I have been watching the new Star Trek series, Discovery, on Netflix. It is canon, by which trekkies (a tribe I claim membership of) refer to the Star Trek stories that are consistent with the timeline and events of the Original Series by Gene Roddenberry. The consistency is not only narrative but also referential, i.e. characters and stories explicitly refer to, and sometimes presume knowledge of, previously shown stories.
For the uninitiated, Star Trek has had 5 television series so far: Original Series, Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise, and Star Trek Discovery is the latest addition. The series started in the late 60s, which was a time of much cultural tumult in the West. The impact this TV series has had on human (esp. Western) culture for the last half a century has been nothing short of phenomenal and this is a topic for an entire book, probably several books, let alone a blog. So I’d rather not wax lyrical about this and just summarize my opinion of the series for this review.
The basic premise of the Star Trek universe is a post-need human society in the 23rd-24th centuries CE, when technological advances have completely eliminated base needs like hunger, clothing, housing etc. Humans have discovered warp-travel, basically a form of exotic inter-stellar transport that involves warping space-time and have made contact with similar warp-enabled (humanoid) species across the galaxy. In typical 60s fashion, human-alien contact isn’t merely limited to chit-chat .. if you catch my drift 😉
Other than inter-species dalliances, serious political connections have also been forged with ‘enlightened’ aliens to form the United Federation of Planets – essentially a futuristic EU head-quartered on Earth. The (galactic peace & love kumbaya) agenda of the Federation is driven by the Star Fleet, an exploration-cum-military organisation that seems to have diverse duties ranging from terra-forming planets, to humanitarian missions, forging diplomatic ententes, scientific experimentation, fighting wars and, of course, good old SETI. The military character of Star Fleet has been intentionally downplayed, and in quite a few cases, this downplaying has been written into the plot. Star Fleet’s best, a band of quirky but resourceful (and racially, specially and computationally diverse) guys, aboard various flagships with self-congratulatory names like Enterprise, Voyager and now Discovery form the core of the protagonists in various series.
Star Trek ostensibly tries to represent not just technological but moral advancement of the human race. A sensible assumption as one could argue that you cannot have the former without the latter. However, it fails in this goal somewhat. The primary moral of the Star Trek folk, as averred repeatedly in many episodes throughout the series, is the Prime Directive, i.e. the people of the Federation mustn’t interfere in the goings-on of technologically lesser species, even if that means letting entire species perish when you know you can bring superior knowledge/technology to bear to save them. This principle of non-interference (or neutrality) in the face of circumstance and natural evolution is explored in various episodes, sometimes challenged by members of the crew, sometimes bent to suit tactical needs but never explicitly broken. One can fathom and sympathise with the reason this Directive even entered the narrative of a US-based television series coincident with the fag-end of the Vietnam War, but to me this represents a real kink in an otherwise spectacular series.
Prime Directive is essentially moral relativism in disguise. It is about treating sentient beings and rational agents as being little more than apes or animals in reservations, who need to fight it out or do whatever lesser beings do without Federation intervening. The moral laws that animate the Federation do not apply to these lesser sentients, as they haven’t graduated to the technological level at which the Federation considers them worthy of evaluation against Federation’s own moral calculus. In some cases, the Federation even has anthropological outposts to study the culture of primitive natives, without letting the subjects know of course. Things obviously go south and we have the defenders of the Prime Directive saving the natives from themselves. Needless to add this is patronizing and deeply immoral, even though the tone of the series is to make a virtue out of it. Quite akin to the bigotry of low expectations prevalent in contemporary “liberal” elite in Western societies about immigrant communities in their midst, or to the Indian-flavour of “secularism” with its regressive personal laws.
ST series do not follow the chronological order in ST timeline, e.g. the last series Enterprise was also set in the earliest period of the ST universe and events in the currently airing Discovery are set 10 years before the Original Series. Each series is centred around a Starfleet flagship crew, except Deep Space 9, which is situated on a fixed space-station. But don’t let that fool you, as shit gets real with alarming regularity for DS9 folks too as their station is conveniently placed next to a worm-hole connected to a different part of the Galaxy, bringing the proverbial battle home.
Where there are ships and crews, there are captains and trekkies typically have their favourites – often points of deep contention. The original series had the typically swashbuckling do-gooder American hero, aptly named James Tiberius Kirk, given to occassional bouts of extreme risk-taking behaviour. Thankfully, however, his cool-as-cryogenically-treated-hydrogen Vulcan first officer, Spock, is usually at hand to temper the dude’s suicidal mania. Vulcan temperance notwithstanding Kirk manages to get away with a lot usually, including showing fancy alien women a good time, all the while saving the Universe with nothing more than a phaser and a philosophy lesson. And just when you think captains can’t get any better, we get Sir Patrick Stewart, as Jean-Luc Picard, The Next Generation Starfleet captain. Swashbuckling too but with the under-stated suaveness of an Englishman and the baritone of a Shakespearean thespian to boot. TNG is by far my favourite series, partly because I grew up watching it as a kid in the 90s, but also because it is terribly good sci fi. The focus on problem-solving and the exploration of many scientific, philosophical and moral conundrums makes TNG the best science fiction ever on TV in my opinion. Besides the characters always get time to get together for a philosophical brainstorming session over tea, even in the middle of a do-or-die battle with the Borg – cool arch-villains of Star Trek introduced in TNG. Borg are everything that humans are not. They are drone like automatons who love nothing better than assimilating species and make them part of their Borg collective. Inter-galactic commies, basically!
The current series of Star Trek is clearly a lot more visually appealing than the previous ones, as modern CGI tech has come a long way from the clunky, match-box starships of the 60s. The opening theme has been innovated too, but I do prefer the old version. Nostalgia, really! The storyline of Discovery is also a lot darker. None of the cheerful adventure or philosophizing over cups of earl-grey in this one. The episodes form a much tighter narrative arc, unlike the more episodic earlier versions and the perspective has shifted from the captain of the crew to a disgraced first-officer who mutinied against her captain in her previous post. Starfleet officers (including the new captain played by the English actor Jason Issacs, well known for his on-screen villainy) are no longer the do-gooders but morally ambiguous, even malicious, and the general feel is quite gritty as the Federation are drawn into a war of attrition with the Klingons (a formidable martial culture who are yet untamed by the Federation, given this series’ early timeline). I loved the fact that none of the Klingons actually speak English, like they did in earlier series, but tlhIngan hol – an artificial language with grammar & phonetics developed from linguistic first-principles. I don’t know about others, but its clipped nature reminds me of Japanese.
All in all, a good reboot of the classic series, and I eagerly await the remaining episodes. My judgement is clouded by a lifetime of trekkie bias to be too critical of Star Trek. All I can say is they had me at “these are the voyages”.