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Star Trek: Discovery •••1/2

Greg Scott
Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery
Screen Shot 2021-10-05 at 9.08.47 PM

Scott, let’s discover the return of Star Trek to the small screen.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Yep, by 2017, a dozen years had gone by without any televised Star Trek. Fans were thirsty, to put it mildly.

Star Trek: Discovery is set about 10 years before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series. The first season introduces Michael Burnham who is an orphaned human and the adoptive sister of Mr. Spock. As such she was trained in the ways of logic. She mutinies and attacks her captain (Philippa Georgiou) in order to save her crew. Ultimately she causes the death of her captain and is sentenced to prison for life.

War breaks out between the Federation and the 24 houses of the Klingon empire. Captain Lorca of the Starship Discovery arranges for Burnham to be transferred to his ship. Lorca is developing a secret weapon to defeat the Klingons and needs Burnham’s scientific expertise to achieve his mission. Much of season one centers on Burnham’s journey of redemption from convicted mutineer to an accepted member of Discovery’s crew.

One of the things that separates Star Trek after Gene Roddenberry and before him, is conflict. Roddenberry insisted that in the future, everyone would be well-adjusted and get along. This was known in some circles as the “Roddenberry Doctrine.” With his departure into the netherworlds, incarnations of Star Trek post season two of ST:TNG included copious amounts of conflict.

ST:DIS takes this idea to new heights. Michael Burnham starts the series by arguing with her mentor and friend Caption Georgio who proclaims “StarFleet does not fire first.” But Burnham knows that when dealing with the Klingons, you must show strength and firing first instills respect. Burnham incapacitates her captain using the logic that preventing war with the Klingons is of higher importance than following orders. This ultimately ends with Georgio’s death.

Later, Burnham is rescued from her prison sentence by Captain Lorca of the super secret Federation Starship Discovery. He admires her ability to think outside the box and gives her a position on the ship. So, the entire premise of ST:DIS is based on conflict – and on breaking with the traditions of StarFleet. This is also a metaphor for breaking with the traditions of the “Roddenberry Doctrine”

The first season is mainly about the “tardigrade” warp drive that allows transport across the galaxy at unimaginable speeds. And we step into the alternate universe and find out Captain Lorca is a changeling – and Bernham recognizes her original Captain Georgiou and brings her back to her world.

This fascination that all the Star Trek series have with the alternative universe is very annoying. It has become a convenient opportunity for the actors to play villainous versions of themselves. It’s fun for all involved, but it creates serious problems in logic and continuity. For example, how is it that all the characters of the Discovery are on the same ship in two universes where they make different decisions – and then the same groupings of people are on the Enterprise – and on DS-9 – and on NX-01, etc…

Greg, you’ve made two good points. Let me address each.

First, you mention Star Trek’s “obsession” with the mirror universe. I guess the best explanation lies in the great popularity of the original mirror universe episode in ST:TOS, which was followed-up by the popular resurrection of the mirror universe episode “Crossover” in season two of ST:DS9. One would have thought that the obsession would end after DS9 beat the mirror universe to death with several more mirror episodes of decreasing quality in seasons 3, 4, 6, and 7.

But no, ST:ENT had to have its own two-part mirror episode and now ST:DISCO devotes almost the entire first season to two dark mirror characters from the Terran empire existing in the primary universe. You’re right, Greg, that there is no logic to having alter-egos occupying the same space and time in another universe. I suppose we’re just supposed to have silly fun with it while asking our brains not to examine it closely.

And this ties into the second point you made about whether interpersonal conflict should exist in future centuries. A lot of the conflict in season one of ST:DIS stems from Captain Lorca’s abrasive character and ethically questionable decision making. I know that several of my Star Trek friends stopped watching ST:DIS during season one because they saw Lorca as too dark of a character, too un-Star Fleet. But lo and behold, it is revealed late in season one that Lorca hailed from the mirror universe, thus explaining his dark and psychopathic aloofness.

