Discovery: An Interesting, Even Engaging Show. But is It #StarTrek?
I guess it's time to out myself as the geek that I am...
I was thrilled at the prospect of the new Star Trek series coming out - right up until it did. Had they called it anything else, I would probably be gobbling it up right now like so many critics are. And no, it's not that the look is more Star Wars than Star Trek, it's not that the writers appear to be abandoning every timeline or "cannon," creating new family members for Spock and telepathic communication methods across space and time in ways that have never been addressed and seem implausible, or sending a human being in a space suit instead of a probe into a dangerous area. These types of decisions often go hand in hand with the crafting of a new spin on and old story or theme. But when directors, writers, producers in one accord decide to abandon the very thing that has always distinguished Star Trek from other SciFi series - that distinguished it from the rest of the genre - then perhaps it's time to cease the "make a buck" reason to call it Star Trek, and just call it something else.
I am also surprised, although perhaps I shouldn't be, that this doesn't seem to matter to the majority of the critics who are giving the show an 87% fresh tomato rating thus far. It is this that has prompted my current commentary.
Gene Roddenberry's vision of humanity's future was a positive one. He created a universe which showed us having moved past the darker elements of our collective nature to a place where we were driven, in unity, by the desire to explore the universe in search of connection and knowledge. And that has been at the heart of Star Trek from the Original Series through every iteration that has followed. Until now.
Instead, in the first four episodes of "Discovery," we are faced with yet another anti-hero in a gritty world/universe, being led by a somewhat creepy new captain on a secret and seemingly illicit mission (and who somehow manages to have a single tribble as a pet). Interesting? Sure. Star Trek? Maybe.
There are two things Alex Kurtzman recently said of Discovery and how much it deviates from that principle that ought to have warned anyone who believed the franchise offered something unique to the viewing public. The first was his statement that, "we live in very different times. Every day we look at the news and it is hard." The second was his comment that "Star Trek has always been a mirror to the time it reflected." I would actually argue that the opposite is actually true.
Star Trek emerged on television right in the midst of the Cold War, the Vietnam war, and the civil rights movement. It ran through 1969, a tumultuous time during which the Kent State Riots occurred, huge anti war protest movements took place, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot. I'm pretty comfortable saying that every day people watched the news back then it was hard too.
But Rodenberry, who had experienced war himself as a bomber pilot in WWII, determined that instead of holding a mirror up to the times, he would instead show the world just how unbelievably awesome our future could be.
TOS included Starfleet members who were Russian, despite the incredible fears generated by the ongoing Cold War, Japanese, despite the still existing stigmas from WWII, and African American, in the throws of the Civil rights movement. Instead of mirroring the times, he attempted to show people a future that we could move towards, that could operate as a beacon, where people of all races strove together to make the best moral decisions they could under extraordinary circumstances. The conflicts may have been drawn from current events, but they showed humanity collectively trying to wrestle with them.
There are many harsh and gritty sci-fi tales. I love many of them. But in an extraordinary and very meaningful way, Star Trek has always been different. Whether it was TOS, TNG, Voyager, DOS or even Enterprise, the vision of humanity trying to be its best - that beacon to a brighter future - has always been at its heart. I think if Star Trek loses that, it's not really Star Trek anymore.
Thanks for reading.