It’s been 12 years since Star Trek has had a TV series. Now CBS has brought back this tradition, with the launch of Star Trek: Discovery this Fall. Trek is on TV again–where, I’d argue, it properly belongs.
So did this new take on the iconic space opera live up to the hype and hoped dreams?
Trek is back on TV! Gene Roddenberry’s vision is here once again, boldly going to those bold places. That’s the first thing. Because that’s a heck of an accomplishment. There was an era where we had an overabundance of Trek. From 1987 to 2001, the line of TV Trek was unbroken: The Next Generation (1987 to 1994); Deep Space Nine (1993-1999); Voyager (1995-2001); Enterprise (2001-2005). You could be assured that there was going to be some version of Trek waiting for you out there. Unfortunately, our Trek of plenty made us ungrateful. We complained about each new Trek, dissected its characters, found the episodes wanting and blasted lazy storytelling. We had shiny new space operas to play with, like Firfely and BSG. “No Trek is better than bad Trek,” we proclaimed. And, to paraphrase Q, it was done. No Trek on TV. No more weekly episodes. No new worlds to explore. Just one big black hole for Trek on the small screen. Until now.
So let’s talk about the 10,000 lb Andorian bull in the room. Discovery is behind a pay-wall. While we’ll get the first two episodes free on CBS, the rest of the season will be available only on its streaming access service. I know. “WTH?” “How dare they!” “That’s some @#$*$!” Go ahead. Vent. Stomp around. Get it out your system. It’s unfair. I hear you fam. You gonna be alright? You good now? Okay. Let’s move on. Because I can’t do nothing about that.
What’s a Trek show without that intro? Both Old School Trek and TNG gave us the captain voice-over and a theme song. DS9 and Voyager gave us stunning space visuals with sweeping orchestral movements in the background. Enterprise…they did some weird 1980s Kenny Loggins-sounding joint that shouldn’t be spoken of again. Ever.
So what does the Trek intro look like in 2017? It’s…artistic. Goes back to the orchestral movement with no narrating voice overs or 80s ballads, though the music has less fanfare. Visually, we’re treated to evolving sketches of Trek devices and tech that change and blur across the screen. I was reminded, oddly enough, of the outro credits used in Marvel’s Captain America movies. So not a riveting intro, but interesting enough. I’m cool with it.
This latest version of Trek is something of a throwback. It’s set about a decade before Kirk and company and some ninety years after Captain Archer. Further, it takes place in the prime universe. So don’t fret, we don’t have to endure Trek universe 2.0 and an upcoming genocide against the Vulcans. (Heresy!) That means though, we kinda know much of what’s going to happen. There’s going to be suspense and surprises within the plot lines to come, I’m sure. But we all know how this is going to end: a long running Cold War with the Klingons. We’re more so, filling in the blanks.
This “go retro” theme seems to be a thing with Trek in the 21st century. We saw this with Enterprise and then with Trek 2.0. In a seeming irony, a show about a possible future seems to now prefer going back to that future’s past. Are we ever going to revisit the Trek of the 24th-century? What’s happened since the end of the war with the Dominion? What’s happened in the wake of the destruction of the Borg Unicomplex? There are books that have gone into this, but it seems some great places to pick up in a television series. Can the franchise ever move itself, forward? Or is nostalgia the order of the day? How about a Law & Order type series starring the Department of Temporal Investigations in the 29th Century? One can dream.
This does also lead to some inherent problems: with better SFX all the tech in Discovery looks inherently “better” than anything on the old shows, even though most of them are set after this one. But that comes with the territory. Do we really want to see the crew using gadgets and flying a ship that looks like it was shot in the 1960s? You know you don’t. Stop lying.
The most interesting thing about Discovery, and perhaps the most talked about, was just who exactly was going to be in the main cast. As all the advertising made clear, the show revolves around the character Michael Burnham. Don’t let the name throw you. Michael is played by the actress Sonequa Martin-Green: best known as Sasha Williams from AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead. That’s right, this new Trek show has a Black woman in the lead.
I went through my head trying to make a list of prominent Black women in Trek television. Of course, Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura stands out as the groundbreaking role that inspired even Martin Luther King, Jr. There was Guinan on TNG played by Whoopi Goldberg. But she was a side character, and couldn’t really be called central. On DS9, Captain Kasidy Yates (Penny Johnson) was a love interest of Benjamin Sisko: another side character who appeared on a few episodes at best. Black women were pretty much MIA on both Voyager and Enterprise. For a franchise that started out with such promise, that’s a pretty lackluster track record.
Discovery changes that in dramatic fashion with Micheal Burnham, a black woman as first-officer. The show appears central to her character, as she gets the all important “log update” narration. We eventually learn bits and pieces of her background. Perhaps, most interesting, she appears to have been raised by Vulcans. Not just any Vulcans, but perhaps the second-most famous Vulcan of all times–Sarek, father of one Spock. This means that Spock has an older Black sister. Let. That. Sink. In. We gotta rethink Spock’s entire cultural compass and range. Spock might know who the Isley Brothers are of ancient Earth music and can probably do the 23rd century version of the Dougie. He’s been holding back.