But that doesn’t address why Michael Burnham, our hero, inexplicably betrays Georgio and becomes Star Fleet’s most famous mutineer. To me, this is a convenient plot device to render our hero even more of an underdog than her orphan status, gender, and race already accomplished. Now Burnham is condemned to life in prison for treason. The resurrection of Michael Burnham is one of several hero’s journeys that are transpiring in our ensemble cast of characters. Other notable heroic arcs that we witness are those of Saru, Sylvia Tilly, Ash Tyler, and Dr. Culver.

For me, the second season was just planet hopping with little else happening. The third season was set 900 years in the future – and everything we know is gone. So, the writers have a clean slate to build whatever mythology they like without the straight jacket constraints of Star Trek canon. Both seasons were a disappointment for me.

On top of that, the writers continued to play to Burnham’s mercurial and bipolar-like tendencies to flit effortlessly between deep pain and righteous indignation. Happily we saw some interesting side trips into the world of the original Starship Enterprise when they encountered Captain Christoper Pike. This was such a refreshing return to the origins of what made Star Trek great. The fans loved Pike so much that they gave him his own show. In 2022 we’ll see the beginning of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I’m looking forward to that.

As for heroes, ST:DIS offers a variety of heroic arcs that make it worthwhile. Burnhams’ arc from apprentice, to mutineer, to indentured employment, and ultimately to redemption and captain of her own ship is epic, to say the least. Ensign Tilly starts out as naive and emerges as a true leader. The romantic arc of the ship’s engineer and doctor is engaging as well. More than perhaps any other Star Trek series, Discovery is about relationships. And as much as I hate the plot of the series, these relationships made Discovery worth the watch.

For high production values but wildly varying plotlines, I give Star Trek: Discovery 3 out of 5 Reels. But for deep characters and engaging relationships, I give Star Trek: Discovery’s crew 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Again, all good points, Gregger. Let me address them and add a few other observations about ST:DISCO. As a teacher, I must do them by bullet-point:

  • What we have with Discovery is nothing like we saw with the last televised Trek, ST:ENT. There are two major points of departure. First, as with all television in the modern era, DISCO was influenced by what is called the Game of Thrones effect. CGI effects are feature-film quality, worthy of the Big Screen.
  • Second, ST:DISCO is one long arc…. which pretty much defied the tradition of the TNG, DS9, and VOY’s tendency to mix stand-alone episodes with some serialized long-arcs.
  • In a way, the three seasons of ST:DISCO resemble three different TV series. Season one is all about Burnham’s fall from grace and resurrection. Captain Lorca is the Captain. Season two is all about preventing the Orb’s data set from destroying all life in the galaxy. Captain Pike is in charge. Season three is all about figuring out the cause of The Burn and re-building the Federation, and Saru is the Captain.  Looks like season 4 will have Burnham at the helm.
  • Sonequa Martin-Green deserves great credit for portraying such a terrific protagonist who has all of the Great Eight Traits of a hero. She’s smart, strong, charismatic, reliable, resilient, caring, selfless, and inspiring.
  • It’s really cool seeing the slow evolution toward ST:TOS set design and uniform colors.
  • ST:DISCO features fiercely strong women leaders. Besides Michael Burnham, there is the never-mess-with-me Philippa Georgia, who also has a memorable and transformative hero journey. In addition, there is the powerful Klingon leader L’Rell. Her goal was to unite the 24 Klingon houses and she achieves this goal while also unifying the Klingons and the Federation. Sylvia Tilly also enjoys an awesome heroic arc.

For truly revolutionizing the look and feel of Star Trek on the small screen, and for its extremely impressive visuals and sci-fi creativity (e.g., the spore drive), I have to give ST:DISCO a total of 4 Reels out of 5. The heroes are truly impressive with many of them enjoying kick-ass heroic and transformative arcs. And many of these heroes are demographically nontraditional women, gays, and people of color. I give them 5 out of 5.

Greg Scott
Star Trek: Discovery

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