People get real worked up about Star Trek don’t they. I’ve never been deeply invested in the lore of this franchise, so I inevitably shake my head at people’s reactions to something I find really entertaining. Then I remember the things I’ve written about Star Wars in the past few months and realise I don’t have much of a leg to stand on judging hard core fans.
There has been a lot of negative coverage of Star Trek: Discovery. Most common amongst the complaints I’ve read seem to focus on the fact that it doesn’t feel like “Star Trek”. I would scoff at this, but I do actually see where this is coming from. I have seen a fair bit of the Next Generation, and Discovery feels a lot more action packed than that series ever did.
The comparisons to Battlestar Galactica seem appropriate, as the series seems much more about internal strife and focusing on action, placed in a single dire scenario that the titular ship seems to be perpetually on the run from. I, however, feel like Discovery’s different tone comes from the very different standard we hold television to now compared to the much tighter budget days of the older series in the franchise.
But before I get lost down a rabbit hole talking about the changing landscape of television, I’ll just focus on Discovery, which I did like, despite the very critical response its received from the many “experts” out there. For as long as I can anyway, before going into my reaction to everyone else’s reaction.
To start with, I thought the cast was very strong. Unlike prior Star Trek shows, Discovery does focus on a single individual, an outsider to the titular ship. While it does have the ensemble cast made-up of the Discovery’s crew, they aren’t as much a focus as Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham, who is the driving force behind the series.
Burnham is one of many characters who has a duality to their role; having been adopted by the Vulcans in her youth and raised by them, only to be thrust back into Star Fleet and onto a human ship. The character starts the series somewhat emotionally stunted and grows as a person, and as a human being. I liked Martin-Green in this show a whole lot and she is consistently a strong presence as the show progresses.
This is helped by in no small part by the supporting cast which are also very strong, if a little thin. Most of the bridge crew are never focused on. I’m sure their names are uttered, but for the life of me I can’t remember them. And they’re given such striking designs too, I kind of want to learn more about them. Like, what’s the deal with that robot-looking lady, is she actually a robot? If so, why was Data such a big deal so many years later? (The actual story was that the show runner thought she looked cool, that’s it.)
This omission means we get more time to focus on the main cast throughout the show’s, relatively brief, 15 episode run. Doug Jones was consistently a presence in his full make-up as the Kelpien First Officer Saru, a character who feels very much like he was cut from the same cloth as Spock and Data. However, Saru is a much more complete character from the get go, in fact he is the most “together” member of the main crew. He knows what he is about and is very comfortable and competent as a result. It contracts the rest of the human main cast who are all full of contradicting emotions and personal secrets.
Speaking of which, Jason Isaacs is fantastic as Captain Gabriel Lorca. While the ship’s captains are traditionally the leads of Trek shows, Lorca is kept at an arm’s distance throughout and as we mostly see him through Burnham’s eyes. As a result, we see a captain who seems unhinged, a maverick who wants to win the war with the Klingons at any cost. It’s during the later stages of the series that we learn he isn’t necessarily who he claims to be, thus putting him into another dual role.
It’s hard to take your eyes off him, and he plays the role incredibly well. Toeing that line of being likeable, but ensuring that you never 100% trust him for reasons you can never quite put your finger on.
The only member of the main cast I wasn’t too impressed by was Mary Wiseman as Cadet Sylvia Tilly. While her role in the show was important, most of her dialogue was written as awkward ramblings, which I’m sure were supposed to come across as charming. I personally just found them awkward. Later on, as things become more dire and she finds herself taking part in major events, I feel like most of her contributions are just ass-pulls or dumb luck or as a result of her acting wildly out of her established “nervous wreck” character.
I didn’t dislike the character by any means, lets just say that I never found myself wondering what she was up to whenever she wasn’t on screen.
Change to the Trek Formula
This smaller cast of characters drive forward the story of the show. The plot concerns the Discovery’s hand in fighting a war against the Klingons, that Burnham unintentionally started. Much of the events revolving around the Discovery’s unique ability to essentially teleport throughout space.
Unlike a more traditional Star Trek show; a series of loosely connected, stand alone episodes. Discovery takes the approach of being one long, ongoing story. The unconventional layout of the whole thing works for me. It starts with a two episode prologue that introduces a lot of characters and ideas that become important down the line, giving certain gravity to later events. Then shifts gears and shows Burnham, at the lowest of the low, before being conscripted to the Discovery and given a shot at redemption.
Along the way, the series is full of twists, revelations and major character deaths. This is where I feel like modern television sensibilities come into play, making this show feel unlike Trek shows of the past. There is a certain Game of Thrones-ification at play here. While I doubt I’m coining a term, I still hope you can see where I’m coming from.
This change in high production value television makes for a more action orientated series. It’s the kind of show where every episode needs to be a killer, because it wants its audience to be excitedly talking about it with one another week to week. It lives and dies by how far is can travel via word of mouth. (And word of social mediaouth.)
This, combined with the new, more action orientated, movie series makes an old style Trek show feel almost like a quaint idea by comparison. I can get why traditionalists might not appreciate this change in tone and narrative style, but for Discovery to have the mass appeal the maker’s expect of it, it was a completely necessary move on their part.
I don’t resent the series for this. While I would have probably also enjoyed a slow, more classic Trek show, that wasn’t the series we got. What I did watch, I still enjoyed.
But to be completely honest, I kind of appreciate the different direction Discovery took. I’m getting to the point where I feel like long running series can feel chained to the tropes and conventions of their franchise, and end up shooting themselves in the foot to stick within those constraints. It was the most recent entry in the Star Wars series, that broke away from expected conventions that made me realise this. And like Discovery, the Last Jedi was criticised for its radical approach to the well worn franchise. I personally relished the fresh take and jumped expectations. In both cases.
It’s still good Trek/science fiction
This post is a disconnected mess isn’t it. That’s what happens when I have too much to talk about and don’t want something to be 10,000 words long.
Discovery is a departure from the more intellectual look at a lot of these science fiction concepts, but the increased focus on action doesn’t necessary make the show dumber for it. Traditionally, Star Trek has taken a very optimistic approach to humanity’s place in his fictional world. It looks at our own problems and vices through a lens of these different aliens and sci-fi concepts. Taking very human shortcoming and putting a pair of antenna or a facial prosthetic on it.
Discovery does away with the pretence and just shows how scummy we can all be to one another. For a show that historically tried to avoid infighting within a crew, preferring to project antagonism from external sources, Discovery revels in the ship’s internal strife. Then it goes one step further by stepping into a reality that is filled with the absolute worst of what we can become.
In the end, what I believe Star Trek to be is an optimistic look at humanity’s future. It’s a show that has always represented the best of what we can be, amidst a whole lot of dystopia and chaos. Amongst all the bumps along the way, Discovery comes back to that theme by its finale. Dropping most of the thinly veiled pretence, Discovery deals directly with how flawed we are as people, but also ends strongly for me.
Despite everything that happens to Burnham along the way, when the key to ending a dire conflict with the Klingons is thrown at her feet, she still decides to take the high road. It shows me that, despite the roller coaster ride Dicovery took me on, it still ends where it began. Showing that, despite all of our shortcomings, we can still choose to be better.
I enjoyed Star Trek Discovery a whole lot. It wasn’t a perfect show by any means, but taking modern audiences into consideration and the difficulties that happened during production, I enjoyed what I watched. While a lot of other people are going on about inconsistencies with the lore and the nonsensical appearance of the Enterprise during the final episode, I’m here just throwing snacks into my face appreciating a well made, well acted piece of science fiction. Which still managed to feel like it belonged to the franchise.