Why Star Trek: Discovery Needs to Evolve

Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS

At the very end of its first season, Star Trek: Discovery — the polished, bombastic prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series and the first television entry into the storied franchise in 12 years — introduces the iconic USS Enterprise. The scene is framed for maximum suspense as the crew of USS Discovery attempts to parse out the source of a distress call. The score swells, the characters themselves seem eager for an answer, and it’s delivered as an astonishing twist with the two ships — one representing the franchise’s legendary beginnings, the other its future — facing one another as the final shot of the season. Merely hearing the name of Captain Christopher Pike is meant to evoke the weight of history. But as a lifelong Star Trek fan, it wasn’t awe I felt but deep disappointment.

I have wanted nothing more than Star Trek’s reemergence on television to be great, or at least have the potential of such greatness. The years preceding Discovery have been painful as a Star Trek fan. The J.J. Abrams spearheaded trilogy proved to be a hollow recapitulation of The Original Series with half the charm and none its trenchant philosophy. In many ways, a new Star Trek series feels perfect for our moment in history, considering the franchise’s long dedication to diversity, human ethics, and the political-minded nature it’s known for. Even though I was suspicious about the idea of a prequel to The Original Series, the initial trailer and interviews with the cast gave the impression that Discovery would be epic, beautifully constructed, and even emotionally impactful given its onscreen representation.

But so far, Star Trek: Discovery fits uneasily within the established canon. The series takes place about a decade before the adventures of Kirk and Spock aboard the Enterprise. It centers on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human woman orphaned by a Klingon attack and adopted by Spock’s father, Sarek (James Frain). In the pilot, Michael stages a mutiny against her mentor and commanding officer Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), which leads to Georgiou’s death and sparks a devastating war with the Klingons. Despite being court-martialed and stripped of rank, Burnham is brought aboard the Discovery as a science officer by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), giving her the chance to gain redemption. Even in this barest outline, you can see the potential to consider a multitude of worthwhile thematic dimensions about war, human ethics in the face of great loss, and how communities are formed. But there is something insincere, even empty, about Discovery’s consideration of these ideas to date. It took seeing the storied Enterprise onscreen to fully understand why I’ve bristled against the show so far: Discovery is a superficially progressive revamp of a franchise that desperately needs to evolve.

The problems with introducing the Enterprise are manifold. Although it isn’t surprising, The Original Series casts a long shadow on this new incarnation in everything from cursory Easter eggs (like the Gorn skeleton aboard the Discovery) to its influence on Michael’s backstory, including the fact that she is Spock’s adoptive sister. The canon issues continue: Whether this series is meant to take place in the Prime Timeline, the Kelvin Timeline (in which the Abrams films take place), or another timeline entirely — a question that has been debated since before the series even began — will need to be addressed. Depending on how the introduction of the Enterprise plays out, we may get an answer. As co-showrunner Gretchen J. Berg noted to Entertainment Tonight, “From the beginning, it was something that we knew that folks who are fans of Star Trek know the Enterprise is out there and it was kind of the elephant in the room. We knew eventually that we would want to address that and deal with it.” But the introduction of this sleek version of the Enterprise reads as a cynical attempt to appease longtime fans and inject a weighty history the actual series has yet to earn. I am less interested in Discovery’s muddled approach to established canon than the deeper, thematic issues that the introduction of the Enterprise could potentially bring to light.

I have a deep fondness for The Original Series — its characters, its colorful iconography — which Discovery nods to in sound effects, score, and brief Easter eggs, if not wholly in its optimism about the inherent good of humanity and the worth of holding onto our morality even in the face of great odds. But there is a problem with the franchise wedding itself so closely to The Original Series: How can any Star Trek series be forward-thinking if the franchise itself is so committed to revisiting its distant past? Specifically, a past steeped in very specific gender and racial politics as well as archetypes the franchise itself moved beyond decades ago.

