Star Trek Discovery S1: Reflections on the Journey

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Star Trek: Discovery has enjoyed a fascinating first season, both in the context of its place in the television landscape and the historic Trek franchise as a whole.

For a start, it was a season of two halves, both shaped by different creatives with different aesthetics. Bryan Fuller’s original influence you can feel in the opening arc regarding the revered Klingon extremist T’Kuvma and how his death makes him a religious martyr, triggers civil infighting and launches a ‘crusade’ against the Federation who killed him. The parallels to modern religious fundamentalist terrorism are as potent an allegory as we’ve ever seen in Star Trek, with old series hand Fuller aware for any new show to work (especially one designed to relaunch the franchise on television), it would need to hold true to the precepts of what people loved about Star Trek: the fact it always reflected where we are as a modern 20th or 21st century society.

Those reflections became even more pointed following the mid-season break, as the combined stamp of Alex Kurtzman & Akiva Goldsman, plus key writers Gretchen Berg & Aaron Harbarts moved further into focus. The reflection became literal as the Discovery and her crew were thrown into the legendary Mirror Universe, a dark, inverse reflection of the Federation and humanity’s ‘future history’ first seen on The Original Series, and later continued on Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. For the most extended spell in the MU the franchise has ever given us, we are placed between the Terran Empire seen in ENT’s ‘In a Mirror, Darkly’ and TOS’ ‘Mirror, Mirror’, and the writers give themselves the freedom to explore this universe in much greater detail and tie together the majority of story and character arcs rumbling across the season, in the context of visiting this alternate universe.

What telling an extended story in the Mirror Universe affords the writers is the opportunity to make a pointed commentary and comparison with current global politics and social change. Many fans and commentators have made the point that given our current path as a species, our future is more likely to be the despotic, warlike, totalitarian Empire than the progressive, peaceful Federation – it’s not exactly a subtle point of analysis. What in TOS was a pulpy science-fiction concept designed to allow the main cast to play villainous versions of themselves, has now become far more of a genuine point of dramatic allegory.

In the 1960’s, Gene Roddenberry would likely have laughed at any suggestion our future would be the evil one where Spock has a menacing beard. Now, honestly, the Federation ideal rings less true and feels ever more distant on a daily basis, hence why Discovery tapping into this dark reflection feels apt and indeed necessary. Heavy handed as it may well be in places, blending pulp action storytelling with a character arc for main character Michael Burnham which takes her from self-interested moralising through to understanding the need for an idealistic belief in a future we all work together for, it nonetheless works as an opening narrative for the rebirth of Star Trek.

Some would argue Trek was already reborn with the JJ Abrams succession of movies since 2009, but while Discovery certainly borrows the same shiny aesthetic and penchant for action adventure as the so-called ‘Kelvin timeline’, Abrams’ pictures are designed as a big-budget spectaculars geared around the use of iconic pop-culture characters, and rarely deliver what truly made Star Trek special over the decades: cultural and sociological ideas. Discovery is all about ideas behind the gloss, the serialised narrative and modern TV affectations, such as Tilley’s F-bomb, the raging youthful parties the ship has etc…

It’s a series with a clearly defined central thematic structure around Burnham and many of the crew – identity. Who are we as a species? What will we become? Star Trek, too, is questioning its place in our modern era. Is pure idealism enough? Can we guarantee we’ll end up as the United Federation of Planets? Burnham’s speech in Paris at the end of season finale ‘Will You Take My Hand?’ suggests the show still believes our future may not be the dark Trek reflection visited here, and it only takes awareness and working together—colours, creeds and races—to create a better and more hopeful future.

The necessary exploration of the Mirror Universe in order to reach this cathartic moment for Burnham, and for the new era of the franchise, does however short-change the original intended vision of Fuller’s take on Discovery, or at least his first season. Fuller’s plans, of course, were uniquely different; he first envisaged a Trek anthology show, each season taking place in a different era for the franchise, but once the series settled on The Original Series’ era and to work as a prequel, in essence, to the 1960’s show, attempts were made to fill in some of the key blanks between where prequel series Enterprise concluded (just before the formation of the Federation) and the world of exploration and Starfleet as a peaceful unified force of explorers began in TOS. Discovery, therefore, didn’t really live up to its name in the first season, keen as it was to position the show’s original ‘bad guys’, the Klingon Empire, back onto the canonical position of antagonism established in vague terms in The Original Series, as part of the backstory which detailed a Federation/Klingon war in recent history.

