Discovery is a Neat Show, But I’m Not Sure it’s Star Trek

WTF is Star Trek: Discovery?

Star Trek: Discovery is a series CBS made for its streaming service, and is also available on Space and CraveTV in Canada. It takes place before the events of either the original Star Trek series or the 2009 Star Trek alternate universe reboot, and so far focuses on Starfleet’s war with the Klingon Empire.

The main character is Michael Burnham, the disgraced first officer of the USS Shenzhou, who tries and fails to start a mutiny during the premiere episode. After being sentenced to life in prison and (somewhat unfairly) blamed for starting the war with the Klingons, Michael gets a second chance when the devil-may-care captain of the mysterious Discovery offers her a non-commissioned post aboard his super secret science-turned-war ship.

The ship is full of dark secrets, forbidden technology, and opportunities for adventure. Also, the Klingons look really messed up, and speak a more “correct” version of Klingon with lots of glottal stops.

Discovery is a really modern TV show

It’s not breaking new ground, but it’s keeping up with trends. The series so far is full of cliffhangers, the editing and the story both move fast, and, often, there’s no time to question things that seem like plot holes or strange decisions, because we’ve already moved onto the next situation. For the most part, each situation tumbles into the next one based on pivot-points that come from emergency decisions the characters make in the heat of the moment. It’s less like dominoes falling than like a series of explosions that just obliterate the plot points they encounter.

Discovery also makes the unusual (and good) decision to roll out its premise and introduce us to its major characters over the course of its first five episodes, rather than trying to cram everything into episode one. One of the consequences of that choice is that it really solidifies Michael as the primary character – despite the familiar faces on the bridge, it’s clear that this is not an ensemble series in the traditional Star Trek model. It’s a story about an extraordinary individual (Michael is a genius human who was raised Vulcan and rose quickly through the ranks of Starfleet before becoming a famous criminal) reacting to turbulent circumstances – much like Mr. Robot, How to Get Away with Murder, Breaking Bad, and Orphan Black.

The show’s really suspenseful to watch, and it looks good on screen. Everything’s very color-coordinated and eye-catching. It feels fun, and there’s a powerful sense of momentum, even if nothing all that deep and profound is happening.

I’m not sure it’s Star Trek, though

The biggest question I had after watching the first few episodes was, “What about this makes it Star Trek and not New Sci-Fi Show X?” And the only answer I’ve come up with so far is that the producers have the rights to the Star Trek IP, which lets them say words like “Kahless” and “Sarek.” The values that underpin Starfleet, and Star Trek in general, are almost completely absent.

I realize that the problem Star Trek had in the past was that it refused to change and kept repeating the same formula past the point where it stopped working, but I’m also wondering how much you can actually change about a franchise before it becomes something else. And I tend to think that changing the pace and format is less significant than abandoning the core moral philosophy the characters adhere to.

Occasionally, almost every character in this show cares what happens to the aliens Discovery encounters, or cares about whether the crew is following Starfleet protocol, but the overall theme of the series so far is “We’re at war, and that means everything else we believe in goes out the window.” And, based on the timeline relayed to us, it seems this is a view they’ve adopted after only six months – or in the case of the Shenzhou’s late captain, who desecrated the dead and bombed a religious ceremony, six minutes.

Discovery’s Captain, Lorca, tells a story about how, in the early days of the war, he abandoned ship and blew up his whole crew rather than let them be captured by the Klingons. Now he stores dark matter weapons in his cabinet and captures alien life forms so that his scientists can weaponize their natural defences. The first officer is, at least for a time, A-okay with torturing a benevolent alien to power their warp drive a-la Doctor Who’s “The Beast Below.” Even the admirals tell Discovery to abandon a planet of helpless friendlies because their ship is too great an asset to the war.

The problem with that isn’t that it makes for a bad show, or that it’s unrealistic of human behaviour – Battlestar Galactica is one of my favourite shows ever, and its characters did even worse things on a regular basis – the problem is that this isn’t just a show about some random star ship called Discovery; it’s supposedly a Star Trek show, and the characters are supposedly part of the Federation. Starfleet, for the most part, creates officers who have extremely high emotional intelligence, and demonstrate traits like empathy, and curiosity, and respect for life in all its forms. I know I drag this out at every opportunity, but, this is the franchise that told us it was wrong to kill the Crystalline Entity, because it had a right to exist and eat planets.

It’s true that there have been some cases where Star Trek – especially Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – took an interest in examining situations where people make immoral decisions or break Starfleet protocol for various reasons, but Discovery goes a lot farther by treating that behaviour as normal. Disregarding things like a general respect for life and for the traditions of alien cultures is treated as no more serious than disregarding the sign that says to wash your hands before you leave the bathroom.

Can you make a show where that’s the case? Of course. Is that show really Star Trek? I’m not sure.

In conclusion, I enjoy this show, but it needles me

I know that there’s this stereotype of Star Trek fans who take the show too seriously and use it as a bible to live their lives by and can’t deal with change – that’s not what I’m trying to be. But the whole point of this franchise, when it started, was to outline an aspirational vision for what humanity could be at its best, and I find it weird that we’ve drifted so far away from that vision as to have a show full of people who are slightly worse than we are now. It’s kind of like if all the kids in Harry Potter used the dark arts as a first resort and everyone was just okay with it.

I also wonder what it means about us, as a culture, if we no longer want to hear stories about heroes we can look up to and, instead, are fixated on people just flailing through chaos. And what it means if the message we take away from that is, “You can’t be held accountable for anything you do, because the world has gotten so crazy!”

Image: Star Trek: Discovery; CBS | December 31, 2017