In a Mirror, Darkly
I have finally made it through the third episode of "Star Trek: Discovery," long enough for the plot to settle down enough so I can evaluate whether the show matches up to my hopes.
All I can say is that somebody on this show had better Grow the Beard and do it soon. This is not quite Trek as we know it, and not quite in the way you might have feared.
There was a lot of early publicity indicating that the show was going to have some tendentious political allegories. So far, they're not really there. This is why I avoided a lot of the advance publicity for the show. Actors have a long history of not being very bright, and producers like to impress their lefty Hollywood friends by claiming political allegories in their third-rate slasher flicks. So I didn't want to be influence by that blather, and if I hadn't heard some of this through the Internet grapevine, I would never have known it was there. Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays our protagonist, said that her character's first name is "Michael" to show how "gender-fluid" people are in the enlightened 23rd Century. Her character shows no particular signs of gender "fluidity," and neither does anybody else in the show. (Maybe that's where the beard will come in, but I doubt it.) The Klingons are supposed to be allegories for Trump supporters, but they are just shown being warlike, xenophobic, and chauvinistic, which is firmly in the Trek tradition for Klingons from back when they were still allegories for the Cold War. I suppose if you want to draw the connection, you can do it, but it isn't forced on you.
My concern is less political and more esthetic, or even metaphysical: man, is this show dark.
There is one small scene at the beginning of the first episode that captures the sense of life of Classic Trek. Our protagonist and her captain are performing a do-gooder humanitarian mission on a desert planet when an incoming sandstorm interferes with their communications, so the captain asks our heroine to go for a walk and have a talk—which turns out to be her way of signaling the ship by tracing the outline of a Federation star in the sand. It was a nice touch, it worked, and it hit all the right notes: idealism, camaraderie, ingenuity, a hint of danger, and a flourish of humor.
It was literally the second scene in the new series, and it's the last scene of its kind that we've been shown so far. Shortly after that, we enter into a very different Trek.
Here's a summary of the plot up to this point, with plot spoilers—but if you haven't already watched the shows, you probably don't care anyway.
Our protagonist, a young woman inexplicably named Michael Burnham, is the first officer of a Federation starship under the command of Michelle Yeoh's Captain Georgiou, who has a French name and a Chinese accent—but hey, this is the 23rd Century, after all. They encounter a Klingon ship under the leadership of a charismatic visionary who proceeds to reunify the fractious Klingon Empire in a war against the Federation. Burnam advocates that Starfleet fire first to show the Klingons we are not to be messed with. When this strategy is refused, she mutinies and tries to shoot first anyway.
Apparently, somebody figured that if Han Solo doesn't fire first any more in Star Wars, someone in the Trek franchise had better step up and fill the gap.
When her one-man mutiny fails, the Klingons attack and cripple the ship, which kind of proves her right. She is nevertheless sentenced by Starfleet to life in prison. The third episode starts with Burnham six months into her sentence, when her prison shuttle is accidentally-on-purpose diverted to a new ship called Discovery, commanded by Gabriel Lorca, a man with a Spanish name and a slight Southern accent, played by a British actor (Jason Isaacs) last seen in the Harry Potter films. Remember: 23rd Century. It's a melting pot.
The Discovery turns out to be a top-secret ship on which disgruntled scientists are performing ominous experiments under the leadership of a captain whose single-minded focus on winning the war may be leading him to bend, not just Starfleet regulations, but moral principles. Their chief mission in the third episode is to retrieve scientific data from a secret project on a disabled sister ship where the entire crew has been killed by being mysteriously turned inside out and/or eaten by a vicious xenomorph. It's sort of Star Trek meets horror movie meets Alien.
I have a number of small quibbles with the show. The idea of Michelle Yeoh as a starship captain is great—but she lasts for only two episodes. There's a subplot involving some kind of Vulcan mind-meld over a thousand light years, which requires way too much suspension of disbelief, even by the Applied Phlebotinum standards of Vulcan physiology. It comes across as the kind of woozy-mystical plot device you expect from Star Wars, rather than something from the rational-technological universe of Star Trek. Similarly, Federation ships coming out of warp speed now look exactly—exactly—like Star Wars ships popping out of hyperspace, a basic failure to maintain the difference in look and feel between franchises.
