I want to pitch you a story idea. Don’t worry, it’ll only take a moment.
A veteran captain of an old ship finds herself at the edge of friendly territory, staring down the gunports of the mysterious vessel of a former enemy. Her young first officer betrays her, instigates mutiny and fires on the alien vessel. Reinforcements appear on both sides, and suddenly the captain is stuck in the middle of a cataclysmic battle. Now she has to fight – for survival, for peace, and for answers.
That’s the show we almost had. That we could’ve had. All of the elements were there, but Star Trek: Discovery instead swaps the perspectives and we get this:
A young officer finds herself and her captain staring down the gunports of the mysterious vessel of a race of aliens who murdered her parents. She speaks to her pacifist mentor, who tells her that pre-emptive bloodshed worked this one time, so she pleads with her captain to open fire without provocation. Her captain refuses, so the young officer assaults her captain, attempts to take over the ship and fire on the aliens herself. She fails, the aliens attack anyway and without reason, her captain ends up subsequently murdered and the young officer maintains throughout that she was “doing the right thing,” even as she gets convicted of FUCKING MUTINY in a court-room that actually manages to be more sinister than that of the evil alien race she so badly wants to murder.
Look, it’s a fucking mess. As I write this, ‘Discovery’ is only two episodes old, and all the usual caveats are being bandied around:
- But it’s only the pilot episodes! All the other Trek shows had rubbish pilots!
- But it’s a series-long narrative! Nothing ever gets resolved in the first episode!
- But it’s Star Trek, back on TV! Give it a chance!
Like ‘Into Darkness’ before it, the more I think about ‘Discovery’s first two episodes, the angrier I get, so let’s start with the big issues and work our way down.
In A Real-World Age of Racial Tension, Star Trek Comes Down On The Side Of The Racists
This is the thing that really bothered me. A few years back, there was a great movie about an old soldier coming to terms with his inherent bigotry, having to help to broker peace with a violent, hostile faction that had caused him great personal loss.
It was called ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’.
In it, the protagonist, a character called ‘James Kirk’, is caught up in an assassination plot, where the leader of a race of hostile aliens called ‘Klingons’ is killed whilst trying to start peace negotiations. It was the Klingons who had previously murdered James’ son just a few years earlier.
James doesn’t trust the Klingons, and he never will. He’s never been able to forgive them, for the death of his son. And yet throughout it all he remains committed to the peace process. As an officer of ‘Starfleet’, an organisation dedicated to protection, peace and, most importantly, exploration, he never betrays his oath to preserve life and prevent war. In the space of about a hundred minutes of screen time, he comes face-to-face with his own deep-seated bigotry, but with the help of his friends his tolerance and his trust win through.
Basically, at the beginning of the film, James thinks the Klingons are up to no good, as do a lot of heavily prejudiced people around him. And it turns out that a few of the Klingons ARE up to no good – but so are many Starfleet officers. We find out that even the most bloody of adversaries are equally capable of evil – and equally capable of peaceful intentions.
Now, let’s look at ‘Star Trek: The Rediscovered Bigotry’:
The “protagonist”, a character called ‘Michael Burnham’, is a career officer in the same Starfleet as James. She was raised by a race of aliens called ‘Vulcans’ – vegetarian, meditative, spiritual pacifists. Specifically, she was raised and mentored by their chief diplomat, who, in James’ time, would help to broker peace between Starfleet and the Klingons. Michael’s parents were killed twenty years ago when she was a child, during a Klingon raid of her colony.
Michael doesn’t trust the Klingons. She knows that they only practice war and violence. And so, when she’s confronted with one of their ships, she talks to her meditative, pacifist diplomat foster-father and asks him what to do. He tells her that two centuries previously, the Vulcans brokered peace with the Klingons by pre-emptively attacking Klingon ships on sight, until the Klingons grew wary enough to sue for peace.
So, Michael implores her captain to pre-emptively destroy the Klingon vessel.
