“Star Trek Discovery” marked the return of the franchise to television in almost 15 years, and its tonal and aesthetic changes showcase a marked departure from previous “Trek” customs that represents a shift in pop culture dynamics in that time period.
Franchise creator Gene Roddenberry is often quoted as envisioning “Star Trek” as a showcase of the best of humanity’s capabilities. Throughout its more than 50-year history, the franchise has enjoyed an unbridled optimistic vision of the future where humanity not only conquered its own demons, but has helped spread a sense of acceptance and friendship throughout the galaxy. The newest entry in the franchise, “Star Trek Discovery” opted to rein in that optimism and hopefulness for a much more “grounded” and “gritty” look at the future — 10 years before James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise departed on their five-year mission at the heart of “Star Trek.”
“Discovery,” originally envisioned as an anthology show that would showcase different periods of “Star Trek” lore, instead remained focused on the titular ship, the U.S.S. Discovery — a mysterious ship with advanced technology used in the midst of a war with the Klingon Empire. While other “Star Trek” series — most notably, “Deep Space Nine” — often dabbled in, or mentioned galactic wars, the entire premise of the first season of “Discovery” is predicated on a war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingons after it was sparked by mutineer Michael Burnham. This served as a noticeable departure from Roddenberry’s vision and the series that have come before, which still focused mostly on exploring the final frontier — or at least examining the politics of intragalactic affairs contrast against the modern times in which the series was made.
For franchise fans, this approach was mixed. The show’s first season had issues, to say the least. So many of the characters are just straight unlikable, and often borderline intolerable. No one is asking for larger-than-life heroes to stand against Capt. Kirk or Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, but so many are written in the early episodes of the first season as if they’re modern antiheroes like Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, rather than officers of Starfleet. Perhaps it’s a side effect of centering your entire show around an emotionless (for good reason, as she was raised on Vulcan) human character who turned mutineer, and thus is hated by everyone in the Federation. The characterization does make sense, but why center an entire show on such a bitter premise?
As is usually the case with anything he stars in, Jason Isaacs steals the first season as the mysterious Capt. Gabriel Lorca. He’s not a traditional Starfleet captain — for story purposes that are revealed later — and it works with his charisma and on-screen presence. Isaacs brings depth that “Discovery” desperately needs in its first season.
Burnham, played by “The Walking Dead” star Sonequa Martin-Green is a straight up miserable character. To make matters worse, “Discovery” is centered around her in a way no other “Star Trek” show has ever been anchored to one specific character. Her character development from a cold Vulcan-raised orphan to Starfleet officer is one of the highlights of the show. But it takes so long to get to a point where Burnham isn’t so intolerable that the show suffers.
“Discovery” uses its wartime backdrop to tell some interesting stories that dive deeper into the bleaker regions of “Star Trek” lore. Once it finds its stride about five episodes into its 15-episode first season, the show gets progressively better. That momentum continues into a second season centered around a mysterious anomaly. But those who were dissatisfied with Burnham’s lead will find little respite.
The second season does a much better job of lightening the tone and bringing “Discovery” more in line with the rest of the franchise — even if Trekkies will still find the technology disparity a bit confounding. The U.S.S. Enterprise — under the command of Capt. Pike — enters the fray, along with yet another retcon of Mr. Spock’s ever-changing origin. But it shares that earnestness of “Star Trek” and “Star Trek The Next Generation,” while still maintaining some more modern storytelling tropes and sensibilities. We all know where the story of Pike and Spock will ultimately end up, but the writers do a great job of fleshing out their characters at this period — 10 years before the events of the five-year mission — so that they feel all their own without the inevitable prequel fatigue setting in.
“Star Trek Discovery” has often been accused of being too “grounded” or “gritty,” but those aren’t the proper descriptors. The show started out as too bitter and cynical — trying to ascribe our much more nihilistic worldview to a franchise that serves as the very antithesis of bitter and cynical — even in its darkest moments on “Deep Space Nine.” It has since course corrected, establishing a solid cast of great characters that travel on exciting missions that continue to flesh out the universe in interesting ways. “Star Trek Discovery” proves that the franchise can shed some of its more dated aspects for a modern take, while still maintaining the linchpins that has made “Star Trek” such a timeless franchise.
Three seasons of “Star Trek Discovery” are available on CBS All-Access.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.