In the end, Discovery doesn’t really do much exploring the galaxy *or* indeed much exploring of the Klingons, beyond the first run of episodes. Once the MU dominates the narrative, and we’re left with the revelation of Captain Lorca’s origins and the reintroduction of Phillipa Georgiou, the show kind of forgets about the Klingon world-building it attempted to do in the first half of the season. You sense they backtracked, to a degree, on Ash Tyler’s position as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’, once they started to enjoy Shazad Latif’s tortured portrayal and felt the chemistry between he and Sonequa Martin-Green.

Voq, a fascinating and indeed important antagonist, ends up buried beneath the show’s hard working attempts to reconceptualise Tyler as a tragic victim of extremism, rather than a prophesied fanatic helping to lead the Klingons back to a unified glory. There is a strong feeling that the writers lost interest in much of the Klingon story once the MU plot kicked in; we see little more of the comparisons to Game of Thrones talked up significantly before the season began in constructing the world of the Klingon houses, L’Rell ends up shoe-horned into an awkward role as unified leader of her race, and the finale wraps up the threat of Klingon invasion of the Federation in an enormously swift and underwhelming way. Everything about the final half of the final episode feels concerned with prepping the second season rather than giving the first a satisfying conclusion. The *real* season finale is episode 13, ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’. The last two feel more like an unavoidable epilogue.

In truth, Discovery’s initial narrative approach ended up a mixed bag of ambitious overreaching and changing destinations. Burnham’s central arc, and how her character has evolved from distant pariah to an integral part of the crew, is consistently well-constructed, and she is amongst one of the strongest and more interesting protagonists in the last few decades of Star Trek. If her arc is to sit in the Captain’s chair like her mentor and surrogate mother-figure Georgiou, come the end of the series, at this stage it will feel fitting.

Yet, if we’re being honest, the Klingon aspects never truly gelled with the more out-there, B-movie concepts Discovery embraces – the MU, The mycellium network and the spore drive, the Tardigrade etc… Discovery flirts with living up to its Trek-style name, occasionally exploring new worlds, but the majority is concerned with the ongoing character arcs and allegorical reflections, first of modern terrorist extremism and later the corruption of society and right-wing swerve toward totalitarianism. The Klingon exploration dies off the moment Voq is taken away from that environment, and the writers never quite figure out how to get back to where they were. There is a sense, even, that they don’t really want to. The Klingons were never going to conquer the Federation, as Discovery works hard to stay true to canon, and once the writers felt enough about this Klingon paradigm had been explored, it becomes very quickly an albatross around the show’s neck. It becomes, in the long run, not much of a muchness in terms of Federation history, especially given we never truly see the power and terror of the war being fought.

Arguably, however, the Mirror Universe narrative ends up being a success. Manny Coto, producer and in some senses saviour of Enterprise, has discussed how the writers seriously discussed either a mini-arc much like Discovery or indeed an entire season set in the MU following their own successful Mirror two-parter, so it feels logical that Discovery would spend half a season almost in this disturbing, dystopian universe. Oddly enough, taking Discovery away from its own universe and a story structure which somewhat awkwardly tried to balance character episodes such as ‘Lethe’ with romps akin to ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ (Harry Mudd meets Groundhog Day essentially), alongside the gloomy, underlying Klingon War plot, ends up giving the series an unexpected level of focus and clarity it previously didn’t have.

Discovery comes into its own when it embraces more pulp storytelling, throws the characters into scenarios where they get to pretend to be villains and play extravagant dress up. Lorca’s destiny, much as it strips him of two-dimensionality, makes sense of his extreme actions as a Captain of a Federation starship, while Michelle Yeoh arguably has more fun vamping it up as Emperor Georgiou than playing her righteous, Starfleet counterpart. The cast bed into their characters, ironically, only when they have to pretend to be other people.

Some decisions by the writers when it comes to characterisation have been seen as dubious, particularly the handling of the relationship between Paul Stamets & the ill-fated Dr. Culber. In what has been described as a ‘bury your gays’ plotline (not the nicest terminology), the Voq-influenced Tyler callously murdered Culber without Stamets getting to say a proper goodbye, beyond an ethereal encounter within the mycelium network. Whether this approach worked or not is fairly subjective but many have seemed quick to forget how progressive Discovery has been when it comes to its main group of characters.

