'Star Trek: Discovery' Dazzles But Fails to Engage
Discovery might carry the Star Trek name, but not the series' legacy.
It's time to discard Star Trek: The Original Series as the benchmark for the Star Trek canon. Star Trek: Discovery's visual elegance jettisoned any hope for returning to a simpler time where sets were cobbled together out of plywood and plastic, and the story and the characters took center stage. Instead, Discovery finds itself mired in re-imagining characters, settings, technology, and even costuming to the detriment of its own narrative, and its larger connection to the Star Trek universe.
Star Trek: DiscoveryCast: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Jason Isaacs, Mary Wiseman
Subtitle: Episodes 1 and 2
Network: CBS All-Access
Air date: 2017-09-24
The original Star Trek delivered a lavish version of the future with intricate details across its myriad of ships, consoles, costumes, and aliens; even the Klingons were as complex as their armor. The Klingons of Star Trek: Discovery, however, are symptomatic of the series mistaking convoluted for complex. Even their costuming seems designed more for aesthetics than practical use; art nouveau set pieces akin to museum displays.
This series' version of their backstory is equally overwrought: worship of the dead practiced by potential messiah T'Kuvma (Chris Obi); his untimely death likely indicates the messiah story will continue to play out in future episodes. The narrative hints that this is the moment in which the great houses of Klingon, long estranged and embroiled in civil war, start to coalesce into the enemy known to the Star Trek universe.
Commentator Russell Adam Webb may argue that the Klingons required reinvention because they weren't scary enough, but his analysis misses the point: the most threatening Star Trek enemies have always been built on the strength of their intellect, not their size. The early Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver" featured a classic military tactics encounter: both sides faking threats before negotiating a friendship. The ship's mass may have been threatening, but it was the threat that proved a protective gambit and was managed by an alien half Captain Kirk's (William Shatner) size. Klingons are just as threatening in the right situations; this was effectively done in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, despite their significantly smaller budgets.
Further, the logic of Star Trek: Discovery's version of the Federation proves only slightly less convoluted than the Klingon Empire. Even the title sequence suggests the showrunners are more enamored with the technology and the visual symbolism of Star Trek than its characters. As in earlier series in the franchise, a well-drafted Star Ship moves purposefully through symbols of the show; unlike the sequences of both the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Discovery's opening sequence reflects the overthought and inward-focused experience of the first two episodes. The earlier openings managed to offer unbounded awe; Discovery's title sequence merely suggests an overly curated reverence.
Indeed, from a continuity standpoint, Star Trek: Discovery makes too many homages to its forebears without any intention of staying within the narrative and visual confines of those shows. Star Trek: Enterprise adorned its crew in functional jumpsuits that resembled current navel uniforms. Star Trek: Discovery, positioned in the canon ten years before the original series, favors decked-out, constraining uniforms; more practical than Klingon armor, but still far from functional. Worse, the suggested appearance of tribbles in later episodes undermines the established continuity dating back to the original series.
For all its homages, this lack of continuity with the franchise seems endemic. The first episode features an undetectable holographic communications device; while this device has existed in the series' universe from its inception, it doesn't actually appear in Star Trek until the fifth season of Deep Space Nine. Nor is Star Trek: Discovery particularly reverent to its own internal continuity: this same device creates a major plot hole in the first episode when Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) seeks advice from her mentor, and Spock's father, Sarek (James Frain). When she shares her knowledge about Klingon encounters with Captain Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) she fails to reveal the source of the information, despite Georgiou's familiarity with the Sarek/Burnham relationship. Falling into the trope of the "idiot plot" (that is, a twist that only works if all involved behave like idiots), the reliance on Burnham reticence in revealing her source seems to be the main reason why the mutiny at the center of Discovery's first episodes occurred.
Most importantly, despite the coolness of items such as the holographic communications device, Star Trek was never about its gadgets. The gadgets simply added technological exposition and credible visual evidence of a world unlike our own. Further, the best episodes transported audiences into a future with new rules, including better behavioral expectations that seem prerequisites to human exploration of the vastness of space. Indeed, Star Trek excels at episodic morality plays, frequently inspired by biblical or Shakespearian sources. Episode such as "City on the Edge of Forever", "The Balance of Terror", "The Trouble with Tribbles", and "Space Seed" would play just as well on stage, complete with trap doors and curtains and abstract sets; they're good, suspenseful stories built on a tractable plot with human characters either in clear jeopardy or delighting in frivolity. It's well-drawn stories and characters that create entertaining science fiction, not bigger sets, fancier uniforms, and more elaborate aliens.
In other words, it's not the technology but the story that matters; sadly, Discovery's story thus far isn't a Star Trek story. It's difficult to find Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future in these first two episodes. The egalitarian United Federation of Planets ship continues to be run by multiple species and humans with cyborg-like implants, but its aspirational future, in which humankind made peace with itself and created social constructs at least attempted to partner with our higher angels, fades against the glint of steel, the war posturing, and the numerous lens flares inherited from the Abrams' vision of Star Trek aesthetics. The anti-inclusionary sentiment expressed by Discovery's Klingons also descends from the Abrams universe of Star Trek Beyond, in which the Federation's diversity was described as a weakness.
Perhaps Star Trek's ideas may be too advanced for those seeking again to mire humanity in city-states, racial divides, and misogyny. Putting our own broken systems into space may well make for an artful form of reflection, but it doesn't align with Star Trek's higher expectations for the human race.
Despite these significant limitations, if Discovery had been the first Star Trek series, it would certainly be heralded as breakthrough television. The special effects, the dazzling details of space-faring species so different from our own, the multi-racial, multi-species command of starships (albeit an Earth-centric, human-centric command structure at the upper levels), the elaborate costumes, and the thoughtful dialogue might be called spectacular.
Yet, while the series' large budget offers dazzling production values, it forgets it doesn't exist in its own universe. Star Trek: Discovery flies far afield the original, and while the technological innovations now afford television producers near parity with their big screen siblings, they should be employed only in service of story, not simply because they can be employed. Further, it can't just be a good story; it has to be a good Star Trek story. The essential question for Star Trek: Discovery shouldn't have been how it looks, but what it means.
It's possible the showrunners asked themselves this question; perhaps I just disagree with their answers. Star Trek: Discovery isn't the Star Trek we need right now; that is, a Star Trek focused on inspiration and discovery. Discovery focuses instead on war, offering a mirror of contemporary culture instead of a telescope to a better future.
In that respect, the true inheritor of Star Trek isn't Discovery; it's Fox's The Orville. Seth McFarland's joke-laden, Trek-inspired series may often fall flat on its humor, but not on its heart. McFarland understood what Roddenberry was trying to do, and found it inspiring enough to produce his own take on that shared vision. The Orville may too earnestly borrow from its inspiration at times, but unlike Star Trek: Discovery, its heart is in the right place.
The latest movies, as well as Star Trek: Discovery, all suffer from a simple reality: Star Trek has become a huge windfall for its various owners, allowing them to fund ever more elaborate adventures. The original series and those that followed didn't have the time or money to overthink themselves; they had to create a viable visual fiction every week on a budget equivalent to a few seconds of a contemporary commercial. If he'd had the money and technology available to Star Trek: Discovery, Roddenberry might have made the same mistakes. I, for one, am glad he didn't.