Discovery and Race and Tropes

The internet was invented to bitch about Star Trek

Michael from Discovery.

Includes spoilers up to episode 3 of the series.

There's a new Star Trek series out, called Discovery which would be so good if it weren't weighed down by the problems Star Trek loves to have.

Right off the bat, some of the good. The main character, Michael Burnham, played by smoking hot Sonequa Martin-Green, is super compelling. Though, when I watched the pilot episode, I had just caught up on the latter half of season seven of The Walking Dead, where, spoilers, they killed her character off by locking her in a box and forcing her to die from exposure to unbearably tedious flashbacks. So it was jarring to see the actress emerge as a bad ass Starfleet officer when I just saw her turn into a zombie. But whatever, that was just weird timing for me.

It didn't help, though, that the dialogue in the first few scenes of the pilot were clunky as fuck. If you have characters saying things like, "As you know, in the seven years that we've worked together, I have always respected you," you might as well just superimpose QR codes over the actors faces with links to their character's bios on a website.

Somehow the dialogue soon settled down to something a little more natural, and I was thinking, okay, most pilots struggle to get past the world building phase of explaining what is going on, so, maybe we can get somewhere now. And then we smack right into Star Trek's worst long term addiction, which is meta-racism cloaked in diversity through acceptance. We meet Lieutenant Saru, who, we're told in expositionese, is a Kelpien, a species of people who come from a planet where his people evolved as prey, and so, as a Kelpien, he is scared of everything.

You see, because that's how alien races have worked since all the way back in the original Star Trek series. They have one overarching character trait, which universally applies to all members of that race. Klingons are irrational warriors who just want to fight everything. Romulans are kind of sneaky and strategic. Vulcans are logical. Ferengi are an anti-Semitic depiction of greed. And Kelpiens, I am now told, are giant fucking pussies.

Of course, no one is saying that it's a bad thing that he's genetically a coward. No, that would be intolerant. Because we're enlightened future people, we accept the way he is, because he can't help but be the way his species behaves. See how racist we're not?

Do I even have to spell out the massive metaphorical implications of saying alien races have completely universal stereotypes that define them? Ugh.

By the way, it seems to me that if we accept the in-universe Trek world view that races are bound by their singular character traits, then isn't Saru's stated racial trait of being afraid of everything completely at odds with the aims of Starfleet? How can you boldly go anywhere if you're terrified of what you might find?

Anyway, speaking of one-note aliens, we meet the Klingons pretty soon, and what the fuck happened to the Klingons?! I mean, I get that as budgets go up and special effects get better, you want to create more ambient depth. It was totally fair when they took the Klingons of the original series, who looked kind of like some offensive Mexican stereotype dressed for a night at the disco, and gave them body armour and turtles on their head. But the Klingons in Discovery look like they evolved from the bottom of the ocean to become Satanists in the house of Medici. Even the way they speak Klingon is so exaggerated, it sounds like they're trying to choke a potato wedge out of their trachea with every syllable. They're so extreme in every possible way, it's distracting and weird.

Which is a shame, because buried in there is kind of a cool metaphor for our times. The Klingons of Discovery are basically racial purists, who see Starfleet's proposal of peaceful integration as a threat because it means cultural dilution. Makes for some potentially great story lines exploring what it means to globalize. Behind the hostile refusal to even consider negotiations that we can all agree makes them the bad guys, there is a touch of something we might sympathize with. Do we want to live in a world where everyone defaults to a baseline of universal culture? To what degree does peace mean bland sameness? I'm not proposing any answers, but I think it's an interesting and relevant question. This is Star Trek at its best, using the future as a gymnasium to exercise our current concerns.

The Klingon's of course, have their own answer to this nuanced problem of how cultures should interact, which is to attack everyone and everything all the time, no matter what. Which really strains their credulity as a space faring species. We learn that the only way to get their respect is to shoot at them any time you encounter them. Somehow, in all their eons of constantly attacking each other and everyone else, they've never learned any other tactics other than to just go full Conan berserker rage at every turn. I mean, really? Their culture never had a Sun Tzu? They seriously have no concept of the value of diplomacy even when it's ultimately your aim to win every battle? Sorry... I was thinking in terms of cultural complexity for a second there. This is Star Trek. Klingons = fight, end of discussion.

We know about this whole "shoot at them to say hello" business because we're told the Vulcans figured this out a long time ago. The Vulcans, being the logicians they are, worked out that if you just shoot at Klingons whenever you see them, then they "respect" you on the basis of your willingness to fight. The net result is they leave you alone, and that seems to be pretty much all the Vulcans want.

This information comes to us via Sarek. That's Spock's dad. The father of maybe the most iconic character in all of Star Trek. Because of a narrative problem not specific to Star Trek, but is a trope virus that infects damn near science fiction or fantasy story. The premise that a small group of people who all know each other, and are probably related by blood, are connected to and responsible for everything important in the universe. I'm especially looking at you, Star Wars. It irritates me because I find it so hard to suspend my disbelief to allow for the massive coincidence of a small handful of people being so relevant in all the galaxy's important historical events. Can't we have a story arc where characters achieve because of their merit, and not because of a defacto narrative incestuousness? If it turns out everyone who matters are all part of the same clique of people, then you're basically saying only people on the inside track matter. What the hell kind of message is that? I thought Star Trek was supposed to be aspirational.

