I’ve been a Trekkie since 1984. My parents took me to see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and I was instantly and forever hooked. During the years of being bullied throughout elementary and middle school, I would find solace in reruns of the original series, and I watched all the subsequent series and films repeatedly and religiously. I founded and have coordinated TC Trek Trivia for the past four years, the only recurring pub-trivia night in the Twin Cities dedicated solely to all things Star Trek. Hell, I knew that I was going to marry my wife on our first date when we spent hours debating Kirk versus Picard.
What I’m saying is my Trek cred is bona fide. So I, like tens of millions of other Trekkies across the planet, was both cautiously optimistic and bursting with anticipation at the launch of a new series, Star Trek: Discovery.
Discovery (official abbreviation DIS) is something unique, and not just because it’s the first Star Trek television series in over a decade. It is also not that it’s different from its fellow Trek series—though it is in many ways—but rather, different compared to the modern entertainment landscape. Star Trek: Discovery is for the fans. With most genre properties, be they television shows, movies, or comics, the goal of the production staff and studios is universality. This isn’t unreasonable; considering the amount of money that goes into production and promotion of modern content, it would be fiscally irresponsible not to seek out as large an audience as possible to recoup their investment. However, while this may not be unreasonable, it can at times be more than a little problematic.
Marvel and DC fans have seen characters beloved for nearly a century revised or even completely reworked to fit the as-many-eyes-as-possible approach to entertainment so pervasive nowadays. Three Iron Man films, and four times as many appearances, and none of them have dealt with Stark’s alcoholism in any significant way, even though it’s a defining character trait in the comics. In the eight Batman films prior to his appearance in Dawn of Justice, the character either refused or was extremely reluctant to kill and/or use guns, even though there are numerous, numerous canonical examples to the contrary. Battlestar Galactica of the early aughts gave us humanmade Cylons driven by religion rather than the robotic servants of a reptilian race bent on domination and genocide. Even this year’s near-perfect Wonder Woman made concessions to appeal to broader audiences—or, more precisely, to fit Hollywood narrative tropes—by shoehorning in a love story between the Princess of Themyscira and Steve Trevor, though there is little to no basis in 70 years of graphic novelizations.
What Star Trek: Discovery does that makes it stand out in this populist climate is focus on “quality” of fan over quantity of audience. Trekkies are a quintessential fandom, arguably the archetypical fandom, with a half century of canonical and noncanonical works to build on and enjoy. Rather than risk the ire of tens of millions as J. J. Abrams and Roberto Orci did with their Kelvin Timeline films—by smoothing and softening dramatic, hard science-fiction edges and squeezing in action and atypical traits of core characters, creating a property for the masses that could appeal to Trekkies—the producers of Star Trek: Discovery took a gamble and inverted the approach, creating a Star Trek series for Trekkies that could appeal to the masses.
Discovery is somewhat of a prequel, taking place after Star Trek: Enterprise but 10 years prior to the original series. With a few minor exceptions, the first two episodes avoid the dreaded prequel-itis that plagues many other films and series, steering clear of references and cameos that take away from the story with their winks and nods to the audience. Unlike every other Star Trek series, all of which are ensemble pieces centering around seven to eight bridge officers, Discovery is so far focusing on one primary character, Commander Michael Burnham, played by the incomparable Sonequa Martin-Green (of Walking Dead fame), and gives unprecedented attention to the Klingon antagonists, led by the imposingly formidable T’Kuvma, played by Chris Obi (who also plays Anubis in the Starz series American Gods). The motivations of both characters are simultaneously similar and diametrically opposed. Burnham wants to save her crew, at any cost. T’Kuvma wants to unite the 24 noble houses of Qu’noS (the Klingon homeworld), and thus his arc in the first two episodes lays the foundations for the origin story of the Klingon Empire. (For non-Trekkies, think of it as the Joker to Starfleet’s Batman.)
Burnham is arguably the most uniquely complex lead character in Star Trek history. Not only is she not the captain—only the second lead in a Star Trek series to not be—she’s also a human who was raised on Vulcan. And unlike other series in which Starfleet consists of the white-hat good guys who never really make intentional diplomatic or military mistakes and make ample use of deus ex machina to save its main characters (like when Kirk was pardoned after murdering Commander Kruge in Star Trek IV), when Burnham is openly and physically defiant, she receives reprimand and actual consequences for her insubordinate actions. We root for her, naturally, but are not always in agreement with her, which makes her one of the most compelling characters on television today—perhaps even the most compelling. She’s neither an antihero nor a superhero. She’s grounded and flawed, and though she was raised on a fictional planet 16 light-years from Earth, she’s incredibly relatable.
T’Kuvma is equally well developed. There’s an old yet apt adage that history is written by the victors, and from the Starfleet perspective, he’s an Adolf Hitler, consolidating and building a power that must be stopped. But from the Klingon perspective he’s a George Washington, uniting disparate groups (for Washington, the colonies; for Klingons, the great houses) to save and strengthen an entire people. The best part? Both perspectives are correct. Viewers may not agree with T’Kuvma’s actions and decisions, but they understand why he makes them.
Discovery also stands out from a storytelling aspect. With the exception of Star Trek: The Animated Series, which was a continuation of sorts to the original series, every Star Trek program has kicked off with an introduction the main ship (or, in the case of Deep Space Nine, the main space station). The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, however, don’t take place on or even mention the titular starship; the only time we see the USS Discovery is in the previews at the end of the second episode. In doing this, the producers and writers let the audience know right away that the primary focus will be on the characters. Hell, the opening shot begins with T’Kuvma addressing other Klingons (in Klingonese with subtitles). While the approach is radically different from its predecessors, it does have roots in the essence of Trek. Star Trek has always been the exploration of self. To quote then-Commander Benjamin Sisko in the pilot episode of Deep Space Nine:
We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you with weapons, or with ideas. But to coexist . . . and learn.
Star Trek: Discovery does just that. It is an unblinking look at humanity and the nature of self, warts and all. What draws many Trekkies to love Trek in the first place is the poignant discourse on themes. The aliens aren’t always well designed. The visual effects have a very short shelf life. The science is questionable more often than not, even in-universe. But the concepts and ideas go beyond sets, makeup, locations, and lighting. The greatest science fiction is a lens through which contemporary issues can be seen and dissected, from the safety of fantastical worlds and incredible settings.
And when Trek does it, it does it well. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (TOS, season 3) says more about racism in an hour than an entire semester of sociology. “It’s Only A Paper Moon” (DS9, season 7) says more about the horrors and challenges of postwar reassimilation in a single episode than Oliver Stone’s entire filmography. “The Offspring” (TNG, season 3) packs in serious and substantial discussions on gender identity, parental rights, and the nature of existence—and that was back in 1990, the same year that Morgan Freeman chauffeuring a racist Jessica Tandy around somehow won best picture.
Discovery is only two episodes in, so time will tell if the series truly lives up to the incredible legacy of Star Trek, but it’s off to a damned good start. If you dig well-executed science fiction, you’ll probably like it. If you’re a Trekkie, you’ll love it.