Star Trek: Discovery: Why We Shouldn’t Start Panicking Just Yet
PART I: Impressions from the Teaser
The teaser trailer for Star Trek: Discovery was released mid-May. It had a little space action, a few throwbacks and enough prosthetic-laden aliens to sink a spaceship. It also left Trekkies everywhere divided over whether the latest Trek is a glorious addition to the saga or a steaming pile of Klingon dog crap.
We won’t find out a definitive answer until September 23rd, when the show actually airs, but that hasn’t stopped fans from dissecting and critiquing every frame of what little they have so far. Some have even gone as far as to give up on the new series entirely. This is a rash move. There is still hope. This article aims to dispel the major concerns raised by Trekkies, and the media, in an effort to give the series a chance to debut before they brutally rip it apart and feast on its carcass.
The So-Called New Age of Trek Diversity
There has been some ‘fan backlash’ to Discovery in regards to the casting. From the trailer, it appears that Sonequa Martin and Michelle Yeoh will be the leads for this series. A small branch of people have decried that the social justice warriors have infiltrated Star Trek and now they are pushing a social justice agenda.
Nobody is disputing that a small fraction of people on the internet said these things, but the media labels these people as fans and then slanders every Star Trek fan in the process. We saw the same thing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The fans were all discussing theories about what this latest film might be about. Nobody saw anything but a couple of negative comments about diversity; but of course, the ever-clickbaiting media manipulated a handful of comments to suggest that every Star Wars fan was a racist, misogynistic pig that couldn’t handle a woman being in charge of their beloved franchise (and if you look at the box office statistics, it’s clearly sensationalist journalism).
The truth of the matter is that sci-fi/fantasy nerds have been ushering in diversity long before many of these people knew what the word meant. Ellen Ripley (ALIEN), Leia Organa and Lando Calrissian (Star Wars), Mako Mori (Pacific Rim), Steve Hiller (Independence Day) and Sarah Connor (Terminator) are just a small sample of diverse characters that sci-fi/fantasy nerds have embraced; so seriously, guys, lay off the nerds. They’re fine with diversity.
And to attack Star Trek fans is particularly insulting, considering that Star Trek kickstarted the trend of diversity in the genre by always pushing the boundaries from representation to interracial kisses. From the very beginning in 1968, when The Original Series first aired, an African-American woman had never been seen in such a high-ranking position in any fictional series. Uhura was the communications officer: one of the six leading crew members on a star ship that contained hundreds, if not thousands, of crew members. They also had Sulu: A Japanese commanding officer, an even more underrepresented minority on television.
Nobody should be surprised or concerned about an Asian female captain in Star Trek, but if the series was to approach the idea of female captains or captains of a different race as a social issue, that would go against everything the show stands for.
The fictional Earth of the 2250s is very different to the world we live in. Race, gender, sexuality: these are no longer issues. Starfleet has crafted a utopian meritocracy. Treating a captain of a particular race, gender or sexuality differently, whether it is prejudice or preferential, would be counterproductive to the ultimate message of Trek: that nobody should be treated better or worse because of who they were born as.
This is not to say that the human race doesn’t see the need for diversity in the 2250s. They understand that to take in people from all walks of life can be an asset. This was demonstrated in TOS in an interaction between Kirk and Spock.
Kirk: “You were actually enjoying my predicament back there. At times, you seem quite human.”
Spock: “Captain, I hardly believe that insults are within your prerogative as my commanding officer.”
This interaction, though intended as a throwaway quip, demonstrates that humans and Vulcans (along with the many other different races under the Federation banner) have different traits that strengthen society when they work together. Spock and Kirk have a symbiotic relationship. Humans are governed by emotion; Vulcans by logic. It is only when they put their heads together and meld their perspectives can they work through a problem. If you throw real-world sensibilities into this mix, you lose the potency of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Starfleet take their diversity for granted; they cannot fathom a world where somebody is judged on something as irrelevant as their gender, the colour of their skin or who they love. It is their background and the experiences they have had that prove valuable to enriching Starfleet.
Which is why any person who complained about Michelle Yeoh’s Malaysian accent missed the entire point of Trek; but so too have the people who expect a story about Yeoh’s struggles as an Asian female captain. Starfleet doesn’t care about her race or gender, and neither should we. If she’s great, then she’ll be great (and she will be. Have you seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?)
