SUMMARY: Star Trek: Discovery is the modern, high-fashion heir to the Original Series. Even though Discovery has big shoes to fill, in many ways it’s creating even bigger shoes for future generations. Warning: some spoilers ahead.
Sometimes cheesy, occasionally clunky, often philosophical, always groundbreaking.
Those descriptors apply to both Star Trek: The Original Series and its newest Starfleet member, Discovery. The latest installment in Trek lore comes with a combination of earnest social modernity, on-point metaphysics and beautiful cinematography that has this blogger bursting at the seams (and occasionally very cranky–more on that later).
Before we get to the nuts-and-bolts of the new series, let’s slingshot around the sun for a trip back in time.
Original Trek creator Gene Roddenberry pitched the series as a “wagon train to the stars,” but that descriptor phrase sounds simplistic considering how progressive and envelope-pushing the series was. In an era (late-60s/early 70s) when African-American actresses were typically cast in subordinate roles, Roddenberry put Nichelle Nichols in as “Uhura” the Enterprise’s communications officer.
By today’s standards that casting is, well, standard. But back then it was a huge freakin’ deal. And it sent ripples through culture that are the paving stones to today’s characters in movies and TV.
“Mama, there’s a black woman on television and she ain’t no maid!” — Whoopi Goldberg (via The Chronicle)
After the first season, Nichelle Nichols told Roddenberry she wanted to leave the show to pursue a part in a musical production headed to broadway. (Her roots and passion were in musical theater.) But a chance encounter at an NAACP event changed her mind–as told to NPR and recounted by the Washington Post:
On Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, ‘Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan.’
And I’m thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.
When Nichols recounted this anecdote to Roddenberry, he cried–according to the Wiki page.
“Sculptures are crystallized spirituality,” Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) remarked in Star Trek: Discovery‘s debut episode “The Vulcan Hello.” She had been sent to investigate a vessel of unknown origin and made the remark after examining the ship’s outer intricacies.
This quote–attributed to Amos Bronson Alcott–struck me as the perfect entrée to this new series, harkening back to when Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) used to rattle off Shakespeare passages at tense moments. In fact, many episodes in the original series were based upon the works of Shakespeare, like Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth. Discovery has done that lineage proud, with later literary references to Alice in Wonderland and others.
For the literary references or just a general wondering about the universe, I used to secretly watch Original Series repeats on my black-and-white TV after bedtime. Looking back, I think I was taken by the stories and deep commitment to character development. I’m similarly enchanted by Discovery, but with a few caveats.
The show itself has been hacked to bits by the editing team, which is a huge annoyance for me when the characters and much of the writing is quite good. In Discovery and other filmmaking writ large it would improve storytelling dramatically to have more wide shots and long shots where we see emotions change in the actors’ actions. There have been issues with the dialogue as well, where the sound mixing has been an utter failure. Some of the dialogue for Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) was clearly looped in post-production, which creates a barrier to absorbing her character’s vibe. (Writer’s note: I scoured the web for articles on this but couldn’t find anything on this obvious looping–am I the only one who’s noticed?)
RELATED: SONEQUA MARTIN-GREEN GIVES ‘DISCOVERY’ ITS HEART (EW.COM)
While we’re on the subject, Captain Georgiou was a remarkable presence before she was killed off by a Klingon. I wish we could’ve explored her character more. Captain Georgio is Asian-American female actress playing a captain, with a African-American woman playing Michael Burnham, her First Officer. Additionally we have two gay characters in Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Calber (Wilson Cruz), who watch out for each other and act like any married couple working together would. There was a first-ever use of the word “fuck” in any series or movie, and a gay kiss, too.
Wherever he is, Roddenberry is no doubt pleased by these torch-running characters.
Of all the new characters, I’m most smitten with Burnham and Lt. Saru (Doug Jones), who has been billed as the modern interpretation of Spock and Data. I see it a bit differently in that he’s that physically awkward kid in school who’s been relentlessly bullied (a “prey species“) but who’s risen in Starfleet rank and–as previewed by a profile in Newsweek–will show great complexity in episodes to follow.
It cannot be overstated how absolutely gorgeous and stunning Discovery is to watch. The sets, the special effects–even the cinematic homages to The Matrix, Aliens and others do not feel misplaced given the marvel of each scene. Discovery’s new high-concept technologies are cause for geeking out, including the spore drive and the life-signs scrambler they used in sneaking on to the Klingon warship.
Like The Next Generation and the films starring the original cast, the keepers of Roddenberry’s traditions have done remarkable anthropological work in both preserving his vision and creating logical extensions of it. Discovery would obviously make him proud–although I’m pretty sure he’d chirp about the same technical deficiencies I’ve mentioned here.
We talk about visionaries changing our culture–people like Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and so many others–but I don’t think enough people outside of Trek fandom appreciate how spectacularly prophetic Roddenberry was. According to this brief History Channel documentary, Roddenberry attended a secret psychic research meeting that would eventually be threads in Star Trek.
Even in everyday human interactions Roddenberry was a responsible keeper of the future. When Nichols came to him and said she wanted to leave the show, he urged her to rethink that decision. The show “is more than you think it is,” he said. “Just think about it. If you still want to leave you can go with my blessing.”
History is built upon the shoulders of people like Roddenberry who plant seeds that eventually grow to tall trees. Star Trek: Discovery is not just another opportunist TV show capitalizing on modern societal changes–it is yet another chapter of Roddenberry’s writing culture forward. And I’m super excited to see where this show boldly goes in 2018 and beyond. 🔵
(Brenda Knosher contributed to this report)
(Casting grade: A | Cinematography: A | Editing: D- | Writing: C+ | Audio: F | Directing: B+)
Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS’ web subscription channel AllAccess, Sundays at 8:30 p.m. The 2nd half of Season One is set to begin streaming in early 2018.
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