Sunday, October 22, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery - A lot of Discovery but not much Star Trek?

Star Trek: Discovery premiered on 24th September, 2017, ending a period of almost twelve and a half Star Trek-less years on the small screen. While, the overwhelming response of critics show was positive, the fan response has been considerably more mixed. A big part of this response is due to the feeling among many Star Trek fans that Discovery doesn’t have an awful lot of Star Trek in it, and so this blog post is an attempt to look at some of the ways show is veering from the established facts of the Star Trek story world (or canon) and then suggest a couple of ways these might be fixed…

(Rather obvious warning: spoilers for the first five episodes of Star Trek: Discovery lie ahead!)

Now, let me be clear up front. I’m quite enjoying Star Trek: Discovery at the moment (as of episode 5), but there are number of areas in which it seems to conflict with canon and, as a Star Trek fan (and a lover of transmedia) I wanted to explain a little on why I’m struggling to love the show quite as much as I’d like to…

1. Klingons
A lot has been made of the considerable visual differences between the Klingons we have seen in Star Trek: Discovery, and the Klingons we have seen in the other Star Trek shows.

T'Kuvma - how Klingons look in Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Enterprise did such a fantastic job of explaining why the Klingons in 2267, in the original Star Trek series, looked like this while the Klingons in 2151, in Enterprise looked like this (short version; it was due to a plague, the effects of which were hereditary), so it’s a shame (to me) that we have a bunch of Klingons in 2256 who look like this with no real explanation. On the surface, it seems that the changes are made in order to make the Klingons seem more alien than their previous incarnations.

But it’s not just the aesthetics that are troubling for hardcore fans; you see there’s also the fact that these Klingons seem a world apart from the Klingons we’ve seen to date in the show; so far there's been no copious drinking, no loudly sung battle songs, a distinct lack of honour, not to mention some key technological differences (T’Kuvma’s ship has a cloaking device more than a decade before canon tells us Klingons received them).

In summary, while this race might be called Klingons (and they might well be the most accurate Klingon speakers!), they seem very different to the Klingons we’ve come to know and love throughout the history of the TV shows and original movies.

2. The Spore Drive
While the Klingon’s having a cloaking device too early might be a little problematic, it’s nothing compared to the potentially canon-destroying capabilities of the displacement-activated spore hub drive which we’re told can transport a spacecraft anywhere in the Universe instantaneously.

As Star Trek fans will know, the series has been built around the concept of the warp drive, with some of the more advanced races such as The Borg and The Voth having access to the even more capable transwarp technology that allows them to travel up to fifty times quicker than the fastest warp drive powered ship. But, importantly, we have – to date – never seen a technology that allows for instantaneous travel to other parts of the Universe.

At this point in the show, it seems Michael Burnham is feeling that using Ripper, a sentient lifeform, to guide the Spore Drive (a process that causes Ripper harm every time the Drive is used) is something of a bad idea - and this could well provide us with a reason why the Federation decides to stop their experiments with the Spore Drive, and thus explain why the Spore Drive isn’t a feature in any future Federation starships…

Michael Burnham realises the Spore Drive might be killing Ripper...

So, why potentially canon-destroying then?

Well, while the Federation might have moral qualms about torturing a sentient lifeform to gain instant interstellar travel, it’s a little hard to believe that some of more morally bankrupt races we’ve met (whether it’s the Nazi-like Cardassians, or the organ-harvesting Vidiians) wouldn’t quite happily kill all the tardigrades they can get their hands on if it meant they got instantaneous travel. And surely, if the Federation had the technology to theorise and create the drive in the 2250s, then someone in the next 122 years that we see mapped out in the Star Trek, Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager, would have also discovered it. But, we’ve never seen technology like this in any Star Trek series…

3. Federation Society and Culture
Captain Lorca - not the kind of captain we're used to...
The Federation we’ve come to know since the inception of the original Star Trek series is one that prides itself on being moral and enlightened; with many a starship captain wrestling with the philosophical complexities of how to best go about applying the Prime Directive. Not so in Star Trek: Discovery

In the first five episodes alone we’ve sent Michael Burnham mutiny in an attempt to launch a pre-emptive attack, we’ve seen a sentient lifeform tortured in order to enable the Spore Drive, acting captain Saru prepared to kill said sentient lifeform in order to fulfil a mission, and Captain Lorca leave Harry Mudd behind on a Klingon prison ship to face torture and possible death. This feels an awfully long way from the Federation we’re used to.

