Star Trek: Discovery — boldly goes where no series has gone before!
*This article contains some minor spoilers for season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery*
One of the things that has always made Star Trek distinct from other science fiction is its focus on hope. While so many sci-fi shows and movies create a dystopian future, Star Trek imagines a utopia for Earth. Within Trek canon, the 23rd and 24th centuries see world peace and a post-capitalist society on our planet. Humans (and other species living on Earth) never fear illness, conflict, or poverty. What a hopeful vision of the future, especially when you consider it originated during the Cold War. This vision has carried on through the subsequent sequels and prequels to grace our screens. The most recent Star Trek show is, of course, Star Trek: Discovery.
The fan reaction to Star Trek: Discovery has been mixed. Some are excited at the continuation of the beloved series. Others argue that it’s not really Star Trek in look or tone. The latter group are right, in a way. It’s not the Star Trek we know and love. It’s an entirely new Star Trek. It’s full of shiny new consoles and unpredictable, high drama. On the outside, it’s a new beast. But at its heart it’s still Star Trek. I knew this from its premiere, where in the very first episode the show managed to interrogate the values of the Federation of Planets, portray alien cultures, and examine bias in its characters, all in 43 and a half minutes. From the beginning, Discovery has been dedicated to the values we’ve come to expect from Star Trek.
Discovery is dark, yes. Its focus on the Klingon-Federation War assures a much darker tone than other series set during peacetime. It’s much closer to the moral nuance of its cousin, Deep Space Nine, than it is to the bright simplicity of its in-universe direct sequel, The Original Series. It worries me, sometimes, how dark Discovery can get, and how that darkness often includes violence. But at the same time this darkness stems from Trek reckoning with one of its longtime conflicts: the tension between the military and scientific missions in Starfleet. In The Original Series, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock zip around the universe to explore new worlds, but they do so on a heavily weaponized ship, within an organization that uses military ranks. So is Starfleet military or scientific? Is it both? Are the two inextricably linked? Can peace exist without violence? Perhaps Discovery isn’t addressing all these questions head on, but it’s certainly doing some heavy philosophical lifting surrounding the issue of weaponized science. And in doing so, it’s allowing some of Star Trek’s most beloved values to shine.
Take, for instance, Ripper the Tardigrade. The USS Discovery is the Federation’s big secret because it has the technology to teleport using fungal networks in space. The system needs a GPS of sorts, which is where the tardigrade comes in. The tardigrade has a symbiotic relationship with the spores used in the machine and can guide the ship’s jumps. However, we learn in episode 4 (“The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”) that the jumps are hurting the tardigrade. It is deeply painful to watch the tardigrade suffer, but through episodes 4 and 5 (“Choose Your Pain”) we are given access to the incredible compassion of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the show’s protagonist. Michael’s fight for the tardigrade felt very much like the Trek I know and love. It has always been a show to value life above all else, no matter how inhuman that life appears. The tardigrade’s story was much like the Horta, from The Original Series’ episode “The Devil in the Dark,” in which the Enterprise crew hunts a dangerous creature only to discover it’s a sentient mother protecting her young. The crew ends up protecting her instead.
This respect for life in all forms has carried on through Discovery’s subsequent episodes and can be seen in the show’s dedication to represent diverse identities in its cast and characters. We have our first black female protagonist. Many of the other supporting characters are people of color. Discovery has given us the first canonically gay couple in Star Trek’s television history. There’s also an engineer in a wheelchair, noticeable in the background of episode 7, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” These are all decisions that fall in line with Star Trek’s dedication to celebrating Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. (Thanks, Gene Roddenberry!)
I found Star Trek during a very rough time in my life. It was its optimistic vision of the future that taught me to hope when I thought I couldn’t. The show’s hope was contagious and its love for human life addicting. Before long I was hooked and my faith in myself and in humanity was slowly being restored. I am forever indebted to Star Trek for this.
It is because of this that I am waiting to pass the ultimate judgment on Discovery. I love some things about Discovery and I dislike other things. I love the philosophical depth, the characters, and the look of the show but I’m not yet sold on the violence and I think it could use more wonder and episodic storylines. But we are still so early on in the series. We have only 9 episodes to go on, whereas we have seasons upon seasons of the other shows to compare it to. Is it the Trek we know and love? It’s hard to say. Star Trek means something different to each of us. But I believe what is important about Trek to me- the thoughtfulness, the inclusion, the hope- is baked into Discovery at its very core. I have hope and I have faith that Discovery is in good hands (they gave us Klingons speaking Klingon and SPACE WHALES for goodness’ sake) and that it will become a beloved entry into Star Trek history.
Star Trek taught me to hope. The least I can do is return the favor.