The difficulty in adapting Star Trek to a new generation, while still being commercial enough for 2017’s television screens is enormous. Creator Gene Roddenberry had rules he wanted adhered to within the Star Trek universe. Perhaps most difficult was his “no conflict” mandate. Roddenberry reasoned that when humanity reaches the technology in Star Trek’s future, there will no longer be need for Earthly conflict. Food replicators mean nobody will go hungry. Warp drive means infinite access to resources. Antimatter provides unlimited energy. All Earth’s problems are solved. Exploration is the new adventure. This was true of the original Star Trek in 1966, and Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987.
After Roddenberry died in 1991, Star Trek’s new “Great Bird” Rick Berman introduced conflict in clever ways, side-stepping Roddenberry’s mandate. For dramatic purposes, 1993’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was set on an alien space station on the frontier. It was run by a mixture of humans and aliens, and hosted a virtual space city of diverse travellers and residents. Then Star Trek: Voyager broke the mold again in 1995. A starship’s bridge was the main setting once again, but this time they were stranded on the other side of the galaxy with a crew made up of Starfleet officers and Maquis rebels. The last Star Trek series under Berman’s control, 2001’s Enterprise, was a prequel set 100 years before Captain Kirk. The Federation, Star Trek’s peaceful governing body, did not yet exist. It was a transitional period between the Third World War and the familiar Star Trek we remember.
Over the past 50 years, Star Trek has been popular, but was surpassed by other franchises in financial success. Star Wars and the Marvel universe both dwarf Star Trek today. Some poor theatrical movies, such as Star Trek: Generations (film #7, 1994) and Star Trek: Nemesis (#10, 2002) did not help. By this time, Star Trek’s continuity had become so huge and entangled that writers struggled to come up with new ideas that a) hadn’t already been done, and b) didn’t contradict established Trek history.
JJ Abrams wisely rebooted Star Trek in 2009 by creating an alternate timeline. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) was thrust back in time with a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana), triggering a series of events (including the premature death of Captain Kirk’s father, George Kirk) that re-wrote Star Trek history. This allowed a clean slate based on the original classic trio of Star Trek: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Largely, it worked. Star Trek (film #11, 2009) did the trick. 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness (film #12) tried again by re-doing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in this new timeline. That was less successful. Re-doing the gimmick of destroying the Enterprise in 2016’s Star Trek: Beyond (film #13) was far too soon and really seemed to derail the series. It was the third destruction of the Enterprise on screen and it hadn’t been earned yet.
The JJ Abrams universe is continuing with the 14th Star Trek film, somehow resurrecting George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) and perhaps undoing that timeline completely. We shall see.
Meanwhile and with less fanfare, Star Trek has returned to television. This seems an even bigger challenge than making a good Star Trek movie. After all, television is nothing like it used to be. Reality shows, serialised dramas, and sitcoms own TV now. Attention spans are shortened and cerebral tales are fewer to be seen. What does a new Star Trek look like, and what would the story be?
Fans haven’t been shy about what they wanted to see in a new Star Trek TV show. Most would have loved a series set far into the future, as far beyond Picard as Picard was from Kirk. But Star Trek isn’t being made for fans. Today it needs to appeal to anyone and everyone, and simply not alienate too many fans. So instead, we are getting another “prequel” series set before the time of Kirk. 10 years prior, in fact, and set in the original universe. And as an added twist, the main character was to be Spock’s never-before-mentioned…adopted sister?
Fans shit the bed.
Star Trek: Discovery has faced (and continues to face) a lot of scepticism. After all, this is hallowed ground. You can’t just piss all over the history. 50 years of Trek, and we’ve never heard of Michael Burnham, the girl raised as a step-sister to Spock?
Fear not. Trek lore has not only been respected in Discovery, but enhanced. The Vulcan-centric episode “Lethe” is an emotional backstory to who Michael Burnham is, and even colours in the blanks behind Spock and Sarek’s estrangement. It does so in such a way to soften even the hardest fan’s heart.
Burnham’s parents were killed in a Klingon attack, and she was raised on Vulcan by Sarek (James Frain) as his ward. She was trained in the Vulcan ways, with logic as a tool to govern her human emotions. This background also sets up her fall from grace. Burnham is not the typical Star Trek main character. In the series pilot “The Vulcan Hello”, first officer Burnham commits mutiny on board the USS Shenzhou. Her actions in the first two episodes (including “Battle at Binary Stars”) set up the balance of the series: war with the Klingons!
