If there was one show I had been looking forward to this year, it was Star Trek: Discovery. Sadly, I won’t be able to watch the rest of the season until it makes its way to Netflix or DVD, but I did catch the pilot, and I was extremely happy with what I saw. The Star Trek television shows have in the past proven themselves to be more than capable of giving us a diverse cast with thoughtful character development. As a new first for this universe, we’ve got a woman of color as a lead in our new series, and she’s kicking ass.
Discovery takes place ten years before the original series and follows the character Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, whom many of us will recognize from The Walking Dead. Unlike previous leads, Burnham is not in charge of her own ship or station, but is instead second in command to a Captain Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh. Our story begins when their ship, the USS Shenzhou, gets called to the edge of Federation space to investigate a damaged satellite. They discover a Klingon vessel and Burnham accidentally kills one of the Klingons in self-defense. The conflict escalates, and both sides call for reinforcements. Not only do the Klingons have cloaking technology that the Federation lacks, their reinforcements arrive first.
Although the second episode is now available for streaming, I can’t watch it unless I want to pay a monthly fee, which I’m not going to do. It’s kinda stupid that I have to pay more money than what I’m already paying to watch something that’s actually diverse. They could have just had this on the real CBS channel, but that would be too convenient. As such, all my thoughts are based on the first episode alone, and if this episode is anything to go by, Star Trek: Discovery will be a fun ride.
If I have any complaints thus far, it would be the Klingons. Now that we have a show with both a budget and access to good special effects, Discovery takes the route of the newer movies and goes all out on their Klingon designs. I can’t say that I was super interested in the Klingons in Deep Space 9, but what I liked about them was their diversity. Klingons were almost always, and obviously, played by actors of color. I would not say that the Klingons were the best representation—after all, fictional alien races are not a good substitute for diversity, and on top of that, the Klingons are much more violent and war-prone than other races. There is something negative to be said about making a violent, warrior race almost exclusively Black, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve always found myself put off by the Klingons.
At the very least, what I can say about them is that the Klingons we do meet in some of the other series have a rich backstory and personality. This helps those characters break through some of the racial stereotyping. Voyager even had a half-Klingon woman of color who was traumatized by racism in her childhood. Throughout Voyager, we see how her mistreatment caused a severe case of self-loathing. At one point, she even tries to genetically alter her unborn child to remove her Klingon features. It’s not until her husband stops her that she truly starts to recover and accept both herself and her heritage. What she goes through can easily reflect the struggles of bi-racial people. Given all the good writing involving the Klingons that both Deep Space Nine and Voyager were able to manage, I was excited to see how Discovery would handle their race. After all, since the Klingon race is so heavily encoded in the Star Trek universe, it’s not as if Discovery can erase their racial stereotyping. The show can only move forward and try to make the best out of a bad situation.
Discovery’s take on the Klingons, though, was a bit… much. Now, the Klingons are buried under a bunch of CGI, and had I not been told beforehand, I wouldn’t have even known they were Klingons. To top that all off, even though most of the Klingons still have darker skin, we meet a Klingon with white skin who’s looked down on for it. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for there to be an alien race that hates its light-skinned brethren, but this is a show that’s going to be consumed by audiences here on Earth, where the opposite is true. And considering all the annoying claims of reverse racism, which doesn’t actually exist, this part of the episode threw me off a bit. It’s also too early to tell whether Discovery will go ahead and give these Klingons more backstory and personality, and since they’re the main antagonists this series, I can only hope that will be the case, but right now, I’m not holding my breath.
On the bright side, the rest of the episode is pretty solid. Burnham’s character is well-rounded and interesting. Despite the fact that the Federation doesn’t think they’ve encountered Klingons for over a hundred years, that’s not true for Burnham. As a child, she survived a Klingon massacre that killed her parents, and then spent the rest of her youth raised on Vulcan with Sarek, Spock’s father, as her mentor. Although Burnham is a human with human emotions, her time on Vulcan clearly informs her character. She allows her emotions to affect her decisions, but she tries to be much more logical and emotionally removed than she’s capable of. She’s not a Vulcan, and this creates problems for her, because sometimes when she thinks she’s acting logically—even if she’s making the choice an actual Vulcan would—her emotions are still able to get the better of her. This results her in her making some rash decisions that are not all that well thought through. I am a bit confused, though, about how integrated she was in Sarek’s life. Did she and Spock grow up together? If so, Spock has never mentioned her, and I’m interested in seeing how Discovery handles this and what explanation it will give us.
Thus far, her character is promising. She’s smart, capable, flawed, and motivated. This is all the workings of strong characterization and I’m excited to see where she goes from here. On top of all that, the episode passed the Bechdel test. Multiple times.
As for the rest of the crew, outside Captain Georgiou and a science officer named Saru, we don’t really get to meet anyone else. I found myself rather intrigued by Saru—he’s the first Kelpien to join Starfleet, since his planet is located outside Federation space, and I’m sure there’s a very interesting story behind him. Although we don’t get too many details about his past, we know that his species used to be/might still be hunted as prey, and as a result, all Kelpiens have a keen sense for danger and death. Saru, as a result, comes across as a little paranoid, and although he and Burnham don’t get along, I kinda suspect that the two of them have gone through similar traumas. One of Burnham’s flashbacks shows her struggling with PTSD, and part of me is really excited at the prospect of seeing two trauma survivors learn to get along and support each other in a new and popular story.
The other really big thing I’m looking forward to is Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, both of RENT fame, showing up. The two of them will have a romance together, and since the actors already know each other, they’ll more than likely have some great chemistry. Initially, when I heard there was a gay couple, I was a little hesitant. Part of me resents the fact that having a gay couple is “groundbreaking”, when it should be normal, and part of me also resents the fact that queer representation tends to be mostly gay white men. As such, Wilson Cruz’s inclusion is more than welcome, but Star Trek is a big universe, and part of me worries that they’ll either be the token gay couple, or that the show will bury its gays, or both. And part of me certainly worries that we’ll never get a queer woman, or a bisexual character, or an asexual, or a pansexual. Deep Space Nine gave us Jadzia Dax, who was bisexually coded, but the show hardly explored that part of her, and I wanted more.
All in all, Star Trek: Discovery leaves me wary about its Klingons and LGBTQ+ characters, but everything else was well written and suspenseful. The pilot was a fun first episode, and I really hope the DVD release will happen as soon as possible. If you didn’t catch Discovery, I would check it out if you can.