And now for some nerd-on-nerd violence.
We’ve been batting this review around for several weeks now for a couple of reasons. First, because Star Trek: Discovery is a show with a problem most shows can’t afford at the height of Peak Television: it’s wobbly out of the gate and still trying to find its footing. Second, we keep waiting for a reviewer to ease up a little on the “It’s not Trek” complaints and admit that all Star Trek shows were wobbly out of the gate and needed time to find their footing. While the former complaint is slowly becoming moot as the show becomes more self-assured about what it wants to be, it seems to us the latter issue is becoming more pronounced. The more Star Trek: Discovery stands on its own two feet, the more we see fans and reviewers complaining that it doesn’t fit precisely into the Star Trek mold, a criticism we tend to find somewhat unfair, if not largely without merit.
Yes, Discovery looks far more modern, with tech far more advanced than the original 1966 series, which is supposed to be set ten years after it. Yes, that decision as to where to place the show on the franchise’s timeline probably caused more problems than it’s worth. Yes, there have been storytelling and plotting issues, murky character introductions and an overall darkness of tone that sets it apart from most other entries in the Trek television franchise. All of the above is so stipulated. This review is less about denying the show’s problems and more about embracing them as part and parcel of the whole Star Trek experience, as well as placing them in the context of the current television and larger cultural landscape.
First, let’s go with this: There was no social media or even internet when Star Trek: The Next Generation marked the Trek franchise’s return to television after two decades away. And if every Trek nerd was being honest with themselves, they’d admit that if there had been, the online fan response to it would have been far more negative than Discovery’s. And we’re pretty sure that by the time Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise aired (all after the rise of the online nerd community), a good deal of the fan responses at the time were turned over to the same negativity we’re seeing right now. It was ever thus – and the fact that hardcore Trek fans are decrying this show only makes it that much more a member of the Trek family.
Second, let’s admit that when it comes to negative fan reactions to new Star Trek shows, most of the time, it was warranted. Not one Star Trek franchise entry, including the OG series, the OG motion picture, the OG Next Gen film outing (Generations) and the Abrams-helmed film reboot, started off smoothly. Literally every single time some Trek franchise began, it shuffled along in fits and starts until it found its footing. The fact that Discovery’s first six episodes aren’t perfect is not remotely concerning to us right now.
Third, it has to be said that television – as a medium, as a technology, and as a cultural artifact – is vastly changed from the times when all other previous Star Trek shows aired. In the age of binge-watching and a surplus of platforms, technologies and companies providing content, Discovery was going to have to meet the demands and expectations of a modern audience. Those demands were certainly going to include more complex storytelling, with arcs that span an entire season, if not an entire series; more nuanced and complicated character development, with much attention paid to the flaws of each character, as well as the internal struggles they all go through; and a sense of moral grayness that allows the audience to ponder questions about the story and gives the characters a series of dilemmas to work through as they achieve some semblance of growth and change. Everything we just described is anathema to most prior incarnations of Star Trek, which leaned heavily toward episodic storytelling, largely unchanged characters, and moral certainty in its main cast. To do Star Trek for a modern television audience means that you absolutely can’t do the same version that aired in 1966 — or even 1996.
And let us also take a moment here to stipulate that yes, putting this show on a paid streaming service instead of on network television is an incredibly dumb idea.
Now, as to the complaints about the show’s dark and grim undertones, we find them to be quite a bit overstated. In the context of most other adventure shows out there, Discovery’s darkness is fairly mild and makes perfect sense in the context of a war scenario. This would appear to be one of the main reasons why the show is set so early in the franchise’s timeline; so that we can look at a time when Star Fleet and the Federation were still struggling to become the peaceful, humanistic organizations they would later become. You can’t examine the origins of an ideology without testing it a little. So yes, there are members of Star Fleet who are acting in a decidedly non-Star Fleet-approved manner on this show. Captain Lorca in particular is clearly being written as a morally damaged, if not deeply compromised character. He is not, however, being written as the hero of the story. That’s entirely the point. The writing is doling out some mighty questionable info about his character, from the reveal that he killed his entire former crew to the question of whether or not he’s deliberately letting Admiral Cornwell twist in the wind as a prisoner of the Klingons because she knows the truth about how screwed up he is. We’re not meant to applaud him for these things. We’re meant to wonder where his moral choices are going to lead him and whether or not Michael will be faced with the choice of having to stage another mutiny. That’s some bold and meaty stuff for a Star Trek show, but it’s not, to our eyes, all that off from the basic Star Trek model.