Michael is a human, which means that in the two centuries since the Vulcans and Klingons made peace, her own species went from the brink of nuclear annihilation to planetary unification, eradicated economic scarcity, formed a socialist technological utopia which spans hundreds of star systems, and is now one of the most influential species in the galaxy.
Knowing all of this, and having been through the Vulcan education system of unwavering rationality and logic, and being an established “xeno-anthropologist”, Michael concludes that Klingon culture could not possibly have changed in those two centuries, and that therefore whatever tactics worked back then must still be entirely applicable now. She reaches this conclusion strongly enough to betray her own captain, and friend, of seven years, and tries to commit mass murder, even knowing that a fleet of Klingon vessels is likely only moments from arriving.
Now, the problem here isn’t that Michael jumped to stupid conclusions, or took stupid actions, or acted entirely in contradiction to the anthropological background established for her character in the same fucking episodes. Well, okay, they are all problems, but no worse than the problems that plague many other TV shows. The problem is that Michael is proven right.
Because as she predicts, the Klingons attack. Without provocation, without reason. We see the Klingons as they make their decision to attack, and it all boils down to one religious weirdo and known outcast telling them that they, y’know, totally should attack, because, like, have you seen those Starfleet guys? They want to talk! To Klingons! Who does that? Villains, that’s who.
Which means that the Klingons are, apparently, exactly as bloodthirsty and aggressive as Michael believes. That’s the actual truth. We even see other Starfleet officers calling Michael out on her racist bullshit – and they are proven to be wrong.
In ‘The Undiscovered Country’, in roughly the same amount of screen time as ‘Discovery’s opening two episodes, we are shown that the Klingons are a functioning society – martial, certainly, even aggressive – yet still capable of pragmatism, and philosophy, and contemplation. They may turn to warfare more readily than the Vulcans, or even the Humans, but they, as a nation, don’t just commit to random acts of violence without reason. They do things with purpose.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of people really pleased with the “cultural development” that the Klingons received in ‘Discovery’, and in fairness, it is nice to see them get some fancy new costumes and a more cohesive aesthetic and for them to reveal a bit of their religious side. But all of that is surface detail – it doesn’t particularly inform their decision to just start a war because some bloke told them to.
And, not to get too on the nose about things, but I’m concerned about a Star Trek franchise that uses, as its main antagonists, a bunch of overly-religious, dark-skinned foreigners who commit “terror attacks”, as the show calls them.
Y’know, it wasn’t so long ago that ‘The Next Generation’ put a Klingon on the bridge of the Enterprise, specifically to point out that different species, races and cultures can all co-operate because they all share so much in common.
If ‘Discovery’ changes tack a little, or reveals more of the Klingon culture to explain their apparent total lack of hesitation when it comes to starting galaxy-wide wars, then I will feel a lot better about things. But if it doesn’t, this is going to feel like a huge step backwards in terms of cultural and racial sensitivity.
Oh, and we should probably mention the fact that the dark-skinned leader of the Klingons gets killed, and replaced with a white-skinned dude. And the fact that a Malaysian captain who is also a woman is killed off to be replaced with a middle-aged white dude. Get your shit together, Star Trek.
Two Full-Length Pilot Episodes Barely Manage To Set Up A Single Plot Point
Broadly speaking, you’ve got a few different formats for TV shows these days. You can go entirely episodic – such as the original ‘Star Trek’, and ‘The Next Generation’ after it. Each episode is an instalment in its own right, a self-contained story with little, if any, continuity between episodes and series. Or you can go for a more modern, entirely series-driven narrative, like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Orphan Black’, where story arcs are rarely concluded within a single episode and instead each week offers a segment of a continuing plotline.
If those are two ends of a spectrum, then you’ve also got everything in the middle, exemplified by the latter series of ‘Deep Space Nine’, and also ‘Babylon 5’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Arrested Development’, ‘iZombie’, and many others, where you get an over-arching series narrative, delivered in episodic “chunks” (and sometimes scattered in between non-arc episodes, as in ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Firefly’).
