One of the most widely-known things associated with Star Trek is the famously split infinitive “To boldly go”, a phrase suggesting a sense of progression and forward momentum. Up to Star Trek: Voyager, all the new Trek iterations kept on moving ahead, from the 23rd to 24th Century; however, the advent of Star Trek: Enterprise saw the franchise take a step back, to a time 100 years before Captain Kirk.
It was a move which had attracted some criticism, as it was argued that doing something which pre-dated the original series robbed the new show of any dramatic impetus – was there any real room for manoeuvre in storytelling terms to be able to have any dynamism, given the makers had to stay within the confines of existing canon? If you were so boxed in by what came before (or, technically, after), then any big, continuity-altering events would surely need to use a reset button?
Enterprise had tried to get around this to some extent, by indicating that there was a Temporal Cold War underway, with elements from the future trying to reshape history for their own ends; as such, events could potentially be in flux, hinting at the possibility of some wiggle room. In 2009, J.J. Abrams went further than this, with his cinematic reboot of Star Trek, which created a completely new timeline, fully unencumbered by decades of past Trek lore, and free to tell brand new tales of Kirk et al.
However, with Abrams’ ‘Kelvin Timeline’ appearing to have run its course, Trek ultimately made a return to television in 2017, in the form of Star Trek: Discovery. Created by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, American Gods) and Alex Kurtzman, this was set in the period between Enterprise and the original Star Trek, leaving itself open to the same sort of potential criticism as the former. Why was the franchise set on boldly going backwards, and leaving its hands firmly tied as to what it could do within similar constraints?
From the very beginning, Discovery has struggled to find its own identity, with the first season almost a hybrid of Trek and Game Of Thrones, whilst it also simultaneously appeared to trample right over established knowledge of the Klingons. In Season 2 Discovery found itself held even more hostage to continuity by introducing the USS Enterprise, and bringing in Spock, along with Captain Pike and Number One from the original Star Trek pilot, ‘The Cage’; all of a sudden, the crew of USS Discovery felt secondary or ancillary in their own show.
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Fuller had originally envisioned that Discovery would be a serialised anthology show, with each season taking place in a different era, starting around the time of Captain Kirk, then moving onwards until, eventually, reaching a period beyond what had ever been seen in Trek before. Despite not having worked out that way, and focusing on one crew throughout, a part of Fuller’s original vision came true, with the finale of Season 2 seeing the Discovery needing to send itself around 900 years into their future, in order to save all of creation by protecting valuable data from an ancient alien Sphere.
Season 3 has therefore placed Discovery in the unexpected position of leaving all of established Trek far behind it, and showing us entirely uncharted territory. Suddenly, Star Trek: Picard – which is just tipping over into the 25th Century – is now no longer the furthest forward we had seen. In a rather radical reversal, Discovery has now turned the tables on the rest of the franchise, and the myriad other shows which are currently in production or development are now becoming the ‘historical’ entries, as they have to fit in with Discovery’s vision of the 32nd Century.
And what a vision it is – the relative utopia as depicted in all of the other Trek shows has been ripped apart, with a major intergalactic catastrophe called ‘The Burn’ having decimated Starfleet, virtually destroying the capacity for travel at Warp Speed, leaving distant chunks of the Federation being cut off without the ability of faster-than-light travel. Old alliances have fractured, and former allies have now seceded from the Federation, charting their own courses.
Into this power vacuum has now stepped the Emerald Chain, a loose confederation of capitalist mercantile exchanges; it uses its significant influence to take the resources of others, and control swathes of the galaxy. This clean – albeit highly damaged – slate as far as the Discovery crew are concerned gives the writers an opportunity for character development, as the shipmates struggle to come to terms with what they have all left behind, as well as the great unknown which lies ahead.
As with previous efforts on Discovery, however, this proves to be patchy at best. The main recipient is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who was the primary focus of the first two seasons; here, Michael ends up becoming separated from the ship, not knowing for a year whether the Discovery made it through the journey to the future. In that time, she has a chance to evolve, and becomes much less uptight and rigid, allowing Martin-Green the chance to deliver a lighter, less burdened take on the character, playing it for laughs at times, along with gaining a romantic interest in the form of empath Cleveland ‘Book’ Booker (David Ajala).
Book is one of three new people to join Discovery this year, apparently to try and shake up the status quo; however, this seems to come at the expense of expanding on some of the crew who were already there. Having been rather disjointed previously, this season attempted to try and bring them all together, or at least put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’. Despite all the writers’ best efforts, however, most of the secondary characters are woefully underdeveloped, to such an extent that, by the finale, you would still be hard pressed to name some of them, even though they are given a sizeable chunk of the action.
In bringing in new crew members, Discovery finally tackles one of the few glaring omissions from the Trek franchise. Gene Roddenberry always sought to try and be progressive and diverse, which gives the lie to accusations in some fan quarters of Star Trek’s supposed newly-found ‘wokeness’; despite his best efforts, however, the broadcast networks would always have one eye upon their advertisers’ delicate sensibilities, and sought to veto or tone down anything to do with LGBTQ+ lifestyles.
As such, it took until 2017 to have Star Trek’s first fully out and proud gay couple, in the form of Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). With Season 3 of Discovery, however, we finally get the appearance in Trek of transgender and non-binary primary characters, with the introduction of Gray (played by trans actor Ian Alexander), a Trill symbiont; and Adira, a teen prodigy (played by Blu del Barrio, who – like their character – is non-binary).
Trek’s relationship with sex, sexuality and gender issues has been a difficult one at best, with an early example being the change from “no man” to “no-one” in that famous opening narration by The Next Generation. Representation matters, and visibility of trans and non-binary characters and actors in Trek is long overdue. At one point, Discovery had seemed doomed to deploy the ‘bury your gays’ trope, and there may be missteps along the way; however, Gray and Adira are both welcome and refreshing additions to the show, and seem not to be defined purely by their LGBTQ+ characteristics.
Discovery’s ‘brave new world’ is sadly hampered by a failure of storytelling when it comes to revealing the 32nd Century. A lot of the setup would be better delivered by using the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’; sadly, an awful lot of exposition is used to paint a picture for the audience, and we unfortunately see very little of the extent of this new future for ourselves. The situation is not helped by the fact that, out of 13 episodes in total, two are used purely to provide a way of establishing a long-mooted spin-off series, in a manner which brings the whole season’s momentum grinding to a halt.
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While undoubtedly a bold experiment, Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery really feels like a 13-episode pilot – an awful lot of time is taken to try and establish the show’s new setting and core premise, while getting the emphasis wrong in a number of other areas. Yes, a certain amount of jettisoning needs to go on, at the same time as the necessary world building, but Discovery still appears to be struggling to find an identity of its own, having shaken things up radically but not given time for them to reform.
A few obvious avenues seem to have also been sidelined or overlooked, such as the USS Discovery’s systems becoming increasingly self-aware, thanks to their housing the Sphere Data, which was explored in one of the Short Treks episodes, ‘Calypso’. Hopefully, things will settle down from hereon in, and with Seasons 4 and 5 already both being in back-to-back production, the next outings for Star Trek: Discovery may be rather more balanced and consistent.