in an enlightened future and that our heroes could be doing their best and still be not just wrong, but really dangerously wrong, is something that is long overdue on Star Trek. The franchise is often extolled by its fans as being willing to examine ideas and take on hard questions but I have not seen that really happen in a long time; and even the favorite historical examples from previous Treks tend to show the Federation as being the enlightened parental types preaching to primitive ignoramus aliens. I like that DISCOVERY is taking a real swing at the idea that the Federation’s ideals might very well be compromised in wartime, and whether or not that’s a bad thing if the alternative is losing a war. After all, these battles are fought on a planetary scale.

          Now, if you don’t like the approach the show is taking towards that — hey, I’m right there with most of you on the Klingon thing, it just seems silly for it to be a deal-breaker — that’s one thing. But most of the ‘it’s too dark’ stuff I’m seeing on the internet is about how ignoble the crew and the Federation are, that it’s a cynical show made by people who are too cool for traditional Star Trek. I don’t think that’s the case at all– I think it’s a show ABOUT ideals and nobility and testing those things against really scary circumstances. Thast’s the point I was trying to make. Probably could have said it better.

          1. M-Wolverine

            That’s part of the timeline problem though, isn’t it? If it was Enterprise a more tough and tumble Federation would make a lot of sense. But this should be taking place not too far off from the Christopher Pike Enterprise era, where the Federation is mostly formed.

            And the more I hear the more it sounds like the same problem the Walking Dead has fallen into, where I’m not sure our protagonists are the good guys anymore, or that they’re not substantially worse than the villains.

          2. Le Messor

            Sadly, I think when they have explored the darker side of the Federation, they haven’t meant to – we’re supposed to side with the Federation on issues like letting an entire (sapient) species get wiped out because Evolution says so!

            I think for me the problem is, we used to have heroes to look up to; now I think we have ‘heroes’ we look down on. Instead of showing us good people we can try to be like, they have to show us people who make us feel better about ourselves because we’re better than them.
            In other words: I think modern families should be less like the Simpsons, and more like the Addamses.

            Sure, I’ve got Jesus to try to emulate – even knowing I’ll never succeed – but nowadays, who does everyone else have? We’ve got a psychotic Superman onscreen, the once-idealised Federation has Archer, etc…

  2. jccalhoun

    It would have been much easier to like Discovery if they had made it take place after Voyager.

    As far as the Klingons, my problem isn’t so much the fact that they look different it is that the masks cover so much of the face that when they talk their mouths don’t move right. It looks like the masks aren’t glued down right. And their voices sound like they are talking through the mask and they didn’t do ADR to make them sound clearer. and perhaps most of all, when. they. talk. it sounds. like. they. are. read. ing. off. cue. cards. one. syl. la. ble. at. a. time.

    1. Le Messor

      I may have mentioned that here before, but I call that ‘List Language’. It’s a common problem when an actor is expected to speak a language they’re not familiar with, and you can tell they just learned it phonetically, and don’t emote.

      (Averted, of all places, in The Phantom Menace – Jake Lloyd can whine in Huttese.)

  3. I’ve a lot of problems with Discovery. Nitpicks include the incredibly stupid death of the security officer early on (it’s up there in stupid character deaths with Man of Steel’s Jonathan Kent, for example) and the apparent fascination with having really long subtitled Klingon conversations in the early episodes.

    More seriously, I sometimes feel like the show is more interested in developing the idea of a story arc than telling actually interesting stories (that is, making individual episodes compelling and interesting), which I think is a problem with a lot of shows I’ve been watching recently.

    I also find Star Trek’s fascination with prequels to be annoying. The show would have gained a lot of grace from a continuity standpoint if it had just taken place further into the future. Even the new Klingon makeup would have been easier to explain. And the story they are telling (so far) would have easily worked in a further-in-the-future setting. Michael would have been the first Starfleet officer to commit mutiny “in a long time” rather than ever, and Sarek and Harry Mudd would be replaced by new characters…but really, who would have noticed?

    But in spite of all of that, I still watch the show and usually enjoy it. Michael and Lorca are both “likeable enough” for me to keep me engaged. I don’t mind Tilly, Stamets is growing on me, and Saru started well though hasn’t done anything interesting lately. And in general, Star Trek has always worked better as a TV series about exploration than as a movie (though there are lots of the movies I’ve liked as well).

    1. Le Messor

      the show is more interested in developing the idea of a story arc than telling actually interesting stories…, which I think is a problem with a lot of shows I’ve been watching recently.

      Yes, serialised story-telling vs monster-of-the-week shows. It’s been an issue for a while, and I think goes under ‘people keep saying this (serialised storytelling, in this case) is what good TV looks like’ so that becomes the only thing that it looks like.

      I prefer shows that balance the two off each other; Buffy was good at that, for example.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        I was going to sit this one out, because I haven’t seen Discovery, but I so agree with Ben’s point about the fascination with prequels, or setting things in ‘history,’ before the events of the Kirk/Spock crew we all know and love. It’s why I thought Enterprise (the series) was misconceived from the start, and the actual execution left much to be desired (that’s the only Trek follow-up series I found genuinely bad).
        And I also totally agree with jccalhoun’s suggestion that it should have been set after the events of Voyager. To me, it seems that that setting – i.e., in the wake of the Dominion’s defeat and the opening of the Gamma Quadrant to Federation exploration (and, let’s be frank, backdoor colonization) and Voyager’s return with all of that (basically recon) data on the Delta Quadrant – is so rich with storytelling possibilities, especially for the type of stories that are apparently being told in Discovery.

  4. Le Messor

    I’ve finally started to watch more than the first (half-) episode.

    A lot of old-school Trek fans seem to really, really hate Star Trek: Discovery.
    I wouldn’t go that far… but I’m not loving it, either. It’s kinda ‘meh’. It’d be generic in the 90s, when TV sci-fi was black-sky – as opposed to now; when, if I hear there’s a new sci-fi show, my first question is ‘and what was the Apocalypse in this one?’.

    Most of my real issues with it are actually minor, but they add up.
    It is too dark – not necessarily in storyline (you’re right, some older episodes are much darker), but in aesthetic. The aesthetic at no point makes me believe this is contemporary with Kirk’s ship. You are absolutely right that this only works if it’s in the Kelvin timeline.

    The Klingons… aren’t. They’re just not Klingons. They don’t look like Klingons, they don’t dress like Klingons, they don’t act like Klingons. At one point, somebody identifies a ship as a D7 cruiser. You only get a glimpse of it, but it is clearly a very different design to a D7. The same episode mentions the Daystrom Institute – wouldn’t that have been named posthumously? Because Daystrom should still be working at this point. (Also, isn’t it mostly computers and tech? Or am I wrong? Because the mention is in the context of studying biology.)

    I’ve heard Harry Mudd was a good updating of the character for this kind of show. Aaand… I’ll give it that one. He was. With an added ironic twist (for those who know the character / episode).

    Then there’s representation – why is the first major character named Michael a girl? It’s never (yet?) been explored? (I’ve just watched the weirdly-named Lethe, which explored her back story, and is more about remembering than forgetting.)

    Despite these gripes, the show is okay overall. I’m enjoying it, but it’s not very Trek and even less TOS.

Leave a Reply