Circling the Wagons : Star Trek Discovery Pumps new blood into an aging franchise


Last month, Star Trek: Discovery concluded its second season on the streaming platform CBS All Access. While I am a fan of the franchise, I never felt like I fit in with other Trekkers. Many die-hard Star Trek fans were turned-off by the most recent cinematic outings after J. J. Abrams rebooted the franchise to appeal to a broader and younger audience. Personally, I enjoyed those movies—the first more than the other two. Some of my friends argue that those pictures aren’t Star Trek—they sacrifice the more cerebral elements of the property for whiz-bang action, and the plotting and science are both noticeably shoddy. I agree that these entries are imperfect, and that some of those imperfections are significant. What I don’t agree with is that those problems devalue the franchise or turn it into something it shouldn’t be. Similar accusations have been leveled at Star Trek: Discovery, and I feel similarly. I tend to judge a piece of entertainment by what it does right more than by what it does wrong. Discovery had a lot of issues, especially in its first season, but something else it had was the character of Michael Burnham.

As the series opens, Burnham is a prisoner, having been court martialed and stripped of her rank for insubordination. Not only is she the first black woman lead of a Star Trek series, she is the only lead never to have served as a Star Fleet Captain. Burnham is also deeply tied to the history of the franchise—it is revealed that she is foster sister to the famous Mr. Spock of the original series. Burhham is fascinating in that she must reconcile her sense of duty and commitment to Starfleet and her crew with her difficult past, her tumultuous, sometimes criminal present, and her service in a war she started. Burnham’s creation was originally inspired by Nichelle Nicholls’ Lieutenant Uhura, astronaut Mae Jemison, and activist Ruby Bridges. She has big shoes to fill, especially when it comes to hard-to-please fans.

In the popular culture, fans naturally feel a certain degree of ownership of their pet franchises and properties. Not so long ago, die-hard fans were persecuted as nerds for their interests. Laying claim to Star Trek, Star Wars, or Marvel Comics was an act of rebellion, and in the last couple generations, fans suffered for their love. These communities are also largely resistant toward change—even in a fandom meant to celebrate diversity of sentient life. Many of the complaints Trekkers have about the show are accurate, but some only matter to obsessive fans. The average viewer might be curious about how the show connects with other films and series in the canon, how the technology feels current even though the series takes place in the franchise’s past. Still, as I watched the first two seasons of Discovery, the show’s shortcomings were never enough to truly interfere with my enjoyment of the whole. As I read and watch in an SF field wracked with struggle over changing demographics and shifting values, Discovery is an entry that new vitality to a property originally described as “a wagon train in space.”