To Boringly Go

February 20th, 2018  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Now that I’ve finally finished off the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I can finally read the takes! See here for Gerry Canavan’s round-up of some of them, including his own.

And since I owe my book, and much of my public reputation, to a blog post about Star Trek, I obviously need a take of my own.

I started out skeptical, if only because the most recent entries in the Trek franchise are the weak if underrated Enterprise TV show and the recent slew of movies, which are little more than generic action set pieces reskinned with Starfleet uniforms. And after the first few episodes, my misgivings about Discovery were straightforward to articulate. I worried that in the era of Peak Television, J.J. Abrams, and Battlestar Galactica, we were doomed to yet another Gritty Reboot, leaving behind the quirky liberal communist utopia that Gene Roddenberry had initially set forward.

At season’s end, I find myself…uncertain. The finale was certainly a rather sloppy rush job, and the season itself was wildly uneven. But the characters are great. Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Michelle Yeoh and the rest comprise a more competent dramatic core than the franchise has ever seen. And at least things have been left in a state where something interesting can be done in future episodes, something that makes the existence of “Star Trek” something worthwhile in the first place, as anything more than an empty nostalgia engine and marketing opportunity.

It’s by now a commonplace of Trek criticism that the first season is always bad. Those of us who apotheosize The Next Generation as the true expression of Trek, for instance, can only do so by assuming away the entire first season. (And ascribing “Code of Honor” to some kind of malicious imposition by a time-traveling Borg cube.) And here we find the real problem with the tedious fanboy argument over whether something like Discovery is “really Star Trek.”

This argument is as unavoidable as it is intolerable, once one has accepted one’s diagnosis as an incorrigible Trek nerd. We are then forced to grapple with a cultural icon spanning many decades and series. And when we do, we find that actually, the problem isn’t with the new show. Actually, Star Trek is rarely really Star Trek. Our platonic ideal of Trek is a collage of fondly remembered–or misremembered–episodes, characters, themes. We edit out the parts that don’t fit. Since we all make the collage differently, we’ll never all see the same Trek.

Where does Discovery fit? Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie primarily in its haphazard commitment to the political ideal of the earlier shows. Although that is a problem, as it leads the scripts to swing herky-jerky from grimdark blood spatter to cringe-inducing monologues about the high-minded mission of the Federation.

Maybe what’s missing is the loose, almost ambient quality of life as a Starfleet officer, especially in the shows of the Next Generation era. It’s about the hum of the idle engine, not the scream of a photon torpedo. In the early part of Discovery, I would happily exclaim, practically pump my fist, on the rare occasions I could say: “Yes! People standing around and talking! Now that’s Star Trek!” (But not people talking in Klingon. Please, ease up on the subtitled Klingon.)

Out of some combination of lower budgets, longer seasons, and less investment in long bombastic story arcs and endless plot twists, the TNG-era shows revel in the banality of life on board. Couples bickering, people doing aerobics on the holodeck, mundane diplomatic missions or sensor sweeps. Of course, something always arises, episode by episode, to heighten the stakes and hold the viewer’s attention. But we aren’t immediately forced, as Discovery was in one short season, into an all-encompassing conflict that threatens not just the ship but the galaxy, not just the galaxy but the universe, not just the universe but every universe ever. Sometimes it’s enough just to help a troubled Betazoid and a lonely space creature find meaning and happiness together.

Perhaps that’s why I keep returning to “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, the moment where the show finally began to win me over. And still probably my favorite of the first season’s episodes.

The layers of fan service certainly didn’t hurt–not only does this episode bring back Original Series rogue Harry Mudd, it directly rips off its central time-loop plot device from a TNG episode I’ve always loved. In the process, the episode demonstrates that Discovery is capable of relatively autonomous stand-alone episodes, freeing itself from the relentless drumbeat of serialized grand narratives that characterizes so much modern television.

Discovery chose the perfect TNG episode to knock off, because the plot of “Cause and Effect” directly encodes that ambience, that banality, that Discovery badly needed to get in touch with. Both the TNG original and this remake episode revolve around people going about their daily lives, only gradually realizing that something has gone horribly wrong. Of course, Discovery does still feel compelled to kick it up a notch: its focal point is a party suffused with social awkwardness, whereas in the first version it was a chummy poker game.

But still, the episode is built around two underappreciated ideas that make for great Trek: life is mostly boring, and not everything has to serve the main plot of the season.

The first point is one that motivated the approach to my book’s chapter on “communism”, which was directly inspired by Star Trek’s post-scarcity and post-capitalist utopia. What I came to understand was that I was dealing with a problem similar to that faced by the TNG writers, as recounted in William Shatner’s highly entertaining documentary about the show, Chaos on the Bridge.

Some of the early TNG writers describe their frustration with Gene Roddenberry’s edicts about the nature of life in the 24th Century. This was supposed to be a society without hierarchies, without conflicts–so how the hell do you write a compelling drama about that? As it turned out, this dramatic constraint was a productive one, giving rise to the mix of soap-opera minutia and high-minded sci-fi weirdness that characterizes so much of the show. And it was a similar constraint that drove me to talk about communism, not just as a flat pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die idyll, but through things like Cory Doctorow’s semi-dystopian reputational economies.

Directly following from the notion that life is often boring and annoying, comes the consequence that our characters cannot always be wrapped up in galactic struggles to save existence. Sometimes it just has to be a day at the office, and we keep watching simply because a Federation starship is a more interesting and inspiring office than ours. That thought motivated me to portray the communist future not as a magical resolution of the human condition but, to follow Freud by way of Corey Robin, the conversion of hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

The Next Generation shows appeared at a time when television was experimenting with long-form storytelling and long narratives, rather than self-contained episodes of the week. This was eventually facilitated, of course, by the Internet and the binge-watching culture it gave rise to. But before that, you had interesting blends of the episodic and the serial–the most fully realized was probably The X-Files, which interwove an ongoing conspiracy thriller with one-off “monster of the week” plots.

In the case of Star Trek, though, this historically determinate evolution of the form interacted in a very productive way with the underlying themes of the show’s worldbuilding. So my hope for the next season of Star Trek: Discovery is that it can remain in touch with this way of making television, albeit in a way that suits our present historical circumstance.