There’s a weird problem that keeps popping up with Star Trek: Discovery and I can’t tell whose fault it is. Is it journalists writing about the show who don’t know its background? Is it that the people involved in the show are bad ambassadors for it? Is it the way the show’s being promoted? Is it just the news cycle? Whatever the cause, the effect is that Discovery is constantly marketed as groundbreaking when it should be marketed as following in Star Trek’s footsteps.
Part of the issue is definitely that it’s hard to tell who Star Trek: Discovery is for. Is it continuity porn for hardcore fans who love Star Trek enough to pony up for CBS All Access? Is it a brand new thing that simply has name recognition and stands on its own for people who don’t already love Trek? The marketing and PR for the show are trying to present it as both, but the result is that the show doesn’t particularly feel like it’s intended for either audience.
Executive producer Alex Kurtzman trumpeted the fact that Tribbles would appear in Discovery because they’re one of Trek’s most universally beloved elements, and are certain to draw in casual viewers (even if their inclusion makes no sense, timeline-wise). But then there’s the appearance of Harry Mudd, a con man and criminal from The Original Series whose inclusion here is purely fan service. Protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) was raised by Spock’s parents, which links the new show to one of the franchise’s most well-known characters. But this is deeply confusing for those fans who have already dealt with a surprise sibling in Spock’s past.
Most conspicuous is that the design of everything in Discovery seems to echo more of what showed up in J.J. Abrams’ alternate universe Star Trek, and the weirdness to the timeline is so intense that there’s been a fairly reasonable rumor going around—one sent to me by a number of fans—that the show takes place in a third timeline, something halfway between the original Prime timeline and the Kelvin timeline of the reboot movies.
This rumor may or may not turn out to be true, but it’s symptomatic of the confusion surrounding Discovery that clouds it even more than the constant delays and production issues. In attempting to please both masters, it’s failing to entice either—not fans who have been dying to get Trek back with all its rich history and universe-building, and certainly not people who may have enjoyed the recent movies, but can only be intimidated by the massive, complicated lore of the original Trek canon.
But the fans are absolutely part of the problem, too, because far too many of them don’t seem to remember what Star Trek did and what it’s supposed to be. This was apparent when a vocal contingent of “fans” complained about diversity in the Discovery cast, apparently forgetting that Star Trek has not only always celebrated diversity from the very first TV series, but that it’s a hallmark of the franchise.
This was apparent again when headline after headline was made out of the idea that Discovery would “ditch” Gene Roddenberry’s infamous “rule” that members of Starfleet shouldn’t be in conflict with one another—a rule he created in advance of Next Generation, and one that its writers tried to get around immediately, since conflict makes for good stories. The later shows may have adhered to the letter of the rule—Deep Space Nine featured many non-Starfleet characters, Voyager merged a Starfleet and Maquis crew, and Enterprise’s main conflicting crew members were the non-Starfleet T’Pol versus, well, everyone—but not the spirit of it.
But the actual quote showrunner Aaron Harberts gave clarifying the “ditch” indicates Discovery may be getting it right: “We do have our characters in conflict, we do have them struggling with each other, but it’s about how they find a solution and work through their problems.” It’s adhering to the spirit of the rule, rather than the letter, and the show will likely be better for it.
Then again things got weird when an anecdote from set indicated that a writer on Discovery had taken Roddenberry’s vision of humanity without religion to mean that the word “God” as a colloquialism didn’t exist for humans. Once again, a showrunner’s words indicated a better understanding of the show than this instance would seem to. Showrunner Gretchen Berg followed that story up with a statement that makes it look like Discovery has a good handle on how it’s going to portray religion: “On a show about diversity and with different points of view, I feel like you have to accept that some people believe in God, some people want to worship a potato, and some people don’t want to believe in anything. I think there is room for that on Star Trek,” she said, adding that “God” would be used in the show with some frequency.
