Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif
Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald
Tim Allen, Enrico Colantoni, Robert Gordon
Reviewer’s Log. Airdate 2017.
We lived in dark times. Cynical, divisive times. It was the year of Trump. A time of fraud and bigotry and aggression. Wracked with fears of global destruction and environmental devastation. Of greed and corruption and unchecked narcissistic vice. Of infantile Twitter tantrums and Neo-Nazis petulantly crying about how mean people are to them.
We needed hope. A vision of the future not mired in ego and greed; one that celebrated inclusivity and wonder; that fanned our imaginations rather than indulging our stagnating nationalistic terrors. But the most hopeful of sci-fi universes had seemingly been abandoned.
It was 12 years since a Star Trek property was seen on television; 18 since one that was any good (sorry Voyager and Enterprise). Sure, the cinematic universe had been rebooted with the frenetic if fun Star Trek (2009), the witlessly incoherent Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and the surprisingly joyously Star Trek Beyond (2016), but a hopeful, ongoing narrative, screened week-to-week that suggested we might survive our species’ ignorance and seek betterment in the stars? That was but a distant memory.
And then, as though from a wormhole in space-time (I believe that’s how the CBS streaming service is being described), a new Star Trek property suddenly materialised—and by ‘suddenly’ I mean after a slew of worrying reports of behind-the-scenes creative turnover, extensive retooling, and an eight-month delay.
What wonders would await us? What promise lurked on the horizon?
As I steadied myself to undertake this new journey into the latest incarnation of a franchise that I have long adored, I was filled with trepidation. What if it was but a shell of its former self? What if it traded its noble idealism for empty theatrics? What if it was filled with the same lens flares they used in the last few movies and one of my retinas detached?
I pressed “play”.
To my surprise, as the show began there was no mention of Starfleet or ‘star dates’ or the Enterprise. I saw no dilithium crystals or tricorders or Klingons. Indeed, despite numerous superficial similarities, this appeared to be a completely different universe, one that at times had more of the feel of a workplace comedy, filled with self-centred bickering, feelings of marginalisation, and maybe even a romance thwarted by ego.
I realised, suddenly, that I had made a mistake. This wasn’t Star Trek. It must have been that other hour-long sci-fi space exploration program that just started” The Orville.
I’ll be honest: at first I didn’t think it looked great. A little too campy, a little too self-aware, clearly drawing direct allusions to the Star Trek universe. Superficially it looked like a cheap knock-off of Star Trek, throwing all the bumpy foreheads and funny names and hokey space conventions into a blender for a cheap, mean-spirited laugh. As I sat down to watch I worried that the whole thing would be a gimmicky exercise in fan-service indulgence, either too mocking or too derivative to be entertaining in its own right.
Buy happily, to my delight, I was entirely wrong.
It was wonderful. It clearly had a real adoration for the Star Trek franchise, and a deep understanding of both its foibles—which it lovingly mocks—and its emboldening grandeur, which it unapologetically embraces. In short measure, it introduced a whole new universe, showed a crew of washed-up cynics bond into a makeshift family unit, and took advantage of its increased budget to throw in a bit of explosive, eye-candy, space battle wow for good measure.
I’ll say it: it might very well be the best Star Trek adaptation ever made—even if the words ‘Star’ and ‘Trek’ do not appear in the title.
And hell, even Tim Allen was funny.
…Wait a minute.
What year was this made? 1999?!
I realised that I had actually made another small mistake. This was Galaxy Quest. A film about a group of hammy television science fiction actors who are mistakenly drawn into a real intergalactic war that I have seen many times before and enjoyed thoroughly.
Well, that was embarrassing.
So I turned to the real The Orville and watched its pilot episode. And yeah. That’s pretty much what I expected.
Surprisingly, the real The Orville is not a sarcastic take down of Star Trek either, despite coming from the mind of Seth MacFarlane, creator of caustic sitcom retreads like Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, but it still feels lazy.
