Rejoice. It took half a century, but there is finally an incarnation of Star Trek that is both smart and easy on the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, the cheesy production values of the original Trek are part of its charm. And as frustratingly dumb as the recent films have been, I’ve still enjoyed the eye candy. But we’ve never really had a Star Trek thoughtful enough to please die-hard fans that’s also fun enough to attract casual viewers. Star Trek Discovery may be the closest we’ll ever get. It’s cool to watch and conveys a few messages the troubled people of Earth really need to hear right now.
The two-part pilot takes place about a decade before Captain Kirk’s fabled 5-year mission and centers around the re-emergence of the Klingon Empire as a galactic force to be reckoned with. Our human hero was orphaned at the hands of Klingons, raised in the logical ways of the Vulcan and now serves aboard a Federation Starship with a crew of creatures from across the galaxy. After the discovery of an ancient Klingon artifact, the crew finds themselves in a moment of perilous brinkmanship between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The clash of cultures sets a trap of misunderstanding with the potential to destroy them both.
Meanwhile The President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea rattle nuclear sabers across the Pacific. For the first time all year I wish the President was watching TV instead of leading the free world.
Unlike our situation in the 21st Century, the audience is dying to see the 23rd Century blow itself to hell. It may be Star Trek, but it is American TV after all. The inevitable grand battle between the Federation and the Klingon Empire evokes the maritime art of the 18th Century — fiery canvases filled with dizzying detail, portraying the insignificance of human beings against the epic terror of our own monstrous weapons of war.
Amidst the battle, a human crewman stumbles towards our hero, shell-shocked and hopelessly confused. “Why are we fighting?” he asks “we’re not soldiers, we’re explorers.” It may be a bit on the nose, but it’s the question I always asked when watching the recent action-packed Star Trek films. Why are they fighting?
As the President and the Supreme Leader prod and provoke each other towards war, I pray they ask themselves the same question. Why? Why are we fighting? If somebody told those guys to calm down and watch some Star Trek we may just save the planet.
Alas, parallels to nuclear brinkmanship are nothing new to the Star Trek universe. Long before North Korea went nuclear, the relationship between the Federation and the Klingons reflected the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In fact, most of what I’ve described so far is pretty standard Star Trek fare. But by the end of the pilot it becomes clear the writers are about to boldly go where this franchise has rarely dared to go while still staying true to its heart. In the pilot’s final moments, Star Trek Discovery proves itself to be a big, beautiful risk for CBS. And that’s when Star Trek is at it’s best.
“Risk,” Captain Kirk once said, “Risk is our business.”
Captain Kirk. He’s the Star Trek hero all others are compared to. In some respects James Tiberius Kirk is TV’s original social justice warrior. Nary a Star Trek tribute goes by without a reference to Kirk and Uhura’s infamous interracial kiss, the first in TV history. But in other ways, Kirk is the ultimate expression of white male privilege in America. Despite the diverse makeup of his crew, he’s still in charge. He breaks the rules without consequence, constantly violating orders, getting court marshaled and even escaping death. Even his punishments are actually rewards. When he cheats on the most important exam in the Academy he gets an accommodation. When he steals and destroys the Enterprise they “demote” him to Captain and give him a brand new ship.
Star Trek Discovery‘s protagonist Michael Burnham is the first woman of color to play the lead in a Star Trek series. In the pilot she pulls a classic Kirk, ignoring orders and listening to her instinct instead. Like Kirk, she is forced to stand before a Starfleet Tribunal to answer for her crimes. At the moment when the audience expects our hero to be “punished” with a command of her own and sent on a classic Star Trek adventure, the unthinkable happens. She is sentenced to life in prison. I immediately thought of the millions of African American men languishing in prison for non-violent drug offenses while white America sobs over the victims of the opioid “epidemic.” Captain Kirk is a hero. Michael Burnham is a convicted felon. Star Trek Discovery will boldly go where no man has gone before because our hero is no man.
The pilot ends with a breathtaking preview of what to expect from the rest of the series. It is clear that unlike previous incarnations, Star Trek Discovery won’t end each week with a hearty laugh from the bridge crew as everything returns to normal. This will be a series where our heroes’ actions have consequences, for herself and the rest of the galaxy. It hopefully won’t be Star Trek‘s final frontier, but it is certainly a new one.