by T. Mack
The Star Trek universe has been an integral part of American pop culture since the original television series premiered in 1966. Since then, there have been four additional TV shows and eight movies. These include the three recent films which rebooted the series by featuring a new generation of actors playing the original characters. This week, Star Trek: Discovery, the sixth TV series in the Star Trek universe, premiered on CBS. And while it was good, it was also a bit of a mystery to this fan, who’s been exposed to Star Trek since I was big enough to sit on my parent’s knees watching the original series with them and wishing I could have tribbles of my own. This series feels like it veers away from what I believe to be some of the fundamental features of the universe. And that’s a mystery to me. Stick with me and I’ll explain.
Though only the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery aired on the network Sunday, episode two is currently available on CBS’s streaming service, “CBS All Access.” For the best experience, both episodes should be viewed together as one. When they are, they create a kind of prequel to the new series. However, even after nearly two hours, audiences are left wondering exactly what this new show will be about.
From the very first scene, the series boasts stunning visuals and features incredible acting from the entire cast, especially Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the series’s main protagonist. And that brings me to my first point about what makes this series so different from its predecessors and such a mystery to me:
1. The show seems to be centered around a single character.
Ask anyone who’s watched any other Star Trek TV series to name the main character of the show. They’d likely be hard-pressed to give a definitive answer. Though each series is strongly influenced by the ship’s captain, it’s hard to say that he or she is the “main character.” In the past, Star Trek shows have been strong ensemble pieces that revolved around the crew as a whole instead of one person above all others.
In the case of Discovey, however, it’s clear that Martin-Green’s character, Commander Michael Burnham, is the central character of the show. And while other characters will undoubtedly have their time in the limelight, it’s quite obvious that this series has her set as its single, primary protagonist. But that’s not the only significant change from previous shows…
2. As of the end of episode 2, we haven’t met the titular ship or its captain.
Star Trek series have tones heavily set by their ship captains. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer led their ships and their crews in particular ways. Each show was driven in large part by these dynamics as well as the relationships of the crew members to the captains and each other. In the first two hours of Discovery, we see Michael on a ship that is not the Discovery and learn all about her relationship with a captain who does not and (as far as I can tell) will not oversee said ship. As a matter of fact, there is not even a mention of that ship and its captain or crew during these first episodes. Seeing as how the show is named for that ship, this seems odd.
And yes, it’s clear that the events within these introductory episodes will strongly inform things once the USS Discovery and its crew are revealed. However, it still feels strange to watch two hours of a show called Star Trek: Discovery without any hint of the ship we know gives the series its name. It makes me wonder if the ship and crew will fail to play truly significant roles in this series like ships and their crews have in the past. Speaking of the past…
3. The picture of peace is almost immediately replaced with the promise of war.
The main thing that made Star Trek so revolutionary was the picture it painted of a hopeful, peaceful future unbroken by race and class barriers. Though there was obviously conflict on all the shows and in each of the films, the idea of a more pleasant, peaceful, and tolerant future was always central. Star Trek: Discovery almost immediately throws that idea out the window and seems to set up a show which will have a greater focus on action and continuing conflict over the diplomacy and quest for peace on which previous Star Trek series focused.
Discovery clearly sets up a darker feel and tone than any Trek that has come before. While this move makes a certain sense in trying to appeal to today’s more modern, savvy, and jaded audience, it may feel a bit jarring for long-time fans of the universe who are used to a lighter flavor.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Star Trek: Discovery and plan to continue watching it. However, I don’t know how long I’ll stick with it. I’m waiting to see where it’s actually headed. As a lifelong fan of the Star Trek universe, the series feels to me less like a Star Trek series and more like a brand new universe built on the foundation laid by Star Trek. And that would be fine… if it wasn’t called Star Trek.
Rating: 4 SHIELDS
Of course, it’s possible I’m way off base here. I realize that I may simply be stuck in my own nostalgia for a simpler series that fit in a simpler time. Star Trek: The Next Generation was, is, and always will be my favorite Star Trek series. It fit perfectly in the 90’s, which defined my childhood. But this is a new millennium. Perhaps these changes are necessary for the Star Trek universe to grow, expand, and evolve.
Maybe, in this current climate of discord and strife, it is even more important to have a television series that shows us not what we are and have been, but shines a light on what we wish were could be and pray we will become.
What are your thoughts? Have you watched Star Trek: Discovery? Did you think it held true to the values of the universe or not? Do you believe the changes are necessary for the times in which we live? Or do you believe the time in which we live needs more television like the classic Trek series? Please take to the comments and let me know what you think. While you’re there, be sure you let me know which Star Trek series is your favorite.