"Disovery" has a tuneless theme song with opening credits visuals borrowed from a James Bond movie (minus the silhouettes of naked women). This might not seem like a big deal, but it was a bad theme song that arguably killed the last Star Trek television series. Most previous series offered us sumptuous visuals of weird planets and advanced spaceships, accompanied by soaring orchestral music, so even if an episode wasn't very good, you at least knew the credits would be worth watching. These I fast-forward through.
The plot so far is just too much. It's the intensity you might expect from a season finale cliffhanger, but right off the bat—no doubt because of the way the show was launched with its first episode on the regular network and subsequent episodes streaming online. You have to have an immediate cliffhanger to herd viewers into paying $5.99 a month just to find out what happens next. But this doesn't leave enough time to build up the storytelling or character development.
Finally, in contradiction to logic and all of military and maritime history, they seem to always send the captain and first officer out on dangerous missions, which is—well, OK, that's firmly in the Star Trek tradition.
What is not in that tradition is the unremitting darkness and lack of fun in this series so far. Starfleet crews squabble and mutiny. There are prison brawls. War dominates everything. The chief engineer is petty, closed-minded, and annoying. The Captain is a voice of moral ambiguity. They face a series of bloody horror-movie scenarios.
Previous Trek series sometimes had a problem with overly earnest and utopian idealism. "Deep Space Nine" dialed that back a bit but still never gave it up. Now it's starting to look like they've beaten all of it out of the franchise. That's a disappointment.
I had hoped the return of Trek to TV would bring back some of that optimism about the future of humanity and help move us away from the clichéd antiheroes and dark "Game of Thrones" view of mankind that has dominated "prestige" TV in recent decades. Instead, we now have two antiheroes: Burnam and Captain Malfoy—excuse me, Lorca. And the dark arts have colonized Star Trek.
The franchise has occasionally dabbled in plots where our heroes encounter their own counterparts in an alternate "mirror universe," where the violent and ruthless Terran Empire rules in place of the enlightened Federation, and evil is good and good is evil—except for Spock, who is largely the same except for his goatee. So far, "Discovery" has me wondering: if they ever make a mirror universe episode, how will we tell the difference? Maybe that's what they're working up to, and the big plot twist is when Spock finally makes his cameo, and he steps off the shuttle and there's his goatee.
I'm not entirely joking. This is my official cynical prediction: in our new "Game of Thrones" world, in five or ten years' time, there won't be any normal Star Trek series on TV. But there will be two hit shows and a movie about the conquests and intrigues of the Terran Empire in the mirror universe. It would offer everything today's audiences seem to lust for: blood, torture, scheming, poor lighting, twisted sex, murder, itchy dagger hands, and plenty of four-letter, only-on-cable words. Are you not entertained? I can see this direction so clearly that I hesitate to mention it for fear of giving the idea to some network executive who will run with it.
I'm going to tough out the first season of "Discovery" no matter what, because that's what a die-hard Star Trek fan does. But this show needs to do the opposite of what the first season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" did back in 1987. "Next Generation" spent most of its first season drowning in an excess of liberal utopianism and had to leaven that by becoming just a touch darker and grittier. "Discovery" starts thoroughly dark and gritty and needs to counteract that with a healthy dose of utopianism.
The point of all the earnest idealism in Star Trek was never that human nature was going to fundamentally transform or that all of our troubles would cease. Nor was it because the original series was conceived in times that were calm and free of strife. The late 1960s were terrible, filled with war and riots and assassinations. Precisely because the times were so awful, we needed a vision that told us it was possible to progress and eventually get beyond the problems we have today—that we could reach a world where we conquer war, racism, poverty, and oppression (at least on Earth) and then move on to bigger and better things in the wide open spaces of the galaxy.
Today, we don't need "Game of Thrones." If we want strife, ugliness, murder, and endless scheming, we can just read the news. What we really need is a little more of the old Star Trek optimism, and if "Discovery" wants to bring back Trek, that is what it needs to rediscover.