Star Trek: Discovery is More “Trek” Than You Think

Set phasers to do your research.

Nine episodes of the newest addition to the Roddenberry franchise, Star Trek: Discovery, have been released on CBS All Access in the U.S. and on Netflix around the world. I’ve watched them all, and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience so far. Of course, new characters, new CGI, and an expansion of the lore I know and love are all aspects I’m still getting used to.

But the extreme hate from many Trekkies is something I definitely wasn’t expecting––and something I don’t really want to have to adjust to at all. Discovery has already been renewed for a second season (Yay!), but that hasn’t stopped the hate––in fact, it’s increased it tenfold.

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I write this not to invalidate such opinions, but to nudge along a gentle reminder––Star Trek, in all its television incarnations, has always had political and social undertones. It has always aimed to understand and pick apart humanity and all its flaws. The best thing about the franchise, at least for me, is that it’s not just about flashy interplanetary battles––it’s about the best and worst of our species; it’s about what we are and what we could be.

I will start by saying, to be fair, that a lot of the anger stems from CBS’ “money-making” technique of forcing U.S. viewers to by CBS All-Access in order to see Discovery. Historically, Trek has been available to viewers for on primetime cable, and this seems like a step backwards for a lot of viewers who grew up with the shows and have stuck to traditional cable. However, CBS is attempting, as many major networks are, to create revenue through streaming services in light of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon’s successes. Introducing a show in a major franchise for a streaming service was probably the best idea CBS could’ve had. After all, CBS All Access sales have doubled since Discovery began.

All that said, there are those who will always resist progress. Resist new perspectives. And that’s perhaps the most anti-Trek mentality you could have.

Discovery departs from its predecessors in many ways, but it never loses where it came from. Here’s why.

Race

Besides their hate for the show, most of these commenters have something else in common. In general, they are middle-aged, white, straight men. One could argue that this represents most of Star Trek‘s fanbase––but that’s not necessarily true. As I’ve said before on this blog, women largely spearheaded the campaign to bring Star Trek back when it was canceled in the late 1960s. Women are everywhere in sci-fi, and finally, sci-fi is responding and becoming more inclusive.

Discovery‘s main protagonist has been described as “a bore,” and “not Trek at all.” She happens to be a woman. She also happens to be black.

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Michael Burnham, portrayed by The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green, is revealed to have played a crucial part in the war between the Klingons and the Federation. This arguably puts her on murky moral ground (we’ll get to that aspect later), but it also ties her inexorably to Trek lore. The show is using Burnham’s story to build on one of the most violent eras in Federation history that we didn’t know a ton about before Discovery, and, therefore, the story itself is being told from a perspective some “die hard” fans are uncomfortable with.

Burnham, a human raised on Vulcan, experiences isolation in her upbringing. Because of her involvement with the Klingon War, she is further cast aside by her peers. Her character speaks to the isolation many people feel as women, as people of color, as people who intersect both these “buckets.” Michael’s story is not a happy one, especially at its start. But it’s a hopeful one.

With Burnham, black women can see themselves onscreen in a context they haven’t fully enjoyed since Uhura on the original series––and even then, Uhura was given few lines and not a whole lot to do until the following movies. But Burnham is crucial to the Discovery‘s success, and the ship’s crew has grown to rely on her expertise and scientific knowledge.

Prejudice is a topic that Star Trek has long covered. When I think about ways in which the franchise has dealt with overcoming racial or cultural prejudice, the Next Generation episode, “The Enemy,” comes to mind. Set in Season 3, we follow Geordi La Forge as he’s stranded on a dangerous planet with a Romulan. Romulans, as any good Trekkie knows, are no friends of the Federation. In this episode, La Forge and the Romulan, Bochra, have to work together to get off the planet. Meanwhile, an injured Romulan is brought onto the Enterprise, and the crew has to decide what to do with him.

“The Enemy” expertly examines prejudice from both perspectives. Early in his interactions with Bochra, Geordi explains he was born blind. Bochra responds, “No wonder your race is weak. You waste time and resources on defective children.” Back on the Enterprise, Riker and Worf argue over the significance of saving a Romulan life:

Riker: What if some day the Federation made peace with the Romulans?”
Worf: Impossible.
Riker: That’s what your people said several years ago about Humans. Think how many died on both sides in that war. Would you and I be here now like this if we hadn’t been able to let go of the anger and the blame? Where does it end, Worf? If that Romulan dies, does his family carry the bitterness on another generation?

The episode, along with many others across Trek canon, shows that regardless of your species or where you come from, putting aside your prejudices goes a long way. La Forge ultimately admits at the end of the episode that Bochra saved his life…that in the end, they are both just living beings just trying to survive in a really, really big universe.

Isn’t that all we are?

Sex and Gender

To those saying Discovery is pandering to a “liberal snowflake agenda” through characters like Lieutenant Stamets––Trek has notoriously been relatively open on sex and sexuality. It has given women powerful, influential roles. It has touched on subjects of consent, of arranged marriages, of abuse, of gender and sexuality as largely social constructs. When I watched Deep Space 9 (my favorite of the Trek spinoffs), I did not expect to like Jadzia Dax as much as I did. I also did not expect the writers to speak so openly to sexual fluidity through Dax’s character (in all their incarnations).

Jadzia is a member of the Trill species. Trills create symbiotic relationships between themselves and a life form that physically attaches itself to them. Both life forms share memories and experiences. Jadzia, then, has memories of existing as various species and genders. For Dax, the current host humanoid’s experience doesn’t necessarily dictate how they feel, or what desires they express. This leads to the exploration of a lot of powerful storylines around gender and sex for Jadzia. Through the memories she’s attained through Dax from previous hosts, Jadzia has a piece of each of them in her, as well.

