Don't Hate Me Bro, But I Like Discovery

Mary Wiseman as the future Captain Tilly.
It’s pretty great that we live in a time when there are two Star Trek shows on at the same time: CBS All Access has Star Trek: Discovery while Fox has The Orville. What’s not so great is that many of us are taking sides, pointing our finger across the online divide and saying, “That’s not Star Trek!” In fact, some of you, reading this paragraph, just said exactly that.

This isn’t the first time Trek fandom has been split. Indeed, one of the things Trek fans like to talk about the most is which series we like best. But debating TNG vs TOS, DS9 vs Voyager isn’t actually the best analogy for what we’re seeing now. The rage prompted by Orville and Star Trek: Discovery reminds me far more of the divide that arose between those who watched Trek and those who watched Babylon 5. The rivalry had a pretty fundamental basis: both Bab5 and DS9 were about a space station instead of a starship, both began with Commanders instead of Captains, both were set up as a sort of “Casablanca in Space.” They were both darker than traditional Trek, and interstellar war came to dominate both shows. Babylon 5 was in many ways a reaction to Trek, an “anti-Trek,” but showrunner J. Michael Straczynski never concealed the fact that he loved Trek and had grown up on it. Eventually, a fragile peace was forged when Majel Barrett appeared in Babylon 5's third season as the wife of the Centauri emperor. The rivalry became something of a laughing matter by Season 4 of both shows, when Babylon 5’s General Hague (played by Robert Foxworth) had to be recast because, the same week he was supposed to be on the show, he was busy appearing on DS9 as a very similar character, Admiral Leyton.

My social media stream is lit up by people who don’t just like one show better than the other, but who light into the other side with a well-rehearsed arsenal of insults. We don’t have to be this way. Every show is someone’s favorite show. Every character is someone’s favorite character. (Mine is Cadet Tilly.) I come not to bury Discovery but to praise it. Don’t hate me, bro.

We’ve got three episodes of Discovery, as I write this, and it’s shaping up to be pretty good television. With the two-part prequel out of the way, “Context is for Kings” (the third episode and “second pilot”) establishes a mystery that will presumably keep our characters busy for much of the season. It’s based on an intriguing, if absolutely bananas, SF concept: instantaneous interstellar travel through a network of fungus which has apparently infested the entire galaxy. Interstellar propulsion by space fungus? Tell me more, Mr. Astromycologist. I especially liked the way that those killed by a test of this space fungus looked like victims of transporter accidents; that was a fake-out that wouldn’t have worked in a non-Trek show. And the entire effort to create instant teleportation poses meta-questions, because we, as Trek fans, know this theoretical innovation has never been seen in other shows set later in the continuity. This actually helps create tension around the invention; will they succeed or won’t they? Ordinarily, we would assume yes, the heroes will succeed, because that is what protagonists do. But because the evidence of their success is not visible in continuity, their success is a) in doubt and b) becomes undesirable. The plot becomes unpredictable, and I like that.

This was me. Only with a golf ball.
With really only a very few exceptions, the cast of Discovery are doing a great job. I’ve never watched Walking Dead so this is my introduction to Sonequa Martin-Green, who stars as Michael Burnham. Because she’s the protagonist and the focus of most scenes, we have a lot of opportunity to see below the stoic, emotionless Vulcan act she’s putting on most of the time. Like her foster brother, she’s a creature of two worlds. But while Spock was mostly Vulcan, allowing his human side to manifest rarely and often in private, Burnham is mostly human and she seems to use Vulcan mannerisms as a defense against getting too close to people. Speaking as a guy who, when he was little, used to put a golf ball between his middle and ring fingers so he could master the Vulcan salute, I totally get the allure of the psychologically-invulnerable human supercomputer. How great would it be, to go through life unhurt by all of the world’s many ills? Data was an android that wanted to be human; Burnham is a vulnerable human who wants to be an emotionless robot. Life is just so much less painful that way. But she can’t do it because, of course, she’s human, and ultimately the question becomes: would she really want to be an emotionless robot, even if she could? That’s a question I look forward to seeing her answer.

By the third episode, the supporting cast is consistently strong. I was skeptical of Doug Jones’s Saru at first, as he seemed an abject coward, but once his desire to not die was established, the show has spent the rest of his time kicking against it, so I get it now. We have a guy who wants to fight, but is biologically programmed for flight. It’s a classic “biology doesn’t determine our potential” theme, as clear as Gattaca. Captain Lorca, aboard the Discovery, had a terrible melodramatic introduction, but since he’s clearly being set up as a traditional anti-hero (Definition: a guy who does the right thing for the wrong reasons) not liking him is the proper response.

The show is not without problems. Some of these come from its difficult relationship to Trek canon, and others are more straight-forward. Michelle Yeoh (whom I very much admire) was underwhelming throughout her character's brief life. A lot of time was spent explaining Burnham’s decision to mutiny -- she clearly thought (and indeed still thinks) that if she could have met the Klingons with a show of force instead of passivity, the war would not have occurred -- but I still found it almost impossibly hard to swallow. I think my problem is, I didn’t see Burnham recognizing the irrevocable harm this would do to her own life. I got that she would have to betray her Captain, and I bought the emotional pain of that sacrifice. But becoming a mutineer also destroyed her career, and while I didn’t want that to stop her, I wanted her to at least acknowledge that she understood the choice and was making it.

