...But Is It Star Trek?

Written by Dan Carlson@minutiaeman

Published April 24, 2018

I learned long ago not to trust my first impressions. Whether it’s a movie or episode, a shiny new tech gadget, or even a new acquaintance, I know that I can get caught up in the moment and miss important details. And although I try to be thoughtful and analytical, when it comes to watching shows, I also prefer to just sit back and enjoy the ride. So rather than thinking too much about it in the moment—and possibly distracting myself from significant events—when it comes to entertainment, I like to save my thoughts for after I’ve had some time to consider what I’ve seen.

(And then I procrastinate, and never actually write my thoughts down, but that’s a whole different discussion.)

Despite my frustrations with the distribution of Star Trek: Discovery, I always expected to enjoy it, and it was mainly a question of when and how I would watch it. Despite my vow to wait, I ended up compromising a little. I signed up for CBS All Access when the first half of the season was almost done, watched all the episodes in less than a month, then cancelled the subscription. When there was less than a month left in the second part of the season, I did the same thing. That let me watch most of the episodes in a semi-timely fashion, and at less than half the cost of just streaming week-to-week.

Gut Reactions

I won’t mince words: As I watched Discovery, the nitpicker in me was raging. What’s up with the Klingon makeup? When did Starfleet get holographic communications? Since when did Sarek have yet another (foster) child? And how could there possibly have been this incredibly destructive war that was never mentioned nor even hinted at before?

But as the season progressed, I learned to look past these discontinuities and look at the show as a whole. Unlike all previous series (even my beloved DS9), Discovery’s first season was basically written as a single, 15-episode-long story. Details like the makeup and technology are window dressing. As much as I’d love to see a show that stayed literally faithful to past series, it’s really not practical to expect a 2017 television series to recreate the look and feel of the 1960s. (Even though Enterprise successfully pulled it off with “In a Mirror Darkly”, that was just two episodes, not a whole series.)

The most important part of any story is its characters. And the crew of Discovery definitely drew me in. It took me a while to warm up to Michael Burnham, but Sonequa Martin-Green’s subtle portrayal of the character won me over. It may feel a little derivative, but a Human who was raised by Vulcans allows us to explore yet again the balance between logic and emotion. Doug Jones as Saru eloquently carried on the Star Trek tradition of an alien outsider character. Tilly, Tyler, Culber, and Stamets all found their places in the story quickly. And though I’m pretty sure we were supposed to be suspicious of Lorca from the start, Jason Isaacs did a fantastic job keeping us guessing until the big reveal.

(And I have to give special mention to Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd. I do not like his appearances in TOS—I can’t get past the blatant sexism, even if he was supposed to be “charming” for his era. But Wilson’s perfect blend of sinister comedy absolutely stole the show in both of his appearances.)

There were definitely parts I didn’t like as much. Shazad Latif did an incredible job portraying Tyler/Voq, but I was saddened to discover (having willfully ignored spoilers and speculation) that the Tyler character was effectively a fake. I’m still not sure just what Voq and L’Rell were trying to accomplish with their machinations. From a storytelling point of view, Tyler was such a strong character on his own that he didn’t need the extra twist of being a sleeper agent; his PTSD and relationship with Burnham made him a wonderful character already.

Although I liked the visit to the mirror universe, I ended up a bit disappointed in the development of mirror-Lorca. Throughout the first half of the season, we were kept guessing about his motives and goals. It was clear something was up, but what? Even the revelation that Lorca was from the mirror universe didn’t disappoint me in and of itself. In the original “Mirror, Mirror”, the alternate characters were unable to blend in on “our” Enterprise for a day, yet Lorca was able to stay undiscovered for months. He clearly had the capability to understand, if not accept, Starfleet and Federation values. Yet once his identity was revealed, his shades of grey completely disappeared, and he suddenly turned into a cartoonish villain. His interest in Burnham was never really justified, and his claim to the throne was basically that Georgiou wasn’t evil enough.

And worst of all: the resolution to the war, and the final mission to Qo’noS, sanctioned by Starfleet Command. I was gradually getting used to the idea of a war with the Klingons that had never been mentioned before, based on the skirmishes and raids that we saw in the first half of the season. I could accept those as part of the ongoing conflict with the Klingons we saw in TOS. Yet the conclusion passed far into the realm of the unbelievable for me. I still can’t really accept that a quarter of the Federation was conquered (and then apparently given back!), that Sol system and Earth were directly threatened, and no one ever mentioned it.

But that’s nitpicking again. I might have trouble understanding how the writers expect some of these events to fit in with the larger Star Trek universe, but the characters were compelling and relatable (well, some were relatable), and the stories were exciting and relevant.

Variations on a Theme

Just as important as the characters, though, are the stories they explore. And there’s one character—or rather, two—who is central to the theme of the season: Phillipa Georgiou.

After watching the first two episodes—which in retrospect aren’t even a proper premiere, but rather a prologue—I lamented the death of Captain Georgiou, as the only character who seemed to truly represent the ideals of Star Trek. Georgiou’s warm charisma instantly established her as an exemplary Starfleet captain, one who I could easily see standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Kirk or Picard. (It doesn’t hurt that Michelle Yeoh is an amazing actress, too.) As the first half of the season progressed, it seemed that Georgiou’s character had been there to establish a baseline for what Starfleet should represent, only for the rest of the season’s stories to seemingly ignore it.

Then we met the incredibly badass Emperor Georgiou (she of the many titles). Like Lorca prior to his unmasking, she demonstrated some moral shades of grey, especially through her relative tenderness with Burnham. Significantly, for all the time spent in the mirror universe, Georgiou is the only character with whom we spend time getting to know both versions of her. Burnham is clearly looking for similarities (and there actually are a few), but thematically, the differences between Captain Georgiou and Emperor Georgiou are a microcosm of the entire season’s story.

Discovery’s story starts with a noble leader who refuses to fire first, unintentionally triggering a massive war. It ends with a depraved leader who offers to commit genocide as a means to end the war. Pretty much everything we see in between is about Michael Burnham’s journey from making a logical decision that is morally questionable, to making a moral decision that is logically questionable.

Is the tension between ethics and pragmatism that original? Of course not. But it’s still a good story.

...But Is It Star Trek?

It’s sad that this question even has to be asked. For me, then answer is “unquestionably”. But I understand why people ask, because it’s tough to justify the answer.

Fans have been asking “what is Star Trek?” since 1966. Entire books have been written on the subject. But if I were to tersely answer the question, I think the hallmarks of Star Trek are stories that convey optimism for the future, and that present conflicts that relate to contemporary society. Discovery has both of these.

It’s certainly hard to spot the optimism, though. Discovery is even darker than DS9, and it’s easy to miss the optimistic elements when you’re looking at all the pessimistic, pragmatic decisions that were made in the middle parts of the story. I attribute this, again, to the format change: that Discovery is telling a season-long story rather than a collection of shorter stories. But the optimism is definitely there. And there was more optimism than Burnham’s “bonk bonk on the head” message (to steal a phrase from the excellent Mission Log podcast) in the season finale. There are tons of little moments scattered throughout the season: Burnham’s compassion for the tardigrade and the gormagander; Stamets’ and Culber’s quiet and caring moments in their quarters; and most of all, Tilly’s infectious, adorkably positive attitude.

And that’s what Discovery is about: holding on to your values, your ethics, and your optimism in the most trying times. No one can stay completely positive all the time, but at some point, we all have the opportunity to make a conscious choice. Do we stick to our optimistic values, or do we take an easier path? It’s a message that definitely applies in the context of today’s troubling social and political upheaval.

And that’s what makes it Star Trek.