Rethinking Discovery

I’ll be the first to admit when I’ve made a mistake.  And it seems I’ve made a big one that skewed my perception.  I was under the belief that Alex Kurtzman was the showrunner for Star Trek: Discovery.  He’s “just” the co-creator and executive producer, which still sets off my alert klaxons given the power he has combined with his past experience as a piss poor… anything that deals with creativity.  My distrust in him is well founded, and I’ve already blogged ad nauseum about him.  The mere mention of his name is Kryptonite to me.

That’s not what this blog is about.  This is about rekindling some hope in something I love.

I am a second-generation Trekkie.  I’m too young to have seen the original series first run.  I discovered it slowly, running in the background thanks to my Dad, then through the feature films, and ultimately with novels.  The Next Generation debuted after that, and I’ve talked about this previously, how it and each of the series that followed had to find its footing before they truly became incredible, which each show did in turn.  I still mourn the cancellation of Enterprise, and I do a little happy dance every time a book is published that continues the story.  I do that in private so that no one feels the need to gouge out their eyes.  The trilogy of Kelvin-verse films are trash in my opinion.  They are garbage, indicative of the endless cycle of splashy reboots devoid of all creativity and understanding of the heart of what they’re so desperately trying to emulate.  If you disagree and love these films, that’s fine.  I’m not going to fight you on it.  Love what you will.  The entire point of Trek is IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  If we were all the same, life would be boring.  It still doesn’t change my opinions of them being mindless cash grabs, regardless of how much I applaud the casting in most cases.

I’ve said all that before.  I say it again as the foundation of where I’m coming from on this post.  In about a week, Star Trek: Discovery makes its debut.  Being the fan that I am, the one that embraces the diversity and the message and the adventure, I’m willing to accept that long-running stories will have to reinvent themselves as pop culture evolves, or devolves, or otherwise changes into something it wasn’t before.  The reason those last three movies fail is because they had no heart, and they made very little sense.  They simply took themes from the original first three films and recycled.  Boring.  Star Trek is about going forward, and I mean that culturally, not in a timeline sense.  So this week I stepped back and took a good, hard look at what the actual showrunners of Discovery are saying.  I listened to what was going on underneath the veneer.  I listened to what the actors were saying, about who their characters are, and what’s going on, both via blogs and podcasts.  All of those interviews are out there to be had, and if you’re so inclined, I highly suggest seeking them out.  The enthusiasm is infectious, and what they have to say makes a lot of sense.  More than that, they speak to me as an old school Trekkie.

I got on board with the whole Axanar fan film thing, being the first real taste of Star Trek I’ve experienced on screen since Enterprise ended.  I picked that thing apart, and it really challenged me to rediscover the canonical timeline of what happened in the days before Kirk.  I wanted to see more of that.  It is a different era, with its own lessons to learn.  And it turns out that while Discovery is just a little further down the road than Axanar, the messages are the same.

Star Trek reflects the time we live in.  Always has, right from the beginning.  It takes the social imbalances, filters them through the human equation, and puts them in another era where we can step back and see these things without the blinders of our political or social prejudices.  The idea is we see what’s wrong in our world, and we can see how it could be.  And sometimes we can see something of what it takes to get from point A to point B.  I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes this can play heavy-handed, and sometimes the execution falls flat.  But that’s also the nature of the beast.  You risk, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  If you don’t risk, you always lose.  That’s what happened with the Kelvin-verse.  They played the nostalgia card… badly.

I’ve heard a simple argument recently that said those latest films played to general audiences while Trek played to the nerds.  There’s so much wrong with this statement.  Trek has always been for general audiences.  It’s just that as stories build, details evolve, and that’s where nerdom lives, because universe-building is exciting.  People talk about genre storytelling.  This too is a bullshit statement.  Every story has a genre.  Every single story.  I’ve heard many people in the last 20 years or so try to intellectualize this idea of “speculative fiction.”  That’s meaningless.  All fiction is speculative.  That’s what fictions means, you’re speculating about something that isn’t.  If it was already there, you’d have no need to speculate.  I’m sick to death of internet echo chamber labels with preconceived mantras behind them.  So I wanted to strip back all these lazy go-to internet tropes and look at what Discovery is bringing to the table based on what I know.

The series takes place in a time of war.  The Federation — the good guys — are at war.  Sounds a bit like America today, from the point of view of an American, so the parallel isn’t so hard to grasp.  To be successful in war, you need warriors.  Warriors are not always the good guys regardless of how they paint themselves, and they sometimes have to do things “for the greater good” in order to win, which is the justification they always use for doing something less than noble.  My arguments for chivalry notwithstanding, I think we can all understand this concept.  On the street level, it’s “you gotta do what you gotta do.”  It doesn’t make it right.  The idea of winning… that’s the trick.  How do you define that?  You survive and make the other side die for their beliefs?  People who think that aren’t warriors.  They’re sociopaths.  That’s the road to genocidal war crimes or to nuclear oblivion.  War needs not be total, it’s just that in every military hierarchy there are true warriors, and there are those in a pissing contest.  For warriors who think themselves the “good guys,” how you fight matters every bit as much as the fighting itself.  It sends a message. That’s why we have the Geneva Convention today, to keep grunts from descending into animalistic, barbarian territory, to maintain a superior standard that lends respect and humanity.

So I refreshed what I learned from Axanar.  The Federation-Klingon war led to some atrocities on both sides as war is prone to do.  Survival situations will do that, let’s not kid ourselves.  We also know that it ended with the Federation redefining itself, and with it, Starfleet redefined itself from being a military for war to an exploratory force for peace… “to seek out new life and new civilizations…” and so forth.  With every culture, there is culture clash, but the concept of IDIC says that the differences will help to make the whole greater than the separate parts if we can overcome our weaknesses.

