Star Trek: Discovery (henceforth referred to by the fitting abbreviation STD) is the sixth Star Trek television series, and a direct prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series. The first season premiered in 2017, and the second premiered this January. The plot centers around the exploits of the USS Discovery amid a war between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets.
STD is to Star Trek what The Force Awakens is to Star Wars (right down to the overuse of Dutch angles and lens flares): a botched farce that makes a mockery of the franchise and seems deliberately designed to provoke its largely white male fanbase. It is undoubtedly the worst Star Trek series. The storylines and dialogue are abysmal. The CGI is impressive, but it’s nothing more than hollow spectacle, following in the footsteps of the brain-dead, action-packed Star Trek reboot films of the past decade. With a budget of a whopping $8–8.5 million per episode, it is pretty remarkable that the creators couldn’t pull together a better show.
Alex Kurtzman, one of STD’s co-creators and executive producers, actually worked with J. J. Abrams on Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). Abrams admitted once that he didn’t even like Star Trek, and one suspects the same of STD’s producers.
Like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, STD has been praised by critics but panned by fans. For the second season, the approval rating among critics stands at eighty-two percent, while the audience approval rating is a mere thirty-five percent.
The series’ main character is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a xenoanthropologist who was raised by Sarek and his wife after her parents were killed by Klingons. She grew up alongside Spock and attended the Vulcan Science Academy, and served as First Officer of the USS Shenzhou until she mutinied and was transferred to the USS Discovery, where she serves as a science specialist.
Burnham is a one-dimensional “empowered female” caricature who is regularly given opportunities to show off her abilities and one-up her crewmates. In the second season premiere, for instance, one Science Officer who refuses to follow Burnham’s advice while on an away mission is subsequently killed mid-sentence when his landing pod is struck by debris. Discovery’s First Officer deems Burnham the smartest Starfleet officer that he has ever known. It’s hard to say which is more realistic: using fungal spores to enter parallel universes, or the idea of a black female genius who is more qualified than all of her white male colleagues.
The deification of Burnham reaches an apotheosis in the second season finale, in which she essentially saves the universe wearing what looks like an Iron Man suit. In her final conversation with Spock, he credits her with being central to his development, and says that he is “afraid” of what will happen when she leaves.
The creators’ eagerness to portray Burnham as a black female Übermensch backfires to some degree. She often comes off as an obnoxious smartass. She corrects other crew members over pedantic details and is incapable of camaraderie. When Captain Philippa Georgiou welcomes her to Shenzhou by offering a handshake, she does not extend her hand in return, and insists that “respect is earned, as is friendliness.” Sarek has to prod her to shake hands (and he’s a Vulcan).
Despite her imitation of Vulcan ways, however, Burnham is actually very hot-headed and routinely makes decisions based on emotion. The first example of this is when she leaves the ship to investigate a foreign object, indifferent to the high likelihood that she could be exposed to radiation and die. It would have made more sense to send out a probe. Scenes like this clearly serve to prove how brave Burnham is, but she comes off as rash and attention-seeking. She also brazenly attacks Klingons who are much larger and stronger than she is (of course, she never faces any consequences for this).
The entirety of STD revolves around Burnham, which makes it hard to watch. This is a marked departure from previous Star Trek series, which center around the crew as a whole.
Burnham’s character works well as a critique of generic “strong female” characters, though this was not the show’s intention. The creators have been upfront about their agenda: “We want to carry on what Star Trek does best, which is being progressive. So it’s fascinating to look at all of these roles through a colorblind prism and a gender-blind prism.” Critics gushed that it was “beautiful watching two women of color, black and Asian, navigate a realm that traditionally hasn’t included them.” I had to laugh at the opening scene of the first season premiere, which features Burnham and Georgiou alone in the desert, and was obviously there just so STD could claim to have passed the Bechdel test in a record few seconds. There is also an openly gay character who is in a relationship with a Hispanic man.
The most likeable character in STD is Christopher Pike (played by Anson Mount, who happens to be a dead ringer for Jeffrey Hunter). He is one of the only good things about the show.
The portrayal of the Klingons (who look nothing like Klingons) is similarly ham-fisted. In STD, the Klingons are meant to symbolize – wait for it – White Nationalists. A Klingon warrior called T’Kuvma unifies the 24 Great Houses of the Klingons into a single empire and rallies all Klingons to fight against the Federation, which he sees as a threat to Klingon sovereignty. He opposes the Federation because “they wish to drag us into the muck where humans, Vulcans, tellurites, and filthy Andorians mix.” The Klingons’ slogan, “Remain Klingon,” was inspired by “Make America Great Again.”
T’Kuvma is right about the Federation. They assimilate people through a form of soft totalitarianism that resembles modern neoliberal globalism. In the words of Michael Eddington in Deep Space Nine, “You know, in some ways you’re even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation. You’re more insidious. You assimilate people and they don’t even know it.” Conman and smuggler Harry Mudd has a similar monologue in STD. In classic Hollywood fashion, the villains and criminals are the only ones allowed to tell the truth.
An interesting thought experiment: if one envisions the Klingons as Africans and the Federation as white colonists, then, suddenly, the show appears racist. But because the Klingons are White Nationalists, they are a reflection of the “monstrous times” in which we live, in the words of Jewish actor Jacob Isaacs (who plays Captain Gabriel Lorca).
