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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Star Trek Discovery Trailer Breakdown

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As I write this, it’s been a little over 10 years since Star Trek disappeared from our TV screens.  In that time, the franchise and the cultural landscape it inhabits have undergone a serious change.  The franchise got reinvented as a slick action vehicle 2009, which is only now starting to find a genuine identity in the likes of Star Trek Beyond.  Meanwhile, the TV landscape has been completely transformed by material like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Supergirl, Mad Men, American Horror Story, and countless others. 

Outside the realms of TV, technology is quickly advancing on the heels of Star Trek through VR and 3D printers, while also growing into directions the shows couldn’t have imagined such as social media or streaming video.  Meanwhile, on the political scale, the world is gripped by the tendrils of xenophobia and fascism as the gap between wealthy and poor grows ever wider.  Suffice it to say, it’s a different world now than it was 10 years ago and one that needs a different Star Trek and, this fall, CBS is going to give it to us with Star Trek Discovery. 

Star Trek Discovery has been coming to us for a while now; first getting announced at last year’s SDCC.  Since then we’ve had a slow trickle of information about the series, but this trailer represents the first big, definite thing we’ve seen outside from production stills.  From the outset, I can tell you the show is meant to be in the original universe rather than the reboot universe kicked off in 2009.  Our lead is Sonequa Martin-Green, confirming long-running rumors that we’d get a woman of color as the star even though she’s not the captain. 

Instead, her character is First Officer Burnham, serving on the USS Discovery under Captain Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh.  So far we don’t know what the Discovery’s primary goal is, but we do know that the story takes place 10 years before the original series and, seemingly, will revolve around early conflicts between the Federation and the Klingons. 

All of that was rumored beforehand and confirmed by this trailer, though additional rumors that the show will feature robots, an openly gay character, or Spock’s mom are so far unsubstantiated.  This trailer doesn’t really seem all that concerned with diving into the nitty-gritty either way.  No, the central goals of this trailer are more about establishing the aesthetic and aim of the show. 

Aesthetically speaking the series looks like a weird blend of Enterprise, the reboot films, and Mass Effect while the clear objective of this trailer is more to try and bring in new audiences rather than appealing to hardcore Trek fans.  I’m assuming the thinking here is that people who already like Trek have already been convinced to tune in and CBS is keen to encourage other people to watch their expensive new space show. 

As such, this trailer does have a kind of…non-Trek feel to it, at least from where I’m sitting.  It’s a very impressive trailer as far as the visual effects go, but that doesn’t really get you points anymore.  These days, high production values are very much the norm and far too often end up a show’s crutch, with series like American Horror Story, Taboo, and Legion all leaning heavily on the production design and acting to carry a more middling script.  As such, while this is unquestionably the best looking Star Trek show of them all I’m still left with some concerns, the big one being that there’s nothing in this trailer that feels like it needed to be a Star Trek show. 

The thrust of the show, as presented in this trailer, is a tighter and more personal journey they’ve we seen in a lot of Trek shows.  That’s to be expected simply because the way we do TV has changed so much in the past 10 years.  With every other Trek show, they were embarking on a 22-episode season with the expectation of few to no long-form stories or the like.  Nowadays, we insist on arcs and storylines from the word go so it makes sense that’d be the start point. 

Our story looks to be about First Officer Burnham’s journey to the rank of Captain under the mentorship of Captain Georgiou, with us entering the story somewhere around the “leaving the nest” phase.  All of this ends up embroiled in a larger situation as the Discovery’s mission of exploration is interrupted by a Klingon fleet with, presumably, hostile intentions.  All of that’s well and good, but you could easily swap out the details of Star Fleet, and the Klingons for new ideas and you wouldn’t lose anything but the brand recognition.

This could just be the byproduct of this being a shorter trailer as a lot of Star Trek’s unique definitions are difficult to translate into an intense and brief sequence like this one.  I was tempted to suggest the way previous shows did things just isn’t viable anymore but that’s not really true, the spirit of ‘90s Trek and even TOS is alive and well in most of the CW’s superhero output. 

