In a time where nearly all of our favorite properties are going gritty, Star Trek: Discovery does it better than most. In a time of war, with an enemy that embraces a logic completely foreign to us, the latest entry in the beloved franchise boldly gives us a vision of a time where an idealistic organization committed to peace is forced to grapple with an enemy that thrives on war.
Discovery does an excellent job setting up a world that feels as real as the bonds and occasional bickering of its crew, then smashing it to pieces. Taking us back to a time when Klingons were the Big Bad, the show gives us a leader who seeks to make the Klingon Empire great again by stirring them into a frenzy against the scary humans who are looking to take away their individuality and make them less Klingon, thus weakening their declining civilization even further. The commentary is obvious, but luckily the way the first two episodes are executed is gripping, with the kind of diverse casting that Star Trek is known for.
It’s already looking better than the previous TV series, the much-maligned Enterprise. But clearly, TNG this is not, nor is it in vein of the J.J. Abrams movies, which offers a great reboot of beloved characters sans any of the ethical or moral battles they grappled with. Discovery is much more interested in bringing us a far darker future, with characters who knowingly commit questionable and even outright wrong acts.
Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) certainly has good reasons for doing so. Orphaned in a Klingon attack as a child, she became the ward of Sarek, father of Spock. Raised by Vulcans, she was taught to reject the emotions and instincts that make her human, and the ship she now serves is not only her home, but a chance to reconnect with her humanity, while Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) has become a surrogate mother. Such a nuturing environment has allowed Burnham to come into her own, but it has also made her more desperate to protect those in it from the Klingon threat she can sense is now poised to destroy what the Federation has built. Are her actions right or wrong? Would they have averted the war that has indeed started by the end of the second episode? Did she inadvertently cause it? Discovery eschews easy answers, but one thing is clear when the dust settles at the end of the second episode: the next one will practically be another pilot, which will bring the titular ship and the permanent cast into play. And the rest of the season, or perhaps the series, will be about the repercussions of her actions.
Burnham is clearly worth sympathizing with and rooting for, and she will clearly continue to be the main focus. But the question of whether she’s worth sticking with is still up for debate. She is certainly the kind of protagonist that black women are rarely allowed to be, namely, complicated. She is heroic, flawed, intelligent, emotional, stubborn, adventurous, reckless, and sometimes self-pitying. It is this last point that may make her grating. Heroes generally have some sort of support, but the female ones seem to be in special need of not only backup, but constant encouragement whenever they encounter obstacles. Burnham seems poised to fall into this trap, but if previews are any indication, encouragement may just be in short supply for a while. Hopefully the journey will be feature at least some of the optimism that Star Trek was also known for, and its current incarnation seems dangerously close to forgetting even as it deeply respects and pays homage to the rest of the show’s values. Just where Discovery will go next is unknown, which seems miraculous in itself.