Star Trek: Discovery aired this past weekend. I have some thoughts…
S01E01 — Most Trek premier episodes aren’t great. “Encounter at Farpoint” for ST:TNG was pretty awful. They were all better than that, but some not by much. “The Vulcan Hero”/”Battle at the Binary Stars” was, I thought, above average for these things. They have a lot of water to carry. New captain, new crew, new ship, new reality. ST:D kind of cheated in that the ship we start on doesn’t make it out of the second episode nor does the captain. The central character, Micheal Burnham, is introduced and then does some shocking things, so this is less a premiere than a prologue. The story that sets up the story. In the original series, we got this in “The Menagerie” in the 11th and 12th episodes of season one.
Our new pro/antagonist — Micheal Burnham is a Trek hero in a media environment now saturated by anti-heroes. She’s not technically a bad guy since her motivations are clear and noble, but she’s also not typical Starfleet. She’s not as skilled as someone like Kirk who can screw the rules at will but gets away with it or like Riker whose inclination is to bust out the Kirk moves but defers to Picard’s command. It’s pretty un-Trek to see what’s basically a convicted criminal be our way into the new show. Sort of if Ro was the center of ST:TNG after switching allegiance to the Maquis, being captured, convicted, and assigned a new ship.
Future imperfect — Putting internal conflict at the center of Trek feels wrong to me. It’s one reason I didn’t much care for the whole Maquis storyline that started in ST:TNG and had a hard time warming to ST:DS9. I like my Federation as a big happy family working together after solving so many of society’s problems. They can have conflict, but it’s external, not internal. I’m sure the show-runners and CBS figured a traditional familial approach to the ensemble would be a hard sell in 2017, but this suggests people stopped watching Trek because they stopped liking Roddenberry’s vision of the future. I don’t think that’s what happened at all. It also feels like they’re taking a page from the J.J. Abrams “let’s make Trek for non-Trek fans” which I always find annoying. Trek fans are why Trek has been in the media for fifty-one years. Screw us over to your peril, CBS.
Continuity conflicts — All that being said, I can’t fault them for trying to update a fifty-year-old formula. I get why changes have to be made. Special effects are much improved from even the days of Enterprise and J.J.’s take on the look and feel of the Trek universe is, I think, beautiful and modern. I appreciate the production design of the new show, love the ships (though we haven’t yet seen the eponymous Discovery), think the effects are dazzling and cinema-quality, and even really like the uniforms and ever-present lens flare.
But placing this in the ST:TOS “prime” universe rather than J.J.’s “Kelvin” timeline seems really, really weird. It looks like the Kelvin timeline. I can’t imagine at all that ten years after these events take place, Kirk kicks off his five year mission in the 1966 Enterprise. It was already hard to imagine that following the Enterprise series. Now it’s impossible. Micheal was raised on Vulcan, we’re told, by nobody less than Sarek, but we’re still something like 10-15 years from the destruction of Vulcan. There’s plenty of room for a prequel series fitting that post-Kelvin incident but pre the 2009 Star Trek movie period of time.
Then again, as we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie guys don’t like to be beholden to TV guys’ continuity. Presumably, ST:D was placed in the Prime timeline because the movie division wouldn’t commit to following the continuity laid down by the show. And I guess I get that.
But there is nothing more important to Trek fans than continuity. TOS begat TNG begat DS9, etc. We have decades of universe-building to explain Vulcans and Romulans and (especially) Klingons. Each Trek has conspicuously built on the previous. We know the early history of the Federation because we’ve seen it. And, in a certain setting, showing how and why the Federation and Klingons initiated hostilities would fit right into that canon. But is doesn’t because…
Those Klingons — What. The. Fuck. This is where the whole thing being in the Prime universe falls apart. Those aren’t the goddamned Klingons. They don’t look like the Klingons. They only kind of sound like the Klingons. The ST:D Klingons use a lot of the bones of the Prime Klingons (bat’leth, Kahless, Klingon houses, cloak technology) but then fleshes them out totally differently. And we can’t retcon this like we did the Klingon “evolution” from ST:TOS to TNG (thanks to ST:E). These guys are totally not the prime Klingons. And while I don’t necessarily dislike the new take on them, the deep cognitive dissonance seeing them in purportedly the Prime universe sets my teeth on edge.
Had it been up to me, I would have put Discovery in yet another timeline. Basically retired the Prime timeline and ignored the Kelvin timeline and rebooted TV Trek. A whole new fresh slate. Once they chose to reimagine the Klingons, the producers essentially already hit the reset button but they didn’t have the guts to say it. I think, more than anything, this fast and loose exploitation of the Prime timeline is what could sink this show. It has to have die-hard Trek fans watch it and a lot of them will take issue with the changes.
The only way I’m going to able to enjoy this show is to tell myself that’s what happened. This isn’t Prime or Kelvin. It’s…I dunno. It’s the Shenzhou timeline. Something. But it ain’t Prime and if they ever try to connect Discovery to Prime I’m going to lose it.