Star Trek Discovery returns to where no-one has gone before

The most eagerly-awaited televison event of the year has taken place, the return of Star Trek.

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Star Trek Discovery returns to where no-one has gone before

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Accolades have been pouring in for the new series of “Star Trek Discovery”, the television event of the year for its legions of international fans.

The sixth iteration of the interstellar saga since its 1966 birth on US television, the CBS reboot of what its creators Paramount once dubbed “The Franchise” was given a massive boost from no less an authoritative figure than original cast member Mr. Sulu himself.

A little context

Star Trek has become a social phenomenon. In 1966 its science-fiction vision of a future 300 years distant spellbound a young generation despite the original series only lasting 79 episodes before it was killed off at the end of series three. Television had never seen anything like it, and it was way ahead of its time. It failed to crossover into a mass adult audience beyond science fiction fans, but the kids of the late 60s were hooked.

Those seeds put down took roots and the young fans grew up to become avid followers hungry for more adventures. In the decade that followed, despite the TV show’s modest ratings, it took on a parallel life as VHS and then DVD recordings flew off the shelves as cult status was acquired. A drip-feed of films began in the late 1970s to satisfy Trekkers and Trekkies thirsty for new content, but the show remained off the small screen. An industry grew up to support the growing demand, with conventions and cosplay events, merchandise and toys. Fans have produced fiction, and even movies in homage. Some fans adopted the language created for the original show’s main hostile aliens, the Klingons, and developed, codified, and supplied it with a grammatical structure and lexicography. It has even been mooted as an operational battlefield language by the US army and CIA.

The films filled in the 1980s with movies of varying quality, but with the market reaching critical mass Paramount finally decided in the 1990s to bring Star Trek back to the small screen and return to an extended series format.

The studio could hardly have believed the goldmine it had stumbled on. With four series from “The Next Generation” via “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” until “Star Trek Enterprise” at the start of this century, Paramount turned its ugly duckling into a ratings giant. It became so profitable that by 1998 the property was underwriting everything else the studio that made classics like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Psycho”, “The Godfather” and “Chinatown” to name just four was producing. The Sir Patrick Stewart-helmed “Next Generation” was especially successful, garnering both critical and commercial plaudits. It also made an international star of its leading man.
In the internet age, Stewart holding his head in his hands or gesticulating from his captain’s chair became a standard meme image.

It has been a long time time since Star Trek was in its rightful home, the small screen, and despite acclaim for the CGI-enhanced, three big-budget Hollywood films of this century, the fans have been pining for a return to a weekly rendezvous, so the critical question is, is “Star Trek Discovery” any good?

More than just a TV series

Admittedly some of the following may be very generational-specific, and hark back to the evocations of that 60s UFO that glowed from black and white TV sets, long, long, ago. That audience is now in its late 50s, but the show’s creators have always attempted to recapture that first wonder and remain true to the emotional strings it so effectively plucked, while also taking great care to develop it intelligently enough to give it longevity. So let us begin at the beginning.

The Music

It is undeniably pretty thrilling that Star Trek Discovery’s theme tune includes the famous first eight notes of the original, and it is a daring move to evoke so unashamedly the glorious past, as if putting down a dare that the show has to live up to. Star Trek’s makers have always tried to set the scene with something anthemic and sideral, majestic and mystical, perhaps reaching its apogee with Voyager, and nadir with Enterprise’s jaunty AOR song. Now all diehard fans could wish for is a revival of the tense drumbeating coda of the original series that always announced something ominous and martial on the horizon, or the dreamy treated harp of The Original Series’ more otherworldly moments. Discovery’s theme tune does the job just about, but the themes have been tweaked in the past and there remains room for improvement.

