TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery

This review is based on the first four episodes of the new Star Trek series, and CONTAINS SPOILERS for the show up until that point.

Star Trek: Discovery starts with a symbol. It is a symbol traced on dusty dunes by the footprints of explorers as they complete a humanitarian mission to save an alien species. It is a statement of purpose, a literal line in the sand that seems to express the showrunners’ intentions: the symbol of Starfleet.

This symbol means a lot to a lot of people, particularly to humanists. Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a humanist, and he designed the show as a vehicle for exploring and promoting humanist values. In it he presents a vision of the future in which people overcome their petty differences and work together to learn more about the universe. Science and culture, not wealth or power, are the ultimate goods and smart, funny, well-meaning people collaborate to improve the lives of the various alien species they encounter.

Because of its unique perspective, even for today, more than fifty years after its debut, Star Trek carries a cultural weight most television shows only dream of. Any new entrant to the canon (the franchise includes five previous TV series and thirteen films) has not only to create interesting television, but also must live up to expectations of millions of devoted fans who see in Trek not just entertainment, but a hopeful vision of the human future.

How does Star Trek: Discovery fare?

Let’s get this out of the way first: Discovery is fantastic television. The opening two-part episode, in terms of plot, performances, special effects, and cinematography is as accomplished as many of the feature films. The story maintains a breathtaking pace (I found myself quite literally holding my breath at moments), with genuine surprises that had my viewing party gasping. This is an achievement, given that Star Trek is not well-known for particularly suspenseful narratives. Everything looks gorgeous, too. Discovery leans heavily on the visual style developed for the recent reboot movies, and there is great visual drama here.

The performances are strong, and characters come into focus more quickly than is traditional in Star Trek’s history. Michelle Yeoh’s warm presence as Captain Philippa Georgiou complements the intensity of First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), their interplay providing both touching and heartbreaking moments even in the first two episodes. (These serve as a sort of prequel to the series proper, establishing how Burnham arrives on the starship Discovery and becomes integrated with its crew). Doug Jones’s rather prim First Officer Saru and Anthony Rapp’s irascible-yet-principled Science Officer Paul Stamets both bring a sassiness to the dialogue that feels new for Trek, and welcome—this is a funny show. I already feel invested in these characters and interested in how their relationships will develop.

But to the question of whether Discovery is Star Trek: does it have that humanist core that makes Star Trek a unique cultural phenomenon?

On the strength of the first four episodes, I’m delighted (and relieved) to say yes.

Discovery is different than any previous Star Trek series. Its tone is darker, the pacing is faster, and everything feels more urgent. More importantly (and perhaps more of a challenge for the core Trek audience), Discovery is much more comfortable with moral nuance than the franchise has traditionally been. There’s an air of moral uncertainty about the series so far that is both disconcerting and engaging. Captain Lorca of the Discovery (brilliantly portrayed by Jason Isaacs) epitomizes the ambiguity of this new series: Is he a ruthless warmonger, as some of his crew describe him, perverting the righteous Starfleet goal of learning in order to better kill the Federation’s enemies? Or is he a principled explorer animated by the peaceful possibilities of technologies he is regretfully using to defend Federation space? The series is deliciously unwilling to give viewers an easy answer, challenging us to come to our own conclusions in a way that seems to go against the didacticism of earlier Star Trek incarnations.

Even the series’ opening musical theme expresses this newfound ambivalence: it returns to the familiar shimmering strings and brass fanfares of previous franchise installments, but with a melody less triumphal than mysterious. It still ends with Star Trek’s most recognizable riff—a sign, along with the Starfleet symbol so prominently placed in the opening sequence—that despite some major differences, Discovery is still a Star Trek show at heart.

Star Trek: Discovery seems more explicitly concerned with ethics, setting aside whole scenes for the discussion of right and wrong and even for moral arguments between humans and computers. The vocabulary is elevated and filled with references to Sun Tzu, Lewis Carrol, and Louisa May Alcott. “Smart is cool,” and that’s very Trek. And the storyline returns, again and again, to Starfleet’s principles in a strikingly contemporary way: Should one ever fire first? Should all rules be followed?  Is it right to use a sentient life form as only a means to an end? What are the ethical considerations in warfare?

Discovery explores these questions with greater depth than any previous incarnation of the series, however it is less confident in its humanism than The Next Generation, Deep Space: Nine or Voyager. The show is not content with easy answers, and I sympathize with those Star Trek fans who would prefer a rosier vision of a better future. This change in attitude is appropriate, however, for both the fictional universe in which the series is set as well as the world of a new generation of viewers..

We find ourselves living in a time of civic, political, cultural, and economic crisis; a time in which humanist values are under attack in every area of American society. In light of this, Discovery feels profoundly honest, mirroring our own struggles to make sense of humanist values in a world that seems deeply hostile to them. The moral uncertainty of the Discovery’s crew matches our own. More important than the updated visuals and more contemporary-feeling characters, Discovery has asked Star Trek to respond to the current moral climate in which we live. If we want a Star Trek future, Discovery suggests, we are going to have to earn it. Which might make it the most essential Star Trek yet.

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