It would be ridiculous to judge a franchise that began in 1966 by the yardstick of modern ideas of representation and what pop culture should be. But The Original Series, while undoubtedly profound, can’t be separated from its time. Its visual mores, narrative outlook, and even politics have a stark, archetypal nature as well as an uncomfortable lack of interiority within its minority characters. Star Trek has moved beyond creating characters as primarily archetypes, of construing racial commentary in easy allegory, and creating female characters whose radicalness was in their mere presence rather than a carefully developed interior life. Bringing the Enterprise into Discovery reminds us of that, and fitting the Enterprise’s past into the show will require dramatic reinvention that could strip out its particular meaning and place in Star Trek history.

As a result, Discovery is a haphazard evolution for the franchise. Yes, its visuals are sleeker and more cinematic, but it sacrifices the warm, lived-in quality that previous incarnations made fundamental to Star Trek production design. The first season has proven unflinching, vulgar, and explicit, yet it ended on an unearned note of heavy-handed optimism meant to align it with what the Enterprise represents: the belief in the inherent good in humanity and the wonderful possibilities for our future when we value community rather than divisions. It aimed to be more forward-thinking in casting and its visual grammar, yet hasn’t stepped out from the shadow of the franchise’s past.

Still, Discovery has been framed as a remarkable step forward for Star Trek due to those slick visuals, its grittier thematic content, and its casting. That cast is resplendent with men and women of color, including the leads played by Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh. The series boasts a gay relationship between the dry-witted head science officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and medical officer Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). But that initial appearance of a diverse, even radical, Star Trek disappears in the face of confounding choices in which these same characters became brutalized victims laid at the altar of plot twists.

Georgiou is killed very early on, after she and Michael board a Klingon ship. Yes, she later returns — or at least her Terran emperor doppelgänger from the Mirror Universe does — and it’s clear that Yeoh relishes the role of such an selfish, punishing villain. But it seems manipulative to frame Georgiou’s original character as such an important aspect of the series when she becomes merely a vehicle of grief to further weigh on Michael. Meanwhile, Stamets and Culber’s relationship barely has time to develop its own rhythm or chemistry before Culber is murdered in order to bring gravitas to an obvious plot twist regarding the real identity of Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). The Discovery writers and producers used the After Trek talk show and various interviews to quell the complaints about such decisions, especially to promise that Stamets and Culber’s love story will return, as if that mitigates the critique that his death falls into a troubling trope with gay characters. But if a show can’t stand on the merits of what occurs onscreen and needs repeated offscreen justification, maybe the show isn’t good enough. Perhaps the gleaming progressivism of its marketing doesn’t extend to the show itself.

In many ways, Discovery has imported the worst habits from modern television: brutal violence and casual deaths that make it seem any character could be killed at any moment (Georgiou, Culber); rape scenes (Tyler); bold twists that mask ramshackle stories (Voq’s new identity); and juvenile vulgarity that masquerades as intriguing world-building (almost everything about the Klingons). But the greatest failing of Discovery that undercuts the appearance of trailblazing progressivism is its poor character development, seen most acutely in Michael and Ash.

Ash, at times, demonstrated the most intriguing ways that Discovery uses the Star Trek mythos to consider a fraught, ongoing cultural conversation. When I spoke with Latif, he mentioned his desire to subvert the archetype of the badass, rogue hero by playing up the vulnerability Ash wrestles with due to the horrors of his recent past, specifically his months-long torture and rape by the Klingon L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). It’s rare to witness stories of men dealing with the aftermath of their rape treated with sincerity and respect, and here, Discovery came closest to marrying its brutal nature with Star Trek’s overarching sincerity about examining the human condition. Ash’s story and Latif’s tenderhearted performance certainly opened up intriguing avenues. But once the long suspected theory of Ash being the Klingon Voq was confirmed — he was altered, made into a deep-cover agent, and overlaid with the personality of the real Ash — this fascinating thread about male vulnerability became muddled. It was all too apparent that Discovery didn’t quite know what to do with Ash after this twist. His decision in the season finale to join L’Rell — who is still his torturer and rapist, at least as far as his memory is concerned — seemingly runs counter to his goal to live peacefully.

