As a ‘Trekkie’ for most of my life, I’ve lived through “Star Trek’s” ongoing life cycle of failure, cult phenomenon, success, expansion, contraction and rebirth. What’s been especially frustrating of late has been watching some of its enduring core elements warped in “Star Trek: Discovery.”
In its freshman season…. hope, morality, humor and the generally positive outlook of the larger “Star Trek” universe were mostly sidelined for more flash, intensity, discomfort and darker episodes to meet the expectations of today’s HBO-trained audience.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the opportunity to watch the first “Star Trek” series since 2005. But this one was so different, perhaps necessarily so, because traditional “Star Trek” had become too tame and predictable for modern tastes.
Season 1 Was Not Family Friendly
“Star Trek: Discovery” was supposed to be “Star Trek”… reinvented. You can say a lot about how “Discovery” lost its way in Season 1, but you can’t say it was tame.
It was intentionally designed for an adult crowd, complete with a “TV-14” rating that included R-level violence and a few four-letter words.
I found Season 1 a bit exhausting.
Oh yeah, and you had to pay for it (streaming on CBS All Access for $5.99/month or $9.99/month without commercials).
I think along its journey of necessary reinvention, the writers simply left out too many familiar “Star Trek” ingredients.
In the sophomore season, we’re told we’re getting a ‘course correction.’ And after watching the first two episodes, I am happy to report that it’s true!
New Captain on the Bridge!
The biggest change is our new captain… Christopher Pike. Yep… the Enterprise captain who came before the more famous Captain Kirk.
Played by Anson Mount, Pike beams onto the Discovery from his mysteriously ‘short-circuited’ Starship Enterprise which has to then be towed away… literally.
Pike immediately takes command to lead this new season-long mission.
Captain Pike’s character was first introduced in the original (and failed) “Star Trek” pilot, “The Cage,” back in 1965. Played by Jeffrey Hunter, Pike was serious and a little stiff, but certainly a model of Starfleet values and morality. The writers loosed things up a bit when they created Captain Kirk.
We saw Pike again in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Kelvin-timeline movie reboot and 2013’s “Into Darkness” sequel. This time played by Bruce Greenwood, Pike was again the moral compass and a father figure to the young and inexperienced Jim Kirk.
“Discovery’s” Captain Pike gives us a similar leader with strong ethics, but still able to recognize inconsistencies that challenge his own beliefs. He is on his own journey of ‘discovery.’ And this mission with his new crew is clearly going to challenge his personal and professional rule book.
But compared to all of the questionable choices made by characters in Season 1, Pike has immediately become “Discovery’s” moral center. (Doug Jones’ Kelpien Saru held this responsibility in Season 1 and was briefly joined by Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou.)
Pike’s entrance is such a relief.
It may have taken decades of “Star Trek” storytelling for this to become entirely clear, but Pike… not Kirk… best reflects the essence of Gene Roddenberry’s foundational theme surrounding our destiny. In Roddenberry’s future, humanity has matured enough to avoid extinction, get it together and reach for the stars.
Pike has always been the grown up.
He’s serious and dependable, but the writers of “Discovery” have shaved the stuffy edges off of his character and given him a little dose of welcome humor. And Mount fits the role perfectly.
Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Courageous.
When Pike proclaims ahead of his first Spore-Drive jump, “Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Courageous,” First Officer Burnham cracks a small but proud smile.
And I think thousands of “Star Trek” fans smiled too.
That line touched a feeling in me that harkens back to when I was a kid and first heard the line “Space, the final frontier…”
Hope. Wonder. Adventure.
A little more humanity.
The First Two Episodes Are On Course
At the end of Episode 1 (“Brother”), Pike turns to Burnham and says,
“Wherever our mission takes us, we’ll try to have a little fun along the way too…”
I think that’s a line clearly directed at fans to proclaim the show’s adjusted tone.
And if it’s not clear enough that “Discovery” is finally embracing its own roots, Jonathan Frakes (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) was tapped to direct the second episode, “New Eden.”
As soon as I saw Frakes’ name pop up in the credits, I knew the space/time continuum was well on its way to resetting itself with old Commander Riker at the helm.
“New Eden” felt like the best of classic “Trek,” complete with visiting a strange, new world and questioning the Prime Directive. But it also focused on characters getting to know each other better. And of course, then we get to know them better.
Could this crew actually be developing into something of a “Star Trek” family?
Developing character connections and strong storytelling have always been the core of “Star Trek.”
“Discovery” has even demonstrated “Star Trek’s” traditional willingness to tackle big questions that really work your brain…
When Pike talked about Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law reflecting an updated view that “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God,” we know we’re solidly in the “Star Trek” universe we know and love.
The Shakedown Cruise Continues
This is all not say that “Star Trek: Discovery” is totally fixed.
The introduction of the young Spock character is a bold and yet unproven move that currently feels like a plot device taken from “The Search for Spock” movie.
And what’s up with Cadet Tilly? Played by Mary Wiseman, we really need to see her character grow this season into something beyond awkward and flustered. It’s time to show her evolution…
And as the star of the show, Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham still has some work to do to win over our hearts.
Discovery is No Longer Lost in Space
The good news is “Star Trek: Discovery” has passed its core Kobayashi Maru test.
Yes, Season 2 still has a long way to go, but “Discovery” has now discovered the right formula to reinvent “Star Trek” in a way that’s fresh and challenging, yet also doesn’t repel its fan base.
Strong, uplifting storytelling with heart has always been at the center of great “Star Trek.”
Keep making these types of episodes, and the audience will show up
…and pay for it.