So Captain Lorca bends the rules and possibly goes too far. How does this make him any different from Kirk, Picard, Riker, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, and even Spock — all of whom were lauded whenever they ditched the rules and took on the Trek-requisite Space Cowboy model? Couldn’t Lorca’s characterization be considered a modern, more nuanced look at that very Space Cowboy archetype? We all like to pretend that Picard did nothing but sip Earl Grey and quote Shakespeare while finding intelligent, peaceful diplomatic solutions to everything, but let’s face it: the films turned him into the action hero he fought against becoming for seven seasons of his show. By his second film appearance, he was literally ripping the guts out of his fallen enemies. And even when “our” captain was on the right side of an issue in the Star Trek universe, there were always plenty of opposing captains or admirals who weren’t living up to the ideals of Star Fleet or the Federation.
Our point: Trek is rough, Trek is contradictory. Trek is maddening. It always, always ALWAYS has been.
As to the issue of the technology being too advanced for this time, we may be reading too much into it or falling into a fanboi pool of optimism, but it seems to us that the extremely advanced tech being displayed here is at least part of the point of the story. While Discovery may be playing fast and loose with some aspects of the franchise’s continuity, it seems fairly obvious that the spore drive will never become Star Fleet-standard and that this series is probably going to be explaining why.
As an aside, we find it irritating that it’s called the “Displacement-Activated Spore Hub Drive” – and yet no one has seen fit to shorten that to the catchy and sassy “DASH Drive.” Come on, writers. Must we?
Granted, it’s tough to make all the oh-so 2017 holographic displays (including the reveal that Discovery has an actual holodeck) fit with anything we know about previous depictions of technology in this time period. But we live in a period when talking to each other via instantaneous flat screen is now commonplace. We even live in a period where holographic displays actually exist. Putting aside concerns of continuity (which is, we realize, very tough for long-time fans to do), you really can’t make science fiction in 2017 based on tech speculation from 50 years before. It just doesn’t work, except as a form of nostalgia for long-time fans. It would almost certainly be a hard sell to get a larger audience to watch a deliberately retro science fiction show. As charming as the blinking lights and flat, painted walls of the OG Enterprise set may appear to us now, it would look pretty ridiculous in 2017 as a version of the future.
As another aside, yes, we’re aware of The Orville. We hated it; partially for that very reason – the retro sci-fi just looks quaint instead of awe-inspiring.
If we have any issue, it’s with the visual look of the show, which could have benefitted from a few style nods to the OG series. The reboot-films with Chris Pine did at least a slight tip of the hat to the ’60s styles of dress and hair that the show originated, from Zoe Saldana’s winged eye and mini-skirt to the OG athleisure-style uniforms with the Beatle boots. We always got a slight kick out of the idea that there will be a brief vogue for mid-20th century mod fashion in roughly 300 years. But we actually love the look of the ship, clunky as it is. That spinning saucer detail is a lot of fun. Yes, the uniforms are ugly, but again, there have been dozens of Star Fleet uniforms depicted in the last 50 years and to our eyes, all but a handful of them were pretty awkward.
Which isn’t to say the show is without serious problems; the most glaring being the treatment and depiction of the Klingons. What was once a war-like race with an impeccable code of honor in the Samurai mode is now a cannibalistic conquering race with racial purity undertones. It’s not that we mind a villainous take on the Klingon race (it fits with the time period and is most likely the Number One reason for making the series a prequel); it’s that they’ve been reduced to some cardboard-cutout villainy that renders them as fairly generic alien bad guys. Worse, they insist on long scenes of spoken Klingon dialogue, a move clearly intended to placate the nerds in the audience, but one that probably only serves to enrage the hard core fans even more, since these people speaking Klingon don’t much resemble most versions of the race seen before now.