Like Galaxy Quest, The Orville appears to be trying to contrast its high-concept space adventure with the comedy of interpersonal conflict, but unlike Galaxy Quest, it’s not very good at it.
Firstly, it presents more of a straight up copy and paste job of its source material. From the music cues, set dressings and aesthetics that mirror Star Trek: The Next Generation specifically, to a number of scenes that seem to be direct recreations of signature moments from Star Trek history, including the drawn-out reveal of the ship as the captain is being piloted on board and the first excursion into the holodeck in the pilot of The Next Generation. The Orville has turbolifts that do that glowy light thing in the background to show that they are moving, military designations and deflector shields and shuttlecrafts, and that signature ‘whoosh’ warp effect. And that’s just kind of it. No new narrative twists on convention, nothing that evolves the universe building already fleshed out comprehensively in dozens of seasons of Star Trek.
Secondly—and your mileage will, of course, vary—but it’s not actually funny, despite half-heartedly attempting to be.
This seems to be a problem that recurs throughout McFarlane’s work, but it is most evident here. Satire and homage involve more than just copying someone else’s homework and throwing in a few slacker gags about a dog licking its balls (an actual thing that happens in the pilot episode). Indeed, without the lazy crutches of cut-away non sequiturs and contemporary shock-value references employed in his other shows, The Orville exposes just how woefully lacking MacFarlane’s grasp of ‘humour’ actually is.
Here, the overly literal Vulcan/android stand-in (the character a Star Trek narrative traditionally employs to comment upon humanity from the outside) is given the ‘comic’ twist of now being an entirely featureless robot that is unapologetically racist. While ‘Archie Bunker-bot’ sounds like it could have comedic potential, the show does nothing with it. Here, the Klingon substitute (the warrior race of classic Star Trek) is either a petite woman with astonishing strength (the entire joke appears to be how ‘funny’ it is to imagine a woman being physically strong) or a race of all-male, overly literal aliens who hatch eggs (and yes, of course there is a reference to leaving the toilet seat up within ten seconds of introducing this species). It plays more as borderline legally actionable fan fiction trying to convince itself that it’s being subversive.
Rather than riffing on tropes of the sci-fi genre, endearingly pointing out their foibles like in Futurama or playing them out to their extremes like in Rick and Morty, The Orville’s contribution to the field seems to be awkward workplace banter. Not funny banter. Just awkward. Dialogue like: ‘Repeat, there is no pizza party’ and ‘Can I wear shorts to work?’, lines that are so inert as to not even threaten a laugh. The closest thing to amusing in the pilot is a momentary bit where the captain asks a villain on his view screen to scooch a little to the right because the way he’s framed is distracting. That’s it. Throw in a few celebrity cameos and a seemingly endless supply of dick jokes and that’s everything that The Orville has to offer as a comedy.
Dishearteningly, it almost feels as though its humour is just being employed as a pre-emptive defence for its inadequacy as a straight science fiction series. The Orville can be described as neither a comedy, nor an earnest sci-fi, and in its apparent fear to commit to either, it hopes to hide in the ambiguity of both.
In contrast, Galaxy Quest knows exactly what it wants to say.
It skewers the cheese in the old Star Trek narratives—the nonsense pseudo-science; the arbitrary peril; the moustache twirlery of the big bads; the red shirts and cross-species romances and reversed polarities—but in breaking them all down, it rebuilds them, showing why they were always so worthy of being embraced. When the child-actor pilot learns to recapture his imagination in order to fly the ship (because it was all just based upon the hand gestures he made in his fantasies of flight in the first place), there is a genuine kiss being offered to the imaginative exercise at the heart of all speculative adventure fiction. When Alan Rickman, playing a Shakespearean actor trapped behind this ‘sci-fi alien’ typecasting, eases a brave fallen soldier to his death by uttering the cliché that has been the bane of his career, the gravitas that he loads into that line, now finally in context and heavy with import, kicks all the inanity out of it and makes you believe.
(Also: he’s Alan Rickman, so it’s pretty incredible anyway.)
