Essays, Television

Into the forest we go: Star Trek, Discovery and the first frontier

As all new Star Trek television series Discovery closes out its opening half-season, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this momentous point in modern television. That’s a big word – momentous. The return of Star Trek to the small screen, however, surely fits that description. Without the cultural impact of the original 1960’s Star Trek, television would look a great deal different in the modern day. Star Trek stands as, easily, one of the key pop-cultural touchstones of the 20th century and for all its success as a movie franchise across three separate retinue of actors, television remains and always will remain the true home and heart of Star Trek. Any appearance of the franchise on television is a big deal, and Discovery has been many years in the making.

The wilderness years of television Star Trek were long. Following the transition of Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, subsequent series failed to match the commercial success of the first sequel series to Gene Roddenberry’s original. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both had levels of critical or commercial success (less so Voyager) but neither made the same kind of impact on the cultural storytelling landscape, while Enterprise—the first Trek voyage into the 21st century—was hampered out of the gate in attempting to tell a 20th century style of Star Trek in a rapidly changing television and real world political and sociological landscape.

2005 was the darkest year. Enterprise was cancelled in its fourth season, the year ironically it finally began to find its creative feet and place within the Trek universe, and mirrored The Original Series in how it began a long period of the franchise away from television. Not quite as long as the eighteen years between the end of TOS and the launch of TNG, but it took twelve years for Star Trek to make a return with Discovery, a show which had an enormous legacy to live up to in a world where Trek has experienced significant evolutionary growing pains. You only have to consider the polarising fan reaction to Star Trek 2009 and its subsequent J.J. Abrams led sequels, which repurposed Trek as an action adventure science-fiction franchise, to feel that divide.

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Put simply, many fans have *their* Star Trek and struggle with the idea of anything that might not honour their own vision. The irony of this is that The Next Generation was arguably a very different show to The Original Series, favouring a level of sedate, sleek 1980’s morality play over the bright, action-orientated romps Captain Kirk and his Enterprise crew would routinely find themselves in. Fans in 1987 took the same approach to Captain Picard and this new retinue of characters that many fans in 2009 took to the idea of Abrams re-imagining Kirk, Spock et al in a new timeline which allowed the show’s 1960’s level of kitsch, retro-futurism to be updated with a big budget, modern aesthetic. It just wasn’t *Star Trek*.

The truth is, Star Trek has endured in the public consciousness precisely because it isn’t one thing, and means different things to different kinds of fans. Many love the metaphorical parallels to the modern world Kirk and his crew would explore in the 1960’s, or stories which took a science-fiction hook and crafted a morality tale out of it such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’. Some enjoy TNG for its high-minded approach to scientific discovery, with a crew far more engaged in exploring the final frontier to some extent than TOS ever felt. Others love DS9 for the fact it created a Trek series with ongoing character arcs, daring to craft a mythology around quasi-religious concepts and a devastating, galaxy-encompassing war with real stakes and consequences.

There is no *one* Star Trek. Each series, in its own way, has taken a different approach to the same essential concept which lay at the heart of Roddenberry’s original vision: explorers made up of multiple nations and races seeking to better humanity by exploring the ‘human condition’ while seeking out new life and civilisations. The least successful Trek projects are those, oddly, which didn’t necessarily branch out and examine the franchise from the freshest axis; Voyager often feels like a reheated TNG when it could have been a powerful, dangerous and exciting tale of a fractured group of people struggling to survive without support or resources, while Enterprise became so hampered by having to serve the franchise’s continuity it ended up struggling to truly embrace its prequel concept.

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When Star Trek Discovery was announced, immediately Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman’s new series felt like it was attempting to do just what VOY and ENT failed to really accomplish by, principally, not having the protagonist be the ship’s Captain. This was an unprecedented move for Star Trek, removing the key emphasis from the leader of the ship’s crew (or in DS9’s case Commander of the station, but in the end even Benjamin Sisko became Captain and spent as much time in the Defiant’s Captain’s chair than at his office desk). Could Trek work from the perspective of somebody lower decks? Would we not even really see much of the bridge, where most of the action in Trek shows would take place?

In the end, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) has turned out to straddle both worlds, as a former first officer (aka Number One) relegated to the ambiguous title of ‘specialist’ thanks to her mutiny on the USS Shenzhou in pilot episode ‘The Vulcan Hello’. Discovery oddly enough gave us a taste of what the show could and no doubt would have been had it been made ten or fifteen years ago by setting the first two episodes on the Shenzhou, with Burnham in the Riker or Spock position to Captain Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Conventional Trek of old would have explored the dynamic between this experienced, strong and virtuous leader and her protege torn between her human emotions and Vulcan stoicism. Discovery, instantly, throws a major curveball.

