This article contains spoilers through the first four episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.
During the Star Trek: Discovery panel at NYCC, executive producer Akiva Goldsman addressed the criticism that Discovery was too dark to be a true Star Trek head on.
While I disagree with some of the characterizations he made about past Star Trek TV series (namely, that they had little to do with character), his comments gave us some valuable insight into what exactly Discovery is trying to do…
Ours is a story of redemption. Ours is the origin of the feeling that is TOS. That’s why we are 10 years before TOS. But we don’t start there. We get there. The name of the show is Discovery not by accident. It is how these people discover who they are and, as a representation of the personal, how the Federation reaffirms what it is.
In other words: Discovery is the fight for Federation’s soul, and for the soul of Star Trek itself.
Discovery, as a ship, is a miscrocosm of that struggle to double down on what Starfleet, and the larger Federation, stand for. In a time of war, in a time when people are dying and moral lines are blurring, are we a people who ask questions first or are we a people who fire first? When we meet a new species, will we try to understand it or will we try to turn it into a weapon?
In Discovery, this debate is being played out at the character level. Lorca is a representation of the military-minded Starfleet officer, a man who calls war “his craft” and whose crew understands that he sees them merely as resources, rather than people.
“Lorca isn’t interested in what you are, he is interested in what you can do for him,” the doomed Landry tells Burnham. “And if he needs us to make that thing useful in his war effort, that’s what we’re going to do.”
This is just before Landry is killed by Ripper, aka the misunderstood Giant Space Tardigrade. When Lorca learns of her death, it’s unclear if he is grieving the loss of life or the loss of a valuable asset in his efforts to Make Starfleet Great Again.
While some may think that other end of the spectrum is Stamets, a man who values science and discovery above all else, it is actually the late, great Georgiou. While Lorca spends his time honing his warcraft, Georgiou has a very different perspective on the sometimes necessary acts of war…
“Battle is not a simulation,” Georgiou tells Burham in Discovery‘s very first episode. “It’s blood and screams and funerals. I taught you better than this. We don’t start shooting on a hunch, and we don’t take innocent lives.”
In the final, best scene of “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” Burnham opens the last will and testament of Georgiou. Her mentor has left her a telescope, a reminder of why Starfleet went to space to begin with…
“You are curious, an explorer, so I leave you my most beloved possession. My hope is that you will use it to investigate the mysteries of the universe.” So far, so science. So how does this perspective/character differ from Stamet? It is in what Georgiou values above all else…
“Take good care,” Georgiou tells Burnham, “but, more importantly, take good care of those in your care … Keep your eyes and heart open, always.” For Georgiou, and (hopefully) for Starfleet, it’s not enough to simply explore. We must explore with compassion, with a desire not simply to know, but to understand.
Burnham is the character in the middle of this struggle for the Federation’s soul. She is a character who has lost so much. First, she lost her family — to the Klingons, no less. Then, she lost her mentor, her ship, her reptutation, and, to a certain extent, her sense of self. Now, she is a relatively lost woman, her soul up for grabs, as far as Lorca concerns. When he looks at Burnham, he sees someone with the same values he has: a willingness to do anything to defeat the Klingons.
But Lorca has misjudged Burnham. Because she may have lost a lot to the Klingons, but she has not lost everything. She has not lost the memory of Amanda Grayson accepting her into her family and reading Alice in Wonderland to her alongside her son. She has not lost Georgiou’s guidance. Her captain may be dead, but she lives on in what she has taught Burnham: The end does not always justify the means. Take care of those in your care. Make protecting the innocent a priority.
Burnham may only have a Giant Space Tardigrade in her care right now, but you better believe she is going to take that small ounce of power and run with it. Because the story of having power shouldn’t just be about having the terrible ability to take lives and win wars. The story of having power should also be about taking the time to ask questions and exercise compassion; it should be about taking care of those who have less than you.
No, Discovery is not as inherently optimistic as its Star Trek predecessors, but I am not ready to call it unnecessarily dark. It gives us Burnham, a protagonist who is deeply confused. Burnham followed her gut in the first episode, and it ended up being wrong and having terrible consequences. Now, she is confused about who she is and where her place is in the world. She feels she cannot trust herself in a way she once could. She’s not sure how to fix the many problems that surround her, some of which she had an active part in creating.
Frankly, I find Burnham’s confusion deeply relatable. We are living in a time of deep confusion, a kind of confusion that we are able to talk about in our mainstream stories, in the medium of television, like never before. In the 1960s, how we presented and explored ethical dilemmas was very different: self-contained, relatively clean, and with our protagonist making the right decisions (at least judged by contemporary mainstream values).
The previous Star Trek series aired in a world, or at least in an America, that was far less critical about what it was — at least in the most mainstream of pop culture venues. Criticism about the nature of our society was less subtle. Now is not a time for subtly.
Discovery may not be giving us the utopian future we so desperately wih to escape to right now, but it is giving us a place to work through the struggle for our society’s own soul. It is not assuming that all of its viewers understand why a military-first perspective is bad. It’s trying to meet the American mainstream where it’s at, rather than preaching to the choir.
This may be a frustrating place to start a Star Trek story, but, if Discovery is going where I think it may be going, it’s an incredibly ambitious, arguably necessary one. It’s prioritizing empathy over wonder, the “why” over the “what if,” the “how we get there” over the utopian escape.
This may not be the Star Trek we crave right now, but it just might be the Star Trek we need.
Read the full Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine right here!