Star Trek Discovery reveals our fractured culture

What’s changed with Discovery isn’t the thrust of the franchise so much as the culture that has sprung up around it between the end of the previous series, Enterprise, and Discovery.

I know, I know—in the depths of our current outrage cycle what everyone needs is another Star Trek article.

But the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, is a curiosity in the modern television landscape. The latest iteration of a long adored franchise comprised of thirteen movies, five live-action series, and one animated one; you’d be hard pressed to find another cultural product with as much staying power over several decades—maybe ever. Also unique is its consistently overt forward-thinking politics in its depiction of the future going all the way back to The Original Series, which frequently dressed up political and social concerns of the moment in theatre-like sci-fi storytelling to explore issues that were difficult to tackle, breaking down television boundaries in the process. In spite of this history, Discovery’s seeming embrace of contemporary social justice politics has led to a rift between those who think the series is the best, most diverse trek ever, or, a steaming pile of missed opportunity undeserving of the name Star Trek at all.

How contentious Discovery has been is summed up by two pieces published in Quillette before season two’s premiere. Each took on different sides of the debate, and both made strong cases. Matt Gurney noted that Star Trek has always been diverse and progressive, and adapted to the times through each subsequent series. He suggested that what we are seeing on Discovery shouldn’t be shocking to anyone, and was even a needed advancement.

Barrett Wilson’s piecefocused less on the diversity issue and instead compared Discovery’s handling of socio-political topics to series past, finding the former to be clumsy and ham-fisted, at times bordering on propagandistic, preferring a soapbox style to an exploratory one.

Now that the second season of Discovery has come to an end, what can we say about where the series is at and appears to be headed?

On the whole it is much improved, though the show continues to suffer through echoes of the first season’s clustermuck, which largely abandoned the Trek tradition of investing in the characters and their relationships over time in favour of diving right into the rising action with the expectation that the audience care deeply about characters they had only just met.

Older Star Trek series made use of a tried and true television formula from the episodic era: each episode had a chief point of view from one member of the ensemble cast who would have the A storyline. Just behind this there was often a B plot, which would at times cross over with A, but was frequently used to flesh out other longer running storylines. At its most developed this led to Deep Space 9’s multi-season war story, which deftly intersected with several other long developed arcs, putting DS9 far ahead of its time in the movement toward serial storytelling that now dominates the television landscape.

By contrast Discovery’s first seasonintroduced several major on-going plots in the first few episodes, dumping the characters into the middle of them to read clumsy exposition punctuated with snarky dialogue in order to clarify their characterizations as fast as possible. The audience was tasked with getting to know all of these thinly drawn characters while they stumbled from crisis to crisis attempting to balance A, B, and C serial plots crossed with crude attempts at episodic story elements, making for an exercise in wondering why it is that the viewers should care about any of it. Antipathy toward this was often viewed as a rejection of Discovery’s political mandate, which frustrated critics further.

This is the major impasse around Discovery. The people who love it are enamoured by its diversity, there for its own sake—and as Matt Gurney wrote about the same sex relationship between Commander Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber, some of these presences were long overdue—but what good is diversity if the characterization is thin and other aspects of the series are questionable? And perhaps that is the real issue with Discovery, that the applause and complaints, and complaints about the complaints, are a product of our overall discursive environment more than the show itself.

In the season two premiere there’s a scene where Michael Burnham meets Captain Pike of the Enterprise and two of his crew. One of them is an arrogant science officer named Connolly, who on look alone clearly views himself as superior to the others and almost instantly gets feisty with Burnham. Indeed, as the new captain—and new portrayal of an old character—makes his first appearance on Discovery’s transporter pad, the audience is treated to a shot of Burnham and Connolly staring each other down. From there on it gets worse. Connolly is instantly snotty in his description of an intergalactic phenomenon that the crew has been tasked to investigate while Burnham takes a smarter, more insightful approach to the ensuing science babble. During a rescue operation that follows, Connolly questions her previous experience piloting the pod vehicles required for the mission, laughing sarcastically at Burnham when she claps back at him. Connolly refuses to listen to Burnham’s advice on piloting the pods and goes his own way. He is in the midst of telling Burnham to get off his back about it, that his smart female roommate back at the academy also used to question “his calculations” when a stray meteor destroys his pod and kills him. We’re treated to a shot of his surprised body hitting the window of Burnham’s pod for emphasis.

Interpersonal acrimony is not out of the ordinary for TV, or for Star Trek(Shelby v. Rikersprings to mind), but the exchange between Burnham and Connolly reeked of condescension. It smelled like he was—ahem— “a mediocre white man”

Was this intended by Discovery’s creative team? It’s difficult to say, but the diversity of the cast, the MAGA-esque plot about the Klingons in season one, along the interaction noted above, all feel as though they are engaging with contemporary social justice politics. The reason we see this when watching the show is becausewe live in a moment where, largely due to pressure from social media, these subjects dominate our cultural discourse. They are the most sticky to read, write on, and think about—whether pro or con. These takes surround us, choking off oxygen for other interpretations or analysis.

The moral imperative attached to these issues make certain storylines feel more forced, or necessary, depending on where you stand, than they would otherwise be. In the past it was easy to scoff when people were upset that Kirk kissed Uhura, that Sisko was commanding a space station or Janeway a starship, given the way society had changed and was changing. Now, with everything out there in the ether, it’s near impossible to view situations like the death of Connolly as anything other than an example of a “mediocre white man who wouldn’t listen.”

What’s changed with Discovery isn’t the thrust of the franchise so much as the culture that has sprung up around it between the end of the previous series, Enterprise, and Discovery. During that time, the rise of social media and the contemporary ramp up of the culture wars has made it such that nearly every single issue is approached with some degree of this perspective inserted. What that means for a show like Discoveryis that everything is seen through a socio-political lens whether it was intended or not. So Marshal-Green’s casting as Michael Burnham is victoriously diverse or terrible pandering, the “remain Klingon” storyline is about MAGA culture, and every interaction between characters is loaded on one side or the other, to the point where the inoffensive becomes an outrage and every creative decision is lauded as a victory to the degree it represents popular progressive concerns.

So in a sense both Quillette articles about Discovery were correct: it is typically Star Trek and yet pandering to contemporary progressive concerns, or at least that’s how it is seen in the wider culture, which makes it true enough. The real issue with Discovery then, beyond its narrative or tonal failings, isn’t the fault of the show itself, but of the environment it exists in. One where it is nearly impossible to think about its qualities outside of what they mean as a victory for progressive politics, or the reverse, that they represent something being unduly pushed at the expense of making something of quality. Maybe it’s also true that for some of us who’ve been fans of the franchise for a long time, the stuffiness or older Star Trek was familiar, and thus became comfortable. If that’s the case, then there’s no better reason to seek out some new worlds. Though so far what we’ve found is the same thing we see all around us, which isn’t the fault of Discovery and her crew, but a culture of political fractionation, social media outrage, and identitarian obsessions that no united federation of planets could assuage.

Neil Gray is an independent musician, producer and writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @sawthedust.