On Monday, nerds around the world gathered eagerly in front of Netflix to watch the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Trek series since the largely unloved Enterprise in 2001. What they saw were two formidable women of colour, boldly going where no man had gone before. The show opens with a captain and her first mate – Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) – on a mercy mission to a desert world. The two banter easily and with mutual respect, and finish their mission elegantly. As the familiar sounding theme began, it chimed with some really deep need – in me, at least – for an idealistic, forward-looking and inclusive Star Trek right now. But even non-Trekkers can benefit from this show’s heady optimism – honest.
The rest of the show doesn’t always live up to that promising start. Yeoh is a guest star, rather than a regular; her ship isn’t one that Burnham will be serving on for long. From what we see, she’s a formidable captain and a brilliant mentor to Burnham, who is a human raised by the logic-loving Vulcans (Spock’s dad, specifically), so it’d be nice if Yeoh were there longer. Still, Martin-Green makes history as the first woman of colour to lead a Star Trek series, one that will also include two regular cast members in a gay relationship and, no doubt, lots more efforts towards inclusivity.
That’s because Trek is the most reliably progressive show in TV history. The show’s pilot episode gave a woman the second-most important role on the Enterprise. When that proved too much for 1960s studio executives, creator Gene Roddenberry replaced her with the legendary Nichelle Nichols as the Enterprise communications officer, the first such role for an African-American and one that Nichols followed with a lifetime of advocacy (Martin Luther King was a fan). Trek gave us one of the first interracial kisses on mainstream TV, hired a Russian navigator at the height of the Cold War and a Japanese helmsman. By the 1990s, it added an African-American commander and a female captain. It’s dealt with issues of race, sexuality and gender, and inspired real technology, including Google Earth, mobile phones and hyposprays to inject medicine without needles (we’re still waiting for a transporter and a warp drive).
We have a lot of gritty drama right now and it’s good that it’s there to acknowledge the complexity and difficulties of life. But we also need inspiration and something to aim for
But, after the diminishing returns of the last seasons of Voyager and Enterprise, Star Trek disappeared from TV. In 2009, JJ Abrams’ film reboot reminded us how great it could be – but that terrific action-adventure lacked the sense of discovery of Trek’s best episodes, and the challenges to test a crew’s morals, as well as their minds. You need TV’s longer, more leisurely pace for that – which brings us back to Discovery. It’s set prior to the original series of Star Trek, like Abrams’ films, and explores the war against the Klingons that was sometimes referenced by Captain Kirk in the 1980s films.
That wartime setting is a potential drawback for all its excitement. After all, Star Trek is supposed to be set in a better world, with its Starfleet as glorified peacekeepers. It envisions a human utopia where we have focused on spreading peace across the stars, because there’s no zealot like a convert. In Star Trek’s vision, having solved world hunger and cured the common cold, we go explore strange new worlds, instead of putting our feet up and watching Netflix's great-great-grandson. It’s like Oprah’s “best life” taken to the ultimate. We all want to travel, to explore, to help. We all hope for the best, and try our best. What if, Star Trek asks, our best was great?
At least, that’s the tradition. This incarnation looks and feels more like the Abrams films, with a darker and more morally compromised tone than the shiny certainty of the original series or Next Generation. When the USS Shenzhou encounter a Klingon war party led by a sort of cult leader, Burnham recommends firing first, in order to win the warlike species’ respect. Suffice to say, this does not work out well. It’s a situation that leaves Starfleet sullied in a way that we’re not used to seeing, and Burnham in particular acting against the highest ideals we’ve come to expect. But there’s already a sense, just in these two episodes, that she will find a way back, and her redemption may be cathartic for all us viewers while the world around us seems so uncertain.
We have a lot of gritty drama right now and it’s good that it’s there to acknowledge the complexity and difficulties of life. But we also need inspiration and something to aim for. That’s what Star Trek does better than anything else – it’s why all us nerds love it. The world is cynical and doom-laden enough. Star Trek gives us hope – and with Discovery, it’s back.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to watch on Netflix