Confessions of a Star Trek fan on the Upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” Show

CBS is creating the first new Star Trek series since Enterprise was canceled in 2005, Star Trek: Discovery (official site here).  Set to air on the 24th this month, Discovery will be distributed exclusively through CBS’s pay-for online streaming service, CBS All Access. Some non-American viewers will be able to see it on Netflix instead.

I hate that model, given that I don’t want to have to pay for a subscription just to see one show. There has been no announcement whether there will eventually be a home video release, so it remains to be seen whether fans will have to bite the bullet (or use the All-Access free trial creatively) to see the show. Either way, It’ll probably be awhile before I’ll have a chance to see it. Either way, anyone can watch the first two trailers.

Although Discovery hasn’t been released yet, it seems appropriate to make some comments about what we know and my hopes and fears. I’ve been a Trekkie for years, watching the old shows through DVD. I’ve kind of fallen off the bandwagon since the J.J. Abrams’ reboot movie series was not to my tastes (Star Trek Beyond is the only one of that series that I think is any good, as a piece of Star Trek and as a movie).

I’ve also found little joy in the new tie-ins novels being published, most of which are advancing the various series into new places beyond the original TV shows rather than telling new stories set during the classic era. So, I’m at a weird point where this property still means a lot to me, but more in memory than current materials. So, for me, there is a lot riding on how Discovery turns out and what it is. My opinions are strongly shaped by biases of “old > new” and the like, so objectivity is not an easy thing.

Before we get started, all the Star Trek shows have three letter abbreviations which I’ll be using for brevity’s sake:

DSC is set in the “prime universe” — the reality of the Star Trek multiverse that TOS, TAS, TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT, and the first ten movies take place in. As someone who’s primarily a fan of that iteration of Star Trek, I’m already happy. Specifically, it’s a TOS prequel about adventures a decade before Kirk and company boldly went where no man had gone before. While seemingly marketed as a large ensemble cast, the lead character is a woman named Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), first officer of the Federation Starfleet starship Shenshou. The Shenshou’s captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), also seems to be playing a notable role, as does Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), CO of the Federation starship Discovery. Exact details on how the two ships share narrative duty remains to be seen.

The Klingon Empire will be an important element in the show, befitting the 23rd century setting, when the Federation and Klingons were bitter enemies. One noted character who will be an antagonist for our intrepid crew is T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), a Klingon who wants to unite the divided Houses of the Empire. One of his lieutenants is L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), the other major named Klingon character to date.

TOS characters Ambassador Sarek (James Fran) and Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) will be appearing in DSC. Sarek is, of course, Spock’s father. The late Mark Lenard originated the role, playing him in “Journey to Babel” (TOS), “Yesteryear” (TAS) Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, “Sarek” (TNG) “Unification, Part I” (TNG), and Star Trek: VI: The Undiscovered Country. Jonathan Simpson and Ben Cross took over the role in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and  Star Trek (2009) respectively. The con artist Mudd, one of the more memorable TOS guest stars, was portrayed by the late Roger C. Carmel in “Mudd’s Women” (TOS), “I, Mudd” (TOS) and “Mudd’s Passion” (TAS), with DSC marking the character’s first return to the small screen.

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Lieutenant Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, left) and Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) on a trek through the deserts of Burnham’s adopted homeworld of Vulcan, as seen in the trailer for “Star Trek: Discovery.” These characters are the ones I’m the most interested in learning more about.

Since so much of the actual plot of DSC is being kept under wraps, it’s hard to judge what it’ll be about beyond the aforementioned points. From the trailers, I have somewhat mixed feelings that lean positive. First, the good. As mentioned before, setting the show in the same world as the previous shows I love, as opposed to the reboot series or a brand new continuity, gives me the maximum emotional investment in the project. I’m extremely curious about the Burnham character. While many of the previous shows have had ensemble casts, the captain has always been the most central character. Having the first officer be the main POV character is a new twist that I’m in favor of.

I’m also really curious about what kind of stories they’ll tell. The 2250s era of Star Trek has not been that well fleshed out. It’s pretty much a blank slate and one that I’m happy to see filled. While not a huge Klingon fan, I’m curious about what part they’ll play in the show. DSC is also going to be following it’s predecessors’ tradition of commenting on current events, with the social upheaval here in America and the vitriolic relationship between America and North Korea being story fodder. However, while the Klingon storyline is inspired by America’s current disunity, CBS has officially stated that the Klingons are not a direct representation of President Donald Trump and his followers, although the descriptions of T’Kuvma’s agenda for an isolationist, purist Empire sound eerily like the xenophobic and racist agendas that define the Oval Office as of late.

While one can quibble about the show’s design, the production values are impeccable. It looks more like a movie than a TV show. While I do feel that some the designs aren’t right for for the specific era, they did capture the general Star Trek aesthetic. I predict that this’ll be one of the best-looking Star Trek projects we’ve had yet.

Since we have yet to actually see the show, it’s hard to judge what flaws it’ll have, but there are the concerns I have, based on the trailers and official comments. Now, there are some precedents to a few of the problems, so I will be playing devil’s advocate along the way. The biggest potential stumbling block DSC will probably have for me is the dreaded C-words; “canon” and “continuity.” Based on what we’ve seen and been told, DSC seems to have a somewhat troubled relationship with both, to the point I half wonder if making DSC either a prequel to the reboot movies or making it a hard reboot set in a brand-new continuity would’ve been the best call.

As far as set design does, it looks like DSC was imagined as being a prequel to the Abrams reboot movies than TOS, with the hyper-detailed displays, extensive use of holograms and none of the minimalist designs of TOS. While it would be lunacy to think that the Powers That Be would faithfully recreate the very ‘60s-esque TOS designs, like “Trials and Tribble-Lations” (DS9) or “In a Mirror, Darkly, Parts I and II” (ENT) did, I would’ve liked DSC to look like a precursor to TOS, rather than a variation of the reboot movies. On the other hand, some of the filmmakers have stated that certain aspects of the design will change to reflect TOS over the course of the series, so this “problem” may be “fixed” when all is said and done.

[Update (10/10/17): The DSC prequel novel Desperate Hours helps explain how the DSC and TOS aesthetics fit together into the same “world.”]

The uniforms, while grade-A in and of themselves, also disrupt the timeline’s integrity, since the show is set between the first two TOS pilots, “The Cage,” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before“; a time period when this uniform was the one used. While one could theorize that the old uniform returned after DSC’s timeframe, it strains the suspension of disbelief that’s so important for fiction to maintain. There’s also the little problem that the Star Trek arrowhead logo is being used as the badge for every single Starfleet officer in DSC at a time when each ship had their own insignia (“Charlie X,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “The Omega Glory” [TOS], “The Pirates of Orion” [TAS], “In a Mirror, Darkly, Parts I and II” [ENT], et al.). However, the badge inconsistency has been a problem since Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Beyond, so I think we’ll have to suspend disbelief on that point. Like everything else, regardless of the “accuracy,” it is a very nice variation of the arrowhead that lives up to the previous badges; I hope that affordable versions of this pin are part of the plans for the show’s merchandise.

[Update (10/10/17): The DSC prequel novel Desperate Hours fixes the discrepancy between the DSC and the “Cage/” Where No Man…” uniforms. However, the arrowhead insignia problem is not addressed.]

The Klingon are probably the biggest sticking point, given that in makeup, costume, and set design, they look little like the Klingons and Klingon Empire as established in the prime universe from decades of storytelling. In fact, most of the behind the scenes assumptions about Klingon biology in regards to the new look are incompatible with Star  Trek canon. For example, supposedly DSC Klingons don’t have hair because of new organs on their head, despite literally every single Klingon story in the history of Star Trek proving that they do have hair.

As far as the makeup, which looks like a variation of the Orc-like Klingon redesign seen in Star Trek Into Darkness, the filmmakers actually have addressed why they changed things up. Aaron Harberts, one of the people in charge of DSC, explained: “In the different versions of Trek, the Klingons have never been completely consistent. We will introduce several different houses with different styles. Hopefully, fans will become more invested in the characters than worried about the redesign.

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Klingons giving the traditional death howl at a funeral, as seen in the “Star Trek: Discovery” trailer. The new makeup and costume designs for this iconic franchise alien species has proven to controversial with Trekkies.

Unfortunately, while Harberts is technically right about the Klingon makeup changing a lot over time (compare the initially unexplained change from TOS to Star Trek- The Motion Picture), he failed to realize that the pre-DSC designs have been unified into one model. The TOS Klingons were explained in the ENT two-parter “Affliction” and “Divergence” as the results of a 22nd-century genetics experiment gone wrong that took several generations to work its way out of the gene pool. So, no, the pre-DSC designs are completely consistent, albeit retroactively.

On a more positive note, Harberts comments that there are different “styles” of Klingons on the show opens the possibility that we may see pre-DSC Klingons on the show, bridging the gulf that currently exists and softening the discrepancies. If nothing else, if DSC doesn’t tell us that the entire Klingon race looks like the new ones, it would be possible to rationalize the new makeup as a racial variant we never saw before (or just “regular” ridged Klingons that shave their heads). That would be an acceptable compromise for me.

To compound the problem, the new Klingon costumes and ships seen in the trailers look nothing like anything we’ve seen in the franchise before, furthering the disconnect between old and new. The saving grace for this “problem” is that during the TOS era, the only Klingons we saw were serving in the military, nor did we get to see civilian culture. With a large empire, it’s perfectly plausible that some regions developed their own sub-cultures, traditions, and architecture.

There is even some precedence for cultural differences like that. For example, “A Matter of Honor” (TNG) mentions a former Klingon POW who lives in disgrace because of his initial capture. “Birthright, Parts I and II” (TNG) say that Klingon culture considers suicide after capture as the only way to redeem themselves. “In Purgatory’s Shadow” (DS9) has a Klingon POW, when asked about the suicide rule, said that he doesn’t have to as long as he has hope of escape and subsequently returned to duty after being rescued.

This idea of variations within culture may have even made it into the actual production. In the words of Neville Page and Glenn Hetrick, veterans of the Abrams movies who designed the DSC Klingons: “We spend a lot time talking about how things would work in the story and constantly buttressing our thought process with things from canon and from storiesThe empire is very big. They don’t all grow up on Kronos [the Klingon Homeworld]. They don’t all live on the same planets and certainly those different planets would have different environments. So how would the cultures have evolved differently?” That mindset could go a long way in reconciling the sociological mistakes in DSC, maybe even the biological ones, too.

However, for all the red flags I’m seeing with DSC, there are a few reassurances that the internal integrity of the franchise is something the Powers That Be are taking into account. Aaron Harberts explained in an interview that “…I think the most limiting thing is just trying to tell stories that don’t screw up, or screw with anything, that fans are going to be looking out for.

Executive producer Alex Kurtzman went on record saying: “You have to respect canon as it’s being written. You can’t say, ‘That never happened.’ No, no no, you can’t do that, [the fans] would kill you.”. So, while the treatment of the Klingons may make it hard to believe, it appears that the intent is to create something that fits with the established continuity, which is, honestly, more than could be said for the J.J. Abrams movies. Or we could be looking at a situation where the information of the timeline is considered authoritative, but the designs are not binding.

[Update (10/10/17): A minor spoiler establishes that the DSC Klingons will be using a form of phasing cloaking devices routinely, which is problematic on two accounts. Phasing cloak technology is was still experimental in the 24th century, according to “The Pegasus” (TNG). In fact, that episode specifically mentions that the Klingons gave up on it because they couldn’t get it to work. Secondly, the Klingons were still very new to cloaking tech during TOS, a decade after TOS; an elderly Kor reminisces about installing one of the first on his ship, the Klothos, for a mission to Caleb IV in “Once More Unto the Breach” (DS9). This does not fit very well with his cloak-happy DSC brethren’s exploits, especially since Kor specially recalls that the Federation was not aware of the Klingons possessing cloaking technology prior.

While I can’t find a way to reconcile DSC with “The Pegasus” with the limited information I have right now, it is possible to assume that’s Kor is misremembering the Caleb IV mission being an early use of cloaking tech and the Federation’s learning of the Klingons using it. It’s a plot point in “Once More Unto the Breach” that Kor is drifting into senility and his life is blending together. Secondly, there already are discrepancies in his memories; he specifically says that his ship was a D5-class vessel (22nd century design seen in “Marauders” (ENT), et al., when the Klothos was actually a D7-class ship (The Time Trap” [TAS]).

Regardless of how easily the discrepancy can be softened (not to mention the fact that the Star Trek universe already has its share of small irreconcilable inconsistencies from decades of development), it paints a picture that the Powers That Be’s promises that canon is being respected and followed may only be honored in the breach. Hopefully this doesn’t become a pattern to the point that DSC reduces Star Trek‘s internal consistence to the chronic incongruities of the X-Men film series. If it does, hopefully DSC remains as enjoyable as the X-Men movies so it’s not a problem in the grand scheme of things.]

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This novel is the part of the DSC branch of the franchise that I am looking forward to the most.

While the show looks interesting overall, the thing I’m most looking forward to right now are the tie-ins. A prequel novel, Desperate Hours by veteran Star Trek novelist David Mack (also the co-writer of the DS9 episodes “Starship Down” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”) will be coming out this month, explaining how Burnham earned her executive officer’s bars. Another untitled DSC novel, by Dayton Ward, is scheduled for next year. IDW also has a Klingon-centric comic miniseries in the works, which will provide some kind of backstory for T’Kuvma and his associates. Plans for more original novels and comics are in the works, as well.

Historically, Star Trek tie-ins have never been canon, unlike Star Wars and other such franchises, although the official Star Trek Chronology and Encyclopedia reference books — which filled in a few gaps — have been somewhat exempt from that. Reportedly, the VOY tie-ins Mosaic and Pathways were also exceptions, but that has been debunked since. In regards to whether the DSC tie-ins will also be non-canon, I’ve been hearing mixed answers of “yes” and “not quite.” Either way, the tie-ins will be highly integrated into the narrative of the show and are a welcome edition, especially for those of us who won’t be able to see DSC in a timely manner.

From a cursory examination of the web, I’ve picked up a lot of hostility from long-time fans. Some people don’t like the redesigns that I’ve been trying to make peace with. Others seem to be quite racist or sexist, complaining about the leads not being non-white women. Since Star Trek has always had diverse casts and two of the previous shows had minorities as the the leads (DS9 and VOY), I wonder how many of those “fans” have actually seen Star Trek shows in the first place; if DSC offends them, why aren’t they offended by Star Trek in general?

Bigotry aside, I’m not sure it’s surprising that DSC is being questioned as to whether it’ll be a good thing for the Star Trek franchise. As we’ve seen with both ENT and the Abrams movies, new installments, especially ones that go a really different way, tend to generate a lot of hype and concern that they’ll ruin the franchise for reasons XYZ. It’s an understandable thing. We want DSC to do well and not taint our memories or redefine the stuff we already love in a bad way (like, as a crazy example, if a new project revealed that Captain Kirk had secretly been a HYDRA-like traitor the whole time).

However, Star Trek needs new material to keep going and stay a living franchise instead of fading away into memory (komerex vs. khesterex, as some fans might know it). That means that new ideas and ways have to come as well. We, much like Sarek advises Burnham in the DSC trailer (and Mr. Velik advised Trip Trucker before him in “Strange New World” [ENT]), will have to challenge our preconceptions or they will challenge us.

DSC may break canon. It may not even turn out to be that good. However, what will make DSC good and a genuine piece of Star Trek is not whether it conforms to every little piece of trivia or copies old designs down to the letter. It will be a worthy continuation if has a batch of well-written characters and stories that follow the spirit and themes of the Star Trek franchise. DSC deserves the chance to do that in its own way, just like the other shows did.

Extra Notes:

– The DSC pilot episode will be receiving a regular TV broadcast on September 24th, the day that the first half of the season will be released on CBS All Access, which the rest of the season being released next January.

Desperate Hours takes one year after the first TOS pilot, “The Cage” and one year before DSC proper. Assuming that that is accurate, knowing that “The Cage” takes place in 2254 (per the Star Trek Chronology, by Michael and Denise Okuda), that sets DSC’s beginning in 2256 — eleven years before “Where No Man Has Gone Before (TOS) (the first TOS episode with Kirk).

 

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