If you watch Star Trek as someone who is not a Star Trek fan, there is nothing wrong with Discovery. And while I know that these words cue the likes of hundreds, perhaps thousands of long-time fans ready to scream at me in anger about how “that shouldn’t be the case because this is supposed to be Star Trek!”, along the other cries of “these aren’t my Klingons”, “this isn’t my Starfleet”, and “this is set in the JJ-verse I tell you!”, I ask you to hear me out.
I was writing notes during Discovery‘s episode Context is for Kings back when it was released on Netflix last year when my mother, having lost interest in the Star Trek franchise, and spending the last decade watching the likes of new Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Alien properties, turned to me with a smile and said “this is way more interesting than the rest of the series!”–‘the series’ being regarding every other Star Trek episode and movie published up til 2018.
Keep in mind that this is the same woman that named her children after Star Trek: The Next Generation characters.
I looked down at my notes, which at that point where composed of mainly negative dot-points, childish complaints, and a smattering of constructive feedback, when it hit me. I was looking at this new series from the eyes of someone who’d just finished watching Star Trek: Enterprise. Not as someone who, for example, just came home from a screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Discovery is shot almost entirely different to it’s older brothers. Exhibit A: the first impression of Discovery‘s crew is that they are unlikeable. Why? Typical Trek fans will notice that there are missing fundamental scenes that make them feel like a well-connected crew who work well together, who want to work well together. This is the desired impact of what Michael Piller lovingly referred to as “Roddenberry’s Box” (also known as “Piller’s Box”, as Piller took a liking to and respected Roddenberry’s rules, and continued to enforce them presumably four years past Roddenberry’s death—until Voyager writers threatened not to return to the series if Piller stayed on as head writer). Gene Roddenberry did not want conflict between characters, and was adamant that all of mankind’s problems had been solved. Though this could be attributed purely to the 24th century (the time period Piller worked on), one should assume he meant for this standard to apply to The Original Series as well. But the tone of Discovery season one and its story progression does not allow for Discovery (henceforth known as “DSC“) to follow that same format.
Look at how we meet the crew of the NX Enterprise in Enterprise (“ENT“) episode Broken Bow. Transporting an injured Klingon back to his home-world, Captain Archer takes the time to recruit Doctor Phlox, and his science officer, Hoshi Sato. Meanwhile, Trip Tucker, Malcolm Reed, and Travis Mayweather are meeting one another and already joking around. They share a fond moment, setting the tone for how their relationship would develop over the coming years.
Similarly, when we meet the crew of the USS Enterprise-D during The Next Generation (“TNG”) episode Encounter at Farpoint, we’re picking up XO Commander Riker and Doctor Crusher. Meanwhile, the crew are familiar and comfortable with one another, having worked together for what might have been a short time prior to Riker’s appearance. But the tone fits the series—it’s not humourous, not really. Instead, the meeting between Riker and LtCmdr Data shows the beginning of the wonder and excitement in the series to come.
On Deep Space Nine (“DS9″) episode Emissary and TNG’s Birthright, the crew are taking over a Cardassian space station after a brutal occupation of the Bajoran people. Commander Sisko awaits his crew aboard a struggling and ruined station trying to put itself back together. But in the dark of it all, the shred of optimism brought by the characters stepping aboard the station is too bright to ignore.
Star Trek: Voyager (“VOY“) has a similar theme of optimism during the episode Caretaker—perhaps even a sense of naivety when we meet the crew just as they’re about to head into the Badlands to go after a Maquis crew.
There is a distinction between our legacy shows and Discovery. When we meet the crew of the USS Shenzhou, we’re given these scenes—fleetingly, before disaster strikes—most notably between Saru and Burnham (“Ensign Connor, agreement between my senior officers! Note the date and time.” ~ Prime Captain Philippa Georgiou). It’s bright, there are smiles, and this is the glimpse of classic Trek. But suddenly, we’re thrown in the deep end.