Whichever format a series falls into ends up defining the structure of each episode, and particularly the structure of its pilot episode. Pilot episodes, as the very first introduction to hopefully a long-running series, have two objectives – to lay out the premise of the show, and to get the audience back the following week. Now, the premise of the show includes its tone, its story, its settings, but also its characters and their relationships with one another.
A great example of a good pilot episode is that of ‘Firefly’, the episode itself titled ‘Serenity’ (confusingly, the same name as the follow-up movie after the show’s cancellation). This pilot is ninety minutes long, and introduces us to all of the most important elements of the show itself. It introduces all nine characters (as well as the tenth, the ship itself), it shows us their roles and responsibilities, it shows a good chunk of the universe they travel in, and the kind of stakes they’re up against. The use of energy-dense food as the plot-central cargo highlights the kind of survivalist tone that will dominate the rest of the series, through ‘War Stories’ and ‘Out of Gas’, whilst the criminal shenanigans set the mood for future heists in ‘The Train Job’, ‘Ariel’ and ‘Trash’. And finally the peculiar arrival of Simon and River Tam, and their significance to the antagonistic and oppressive Alliance, prepares the foundation for a longer-running, series-length mystery.
Like ‘Firely’, the (combined) pilot of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ lasts around ninety minutes. But that’s where the similarities end, sadly. It introduces six main characters – two of whom will be dead by the pilot’s end, and one of the ones left alive speaks a total of about eight lines. The titular ship itself, the Discovery, doesn’t even make an appearance outside of the title credits. Two factions are introduced, but despite war breaking out between them they receive no exposition – we get no indication of their relative strength, or their advantages or disadvantages, or even their size. Is Starfleet an armada of thousands of ships in this time period? Are the Klingons a quadrant-spanning empire or do they only occupy a small corner of the galaxy? What exactly are the stakes in this conflict? What do the Klingons count as a victory?
Michael has allegedly been a crew member under Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) for seven years, along with Lieutenant Saru, but they still deliver basic exposition about themselves to one another as though they’ve just met. Of course, this is for the audience’s benefit, but it contradicts the stated facts about their relationships. We don’t meet anyone else from Starfleet – a small handful of crew members get a couple of functional, information-delivering lines (plus one particular bit of jarringly anachronistic ‘banter’) and we meet an annoying but broadly sensible admiral who lasts for two minutes before getting terminally pancaked.
A lot of people have been comparing ‘Discovery’s pilots to previous Trek pilots. This is a somewhat flawed approach – ‘Discovery’ isn’t competing with thirty-year-old sci-fi shows produced on low budgets, it’s competing with the mind-bogglingly huge catalog of contemporary and expensive shows on offer across multiple viewing platforms. But let’s compare it to old Trek anyway – just for fun, eh?
‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’ was the second pilot for The Original Series. Like ‘Discovery’, it only introduced a handful of main characters, and like ‘Discovery’, two of them would be dead by the end. But it was also forty-five minutes long, and presented a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. At least three characters had arcs of their own, where they learned something new about themselves, and about the galaxy they inhabited. There never was an over-arcing plot to The Original Series, and so we don’t get much world-building. But this was also fifty-one years and two days before ‘Discovery’s release.
The Next Generation was introduced with ‘Encounter At Farpoint’, a two-part pilot, like Discovery’s, and about equivalent in length. In it, we meet ten main characters (and a couple more who would become much more significant later on (plus an old but familiar face)), and we see how they each deal with difficult and dangerous situations. We learn about their personal histories, their past and present relationships. We learn in near-excruciating detal about the ship on which the show would be set for the next seven years – we see its capabilities and a whole host of new technologies. And, again, we get a fully resolved story in that time, and arcs for many of the characters, and we even get a smidgen of world-building with the introduction of the Q Continuum. Now, ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ is not necessarily an enjoyable piece of television, but it does its bit as a pilot episode.
