There is something to say about a Starfleet captain who keeps a Gorn skeleton in a mad scientist lab and a sprayed and neutered Tribble on his standing desk. There is, I’ll just let it stand on its own.
It might be hyperbolic, but there is a certain delight to be found in the fact that I am finding myself watching a weekly Star Trek show again for the first time in a decade and a half since German TV aired Voyager and Enterprise. I have missed it in a nostalgic sense. There is something satisfying in watching a show unfold on a week to week basis that gets sadly lost in our modern binge watching culture. I’ve written about this before on this blog.
The first two episodes of Discovery were very much a pilot episode, yet also a prologue of sorts. This then is the first regular episode of the show and as such serves as the real signal to the viewers of what they can expect from the show. It feels fitting that Nicholas Meyer of all people is involved as a producer and writer on the show, even though he didn’t pen this episode in particular. Let me explain this through what I call the Nicholas Meyer Effect.
Meyer had saved Trek from itself back in the 80s and he continues to serve as a sign for either everything that is wrong with Trek, or everything that people love about it. Roddenberry had spent the 70s, when not coked up, touring campuses and conventions, being convinced by his growing fanbase that Star Trek was cerebral and esoteric. When the franchise returned with the Motion Picture, this is what we got: a silly, campy script recycled from the TV show (Nomad anyone?) blown up to compete with 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was slow, it was plotting, it buried its good ideas under its own unnecessary seriousness.
Enter Nicholas Meyer. Much like Discovery’s producers, the man had never partaken in the franchise before, but he had watched the episodes in preparation for working on the new movie. And much like Discovery’s producers he took what the fans saw as a disadvantage, not having preyed on the shrine of Roddenberry, as an advantage. There is a reason doctors, scientists, academics, creative people, ask for second opinions, an outsider’s perspective. It can be hard to see what you are really about. Having watched TOS, Meyer recognized the core of what Star Trek was about – and what Roddenberry had forgotten about.
Star Trek is a swashbuckling adventure show that told low brow and high brow stories. One week there would be an episode about Kirk hunting down the man who murdered his entire colony, in another Spock would get horny. Also salt vampires? Point is, there are many approaches to Trek, but the central one is that we are dealing with the descendant of pulp fiction. While his Trek plays up the naval characteristics of Starfleet, the Master and Commander / Horatio Hornblower vibe we get from that informed Trek from the beginning.
With Discovery we are at a point where the television landscape has changed to accept season long story arcs as the norm. DS9 was the first Trek show to have serialization, but even by that standard Discovery is very much going to be a season long story and the episode itself mirrors that, a building block in the series. This makes it hard to recap every single episode and it can be frustrating for the people who wished for Trek to return to its single episode format.
The thing is, the movies are much better equipped to deal with one-off adventures. TV should deal with longer, more complex stories. Remember, there are 700 episodes of Trek already and I can point to a good 100 of those who share the same base DNA and a good 20 that are carbon copies of each other, especially in the last couple of years. It is time for fresh stories and some deeper exploration of a universe that can be ankle-deep at most.
Discovery has the misfortune of being compared to Nicholas Meyer era Trek in that there is a section of the fandom that vehemently opposes what the show stands for. Much as with Meyer, they base this off of a surface-level reading: it is naval in character, there are conflicts, we see a darker side of the Federation. And yet because these Trek fans do exactly what Trek always preaches is the fatal flaw: judging by its appearance, they are missing out on already well set up moments.
Yes, Michael Burnham is a mutineer. The character isn’t perfect at all. And yet she is very much in the tradition of what a Star Trek character is supposed to aspire to be: be true to yourself, try to improve, better yourself. Every person who complains about the darkness the show preaches, please be reminded of this wonderful monologue by Burnham: “I was a Starfleet officer”. This is very much straight in the tradition of a Kirk, a Picard, a Sisko, even a Janeway or Archer: I make mistakes, I have to live with them. That doesn’t mean I will throw away my ideals because live is hard.
Considering that the original Star Trek show can be summed up by a little scene in “A Taste of Armageddon”, where Kirk admits that humanity is not perfect, but that all it means to make progress is to state “I will not kill today”, I see this show clearly in the footsteps of TOS and DS9. Where others see unnecessary darkness and a betrayal of Star Trek’s ideals, I see the very ideals of Star Trek, its central themes, on full display. “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise,” Sisko once said on DS9. It’s easy to be a pacifist in peace time, says Captain Lorca of the USS Discovery.
“Darkness” is important in a story like the one Discovery tells, like DS9 told, like many episodes of Trek that dealt with serious issues. If there is nothing to overcome, no stakes, what is the point of heroes? Nicholas Meyer understood this best in The Undiscovered Country: Kirk overcomes his prejudice for a greater cause, peace is made, despite what the warmongers and xenophobes plotted, and it made the triumph of the original crew all the more great. There would be no light without darkness, and no darkness without light. It is almost as if Context is for Kings.