I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with Star Trek: Discovery since it began this fall and it’s only become more nebulous as the series progresses. I am a huge Trekkie and I’ll even be the first to admit that I’ve enjoyed the Abramsverse/Kelvin Timeline stories a lot more than I expected I would. Discovery, itself, however, has been a strange mix of emotions and thoughts. The story has, in part, tried to fill in the gaps between the two universes that now exist in the Star Trek timeline, as it tells the story of a pre-Kirk war against the Klingons. What it’s also done is test the limits of Starfleet’s — and the series’ — mission of exploration and understanding by reminding us just how dark and cruel human nature really is.
Let’s start with the Klingons. I loved the Abramsverse redesign in Star Trek Beyond and I was excited to see a variation of that brought to life in Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, the one thing that I have wanted more of, as the series has progressed, is the Klingons. We’re getting a look at this beloved alien culture’s true self for the first time. Not just that sanitized, neo-Viking façade that we saw in TNG and DS9, but of an actual warrior race that has managed to advance itself from dueling feudal clans into a space-faring empire driven by religious dogma and cries of racial purity — something both alien and hauntingly familiar in our own time. The Klingon death cult surrounding the warrior-prophet Kahless takes on a much grittier, much more realistic tone than ever before and lends understanding to the honor-above-all-else mentality that has made the race such a ferocious force as the various Treks have evolved over the years. No longer just a proxy for Cold War-Era Soviets, they are becoming a more deeply realized group of people.
But as much as I love Discovery’s Klingons, I hate it’s Federation with a passion. Let’s begin with the mutineer, Michael Burnham. Burnham does what Kirk, or for that much, almost any leading cast member of a Star Trek series, would have done in trying to save her ship and crew from certain death by knocking out an unreceptive commanding officer and attempting to give the Klingons a “Vulcan Hello.” For those of you not following the series, that’s not some bizarre sex act, but a preemptive strike on a violent opponent designed to elicit respect and, in general, chill them the fuck out. Instead of simply being remembered as a failed mutineer, however, the Federation somehow manages to further vilify and scapegoat Burnham by laying the full weight of the blame for the war on her shoulders.
Then we have Captain Lorca, who, on the surface is a soldier who wants to win a war and save the Federation so that its mission of peaceful contact and exploration can continue. But then we see his alien corpse trophy room complete with Gorn skeleton and other souvenirs pertinent to his “research,” as well as his ongoing mission to violate the Prime Directive and the laws of the Federation in almost every episode as he becomes more hell bent to endanger his crew and commit war crimes in the name of revenge against the Klingons, because of the destruction of his last command.
In fact, Lorca’s obsession is what throws the Discovery into the now painfully familiar Mirror Universe which, despite the Kelvin Timeline, remains as confusingly the same as ever. By the way, spoilers ahead. Travel with caution.
So, in a move that feels almost like jumping the shark, Star Trek: Discovery has returned from the mid-season hiatus and spilled out into the middle of the ongoing war between alien separatists and the Empire. Now, as far as story goes, it isn’t bad. But it’s a bit much, for a series in the midst of its first season, telling what is already a more diverse and different story than any Star Trek has before. And, unlike TOS, DS9 or Enterprise, we’re not looking at a single episode or short-lived story arc. This is shaping up to be the better half of the season. Again, it’s cool to see the exploration of this bizarre universe where mankind is, essentially, mankind, but spending as much time here as they have in the first season seems presumptuous and a bit unimaginative. The storyteller in me is having a hard time figuring out just how this is going to tie in with the overall plot of the series.
Star Trek: Discovery is most definitely a Trek for our current times. Abysmal, bleak and unwaveringly reflective of modern society, the series lacks what the original Trek offered in abundance: hope. Roddenberry’s vision was of a future, where mankind had put aside its politics, its economics and its ego, in search of answers to the great mysteries that lie out their in the vastness of space. To seek out new life and new civilization. To boldly go where no man, no one, has ever gone before. Discovery is taking us to familiar places and reminding us how flawed and far from that vision of a brighter future we really are. The series is already renewed for a second season and I’m crossing my fingers that this slow ride along a dark trail will eventually lead up to something more than monsters within and without.