There is no doubt that Star Trek: Discovery was one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, with curiosity reaching higher levels at each delay in the release date, and expectations running the whole spectrum from eagerness to dread, the latter more easily found in the group of old-time fans who were sorely disappointed by latest productions like Enterprise on the small screen or the J.J. Abrams movies on the big one.
I believe these are mostly people whose first significant contact with televised science fiction started with Star Trek (either the original series or one of the later ones) and who found themselves profoundly inspired by the ideal of a galaxy-spanning Federation whose main goals were the exploration of the unknown and the creation of peaceful relations with other species, so that Star Trek incarnated their benchmark for the future of humanity. This utopian standard was maintained all throughout the various incarnations of the show (with one exception – I’ll come back to this in a while) upon the mandate of creator Gene Roddenberry, who stipulated early on that the spacefaring crews, and the societies they originated from, had found a way to settle their conflicts and to live in harmony.
While this directive gave Star Trek its distinctive outlook, one that offered a hope for the future – particularly when the show aired in troubled times – it also represented, in my opinion, a set of shackles that on occasion hampered the writers’ creative range and probably robbed the stories of that pinch of “courage and daring” that would have elevated many of them from the simply good to the outstanding. One of the many examples of this phenomenon could be observed with Voyager: the mixed crew of Federation officers and Maquis rebels offered a huge potential for cultural and ideological clash, and therefore interesting stories and character studies, but this potential was soon disposed of by having the two halves of the crew merge and combine seamlessly just a few episodes into the first season.
By that same rule, the Federation and its representatives had to be irreproachable, perfect in their selfless pursuit of the common good, so that when Deep Space 9 “dared” to show the flaws in this impossibly perfect exterior (high-ranking officers giving in to their dark side; the shady Section 31, and so on) many fans protested at this dismal turn of the story – a turn that generated, when allowed to run its course, some of the most interesting and compelling narrative threads. Because, let’s face it, conflict – be it a strife between contrasting personalities or an outright fight between opposing factions – is what can fuel a multi-faceted story whose outcome needs to be unpredictable to hold our continuing interest.
Back to Star Trek: Discovery, it’s my belief – after seeing the first four episodes – that the main point of contention from the viewers who did not like what they saw is exactly this: they might feel “betrayed” by the fact that the Federation finds itself engaged in a war. I will not linger on other complaints that I consider purely… cosmetic: yes, the Klingons’ appearance has been changed, again, and while I see no reason for that change (I liked their look from TNG onwards, thank you very much), I can take that in stride; yes, the time-frame for the show is set several years before that of the original series, and yet there is ample evidence of more advanced technology, but I believe that trying to compare what we can do with CGI today with what was available 50 years ago (not to mention the improvements in our present technology) is something of a futile exercise: maintaining the continuity with a show that aired so long ago, with so little means at its disposal, would prove counterproductive, in the end. What I would like to really focus on is the story, and the characters: from my point of view, they are all that truly matters.
The biggest complaint I’ve read about the new series, and its characters in particular, is that they “have no soul”: in my opinion it might be a premature judgment, because we hardly had time to get to know these people, and many of us might be falling prey to the modern bad habit of wanting to be instantly wooed from the very start. Remember the times when a tv show took at least one season, if not more, to find its footing? TNG took three to really get into gear, mostly thanks to the Borg, and DS9’s true potential started to come out in season 4, when the Dominion raised its ugly head. Yet viewers, despite some unavoidable complaints, stayed for the duration and in the end came to enjoy and love those shows. So why are so many of us not ready to give this show a chance? It might fizzle out into boredom or predictability, I’ll grant you that, but for now we should give it the benefit of the doubt, and time to get used to its… new shoes.
Personally, I’m quite happy to see a good number of strong female figures that are not relegated in the role of caregivers – doctors, counselors, teachers for the kids living on board: the story opens with two women, a captain and her first officer, engaged in a mission on an inhospitable planet. I liked immediately Captain Georgiou, the mix of experience, wisdom and humor that came to the fore from the very start: she gave the impression of a person who’s quite comfortable in her role and in her own skin, and if a certain scene with the Federation symbol drawn in the sand felt a little over the top, the overall effect was more than positive. I’m still trying to get a grip on Commander Michael Burnham instead (including the reason she goes by a male name…), but she looks promising: having been raised on Vulcan she is an interesting mix between human passion and Vulcan logic and that could be the main reason she looks so hard to pin down. And again, on board Discovery we meet a woman at the head of the security section: her appearance has been brief, so far, but her air of strong, no-nonsense competence made an impact on me and I hope she will not remain an exception.
As for the story, or what little I saw until this point, it looks darker, far more serious than the usual Star Trek offerings, and that’s mirrored by the dimmer ambient lighting, quite a departure from the bright lights and colors of the various Enterprises or of Voyager. The Federation finds itself at war with the Klingons, and if some might feel inclined to disagree with this narrative choice, I’d like to remind them that in the times of the original series, relations with the Klingons were quite strained and always on the verge of an all-out conflict: if this turns out to be the story of how that uneasy truce came to be, I will be very interested in following its progress. This war, one that was not actively sought but still needs to be fought, might very well represent the catalyst (or one of them anyway) for the process that led the Federation to the reasoned adherence to its founding principles as we came to know and appreciate them. And it might also be the background for the thought-provoking character and narrative arcs I’m looking for: there is a scene in which a crewman asks how it could have happened, how could the Federation find itself waging war when their goals are exploration and learning, and in this dichotomy – a hard, painful dichotomy that hopefully will engage many characters’ moral compass – we might find a multi-layered story worth watching.
All we need to do is indeed give Discovery some time to grow, and to grant ourselves a little patience and faith…