The new generation Star Trek, the dramatic exhange and love between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, investigative journalist Jeff Stein’s 101 on spycraft and social media.
Half a century ago, when Gene Roddenberry was creating the idea for a “wagon train concept” sci-fi series, he was doing so with a specific philosophy in mind. This was a utopian view of the future, one he said “was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”
By those standards, in Roddenberry’s future, race and gender were issues of the past—differences that humanity had long since resolved while it looked toward the stars and a greater purpose. The people aboard the USS Enterprise were peaceful explorers; they were the best of us, of all of us, on a show where officers of any color or gender were of equal standing. And throughout 13 films and five TV series, the Star Trek franchise has produced some of the most thoughtful, progressive, and groundbreaking moments of modern entertainment—including, most famously, the first interracial kiss on television.
Star Trek: Discovery, the sixth TV series in the franchise, doesn’t break that trend; if anything it embraces it more than any entry before it. The moment when Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-green) transport onto an enemy Klingon ship, phasers drawn to save the downed USS Shenzhou, is a glorious moment of television—one that perfectly fits with the storied history of Star Trek. It also feels at home in this era of prestige TV, in which shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlanta, Veep and Master of None recently cleaned up at the Emmys.
But there were other guidelines Roddenberry set out when he created the “Writer’s Bible” for the second series The Next Generation. He made clear that the members of Starfleet had transcended petty bickering and interpersonal tiffs. He specifically stated that Star Trek must “stay true to the Prime Directive. We are not in the business of toppling cultures that we do not approve of. We will protect ourselves and our mission whenever necessary, but we are not ‘space meddlers.’” He also prohibited “stories in which our characters must do something stupid or dangerous.”
Now, obviously, throughout the decades, these rules have been stretched and occasionally broken. Personnel drama was obviously a narrative device in many shows and movies specifically on Deep Space Nine and in the 2009 JJ Abrams-directed reboot of the film franchise. There have been great wars. There have been many stupid or dangerous situations. Throughout it all, though, every Star Trek has largely observed these rules, which allowed for a specific rhythm and tone of every series or film.
But Discovery breaks these rules more than any other Star Trek before it. This series takes place in 2256, 10 years before the events of the original Star Trek series, as a Klingon named T’kuvma is attempting to unify the tribes of his race to reclaim its glory in the galaxy. (If you’re a true Trekkie, you’ll watch these scenes without the subtitles.) When the USS Shenzhou arrives to investigate a disabled relay on the edge
of Federation space, there’s immediately some drama on the bridge between Burnham and Science Officer Saru. These members of Starfleet are at odds with each other more than anyone else, which becomes a problem when the Shenzhou makes contact with the Klingons for the first time in 100 years.
The starship is no longer a safe, utopian place. It can be dangerous—a place full of egos, divisive opinions and betrayal. The circle of trust that always seemed implied on the bridge is gone. Everyone’s motives can be questioned—especially after a twist in the first episode, which leaves Burnham as a pariah among the entire Starfleet. At one point, an officer under Captain Gabriel Lorca’s command refers to his superior as a “warmonger.” Lies and deceit are abound—something that unravels the idea of humanity that Roddenberry imagined many years ago. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s darker, and a little more depressing than Trekkies might be used to. And the entire conceit for this series is a war with the Klingons— one that the Shenzhou and Burnham in- advertently started by trying to obey the Prime Directive in the first place.
It’s also the most expensive and beautiful looking Star Trek to ever appear on TV or the movies, to be quite honest. CBS has put a ton of money into this thing to act as a launching pad for its All Access streaming service. And the money was worth it. Watching Burnham drift through space toward an ancient Klingon relic with a brilliant binary star in the background is something Star Trek fans have always imagined, but TV producers never quite had the technology to make a reality. The TV CGI technology and imagination have finally caught up with each other in time for Discovery’s premiere. Even the Klingons are beautiful; sure, they have the same guttural language and tribal warrior customs, but they’re fancy Klingons, with elaborate ships and weapons like they were carved by a fine artist for their Etsy page. And, yes, there’s a shit-ton of lens flare, but not even JJ Abrams burned me out on that.
And the beauty alone is enough to support a debut episode that’s very heavy on stiff dialogue and acting. Everyone seems a tiny bit uncomfortable on the Shenzhou as Starfleet heatedly debates the nuances of Klingon diplomacy. It’s clear, with references to ancient military strategy and Lewis Carroll, that it’s trying to keep up with the high bar set by other prestige shows. But it’s not quite there yet—specifically when Discovery tries to be funny, which only makes you realise how dry and dark the rest of the show is. Thankfully, things pick up speed in the action-heavy second episode, but it’s not until the third episode, when the series reaches its presumed home of the USS Discovery, that it settles into a rhythm. And that rhythm has a lot of promise.
The set-up for this Star Trek is unlike anything before it, prepping this series for drama that the franchise has not touched in its 50 years. That, along with the stunning production values, is enough to at least drag Trekkies over to a new streaming service. Everyone else, though, might need a little more convincing.