(Spoilers for the two-part season premiere follow herein.)
Star Trek, a quintessential product of the 1960s, mirrored the era’s social progressivism – an idealization proving the struggle for racial, cultural, gender, and economic equality would ultimately bear fruit. To say the “future” of Star Trek was hopeful would be an understatement. This was the show where a white captain, a Japanese pilot, a Russian navigator, an African American Communications Officer and an Alien scientist all came together (despite their different backgrounds, creeds & prejudices) to form a cohesive working-class “family.” Look no further than the mission statement of the series – “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – to see the inherent optimism, where altruistic exploration led to a utopic society freed of war, inequality, and cruelty. Star Trek wasn’t just science fiction or the wishful thinking of liberal idealists. It was an inevitability, this bold future right around the corner.
And then… well, the past fifty-years happened.
Somehow the utopic future that Star Trek once promised feels even further out of reach now than it did back in 1966. Sure, technology may have progressed leaps and bounds; but racism, sexism, terrorism, war still feel ever-present now, if not even more so. The idealism of a better tomorrow has soured into cynicism or worse indifference, an existential fear worming its way into society; this nagging voice whispering, “This is the end, so who cares?”
Other Star Trek shows since the Original Series have reflected on this darker perspective (particularly Deep Space Nine), questioning the cost of maintaining a utopic society and the moral toll it takes on prototypical Starfleet “heroes.” Star Trek: Discovery continues even further down this bleak rabbit hole. On the surface, the two-part pilot follows in the footsteps of classic Star Trek episodes (a la A Private Little War and A Taste of Armageddon), that is to say, ostensibly a ninety-minute chamber drama focusing on whether the crew of the USS Shenzhou should fire on or negotiate with a Klingon ship infringing on Federation space.
Two different perspectives are offered: First Commander Michael Burnham (an excellent Sonequa Martin-Green) believes the only course of action is to strike first, forcing the Klingon ship back into the depths of space; whereas Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) argues for a more diplomatic course of action: to open a dialogue between Klingon and Starfleet, avoiding any violence if possible. Yet this moral quagmire isn’t ever given equal footing. The opening moments of the episode reveal the Klingon ship (a refuge for ‘Fundamentalist’ Klingons) have ZERO interest in negotiation and in fact view Starfleet’s civil ethos (“we come in peace”) as a lie, buzzwords the Federation uses to mask their expansionist and fascist goals. A discourse between Klingon and The Federation will never work because it’s this very discourse the Klingons object to most. This lends the pilot a deep sense of fatalism, a Greek Tragedy written literally in the stars, as noble characters take even nobler actions that are all totally doomed to fail.
Star Trek: Discovery puts the audience in the uncomfortable position of siding with unprovoked violence. Talk isn’t just cheap – it’s counter-productive. Only by shooting first can imminent war be averted. Ironically (or tragically) the ideals of diplomacy and peace-talk ultimately wring out the very war it’s designed to prevent, an avocation for a familiar ideology: “You can’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Like the great episodes of Star Trek, this subtext, though, never takes precedence over simple action or character beats. Besides Martin-Green, Doug Jones makes a big impression as Saru, a Kelpien Science Officer whose cowardice in the face of an impending battle is treated as the most sensible action in the entire pilot. Star Trek: Discovery, against all odds, despite being the darkest of all Trek series to date, is actually really fun. The climatic Starfleet battle, Michael’s Kirk’ian’ ruse to free herself from a holding cell, and her earlier flight through a field of asteroids – all on their own would be the highlight of any episode. The trick: Star Trek: Discovery, while commenting on today’s pessimistic political landscape, never wallows in despair. It’s characters still striving for the utopic ideals of Star Treks past.
The question now becomes how and if these ideals can practically be achieved. Can the “lie” of Starfleet’s altruistic exploration civilize the frontiers of space? Or can peace & stability only be established, rather counterintuitively, through violence and death? These are lofty and thoughtful questions to raise that feel right at home in the Star Trek-verse, a welcome turn from the summer popcorn attitude of recent J.J. Abrams-approved features.
Star Trek: Discovery may seem philosophically removed from the optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s initial creation, but the show still retains the Original Series spirit. Its thoughtful questioning and moral dilemmas within the framework of an adventure series. The answer may have changed but the question remains the same as it did all the way back in 1966: How do we make tomorrow better than today?
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television; I’ve already bought my subscription.
Star Trek: Discovery airs on CBS All Access.