This post is not about the mean spirited, self congratulatory way the series was marketed. It is not about the absurd way the achievements of Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Avery Brooks, Tim Russ, Garrett Wang and many others who I am no doubt forgetting were ignored in the rush to congratulate the cast of Discovery. Believe me, I feel that clear disrespect was shown to all the cast and crew of previous Trek series in the way the rollout for Discovery was handled. But I’m not going to talk about it. I feel it, but it’s not what we’re here for today. If you need to get it out of your system you can go and scream into that hole I dug in the corner. And while we’re waiting for the concrete to mix so we can patch it, let’s take a look at what really matters here.
You see, there’s an unfortunate fact that sometimes, particularly when you’re restarting a semi-dead franchise, you have to build up what’s in the here and now as hard and as you can just to get attention and hope it’s enough pull in people outside your hardcore fanbase. Yes, said fanbase might not like you’re overlooking the past for the present. Yes, that goes triple or more for a fanbase as rabid as Trekkies. But if your goal is to serve the franchise as well as you can, make a great piece of entertainment and bring the greatness of a franchise like Star Trek to a new generation then sometimes these are the compromises you must make. I would have forgiven CBS in a heartbeat if Discovery had been great Star Trek. If it had been good Star Trek I would have forgiven them eventually.
Discovery is not Star Trek.
There’s a veneer of things that look and sound like Star Trek all over the series. It has the name, the logo, the door sound effect, the languages and vague look of some of the characters. There’s even a guy name Sarek on the show, though he doesn’t act anything like Spock’s father. And that’s the problem with all these vaguely familiar touchstones. They look like they should be familiar but all the things that made them familiar have been hollowed out and replaced with vomit.
For this we are supposed to be grateful that we have a new Star Trek show to watch.
I am not.
We’re going to start with how Discovery betrayed the very concept of Star Trek, then touch on all the ways the show also ignored the story of Star Trek. Then we’re going to talk a little about how Discovery fails as TV show. But before that, for exactly two paragraphs, I hope you’ll forgive me for being nice to Discovery for just a second.
CBS has set a new bar for special effects in a TV show. The design and execution of the visuals, from make up to starscapes to the look of the starships and the feel of them maneuvering through space, it’s all great. Everything, down to small details like how the starships are never aligned with each other, instead having slightly different axis and lines of travel as you’d expect of two ships in the 3d vastness of space, works like magic. It’s beautiful. I know the design of the ship Discovery itself drew a lot of flack and it’s certainly not as nice looking as the Shenzhou, the ship in the first two episodes, which leads me to wonder why they didn’t just use the Shenzhou design for the whole show.
Furthermore, the story itself could be good. It’s not something I’d want to watch with the current main character, Mike the Girl, in the lead and in fact the way it was executed in the first two episodes doesn’t fill me with confidence. But that may be all the other problems the show has clouding my judgment. Regardless, with a different writing team and it’s own brand Discovery could possibly have been something I enjoyed. But the thing is… the story isn’t Star Trek.
From the very beginning, Star Trek has been about people in space, solving problems by working with one another. Whenever Our Heroes would encounter a problem they’d pull out their trusty tricorders and switch on the sound effects, angle the shields in case of trouble and start reversing polarities until they found a solution. The point wasn’t the science, which was pretty flimsy, and it wasn’t the morals, although they were definitely there. What made Star Trek definitively Star Trek was when the crew – regardless of what ship or station they were on – went out into the great limitless Out There and confronted a Problem. There were new Problems almost every week, and some Problems were so big they’d come up again and again, never quite solved. But for the most part the wonder and vastness of the Cosmos would bring us something new and unique and possibly dangerous but definitely interesting and the crew would pull together and solve it.
There’s no want in Star Trek’s time. Replicators and antimatter reactors solved it. There’s no ethnicity in Star Trek’s time. The Eugenics Wars made it irrelevant. All the problems left are problems of people – conflicting personalities and priorities, alien cultures and philosophies, ignorance, disease and old age. And no matter how daunting they seemed, when the crew pulled together and relied on one another’s skills and insights, grit their teeth at each other’s rough spots and valued each other for their strengths, then the Problem could be solved.
In Star Trek, there is no main character. Yes, the captains/commanders did get a little more emphasis, as on a ship the captain has final say in most matters. But ultimately the crew had to function as a unit to tackle their Problems. Each member of the crew was the lead at least once a season. Faces came and went, but the crew endured. The ship itself came to be a character, from the stubborn workhorse nature of the Constitution-class Enterprise to the tricky two-in-one design of the Galaxy-class, ship and crew alike were stars of the show. Trying to separate them out would be foolish.
Discovery is different.
For starters, they wreck the first ship after two episodes. (I don’t care about spoiling this show and neither should you.) But worse, Discovery has a main character. Star Trek isn’t about one character. It’s about all of them choosing to collaborate and make something greater than themselves. That kind of idealistic storytelling was a little utopian, sure, but the purity – and occasional corniness – of it was part of the charm. Discovery promises to be a deep dive into one character. Something that far too many shows are trying to be these days. Why not stick to what Star Trek has always been and, at the same time, show how you’re different from the rest of the crowd? But Discovery chose to discard that and loose one of it’s greatest strengths.