Half-way through Next Generation’s run, we got a spin-off show, ‘Deep Space Nine’. This show opens with ‘Emissary’ (not ‘The Emissary, that’s an episode of Next Gen, do keep up). ‘Emissary’ uses ninety minutes to present a large, ensemble cast and deliver their backstories, which would inform the development of their relationships, friendships and rivalries over seven seasons. We get to explore the station, meet its inhabitants, learn about its position and its importance. We’re introduced to the series’ long-running antagonists, the Cardassians, and their leader, Gul Dukat, as well as the spiritual-mystical-bullshit plot about The Wormhole Prophets that would keep resurfacing throughout the rest of the show. We learn about the Bajorans, some aspects of their culture and their religion, and their recent history of oppression by the Cardassians, and the political fallout that followed their emancipation. Oh, and alongside all of that world-building we also get a fully resolved story with multiple character arcs. And, like ‘Farpoint’, ‘Emissary’ isn’t DS9’s best installment – but again, it sets up the show that we’d end up loving.
‘Caretaker’ is a shakey start to a shakey show. Star Trek: Voyager was not my favourite part of the Star Trek franchise, but its pilot episode, again, did a solid job of introducing another seven-season-long piece of Trek history. It’s ninety minutes, again. We see the ship, we meet two different crews who later merge. We get a fully-resolved story. We also get some good groundwork on the show’s over-arcing premise – that they’re stranded, decades from home, with limited resources and little hope of seeing their families again. We learn about some of the first season’s recurring antagonists, the Kazon, and we get some world-building for the Delta Quadrant, the area of space in which the show is set.
After ‘Voyager’, there was ‘Enterprise’. I will be honest, I hated ‘Enterprise’, and providing a breakdown of its pilot would require me to watch it again, which I’m just not prepared to do. But I do remember a few details – ninety minutes long, ship, crew, long-running antagonists, fully-resolved story, etc. etc. Something about Klingons. Oh, and it did its best to introduce the era’s technology level – set many, many years before The Original Series, it was necessary to regress the technology somewhat, which I think it managed to do.
Anyway, the point is that it is possible to do a good pilot within ninety minutes. There is more than enough time to introduce a sizable cast, to start a long-running narrative, and to tell a story – and if you don’t believe me, I’ve presented my findings in the below table:
As you can see, the data speaks for itself.
Starfleet Is Apparently Now A Sinister Shadow Government
Okay, this probably seems minor to most of you but it really pissed me off. Why was Burnham’s court martial so fucking shady? We’ve seen Starfleet courtrooms before – they’re well-lit and full of people wearing pyjamas. They look like this:
Or maybe this:
And sometimes this:
Hopefully by now I’ve made myself clear.
And yet, because ‘Discovery’ is pretty much entirely style-over-substance, Burnham’s court martial is conducted in the dark, with three adjudicators who are all apparently from the race of aliens who can only be perceived as silhouettes. For, reference, here’s an image of a Klingon courtroom. You may have heard of the Klingons, they’re the fucking antagonists of the whole fucking show.
And Michael Burnham doesn’t even get her own defense attorney, meaning trials in Starfleet are now less fair than trials in the Klingon Empire. Wasn’t Starfleet meant to represent the pinnacle of human social advancement? Isn’t the Federation dedicated entirely to the fair and just treatment of all of its citizens? Christ, ‘Starship Troopers’ was a dystopian satire with trials that lasted seconds and resulted in executions, and even in that universe you could see the judges’ faces.
Portraying Starfleet’s courtrooms in such a sinister fashion implies that Burnham was unfairly sentenced, but it’s worth bearing in mind that she did attack her captain, attempt mutiny and do everything she could to start interstellar fucking war. What’s the point that the director’s trying to make, exactly?
Starfleet and the Federation should be aspirational – they should represent a brighter, better path for humanity. Deep Space Nine’s “Section 31” was controversial among fans precisely because it was such a cynical element in what was always meant to be a shiny, optimistic vision of the future. Don’t get me wrong, I liked “Section 31”, and the idea that maintaining Utopia won’t always be easy, and that there will always be someone trying to corrupt paradise from within. But ‘Discovery’ presents that as the accepted norm.