And it’s not just morals that seem some distance from our expectations. The utilitarian uniforms, very reminiscent of those seen in Battlestar Galactica, are a world away from the far more colourful costumes that we saw in the original Star Trek which, let’s not forget, is just ten years after the events of Discovery.

It’s seem difficult right now to imagine charting a path from what we see on Discovery – whether it be morals or fashion – to what we see only a decade later in Star Trek.

So, mirroring the words of many a bad manager, you might be saying at this moment – don’t bring me problems, Oliver, bring me solutions. So I decided to do just that. Be warned, this contains my thoughts and extrapolations on how all of the above can be resolved and canon restored. It’s unlikely I’ve guessed much right but – if you’re worried I might be some kind of Star Trek Nostradamus about to spoil your viewing of Star Trek: Discovery – you can stop reading now…

Still here? Ok, here we go then:

Klingon solutions
Will we see the Klingons we are used to?
The fact that these particular Klingons are from an isolated community that’s been out of touch with the rest of Klingon society for two centuries goes someway to explain why they may not be the usual bunch of hard drinking, honour loving, Klingons. There are numerous groups of humanity who have radically different beliefs and whose culture seems at odds with that of the rest of the world – these particular Klingons could well be the equivalent of Earth’s Amish. Although perhaps featuring less barn building and more bloodletting…

And the fact that these Klingons seems to have different beliefs and behaviour hints at a more sophisticated approach to the alien races that reflects the fact that, at this point in history, there are likely to be a number of different religious beliefs that start with the same point (Kahless) but radically depart from each other from thereon. A bit like religion here on Earth.

This isolation could explain why we’ve seen bald Klingons; perhaps this is part of their religious beliefs in the same way that some religions on Earth prize facial hair.

So, the way to ensure canon is preserved is to make sure we also introduce some more ‘traditional’ Klingons – they of the long hair, beards, and bloodwine – to demonstrate that T’Kuvma and his followers are just one facet of a greater Klingon whole.

And as for that cloaking device? Well, maybe they – like the other Klingons a decade later – got it from the Romulans. After all, giving T’Kuvma the capability to start a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire only strengthens the Romulan position in the quadrant…

Spore Drive Solutions
Will we say goodbye to Mycelial network?
As I mentioned previously, having the Federation banning the use of the Spore Drive on moral grounds isn’t going to be enough to solve the problem because plenty of other races are going to come along and be willing to do whatever terrible things are necessary to make the Spore Drive work.

The solution? Someone needs to destroy the Mycelial network which the Spore Drive uses to flit across the Universe. If the network no longer exists, no one can ever use it again. Meaning canon is preserved.

Who knows, perhaps the Klingons will get hold of the Spore Drive technology and Burnham will have to destroy the entire network to ensure their fleet can’t suddenly appear instantaneously in Earth orbit…

Society and Culture Solutions
The Federation we see right now is one that is in the midst of a war against a fearsome and ruthless enemy; in such times it can prove difficult to hold fast to the morals that define a civilization. This isn’t something new to Star Trek; in Deep Space 9 we saw Captain Sisko involved in false flag attack that is designed to bring the Romulan Empire into the fight against the Dominion.

So, maybe what we are seeing in Discovery is a conflict in which the Federation has to do the kind of things that it hoped it had outgrown, and emerges far more determined to hold fast to its moral principles. The actions of people like Lorca are an aberration, a perhaps necessary evil in the midst of war, and Discovery is going to be about how Burnham, and the Federation as a whole, go about redeeming themselves. This can be a story about the pursuit of enlightenment, the pursuit of those higher goals and morals.

And, just as the end of the war with the Klingon Empire could be the beginning of this new era in the Foundation, so to could it usher in the more colourful fashions and culture seen in the original Star Trek. After all, in our history we can see that the end of World War 1 ushered in the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Age – a time of liberalism, of challenges to established values, a time of fashion. Is it so difficult to imagine, emerging from the difficult years of a brutal war with the Klingon Empire, not similarly reacting? Perhaps the retro styling we see a decade later in Star Trek is simply the cultural response to war, a celebration of freedom, a civilization entering an intergalactic Jazz Age…

Maybe the era of Kirk and Spock is nearer than it seems...

So, in summary; Star Trek: Discovery seems to go against canon in a number of ways, but I’m confident that it’s possible to solve those problems and chart a path from here to the Star Trek Universe we know and love.

Over to you, Star Trek: Discovery – make it so!