Being a mutineer making some pretty obvious blunders in spite of her supposed excellent Starfleet record, Burnham is a difficult character to like. Fortunately, actor Sonequa Martin-Green was the right one for the job. Formerly as Sasha on The Walking Dead, she was little more than a background character. Martin-Green was largely untested, until now. She has done an excellent job in her first half-season on Discovery. She remained cold and difficult to like, until finally thawing a little bit in episode 4, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”.
Being difficult to like is intentional. Discovery is not like other series. It begins on the USS Shenzhou, captained by Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), a cool new ship with its bridge under the saucer section instead of on top. Georgiou and first officer Burnham begin as scientists and explorers, but Burnham’s mutiny creates war and a new reality. Episode 3, “Context is for Kings”, introduces Burnham’s new surroundings: The USS Discovery NCC-1031. The titular ship doesn’t even appear in the first two episodes.
The USS Discovery’s on-screen design is based on old concept paintings by Ralph McQuarrie, for the first Star Trek movie. You’ll notice its Star Destroyer-like main hull. McQuarrie designed all the ships in Star Wars too, and because this starship design is decades old, the USS Discovery fits the classic starfleet look. This ship is bad ass. The USS Enterprise, under command of Christopher Pike, is out there somewhere, but the Discovery is fresh off the line. It has all the latest gadgets. It’s a black project and a testbed for new technology, now needed desperately. Over 8000 Federation citizens have died in the war in the first six months. Defeat is not an option, and Discovery is rolled out to unleash war-winning technological breakthroughs. It’s the Manhattan Project of the 2250s. Top secret, high level shit going on here, folks.
How did Burnham, a mutineer, get such a cool assignment? Well, first off, it might not seem that cool once you see what Discovery is up to. And second, her captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is not a typical Starfleet captain. He is single-minded and obsessed: victory is the only option and he will stop at nothing, no matter how unethical, to win the war. Lorca is damaged goods, but he’s also very smart and because it’s a black project, he manages to operate under the radar with minimal oversight. Bottom line: He thinks Burnham will be useful, and so he uses her. If you are stationed on Discovery, that means Lorca thinks you’re useful.
This setup enables some very different Trek dynamics. Do you think the crew of the Discovery are happy to have a mutineer on board? One who was responsible for the war in the first place? Highly unlikely. First officer Saru (Doug Jones) is one of her old shipmates from the Shenzhou. Saru, a Kelpian, comes from a planet where his species are only food for other species. Kelpians can sense the coming of death, and let’s just say that Saru’s spidey-senses start tingling when Burnham pops back in his life. Doug Jones embodies the alien Saru perfectly, who is the series’ placeholder for a Spock or Data. In a cool touch, Jones’ height is made abnormally alien with a pair of hooves.
Michael Burnham begins with only one friend on board, her geeky roommate Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Tilly warms up to the audience when she confides that she’s going to be a captain one day, but she has a lot to learn first. Burnham and Tilly work in engineering under Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Star Trek’s first openly gay main character (not counting John Cho’s Mr. Sulu, based on George Takei’s original Sulu who wasn’t written or portrayed as gay).
I want to pause here and say something that probably doesn’t need to be said. It took 50 years for Star Trek to finally have an openly gay main character. Star Trek has been so far ahead in many respects over the years, but way behind in this one way. And I love it. It’s been done so well. As an added bonus, Stamets’ relationship with Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) is critical to the overall plot of the first season. Without getting too much into spoilers, they are both put into impossible situations because they care about each other. Rapp and Cruz have turned their characters into favourites, and it’s way overdue and I love it.
Rapp’s Stamets could be the show’s most important character. He was essentially drafted to serve aboard the Discovery, as the inventor of the top secret and experimental “spore drive”. It is an organic propulsion system and if Stamets can refine it, Discovery will be able to be anywhere in the known universe in a blink — it is a game changer. But it requires super-computing the likes of which doesn’t exist…unless Stamets can think outside the box.
Presiding over this is Captain Lorca; no-nonsense all the way. He’s been given this ship, its crew of “polite scientists”, and a blank cheque. His orders: end the war in victory. Lorca has his own deeply buried demons. These come to light in “Choose Your Pain”, in which he is captured by the Klingons.
Ah yes, the Klingons. They are Star Trek’s most iconic villains…and in some cases, heroes. They have an established culture, design and hierarchy. Star Trek: Discovery takes its least successful leaps with the Klingons. New ship, costume and makeup designs are really out of place. Remember, this series takes place 10 years before Captain Kirk and “The Trouble With Tribbles”. Klingons looked like humans in that era. It’s a complicated mess of contradictions, but Discovery should not have made it worse by adding in yet another new Klingon design.
