With the debut of Star Trek: Discovery, the audience — and the Federation — are faced with challenges to a number of assumed tenants of the Starfleet philosophy. It also adopts an interesting attitude toward the notion of races and cultures with a human raised on Vulcan and an albino Klingon upsetting the usual systematic unity of both fictional alien species. In fact, the notion of unity appears to be at the very heart of Discovery‘s thirteen episode mission.
But first, let’s talk about a challenge to continuity.
As a fan of Star Trek in its older manifestations, it’s hard to ignore the way this new series tinkers with established history, design, and technological advancements. It’s also tough to ignore its resemblance to the J.J. Abrams series of feature films despite publicity materials stating that the series takes place in the original television universe. Of course, that was the intent of co-creator Bryan Fuller, but he left the show before much of it was realized.
Now, we’re faced with a second revision to the appearance of Klingons and their cultural aesthetic. Despite Discovery‘s great love of Klingon history — T’Kuvma’s obsession with Kahless is proof of that — abandoning almost all of the established Klingon visuals remains jarring. Also, to be honest, the costumes and their Bram Stoker’s Dracula bodysuit design are just less interesting than the built-up armor look of the older series. But I guess everyone feels the need to put their stamp on Star Trek‘s original antagonist. Contrast this with the way additions to Vulcan culture always seem to compliment the established look and feel of those alien allies.
Then again, revising the Klingon aesthetic does serve a story point: it reestablishes them as the Other. After decades of seeing the Klingons as uneasy allies in shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, they are once again the villain. Originally built as Soviet proxies with a side-order of Fu Manchu style othering, they were an easily understood foe of Kirk’s 1960s brand of space Americanism. In Discovery, they stand in opposition to the Federation’s highest ideals of diversity and inclusion.
In his goal to remain Klingon, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) identifies a brand of racial purity which has a very specific resonance to the 21st century audience watching this 23rd century story. In the second episode, he goes out of his was to remind the other great houses of the Empire that the Federation is built on the (seemingly) free intermingling of Humans, Vulcans, Tellarites and Andorians. An exchange of ideas and cultures seemingly as anathema to the Empire as a life without war. Despite welcoming an albino bastard Klingon into his fold, T’Kuvma’s call for racial purity realigns the Klingons as proxies for that most insidious notion of racial supremacy. Of course, it should be noted that we were once told the Soviet Empire wanted to create a similarly monolithic civilization, so the call to “remain Klingon” is not a completely new element for this warrior race. It is, however, interesting to note the way its used this time around and that revising Klingon design plays into that concept.
Also, the notion of a Klingon bastard — a Son of None — is such a thrilling idea that I hope it gets explored as deeply as the war of cultures inside Michael Burnham’s soul.
Oh, but let’s talk about her for a moment as she also plays into Discovery‘s underling theme. Trained in the Vulcan manner for seemingly her whole life, she is expressly more at odds with that discipline than Spock. I suppose that’s natural as Vulcan instruction is inherently prejudice against alien values; emotions only emerging as the primary example. But look at the way it plays out with Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). As soon as she learns the alien device encroaching on Federation space is Klingon in origin, her even good manner disappears. She’s flooded with memories of the Klingon raid on a Vulcan learning center which killed her parents and left her Sarek’s (James Frain) ward. Despite his stated belief that logic will dismiss ghosts of the past, she cannot ignore her deeply personal understanding of the Klingon mindset. She also fears for the life of her captain and we see her visibly unhinged as Starfleet protocol runs counter to her assessment of the situation. Despite all that training, she is still human and not entirely aware that she’s having a panic attack. It is also interesting to note than when she attempts to appeal to Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) in the Vulcan manner, she is not taken as seriously as an actual Vulcan would under the same circumstances.
So, instead, she does what Kirk and Spock did just about every week: she mutinies.
But then comes the most interesting moment, to me at least, of the Starfleet story going on in the first two episodes of Discovery. Burnham gets caught and, unlike Kirk and Spock, punished. Never mind that she was right, which typically saved the Enterprise‘s command staff, she suffers actual consequences for her actions in a manner that is seemingly counter to the whole of Star Trek.
On these shows, our heroes are praised for their insight, ingenuity and willingness to break the rules. But in Burnham, we find a character who is — if the preview clips at the end of episode two are any indication — vilified for actions the Enterprise crew will take in the decades to come. In fact, Spock and Captain Pike may already be breaking rules elsewhere in the galaxy as Burnham is stripped of her rank and sentenced to life in prison.
Which makes Burnham something of an unsympathetic protagonist. Despite containing the values typically assigned to heroic Star Trek characters, she is routinely ignored by her captain, lacks any true camaraderie with the Shenzhou crew and will be an outcast aboard the Discovery. It is seemingly a conscious choice — and that she is presented as a black human woman completely divorced from “her” culture only underscores the way we, the 21st Century audience, value traditional Star Trek heroics. To put it bluntly: she was court-martialed for actions a white captain routinely takes with impunity. That means something.
Though low on tension and high on production values, Star Trek: Discovery debuts with a heavy dose of thematic concerns. It is, in its way, asking us to confront our tendency to “remain Klingon” and what it means when someone who does not look like a Star Trek hero asserts those characteristics. Though resembling the high gloss of the recent feature films, it also does what Star Trek does best: it examines our assumptions about the world through the distance of two centuries.
Y’know, maybe that Klingon redesign isn’t so contrary after all.
Of course, the show starts over next week as Burnham somehow ends up on the Discovery. And though it will be informed by the events of the first two episodes, it will be, in some ways, a new show. There’s a new (more traditional) captain and a new command staff to meet. No doubt we’ll also meet the Klingon taking T’Kuvma’s place as heir to the Empire. But hopefully it will still be filled with the provocative thematic concerns which made the premiere episodes a relative success. Now, the show has to make us care about the characters and not just the ideas.
Star Trek: Discovery debuts new episodes on CBS All Access on Sundays.