Wednesday, 4 October 2017

First thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery

Last time a Star Trek series
debuted, I could never have
imagined that I'd delay
watching the next one until I
got home from ballet class...

TL;DR version: There's this new Star Trek series that's just started on Netflix, called Star Trek: Discovery, and I like the first two episodes more than anything else that's been on TV for the last 23 years. 

I've been a huge Star Trek fan practically my whole life. Its original 1960s incarnation and The Next Generation from the 80s are my favourite TV shows by a long margin. I think this love comes from a unique combination of factors that resonate strongly with me:
  • wonder at the exploration of "strange, new worlds... new life and new civilizations"
  • the optimism of the future depicted; its vision that "the human adventure is just beginning" and that the best is yet to come for our species
  • it's a modern-day fable; that from the very outset, the show was intended to (and regularly did) explore social issues, and questions about the nature of being human

When I have failed to enjoy various incarnations of the show since The Next Generation ended in 1994, I think it's because they have failed to deliver on one or more of those fronts. Without them, all that was left was fairly standard action/adventure shows and movies set in space. And to me, it seems a shame to have lost something unique.

Such is my love of the show that even having been burned time and time again by new additions to the franchise, I was still very excited last week to see the debut its newest incarnation, Discovery.

But reviews aren't worth much without understanding what the reviewer values (and doesn't), so a little bit more about that first.

I don't care that the look of the show has changed.
What the future looked
like in 1964: "The Cage"
Discovery is set about ten years prior to the original 60s series that featured the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. This places it roughly concurrent with the pilot episode of the original series, "The Cage", which was set under a former captain of the USS Enterprise, Christopher Pike. TV production values have come a long way in the 53 years since "The Cage" was filmed. I have no expectation that the sets, props, or costumes of the new show would align with that was presented way back then.

This also extends to what's bound to be the most contentious change in the show's visuals: the makeup design of the Klingons. This is the third major revision of "what Klingons look like" in the history of the show, and an article on the Ex Astris Scientia website ("The Evolution of Klingon Foreheads") descibes all the minor revisions in minute detail too. In short, there's been such little consistency over the last 50 years that I'm not about to get upset about another change now.

I don't care about story arcs
Similarly, TV storytelling has changed substantially over the last few decades. Whereas series were once more like anthologies of short, stand-alone stories that rarely referred to anything that had gone before, now series are constructed more like novels. I'm happy with either, although I've been more frequently disappointed by attempts at long-form TV storytelling than I've been impressed by it.

I'm not here for the characters
When it comes to sci-fi and other speculative fiction genres, I'm watching for the setting and the ideas; if I wanted interesting, well-rounded characters, I'd be watching a European art film instead. I set the bar really low here: I just don't want to be actively annoyed by the characters.

So, all that said...

What I loved about Discovery (mild spoilers)

Ideas: clash of cultures
The first episode quickly establishes that this is an ideas show. The political tensions of the original show were driven by confrontation of space superpowers — Cold-War concerns. The tension in Discovery is driven by xenophobia and religious fundamentalism — twenty-first century concerns. There's a post-colonial narrative as well, provided by the Klingons' desire to "remain Klingon" in the face of what they see as the cultural imperialism of the Federation.

Ideas: nature vs nurture
The central character of Michael Burnham is a human who was raised by Vulcans and is portrayed as behaving more in line with her nurture than her human genetics. This is not a new theme to Star Trek, but in an era where "identity politics" are contested, is more relevant than ever.

Ideas: pre-emptive strike
The dramatic climax of the opening two-parter revolves around a question of whether it is acceptable to undertake a pre-emptive strike against a known belligerent who has not yet made a hostile move in this encounter. How far should the benefit of the doubt be extended? This story seems ripe for discussion and debate for a long time, just like other notable examples from Star Trek's past. My wife and I still debate 1968's "A Private Little War" every time we see it.

Respect for the past
I do like the small nods to what has gone before, in visuals, sound, and dialogue. For example:
  • the sidearms that the Starfleet officers carry are styled after the hand phasers of the original series, but feature muzzles/emitters that are clearly based on the earlier "hand lasers" in "The Cage"
  • the inclusion of a ship's dedication plaque next to the elevator ("turbolift") doors on the bridge of the USS Shenzhou, just like on the bridges of Federation starships all the way back to the original series (and, as an aside, naming a starship USS Shenzhou, after Communist China's first human spaceflight vehicle)
  • one of the sensor noises on the bridge, taken directly from the original 60s series
  • use of the bosun's whistle, again, a nautical "Hornblower in space" touch that goes all the way back to the original series
  • many aspects of Klingon ritual that draw on what was established during The Next Generation (death rites), but also in the novels and (pen-and-paper) role-playing games of the 1980s (the "Black Fleet") and perhaps even a nod to a single, throw-away line in one of the 80s Star Trek movies (a Klingon "mummification glyph")
  • This characterisation of Michael Burnham echoes that of Captain Pike's un-named first officer, "Number One" in "The Cage", also Vulcan-like in her demeanor 
  • an albino Klingon, as established in Deep Space Nine
  • "phase cannons" as starship armament, as established in Enterprise
  • and probably a lot of other things I missed on my first viewing!
In short, there are a lot of easter eggs here, while none of them seemed intrusive.

I'm really excited by what Discovery promises so far! I'm hoping it continues as a science-fictional fable for our age, inviting us to think about ethics and the human condition in a setting that is both new and also respectful of its past. That's a hard balance to strike, but the introductory two-parter has me feeling very optimistic.

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