Cul­ture

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.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - Words by Matt Miller

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.

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