You can interpret Georgiou’s death by Klingon spiritual leader T’Kuvma (and her subsequent consumption by the Klingon crew of the Ship of the Dead) as Star Trek killing off and consuming its own past. By destroying the sacred image of the Captain everyone can rely on and trust, replacing it with the soul-searching voyage of redemption and self-discovery in Burnham and the somewhat hardline, modern militaristic extremism of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), Discovery emerges from the burning ashes of 1990’s Trek, reborn into a new age of vastly different viewing digestion habits and indeed demands and desires from a modern audience.

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Consider the target demographic CBS All Access (and Netflix internationally) will be seeking for Discovery. Principally males (though of course not exclusively), heavily no doubt 30+ to capitalise on the Star Trek fans who grew up with the 90’s and even 1960’s series, but also the fresh, young television consuming dynamic of 22-30 year olds. Young people under around 22 don’t watch TV shows anymore, beyond rare exceptions, and 30+ already mostly have a relationship with Star Trek. Ask a 22 year old what they were doing when Deep Space Nine was on TV and chances are they’d tell you either they hadn’t yet been born, or they were plodding around in diapers too much to remember. These viewers have no relationship with Star Trek. As TNG and DS9 were the entry point of my generation, so Discovery will be theirs.

These viewers enjoy television in a supremely different structure and manner from the days Star Trek previously existed on TV. The latter seasons of ENT began to embrace the release of DVD box-sets but DS9 & VOY in their heyday existed, certainly for British viewers, either on double-episode VHS tapes or TV airings long after the shows would premiere in the United States. They were produced in an era which expected a 24-26 episode season order, enforcing writers to craft a vast amount of episodes which would ebb and flow in creative quality, and which had one eye on the 100 episode goal of syndication. Everything was geared by Nielsen ratings and home video sales. Creative concerns were secondary to the financial ones.

That hasn’t changed, but the delivery method has. The audiences that grew up with VCR’s who waited six months (and the rest) to watch a new episode of TV, now have streaming services where, such as in Discovery’s case in the UK, the episode drops within hours of the US premiere. In the US, viewers are paying for a cable service they, let’s be honest, wouldn’t have bought into in CBS All Access were it not for Discovery, in order to watch the show. We pick and choose our viewing habits now, based on financial means. Discovery will always get the die-hard Trek fans subscribe to the viewing platform it rests on, but what about that all-new audience? What would drive them to embrace a show which for years had an ultra-nerdy reputation and, to many, would be considered old-hat science fiction?

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This is where, for better or worse, the Abrams revival films indirectly led to Discovery as we know it today. While Discovery was created by producers who grew up watching the 1990’s TV shows (Fuller of course was a staff writer on VOY before he became a show runner), these are also creatives who understand the cut and thrust of modern television, in the way Abrams understood with his movie relaunch he couldn’t make another Generations or Insurrection. Fuller & Kurtzman have filled these first nine episodes of Discovery to the gills with references, winks and allusions to the Trek series of old – or indeed in Discovery’s case, to come, given it’s position in the timeline ten years before TOS and roughly a hundred after ENT. That doesn’t mean they’ve made, as they say, “your father’s Star Trek”.

Discovery, in its first nine episodes, has had the main character commit mutiny which directly led to not just the death of her Captain, but triggered an interstellar war between the Federation and the Klingons; we’ve seen wild crew parties on the ship which resemble American Pie more than they do the sedate Starfleet affairs of old; and, most contentiously, Cadet Tilley (Mary Wiseman) dropped the ‘F-bomb’. Can you imagine any of those things happening in The Next Generation? It’s almost impossible to compute. Yet it also feels entirely necessary, with the benefit of nine episodes of hindsight. Difficult as Discovery’s journey sometimes feels, writhing in its own awkward skin as it attempts to define itself, what becomes clear is a show defiantly original in terms of its place in the franchise.

Firstly, it almost reconceptualises Starfleet. Captain Pike, in Star Trek, describes Starfleet as a “peacekeeping and humanitarian armada”. This itself was a step away from the portrayal of Starfleet as an exploratory, scientific arm of the United Federation of Planets in TOS, TNG and ultimately VOY. Discovery steps away even further from Pike’s definition in characterising Starfleet as, very much, a militaristic organisation. ENT attempted to lightly do this but when the chips were down, the writers devised MACO as the Marine equivalent, allowing Captain Archer and his crew to retain that distance from the role of soldiers. In DS9, when Starfleet was in danger of needing to get its hands dirty, they gave the Federation its own covert black ops unit, Section 31.