The Klingons are problematic in more ways than one. The momentum of the show screeches to a halt any time we cut to Klingon drama. Until recently on the show, they spoke Klingon with English subtitles almost all the time. This changed in the last episode. Never before on Star Trek have we had to endure this much Klingon language. On original Trek, Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, they had esteemed stage actors saying these lines mostly in English, and it was all very Shakespearean and perfect. Christopher Plummer played a Klingon, fer frak’s sakes. The first bald Klingon, I might add, and now on Discovery, they all seem to be bald. And also bland. The Klingons, with the exception of one, have not been remotely interesting. The exception is L’Rell (Mary Cheiffo), a master of deception and spies.
It is L’Rell who tortures Captain Lorca in “Choose Your Pain”, an important episode that also introduces Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) and Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson). Mudd is a fan favourite character, going back to season one of the original series. As a con man played by Roger C. Carmel in 1966, he is remembered as both comedy relief and a threat. When we meet him on Discovery, he’s a prisoner of the Klingons. Wilson was a casting boon. His Mudd is more dangerous and deadly than Carmel’s, but no less enjoyable. Count on seeing more of Harcourt Fenton Mudd, particularly in the series’ best episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”.
That episode, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” can also be used to highlight a show weakness. That is recycling previous used Star Trek story devices. “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” features a time loop that is very similar to one in The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect”. There are others as well. A planet that changes the personality of an alien character: “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” is like “The Other Side of Paradise”. You can keep going.
However there have also been sparks of originality. Lt. Stamets’ spore drive opens up some new concepts previously unexplored in Trek, inspired by more recent discoveries in the quantum field. A few episodes challenge ethics in the face of emergencies. The format of a serialised story is unusual in Star Trek. Long story arcs were previously used in Enterprise and Deep Space Nine, but not to this degree. This is what audiences today are familiar with. Sonequa Martin-Green is now an expert thanks to her time on The Walking Dead.
Star Trek: Discovery will return in January for Season 1, Chapter Two. It has also been renewed for a further season beyond this. This mid-season break will give them a chance to address some problems. Pacing is an issue when we cut to Klingon scenes. The language issue might have been rectified recently with the introduction of a universal translator. It would also be nice to settle some continuity problems, especially visually. Will we see traditional Starfleet uniforms, for example? We know they are being used around this period, due to their appearance in 1965’s pilot episode “The Cage”, which actually takes place two years prior to Discovery in the timeline. (This also raises the possibility of a future meeting between Captains Lorca and Pike, and a reunion of Spock and Burnham.)
Star Trek series typically have a bumpy first season as kinks get worked out. If we assume this pattern will continue, then Discovery should turn out to be an exciting show for Trek fans. Certainly the space battle action scenes have been highlights. Let’s see more of that.
Let’s also see more of characters like Dr. Culber, Paul Stammets, Captain Lorca, and Ash Tyler. Tyler, by the way, is one of the most controversial characters. There are fan theories (too many spoilers to discuss!) that suggest Tyler may not be who he thinks he is. Season 1, Chapter Two promises that his backstory will be further revealed, including his torture at the hands of Klingon L’Rell.
Even if certain continuity problems are never addressed, Discovery has made it an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan again. Old Star Trek always had its problems with continuity, far too many to list. If we can accept those, then let’s remain open minded.
Yes indeed, it is a great time to be a Trek fan. In 1987, I remember fans thought The Next Generation was stiff, and we complained that it copied original Trek a bit too closely at times. Everyone thought Jonathan Frakes looked like he was supposed to be Shatner. Their pajama-like uniforms and Wil Wheaton made us all cringe, remember? You hated Wesley too — don’t lie just because he’s on Big Bang Theory.
Today, The Next Generation is revered by some as the best series of them all — or certainly the one with the best captain, right Patrick Stewart fans? Things change, and we know we have two seasons for them to get things running right. I’d like to see more of the background cyborg character, Lt. Commander Airiam (Sara Mitich). We already know there are episodes coming directed by Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection). And we expect that Lt. Stamets’ experiments with the spore drive has opened some kind of portal to the Star Trek “mirror universe”…where good is evil and evil is good. Can you picture a bearded Stamets? Lorca, perhaps. Or would the mirror Lorca be the good one?
See? It’s a great time to be a Trek fan.
This could just be the excitement talking, but I think Discovery is getting better and the best is still coming.
Star Trek: Discovery episodes from Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki