Why The New 'Star Trek' Series Is The Best One Ever Made
What would you say was the point of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek? I would argue that the show was meant to hold a mirror up to humanity and show how we as a species could triumph over our own failings. We have the potential to rise above our baser instincts and truly be good. And it was wrapped up in a space Western full of adventure, excitement, and sexy green ladies.
Roddenberry used his platform to address racism, sexism, drug use, labor, aging, war, technology, terrorism, and the trouble with Tribbles (of which there is much). The cultural impact of the show cannot be denied. And Star Trek: Discovery may be the most important and relevant iteration of the franchise since that first one. Everything about it is superior to previous Trek shows. And why? Well, to start, it has ...
Say what you will about Spock on a bad day, but Star Trek has been notoriously devoid of assholes in main character roles. Was Quark a little untrustworthy? Was Wil Wheaton way too smug for his onesie? Yes, obviously. But they didn't come across as genuine insofar as the limits were never really pushed. Not really. Every character arc leads toward that character finding some kind of humanity, even if they're not human.
In its quest to show how far humanity has come, most Trek characters are already given to us as better than us. Kirk had his failings, but he almost always makes the right choice in the end, with a little logical guidance from Spock and maybe some grumpy old man shit-rants from McCoy. Picard was like a bald space Jesus, doling out wisdom and goodwill across the galaxy. Janeway was, you know, a captain.
The main character of Discovery, Sonequa Martin-Green's Michael Burnham, is introduced to us and then shortly thereafter commits mutiny and gets her captain straight-up murdered and subsequently eaten by Klingons -- an event coinciding with all-out war between the Federation and the Klingons. She's the most hated human in the Universe. She's not a cuddly Tribble rancher like the leads we're accustomed to. And that's important, because she thought she was doing the right thing. She's not a villain who killed her captain; she got her friend killed because she thought she was being logical, which is a perfect mix of Trekian flaws.
The incredible Doug Jones plays Saru, a being from a race of prey. He's genetically predisposed to understand risk and know when to save his own ass. This is a stark contrast to the heroic ideal of Commander Riker and his beard, who straddled chairs and humped space ladies with impunity.
"Ladies, please. There's enough goatee to go around."
Captain Lorca of the Discovery is pretty much a sociopath who literally has to live in the dark, because in the future, mysterious space injuries make you kind of a vampire. He has no moral compass, keeps a menagerie of death on par with the Governor's tank of heads from The Walking Dead, and he murdered an entire ship full of people to save them from Klingons. That's some rough shit. That's also a perfect analog for every cynical idea you've ever had about power. Kind altruists don't become CEOs; psychopaths do. Remember how shitty Lorca is as a person, 'cause we'll come back to it later.
Cadet Tilly may be one of the most dynamic characters in Trek history, the lowest person on the totem pole who's socially awkward, has a snoring issue, and is the first person to ever say "fuck" in a Trek series. She's brilliant in her realistic simplicity, one of the few characters ever who seems not just plagued by doubt as a necessity for the plot, but who just seems out of their element and trying to fit in. You know, like actual people do. It's also worth noting that a good part of the reason these characters work is ...
I love Patrick Stewart. If he wanted to go on a roller coaster with me, I would ride the shit out of that coaster until I couldn't puke anymore. But I will go on record saying Doug Jones is the single greatest casting decision in all of Star Trek. Better than Leonard Nimoy, better than Avery Brooks, better than Ricardo Montalban's chest prosthetic.
Jones is the actor who brought the Faun and the Pale Man to life in Pan's Labyrinth. He was also Abe Sapien in Hellboy and about a thousand other fantastical creatures (including Roger North in John Dies At The End, which is based on a book by Cracked's own David Wong). Like Andy Serkis, Jones excels at being the character he plays, not just playing that character. Look at how he plays Saru; he's disproportionately tall, he walks on the balls of his feet, he's thin and reedy and moves with practiced, elegant, cautious steps and gestures, like me when I'm very drunk and trying to reenact Black Swan.
Prior to Jones, only Brent Spiner brought a discernible inhuman characteristic to his role. Data was often stiff and robotic because obviously. But other prominent non-humans like Worf, Spock, Neelix, Quark, and Odo did not have any particularly difference in bearing, gestures or body language. They were aliens because someone pasted latex bums to their heads. And as awesome as Michael Dorn or Armin Shimerman are as actors, they're not the kind of actor that Andy Serkis and Doug Jones are -- the kind of actor who excels not at playing another person but playing another thing. And that's ironic, because Odo could literally be other things, like a chair or a dildo, and he still wasn't as good at it as Doug Jones.
If the essence of Star Trek is exposing humanity through use of the Other, using alien races and ideologies as a mirror, then Jones has gone leaps and bounds beyond what came before by fully immersing himself on multiple levels unlike any actor before him. Suck it, Neelix, you poor man's space Bobby Flay.
And speaking of aliens, there's another thing Discovery absolutely destroys, and that's ...
How Great The Klingons Are
Klingons are one half of the Star Trek alien duo of fuck-y ways to look at life. Vulcans have cold logic cornered, and Klingons are basically the polar opposite, letting fiery emotion be their guide. And yeah, there are Romulans too, but those are just jumped-up douche-Vulcans, so they don't count.
Klingons are so damned popular that Discovery is giving us the fourth version of the ribbed-for-your-pleasure-forehead warmongers. In TOS, Klingons were basically dusky-looking dudes who needed better barbers. In Next Gen, we got those fatty forehead fellas. Then J.J. Abrams decided to kick that up a notch with piercings in his movies, because that means they were out to kill Starfleet officers and piss off their dads. Discovery not only redesigns the look of Klingons, but also presents them with a wholly new concept. They are a fractured culture, divided into numerous houses with numerous loyalties. They have clear races and social statuses, and they are visually diverse among their own kind.
Voq is the Klingon this series is focusing on. He's a passionate, zealous follower of T'Kuvma. Voq is identified from the get-go as an outsider. He is pale as a blogger and is of no house. He's a social loser. But he rises fast until Kol, a rival leader, screws him over.
The species has always been focused on loyalty and houses since Next Gen, but Discovery has added a much more in-depth focus on this. It's little touches that make it so, like the facial tattoos on Kol, or the way his uniform is different than Voq's, which is again different from the leaders of all the other Houses that T'Kuvma speaks to. They have different clothes! Finally, after 50 years of Star Trek, Klingons invented haberdashery.
We all know the Klingons are badass. That's canon. So Discovery absolutely had to go deeper, and they did. Next Gen did a great job of setting up the idea that there's more to Klingons than what we see on the surface, but it always brought it back to Worf's humanity, to Worf struggling between the Empire and Starfleet, and finding his place, and occasionally to a place with robust Klingon cleavage. But it was never about how different Klingons are, but rather how they can overcome their baser instincts and be the same. Discovery is taking us to that darker place, and not just with Klingons, but with ...
The Implied Doom Ahead
Why do we give a shit about Discovery, the actual starship? Why is it not the Enterprise? Because Discovery is unique. It runs on something called a spore drive, which is basically a super snazzy fungus engine that is connected to an intergalactic mushroom pizza of awesome. Wherever the mushrooms exist, which is everywhere, so too can the Discovery exist, travelling on the weird fungal network. Cool beans, right? But if this tech exists, and Discovery takes place before the original series, why the hell isn't Starfleet using these engines all the time to sneak up behind Andorians and tweak their deelyboppers?
The obvious answer is that something very bad happens with the spore drive. Like, worse than having to be on Voyager. We're already seeing indications in the show that the technology is unethical, as it relies on living creatures to make it work. The tardigrade, the short-lived navigator of the Discovery, was just a big chubby victim of circumstance, being forced against its will and effectively tortured to make this technology work. That's cold shit, Starfleet.
Ah, the tardigrade. The magestic, tragic, vaguely pastry-shaped tardigrade.
The entire crew of the USS Glenn died because of their research into the spore drive. The technology is dangerous no matter how it's used, and the Klingons are also aware of its existence. They have seen it in action, so keeping it from them would be paramount. There is no good end for the spore drive, or for Discovery. We know future starships don't use it, and we've never even heard of it before. It's a footnote in the bad tech ideas of the past, the Federation's version of the Virtual Boy. The idea that the Federation was doing something wrong has never been a theme in Star Trek before on this scale. Moral dilemmas are usually limited to single episodes, so it's never been part of the basis for an entire series that maybe the good guys were coming from a morally ambiguous starting point. And that's exactly what Trek needs. And there's a reason for that, which is that Trek should be about ...
The thing that was so powerful about Star Trek was that Kirk and crew were out exploring the Universe as enlightened beings in wicked cool matching outfits. Kirk wasn't always the ideal, but he strove to be a better man, and in general, he made the right decision in the end. He and the entire crew of the Enterprise were good, with the possible exception of a few red-shirted ensigns, which is maybe why they kept killing those guys. But how the hell did they get that way?
The idea that First Contact let humans realize they weren't alone and needed to grow beyond their tiny world and embrace a massive universe and new ways of thinking is not novel. That we would come together as a species and ignore past conflicts that existed due to racial and geographic differences seems to make sense on this scale. But it's also super naive to presume that that kind of shit happens in a day. And it's also naive to think that this is the kind of growth that would turn humans into the super-swell Picardian beings we see in Next Gen without having a douche period in between. There had to be a point in which we'd happily look out for mankind, but fuck the rest of the Universe. Fuck Klingons, fuck Romulans, and fuck Harry Mudd. And that's where Captain Lorca fits in.
Lorca left Harry Mudd to die in a Klingon prison. Is that what a Starfleet captain would do? Not in any other series. But Lorca should. It's important that he does. Captain Archer should have done it but, no one likes Enterprise. What the hell was that Mayweather guy even on the show for? He had all the personality of a shoe. So Discovery has to step in and be the transition between what Roddenberry thought the future should be and what the dickish present actually is. Mankind would not become wise and compassionate on a whim; they had to grow. Discovery is deep in that growth period, where loyalties to the Federation have taken over loyalties to country, but they still exist. Those outside are "the enemy." This is mirrored precisely in the Klingons, as they're no different than the Federation, but neither side sees it -- and even if they did, they wouldn't care.
Burnham's treatment of the tardigrade shows that the show is aware of the moral issues that it's presenting. She grew sympathetic to the creature, understanding they were harming it, and was still ordered by Saru to make use of it. Saru, whose preoccupation is self-preservation, would sacrifice a beast to save his crew and captain. And Stamets actually sacrifices himself to save the creature, and does so for his partner so he wouldn't think less of him as a person.
For Lorca to openly admit he murdered his entire crew and left the civilian Harry Mudd behind is reprehensible and brilliant. No other captain would ever have done anything like that, and if they had to make a life-and-death decision, it would have been the focus of the entire episode, a moral lesson they had to stew over. Lorca doesn't stew over shit. Because he's not an evolved superbeing like Captain Picard. He's a cold, shitty man with numerous flaws. He has power and ambition and anger and a lack of empathy, and dude, that's how shit rolls sometimes. That had to be how the progression of mankind and Starfleet played out. That's why Discovery is brilliant.
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