Ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered when I was six years old, I’ve loved Star Trek. It gave me an optimistic future to believe in and taught me to not only accept people who are different from me but to celebrate those differences.
Geordi La Forge taught me that something I might have considered a disability could actually be a strength. Captain Picard taught me that there was a better way of resolving our conflicts than violence.
Star Trek once had a proud history of holding a lens to our world and forcing its viewers to wrestle with difficult questions. By 2017 though, the Star Trek brand had become greatly diminished. I eventually came around to loving Deep Space Nine and appreciating what it added to the franchise. And, despite my early cynicism, Star Trek: Enterprise actually surprised me by at least starting off promising before quickly deteriorating. None of the Next Generation movies were very good, and I never cared much for Voyager.
Then there were the “reboot-quels,” often referred to as the “Kelvin Timeline” Universe or the JJ Abrams Treks even though he wasn’t involved in the third one. I actually somewhat enjoyed all three of those more than most of my peers even though they were all flawed in various ways and rarely even resembled the Trek of my youth.
I recognized that the enormous financial costs of these films now drove producers to mostly just make big, dumb action blockbusters with the recognizable and valuable Star Trek brand name attached rather than focus on the cerebral, exploratory-focused, and diplomacy-over-warfare philosophical elements that I most loved about Star Trek and that made the franchise unique.
For that reason — as well as the demands of trying to stay consistent with an increasingly growing history and canon — whenever friends would bring up the future of Star Trek, I often rained on everyone’s parade by declaring I hope there are no more Star Trek series or movies. Instead, I preferred producers took what they loved about Star Trek and developed original intellectual properties inspired by it rather than maintaining a kind of Weekend At Bernie’s illusion that Star Trek was still alive when, in reality, the spirit of Trek — it’s katra, if you will — was long dead.
And then came Star Trek: Discovery. I’m not one of those Trek fans who was looking for an excuse to hate this thing. Despite a lot of behind the scenes problems and despite all the trailers fetishizing the dark and gritty violence of warfare, I genuinely tried to find redeeming qualities to this spinoff because I love Star Trek and feel that, in the Trump Era, we need Star Trek as much as we’ve ever needed it.
I told myself that the trailers were designed to attract general audiences, not hardcore Trekkers/Trekkies. I told myself the optimism, the social commentary, the exploration of the human condition were going to be there if I just accepted that, once again, this is Star Trek just adapting its message of hope and humanity by packaging it in a manner more appropriate to television today.
Then I finally watched the first two-hour premiere and my hopes were dashed. This isn’t the Star Trek we need to provide us with direction in The Age of Trump; this is Star Trek for the Donald Trump demographic.
Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. The Alt Right is likely to still be turned off by a perceived reduction of white males in this latest Star Trek — cast diversity being possibly the only remnant of the original franchise’s spirit and the only one Discovery actually furthers — while audiences on the Left may be turned off by Discovery’s decidedly more Neoconservative philosophy. So then, who is this show even really for?
Still though, I suspect, if you like Donald Trump, you’re going to love Star Trek: Discovery. While the creators told Rolling Stone it’s the Klingons of this series who are intended to represent Trump’s America, I can’t help but think the Starfleet of this show does as well. By the end of the second hour, the “heroes” save the day not through diplomacy; instead, they win by dropping a nuke on them and committing serious war crimes. These actions are completely at odds with everything Gene Roddenberry and the rest of the creative team that developed the franchise in the first place stood for.
Rarely on the original series did Kirk and crew solve their problems by just fighting better and killing their enemies. In some of the best stories, they would discover their opponent was just misunderstood and then find a peaceful resolution. I’m thinking of classic episodes like “Arena” or “Devil in the Dark.” Even when violence did win the day, as in “Balance of Terror” — arguably the best episode of the original series — we truly empathized with the enemy, realizing he’s just a soldier following orders like Kirk, with whom he could have been friends with in another reality under different political circumstances.
Discovery fails on smaller levels as well. Its main title sequence is possibly the worst of the franchise. Though the Shenzhou is not the main vessel of the series, I’d be surprised if the titular ship’s bridge doesn’t share the same cold, metallic feel. The bridge used to have personality, but Trek has sadly maintained a pattern of sterile, ugly interior ship design for the past twenty years. Also, I’m starting to suspect there may be zero actual “discovering” happening on this show.
Then there’s the constant use of dutch angles. I love a good camera tilt as much as the next person, but sometimes you just have to know when enough is enough.
The only lesson I could glean from the premiere is that you should strike first even if you don’t know the situation is even hostile yet…I guess?? I think that’s right, since that’s the series’ main protagonist Michael Burnham’s position, and all the characters who tried to solve the situation diplomatically got super duper killed.
Science fiction is at its best when it holds a lens up to humanity, or rather when it puts humanity on trial to determine if we can ever truly evolve beyond our baser, savage instincts or if we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
Underneath all the fantastical, larger-than-life genre components, at its heart, Star Trek was an exploration of what it means to be human. It was an aspirational tale meant to inspire its audience to work towards a better future.
Star Trek: Discovery is sleek and modern-looking. It has better special effects than any previous Trek series. But just like Spock that one time, it’s missing its brain. And also like Spock that other time, it’s missing its katra. There’s no soul in there. Discovery seems antithetical to Roddenberry’s vision of a better future while unexpectedly, Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane is simultaneously embracing that vision on The Orville. Discovery doesn’t understand the meaning of Star Trek. It is a bleak view of the future, not a hopeful one.