The Flash’s committee meeting structure is cribbed directly from Star Trek: The Next Generation while Legends of Tomorrow borrows TOS’ format of exploring the weird, alien environment of the day while also taking from Voyager’s ship of misfits and rejects.  If anything, the vibe I get from this trailer is a bit more in the vein of The Expanse or Mass Effect, probably the best examples of popular sci-fi considered to have an intelligent edge.  Both of those things are fine sci-fi if you like them, I don’t, but what they definitely aren’t is Star Trek. 

Now I’m not exactly worried yet, because as I said this is just a brief trailer and there’s still room for the show to emerge as whatever it actually is.  What’s more, even if this is just another exercise in adding Star Trek toys and branding to a non-Trek story like the 2009 reboot was at least we’re getting a place for women of color in space, that’s pretty rare.  

Additionally, I do think there is one small element of Star Trek in here, in particular, it’s the moment where Captain Georgiou states that Star Fleet doesn’t fire first.  I’d like to think that’s setting up a lesson for Burnham and her coming to understand that Star Fleet isn’t a military organization but a force for discovery (hey, that’s the title, fancy that.) 

Granted, I don’t know how this lesson could fit into the broader Klingon attack narrative but the idea a war is coming is based more on rumor than anything else.  It actually wouldn’t fit with the original series timeline to have a full on Klingon-Federation war in this series.  War formally broke out between the two species in the original series episode ‘Errand of Mercy’ and, by all accounts, that was the first-ever conventional war between the two.  They might end up shoehorning a war in here to give the show a more concrete arc ala Deep Space 9- I just hope they don’t. 

Speaking of the Klingons, when I say this show has a Mass Effect feel these guys are at the top of my list of reasons why.  I’m not against the decision to redesign the uniforms I’m just against this redesign.  They look more like a budget version of the Krogan than anything else.  I’ve heard rumblings they’re meant as a tangent race to the Klingons proper and, well that makes it better, it’s still not a great solution.  

I’m not a huge fan of the whole “forgotten history” angle that tends to inform retcon races in Trek like the Remans or the Xindi.  Granted, if this show were to make that a thing, bring back all the second banana races from late Trek installments I’d be seriously onboard, but the sparse Trek trappings make that seem unlikely to me. 

We also get a quick look at the Vulcans this time around, once more grounded in the role of universal jerks and wet blankets, the spot they’ve occupied ever since the turn of the millennium.  I don’t really get people’s hatred, or rather I do get it I just don’t accept it.  A lot of this interpretation springs from Star Trek: Enterprise but in that situation the Vulcan’s being xenophobic and snide made sense for the story and the universe setting.  It was a point about how the Vulcan philosophy stems from fear, fear of their own potential for brutality, and how the success of humanity without needing to suppress our emotions blew up a cornerstone of their philosophy. 

This is also why Enterprise dedicated a three-part story to an entire cultural revolution going down on Vulcan, leading to them becoming a much more tolerant and spiritual people.  Now, Vulcans just seem to be the universe’s punching bag, unable to be smart and strong without also being cruel.  The same way Spock in the original series always triumphed BECAUSE he wasn't human, whereas the new films always center his arc on embracing his humanity.  We can't tolerate characters that are physical and mentally superior to us now unless they're emotionally inferior.  That’s a very modern concept and a pretty ugly one if I'm honest. Hopefully, that doesn’t end up too prevalent in the show. 

Overall I’d say my stance on Star Trek Discovery is caution but excitement.  I like the promise of the show’s positives and relation to the broader franchise but there’s just as much in there that threatens to fly in the face of what Star Trek is.  More than that, there’s a lot of niggles around the edges of the trailer that hint at the cynicism and anti-intellectualism that infects a lot of modern sci-fi.  

More than anything else, what I want to feel from this trailer is something hopeful or at the very least an exciting take on the vast toy box that is the Star Trek universe and just yet I don’t really see those things.  Maybe that’s the result of a broadened marketing campaign, but I feel like a sense of hope for the future or a value for intelligence and personal differences isn’t something that should just be exclusive to Star Trek fans. 

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