Star Trek Discovery, Or: How They Learned To Stop Writing And Blow Shit Up
Spoiler warning: Please note that I discuss specifics from the first season of Star Trek Discovery with complete and total abandon, so if you haven’t seen it and plan to, don’t read this. Bookmark it, instead, so you can come back and read this after you endure that first season.
My folks may be atheists, but they don’t play the part very well. I mean, they have the not believing in god thing down alright, but they get drawn in by woo from time to time, and if you can believe it, they’re incredibly narrow-minded when it comes to sci-fi. Turned off by imaginative depictions of alien races and the hard thinking that comes with a tale of time travel, they turn their noses up at titles like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who. I have yet to let my mom know that her favourite novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry, is sci-fi, lest she burns it in a fit of sci-fi-loathing rage.
As such, your girl here was also narrow-minded when it came to sci-fi. Friends, I did not consume a lick of sci-fi until I was deep into my twenties, and even then, it was only to appease a guy friend I had a crush on. He insisted I couldn’t get through life without watching the Star Wars trilogy, and so late one evening after a rough shift at the airport, we retired to my apartment and stayed up all night rooting for the Rebel Alliance. Before that night, I would see trailers for Star Wars and clips of Star Trek in ads that aired during Dawson’s Creek or Survivor. I would recoil at the sight of a Klingon or C-3PO, absolutely learned behaviour from my parents. It looked cheesy to me, and therefore, it must have been cheesy, right? I thought people wrapped up in Star Trek were lonely, pathetic people who had nothing else going on in their lives but fandom for a space wars television show.
I was sure of all of this without watching one single episode or flick that qualified as science fiction. I was, in no uncertain terms, a judgy douchehammer, perched atop my throne of superiority because I could never be so entertained by a few “pew, pew, pew”s in space.
Of course, hormones saved me. The lust I felt for the coworker drew me out of my asinine stupor. When I watched Star Wars with the object of my affection, I went into it adamant I wouldn’t like it. I was sure. Denny’s would be jealous of how much egg I had on my face just half an hour into A New Hope. Nerds, I was enraptured. When the movie ended, I wanted more and more and more. The spell was broken. I had unlocked a new nerd achievement: I loved Star Wars.
Now, those who have broken free of religious indoctrination know that it doesn’t just happen overnight like that. I was still unsure of other sci-fi titles. Understand, I grew up in a household that treated sci-fi like a wet fart: gross, embarrassing, and if it accidentally happened, you just clean yourself up and don’t tell a soul. I was still convinced that Star Trek was for losers. Listen, I apologize. Profusely. You will be happy to know I broke free of this prejudicial dogma, and all it took was, you guessed it, another dude.
Shortly after the fella who convinced me to watch Star Wars married my friend and asked me to be his best man, I started spending some time with another sci-fi fan. I couldn’t sort out why all the smart guys were fans of science fiction, but I have no time for idiots. Not then, not now. So, I found myself in the company of sci-fi fans. All of the time. And this one, well, this one introduced me to Trek, and I owe him for it. I can’t recall the first episode he got me to watch, but I know it was TNG. I think it may have been Chain of Command or Darmok. I know these two were among the first episodes he selected for me, and after I’d seen them, I wasn’t just a fan. I needed to consume it all. I was ravenous for more Picard, Geordi and the greatest character in all television, my darling Data. I asked him if I could borrow his TNG DVDs to watch the whole thing, and he obliged. There I sat, sometime in my twenties, binging a show I was sure was awful, all alone, as each episode fundamentally changed who I was, how I saw the future, how I felt about humanity, space travel and of course, the sci-fi genre. In no time at all, I was ready to eat my words. Like, I would have submitted to a public flogging for it. I knew I had been so wrong. I was so desperately wrong about Star Trek that thinking about how I used to feel about it and how close I came to never experiencing it at all brings tears to my eyes. My own past words profoundly offend me today.
Not only had I become a Star Trek fan, but this depiction of a possible future for our planet is something I began to actively hope for. I still do. No, scratch that. I fucking ache for it.
To me, Star Trek’s fundamental essence is optimism. The difference between Star Trek and other space action sci-fi is that it translates into real hope for our world. It is bright, uplifting and explores questions of ethics better than anything I’ve ever consumed before. It routinely presents the viewer with moral puzzles and forces our minds outside of our comfort zones. We are constantly asking ourselves, “what would I do in this situation?” as we learn what Picard, Kirk, Janeway, Sisko and Archer would have done.