Also, whilst I’m on the subject of minor things that normal people don’t care about, why does the science console on the Shenzhou (Captain Georgiou’s ship) display only two pieces of rudimentary information at a time? Every random screen in Star Trek was always covered in data, with navigational charts, crew rosters and details of diplomatic missions to Alderaan. But now, apparently the science console, y’know, the nexus of all the data collected by every sensor and scanner on the ship and which requires a seasoned officer with multiple degrees in various disciplines to use, presents two numbers at a time, in 3000-point font size. Seriously, fuck this show.
Okay, Fine, There Is Some Good Stuff If I’m Being Completely Honest And Unreasonably Generous
There are some moderately positive elements to Star Trek: Discovery. By which I mean there were occasional moments that didn’t leave me furious.
Burnham using ethical theory to convince the computer into releasing her from icy, vacuumy death in the brig was my favourite moment. It had a classic Star Trek feel, and brought back memories of Kirk talking super-machines to death on a regular basis. It’s a shame that Burnham wasted this good faith by being an unrepentant bigot and warmonger the rest of the time.
The cold open, in which Georgiou and Burnham traipse across a desert planet to save a primitive species from dying of thirst, was also great. It immediately confirmed Georgiou as a resourceful, charismatic leader, and was a nice reminder of the humanitarian exploration that used to be the focus of the franchise. Y’know, before Damon Lindelof turned up and made it all about torpedoes and violence.
Captain Georgiou in general was wonderful, and as mentioned at the start of this post, should really have been the main character. She seemed like a good old fashioned Starfleet officer – ethical, curious, determined and capable. Christ, do you remember being able to look up to the characters on Star Trek? When Picard would give a speech that actually convinced you of the virtue of morality? When Kirk was a thoughtful, sensitive soul and not a horny teenager who liked shouting? When starting a war represented the worst-case scenario, and not the desired outcome of the show’s main character? Crude Reviews remembers.
Lieutenant Saru was snarky and charming in a pathetic fashion. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with a species whose racial trait is “fucking terrified”, but it makes about a thousand times more sense than whatever the fuck the Ocampans were meant to be, so I’ll gladly see where it leads.
I appreciated the decision to have Georgiou and Burnham wear some actual fucking protective equipment when knowingly going into a fight. For too long, Trek characters have willingly thrown themselves into dangerous situations wearing, at the very best, a fairly thick whoollen tunic.
There Are Always Possibilities
Obviously, I’m unhappy about ‘Discovery’s opening gambit. “Unhappy” is the wrong word, actually – it makes me uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with the shift towards “dark” and “gritty” Star Trek. It’s all very well trying to fit Star Trek into the modern trend of violent, depressing, series-long narratives, but there surely must still be some scope for a little bit of positivity?
I’ll be sticking with ‘Discovery’. Despite the disappointments of its pilot episodes, it has left itself plenty of room to do some interesting stuff. The Dominion War was a chance for DS9 to explore humanity’s ability to cling to its values whilst fighting for its survival. ‘Discovery’ could do something similar, and that might be excellent.
That said, with confirmations that ‘Discovery’ will bring back both Harry ‘Sex Trafficker’ Mudd and the Mirror Universe, and with only a fifteen-episode season (including these two pilot episodes), I worry that the greater likelihood will be that the show becomes an endless series of callbacks to what has boldly gone before, interspersed with violence and violations of orders and some contrived excuse for another fucking holodeck episode.
What really, really worries me is that Burnham will never have that “Oh, shit!” moment. By the end of the pilot episodes, she remains convinced that she tried to do the right thing. There’s no “maybe I goofed” feeling coming from her – she seems to still think everyone around her is blind to the realities of the situation. And the show has proven her right: if she had been able to fire upon and destroy the Klingon ship when she tried to, she may have averted the subsequent battle. And that, for me, is a terrible lesson for Star Trek to try to teach. I always thought Star Trek was about finding alternatives to violence, about finding commonality and shared values, but it seems that now we’re on a darker path.
If I’m proven wrong, I will be glad.