The Klingons that Don’t Look Like Klingons
Another point of contention amongst fans (actual fans this time) is the idea that the Klingons look different from their previous counterparts, and more like the Kelvin timeline versions from Star Trek Into Darkness (it still bothers the grammar Nazi in me that there is no semi colon).
This is a legitimate concern. It’s irritating to say the least when a prominent creature from your favourite TV show suddenly appears different without any explanation, but something that people seem to forget is that the Klingons did not originally appear in their now well-known form. They did not have deformed foreheads and sharp teeth until Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Klingons appeared in The Original Series in a more humanoid form, with bushy eyebrows and droopy manchu mustaches. This was later retconned, explaining that the Klingons were infected with a virus that altered their appearance, and the smooth-headed Klingons are the result of an attempt to rectify that. While this fixed the gaping plot hole about the Klingons, it does make a bit of a conundrum for Discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery is a prequel, set ten years before TOS. If you are going to follow this canonical explanation, then it stands to reason that Discovery Klingons should maintain their image of humans in thick brown make up. At best, they would look terrible; at worse, they would be deemed racist and the show would be dead before it has even begun.
Given the writing constraints Discovery has given itself by making the series a prequel, the most logical explanation would be to make this a different species of Klingon. Perhaps they come from a different settlement on the other side of Qo’noS, or perhaps they have been banished many years before and have evolved in a different way to the Klingons of previous iterations. This explanation makes sense in the grand scheme of the larger expanded universe, and if it is integrated as part of the narrative, it will not seem like an afterthought like the retcons of the past.
Star Trek has always been about trying new things, and Discovery seems to be no exception. If the series is exploring a different clan of Klingons, it’s important to go in with an open mind. New shows should offer new perspectives, and maybe Discovery will do this in the form of new Klingons.
This isn’t such an unbelievable idea. If you get humans from around the world, they wouldn’t all look the same, so why should Klingons?
This Isn’t the 2250s I Know
Whenever you do a futuristic prequel, whether it is Star Trek or Star Wars, you will always run into the same problem. How are you going to approach the technology? This issue is more pertinent for Trek than any other series, with the original being made on a television budget in the sixties. Do the showrunners break continuity and have dazzling displays with high-tech HUD menus that reflect the current era’s technological aspirations? Or do they stick to rigid canon and have cardboard sets and blipping LEDs with strange sixties lighting effects?
For CBS, there is really no question.
The television market has never been more cutthroat than it is now. We live in the golden age of television. The budgets are higher, and the special effects are now rivaling those of film: Game of Thrones has special effects that outweigh those of Warcraft. Concessions need to be made. Even the biggest TOS purist would scoff at a modern Star Trek series made on a sixties television budget. The showrunners would ultimately please no one.
But this hasn’t stopped some fans from expressing their desire to see such a product.
The day after the Discovery trailer was released, FOX premiered a trailer for Seth McFlarlane’s new Trek parody series: The Orville. Due to the timely release of the trailer, fans have been drawing comparisons between the two, and many have claimed that the series looks more like Trek than Discovery. Much like the fan films that have cropped up over the years, it is easy to declare them better than the source material when the content isn’t considered canon. While there is no denying that the set design and special effects are mimicking TNG, the quality of the visuals is enough for a sitcom, but if Discovery was released with the same sets and special effects as The Orville, you can bet your last bar of gold-pressed latinum that fans would revolt over the terrible visual effects and, again, deem it a failure.
And yes, a prequel may not have been the best idea. The ideal solution would have been to take the current cast and plonk them into an unknown quadrant of the galaxy in a post DS9 world, but you can’t have everything. If they are going to do a prequel, using up to date visual effects and set design is really the only way for CBS to move forward. The key thing to remember here is that Star Trek isn’t about phasers or photon torpedoes, it’s about something much deeper.