It placed not only a female actress front and centre but equally an actress of colour; had an openly homosexual, loving and natural relationship between two men; and even cast a Muslim actor in the role of a brainwashed fundamentalist who ultimately is forgiven and accepted by his crew. These are all challenging decisions, brave ones in fact, which are consistently pushing at the boundaries of what people expect from television, in the same way Trek did with the interracial kiss in the 60’s between William Shatner & Nichelle Nichols (even if its not perhaps quite as revolutionary as we collectively remember). Ultimately, regardless of the outcome, Discovery at last presented a non-heterosexual relationship and made it as natural as it would be by the 23rd century. Had this been a heterosexual relationship, the shocking choice to kill Culber and give Stamets such a powerful storyline may well have been applauded.

There is still some way to go, of course. The crew don’t feel like a well-rounded ensemble quite yet, the consequence of focusing primarily on Burnham and a small core group across the season. Saru, the Kelpian capable of sensing the approach of death, has begun to move away from being an entitled stiff neck into, at points, an inspiring leader; Tilley is primarily still comic relief and exposition but there is a defined sense of development building with her, and hopefully she will get stronger material going forward, and it would be great to see other members of the bridge crew such as Keyla Detmer, Rhys & Airiam be given more than just expository dialogue as we enter the next season.

Discovery undoubtedly will primarily still focus on the central group of characters who have driven the first season, and potentially a brand new Captain thrown into the mix, but one hopes despite the serialised nature of Discovery’s storytelling, there will be time to flesh out her crew as the ship, potentially, gets the opportunity to do some true exploring of the final frontier, rather than being bogged down in wars and lost in alternate universes.

Considering the future, therefore, it serves to consider the final moment of the first season – the Discovery responding to the distress call of the USS Enterprise, no less. As fun a cliffhanger as the Enterprise appearing is, many have suggested it’s yet another example of overwrought ‘fan service’ in a season which has been full to the brim of nods and winks and connections back to The Original Series; the presence of Spock’s father Sarek as a major supporting character (with a highly personal connection to Burnham); the reappearance (canonically the first appearance) of Harry Mudd, who causes mischief on Captain Kirk’s Enterprise down the road; mentions of the Tholians and the USS Defiant which connects back to TOS, Enterprise and even obliquely Deep Space Nine. The list goes on.

Discovery has been accused of not always being faithful to the much-preserved Star Trek canon but if anything it has gone out of its way to ensure canon is adhered to more than it honestly could have. The spore drive and the mycelium network are the biggest questionable factor in terms of canon, with fans having to accept Starfleet would have spent over a century keeping such game-changing travel technology a secret, but Discovery is at least honest about how it will all remain classified going forward, including the Mirror Universe. Canon has been bent, rather than broken, and the ultimate bending may well present itself with however Discovery interacts with the Enterprise.

It means, of course, Discovery may introduce Spock, at least a younger version akin to the Vulcan we saw in original Trek pilot, ‘The Cage’, though at this stage they may equally be planning to avoid that tricky bit of casting. It means potentially revised, recast versions of a younger Captain Christopher Pike—Kirk’s immediate predecessor, and his mentor as portrayed by Bruce Greenwood in the first two Kelvin movies—and Number One, the mysterious female first officer portrayed in the pilot by Roddenberry’s future wife Majel Barrett. If we do see these characters, the response will again be mixed, as it will be to the presentation of the Enterprise itself, given it won’t look or feel exactly like the production design of the 1960’s TV show.

It is, therefore, a calculated risk and fans may be concerned it could send Discovery spiralling off into little more than glorified fan fiction, but this viewpoint almost seems to ignore the simple fact of where Discovery sits in the timeline of Star Trek. It’s the same era as TOS. It has crossover in terms of certain characters and storylines. It unashamedly is nostalgic, for all the modern affectations of its storytelling and approach to Star Trek. Why should these fan-friendly references and touchstones be ignored? Would it not feel stranger if they were? Discovery hasn’t completely found itself yet but by indulging a narrative in the Mirror Universe known to Trek fans, it managed to discover (pun intended) a sense of its own position in the grand scheme of the franchise. The Enterprise may only serve to continue Discovery’s journey toward its own identity.

Whatever happens, Star Trek Discovery has proven itself a worthy addition to this most illustrious and beloved of franchises. It still has some way to go, and its first season was uneven to say the least in places, but come the conclusion you begin to feel Discovery wants us to hope again, and believe in the Star Trek ideal of a better future. For that alone, its vaulting ambition should be celebrated.

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  • A great analysis, I too felt that the show went in the wrong direction when it pretty much dropped the Klingon war arc altogether and would have much preferred if they left the MU arc to the second season, giving both the full attention they deserved.

      • Probably not, but I guess we’ll never know. Most shows need a season to find their feet, so I’m just hoping a lot of things can be learnt from and the show goes from strength to strength in season 2!

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