I was a Star Trek fan almost from the beginning. I’m too young to have watched it in its first run, but I was hooked from the age of 5 onward when reruns began airing on Cleveland’s Channel 61, then Channel 43. But we only had 73 episodes, and the Animated Series didn’t last long. Did those count? They didn’t? Or they did? Who knew? Then came the movies. Star Trek with Lucasfilm instead of a couple guys in a backlot garage making space happen. Then The Next Generation. Deep Space Nine. Voyager. By the time of Enterprise and the vastly disappointing Nemesis, I was burned out. Hey, 35 years of anything will start to look stale.
But one thing that really annoyed me: The mentality of perfection in some fans. I indulged in fanfic in the 90s, and one idiot took this perfection mentality to the extreme when he said, “You can’t use Harry Mudd. Roger C. Carmel died.” Apparently, according to the latest trailers, the writers and Rainn Wilson did not get that memo. Or took it to the bathroom to give it the proper respect.
And so with an updated Trek in theaters taking place in an alternate timeline, CBS has taken some of what makes those popular and fused it with the HBO mentality of novel-like storytelling in Star Trek: Discovery. The first thing I noticed is that JJ Abrams’s movies look more like the original Trek than this updated prequel. It’s not the same kind of series we were treated to when Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman, and Brannon Braga ran the show. And you have to include Abrams in that cadre. The Chris Pine-led cast still adheres to some of the humor and over-the-top action that defined the original run of shows. Plus Abrams and his crew cram as many references to the original run into each movie, particularly Beyond, as will fit. Not so Discovery.
First off, the show does not even begin on the titular Discovery and ends with lead character Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) stripped of her rank and sentenced to prison. That’s as much of a spoiler as I’m going to give you, since, according to episode 3’s trailer, she’s back on the job and working for Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). The two-part pilot is setting up Disovery‘s mission and explaining why the Klingons, our bar-brawling, soccer hooligan buddies from the later series, were such unrepentant dicks during Kirk’s era.
What I did like: Michelle Yeoh as Captain Phillipa Georgiou of the Shenzou. She is Burnham’s mentor and keeps the Vulcan-raised human’s tendency to overthink in check. Burnham herself is a fascinating and complex character, shown to be more Vulcan than Vulcan in flashbacks to her early days. Many purists are decrying her connection to Sarek, complaining that it disrespects the franchise. That conveniently forgets that 1.) They never said Sarek did not have a human ward, and 2.) Spock was notoriously private about his family life. Remember, we’re talking about a guy who did not bother to tell Starfleet, let alone his captain, that he was married (and to a woman who could have a good run on Real Housewives of Shir’Karr had such shows infected television in 1968.) Doug Jones as Saru can get annoyingly earnest at times, but he is an interesting character from a species with a great backstory.
I also like the idea that the Klingons were too fragmented to be of consequence in the preceding century, and that their aggressiveness in the original series had a rhyme and reason rather than making them mere fascists in space. I have to reject complaints that it disrespects canon because, quite frankly, Axanar is not canon (or even finished. You got the green light, Mr. Peters. Where is it?) And the name of the ISIS-like leader hoping to unite the Klingon Empire into the ridge-headed baddies we know and love is T’Kuvma, whose name sounds similar to “Kitumba,” an similar story from the aborted Star Trek Phase II series. T’Kuvma tries to instill an almost religious fervor into his fractured people and makes the Federation the bad guys threatening their existence. The Klingons speak the actual language from the original run, and references to their culture from The Next Generation onward pepper their speech. There is even a reference to John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection (the Black Fleet as part of the afterlife) included.
While I get updating the look and feel of the Trek universe, they may have strayed too far. JJ Abrams’s Enterprise looks like the next iteration of the original. It’s Shatner’s bridge if it were redecorated by Steve Jobs. And I totally get that even Picard’s bridge is a bit dated. (Or is it? The Orville‘s retro vibe seems to be working quite well.) But the uniforms are not those worn by either Jeffery Hunter or Bruce Greenwood from the same era. And there are too many 1990s Trek aspects to the Shenzou‘s bridge. It’s way more complex than any version of the original Enterprise.
And why change the Klingons’ look? Not to beat Trek over the head with The Orville, but McFarlane’s Krill and Moctans come closer to the movie/1990s Klingons than these new ones. I get making them alien, but they are already familiar to even casual fans. It’s a bit confusing, and yes, Alex Kurtzman, you have to take a page from Doctor Who and remember there’s a core audience to keep happy. Maybe not the purists. They’re generally a pain in the ass to even to most die-hard fans, but do remember the show is already iconic.
Still, this is a different type of storytelling than we’re used to in Trek. Modern science fiction and fantasy is dark, novel-like, and complex. And it’s time Star Trek went there. It probably should have with Enterprise out of the gate instead of waiting three seasons. With The Orville reaching back and carrying on the old way of doing these stories, Discovery is free to do what it should have done 20 years ago – Get edgy and bingeworthy.