The Show Doesn’t seem to be About Space Exploration
This is a common theme that is debated amongst Trekkies and Trekkers alike. What makes something inherently Star Trek? The truth is that every iteration of Star Trek brings something new to the table, and that is part of the brilliance of it. The Original Series was like nothing anybody had ever seen before; then Next Gen had a much bigger emphasis on philosophy and moral dilemmas; Deep Space Nine looked at the idea of fundamentalism and restoring peace to a world shattered by war; the list goes on. Every Star Trek has brought something different. Star Trek has been everything from a courtroom drama to a police procedural to a sitcom (The Naked Now, anyone?)
Like any TV spin-off or sequel, certain elements might be changed (provided that they don’t contradict canon). Angel was about a vampire that ran a private detective business; completely shifting from the format of Buffy. This was part of the appeal. Viewers didn’t want to watch Buffy 2.0; they already had a show like that. They wanted something set in the same universe but with a different flavour.
It’s also important to remember that right at this moment the sword of Damocles is hovering over the Discovery showrunners’ heads as they revive an old franchise that is destined to get some fans backs against the wall. If you try anything different, as Discovery has done, fans will claim that it doesn’t follow the initial rules of the original; but then if you follow the original, as J. J. Abrams did when he essentially remade Wrath of Khan, then fans will complain that everything is the same and the series doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But in a world of nothing but dull remakes and bland rehashes, it is refreshing to see a series that isn’t afraid to break tradition and try something new.
Star Trek has never necessarily about one thing. It is an exploration of the human condition, which is the essence of good storytelling. So, yes, the focus of this series at this stage does seem to be on hostile relations with the Klingons. This could be just the trailer hyping a certain facet of the show, but even if Discovery is more DS9 than TNG and loses its focus on exploring space, does that make it somehow not a true Trek? Star Trek is an ever evolving beast that has given us a multifaceted universe, and it is all these fresh takes that have kept the series alive today. It is great to try new things. They might not always work, but if you stick with the series, they might have enough time to find their niche in the Star Trek universe.
Even the best Treks Got Off to a Rocky Start
When most people think Star Trek, they think of bumpy headed Klingons, replicators and holodecks. Though it is a hotly contested issue, many fans of Star Trek consider The Next Generation to be the pinnacle of Trek greatness, but this wasn’t always the case. Back in 1987 people were horrified at the notion of bringing back Star Trek without the original crew. Replacing William Shatner’s young, brash and impulsive Kirk with an older, critical thinker like Jean-Luc Picard was an impossible thought, and the fans were having none of it.
Admittedly, TNG‘s first couple of seasons (season one in particular) were not great. Of the twenty-five all-time worst episodes of Next Gen as voted by the fans on IMDb, fifteen of them were from the first two season. As time marched on, the TNG writers managed to push through the awkward episodes. It became comfortable in its own skin. It outgrew the original series, lasting more than twice as long. The show ended up with far more depth and introspection than its predecessor and explored themes that nobody else was game to tackle. This elevated TNG‘s status as the benchmark for what Trek should be, often ahead of the original.
But this was back in the 80s: a time when people (and more importantly studios) would give a television series a chance. Due to increased budgets, television shows need to perform much better and much quicker to warrant their existence. Netflix’s Sense8 was one of the latest causalities as it couldn’t bring big enough crowds to command its enormous budget. Discovery has two big obstacles to face with this new television market. It must pull in the numbers to justify the most expensive television Trek of all time. It must also entice fans enough to subscribe to a brand new CBS streaming service to watch it. The creators of the show understand this, and they realise they don’t have the freedom of having a couple of trial seasons with mediocre episodes. They are going to bring their A-game with the pilot.
At the time of writing this article, Discovery is only about a third of the way through shooting its first season. It is still early days yet. This is not to say that you should go into Discovery expecting it will immediately surpass Next Gen (or that it will at all); that would be setting the show up for failure. Wait until the show is released. Watch the entire first season, and you never know. If you go in with an open mind, you might just fall in love with this latest iteration.
PART II: More Content, More Context, but Does it Change Anything?
An Increase in Diversity, Including Prominent Gay Characters
Since the first portion of this article was written, we have been inundated with new information about the series, including multiple trailers, promos, and character bios. The internet and mainstream media have been praising the show for the character of Lt. Paul Stamets: the first openly gay character to appear in the prime timeline (after the very brief nod to Sulu’s homosexuality in Star Trek: Beyond‘s Kelvin timeline). The question of whether Lt. Stamet’s sexuality should be a prominent part of Star Trek: Discovery is much the same as the controversy over Michelle Yeoh’s ethnicity and gender. It’s great that a gay character is featured, but making a fuss about it goes against Star Trek‘s core belief.
