Don’t take this the wrong way, but I couldn’t give a single discount shit about Star Trek. I wasn’t born until the show had long-since wormed its space tendrils throughout popular culture, but I missed the zeitgeist; the excitement that, I’m told, Star Trek brought to television. I never had a relative who was into it who might have introduced me to old VHS collections or late-night cable reruns, and by the time I was old enough to seek it out for myself, I was both too young to appreciate it, and more concerned with other things, such as learning the basics of drinking until I was sick and disappointing women sexually.
I mention this as I think it’s important for you to know that I don’t have any cultural, nostalgic or sentimental attachment to any version of Star Trek that has ever existed. Haven’t watched any of it. In fact, beyond a handful of names and places – the USS Enterprise, Captain Kirk, Patrick Stewart, Spock, Vulcans and Klingons – I couldn’t even tell you with any confidence what it’s about. I don’t know who’s who and what’s what. It’s all beyond me.
This makes me either the absolute best or the absolute worst person to review Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered its first two episodes a day or so ago, and which I’ll be reviewing here, every week. I guess we’ll find out as we go. It’s also worth noting that as I reside in the chillier, less authoritarian climes of England, I’ll be watching on Netflix, and thus won’t be ranting about the draconian business practices of CBS All-Access. Although, I feel you on that – it’s pretty fucked up.
Anyway, according to good old Wikipedia, Discovery is a new series set in the original TV-based continuity, occupying a slot on the timeline about ten years before The Original Series, which ran throughout the late-60s. As such it details the origins of the long-running conflict between the Federation – an interstellar republic of planetary governments – and a rubber-faced caste of marauding warriors known as Klingons. Discovery does kind of explain this, but it also kind of assumes you’ll know up-front. So now you do.
Our nominal hero is First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the second-in-command to Michelle Yeoh’s level-headed Captain Philippa Georgiou aboard the USS Shenzhou – a Federation exploration vessel that stumbles across a damaged satellite and, in the process, manages to piss off a renegade sect of the seemingly fractured Klingon Empire. You’ll notice immediately that the protagonist is not, for once, in the captain’s chair, thus excluding her from the bureaucratic ins and outs of Federation missions, and allowing her rash, sloppy decision-making throughout the first two episodes to land her in increasingly drastic legal circumstances.
My personal theory about all this is that Yeoh’s character is intended to represent the relentlessly optimistic and forward-looking science-fiction of Star Trek’s prestigious past, while Burnham is symptomatic of post-9/11 sci-fi that imagines enemies at every galactic gate. No matter, though. It’s all really in service of a long-form bait-and-switch that establishes a new status quo and then promptly scrambles it, ready to move forward. Us peasants didn’t get access to the third episode, but some critics did, and according to them that’s where we’ll find such things as the titular ship Discovery, and some credited actors – Anthony Rapp and Jason Isaacs – who didn’t get a moment of screen time in the first two.
What these pilot-style episodes fail to accomplish narratively they make up for by establishing a compelling setup and an energetic tone – something halfway between intellectualism and pulp escapism, which seemed just right to me. It’s worth remembering that this is the first Star Trek series to be released into the wilderness of 21st Century streaming culture, and while it’s all well and good releasing one episode at a time, if you want to keep the binge-watchers tuned in each week even the most compelling meditations on feminism, political rapprochement and racial equality need offsetting with a fair helping of pew-pew laser gunfights.
That delicate balance between logical reasoning and impulsive action is best personified by First Officer Burnham, and it’s a fortunate casting coup that Sonequa Martin-Green is such a fiercely watchable and charismatic screen presence. She’s the first ever woman of colour to occupy the role of a Star Trek protagonist, which is a lovely achievement, culturally, but doesn’t do anything for the story – that’s her considerable acting ability doing the heavy lifting, and she’s tugging the weight of a character who possesses an awful lot of baggage. Burnham isn’t of mixed heritage like Mr. Spock, but she was nonetheless adopted and raised by Vulcans, and culturally-identifies as such. Her grappling with Vulcan traditions and lifestyle is a bit like an independent adult trying to shuck the weight of a religious upbringing, but she still strives for the idealized emotional detachment that comes with the pointy ears.
So, to clarify, that’s a black woman who self-identifies as an alien – and her name is Michael. If this were identity-politics bingo, that’d be a full house.
Childishness aside, it makes for a compelling lead character, one that brings the impulsiveness of youth and inexperience but also the vehemence of a distinct cultural ideology. Burnham doesn’t see things in the same way her crewmates do, and that frustrates her, which is hardly fresh narrative territory; here, though, it stems not from dramatic contrivances in the script, as such things often do, but from the rich texture of Star Trek’s continuity. And on the same theme, we’re introduced to a subset of villains whose own beliefs are equally alien and incompatible – with their own people’s traditions, and especially with those of the Federation.
Star Trek, like all good science-fiction, looks to use its advanced technology and its menagerie of intergalactic species to comment on contemporary society’s social and political issues, and it does so mostly through the Klingons. The ones seen here are religious-fundamentalist terrorists who are seeking to germinate their ideology in the fertile earth of a newly-reformed Empire. Their specific grievance with the Federation is that they see the mixing of various alien species into a cooperative conglomerate as a threat to Klingon cultural purity – in other words, they’re nationalists. Oh, boy. I’ll be staying away from the think-pieces about this one, believe me.
All the same, though, it makes for drama that feels more contoured than humanity simply demanding that the aliens get off their lawn. These two episodes might not have accomplished much, but what they have managed to do is lay the foundations for a spacefaring show which looks great, sounds solid, and seems to be headed towards the unknown reaches of a galaxy worth discovering. I’ll meet you there next week.
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