Burnham is depicted as a tough and competent first officer, who takes her duty to Starfleet seriously. At the same time, she’s the sort who is up to taking chances. There’s a lot more Kirk in her than Picard or Janeway; but she really is her own distinct character. She makes a great match for the more steady Captain Philippa Georgiou, played by actress Michelle Yeoh. Yes, the captain is an Asian woman. The two folk in power on this ship are women of color. Go BIG or go home!
With the exception of two or three white people who barely get lines (that was so non-normative it was surreal), the rest of the bridge crew are humanoid aliens. One of the more central of those aliens is the ship’s Science Officer, Saru–our new non-human Spock or Data. Burnham bumps heads often with him, as he seems almost the antithesis to her more reckless nature.
One of my favorite parts of this episode was when we got some background on Saru and his species. More of this please! A classic part of Trek, at least more pronounced since TNG, was that you got multiple perspectives. Scenes could be dedicated to varied characters throughout the ship, so you weren’t always on the bridge. Sometimes you even got whole episodes that revolved around persons other than the captains. I like the idea, in Discovery, of making the First Officer central. That’s a shift from the norm. And it seems the intent to is make this show driven on that one character. But, as much as I like Burnham, I do hope we get to know more about everyone else in the meantime. I sure as heck wanna know who that helmeted Daft Punk cousin-of-a-Breen looking alien sitting on the bridge is!
Back to Burnham: she’s also nursing a dark secret. Turns out, the reason Burnham is raised by Vulcans is because her family was massacred by another familiar alien species: the Klingons. So, I don’t wanna rehash the whole plot. But, Discovery finds a mysterious megalith hovering in space. Turns out it’s Klingon. Burnham accidentally kills one of them. (Ooops.) While this outer tension is going on, the inner turmoil for Discovery’s First Officer is a harboring resentment and distrust of Klingons that makes her give in to her more reckless side. Sh*t gets real.
In this first episode, we’re treated to the Klingons right away who appear to be the central antagonists–at least for now. From what we can gather, the Klingon Empire is in disarray among hundreds of feuding houses. Though their past encounters with the Federation have been violent, they haven’t been engaged by a Starfleet ship in almost a century–too busy feuding with each other it seems. In this time, the Federation has grown, and a Klingon prophet named T’Kuvma is ready to reunite the empire to face this threat. To do so, he leads a cadre of followers and evokes that most legendary of Klingons–Kahless.
These Klingons look decidedly different from past Klingons. And why should that be surprising? Klingons always look different. They’re the most malleable alien species in the franchise. The Klingons in OST were just really swarthy bronzed guys with lots of facial hair and exaggerated accents. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), they got the famous ridged foreheads. They toned down the headgear somewhat for future Trek, until we landed on more standard Klingons as seen by Worf of TNG. There have been attempts (like a certain time-traveling episode in DS9) where Trek lorists have tried to account for this discrepancy through some secret Klingon histories. The less said of those, the better. But even these more standard Klingons changed slightly over time, so that movie Klingons sometimes looked different from TV Klingons.
This latest set of Klingons look decidedly different than many of the others. They come closest maybe to the Klingons of Trek 2.0, with heavily pronounced facial ridges, no-hair and very non-human features. They look like a bunch of really roided up vampires, down to the new digs. We also learn in one exchange that Klingons have a colorism issue, and that white Klingons are looked down upon. Lay it on there heavy folks. Other than that, they’re fairly Klingon-ish. Battle. Honor. Militaristic. Will F*ck Your Sh*t Up. Always strapped with a bat‘leth.
Hoping there’s more to these new Klingons and we get a bit of complexity in episodes and seasons to come. Right now, Burnham’s view of them is pretty one-dimensional. I’m guessing part of her inner journey is going to be to develop beyond that. Hopefully so can the Klingons, which began with Worf. I know we’re a long way from The Undiscovered Country, but I’d really like to see the Klingon perspective on things. Are the Federation really just innocents? Or have they indeed been going about some colonization efforts and finally met their match?
Overall, I liked the first episode. It set up a story line. It introduced me to new characters I’m invested in. The SFX and visuals are absolutely stunning. It doesn’t just rely on action but gives us all the jabbering and thinkin’ we expect from the franchise. Set in our times, it even does something Trek does rarely: openly addresses issues of race. We ain’t seen that since Ben Sisko went “Far Beyond the Stars”.
One lingering question I’m left with is: does Discovery feel like Trek. That was a real problem for me with Trek 2.0. In the zeal to re-brand the franchise, the product we were left with was slick and shiny. But it didn’t feel like Trek, and instead like something else altogether. I haven’t made up my mind yet on where this show stands. And will probably have to see quite a bit more before casting judgment.
That’s not to say some things from the older Trek don’t need changing. Some of those episodes and characters were straight cornball. The Federation that “can-do-no-wrong” rang with hints of American exceptionalism, and why I think DS9’s shady Section 31 was such a great story line. Also, at least starting with TNG and reaching nauseating heights in Voyager, human history as the “history of white people” was tired and boring. “Sure we can use the holodeck to explore multiple facets of human culture and history that led to this point, but let’s go see Da Vinci or do Shakespeare or everything else out of a 1930s Humanities course.” Yawwwn. Bury that Eurocentric sh*t, then bury the shovel.
So far, less than criticisms, I’ve just got wants and lots of hopes. One of those is that the show is a success and Trek on TV once more becomes a thing. Because in our dystopian times, we probably need Gene Roddenberry’s vision more than ever.