The small group of conservatives struck again, this time taking to the internet to declare that CBS need to ‘keep the fags out of Star Trek‘; but the introduction of gay characters is not a new concept shoehorned in by social justice warriors. Gene Roddenberry himself had quite a bit to say about homosexuality, even publicly expressing a change of heart in the early 90s.
“My attitude toward homosexuality has changed. I came to the conclusion that I was wrong. I was never someone who hunted down ‘fags’ as we used to call them on the street. I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.” ~ Gene Roddenberry
After making these statements to The Advocate in 1991, Roddenberry vowed he was going to push for LGBT characters in TNG‘s fifth season. Unfortunately, this never panned out due to Roddenberry’s death on October of that same year.
Of course, homosexuality would clearly be accepted in a meritocratic organisation such as Starfleet; but we do not currently live in a meritocracy, and the bigotry doesn’t come from a single source. Obviously, we have the right-wing politicians demonising homosexuals as nothing more than a pack of perverts, but it is important to note that our modern society, which for the most part embraces homosexuality, it is still perfectly acceptable to use somebody’s sexuality as an appropriate topic for gossip. You only need to check mainstream media outlets (many of them calling themselves news sites) to see article after article speculating or celebrating celebrity homosexuality.
If Discovery does Trek justice, Lt. Stamet’s sexuality will never be formally acknowledged. His partner and relationship will be treated exactly the same as any other couple’s, without adding another layer of social commentary. Leonard Nemoy summed it up perfectly when he said:
“It is entirely fitting that gays and lesbians will appear unobtrusively aboard the Enterprise—neither objects of pity nor melodramatic attention.” ~ Leonard Nimoy
A perfect example of modern gay representation is Kurt Hummel from Glee: He is a one-note character seen as a sympathetic victim, completely defined by his sexuality. Every plot line stemmed from his oppression at the hands of society. The heterosexual characters would often look down at him in sympathy, albeit well intentioned. We don’t treat heterosexual characters as tragic heroes destined to a life of misery and oppression, so why do gay characters need to be defined by these terms? Who you love is irrelevant to who you are. Being gay should be just one facet of the character and not some one-dimensional template for character creation. As a general rule: If you remove the homosexuality from the character and you are left with nothing, it doesn’t reflect a real homosexual. Hopefully, the writers of Discovery understand this and make their characters with a little more depth than Glee.
The Show is Going to Take Inspiration from Game of Thrones
It is safe to say that Game of Thrones is the biggest television series in history, with stellar ratings every year and an ever-growing fan base. It might also be a safe bet to assume that other shows are envious of GoT‘s popularity and would love to emulate its winning formula.
Discovery showrunners stated that the show was influenced by Game of Thrones in an article with Vanity Fair. But surely Discovery is incompatible with something so dark and bleak as Game of Thrones; if they were truly going to stick to Roddenberry’s Trek (and considering it is set in the same era as TOS, that might be a good idea).
While it was stated that character death would feature more prominently than other iterations, there are many other lessons that Discovery can learn from Game of Thrones.
The biggest of these is an idea that has already been confirmed. Star Trek: Discovery will not be episodic. It will have a full season arc. This is not typical for Star Trek, but it is important to consider that television viewing has changed a lot in the last fifty years: People don’t sit down at a specific time to watch a television program once a week anymore. With the introduction of streaming giants like Netflix (which will be streaming Discovery outside of the U.S.), people are more inclined to watch things at their own pace. The sharp and steady rise of ‘binge watching’ on streaming services encourages showrunners to create content that leaves the viewers on a cliffhanger.
In addition to this, back in the day, people would have a handful of channels to choose from. Now, people don’t even worry about channels. They literally just click the icon of their favourite show and away they go, destined to spend the next three days glued to their TVs. The quantity of the programming has never been higher. Viewers need more reason to try new shows. If Star Trek: Discovery has big cliffhangers every week to drag the viewers back, that might be a necessary tool to securing longevity; and honestly, are Star Trek fans really so opposed to cliffhangers? TNG had at least two or three cliffhangers a season.