Galaxy Quest scoffs at Star Trek’s conventions, but it’s not saying look at how dumb this crap is, it reaffirms it; gives it a wet sloppy kiss. When the signature spaceship of the franchise crashes back down to Earth at the film’s climax, they smash into a Comicon-style Fan convention, where they are poured over with love. In its celebratory ending, the film reaffirms the greatness that a fandom can be at its best (as in, when it’s not swamped with misogynist trolls): a place where people can suspend their disbelief, where they can communally invest in the idea that humanity can overcome its prejudices and pettiness; can fly and achieve and excel, in a future worth striving for.
At the end of the film, the actors of the ‘Galaxy Quest’ series are beloved not because they were a bunch of actors who stood around pretending in front of a shaky, unconvincing backdrop. They were loved because they were a bunch of actors who stood around pretending in front of a shaky, unconvincing backdrop, and people believed them. And in believing in them, those fans found ways to believe in the better parts of themselves.
In contrast, The Orville doesn’t even seem to believe in itself. At least not yet. For its debut outing, the non-committal tone and glib, weak gags suggest it is not even sure what it wants to be, let alone inspiring others to invest in its borrowed vision.
Even a comparison of each narrative’s treatment of the captain character shows this lack of awareness. While Galaxy Quest skewers the captain character’s narcissism (a clear dig at William Shatner’s infamous ego), instead celebrating the team that surrounds him, The Orville, as the latest in a series of apparent Macfarlane vanity projects, has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the captain’s seemingly unearned significance. He’s deemed to be unqualified for his job but appears destined to prove his detractors wrong, over the course of the series, ably assisted by his loyal crew. Even his intelligent, beautiful ex-wife (who cheated on him while he was busy with his career in the most retrograde divorce cliché ever devised) is desperate to make up with him and help him achieve his dreams in any way that she can, even if it means imperiling her own career.
Whereas Galaxy Quest superficially appears to be a snide, self-reflexive act of imitation, it swiftly reveals itself to be a love note to science fiction and the fans that so enthusiastically embrace it. So far The Orville looks to be little more than a celebration of MacFarlane’s love of the Star Trek property and his ability to indulge in expensive cosplay. Perhaps this will change as the show proceeds, but for the time being it rides—for better or worse—on a facsimile of nostalgia and however charming one finds the show’s star and creator.
By the time I finally sat down to watch the real Star Trek: Discovery I was awash with concern. I knew that this was another prequel to the original series, just as the cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise had been. Would this feel similarly hamstrung by the restrictions of squeezing into an already established timeline, where nothing of consequence could occur since it would never be mentioned again in the pre-ordained future? Would it be mired in fan-service nods to Tribbles and baby Spock? How many episodes would it take before someone from a mirror universe showed up with an unconvincing goatee?
But to my (this time unironic) delight, Star Trek: Discovery was sublime.
Without a doubt, it’s the most visually sumptuous that Star Trek has ever looked, and I’m including the lycra-onesies-in-an-Apple-store aesthetic of the J.J. Abrams reboot. From the grandeur of the galactic vistas to the slick spangled uniforms and CGI creatures, every frame of this series presents space exploration as a vertiginous majesty, dangerous and splendid at once. More importantly, in just its opening hours, Star Trek: Discovery introduced more charismatic and multifaceted characters, who underwent more personal growth, than in the last two Trek series combined (I’m looking at you, Ensign Harry Kim).
Both series lead Sonequa Martin-Green and special guest star Michelle Yeoh are mesmerising. Martin-Green’s First Officer Michael Burnham is a human raised by Vulcans, and her struggle to weigh the parallel ideologies of human optimism and Vulcan pragmatism within herself is a compelling new take on one of Star Trek’s oldest philosophical debates. I could have joyfully watched a series helmed by Yeoh’s empathetic, adventurous, wily Captain Philippa Georgiou forever (sadly that is not to be the case, making the dramatic narrative decision taken at the end of the second episode all the more painful). Her enthusiasm, bravery, and faith in diplomacy present a compelling figure whose absence will be keenly felt as the series endeavours to thread the treacherous narrative of a Star Trek set in wartime: specifically the established but heretofore little-explored period of the Federation war against the Klingons.