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Discovery takes all of these components and throws them into a stew, one which by the end of mid-season finale ‘Into the Forest I Go’ we still don’t fully understand. The USS Discovery has the ‘Black Alert’, suspiciously Section-31-esque crewmen aboard, and a Captain in Lorca who almost certainly has not just a few skeletons but a few secrets in the closet about just what he’s trying to achieve in, ostensibly, his war on the Klingon Empire. Starfleet has given Lorca an element of carte blanche in his mission, to the point when first we meet the Captain he is exploiting a sentient alien life-form in order to develop a new form of revolutionary propulsion, and has no moral compunction in doing the same with his chief engineer when the time comes. Can you imagine Picard, Janeway, Archer or even Kirk doing any of that?

Re-defining Starfleet as a military organisation fighting an interstellar war, and giving a quite driven and ruthless man like Lorca control of its prized asset, is a telling reflection of modern-day sensibilities in the best tradition of Star Trek. The franchise has always held up a mirror against the real world and the socio-political climate – the Cold War unease of the 1960’s in TOS, DS9’s infiltration of shapeshifters who could well have compromised Federation values reflecting the 1990’s zeitgeist of paranoid government distrust, right through to ENT’s spirited reaction to the trauma of 9/11 by having Archer and his crew abandon their incipient mission of exploration to destroy alien terrorists who would threaten the Earth by any means necessary.

The anxiety in Discovery by the end of these nine episodes, clearly, is that our lofty ideals about bettering ourselves and creating a hopeful future are being eroded and compromised by the crushing reality of desperate times and desperate measures. Starfleet survived the Xindi attack and a war with the enigmatic Romulans to go on and form the Federation a century before, with the help of Vulcans and having encountered the Klingons. Their ideals were grand of scope – to create an interstellar alliance, with humanity at its heart, that could work together to shape a peaceful galaxy while exploring the universe. Discovery, a world with a Starfleet prepared to sacrifice crews and ships to destroy an enemy they don’t understand, suggests the Federation’s initial idealism is fading away.

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The character of Burnham, with her dual identity, without doubt reflects this. You sense in her the guiding hand of Nicholas Meyer, Star Trek directing legend who helped bear the franchise as we know it thanks to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In all of Meyer’s Trek work, he’s concerned with exploring both flawed, fallible heroes and the dichotomy between human passion and Vulcan restraint. In his movies, this is actualised through Kirk and Spock, but in Burnham both of these sides of the coin are actively fused together. Discovery takes the key, central dynamic at the heart of The Original Series and evolves it into one character, a woman who must live with a terrible mistake born out of that duality between rationalism and pragmatism.

Discovery as a title, you sense in the end, will have a double meaning. The ship may be named so, but the series is about Burnham’s own self-discovery, her own journey ‘back around’. She begins the series on the verge of the coveted Captain’s role, after years of being guided by a strong mentor – Riker, say, by the end of TNG S7. Imagine if that point Riker had gotten Picard killed and attempted to take over the ship. Burnham’s story is analogous, throwing away her career for a misguided principle, beginning a voyage of her own through the lower decks as a pariah—which she is by third episode ‘Context Is For Kings’—to the point in ‘Into the Forest I Go’ where she has enough trust from the Captain and her crew that she can effectively run away missions herself. Burnham still has a long way to go, but her mission has certainly begun.

Another way Discovery distinguishes itself is in how it reconceptualises the enemy. The Klingons, arguably, are one of the most recognisable aspects of Star Trek. From the ridged foreheads to their guttural, German-esque language, through to their core tenets of strength and honour explored in the 1990’s series’ after the 1960’s shows introduced them as slippery antagonists and several of The Original Series movies cast them as nasty pieces of work (Commander Kruge, please stand up). Second only to the Vulcans, the Klingons are part of the heart and fabric of Star Trek and, despite having been softened and explored deeply in the 1990’s, truly exist most pointedly as antagonists.

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Discovery successfully manages not to undo any of the work done in those previous series’ and movies by having the Klingons, essentially, usurped by religious fanatics. Trek has always couched its villains in reflective real world anxieties, specifically on the American society; the Romulans analogous to the Russian menace in the 1960’s; the cold, unfeeling, plague-like spread of the Borg in TNG reflective of 1980’s uncertainties concerning the spread of AIDS; or the Xindi, having launched an unprovoked attack on innocent civilians, reflecting the Taliban ‘scourge’ the virtuous American heroes must rid from their caves. Discovery casts the Klingons, ten years before the flat-headed tough guys we saw in TOS, as Trek’s ISIS; devotees of a martyred figure who consider the Federation to be a ‘great Satan’ that must be destroyed, while underneath ripples a power play amongst opportunistic warriors quite possibly using the religious pretext for political gain.

