Entertainment in the last decade or so has been defined by two hallmarks: the rise of science-fiction in the mainstream and the rebooting of beloved older properties. In such an atmosphere, it was merely a matter of time before “Star Trek,” which has the benefit of both categories, returned to TV after a successful big screen revival. The longevity of the series on both the small and large screen has made the title instantly recognizable.
But with CBS reviving the show as a prestige series to hang their nascent streaming service on, the network ran into a problem. One of the unspoken rules of prestige TV is that it presents a world of cynicism. It is also nearly always serialized. But “Star Trek” is synonymous with optimism (sometimes fanatically so), and has always functioned as an episodic show. At the end of the hour, a lesson has been learned, the crew returns to their positions as if nothing has changed and the ship flies away to the next adventure. How would CBS square this circle?
As “Star Trek: Discovery” finishes its first season, the answer is clear: It can’t. Indeed, the season’s finale attempt to reconcile these competing impulses lead to a bizarre yet deeply unsatisfying ending.
Note: Series spoilers to follow.
The original series is beloved for its positive beliefs — including the belief that the future will be better than the present. But looking back now, we can also see it had massive blind spots and functioned more as a white man's utopia than anything else. Though it cast an ethnically diverse crew, the stories mainly focused on the three leads, all white men. Meanwhile, the casual sexism was so bad, the women writers on the Patrick Stewart-lead revival “Star Trek: The Next Generation” found the sexism intolerable.
In contrast, “Discovery” presented itself as a show with a cast that matched its rhetoric of equality: Michelle Yeoh was cast as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Sonequa Martin-Green plays Michael Burnham, the first women of color to lead a “Trek” series (or one of their ships.) But all too quickly, these casting choices began to see more like gimmicks. Yeoh’s character, for example, was killed off, only to be replaced by Captain Lorca (played by Jason Isaac.)
Within weeks, the series found itself awash in complaints from older fans worried the show had lost site of the hopeful themes that had made “Star Trek” worth loving in the first place.
The series found itself awash in complaints from older fans worried the show had lost site of the hopeful themes that had made “Star Trek” worth loving in the first place.
Some of these complaints are more about preserving traditions for tradition’s sake. But it’s also possible that “Discovery” could have challenged the idea all prestige TV is cynical and forged a new vision (a la “This Is Us”): optimistic prestige sci-fi. Instead, the show tried to have its dark and gritty cake and eat it too. And the results were messy.
By the second half of the season, a bizarre plot device sent the crew though to another multiverse (known as “The Mirror Universe”). Suddenly, the crew became heroes again and all the anger and violence of the first half of the series was pinned on one character (Isaac’s Lorca). Just like that, all the moral relativism the series has spent weeks struggling with was written off as the work of another timeline.
The outcome was Trek’s old cliché writ large: at the end of the adventure, everyone is exactly back where they started — including, somehow, the disgraced Michael Burnham. This format works when the show is episodic. In a serialized show, however, it is both jarring and antithetical to the point of the format.
Only one character didn’t make it back to their post, the nowadays inevitable “expendable” character (made uniquely trendy by “Game of Thrones”). Unfortunately, this expendable character happened to be the openly gay Dr. Culber, played by Wilson Cruz. As a result, “Discovery” became yet another series that promised openly gay relationships, only to fall back on the “bury your gays” cliché.
For a show whose hallmarks are supposedly progressive values, this was a regressive choice that distressed fans who were counting on the show to do better. Indeed, the showrunners were ultimately forced to do damage control, promising a corrective which so far has mainly consisted of a scene or two where Culber's partner Stamets (Anthony Rapp) talks to Culber's ghost.
The season finale’s emotional highlight was supposedly a meditation on morality. Burnham tells her fellow officers that the past war and strife is “not who we are.” Magically, all is then forgiven. The war that has been raging is over, because the men and women fighting it decide to simply move on.
“Star Trek” has positioned itself as a social and political parable. But the season’s overarching lesson seems particularly ill-timed.
“Star Trek” has positioned itself as a social and political parable, with didactic moral lessons baked into most of its episodes. But the season’s overarching lesson seems particularly ill-timed. “This is not who we are” is a familiar line to those who have been watching the news since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Moderate conservatives (mostly white men) stand up on PBS and CNN, declaring “this is not who we are,” as if by doing so it will somehow make the current administration disappear in a puff of logic.
But “this” is actually always who we’ve been. Only before, the (mostly) white men in power didn’t make the racist and sexist undertones of their governing quite so obvious.
When “Star Trek” was created in 1966, it was during a time of massive social upheaval. The show’s lesson then seemed to be: “Don’t worry about the state of the world, this isn’t who we are, it will all resolve itself.” And at the end of this season in 2018, the show seems to be selling a similar lesson. For any other series, arguing that the wrongs of the world will magically right themselves would feel remarkably out-of-touch considering our current political climate. For "Star Trek," this outdated strategy is almost insulting.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.