The appearance of the Klingons is one of many ways in which STD deviates from the earlier series. The show revolves around a single character (as mentioned earlier), the lighting is darker, the plot is much more action-oriented, and the characters are prone to emotion-laden outbursts. The writers pay lip service to canon when it comes to Star Trek jargon, place names, and so on, but there are countless inconsistencies in the show: the spore drive thing, Burnham’s mutiny, the ship designs, the fact that Section 31 operates in plain sight, mind-melding across light-years, the Borg origin story, and on and on. This stuff would not necessarily be all that bad if the writing were good, but the deviations from canon add insult to injury. It is as if the creators actually wanted to get a rise out of fans. There are also several things that simply don’t make sense, such as when Sarek uncharacteristically suggests that they fire first at a Klingon ship and argues that this would intimidate the Klingons (who never back down in a fight and are known for their bravery), or how the Red Angel was able to transport people and churches from Earth to Terralysium.
The most obvious inconsistency is that Burnham was never mentioned once in 1966-2005 Star Trek, despite being Spock’s own sister. The ostensible reason for this is revealed in the second season finale, when Spock convinces the crew that everything about the Discovery must be kept classified. This was the laziest and dumbest possible attempt to resolve the myriad plot holes in STD. The storyline with Control (AI) is equally dumb and is ripped straight from The Terminator and dozens of other science fiction films. The crew must prevent Control from obtaining “sphere data” that would enable it to become conscious and destroy all life in the universe, so they decide to travel to the future. It is never fully explained why they can’t destroy the Discovery’s shields or why Control needs the sphere data to begin with. The finale concludes with their escape to the future – despite the fact that Georgiou defeated Leland/Control.
The breaks from canon are partly attributable to licensing issues. In 2005, Viacom split into two separate companies: the existing Viacom was renamed CBS Corporation, and a Viacom spin-off was created, comprising Viacom Media Networks and Paramount Pictures. CBS retained the rights to Star Trek, which had previously been the property of Paramount. In order to continue making Star Trek, Paramount had to obtain a license from CBS. The alternate license stipulates that Star Trek movies and TV series created by Paramount must differ from 1966-2005 Star Trek. Due to legal issues, STD was created under the alternate license (despite being produced by CBS). Star Trek illustrator and production designer John Eaves hinted at this in a statement on why the Enterprise looks different in STD, saying that “the task started with the guideline that the Enterprise for Discovery had to be 25% different.” (Curiously, a CBS spokesman then issued a statement denying this, claiming that the changes were purely artistic and not legal.) This is why the reboot movies take place in an alternate timeline, or the Kelvin Timeline, which was created when the Narada destroyed the USS Kelvin.
For all intents and purposes, the Prime Timeline itself is not connected to 1966-2005 Star Trek, either (see this video by Midnight’s Edge). The mycelial network, which is central to STD, establishes the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes. In effect, the timeline of the original Star Trek and the timeline of STD are two distinct entities.
The reason why CBS was so determined to market STD as part of 1966-2005 Star Trek is that they wanted to capitalize on the franchise’s large fanbase and convince fans to pay for a subscription to their streaming platform, CBS All Access. They knew that linking STD to classic Star Trek would draw in fans. In other words, it was all a money-making ploy.
The legal issues account for a lot of the changes in STD. All the same, the creators changed more than they needed to. One is left with the impression that they wanted to stick it to fans in yet another attempt to desecrate the fandoms and pastimes enjoyed by white men. This has already happened with Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Doctor Who, and others. Their plan was essentially to seduce fans into giving them money and then proceed to screw them over. (It just so happens that Kurtzman and CBS ex-CEO Les Moonves are Jews.)
Of course, Star Trek has always been at the vanguard of liberalism and multiracialism. From the beginning, it envisioned a progressive, diverse utopia in which all the peoples of the universe would be united. The first widely publicized interracial kiss on American television was the kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk in the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. From an article in The New Yorker:
Each successive “Star Trek” cast has been like a model United Nations. Nichols’ black communications specialist worked alongside George Takei’s Japanese helmsman and Walter Koenig’s (admittedly campy) Russian navigator. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was half-human, half-Vulcan, and he bore traces of the actor’s own upbringing in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Boston. The Vulcan hand greeting, for instance, which Nimoy invented, is the Hebrew letter shin, the symbol for the Shekhinah, a feminine aspect of the divine. The original series aired only a few years after the Cuban missile crisis, at the height of the Vietnam War and the space race, and its vision of a reconciled humanity was bold. Nichols, who considered leaving the show after the first season, has said that she was persuaded to stay on by Martin Luther King, Jr., who told her that he watched “Star Trek” with his wife and daughters.
But that was never the real reason why fans liked Star Trek. They liked Star Trek because it was about exploring the cosmos and discovering new worlds. It was PC, and it wasn’t even all that stellar most of the time, but its spirit of adventure captured people’s imaginations and kept them coming back.
In previous series, Star Trek’s progressive ideology did not overshadow this. In STD, though, the creators’ desire to be edgy and transgressive overrides everything else. The whole show is characterized by an attitude of snark and ironic detachment.
Contrary to Star Trek’s premise, the quest for adventure and technological advancement is directly at odds with globalism and modern liberalism (see Greg Johnson’s “Technological Utopianism and Ethnic Nationalism”). In Zero to One, Peter Thiel makes a distinction between “vertical progress” (technological innovation) and “horizontal progress” (copying and expanding upon existing technologies). Globalization falls squarely under the latter category. Unchecked globalization will lead to environmental catastrophe in the absence of technological breakthroughs that make it possible to sustain growth. Furthermore, breakthroughs cannot occur in societies that run on cheap labor and are racked by ethnic conflict and dysgenic reproductive trends.
The contrast between these two worldviews is mirrored in STD itself. The democratization of the franchise and the clumsy pandering to women and minorities make for an inferior show that lacks intelligence and imagination.
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