When I first sat down and popped open the iPad with my fiancé to watch the premier of Star Trek: Discovery, I was unenthusiastic. It was the first time in 12 years that Star Trek was on television – its prime form – and I couldn’t seem to muster the kind of excitement the occasion deserved. I know I was not alone among Trek fans going into Discovery’s long awaited debut. The news that emanated from Discovery’s first season of production did not invoke confidence for this newest foray.
I will not sit here and project unnecessary melodrama, but given the additional missteps of the franchise over the last decade-plus, my lack of optimism was far from mad-hat. That being said, there was no reason not to give this series its fair shake.
Despite my personal misgivings heading into this newest frontier of Trek television, I experienced something that I did not anticipate – I was genuinely impressed.
After the initial three episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, these are the gambles that the show has taken and won.
Star Trek: Discovery – Breaking Eggs and Continuity
For any new installation of a beloved franchise, it is the paramount objective to establish legitimacy in the minds of their audience. Star Trek: Discovery is cast a great challenge to carve out its own distinct legacy within the vast Star Trek multiverse. To tell their story, Discovery was always going to have to break a few eggs and step on the feet of cherished canon to make this proverbial omelette. To their credit, the events of Star Trek: Discovery feel as if they fit extremely well within the continuity of Star Trek.
Beginning in the 2250’s, nearly 100 years since the founding of the United Federation of Planets (UFP), the audience encounters a Federation that is still growing into itself as an entity. It is not yet the superpower of TNG’s 24th century, but after many decades it is finding its place and identity in their portion of the galaxy. By observing the brash Starfleet human personnel assigned to the Discovery, humans still lack a refinement one would not encounter in later Star Trek eras. Despite eliminating hunger, disease, and want on Earth, humans have not made their leap to the evolved product Star Trek has long emulated.
The Federation also seems to be aided in its expansion having experienced an extended period of peace with their neighbors. It has been a century since Starfleet made direct contact with the Klingon Empire, their erstwhile supreme provocateur, that is now aggressively emerging from profound disunity and isolation. For a juncture in time to proceed en media res, Discovery’s writers are choosing a surprisingly fertile starting gate to tell the Federation’s story in the 2250’s.
Though how Discovery is telling their story is the show’s next gamble, doing so primarily from the perspective of the enigmatic, singularly talented, and troubled human Starfleet officer, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham.
The character of Lieutenant Commander Burnham is portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green, best known for her role in AMC’s, “The Walking Dead.” As the foster child, or “ward,” of Vulcan Ambassador Sarek and his human wife Amanda, Burnham is set-up for endless scrutiny. Since time immemorial, Star Trek fans have come to intimately know the family dynamics of Spock, and their story is sacred ground.
Discovery is making a bold choice to alter that portion of Trek history, as this is the first time we come to know anything about Michael Burnham. Burnham is a notable human Starfleet officer who served as the First Officer on the USS Shenzhou, that was ultimately imprisoned for her mutiny, and outright blamed for starting a protracted war with a newly unified Klingon Empire. Her introduction as Sarek and Amanda’s adopted daughter clearly conflicts with a celebrated portion of Star Trek history. Though the audience still does not know very much about her, what we have seen portrays a rich tapestry of a complex character with great possibility.
Michael Burnham was orphaned as a young child when her parents were killed during a surprise attack by Klingons at Doctari Alpha. Burnham was apparently saved by Sarek who was also on the scene, and she was subsequently taken into his family and raised on Vulcan. Bernham is undeniably human, however she possesses definitively austere characteristics from her Vulcan rearing. Furthermore, she has a very deep paternal/mentoring relationship with Sarek, one that clearly surpasses his own biological sons, most notably Spock. Michael and Sarek have also mind-melded, a deeply intimate telepathic joining of consciousness unique to Vulcans – and a form of bonding Sarek and Spock never chose to share.
Sarek serves as the primary source of strength for Michael Bernham, as he became the father she never was able to know. In his very Vulcan way, Sarek demonstrates a warmth and understanding for her that is touching. Moreover, the performance of James Frain as Sarek embodies the classic character in a vein that channels the best of Mark Leonard’s timeless portrayal.
Burnham is also the daughter that fulfilled Sarek’s ultimate wishes for Spock, having attended the Vulcan Science Academy. A defied expectation on the part of Spock that generated years of friction between he and Sarek, and prolonged estrangement.
Though most interesting perhaps is that Burnham is a mirror of her Vulcan foster-brother, Spock. She and Spock are always afflicted with prolonged inner conflict between their human nature and operand Vulcan conditioning. Yet Spock is half-Vulcan/half-Human, bound by Vulcan cultural propriety that he has embraced. Whereas Burnham is ultimately forgiven her fully human nature, despite her attempts to manage a deep emotional life in classic Vulcan fashion.
Michael Burnham is also a character that carries an immense amount of emotional pain, and her inner anguish is nearly palpable. It would be arrogant to even presume a full understanding of her kaleidoscope of emotion. Yet her pain serves to make Burnham undeniably relatable. For what it is worth, Michael Burnham is character that you cannot help but pull for, despite her clear transgressions. Putting aside the clear TNG Get-Out-Of-Jail-If-You-Help-Us trope, Burnham has far less Ro Laren within her, and far more Jim Kirk. Her abilities as a Starfleet officer are self-evident, and a pleasure to observe. Burnham both embodies an astounding intellect, combined with being a genuine bad-ass.