Additionally, there’s been too slow of a build in introducing the cast. We’re not entirely sure such a thing was necessary or works to the show’s benefit. It’s very “prestige TV” to dole out character information slowly at the start of a series, but this is one area where hewing to the old school method of character introduction would’ve been to the series’ enormous benefit. And by old school method, we mean “Every character in the first half-dozen episodes will state their own names, agendas, and histories at the drop of a hat until the audience gets up to speed.” It may be awkward and it may be a cliche, but it’s one piece of old school TV writing this show could sorely use.
Having said that, we’re really starting to like the characters, even if they are being sketched out too slowly and in too vague a manner. Sonequa Martin-Green is everything you’d want in a Star Trek lead: charismatic, moral to a fault, intelligent, inquisitive, adventurous, empathetic and troubled. We weren’t a hundred percent behind her Vulcan-based background, mainly because it felt like they were going over well-trod ground. We still aren’t super-crazy about placing her smack in the middle of Spock’s family, but the show has leaned into her difficulties with processing emotions and used it as a way to differentiate her from actual Vulcan characters, flipping the script, because she actually wants to experience emotions and is finding the journey back to her humanity to be a hard road. There’s a lot to mine there, and as the show progresses it’s starting to show an understanding of that.
We also love Cadet Tilly, just for being a slightly different take on a Star Fleet cadet. Still, the show can’t seem to decide if she’s filled with insecurities or if she’s bold and confident. It seems to shift from scene to scene. We didn’t love the character design of Saru, mainly because it just looked so generically Star Trek in a lot of ways, but Doug Jones is doing amazing work underneath all those prosthetics, offering up a fussy, officious take that reminds us of Tim Gunn in Space.
And speaking of gays in space…
We like the concept behind the character of Lieutenant Stamets, even if Anthony Rapp is taking some time to get comfortable in the role. At first, we wondered if it was all that nuanced to make the TV franchise’s first openly gay officer so… well… bitchy. Sure, they gave him excellent reason to be unhappy with his lot in life (he’s a scientist who never wanted to serve on a war ship, let alone see his life’s work used for war), but some of his snippy first scenes had us cringing slightly. Then again, there’s an interesting question of just how you code a character as gay in a speculative setting without relying on stereotypes and modern-day tropes. Do you simply write him neutrally and make no concessions to his identity outside of romantic or sexual scenes, or do you attempt to give him a personality informed by his gayness? There’s no right way to do it, but it’s interesting to compare Rapp’s performance – as well as Wilson Cruz’s, who plays his partner – to a character like Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The former are both openly gay actors playing openly gay characters and thus, to the eyes of these two gays, were recognizably gay the first time they each spoke. Isaac is not an openly gay man and is presumed to be straight, playing a character who never gave any true indication of his sexual preferences, and yet gay fandom held him up as an example of subtle queerness in the SW universe. Again, we’re just rambling and making observations here. How do you represent gayness completely in a purely speculative setting and is it better or worse to have the characters come off recognizably gay to 21st Century audiences because they sound like 21st Century gay men? We have to say, we think we prefer the Stamets approach over the Poe Dameron one. As a bitchy gay couple, watching another gay couple lovingly snipe at each other as they use their space-toothbrushes was a truly wonderful thing to see, stereotypes be damned.
To wrap this long-ass thing up, let’s ask and answer some questions:
Is the cast diverse in a way that reflects its era’s vision of diversity? Yes.
Does one, possibly more cast member struggle with the internal conflict between their human side and their not-human side? Yes.
Are the uniforms ugly? Oh, yes.
Are the characters sometimes contradictory, sometimes underdeveloped, and prone to simplistic reactions? Yes.
Is the science heavy with technobabble and handwavium? Yes.
Does the series deal with big questions of war, morality, technological advancement, and what it means to be human? Yes.
Then guess what? It’s totally a Star Trek show, nerds.