I live in a country that, quite frankly, needs this lesson more than ever before.  Fascism wraps itself in the colors of whatever country it invades and parades itself around under a banner of patriotism.  Populism plays to the lowest common denominator, which is why you get suck-ass reboots of great stories and moral degenerate Nazi sympathizers as president.  in tackling this story, Discovery is truly going where no one has gone before because now “the good guys” are in a moral gray area and have to overcome that, and “the bad guys” aren’t nearly so cut and dried as they used to be.  They’re diverse in their own way, even among their own.  The more I think about this, the more and more I love the heart of it.  It’s going to be difficult.  They’ve got a season long novel set before us, where characters start at one point and end in another.  We get to see the transition, and if the storytellers have done their jobs all around, we’ll transition right along with them.

Having said that, I also know the hostilities between the Federation and the Klingon Empire don’t end just because the war does.  There are still territorial disputes a la the Cold War, which is very much alive and well in our own time as much as it was in the 60s.  Star Trek gave us the Organians, who do not appear until the original series.  We don’t have that deus ex machina to help prevent mutual annihilation.  Like the crew of the Discovery, we’re going to have to figure this out the hard way.

My biggest red flag in this is the lead character, Michael Burnham.  Specifically my quibble is that she’s the previously unknown adopted sister of Spock.  Spock.  In Trek, Spock is pretty much the holy of holies, the untouchable icon through which we identify the human condition as a whole and within ourselves.  What Leonard Nimoy brought to Spock is immeasurable.  Of course a longtime fan is going to have warning bells go off.  Last time we saw an unknown relative, we got the laughing half-brother Sybok, the insane bastard who hijacked the ship to search for God (whom I’m still convinced is a far-evolved Gary Mitchell who has forgotten everything about his human existence, including his old friends), even if they crossed the wrong Great Barrier).

So again, I take a step back.  What is it that Burnham brings to the table?

First, she’s both a woman and a minority in a position of power.  That’s pretty obvious, and many would say overdue.  One would think that such is commonplace in the world that Trek lays out for us, which is to say not a big deal for them, but certainly a message that we need to see.  She’s going to impact people on our side of the screen the way Uhura did back in the day.  When you look at how many people Nichelle Nichols inspired to join the space program, to say nothing of the rest of her ripple effect throughout culture, what more need be said?

Second, she’s not the captain, which seems like a step back from the previous paragraph, but this is a new filter for the presentation of Trek.  It’s not the captain’s show.  We see it this time not through the lens of the leaders, but through the people at the lower levels, symbolizing the rest of us out in the audience.  And, let’s be honest here… she’ll make captain at some point.  If she’s good enough to live up to the reputation of what Trek has built, she’ll have a ship of her own before this is over.

Which brings us to the third point.  What does she have to overcome before she can be the captain?  In standard Trek fashion, herself.  So why attach her to Spock?  It’s because there’s a dynamic there that the audience already understands.  Spock was the outsider to his family and his people.  He tried — and failed — to live the Vulcan way.  Again, I grew up in the era of the films, so I watched this greater evolution from the Kolinahr and V’Ger to death and resurrection and beyond.  “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”  His path was to find who he is in the grand scheme, ultimately uniting his two conflicting halves and taking the road not travelled.  Ultimately he represents the very best of two worlds.  That’s powerful.  It’s a journey we can all relate to on some level, especially those of us who feel out of place in the world.  It’s a journey he inspires us to take within ourselves.  So Burnham brings a new dynamic.  She’s a human who has been raised in the Vulcan tradition, in the house of Sarek.  What this means to me in terms of character is that she has to learn how to be human again.  Sarek presumably sent her to Starfleet to learn that.  Ironically, this is the exact idea that ostracized him from Spock.  According to rumor, Burnham is a bit older than Spock, so we can possibly assume that this is where Spock got the idea in the first place, even if his point wasn’t to be more human.  We also have to assume Amanda has a part in this equation.  She’s human, living on Vulcan, respecting their culture and mannerisms, but still retaining her humanity.  What is that effect on Burnham?  How does that define who she is, or where she’s going?  What this tells me is that Amanda’s legacy is going to speak to our own closed-mindedness as audience members.  Her lessons are there to help Burnham, and us, rediscover the positive aspects of our humanity.

I keep hearing this “everything is totally in canon” from all of the creators.  And every time I’m assured of this, a glimpse of a weak link comes into play.  For example, the uniforms, which were already blogged about, or the now-revealed battle map in Captain Lorca’s ready room that rightfully lists the Enterprise in active duty… except it’s Enterprise-A.  Little fuck-ups like that are those details that can’t be unseen for me, but I also know that I’d have never known it until it was pointed out by a visitor to the set.  It took some time to figure out what canon even meant the first time around, and some of those wires were crossed.  That’s inevitable.  But I’m less forgiving 50 years down the road after some bottom-feeding films.  Given everything at stake, if they can keep this sort of thing to a minimum and tell a fantastic story with a heart of Trek… I’m willing to take the journey.  I’m willing to give them the chance to impress me and to reignite my fandom for the right reasons.  I’ll take potshots at the stupid stuff, of course, but I want them to be bumps in the road, not symptoms of a larger problem.  This show has become more than merely keeping Trek alive and setting it up for the next fifty years.  It’s become what the mission was always about, what science fiction has always done when it’s at its very best: it’s the story of the human experience, the mirror of us.  As they say in very different stories, I want to believe, and I want this to be a light in dark places.

When it’s released, I’ll worry less about what I want and start dissecting what I got.  For now, I want to dream of what’s possible, even in an era that has more misses than hits.

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