Spoilers, there’ll be a few…but then again, too few to mention
I touched on the question last week: What is STAR TREK: DISCOVERY about? The original Star Trek and Next Generation were about exploring strange, new worlds and stuff. Deep Space Nine was about healing the spiritual, cultural, and environmental wounds of a decades-long occupation…both of a race of people and also of a space station that were suddenly thrust into a role of prime importance in the Alpha Quadrant. Voyager was about getting home. And Enterprise was about exploring the final frontier for the first time.
But what is Star Trek: Discovery about?
If you watched the first episode of Discovery, it initially appeared that the show would be about Michael Burnham getting ready for her first command. That went out the window quickly when she attacked her captain. By the end of the second episode, Burnham was in chains and a war had started with the Klingons.
The third episode establishes Burnham as a pariah, brought aboard Discovery because, well, because she’s awesome? Because she deserves a second chance? Who knows? It’s still early. So okay, now we’ve got a show about an “awesome” officer who’s been flung down into the abyss of life and is slowly clawing her way back up the Starfleet Jeffries Tube to a place of respect. Fine…except the show abandons the “pariah” part pretty quickly. Burnham makes a best friend, becomes a useful part of the crew, and even gets a boyfriend. Heck, by episode 5, she’s even giving Saru Captain Georgiou’s old telescope and having a “moment” with him.
So, no, the show isn’t about Burnham’s redemption, as she’s pretty much redeemed by a third of the way through the season. Hmmmm, maybe the show is about Burnham’s voyage of internal, um, discovery and learning to forgive and love herself the way others have.
Nope, way too much else going on in the show for that to be it!
Is it about a war with the Klingons? We’re kinda stuck in that scenario for the season, so maybe it’s about that. We can explore who these Klingons are and why they’re so gung ho to obliterate the Federation.
And of course, by the fourth episode, we’re now using a “monster” to power and navigate our ship. Okay, so maybe the show is about science gone wrong, or how war sometimes forces us give up some of our high ideals in favor of preserving ourselves and our way of life. After all, the NCC number of the ship is 1031…and we all remember Section 31, right? They’re the “ends justify the means” shadow society of Starfleet. And hey, weren’t there those black Starfleet badges in episode 3? (Where did those things go anyway?)
And hey, a show about a science vessel that is really a secret weapon that can do some dastardly things (but for all the right reasons)…that might be an interesting idea. Not sure it’s Star Trek, but maybe the crew will slowly discover their morality over the course of the season and stop torturing the poor tardisgrade.
Or maybe it’ll only take one episode because the crew then free the creature and plug Stamets into the spore drive instead. Hmmmm, maybe the show is still about the science getting out of control, and this time we explore how it takes its toll on a human life. Are the needs of the many more important than the needs of the one? Probably, but maybe the show is going to explore THAT question, and THAT’S what Discovery is about.
Nope, that’s not it either. After escaping from a Klingon prison ship with Security Chief McScruffy, we learn just how quickly this crew accepts the “new guy” when he’s not a mutineer and is a total hottie. In the meantime, we’re learning that Lorca is kinda creepy. Hmmmm, maybe THAT’S what this show is about! People are not what they seem! That’s why it’s called “Discovery.” Burnham isn’t what she seems to be (a morose mutineer). Tilly isn’t just a functioning autistic. Saru isn’t just scared cattle with a warning light on the back of his head if death is coming. Stamets isn’t really an a-hole. So that’s it!
No wait, that didn’t last long either. With a quick interruption for repeated sociopathic mass murders by Harry Mudd, we next get an episode where the Discovery is actually exploring a strange, new world (finally!!!)…although mainly to exploit it. Maybe we’re back to the “win at all costs” concept.
Except we’re not.
Finally in an actual on screen battle with the Klingons (we’d gone seven whole episodes in this “war” and only seen Discovery in an actual combat with the Klingons one other time…so no, definitely NOT a show about war), the USS Discovery winds up in the Mirror Universe and must become the ISS Discovery. By this point, I have no frickin’ idea what this show is supposed to be about anymore!!!
Maybe the Mirror Universe is showing us that, no matter how “immoral” Starfleet was being in torturing sentient creatures to gain an advantage in their war with the Klingons, well, it could be worse…MUCH worse! The Mirror Universe isn’t just “bad,” it’s horrific!
And in this, we were introduced to the NEXT thing the show is about: we’re one rotten day or missed coffee away from being as bad as the Terrans (Tilly even says as much this past episode…in case anyone hasn’t gotten what the show is about yet). So we have to constantly tell ourselves to turn away from our darker natures. Or, to quote Captain James T. Kirk,”We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. We’re not going to kill.…today.”