Ugh, I don't want to get too political, so, I'll just get down to the narrative failings this Sarek connection creates. Apparently Discovery takes place ten years before the events of the original Star Trek series. So, does that mean Michael grew up with Spock as her adoptive brother? They would have at least known of each other. Either we have to explain why Spock never, in all the decades we've seen his character, never mentioned his unique-in-the-universe-adoptive sister, or, we have to concoct some convoluted retcon explanation for why Sarek kept Spock and Michael apart.

Which is only the tip of the ice-berg of the third and most egregious problem with the show, which is that ALL PREQUELS SUCK... insofar as they are prequels. What I mean is that, prequels can be good or bad from the point of view of whether or not they are well produced, well written, well acted, or well whatever. But every moment the story has to conform to not upsetting the existing storyline, a prequel suffers. Or much worse, when it elbows you in the ribs with characters and settings you're supposed to recognize and be delighted by because of a back story being revealed to you.

Having Sarek be Michael's mentor or adoptive father or whatever means that the timeline is all weird. And what do we get in return for that cost? What is the benefit of a back story where Michael is a human raised as a Vulcan? She's logical and yet sometimes expresses humanity? Big deal. We've already had Spock struggle with how to handle the balance of logic and humanity, we've already had Data aspire to be human in spite of his logic... how many angles do we need to see this issue from? Other than the novelty value of her knowing Vulcan Krav Maga, the premise of her being culturally Vulcan and genetically human goes down a path that's been so well paved by now there's no exploration left. Can't I just get a kick ass lead female who I can relate to because she, like, me, struggles the way people do? Does she have to have been to Vulcan boarding school to be special? I want to watch her become special, not have her specialness handed to me on a plate because of events that happened before I tuned in.

Discovery really doubles down hard on the problem with prequels with the introduction, in the third episode, of a new kind of warp travel system some scientist has been working on. It's based on some weird analogy of the universe's fundamental atomic structure being connected like the cells of a living being, "physics as biology," as one character puts it. Sure, whatever, I'm down with getting a little mystical with my science. With this technology, Michael experiences being whipped around the galaxy's best tourist destination spots, instantaneously seeing planets from opposite ends of known space.

Cool... except, that technology does not exist in any of the series that chronologically follow this one, so, we know that either the technology must fail in some way. If it continues, the writers have destroyed a fundamental premise of all future shows. Warp drive and transporters, technologies fundamental to the story telling in Star Trek, are both are completely worthless if they are superseded by a technology that can place people anywhere in the universe instantly. It's fine as a concept in every way, except that because it's being shown to us in a prequel, so much of the mystery or discovery is dead on arrival because it definitively can't go beyond predetermined bounds.

It's mainly frustrating because it is completely, 100%, totally unnecessary. There is absolutely nothing happening in this show that could not be set in a Star Trek universe at a time after whatever other series or movie took place furthest in the future. Star Trek dabbles a bit with time travel now and again, so you'll probably always have to carve out a little rationale for why things are they way they are at any one time. But, by setting a series in the future, not only do you have no restrictions on where you go, what you can do with new technologies or new worlds, you also have much more room to explore the future as an analogy for our present. The Next Generation reflected issues of the times, which were different from the issues of the original series. And now, twenty years after TNG, why are we looking backwards?

The biggest social change in our times, that occurred after most other Star Trek series were written, is the advent of social networks. People in Discovery seem so much less connected with each other than we are in 2017, because they're following a paradigm laid out in 1966. The Klingons used to be a metaphor for the cold war. Why don't we have a new metaphor for the borderless struggle with terrorism we have now? Wireless communication in the original series was a prescient template for real world wireless technology to come. What might science fiction writers come up with if not having to think in a box locked shut by a determined future?

All prequels suck to the degree that they are prequels. Always. Without fail.

So yeah. There are a lot of really frustrating problems with Discovery. And I haven't even got to the nitpicking level, like the theme song that sounds like it's continually starting and never actually becoming a song.

All that said, I'm going to keep watching this show, though. It feels like it has potential. And that's not because I'll just watch any Star Trek show the way I'll watch just about anything with zombies in it. Enterprise was so awkward and lame, it killed my unconditional love for all things Star Trek, which I had carried with me ever since watching reruns of the original Star Trek with my dad, on Sunday afternoons, right after watching Kung Fu and The Twilight Zone.

I'm in the show largely because of Sonequa Martin-Green. In spite of the burden of having to present as a Vulcan, inhibiting what might otherwise be some relatable human moments, she's delivering a dimensionalized character I can root for. That's a lot of burden to put on one actor and character, though, and it might not be enough to keep the series alive for me. My only hope is that almost every TV series takes at least half the first season to figure out what it's really about, and the show is still reasonably decent Sci-Fi, even if it's not great Trek. Something good could emerge out of this.

Which brings me to my last gripe, possibly the biggest of them all. Why the fuck did they kill Michelle Yeoh'scharacter? She nailed it as a Starfleet captain. Her dynamic with Martin-Green was so spot on, it was way, way better than what we have by the end of the third episode, where now Martin-Green is set up to play off of a low budget John Hamm that they brought in as a standard white guy in authority. Booooring.

I can't even believe I'm saying this, because I fucking hate when shows undermine the threat of mortality by bringing back characters who were seen to be killed. But, in this case, I can't help it, because Yeoh was that good. Although she was stabbed pretty convincingly with a Klingon bat'leth, Yeoh's character's body was not recovered, and everyone who watches any television or movies knows that unless there's a body, a character can always come back.

A Star Trek show with Michell Yeoh as captain and Sonique Martin-Green as second in command? Just cruising around space encountering random planets where different alien races have built their cultures around moral dilemmas we face in the real world? I would watch the shit out of that.