This is a very different level of characterisation of this race from the taciturn, difficult but ultimately noble warriors we later see in The Next Generation with Commander Worf and beyond. There’s a suggestion these Klingons may end up being written off as more of a fringe sect than genuine rulers and accepted figures in Klingon history, which would allow Discovery to explain away the inconsitencies even in how these Klingons look compared to Klingons we later see, not to mention how they act. By the end of ‘Into the Forest I Go’, indeed, we could be looking at the beginning of a conclusion to the very war arc Discovery has began its journey in the middle of. In many respects, that could end up being a good thing.

One of the key elements to these first nine episodes is how little ‘Star Trekking’ the show has actually done, in a conventional sense. Discovery the ship hasn’t lived up to its name in any shape or form. Unlike all of the previous shows, we haven’t joined the USS Discovery at the beginning of its journey. TNG saw Picard newly minted as a brittle Captain who in pilot ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ picks up his Number One and off they go; DS9 began with a mournful, broken Sisko in ‘Emissary’ taking on the wreck of a repurposed Cardassian space station and integrating with a varied and difficult crew; VOY began with Janeway’s command disastrously blown off course in ‘Caretaker’ while hunting Maquis separatists, forcing her to integrate Federation terrorists in a voyage home; while ENT saw Archer and his crew genuinely taking Columbus-like steps into a new frontier in ‘Broken Bow’.

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We first meet the Discovery through Burnham, and she’s essentially kidnapped on the way to life in prison and thrust onto an enigmatic ship with an equally enigmatic mission, right in the middle of a long, drawn out war. Starfleet isn’t in the business of exploring the galaxy with baying, fundamentalist Klingons at their door, and much as Discovery has toyed with different story concepts over these opening nine episodes—such as the time loop sci-fi concept, inventively, in ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’—we’ve seen precious little going where no one has gone before. That’s honestly been one of the most jarring aspects of this new series to adjust to, joining Burnham as she’s thrown onto the moving train that is Discovery’s mission.

The cliffhanger ending to ‘Into the Forest I Go’ truly capitalises on what could be—aside from the very questionable evolution of the Vulcan katra—the most contentious and out there concept the series has given us, indeed we may have ever seen in Star Trek: the spore drive. A means of propulsion based on, essentially, a network of organic galactic fungus which can allow the Discovery to appear anywhere in space in the blink of an eye, fuelled originally by a ‘tardigrade’ creature and later devoted engineer Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp). It’s more of a bonkers Doctor Who concept than anything we’ve known in Star Trek and, from the point of view of continuity, almost certainly is going to be one day locked away in a Starfleet vault marked ‘DON’T EVER TRY THIS AGAIN’, given even just ten years later everyone is using standard, ‘slow’ warp drive technology.

What the spore drive gives the show, however, is a license to explore in a manner no Star Trek series has ever managed to do. Stamets, in ‘Into the Forest I Go’, suggests that tapping into the spore drive could theoretically allow the Discovery to tap into not just conventional space but alternate, parallel universes and realities. This, of course, already has precedence in Star Trek, given the alternate timeline the movies exist in, one which directly branched off in the future from the ‘prime’ timeline Discovery exists in. Multiple realities have always existed in Trek, all the way back to ‘Mirror, Mirror’ in TOS. Now, quite possibly, Discovery may look set to explore one or more of them.

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Should the series be moving away from the omnipresent spectre of war, and the uncertainties about the Federation’s role and place reflecting an America which right now feels at war with its own ideals and identity, this could well serve to place Discovery on what could be its ultimate journey. Much like Burnham’s own voyage of acceptance, place and self-discovery of what it takes to be the kind of Captain we later see in Kirk, Picard et al, Discovery as a show could well be attempting to find its way back to the same kind of hopeful idealism Roddenberry gave us fifty years ago, which we originally fell in love with.

The very journey of Discovery, and of Burnham, could be back to the Star Trek we did grow up watching, a rediscovery of purpose in an increasingly hopeless, confused world. The final frontier may now end up being the first frontier for a new audience, and generation, of Star Trek fans.

One thought on “Into the forest we go: Star Trek, Discovery and the first frontier

  1. Pingback: Quentin Tarantino’s STAR TREK makes no sense to me – this can only be a good thing – Cultural Conversation

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