WARNING: spoilers ahead for the first season of “Star Trek: Discovery.”
“Star Trek” has always offered us a hopeful view of the future; one in which problems may seem overwhelming, but can be overcome by ingenuity, advances in technology, and people working together. The people themselves are, for the most part, better: freed of the need to earn money, free of racism and sexism and ableism and most of the isms that plague us today, they can pursue their individual callings . . . albeit, within a society that expects them to use their talents for the greater good. (Most of the human villains in the Star Trek ‘verse are guilty primarily of selfishness.)
The latest television offering, “Star Trek: Discovery,” takes place a generation before the original series, and the people aren’t so pure-minded. In fact, a great deal of the first season is about people not being who they say they are, about sleeper agents and hidden agendas and treason and brainwashing. People also disobey orders, often with disastrous results. And there’s no reset button in this iteration of Trek; no magical way that everything gets put back to the way it used to be. Bad things happen and people have to live with the consequences.
I love this show for many reasons besides those listed above. It’s got an equal portion of male and female main characters (have you noticed how the earlier shows always had 2-3 women versus 6 men), the aliens don’t just have different noses or foreheads but look truly alien all the way down, not everyone is skinny, there’s a gay couple, and there are three African American actors, two Asian actors, and one mixed-race actor in recurring roles . . . although we need a lot more of mister Nurse Park in Season Two.
(Also: Rainn Wilson as Harcourt Fenton Mudd.)
Back to living with consequences: right off the bat, the lead character, a woman named Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), acting against orders because she thinks she knows better, causes the death of over 8,000 people, including the captain she disobeyed but also respected and loved, Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). She’s convicted of mutiny and sent off to life in prison.
Michael accepts her fate as deserved. She initially resists when the charismatic Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) saves her from prison and offers her a job on the Discovery. Lorca tells her he needs her particular skill set for a highly secret mission. He also shares her penchant for disobeying orders because he thinks he knows better than his superiors. Lorca takes the Discovery in questionable directions, ultimately to a parallel universe where the Terrans, rather than being part of the Federation, are the superpower, led by an arrogant Empress who demands complete and unquestioning loyalty and kills on the spot those who even dare to suggest she’s wrong. To Michael’s shock, the Empress is this universe’s version of Phillipa Georgiou.
Ultimately all the deceptions are unmasked, including Lorca’s: he is in fact from this other Earth, and was once the Empress’s right-hand man, but betrayed her in an attempt to wrest the power from her. He fled to Michael’s universe, killed his parallel self, and took his place. Since then he’s been playing a long game. The meritocracy of the Federation will not allow him the kind of power he craves; to get it, he must return to his native universe, and so he maneuvers himself into becoming the captain of the one ship that can possibly take him there. He has saved Michael for a corresponding reason: she is the doppleganger of the Empress’s beloved adopted daughter, and Lorca intends to use her to manipulate the Empress.
He almost succeeds. But the Empress and Michael bond; the Empress believes that Michael is who she says she is, and Michael figures out that her Captain Lorca is who the Empress says he is. The evil Terran empire is brought down, Lorca’s plans are unmasked, Lorca is killed, and Discovery escapes back to its rightful universe with a political refugee on board: the Empress.
In Season Two, Discovery gets a new captain, none other than the captain at the center of the pilot episode for the first “Star Trek”: Captain Christopher Pike, the man Spock risked a court martial to save. Pike has always been the captain’s captain of the Trek universe, the wise and compassionate man who inspires others to do their best.
This is just the man Discovery needs right now. As Martin-Green has been saying in interviews lately:
We all have a little PTSD from Lorca and what he did, and all his illicit behavior, so it’s good to return to normalcy. It’s good to return to principle, and it’s good to return to what Starfleet really is, where your captain is someone you really do look to, that leads you and guides you. And he has such a kindness, such a genuine quality to him . . . he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong, and he understands the true strength of a mastermind. And so it’s moving us, and healing us at the same time.
“Star Trek” has always been right on top of the issues of the day, trying to show us a path out of our difficulties, a vision of a better future. In the 1960s, when the first “Star Trek” debuted, we were caught up in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, race riots and the opposition to the Vietnam War were tearing the country apart, and women were demanding equal rights. “Star Trek” showed us a world where those problems were solved, where men and women, black and white, Russian and American people, were equal and equally dedicated to achieving the greater good.
How much of a role did that vision play in how we dealt with those issues? I believe that it did help us in charting our course. For one thing, it was one of the first shows to portray a black character in a main role. Many black people of note since then have mentioned how inspired they were by Nichelle Nichol’s Uhura to pursue their dreams, including Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut.
We’re revisiting many of the same issues right now. Many of us are feeling traumatized. We need to move forward, but we also need to heal. We need Captain Pike.