Star Fleet officers are notoriously happy to punch each other.
By the way, I don’t find Burnham’s mutiny, or the bizarre actions of Lorca, to be at all un-Treklike. This is a show that routinely had captains ignoring direct orders, commodores going crazy, and admirals corrupted by their own vast power. A Star Fleet historian once turned a planet full of people into Nazis, for crying out loud. Using the Vulcan nerve pinch on your commanding officer is exactly the sort of thing Kirk would do (if he could ever manage to learn that trick, of course). Hell, Kirk stole the Enterprise to go find Spock’s body and the entire bridge crew helped!

Some of the critiques of Star Trek: Discovery have coalesced over the last year and a half, because this show has taken a long time to appear, while others have gelled only over the last three weeks. In the first bucket we have problems with the continuity: why put a show in this time period in the first place, when you could have set it after Voyager and pushed the timeline forward? I entirely understand this confusion; putting the show in the TOS era is setting itself up for problems. There’s no way a 21st century audience would take a science fiction show that looked like "The Cage" seriously, but if Discovery had modern special effects it would be contrary to canon. The showrunners had to decide which audience to alienate. I don’t know what happened, but one thesis -- that there were legal, contractual reasons the show could not be set after Voyager -- seems perfectly plausible to me and explains a lot. Honestly, we don’t know why this decision was made, but we do know that it created a lot of problems for the showrunners themselves. I doubt they’re happy with it either. It feels like a necessary evil, the sort of constraint a writer's room must try to rise above.

When I say the Klingons remind me of "Orientalism," that's not a good thing.
The portrayal of the Klingons is a big source of controversy. At first, fans were just reacting to the unusual costuming and the new makeup. The makeup doesn’t bother me. The new style of Klingon armor looks weird. Maybe that’s the idea. With its ornate and flared skirts and wide pointed shoulders, it looks “Oriental.” That is, the Klingons dress like what 19th century Victorians thought Asians dressed like. I would not be surprised to see costumes like this in "Growltiger's Last Stand." But most audiences aren’t going to think Cats when they see these Klingons, especially since the political allegory of the show has been unpacked for us: these Klingons are Making Qo’noS Great Again.

Our current political and social climate is providing a lot of steam for the Discovery hate train. It’s not hard to unpack. We have a Klingon species divided amongst too many leaders (those holographic Klingons were the equivalent of the GOP primary debates, 16 embarrassing nobodies lined up in a row taking insults from the guy in the middle). Their self-appointed messiah says the Federation claims to want peace and love and understanding, but they actually just want political correctness. He lights a giant torch, an image which once evoked the Statue of Liberty but which now reminds me only of Charlottesville. And, on the other side, we have Michelle Yeoh as the old hand, the seasoned captain, the adult in the room promising “We come in peace.” Naturally, she loses. The hero is this story is her rival, Bern-ham, who tries to warn everyone of the coming upset but who is ignored. The only way we can protect our values, she insists, is by fighting for them. I swear, if a little bird had come down and landed on Michael Burnham’s command station, I would not have been surprised.

This pisses off a lot of people. About half of the potential audience for Star Trek: Discovery, in fact. And a lot of those fans aren’t too happy with Seth McFarlane’s Orville either because, despite the dick jokes, it’s also pretty progressive. I’m not sure what the solution is for this audience, other than to just not watch Trek. Star Trek: Beyond, the third Abramsverse movie, is kind of NASCAR I guess, but it’s got gay Sulu, so I don’t really know what to tell ya.

Type II fan service
But there’s another group that refuses to watch Discovery not because of its politics or because the Klingons have their by-now customary makeup and costume change. They’re mad because they have to pay for it. And it doesn’t really matter how many Type II phasers we see on screen, that the albino Klingon is almost certainly the same albino that three TOS-era Klingon captains came back to assassinate in DS9, or that Burnham’s reference to Alice in Wonderland is a call-back to an Animated Series episode in which Spock notes his mother used to read that book to him when he was a kid. CBS is charging $5.99 a month for this show and that is a bridge too far.

There is nothing else on CBS All Access that I watch. So when I pay them $6 for a month of Star Trek, I’m paying $1.50 for every 48 minute episode. $1.50 is not a lot of money. I spend .90¢ twice a day to buy a Diet Pepsi. I spend $10.50 to see a movie in the theater. For most of us, $1.50 isn’t really the obstacle. The obstacle is that they’re asking you to pay for it at all. For many viewers, no matter how much or how little they have to pay, they won’t pay it. A few of these people will pirate the show, but that’ll still be a relatively small percentage. CBS is simply going to have to write off this audience, just as its writing off the audience insulted by the political allegory of the show’s first two episodes.

Can Star Trek: Discovery survive when so much of its audience, over half of America, has been alienated by it? In the old days, the answer would have been no. But we live in the era of niche-television. A show doesn’t have to be watched by millions to survive. It can make money with a relatively small, devoted fanbase. And this isn’t just some ordinary nerd TV show, it’s Star Trek; the merchandising opportunities alone will make up for a lot of lost viewers. Star Trek: Discovery is here for at least a couple of seasons, but its seasons don't have to be long and they don’t have to be frequent. In the era of niche television, there’s always another show to look forward to while we’re waiting for the next season of Game of Thrones.

Maybe that’s when I’ll finally get around to binging The Orville.

Jason Tondro is an Assistant Professor of English; he teaches comics & graphic novels, writing, and British Literature. He is the author of Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature and various RPG resources, including The Deluxe Super Villain Handbook. He’s currently editing Arthur Lives! an urban fantasy RPG using the Fate system.
Don't Hate Me Bro, But I Like Discovery Don't Hate Me Bro, But I Like Discovery Reviewed by Jason Tondro on Friday, October 06, 2017 Rating: 5
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