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.