It’s been delayed several times from a planned debut early in 2017, but the first episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are now on Netflix. I’m planning to write another post going into detail on the first two episodes in the next few days, but these are my initial impressions, with very little detail of the contents of the episodes.
Michael Burnham – a human woman raised by Vulcans – follows in a tradition of Star Trek characters caught between two cultures. It’s a path previously tred by Spock, Worf, Odo, B’Elana Torres and Seven of Nine. This is a good choice for the sake of drama, as it allows for a conflicted main character, and debates around what it is to be Human. By making Burnham a genetic Human raised in a Vulcan culture, Discovery manages to sidestep the dodgy racial essentialism (for example that Torres’ anger comes from her Klingon side) that often accompanies this trope in Star Trek.
There are apparent ‘historical’ contradictions in Discovery. For instance the design of the Shenzou bridge is much darker than on Kirk’s Enterprise, despite them being set in roughly the same era. And there are numerous uses of holograms to communicate over long distances, despite this being introduced as a new technology in Deep Space Nine, set roughly 120 years later. But I wouldn’t want a new show to stick to inferior design and creative choices for the sake of consistency, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and let the writers tell the best possible story they can this time around.
Similarly, the Klingons look different to any we’ve seen before. But this has been a recurring pattern within the Star Trek franchise. In The Original Series they are essentially humans with brownface and goatees, not taking on the iconic forehead ridges until the first film. For decades this was handwaved away, with no in-universe justification for the real world production issues. An episode of Deep Space Nine which saw them travel back in time to the events of an Original Series episode made a joke out of this, and Enterprise later told a story about the Human-looking Klingons being the result of Klingons trying to replicate Human genetic engineering. I’m happy to suspend my disbelief over different-looking Klingons, given that these ones look and act as an intimidating warrior culture. Maybe Discovery will come up with a good story about why these Klingons look different, maybe they won’t. Either way I’m happy.
There’s plenty of auditory references to the design of the original series (the equipment on the bridge makes very similar sounds) but Discovery has a very different visual style. Realistically, a paramilitary organisation like Federation Starfleet is likely to have more of a standardised style than the contrast between the Shenzou and Pike and Kirk’s Enterprise, which we have previously seen a few years either side of the time in which Discovery is set. Despite the inconsistency, I prefer that Discovery makes its first priority to be the best series it can be, rather than sticking to loyalty for the sake of loyalty. But that doesn’t mean that the Original Series‘ visual style can’t be revisited. For example the Voyager episode ‘The Thaw’ – in which an entertainment programme became dominated by a personification of the fears of those it was intended to entertain – used what seemed to be an Original Series inspired visual palette to highlight the contrast between the two. I hope we will see more visual references to the style of previous incarnations of the franchise in subsequent episodes, but only if it suits the stories the series tells.
Discovery engages with the spiritual side of Star Trek, with both the Vulcan idea of the soul (the katra) and the Klingon afterlife (Sto-Vo-Kor) referenced in the opening two-parter. The Klingon reverence for the dead bodies of their fallen comrades in Discovery helps deepen them from potential monsters to spiritual warriors.
Discovery manages to capture a sense of wonder, awe and danger that has mostly been missing from the Star Trek franchise in recent decades. Despite being on the far side of the galaxy, seventy years from assistance, Voyager didn’t often feel that overwhelmed. Similarly for Enterprise – despite being Earth’s first interstellar ship and being repeatedly dragged into a time-travel based war, there wasn’t the same sense of the main characters feeling overwhelmed by the challenges they faced. Partially this was down to Enterprise using familiar, comfortable designs for aliens and alien ships (complete with the type of Klingon birds-of-prey which would be in use two centuries later). Discovery manages to capture a sense of awe at the Klingon fleet, and the sense of danger that the main characters face. At times Jean-Luc Picard’s sense of fear was tangible, and the same applies to Captain Phillipa Georgiou here.
The fourth and final series of Enterprise engages with the franchise’s sense of adventure and wonder, but beyond that I think you have to look back to Deep Space Nine – which went off the air in 1999 – for a series which properly captured the spirit of adventure and danger which Star Trek can be at it’s best. Despite having seen every other episode of the Star Trek franchise, I still haven’t seen the latest film in the Kelvin Timeline. This is because of the terribleness of Star Trek Into Darkness, as both a Star Trek film and a coherent story. It’s a film in which Captain Kirk ineptly aids a terrorist attack on San Franscisco, and is somehow admired for his actions. I’m fine with occasional episodes and films which set aside the deep stuff for a bit of superficial fun – First Contact is the best Next Generation film in part because it embraces its nature as an action-packed zombie film. But the core of what makes Star Trek Star Trek has been neglected for too long in my view. I’m excited about the possibility of this changing.
Discovery, so far, seems to be a show which will encourage empathy. The Klingons are treated not as cartoonish villains, but an alien society worthy of respect, who view the Federation as devious conquerors. The balance between showing the audience the Starfleet ship and the enemy ship made me think of Balance of Terror, an episode which depicts war as tragic and preventable, rather than noble and jingoistic. Given the divided state of the real world at Discovery‘s birth, a show which encourages respect for the alien point of view in the midst of mass entertainment is something to get excited about.