So…have we finally settled on something for the show to be about?
This new theme seems to be coming home to roost in the 2-part finale. Here’s Starfleet, in the worst of times, and dire straits call for dire measures. So barely one episode after learning that the captain of the Discovery was a depraved homicidal racist doppelgänger from an evil universe who was only out for himself, Admiral Cornell has just handed command of the Discovery over to a depraved homicidal racist doppelgänger from an evil universe who is only out for herself. Progress, right?
Actually, it sets up a final “ends justify the means” conflict where the Discovery crew will (likely) have to choose whether to follow this monster into damnation and save the Federation (obliterating the Klingon threat forever) or cling to the lofty ideals of Starfleet and risk it all trying to find another way. Okay, so THIS is now what the show is about: learning to overcome our baser instincts for evil and darkness and finally emerging back into the light.
Star Trek has done that before, y’know. In TNG, the episode “I, Borg” had an “ends justify the means” dilemma where Picard ultimately choses morality over the genocide of the entire Borg race. In DS9, the two-part “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost” showed viewers what happens when Starfleet becomes so paranoid that we put our fear and need for safety above our ideals of freedom, liberty, and due process. In Voyager, we witness “what might have been” when we meet the crew of the USS Equinox, exploiting and massacring intelligent living entities out of desperation to survive and get home.
So yeah, Star Trek has been there, done that. But such a message of “be good for goodness sake” has never been the overarching theme of an ENTIRE Trek series! We can visit the “there but for the grace of the writers go I” dilemmas, but we don’t need to live there. Star Trek always showed us a Federation that was better than that, better than we are right now, and something we can optimistically strive to be.
So do we really need to present viewers with a Starfleet that is so close to the edge of a nervous breakdown? Sure, war is hell. But we’ve had a war on Star Trek—it lasted through the final three seasons of Deep Space Nine. And Starfleet didn’t lose its ideals. In fact, when Section 31 tried to do just that, they were defeated. We saved our enemies (the Founders) with a cure for the poison that Section 31 gave them. Starfleet overcame its demons and retained its nobility.
And yes, maybe the world today has changed. The partisan split in America, the divisive election of Donald Trump, the U.K. “Brexit” from the European Union, ISIS, North Korea…maybe the world has gone mad. But is the answer to our current descent into irrationality and unmorality to show us a United Federation of Planets that is just as easily seduced by the dark side (and only ten years before the “utopia” of Captain Kirk)? Are the writers so repulsed and terrified by Donald Trump that they need to tarnish the 50-year legacy of hope and inspiration that Starfleet and the Federation had come to represent to the world? Why CAN’T Superman just remain a Boy Scout, folks?
So the theme/lesson of Star Trek: Discovery is that all we have to do is make the decision NOT to be an a-hole (or a megalomaniacal sadistic overlord) and all will be well. Hey, great! So, um, when does the actual Star Trek begin…’cause this doesn’t feel like a “trek” to anywhere!
Actually, I really hope that ISN’T what the show is about because it’s really quite limiting. Once Donald Trump is no longer president and the world settles down a bit, why watch this show at all? Is it inspiring to future generations like previous Star Treks or is it locked into one depressing moment in our history? Will anyone become a scientist or engineer because of Stamets or a doctor because of Culber or a nervous Kelpian because of Saru? Does this show ponder deep philosophical or ethical questions about religion, science, medicine, tolerance, loyalty, and morality? Or is it mostly just eye candy with sparkly costumes, fast VFX, moody scenery, and a few “unexpected” character deaths thrown in to keep the audience guessing?
But if the show isn’t just a moral lesson in “don’t be an a-hole,” then what IS it about?
Seinfeld used to be called “The show about nothing.” Obviously, Discovery isn’t about “nothing.” I just listed a plethora of things this show could be about. So maybe Star Trek: Discovery is a show about…everything? But if you think about it, if you’re a show about everything, you’re really a show about nothing because there’s nothing—no one thing—you can point to and say, “Yeah, THIS is what our series is about.”
One episode left. I wonder what the show be be about next week? Probably “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.”
Credit where credit is due! I forgot to mention that I was inspired to tackle this subject based on an excellent video review by Michael J. Crawford, who also noticed that Discovery’s themes seemed to be all over the place. Since I used some of Michael’s ideas for this blog, I’d like to both credit him and include this link to his Patreon page:
Check him out.