– By J.W. Fox –
The newest Star Trek series is now underway after numerous delays. Star Trek Discovery, which inexplicably is on CBS’s streaming service rather than regular TV, is a half dozen episodes into season one. That provides a pretty good sized sample for viewers to get a handle on what kind of show it is striving to be. Based on reviews online, opinions are mixed.
The show is set after Enterprise and years before the original series. Starfleet appears to be dominated by humans, yet the Federation has numerous alien worlds as members. The opening events depict the beginning of the Federation-Klingon War, the conflict often cited in the previous series. The time line from that point on is pretty complicated, a sort of shift between cold and hot wars.
Discovery deviates from the Star Trek tradition in a number of ways. First and foremost, it has a main character: Michael Burnham played by the awesome Sonequa Martin-Green. While the show is named after the ship Discovery and a large amount of the show takes place there, it isn’t the center of the show. The new series is also more violent and emotionally-charged than its predecessors.
It seems producers wanted to move Star Trek into the mainstream of modern space opera and sci-fi action. In the process, some very important elements were lost. I don’t want to bash what is otherwise a great show but, as a Trekkie, it is something I cannot get past.
I’ll start with the positives:
Visually the Most Impressive Star Trek Ever
It isn’t fair to compare Discovery‘s special effects to its predecessors, given the advances in CGI technology. TNG, Voyager, and DS9 are all from the 90s when it was still in its infancy. Still, it has to be said, Star Trek Discovery is absolutely beautiful!
Everything from the ship to the cosmic phenomena, makeup to combat action sequences, is first class for a 2017 TV show. The aliens look more alien, and less like actors with a bunch of weird growths on their faces. The Klingon ships bear some similarity to the bird-like vessels of previous movies and shows, but the level of detail and decoration added is truly epic. T’Kuvma’s flying temple was especially impressive. The space battles were incredible and could stand up to any big budget Hollywood feature. We haven’t seen many on-world locales yet but the few we have seen are impressive.
Star Trek has a rich history of doing things its own way yet still fitting nicely into the space opera subgenre. They are usually ships on long journeys of exploration, stretching the frontiers of knowledge and travel for the 23rd and 24th centuries. Most follow one ship (TOS, TNG, Voyager, Enterprise) with one notable exception (DS9). DS9 was set on a space station but they got a ship of their own to gallivant around with, the U.S.S. Defiant.
The Discovery is about a single ship, but they are not on a mission of discovery. It is a warship. At least, that is the plot so far. It is a departure from Star Trek tradition but so far has been executed very well. Discovery still shows a familiar Starfleet, under stress because they are being forced into an uncomfortable situation. They all joined to be explorers. While they wear uniforms an observe a military-style chain of command and culture, they are primarily concerned with broadening their horizons.
The early setting of the series also gives us a glimpse of where Starfleet came from in terms of principles, tradition, technology, and procedure. In particular, you see an exemplar of great leadership in Captain Georgiou and a flawed one in Captain Lorca. There is also the dichotomy of human and Vulcan culture, depicted instead from the perspective of a human raised as a Vulcan. All interesting and well-developed subplots.
Now the negatives:
Since the end of Voyager and DS9, producers have looked to the past for its source of “new” story lines. The last movies featuring the TNG crew flopped convincing producers forward was the wrong direction. The next series, Enterprise, was much maligned for a number of reasons. The rebooted movies have completely rewritten Star Trek canon with their new Kelvin time line. Both take place before TNG, a show that premiered almost thirty years ago.
Star Trek is about the future. It is aspirational in its premise, giving a glimpse of what we could be once we overcome the ugly weaknesses in our nature. It is what set it apart from all other science fiction franchises. The first four series occurred in sequential order, slowly taking us further into the future. The story lines gradually explored new conflicts but largely stayed in the same sandbox. That limited sandbox may be why producers felt a new direction was needed.
Still, that new direction did not require them going back in time. Going forward would also allow participation from the casts of TNG, DS9, and Voyager. There exists the potential for a space opera epic spanning countless shows, and hundreds of years on the time line. Unfortunately, it seems Star Trek isn’t about the future anymore. It is about reliving the past with better special effects.
Roddenberry’s Vision Betrayed
The biggest problem with Star Trek Discovery is that it is completely lacking the core of Roddenberry’s vision. Watch a classic episode from one of the first four series and you’ll see it. The crews were the best of the best. They weren’t brooding soldiers or warriors. They were diplomats, scientists, engineers, and philosophers. At their philosophical core was the prime directive, the foundation of an entire philosophy of coexistence with alien races. The Federation was intended as a liberal utopian vision of what we could become, not what we are today.
The scientific method and a set of clear principles guided those captains and crews. Many episodes challenged their ethics and resolve, yet they rarely wavered. The crews held to its principles even under extreme stress. They did not resort to their old ways and lower themselves to the aggressive practices of their neighbors.
After watching six episodes, it is clear the scientific method has no place in Star Trek Discovery. In fact, scientific plausibility has no place either. The U.S.S. Discovery obtains victory through magical new technologies lacking any basis in the Star Trek universe, or our universe. The crew also succeeds by setting aside orders and rules, to become men and women of action. It is the bold that prevail, not the thoughtful.
Captain Georgiou follows Starfleet protocols and gets her ship destroyed. Captain Lorca gets things done by acting as a lone wolf, an aggressive warrior. Damn Starfleet regulations, he has a war to win! Star Trek Discovery is violent, seeking to appeal to the excitable adolescent rather than the rational, intelligent, problem-solving nerd base of the franchise.
Gene Roddenberry would not approve of Star Trek Discovery. He would probably be appalled.
If it wasn’t a Star Trek series, I would say Discovery is a beautiful, exciting, and compelling space opera that sci-fi nerds have wanted for a long time. It equals The Expanse in production values, and cast performances. The premise is compelling and the story has definitely held my attention so far.
But, it isn’t Star Trek.
It might take place in Roddenberry’s universe and include some of his characters, but it bears little resemblance to his masterpiece, nor the sequel shows and movies that came later. For that reason, it is difficult for me to enjoy Discovery. I may be in the minority, but I have to say that I am overall disappointed. I want Roddenberry’s Star Trek, not J.J Abrams’ Star Trek.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.