Star Trek: Discovery

I’m in a strange position when it comes to Star Trek — it’s not a series that I consider myself a fan of, but I am a fan of the *idea* of it. I love the utopian post-racial post-scarcity series its fans talk about, I *absolutely* love the idea of trying to build drama on something other than character conflict, I love many of the characters in the series…

It’s just that when I look at the actual series, it very rarely lives up to the fans’ statements about what it should be.

This is not to say it’s a *bad* series — I genuinely love the good episodes of the original series (roughly speaking, those ones that Gene Coon was in charge of) and the first few films, Deep Space Nine could be good when it wasn’t about entitled men sexually harassing their co-workers until they gave in and slept with them, and Voyager had a lot of good moments (and despite fan-lore was probably the most consistently good of the various series). I own all the films (up to Nemesis) on DVD, own several books on the series, and have watched every TV episode (except the last two seasons of Enterprise), but it’s a concept that seems to me to work far better *as* a concept than as an actual, tangible, work.

(Incidentally I have many ideas about why this is, and about why I find much serialised work from the last couple of decades almost unwatchable and unreadable, which I’m thinking of writing about later.)

So my comments on Discovery should be taken with that as the baseline — I’m someone that an average person would think of as a “Trekkie”, but that someone who calls themselves a Trekker instead would look at as a casual.

I went into the series with a certain level of anticipation, but also some worry. The credits tell their own story — Bryan Fuller had been the original showrunner, and he plotted the series and co-wrote the first couple of episodes. Fuller’s take on Star Trek would be one I’d love to see — he started his scriptwriting career on 90s Trek, before going on to make some genuinely excellent series — but Fuller left the series early on, and the two people who co-wrote the first script with him, and who have been in charge of the series since his departure, Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman, have been responsible for some of the worst films ever made.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Meyer has been involved as a consultant, and my own opinion of Meyer is rather different from that of most Star Trek fans — while most people think the three Star Trek films he made are the peak of the series, my own view is that his scripts largely consist of people saying to one another “isn’t this situation we’re in just like that in this famous piece of classic literature?” “Why yes, it is. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s *very* similar, and that must mean that this is a thematically deep piece of film, not just some B-movie schlock, and so the people watching this are very clever people.” “Do you think we should trust these very clever people to pick up on that thematic deepness?” “No. As Shakespeare said ‘Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt'” — but that said, Meyer does at least know how to make an action-movie plot work, and how to do the kind of comedy that Star Trek does at its best.

So, the possibility existed of the series being great, but it also had the possibility of being dreadful. And after the first two episodes, the series still seems to be existing in that superposition of states.

On the plus side, the series looks fantastic — it clearly looks like Star Trek without being imitative. The acting is uniformly excellent (apart from a couple of the Klingons, who seem to be reciting their Klingon-language dialogue by rote), and it was nice that both the principal characters were women of colour. The idea of having a human protagonist who has been raised Vulcan is a genuinely good way of ringing the changes on the Spock/Data/Seven of Nine archetype, and the story has clearly been conceived as a serial, rather than having a “story arc” retro-grafted onto standalone episodes (which is a mistake too much 90s Trek made, and which ends up with the worst of both worlds).

On the negative side… well, there’s the treatment of race, which is surprising since the main criticism the series has been getting is from the kind of men who think that the existence of women or black people is a personal insult to them, who’ve been complaining about the series “bringing identity politics into Star Trek”.

The Klingons have always been uncomfortably racialised, and the redesign of them for this series could have been an opportunity to rectify that, taking them away from the appearance of any particular human race. Instead, they appear to have gone for an almost minstrel-show boot-polish black skin — and then they introduced an albino Klingon, who is an outcast from Klingon society for his white skin, but who is proved to be braver than most of the other Klingons. All of which gives a deeply disturbing impression, apparently without ever intending it.

But that’s not the thing that bothers me. Rather, the part of the show that seems to me right now, based only on two episodes almost to be bordering on far-right propaganda is its treatment of Klingons as a parallel to Islam. T’Kuvma’s attempts to unify the Klingon Empire, fractured into disparate Houses, under a fundamentalist version of the teachings of Kahless, seem deliberately to parallel the attempts of ISIS and similar organisations to reunify the Ottoman Empire under fundamentalist Islam. And there’s actually a fair bit of insight in the way this Klingon fundamentalism is put together and who T’Kumva attracts to his cause — it’s written by someone who understands the appeal of authoritarian nationalism and fundamentalism (though the way all the Klingon leaders almost immediately convert to T’Kumva’s cause is one of the points where you can clearly see the joins in the script). The theme of the Klingons being Muslim-standins is set up even by the pre-story teaser, set on a desert planet with characters wearing pseudo-Arabic SF clothes a la Dune or Star Wars.