It gets worse.
Discovery has trashed Star Trek’s longstanding lore and history. Vulcans have gone from an intensely, self-destructively pacifistic race that exercises rigid self control to generic, psudospiritual space elves that is willing to attack Klingons on sight because of a single encounter that went badly. Gone is logic ruling over emotions so that the wild passions of Vulcan would not eat its own people alive. Instead there is awkwardly expressed sentiment free of any reasoning principles at all. There’s a person named Sarek on the screen but he doesn’t sound anything like Spock’s father. And it’s not just because of the actor is different.
Klingons suffer the most in the pilot episodes. Kahless the Unforgettable, the Klingon’s Buddha-esque figure, who taught them the ways of honor and enlightenment, has morphed into some sort of weird pseudo Mohammed, driving them to acts of martyrdom.
I understand that this wasn’t the goal of the creators. They reportedly wanted Klingons to be the space-KKK. This is stupid, not because there’s no role for the space-KKK but because Klingons are the wrong choice for two reasons. First, visually and culturally, they’re meant to be Asian analogs. Yes, most Asian cultures are ethno-supremacists like the KKK but the most important part of their culture is their closely knit family systems, which the patronymics and clans of the Klingons harken to. Kahless’ system of honor is a simulacrum of bushido (and chivalry but mostly bushido) and his teachings, again, are more about enlightenment, courage and fidelity than race or purity. This transformation is a real reach.
Second, Star Trek already has the space-KKK, they’re called Romulans. They could have fit the role seamlessly with no major changes to what’s known about them or their philosophies. It’s almost as if whoever wrote this trainwreck knew nothing about Star Trek lore at all.
Let’s talk some more about Klingons for a second. Some idiot in CBS’ Makeup room decided Klingons needed to be space orcs now. No. No no no no no. You cannot bury 85% of the actors faces under two inches of rubber prosthetics and expect them to emote. Michael Dorn brought a subtlety and breadth of emotion to Worf that made him one of the most memorable characters in Star Trek canon and he did it because we could see his expressions clearly and understand that, even when he was not talking he was feeling just like a real person would. It was a masterpiece of acting that is rarely appreciated, especially when he’s placed next to some of the other wonderful actors he shared the screen with. But slap him in the travesty of makeup that these Klingons are under and there’s no way he could deliver the same performance.
And, while not quite the disservice the other aspects of the Klingon rework present, the costume and starship designs are also horrid. None of the Klingon ships look like Klingon battlecruisers or birds of prey. These were stately, graceful ships who’s designs were still eminently practical, meeting all the needs of warships. In Discovery we get generic space musclecars in Klingon green. Klingon clothes were sleek and distinctive, iconic even, and again practical as melee armor. In Discovery, they wear gaudy tin cans that restrict movement, look like they’d snag on just about anything and provide no defensive properties whatsoever. Also, the wonderful, if impractical, silhouette of the bat’leth is gone. And though there is a potential mek’leth sighting it’s been reduced to an overly elaborate, spikey thing that doesn’t really fit the traditional Klingon aesthetic.
And that’s just what we’ve seen in two episodes. How likely are other beloved parts of the franchise to be represented well?
The icing on the cake is how badly Discovery is shot. I’m not a camerawork guru, I don’t geek out over framing or other camera techniques like some people do – although I do know good camera work when I see it and like it for what it is – but the weird Dutch angles in the cinematography and the overuse of lens flares just ruin a lot of the scenes in this show. They serve no purpose and feel confusing or pretentious or both. With the exception of the rare cases, like the unaligned ships in space I mentioned before, it’s just distracting. Worse, everything is dark. They know how to make electric lights in the 23rd century, CBS. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, they all had well lit ships. Would it kill you to pay the electric bill for a few more set lights? Or were you just trying to hide the fact that your ship interior design is pretty lackluster?
The dialog is tolerable and the acting is of similar quality. But it’s not enough to make the show interesting even if you look at it as a stand alone TV show with no connection to any franchise. It’s painfully clear, from the lack of details in the ship’s interior to the lack of meaningful characterization of anyone outside of the captain and a single forced scene with a random bridge officer in the second episode, that this whole setup exists in service of Mike the Girl, the only person who matters on the whole ship. To drive that point home, they’re all dead except for Mike and the ship is gone by the end of the second episode. It’s grossly exploitative and kills pretty much any stakes the show could hope to build now by making it so obvious that Mikey is the only one that matters.
Star Trek is a great franchise with a lot of cultural cachet and a history of poking at social controversy from the cover of its scifi framework. The creators knew this, and clearly wanted to borrow some of that history to lend power to their own points. Unfortunately they blunted any points the show could have made by ignoring the format and history of Star Trek that made it so effective to start with and even failing to craft a show that might be interesting in spite of that. Yes, their hostility to the fans who love the franchise is annoying but it’s not what doomed the show. That would be the apathy towards Star Trek of CBS and the showrunners.
The cultural force of Star Trek has been languishing for a while. The J.J. Abrams movies tried to revive some of it but that turned out to be more of a Star Wars parody in Star Trek clothing, with little of the panache or insightfulness of the original’s legacy. But there is one other take on that legacy ongoing. Yes, Seth Macfarlane. Next week, we’re coming for you.