Michael is an even more troubling example, considering her role as the first black female lead of a Star Trek series. What she represents versus how she is written creates fissures in the series, exemplifying how we know nothing of the few developed characters on Discovery beyond their traumas. Their dreams, desires, and interests aren’t legible, only the grit of their miseries. But for Michael, this decision bears a unique weight. Making her Spock’s adoptive sister is meant to give her an immediate importance, a role further heightened because she fits into neither human nor Vulcan culture. The fact that she’s never seen considering her bicultural background beyond the pain it’s brought is a glaring instance of her lack of character development. She isn’t a person, but a symbol. In the finale, Michael regains her place in Starfleet as a commander, stops the war with the Klingons she initially sparked, and gets kind recognition from her adoptive father, but I still have no idea who she is beyond the death of her parents and her various failures as a Starfleet officer.

I had a profound discomfort watching the show, especially whenever Michael was onscreen. As I talked to my friend and fellow writer Rahawa Haile about it, I finally understood why. Michael is what many in today’s political climate have tried to make black women: saviors stripped of any humanity. She is the modern version of the stoic, tough black woman unerringly shouldering trauma, doing all she can to save the world even as the world doesn’t respect her humanity. This isn’t only a narrative choice, but a visual one. When Michael’s hair went from smooth and straight in the pilot to her natural, curly texture afterward, I immediately recognized that no black women were involved with any importance in the writing staff. (I later learned that the writing staff is overwhelmingly white, and Kemp Powers is the only credited black writer.) It was as if the series used her hair as a visual cue to exemplify Michael’s otherness, unruliness, and savage failure. That impression is even found in her incomplete uniform aboard the Discovery, lacking the insignia that would normally signal her rank. It is a visual marker to the liminal space she inhabited aboard the ship, that she’d had yet to earn any consideration or respect.

I know Star Trek can write great black and brown characters. Just look at Deep Space Nine, which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year. Discovery shares superficial similarities with Deep Space Nine: a diverse cast bolstered by people of color, an interest in mixing the episodic with the heavily serialized, a consideration of the longtime perils of war and the ethical dimensions of Starfleet itself, as well as characters beset by trauma. Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) began the series as a widow and single father brought to command a difficult position. The show’s first season was uneven, but unlike Discovery, most of the sprawling cast felt immediately well-developed with interior lives and desires all their own. Sisko may have been weighted by grief, but his heartfelt relationship with his son balanced out his early reckoning with the loss of his wife and his later, profound moral ambiguity. Deep Space Nine pushed the franchise forward in remarkable ways not just for its onscreen representation, but by using the Star Trek mythos to consider ideas of colonialism, black identity, America’s past, as well as the moral and interpersonal effects of war. If anything, the creative minds behind Discovery need to look at what Star Trek has done after The Original Series, particularly Deep Space Nine, and push forward from there.

Watching Discovery, especially the failures regarding Michael, brings to mind my disappointment with modern conversations about representation. I am tired of empty progressive politics in pop culture and acting like representation is enough. It’s not enough. It’s barely a beginning. Earlier this week, cast member Patrick Kwok-Choon, who played one of Discovery’s underdeveloped bridge crew members, posted a picture of the cast with a quote from The Original Series episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” The crew wears their navy uniforms, they are closely huddled together, hands interlocked. Their eyes brimming with hope and determination. This single image felt more optimistic and moving than anything in the first season. Deep Space Nine proved, even at its beginning, that Star Trek can be bold, intellectual, emotionally stirring, and even politically radical. But it needs to look forward to do so. Incorporating the Enterprise makes that a dimmer possibility.

Why Star Trek: Discovery Needs to Evolve