While we explore space with the crew of the Enterprise, Voyager and various other Federation vessels, we are also exploring our psyche. We’re led to see the flaws of humanity depicted in other species. The Klingons personify the ancient warrior philosophy that defined entire eras of human history. With themes of nationalism, patriotism and physical displays of strength and honour, we consider the costs of war, aggression, pride and divisiveness. In Vulcans, we can’t help but understand the critical role emotion plays in the human experience. In Bajorans, we explore the origins and cost of blind faith. With Cardassians, we’re reminded of the darkest moments of our collective history; of slavery and genocide and obedient soldiers of fascist regimes that filled streets with the blood of the innocent.
But even though we see qualities we dislike in the various other species we encounter, we are encouraged to accept them and respect them as much as we do those who are more like us. We’re led through storylines that teach us that just because we left warrior culture behind long ago doesn’t mean the Klingons are worthy of any less respect. We’re encouraged to understand that the Vulcan’s complete dismissal of emotion works for them, and though it is so unhuman, we see them as equals anyway. A true student of Starfleet ethics understands that what works for one humanoid may not be the best choice for another, and there is no better or worse; there’s just different. Together, each brings their own strengths, forming alliances that resist defeat infinitely better than each species ever could alone. We’re encouraged to see Romulan life or Cardassian life as just as valuable as human life, even though they live by a completely different moral system than we do. We cannot escape the profound understanding that the pursuit of diversity is at the heart of every explorer; with every instance of First Contact, our differences are just as significant as our similarities.
In exploring the variations between earthlings and other fictitious forms of life, Star Trek forces us to examine what it means to be human. Through the eyes of an Android, we explore emotion, and a holographic doctor teaches us about finding ourselves. A rehabilitated Borg helps us understand the intricacies of human relationships, while a Denobulan makes us see commitment in new ways. And, of course, exploring the human experience of love through the eyes of a shapeshifter who, despite being able to take any form he wants, chooses over and over to be like us.
Star Trek is a philosophical exploration of the human experience. It depicts a beautiful and entirely possible future when so many other stories set years from now are dark and terrifying and gloomy. There is no way to escape the hope that fills your mind as you watch a future in which hunger is eliminated and poverty nonexistent; all basic needs are met; all earthlings equal; all education is free. Science is revered and set free to explore the cosmos without the dead weight of dogmatic thinking holding it back. Medicine has made leaps and bounds, curing ailments that commonly take our lives today. Human beings, as a whole, have a deep and unshakeable respect for the sovereignty of other species across the universe and are willing to die to avoid interfering with their cultures. Star Trek is poetry for idealists, fuel for optimists and an unextinguishable light in the dark for cynics. It’s right there in Star Trek canon: a clear road map for how the real us go from this present-day mess to that interstellar utopian dream.
When I began watching The Next Generation, my love for Star Trek was born instantly. However, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise were all a little rough in the beginning. It’s not because they weren’t good. It was because nothing, in my mind, could come close to TNG. It was simply too difficult an act to follow. After a dozen or so episodes of each, though, I was just as engaged with the characters as I ever was watching Picard man the bridge of the Enterprise.
Each series had its own way of exploring new moral questions, the human condition, love, loss, conflict resolution and respect. Each character had a unique history, personality traits, hopes and goals, and it didn’t take long before you cared for them. The Star Trek writers captured complicated relationships, moral dilemmas, and struggles that seemed impossible to resolve with ease. While many sci-fi titles outside of Star Trek centred around war with other species, factions and nationalities, the one thing that set Star Trek apart was the unmistakably Star Trek way the characters approached conflict. There were so few moments in which Starfleet officers didn’t face opposition with a pure heart, compassion and good intentions. They were able to see beyond themselves to the greater good and would have given their lives if it meant the universe could live on a little freer, a little bit more fairly, and with less suffering.
The Vulcan mantra, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” was the common thread through each story, each problem and conflict and each conclusion. Sometimes a character would have to set their highest ideals aside so that a perfect stranger half a galaxy away could thrive. Sometimes the crew of a Starfleet vessel would struggle with the prime directive, the lifeblood of Starfleet, which prevented humans from interfering with the natural evolution of other cultures. They would struggle faced with opportunities to save lives, end disease and suffering, and bring prosperity to a culture that could have otherwise perished altogether. Every story, plot, and conclusion was the sort of thing that sat in your mind for days, forcing you to consider things you’d never felt before.
