Star Trek: Discovery is the brand new Star Trek series streaming on Netflix and, so far, it lacks both the smarts of earlier Trek shows, and the trigger-happy freneticism of recent films.
The first two episodes set the series up to be a turgid, low-concept bastardisation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. If you’re going to watch Discovery (and it is by no means certain that anybody should) then skip the introduction and jump straight into episode three, the latest episode at time of publication. There, there are signs that Discovery might be, if not great Star Trek, okay TV.
Set approximately 10 years before the original series, Discovery breaks with Star Trek tradition in a number of ways. For one, none of the characters are particularly respectable. James Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, and other previous captains were, basically, paragons of virtue. It’s one way that the utopian ethics of Star Trek manifested: freed from hunger and need, humanity organises itself morally and sets out across the universe, in peace. This is not the case in Discovery, where crew members argue, plot, and mutiny against one another. The self, rather than space, is the frontier being explored.
The central character is Michael Burnham, an unusually-named woman played by Sonequa Martin-Green from The Walking Dead. Burnham has been raised by Vulcans, is hard headed, and doesn’t care for Star Fleet’s dominance hierarchy.
Where the female characters are simplistic and boring (with the notable exception of Sylvia Tilly, the redheaded comic relief, played tremendously by Mary Wiseman) the male characters are caricatures.The Klingons are an American liberal’s nightmarish depiction of evangelical Trump supporters: patriarchal, racist, and desperate to hold onto their cultural identity in a modern, bureaucratic world. When the writers aren’t bashing toxic masculinity, they’re bashing the lack of it. The only prominent male aboard the USS Shenzhou is a cowardly, effeminate fish man.
Overall, characterisation in Discovery is poor, which is an especial problem, because Discovery is intent on being character-driven. Old Star Trek episodes often centered on a single moral and/or intellectual crisis. Discovery, however, is plotted more like contemporary Netflix dramas. Episode by episode the audience is spoon-fed little bits of exposition and backstory, with few satisfying resolutions along the way. There may well be some great twists and turns to this tale – and it is entirely possible that the characters will develop depth and complexity – but, in the three hours of the show released thus far, this hasn’t happened. So far we just have flimsy characters, mucking about in an overly long first act. Again, the third episode is something of an improvement, and may be an indication that good things will follow. Then again, it may just be a small oasis of quality in a desert of tedium.
Regardless, Discovery is likely to find an audience. It laudably champions women of colour in roles that, historically, would go to white men. But how much more laudable Discovery would be if it was both progressive and worthwhile viewing! That is what the original series achieved and, so far, Discovery is falling well short.