The latest confusing kerfluffle has yet again come from a Entertainment Weekly story—which was also the source of the “ditch” quote and the God anecdote—and it involves Star Trek tackling current political divides in the new show. This should have shocked absolutely no one since, like diversity, this is baked into the DNA of Star Trek. This is what it does and what it is famous for. Once again, Harberts said something totally reasonable with respect to Star Trek:
The Klingons are going to help us really look at certain sides of ourselves and our country. Isolationism is a big theme. Racial purity is a big theme. The Klingons are not the enemy, but they do have a different view on things. It raises big questions: Should we let people in? Do we want to change? There’s also the question of just because you reach your hand out to someone, do they have to take it? Sometimes, they don’t want to take it. It’s been interesting to see how the times have become more of a mirror than we even thought they were going to be.
The Klingons versus the Federation are going to be an allegory? They’re going to help us sort through things? HOW CAN ANYONE SURVIVE? Oh, wait, right, they were invented so that the original Star Trek could reflect the then-current events of the Cold War, with the Federation and the Klingons on either side. This idea is literally 50 years old—it is not groundbreaking. And yet, this turned into various headlines about Trump, the 2016 election, and Klingons as Trump supporters. It has forced CBS to deny something that Harberts never said.
It’s equally absurd to present challenging the Federation through a war as groundbreaking, as that same EW interview did. “The thing about the war is it takes Starfleet and the Federation and forces them to examine their ideas and ethical rules of conflict and conduct,” said Harberts. “It provides a backdrop to how we want to be as a society and that analysis and self-reflection is new for Trek. They’ve done it in certain episodes in the past, but this is a true journey for the institution in itself.”
“Certain episodes” is a weird way to describe whole seasons of Deep Space Nine, for which conflict and examining the roles of Starfleet and the Federation were mainstays. Harberts is either ignorant of Star Trek’s history or he’s been tasked with trying to present Discovery as “All-New Trek” to hopefully entice non-fans to watch the show. The latter is much more likely, but in his outreach to less avid fans, who may not know what the Federation and Starfleet are, he’s insulting avid fans who know the ideas aren’t new to Trek in the slightest.
These sort of communication issues have been dogging Discovery from the start, when numerous production issues comprised the only news about the show in the months after it was announced. The loss of fan-favorite Trek writer and showrunner Bryan Fuller, in addition to the production woes, have curdled fan reaction so that they’re expecting problems instead of being excited. Meanwhile, it feels like there’s been a weird lack of enthusiasm among mainstream audiences for what should be Star Trek’s triumphant return to TV.
Certainly part of this is CBS’ fault. The network has done a historically poor job of capitalizing on initial fan enthusiasm, and the play for a wider audience has backfired badly there, too, since the way the show has been described to that wider audience is clearly not winning them over. Yet as much as the out-of-touch corporate monolith is to blame, it’s also contending with a very weird set of circumstances. For one, any mention of current events, politics, diversity, and even religion nowadays is almost guaranteed publicity and to make a vocal group of terrible people mad. The constant presentation of Discovery as if it is breaking new ground in these areas has caused controversy instead of building excitement. But it could possibly have avoided at least some of this bad press by presenting the show as continuing the franchise’s proud legacy, reminding everyone what Star Trek is and what makes it so important.
Unfortunately, the final nail in the coffin of the show’s multitude of bad press was delivered this morning, when it was revealed that CBS has blocked reviews of Discovery from running before it airs. So many wounds—some of them self-inflicted, some of them mere chance of circumstance—have caused the show to wither from the spotlight.
Star Trek belongs on television. That is where it has thrived and that is where it has done most of its best work. Star Trek is diverse, it is challenging, it reflects current conflicts, and it can be almost painfully earnest. Downright preachy, even. When it is on every week, pop culture is simply better than it is when it’s not. That is what is being lost in all the confusion and controversy surrounding Discovery. That’s what the show will have to try to surmount when it premieres on Sunday, September 24. I hope it does. But I don’t think it can.