And while we’re watching and pondering life’s most difficult questions and considering hard moral choices, we are also eager to find more of what’s out there. Yes, each planet and extraterrestrial species in Star Trek is fictional, but they also each represent possibilities. They are the children of powerful imaginations and limitless creativity. Entire histories of worlds, fictional alphabets and languages, customs, taboos and mores born of a writer’s mind. All of it was sparking our own creative thoughts, encouraging the audience to wonder what’s possible, who is possible and where is possible.
Let me be clear: for me, every episode was soothing relief for this bleeding liberal heart. No matter how many losses were suffered by the crew, nor how much damage their vessel took or how much trauma they’d had to endure, there was always a brightness to it, an undeniable optimism, a ray of hope. Every episode could be whittled down to a story about a universe to hope for.
That is, of course, until I started watching Discovery. And this is where I am going to piss off the fans, so get your phasers ready and set to kill, boys.
There is a difference between the acting and production of a show on the major networks at prime time and one produced by AMC, HBO and the like. You know you’ve noticed it. NBC and CBS shows are melodramatic, and when they fall into the action genre, they tend to be high intensity the whole time. There’s a distinct cheese flavour, with one-liners you can imagine slipping out of Arnold Schwarzenegger and infallible heroes with perfectly chiselled cheekbones and loads and loads and loads of explosions. Shows like this rely on cheap thrills and exciting visuals and tragically lack character development and creative plot and story. Every cop drama, ER drama, and firefighter drama are all the same, with predictable plots that wrap up with a neat little bow at the end. These shows are not for those in the mood for deep thinking, but they have their uses. They’re great for someone who just wants to sit down and be entertained, someone who’s had a long day at work, and who doesn’t want to have to do any more heavy thinking. Some of these shows do the job so well, and I have enjoyed them for that very reason.
An action show on AMC, however, isn’t just shootouts, explosions and Arnoldisms. Usually, you can bet there will be a good story, and the character development can be flawless. You’ll be presented with thoughts and ideas that aren’t always comfortable, but they are powerful and linger in your mind for days, weeks, and months. The most compelling scenes in shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire are dialogue-heavy and rely on our emotions to pack a proper punch rather than fire and bullets.
If I had to fit Star Trek into either of these categories, despite it not working perfectly into either, it would be an AMC, HBO type of show with hard-hitting depth and emotion. Star Trek has never relied on cheap thrills to draw in the audience, though it had every opportunity to do so. It has always been a show for someone who wants to think, to force their mind to deal with complicated questions and problems. It’s never been the type of show that just wants to entertain. That doesn’t mean it’s better, because let me tell you, there is a time and a place for the Marvel Universe, and mama does enjoy the fast-paced, wide-eyed enjoyment of pure fucking fun. But it is different. And it is that difference that we have come to expect from an episode of Star Trek, no matter the series.
Star Trek Discovery, however, feels like it should fall right in between CSI Miami and S.W.A.T. The writers could easily swap one of Horatio’s pre-yeeeeaaaaah one-liners for literally any line Michael Burnam utters in the first few episodes. Her jaw is permanently clenched in every scene, but you can hardly blame her because every moment of Discovery is high-intensity melodrama, explosions, shootouts and hand-to-hand combat. Listen, I know there’s an audience for this, and I have enjoyed many movies that were over-the-top action but understand, this is not Trek, fellow humans. This is not Trek at all.
I am currently 12 episodes in, and I know so little about each character. I frequently exclaim as our heroes find their lives in peril, “am I supposed to care? Because I don’t know him. He might as well be a redshirt!” They have yet to tell us anything about the majority of the cast, and this fact, combined with the overall asshole feel of each character except the ditzy girl (think Erin in The Office), makes us not care about any of them. Honestly, except Tilly, who is extremely intelligent but written to be the cliche silly, awkward nerdy girl, each character made me wonder if they were actually a villain. I found myself asking what each of these assholes is hiding and it turns out, more than one of them is actually a fucking villain. We know that Burnam, the main character, was raised by Vulcans. We know she struggles with authority after seeing her mutiny against her captain, wielding the dreaded Vulcan death grip in the opening episode. This is, along with the fact that she cannot be trusted, the sum total of what we know about her, and we’re twelve fucking episodes in. She never smiles. She never has conversations with anyone about anything but work. She has no depth whatsoever. Her character’s alpha and omega is a Starfleet uniform, and she even has contempt for that. Outside of it, she is just a big donut, a nothing, a vacuum.