No doubt this element of the show’s premise will upset some fans. Star Trek is remembered in pop culture for being a uniquely positive vision of a science fiction universe, the depiction of a time in which humankind has evolved beyond religious and political division, acting instead as a beacon for peace and tolerance. For some, it will therefore be confronting to see Star Trek attempt to address a large scale war such as this (despite it being one that is a firmly established part of the universe’s canon).
But Star Trek has never been simply about standing smugly on the other side of acceptance and harmony and monologing about romantic principles, no matter how extraordinary Patrick Stewart proved to be at doing exactly that. War is constantly threatened in this universe. Even before the protracted war of attrition with the Dominion in Deep Space Nine and the recurring conflict with the Borg, both Star Trek: The Next Generation and the original series each played out the tensions of Cold War sabre-rattling with the Romulans and Klingons respectively.
Star Trek: Discovery, by visualising a conflagration between the diversity of the Federation and an isolationalist Klingon council, not only exhibits the dangers of fanatical nationalism, it challenges the Federation to test its espoused ideals. Can democratic altruism survive in an environment that tempts moral compromise?
The first scene of the series involves Captain Georgiou and First Officer Burnham in the process of bending (if not arguably outright violating) the established prime directive of Starfleet to not intrude upon the development of other cultures. The reason they are performing this questionable act is to save the life of an entire civilisation, but it’s nonetheless a prima facie affront to the principle of non-interference upon which the Federation claims to operate. Again, there are no doubt Star Trek fans who will find this immediately blasphemous, but what the show is clearly setting up is an exploration of the ideological complexities that arise if one takes seriously the responsibility of examining one’s philosophical beliefs rather than just absolving oneself of responsibility by relying upon convenient dogma.
Despite my initial fears that Star Trek: Discovery had been made a prequel in order to trade upon nostalgic pandering, there was clearly a thematic reason to placing the action in one of the most formative periods of the Federation’s history. Alongside exploring other cultures fantastical, it allows the new series to explore Star Trek’s vision of humanity’s future in a new, heretofore unseen manner, examining the chrysalis through which their most fundamental beliefs were most acutely tested.
Both the show and its titular ship are called Discovery, and that notion of discovery permeates every level of the narrative. There’s the traditional Star Trek purview of discovering strange new worlds, but there’s also a protagonist seeking to discover the truth of her own identity, unifying her own divided nature. There’s a future generation of people discovering the transformative potential of hope. And there’s a franchise trying to re-discover itself after many years of operating as a fond memory rather than an evolving, dynamic statement of purpose.
In our current political environment, where all debate is polarised, where politics is more about jingoism and defensiveness, and online discussion is a grotesque slurry of invective and Pepe the Frog memes, it seems more necessary than ever to show the virtue in interrogating ideals, questioning inherited values in the context of their application. The result may not always be victory—as it most certainly is not by the end of these pilot episodes—but there’s value in striving to determine what is morally right, even when it seems most obscured. Star Trek: Discovery may well prove to be the most divisive of entries into the Star Trek canon, but in the current political climate it feels easily the most necessary.
Galaxy Quest, The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery are all, in their own ways, revisions of not only Star Trek itself, but the idea of the franchise that persists in our communal imagination. One offers a loving homage to the imaginative spirit that the series has inspired; one presents a lazy rip-off that may (if it ever figures out the meaning of its own existence) have something vaguely relevant to say about aspiring to be better than you are; but the last presents an excursion back into the formative years of the original series’ mythos in order to explore the underbelly of Star Trek’s heady idealism. It offers to examine how such virtue came to be, the sacrifices made in its name, and why that faith in ourselves and a better future continues to speak to us, even in the darkest of times.