This is the science fiction we need right now.
Spoiler alert: this post contains mild plot spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.
It was with much anticipation and trepidation that I and millions of other trekkies tuned in Sunday night to Star Trek: Discovery, the latest series in the beloved franchise. But just a few minutes into the pilot, as the show effortlessly aced the Bechdel test, I realized I had nothing to worry about.
Faithful to the original universe, fresh enough to capture a new audience, and poignantly political in a way that would make Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991, beam—the new Star Trek is the science fiction the world needs right now. But with CBS's gamble on a subscription-only rollout, it's yet to be seen how many people will actually consume it.
Set roughly 10 years before The Original Series, in Stardate 2255, the Discovery opener is led by two women of color: First Officer Michael Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans, and Captain Philippa Georgiou, who somehow manages to capture all of the most beloved traits of past Starfleet captains—playfulness, diplomacy, authority—and roll them into a fresh new character that hooks you immediately.
It's worth emphasizing how unbelievably refreshing it is to see women of color leading a story and having the scene not fall victim to the tokenism we too often see on TV. These are just two badass officers on a mission, solving problems, and kicking ass. One can't truly grasp how badly modern TV is lacking these kinds of narratives until you witness one unfolding on prime time. Even if you have zero interest in science fiction or Star Trek, you should really watch the first episode if only to see what that looks like, and recognize how much better TV would be if we had more of it.
The series also takes some new approaches to storytelling. Rather than the familiar "monster of the week-"style serial of past Star Treks, the new series feels more like an HBO show, with slick, animated (lengthy) opening credits and a continuous plot line that, at least in the first two episodes, leaves viewers with consistent cliffhangers.
But there is still plenty of fidelity to the original canon and spirit of the Star Trek world to keep diehards happy, such as the playful banter and rivalry among the bridge team (Burnham and science officer Saru's teasing could have been torn straight from a scene between Bones and Spock in TOS). It also sticks to the prime timeline (AKA not the new reboot from J. J. Abrams), and employs liberal use of Trek terminology without patronizing (if you don't know what a phaser, replicator, transporter, or photon torpedoes are, do your homework).
Most importantly, Discovery isn't afraid to address topics of race, culture, conflict, and morality. This is the kind of storytelling Roddenberry so loved, and the kind that has been a joining thread between all the series. Star Trek has never been about gratuitous violence and action, but introspection, exploration, and deep philosophical questioning among a diverse group of humans (and humanoids).
Many fans on Twitter were quick to point out that lines and themes from the show could easily be applied to our current political climate in the US. The Klingons open the series with a nationalist call-to-arms, fearing erosion of their culture from the peaceful Federation, and ready to battle to "remain Klingon." I could almost hear them chanting "you will not replace us."
Burnham later tells Admiral Brett Anderson that it's "unwise to confuse race and culture," when debating the best course of action for engaging with a Klingon ship. Black Girl Nerds, an online community for women of color, tweeted that the theme of the first two episodes was "listen to black women," as Burnham struggled to get the crew to recognize the best way to deal with impending battle.
"I feel like where we are right now, with so much division and separatism and superiority and inferiority, I just think that it is for a time like this, right now," Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Burnham, said in an interview last week. "I think it means a lot to be able to see a picture of that utopian future, where we can be together and it doesn't matter what we look like and really respect each other and embrace each other. I think to be able to see that means everything."
There were plenty of complaints during the debut as well. Some diehard fans aren't loving the set design and uniforms, which do feel more J.J. Abrams than Captain Kirk. But the slick design feels both more current and closer to our time which, technically, the series is. The show also fed a few technical glitches (like poor signals on holograms) to indicate that we are, in fact, in Stardate 2255. The second episode was also a bit action-heavy in a way that would get tiresome if it keeps such a pace throughout the season.
But CBS's biggest mistake may have been making the show only available via its subscription streaming service All Access. The pilot aired on live television Sunday night, but the second and subsequent episodes are only available online, which many viewers evidently didn't realize ahead of time. At $10 a month ($6 if you don't mind watching ads), it's unclear how many fans will be willing to shell out just to watch one show. But it's a notable experiment in the age of cord-cutting, that CBS would be willing to offer a marquee series only online.
Along with a vision of a post-war human future, Star Trek presents us with a possible future for television, where we pay only for the shows we want to watch. It also gives big networks a new way of reaching viewers.
Science fiction, so often a realm of dystopian narrative, equally has the ability to lay out a vision for a brighter future. This has always been Star Trek's greatest strength, and the new series nails this without being Pollyanna or twee. There's plenty of conflict, action, and debate. But in this world, we have found a way to shed our worst traits and embrace the best of humanity, coming together to explore, learn, and spread a message of peace across the dang universe. In a time of so much debate and tension, it's truly a relief to think we might some day be better than all this.
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