The “Look”

Here a similar problem that affects the Star Wars franchise applies, as the improvement in special effects means the newer product looks so much more high-tech than TOS, which is supposed to be 10 years after Discovery. The aesthetic of the latest films appears to have been applied, with lens flare a la J.J. Abrams in bucketloads. The ship interiors in the 1960s were smooth, almost like Ideal Home fitted kitchens, a simplicity echoed in TNG and adhered to in the following shows. Discovery boldly goes where the films go. Of more concern may be the iconic Klingons, whose visual appearance has hardened thus rendering obsolete a host of carefully-made cosplay costumes. The opening credits, too, have changed, evoking the historical fresco of the history of flight that launched “Enterprise”, but looking more like storyboard or toy spin-off sketches. It has been praised, but the majesty of seeing ships with galactic backgrounds has gone.

The atmosphere

It famously took the cast of The Next Generation several series to bond, whereas the original series found chemistry almost immediately, but with all the series so far there was always an element of tongue-in-cheek, what-a-romp humour, and mystery. Of course it is very early days indeed for Discovery, but the feel is darker and more serious. Some have complained that this reboot will be all about war and the Federation of Planets’ great showdown with the Klingons and ho-hum that yet another war story is the last thing the franchise, or science-fiction needs. Superfan Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy” is on record as saying he hopes his new Star Trek homage show, “The Orville” breathes some fresh air into the dystopian present much science fiction finds itself in, and recaptures the feelings of exploratory wonder and bemused contacts with unknown life forms he feels have been buried under weighty story arcs and portentious prophesising. “The Orville” has been panned as a misfiring vanity project but, whisper it, that knockabout quality incarnated by Dr. McCoy and Lt. Commander Scott, and Captain Kirk’s getting under Mr. Spock’s skin, Data’s patchy understanding of humanity and subsequent social pratfalls, or Quark’s almost Shakespearian bumbling villany, may be better represented by MacFarlane’s series.

The Content

The cast appears well-chosen and its makers have introduced a major new character that appears to go against all precedent, if you know your Vulcan culture. Namely one of the leading stars, who is a human supposedly brought up on Vulcan, and tutored by no less a figure than Spock’s father. A preposterous idea it may sound, as humanity’s oldest alien allies are such different creatures in so many ways that co-existence would seem difficult if not impossible. It is a leap in the dark, and fans will be looking for inconsistencies with a microscope. Did I mention some Trekkers and Trekkies are just a little bit obsessive?

The show has already dared to kill off its major star Michelle Yeoh in the feature-length first episode, but she was dazzling and provided a tragic coda to underwrite the relaunch. Tragic, now there’s a word not used so often in association with Star Trek. But the stage is set for the arrival of the as yet merely glimpsed Jason Isaacs, whose Captain by all accounts borrows from Kirk and has heft and authority in spades. This man should know something about it…

The subtexts

TOS did indeed boldly go where few series had gone before thematically; in the Civil Rights era of America it featured the first-ever onscreen interracial kiss between Kirk and his African-American communications officer, and doggedly pursued a progressive liberal agenda, up to a point, insisting on Starfleet’s doctrine of non-interference at the height of the Pentagon’s napalming of Vietnam and Cambodia. This set the template for the other series, although Voyager had many critics for being regressive and warlike, and the series’ first female Captain came in for a lot of trolling. But lofty principles are harder to stick to when you are 70,000 light years from home and a refresher course in ethics is not just a jump away. For the moment it is too early to identify many significant subtexts or story arcs in Discovery. Is the Klingon complaint that the Federation seeks to “supress their individuality” a wink to the Tea Party and the Trump era? Time may tell.

The Verdict

In many ways the Discovery reboot is a triumph. The money is onscreen, a dynamic has been set up, and the released trailers promise many nods and winks to the original series and characters from it, like Mudd, although no sign of his women yet. Presumably the Romulans will appear at some point making mischief, and the banter and jokes will start to leaven the war atmosphere that the Federation has been plunged into. So if you are a fan, yes, see it of course, and if you are young despite all the science fiction that has come onscreen since 1966, especially in this CGI age, remember this is the original, the source, so show it some respect and give it a chance. The makers are in it for the long haul, so the depth and feelings of family and community that have given every version of the show until now its universal appeal should come.