The latest incarnation of Star Trek hit our screens last week and there is so much we could unpack. I could address the online reaction to the show’s diverse casting controversy, the unusual production decision or I could analyse it critically; divorced from its Trekkie fandom and heritage.
But the truth is I don’t want to do any of that. It’s clear that Star Trek has always been on the left of the political spectrum. People who get paid way more than I do have already looked at every aspect of the production and decided what they want to do with their show. And it’s impossible to divorce Discovery from all the Trek that came before it. As a liberal snowflake, what I really want to write about is how the show made me feel.
Star Trek, for me and millions of others, is so enjoyable because at its core, it’s about hope. The Federation is an idealised version of humanity. An outline of what we could be without conflict, poverty or prejudice. The crews of the various Enterprises, Voyager and DS9 are essentially good people, both morally and professionally. They fight with one another and make mistakes, but eventually they do the right thing and learn from them. For the large part, they explore the universe, helping where they can for the benefit of all. That’s the core of Star Trek.
Together we’re given a crew that doesn’t get on and doesn’t make good choices.
Discovery feels like it’s missing that core element. The lead, Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, is competent but unlikable – her initial response to an encounter with the Klingons is conflict. She is tempered by Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou, who is lovely but lacks leadership and Doug Jones’s Saru, a Kaplien science officer who, it is implied, is genetically predisposed to cowardice. Together we’re given a crew that doesn’t get on and doesn’t make good choices.
The characters stumble from instance to instance without communicating with one another and we’re given no real reason to want them to win, other than the fact that they’re the protagonists. Only at two points did I feel like Discovery belonged in the world of Star Trek; when an ensign remarks “Why are we fighting? We’re Star Fleet. We’re explorers, not soldiers”, and when Captain Georgiou explains to Burnham, “I was a human who had seen loss of life but still chose hope.” But both these instances are dismissed in their own way, treated as insufficient modes of think for Burnham goals.
All this aside Discovery isn’t a bad show, it’s just a not a good Star Trek show. And I really wanted it to be. I can only imagine how much the original series inspired people in the sixties. Whoopi Goldberg, who would later go on to star in The Next Generation, has said that it was seeing Michelle Nichols play Uhura that made her realise she could be on television and play more than the maid. A huge number of scientists and people of influence have been inspired by Star Trek because it showed a brighter future, and I’m not sure that Discovery does that.
Maybe it was easier to create a show about how things could be better whilst they were already getting better.
Maybe it’s a reflection of our current society. The sixties we’re a hopeful time. It was post-war, and societal movements were picking up speed. The civil rights and feminist movements were flourishing whilst free love and rock and roll permeated the arts. Maybe it was easier to create a show about how things could be better whilst they were already getting better.
Right now, the world seems bleak. Trump, Brexit, post-truth, the rise of fascism and a climate crisis all limit the prospects of a better tomorrow and I think that has infiltrated Discovery. The conflict, tribalism and reactionary thinking the show demonstrate are all interesting and the perfect grounds for drama. But they don’t offer hope.
There is a slew of realistic and gritty sci-fi. One of the best qualities of the genre is that it can reflect the worst aspects of society. Discovery is just another one of those shows. But Star Trek, when done right, is special in that it shows us these flaws and tells us that we can overcome them, that as a society we have endless potential and can move forward only if we can put our differences aside and work together.
Featured image by NASA (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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