When we finally get to the USS Discovery, we’ve lost the chance for these kinds of introductory scenes straight up because DSC chose not to introduce us to our lead ship and crew until the third episode of the series. The crew are brash, angry, uncooperative with each other, and seem to break regulation at the drop of a hat (specifically with Security Chief Landry, the first female chief of security since Tasha Yar held the position in TNG’s first season). The audience might have found it entirely believable if presented with the notion they were unwitting members of Section 31, as hinted when the ‘black combadge’ appeared, and subsequently disappeared just as quickly. The only time the crew seems remotely close to one another on a personal or professional level is when Landry, of all people, questions whether a Klingon was ‘shushing’ the away team during Context is for Kings. This is not a bad thing. Why? Because DSC is not the Star Trek you know and love.
Nor does it belong to the JJ-verse, either.
DSC may take its influences from the sci-fi of today, despite Star Trek almost being considered the grandfather of the genre. That means Doctor Who, Alien, Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Mass Effect—the list could go on. But one thing is clear: DSC is not a story about a starship crew. It is the story of Michael Burnham, the XO that mutinied against her crew over what might as well have been a personal vendetta (a human response to a threatening situation), and her part in the Klingon war. When she meets them, the Discovery crew (through her eyes) are hostile—perhaps unnecessarily sometimes, yes—and they are foreign. The ship itself goes against all Burnham, and we as the audience, knows. When we first meet Captain Lorca, his office is dark, dinky, and Lorca himself is a suspicious character with his own motivations (being he’s actually from the mirror universe), but he does his best to disavow this perception of him by explaining their aim with the ‘organic’ warp drive—which is not a foreign concept to the science fiction genre at all, as keen Star Wars fans might recall the purrgil from Star Wars Rebels as whale-like creatures that travel through hyperspace.
When DSC first aired, the consensus among the hordes of internet crowds yelling with reckless abandon was that “they ruined the Klingons”—which has been rumoured to be the fault of Bryan Fuller, the same man fans were worshiping when they heard he had taken the reins of the franchise. Other complaints included but weren’t limited to: “The technology doesn’t match TOS!” (in reality, DSC rebooted the TOS look to match today’s leaps and bounds in touch-technology, virtual reality, and holograms—and in season two, they rebuilt the USS Enterprise bridge from the ground up with this reboot in mind, which received so much praise that fans begged for a Captain Pike show on that bridge), and “it’s too much like the JJ-verse” or “it’s set in the JJ-verse” (no, it’s not in the JJ-verse, which is collectively referred to as ‘the Kelvin timeline’, but it borrows some elements from Abrams’ films, such as the Vulcan learning domes in Star Trek (2009)).
DSC is almost a different genre from the other five live action series in the Star Trek franchise. It’s not serialized. It puts its own spin on what we know as Star Trek. In season one, the crew is fighting a brutal war with the Klingons, with over 8,000 people lost in just the first six months. These officers were not ready for a fight that Michael started. The war with the Xindi in ENT did not prepare Starfleet for the brutality of these Klingons.
Even the work put into the show makes it almost entirely different to the likes of ENT, its closest predecessor—use of dutch camera angles, an emphasis on one character at a time whilst on the Bridge (more specific to DSC: a lack of full Bridge shots), extreme use of special effects; these combined create a show that was not bred for the likes of a typical Star Trek fan. They made this for the nuTrek and Star Wars movie goers, for the people that get their kicks from The Expanse and Killjoys, for the people that liked the edgy and thriller tones of Alien.
If you want a return to the Trek you love, then it’s time to re-watch the other 700+ episodes of Star Trek available to you. Typical Trek ended with ENT’s Terra Prime—the final scene being so quintessential that I can’t bring myself to describe its perfection.
Reality is, DSC is doing perfectly fine, no matter what the nay-sayers think, and I can’t wait to see what Star Trek: Picard holds for us.