One of the most commonly discussed topics for the debate around “Star Trek: Discovery” since it premiered has been on the show’s tone. The tone has been the catchall term for everything that irritates people. Some Trek fans have said outside the use of the name of characters and places, props and insignia there’s very little in the show that resembles prior Star Trek series. Many have criticized the show for being more inclined to kinetic action over compelling character development and introspective interaction. Others have gone so far as to label “Discovery” as having a very dark worldview in lieu of the more upbeat outlook of previous shows. The most critical commenters claim the show isn’t an authentic successor to the 51-year history of a much-beloved cultural phenomenon.
Okay. That is one way of looking at it. “Discovery” did kick things off by igniting an all-out war between the Klingon Empire and The Federation. In those circumstances, there’s little room for one-liners or lighter moments. Especially when the first story of this new series features a mutiny by the central character. This is the protagonist with whom we’re supposed to identify. There is no denying it, “Star Trek: Discovery” is like no other Star Trek show we’ve ever seen. But is that a particularly bad thing?
The one show element that upsets people the most is our central character, former First Officer Michael Burnham. Let’s put aside for a moment that she’s presented to us as the heretofore unknown adopted sister to Spock. Michael is the show’s protagonist. She is an orphaned human raised on Vulcan, trained at the Vulcan Science Academy and then reintroduced into human culture by enlisting in Starfleet under the mentorship of Captain Phillipa Georgiou. By the end of the second episode, Michael is a failed mutineer who is blamed for starting this war and sentenced to life imprisonment for her crimes. Hero and villain in one. That’s a combination we’ve never seen before in Star Trek. Moreover, her mutinous act was an attempt to take control from a captain whom she professed to respect and care for deeply. On top of that, Michael justification is that to survive this encounter with the Klingons they must attack first, going against everything in Starfleet protocol. Her actions clearly aren’t very Vulcan, nor are they exemplary of The Federation. Even Michael questions whether her own motivations are based on logic or emotion (we find out that her parents were killed by a Klingon attack on a human-Vulcan learning center). For me, that type of moral complexity is rich with story possibilities.
The level of moral ambiguity is increased in Episode Three when we’re finally introduced to the Discovery and her crew. From the moment Michael comes in contact with the ship we’re clued in on the fact that this not a ship run by-the-book. It’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, is a mysterious figure who compliments Michael for choosing to risk mutiny in order to implement her unconventional theory. And he delivers two lines that sum up the new status quo: “Universal laws are for lackeys. Context is for Kings.” We have more than one example of him displaying how he commands by that axiom.
It’s true that “Star Trek” has always featured a more optimistic outlook of humanity’s future than one would have believed possible considering the evening newscast at the times. A simple cast photo from The Original Series gives one hope the evils that were plaguing humanity in the 1960s – racism, poverty, greed, an unending war and other social ills – would be cured by the 23rd Century. Sequel series showed us that we could eliminate gender inequities and prejudice towards sexual orientation as well. We didn’t need to know how they solved it, simply that the possibility existed it could be done. Even though “Deep Space Nine” is the darkest series prior to “Discovery” we still had a hopeful tone in the show’s finale. As Captain Benjamin Sisko, the Emissary of the Prophets sacrifices himself in order to save the universe. A very obvious display of ‘the needs of many outweighing the needs of the one.’ But DS9 is the same series that documented the experiences of Starfleet at war with the Dominion for more than half of its seven-year run. Becoming morally compromised due to the circumstances was the conflict Sisko had to face in one of its greatest episodes, “In The Pale Moonlight.” This is also the series that introduced us to a previously unknown autonomous clandestine agency known only as Section 31.
An argument can be made that in 1966 we needed an aspirational outlook because the world provided so little to encourage hope. A show would need to convince us that we could overcome our struggles as inspiration. Today, the world is even more complicated than it was 50 years ago. Fewer prospects for improvement are visible in our own foreseeable future. But do we still need our entertainment to treat us the same the way it would have five decades ago? We aren’t the same country we were in the late 1960s. Can we handle writers approaching us like adults and presenting us with an imaginary world just as complex and confusing as the one we live in? Can we be amused by conflicts that won’t be resolved at the end of the hour?
I think we can. Also, I believe the writers and creators of “Discovery” think that too.
A “Star Trek” series has always had the ability to serve as an allegory to its present times. In Season One TOS episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” the writers explored the naivety of believing in a ‘clean’ war, while in “A Private Little War” they tackled a Cold War-like proxy conflict instigated by two Superpowers, in this case, the Klingons and the Federation. Maybe, a compromised protagonist like Michael Burnham existing in a compromised world is needed more than comforting fairytales where everyone lives happily ever after. Maybe this shows both the maturity of Star Trek and its audience. #LLAP