It’s complicated to explain, but essentially, Dax is entirely fluid character despite their appearance in Deep Space 9 as the humanoid female host (both as Jadzia and, later, as Ezri). Their sexual desires, expressions of gender, etc. ebb and flow based on genuine first-hand experiences via the host. This idea brought about one of my favorite episodes of Deep Space 9, “Rejoined.” In this episode, Jadzia recognizes a fellow Trill as an ex-wife of one of Dax’s former hosts. There is a taboo, however, against Trills pursuing relationships with loved ones of previous hosts, and the episode centers around Jadzia and Lenara exploring their feelings both in fear and in spite of the potential backlash from their people.

Sound familiar?

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The episode does not shy away from blatant parallels to the “taboo” of homosexuality that we as a human race are still grappling with. It also features one of the first televised kisses between two women. Not many episodes of any Trek show affected me like this one did; it’s considered a DS9 classic and a step forward for LGBTQ representation in media. As always, Trek was ahead of the game.

So if anything, Discovery is a further leap in progress in terms of how Trek depicts same-sex relationships and sexual fluidity. It is the first in the franchise to introduce an openly gay character, Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), in a healthy relationship with another male crew member, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz). And about time!

What I love about their dynamic is it isn’t made to be a huge deal––Stamets and Culber were in a relationship before the start of the events on Discovery, and it is very casually incorporated into Stamets’ storyline and the larger plot. Despite what some fans seem to think, it is not “in your face,” nor does it exist to promote some kind of “agenda.” It is a relationship, plain and simple, that adds depth to characters and their motivations like any well-written relationship would.

On a less positive but no less progressive note––perhaps more progressive, in fact––Discovery also broaches the subjects of PTSD and rape from the perspective of a male crew member, Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who joined Discovery crew after escaping Klingon capture with Captain Lorca. We learn later that while he had been stranded there, Tyler was assaulted by a principal female Klingon character, L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). The scene is very gruesome to watch––not because it is particularly graphic, necessarily, but because it clearly illustrates that L’Rell treats Tyler like an experiment. She takes advantage of him openly, and Tyler grapples with the effects of the assault through the mid-season finale.

Rape culture is an issue running rampant in our culture––and it’s important to remember that men experience it, too. Discovery does not assume that rape is a gendered problem––while women are statistically more likely to be taken advantage of, men are very often put in these situations and feel, based on expectations surrounding toxic masculinity, that they shouldn’t acknowledge or admit to it. While a sensitive topic, I find the show does a good job of handling Ash’s trauma carefully and respectfully.

There’s so much more ground to cover regarding sex and sexuality. Discovery is poised to tackle it all––gracefully and effectively.

Humanity

I’m going to end with what is possibly my favorite aspect of Discovery, an aspect that many people dislike. Through its dynamic characters, the show illustrates this simple fact: the good guys aren’t always good.

By episode two of Discovery, I decided I didn’t trust Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). That made me a little queasy, and for a little while, I couldn’t understand why. I realized a few episodes later that it’s because we’ve never had a captain on Star Trek we didn’t trust. Archer, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway…while these characters were flawed, it was pretty easy to pin them down as morally “good.” And while I’ve grown to like Lorca, he’s illustrated that he will do nearly anything to get what he wants––even risk the lives of some of his crew (Stamets in particular regarding the spore drive)––for the sake of the U.S.S. Discovery‘s future and reputation. Who knows what will happen with his character next? I like not knowing. I like being pleasantly surprised by nearly every character on this show.

And this isn’t just Lorca’s story. This is Burnham’s, and Tilly’s, and Stamets’, and Culber’s and even Georgiou’s and Sarek’s. Lorca is a piece of a larger puzzle. Star Trek has always featured stellar ensemble casts in all its incarnations, but never have the main characters been so controversial. Besides Lorca we of course have Burnham, who is essentially responsible for starting the Klingon war. By all accounts, she is a pariah in the Federation. As the audience, we are conflicted––as Trek fans loyal to the Federation, we can’t understand how Burnham could have done what she did. On the other hand, we are given the opportunity to see exactly her motivations and the struggle she endures afterwards. She may have been brought up Vulcan, but she is only human.

Based on what Discovery has achieved with characterization so far, I’d even make the leap that the Klingon characters aren’t all what they seem, either––in other words, perhaps the bad guys aren’t always bad, or at the very least, are well-rounded. L’Rell, not at all discounting her inexcusable actions, has been developed more in nine episodes than some main characters in previous series. Plus, while in the previous series we really only have Worf’s perspective, in Discovery we can actually see the impact Burnham and the Federation made on the Klingons from their point of view as they kicked off the war. I hope we see this perspective unfold in the second half of the premiere season.

While the moral ambiguity some of the major characters in Discovery can come off slightly unnerving, I’m embracing the discomfort. Star Trek has always pushed boundaries, and now it is doing so in the one area in which it had always been consistent before. It’s edgy. Dark, even. But that, to me, is exciting.

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Boldly Going

To make a very long story a bit shorter, there are a lot of ways in which Discovery nods respectfully to its predecessors. However, it’s making some newer, bolder moves in terms of speaking to prejudice, racism, and sexism. It’s taking story and character risks. And one could argue it’s alienating a large portion of the fanbase that wants “the original Trek back.” But perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps Star Trek is due for a new fanbase––made up of die-hards who are open to change or new fans excited for the show’s potential.

Maybe it’s time for something new on all fronts.

But here’s my point:

The show is using familiar tropes and settings we love and flipping them, making waves. It’s like nothing fans have ever seen before, and that’s exactly why I love it. It is, quite literally, boldly going where no Trek has gone before. Discovery isn’t just an homage to the past. It’s paving way for the future.

I think Gene Roddenberry would have liked that.

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