HBO (the creators of Game of Thrones for those of you who have been living under a rock) follows a very British/Japanese production philosophy. They make fewer episodes with stronger content, rather than having padding episodes (and let’s face it, Star Trek has had its fair share of terrible filler episodes). The average HBO drama lasts between eight and ten episodes, while the average Star Trek season was about twenty-five episodes. We already know that Star Trek: Discovery is trimming down from the standard Star Trek season to only fifteen episodes (much like how Game of Thrones just shaved its most recent season down to seven episodes). Perhaps Kurtzman and the other showrunners are considering the idea of having a more condensed season that won’t be dragged down by needless filler (again, a must in the Netflix market).
When the writers for Discovery say they are inspired by Game of Thrones, it does raise some red flags. There are certainly different elements of the two series that are absolutely incompatible with each other. Game of Thrones is bloody, violent and pushes the boundaries with explicit content. Star Trek has always been about promoting peace and harmony through storytelling. Though the two shows are very different, Game of Thrones has raised the benchmark for storytelling and visuals in a television series, and if Star Trek wishes to thrive in this new market, they are going to have to employ some new strategies to adapt. Does that mean we should completely discard everything that Starfleet and the world of Trek stands for just for the sake of ratings? No. That would be insane. While there is going to be a heavy Game of Thrones influence, Yeoh’s quote from the original teaser should be enough to instill hope that Starfleet’s ultimate philosophy hasn’t been lost.
“Starfleet doesn’t fire first.” ~ Captain Philippa Georgiou.
Discovery is Dropping a Core Element of Classic Trek
Star Trek fans have a reputation for being finicky when it comes to the minor details like incorrect ranking badges, or office locations on a starship (and of course there are people out there who have starship maps fully committed to memory). But one thing that has fans calling for red alert is the notion that the core elements that make the show are being tinkered with. This is not baseless speculation. The creators fully intend to do just that. They have already stated that they are ditching the long held tradition that the crew will not have conflicts with one another, breaking the illusion of a truly harmonious society.
The details on this are still too vague to really assess whether this is going to be the monumental failure that some fans protest it will be. It all depends on context. If Starfleet’s crew are fighting over trivial things, that is simply human behaviour and adds an element of realism. This is also not even a new concept for Trek, as Deep Space Nine included this kind of conflict and it was never really a problem because they were ultimately on the same page when it came to the bigger picture, they were simply having disagreements on the nitty gritty details. Often their discussions would make everyone understand that both perspectives may be right (or at least partially). Much like many examples in this article, it is all very context dependent. If Starfleet officers are in conflict about the idea of a woman piloting a ship, or Starfleet’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, that is a completely different story.
Starfleet has survived some conflict within its ranks before, and it will again. The key to solving most, if not all, of the issues in this article is for Discovery to ensure that it doesn’t lose the humanist message of Star Trek: that every person, though offering different personal and cultural perspectives, should be treating exactly the same. No better. No worse. That is the core of Star Trek‘s ideology.
Just Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride
Take yourself back to the stunning desert scene from the opening of the original teaser. Georgiou and Burnham are trekking along the dunes when Georgiou says: “It is hard to imagine you have served under me for seven years.” Similarly, it is hard to imagine that the last four months of promotion have gone by at light speed and before you know it, we will be faced with the final product; then we can pick it apart till our heart’s content.
But as Trekkies and Trekkers, it is important for the future of the franchise that we don’t look upon this critically or favourably, but honestly. This series should be judged on its own merit. Yes, it will probably be different from previous installments, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Also, it is important to remember that this series and all other fictional books, movies, television shows, comic books and video games, all share a common goal: to entertain us. While these worlds can teach us so many things about our own, and they can dazzle us with their visuals, at the heart of every story is the need to entertain. So it is imperative to go into this series with an open mind. Go in with hope in your heart. Hope that it is going to be great. You might love it, you might hate it, you might be indifferent to it. Just give it a try and assess the source material based on its own merit, just like Starfleet does its recruits.
What do you think? Leave a comment.