I don’t want to sit here and play arm-chair quarterback with the extreme challenge of constructing a useful and entertaining multi-part narrative set in the well-known and well-traveled Star Trek universe that would somehow manage to pay homage to the many, many, many seasons of Star Trek shows that came before, with their avid cult following that includes people who memorize and speak Klingon and Vulcan and other invented languages of Roddenberry’s universe. It is no easy task to set up a whole new palace of ideas in such a crowded neighborhood, that brings something new and exciting to the realm without clashing with the architecture that cam before. In this monumental task, no creator will be without false steps. For instance, Star Trek’s Federation of Planets was created for a different period of culture and media audiences. The way ships work, and the way missions work, all tie into the way television audiences and special effects technology was working in the 1960s. The Captain was the star of the show, so he went on all the away missions. The sets had to be made inexpensively, so the same hallways appeared over and over, as if the ship was just a long series of militaristically-aesthetically-brutarian hallways. There were so many small decisions that worked their way into the whole aesthetic of the future, and the style of storytelling that was possible, and that filtered on through new ships and new special effects teams and new crews. To set up shop in this world, with a large budget and a big mandate, to make something new in Star Trek, is no small feat. So, one of the most important questions is whether or not the new series feels like Star Trek. In some ways yes, in others no.
One of the most important parts of Trek is how Starfleet works together. The crew stands and fights as a team, each doing their part, with very little friction between them, a model of futuristic tolerance and acceptance of all races and species capable of doing the work of Starfleet. The quasi-militaristic, quasi-scientific group ventures out into the darkness of space seeking both to study space, study new civilizations, act as a kind of traveling ambassador for the Federation, and violently defeat all enemies of the mission or the Federation. I know that I don’t actually have to explain this, because it is so much a part of Geek culture, but I want to mention each of those three points – science, ambassador, and war – because that tripartite mission is the source of much of the most difficult and confusing stuff in this new series. The mission never really knows who it is, moment-to-moment. The script bounces between those three impulses never quite resolving which one is ultimately the most important.
In the opening episodes, the desire to explore a scientifically-interesting piece of ancient space temple, and to be a successful ambassador to an alien species, leads the central figure of the show, Commander Michael Burnham, to mutiny against her captain and bring the Federation into war with the great Klingon Empire. The consequences of her actions lead to her arrest and imprisonment as the war rages. She failed, then, at all three. Her scientific knowledge did not work to learn anything useful. Her ability as an ambassador failed to provide useful peaceful contact. And, during the initial phase of her newly-minted war, she is part of the away mission that fails while her captain is killed in front of her. She is brought back from this ignominy aboard the science vessel, the Discovery. Her captain commandeers her out of prison for purposes of the war. As the story progresses, everything goes a bit sideways into the implausible. Not the tech, mind you, but in the narrative and tactical choices. A strong beginning quickly devolves into cocking the head and wondering who is in charge of military tactics in the Federation. They don’t seem to have a strong sense of tactics. Critical points of infrastructure are wildly underprepared for the enemy attack. The mystical power of a new method of space travel that is nearly instantaneous is put in place as a tool to jump in and out of combat quickly, when this unique and powerful technology only exists on a single ship in the whole Federation, and seems wildly irresponsibly used as a weapon when it would be much better and more useful moving supplies and leadership around the battlespace. As things propel forward and the tactics just seem to make less and less sense, I’m left feeling like the third wheel of the Federation – military might – is completely silly and broken and nonsense. Therefore, the show becomes about ambassadorship and science. The scientific ideas come and go in their level of interest. Again, much of these new additions to the lore of Star Trek feel silly and forced, like the very spore drive that moves the engine and much of the plot of the over-arching narrative. A massive indestructible tardigrade in space? The mirror universe in all its wicked ridiculousness? The science falters into a mess of multiversal movement in and out of time. There’s a reason most Trek avoids time travel narratives. It opens up a can of possibility that make every sacrifice and every tragedy an artifact of screenwriter’s whimsy. The science that is supposed to be the purpose of the vessel is not much. With the war on, science and exploration are a secondary concern. What’s left of this show? It’s still passing entertaining, though one must not think too much on how the machinery runs. The characters are well-acted, and speak lines about their relationships that are fine enough for space opera. The action is kinetic and exciting even if it rarely makes any sense. The representation, at last, of compelling gay relationships, mature and loving and complex, stands out in a future that, for too long, did not include them. It’s fine enough entertainment for a bleak evening in quarantine, but why they keep sending mission critical staff and gear into the front lines reminds me of a long criticism of the Star Trek universe from my father, a retired Colonel: “This is why you have 2nd Lieutenants.” The Star Trek universe’s insistence on throwing the most critical and valuable things right onto the front lines of every conflict and away mission has always been a farce. It becomes more so as time passes, and other shows about the future paint a more complete picture of what tactics and tech might actually be for.