In short, a character of her quality placed within the greater story arch of Discovery is leading to a wonderful bounty, and is a big win for Star Trek: Discovery.
Within the entirety of the Star Trek franchise, the audience has seen an extensive evolution of the Klingon species. As characters that have been written and rewritten, the introduction of the Klingons in the 2250’s is a highly delicate maneuver. Putting aside their obvious change in appearance – and its details that are far too pedantic for this article – the audience is encountering a very different, and most dangerous Klingon species.
Over the previous century, the Federation had almost no contact with the Klingon Empire. Theirs has been a power deeply fractured, cursed with ongoing internal blood feuds that solve nothing. More to the point, the Klingon people are experiencing a major existential crisis as to who they are, and what their destiny shall be. Klingons hold a core belief that they’re an ancient and providential race, unmatched by any other. When that core belief is thrown into question, as it is in Discovery, that is when Klingons are most dangerous. It is this chaos that T’Kuvma has sought to champion.
T’Kuvma is a Klingon zealot dedicated to unite the 24 Great Houses that comprise the Klingon Empire. As a living symbol of Klingon ideals, T’Kuvma anoints himself the next incarnation of Kahless “The Unforgettable,” their great prophet that lived a millennia prior who managed to unite and found the Klingon Empire.
T’Kuvma’s death at the hands of Michael Burnham during the Battle of the Binary Stars makes him a martyr. T’Kuvma has become an enduring symbol that unites a re energized and implacable Klingon Empire in their war against the Federation, and struggle for collective identity.
Despite the less-than-subtle sociopolitical overtones in their story line, it is a wise and logical reintroduction of the Klingon species. While their highly altered appearance has yet to make them feel like the Klingon’s of old, there is enough substance in this story to give Star Trek: Discovery considerable leeway. What is most interesting is that the Klingons are not alone in their personal quest for meaning.
Nicholas Mayer & The War Within
From Star Trek: Discovery’s opening scene, the finesse and creativity of its Consulting Producer Nicholas Meyer is in evidence. There are any number of instances that pinpoint this fact. Yet none are more significant and subtle than Starfleet’s ongoing struggle to define itself as either explorers, diplomats, or a military organization. It is an innermost conflict tempered with the steam and depth that only the backdrop of interstellar war could provide.
In truth Starfleet has always assumed all three roles, and it could be no other way. When considering the infinite reaches of space, Starfleet vessels effectively harken to the Earth Age of Sail. With the considerable distances between outposts, and despite the capability of traveling beyond the speed of light, a Starfleet vessel effectively assumes a multifaceted position. When centralized decision making in real-time is impossible, Starfleet serves as all three roles. It is never a matter of defining itself as one or the other, Starfleet can and must always be all three. Yet these Starfleet officers have yet to accept their full role as military officers, nor does it appear they have ever had to so before.
In a century of relative calm in Discovery’s beginnings, Starfleet officers of Discovery’s generation have only known a galaxy where their main Federation rivals – Klingons and Romulans – have remained in isolation. There is yet no reason to presume the Federation has endured a major conflict since the Earth/Romulan War a century prior.
Most every officer, career or otherwise, does not emerge from a personal history or experience fulfilling their roles as military officers. To the writers credits, the inherent tensions in Starfleet ranks regarding this issue is clear. Faced with a war it could not anticipate, and a fleet that has almost no practical military experience, Starfleet itself is undergoing as much an existential conflict as their Klingon enemy. It is also the ideal scenario to introduce the exceptional contrasting figure of Captain Gabriel Lorca.
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Captain Gabriel Lorca and the Gateway to Victory
Captain Gabriel Lorca, portrayed by Jason Isaacs, is the Commanding Officer of the USS Discovery. Lorca is a very specific brand of Starfleet Officer, and one that inherently conflicts with many in Starfleets ranks. The initial impressions of Lorca find its origins in two captains that have preceded him, Jonathan Archer and James T. Kirk. Lorca embodies a distinct human swagger making him a man out of time who has come of age in an era of sustained peace in the Alpha Quadrant, until now.
Lorca is both a veteran of war, and clearly a devotee of lateral thinking. Hence he is charged with the development of a new form of experimental interstellar travel, Mycelial Network Travel. It is a piece of technology that is highly reminiscent of an Iconian Gateway, and if mastered will allow anyone to travel vast interstellar distances as breezily as walking through a door. In this respect, Captain Lorca is very much reminiscent of General Leslie Groves, Jr. who oversaw the Western Allied Manhattan Project for the U.S. Army during the Second World War.
In a military context regarding its potential strategic impact, the top-secret research for Mycelial Network Travel would provide an overwhelming advantage in the Federations war with the Klingons, or any potential foe. In possessing the ability to deploy any resource to any area of need during war instantaneously, this experimental form of travel is the ultimate trump card. More to the point, it is a technological achievement that would be comparable to weaponizing the atom. Simply put, it represents a fundamental change in the relationship between the Federation and its neighboring powers.
In Short – Star Trek: Discovery The Initial Verdict
I can say in good conscience that it is so refreshing to have deeply compelling Star Trek on television once again. No doubt it is sound logic to tread carefully when casting premature judgement on a show still in its infancy. Though there is no doubt, for all it is worth, that Discovery feels like Star Trek. It is an ineffable sensation best compared to reuniting with a dear friend after many years. Though there is a very long way to go, Star Trek: Discovery has shown immense potential. More importantly, the franchise seems to have learned the harsh lessons of their past decisions.
Here’s to hoping….