The problem is that Michael Burnham (the protagonist, who is apparently female despite the name) argues that the Federation need to attack the Klingons first, as it’s the only language they understand (or words *very much* to that effect). She says it’s “in their nature”. Another character questions her about this:
“Considering your background I would think you the last person to make assumptions based on race.”
“With respect it would be unwise to confuse race and culture.”

This is, of course, the line that is used by every single racist demagogue and outright fascist at the moment. It’s the line used by Farage and Trump, by “Vox Day” and Scott Adams, by anyone who wants to claim that “those people” are inferior. And it’s used by even supposedly progressive, and left-wing, people who write chin-strokey arguments in the Guardian and the New Statesman about how it’s not racist to hate Muslims because “Islam is not a race”.

Now, Burnham’s actions are definitely depicted as being unwise, and as leading to deaths of people she cares about and to her own fall from grace, and it’s entirely possible, even probable, that the series’ overarching story will lead to her realising the bigotry inherent in her position. But *right now, as of these episodes* it’s still the case that we’re being invited to sympathise with her and to read the Klingons as being the baddies. Right now, we’re meant at worst to see pre-emptive war on the basis that “it’s in their nature” and “it’s not race, it’s culture” as justifiable. Our protagonist is expressing views that put her on the side of the worst elements in humanity right now.

But again, that’s not *what the show is*, and I wouldn’t tell people not to watch it based on that. There’s enough that this series is doing right — like the Kelpiens, an alien race created for this series, who are an intelligent domesticated prey species, bred by predators to be more fun to hunt (an idea that sounds very Fuller), who may be the best idea for a new alien race Star Trek has ever seen — that I’d thoroughly recommend that anyone who enjoys Trek even at the level I do should watch it (the true fans will of course already have seen it). Cackhandedly and problematically dealing with hot-button social issues is itself part of Star Trek at least as much as anything else is, and if it *hadn’t* messed that kind of thing up I’d have been rather worried I wasn’t really watching Star Trek.

This is a series with great potential, and it’s the first ever Star Trek series where the pilot is actually a good piece of TV rather than something completely unwatchable. There’s a lot to like, and even to love, about it. I’ll definitely be watching next week.

But just as past series of Star Trek don’t quite live up to the praise of its most ardent fans, this one doesn’t yet quite live up to the attacks of its enemies. Here’s hoping it gets there.

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5 Responses to Star Trek: Discovery

  1. TAD says:

    I saw the first episode, but haven’t seen the second yet. Unfortunately in the US, we have to pay a monthly fee to watch the rest of the series, and it could really hurt the series’ popularity here. I’m disappointed in CBS. The show should be available on its regular channel so everyone can see it. The problem is that their pay-per-view channel, CBS All Access, has very little content and isn’t worth a monthly membership fee.

  2. plok says:

    Canada, too! But I am not nearly confident in the show’s ability to be Star Trek enough for me anyway. Even the use of the term “the Vulcan Hello” sits a bit wrong — you like Vulcans, right? Well if Vulcans approve of pre-emptive strikes then doesn’t that mean it must be okay? If Vulcans do racial profiling at airports, doesn’t that mean it’s just logical? Hard to meet this stuff too head-on in yer basic fantasy audiovisual entertainment, without doing something outrageous.

  3. Iain Coleman says:

    Having spent some time recently researching the Hasmonean revolt, the Klingon leader’s big speech reminded me very much of Judas Maccabeus. My wife, on the other hand, just said “that’s very Brexit”. I guess this is an example of Tolkien’s distinction between allegory and applicability.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I *suspect*, given that there were three writers of wildly different levels of ability credited, and that they didn’t actually work together (Goldsman joined the show after Fuller left) that there were two different visions of what story was being told — “the Klingons are Muslims but attacking them is bad” and “the Klingons are Trump and attacking them is good” — and that the finished version has elements of both, with the unfortunate result that the most obvious reading to me at least is “the Klingons are Muslims and attacking them is good”…

  4. plok says:

    I sometimes feel it would be good if Star Trek Makers didn’t feel quite so obliged to put the social function of Star Trek so front-and-centre. One begins to think the Klingons simply have no “natural” appearance, are doomed to change forever to fit into some thematic niche or other, whichever one we’ve got that needs filling. John Colicos was made up like Space Genghis Khan in 1967 or whatever it was, what a glorious clarity of stereotyping was there then but it’s not useful now

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