Grit for the Mill: Star Trek in the Age of Serialized Drama

Much ado has been made recently about the new Star Trek series being “grittier” and “darker” than previous iterations of the franchise. It seems that the show, based on its beloved forebears, is not immune to the likes of click bait, with (incensing, to some) titles like “Star Trek is Smart-Sounding Scientific Nonsense,” or “Star Trek: Discovery Trying Too Hard to Virtue Signal.” The latter is a personal blog, while the former is a Forbes article.

Whether it’s on social media or other genre websites, it seems that the darker aspects of the new series have been played up to an nth degree in an effort to cash in on the success of the series, which has done far better in both terms of All Access app sing-ups and Netflix views than CBS even anticipated.

Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca and Jayne Brook as Admiral Cornwell (CBS)

The inevitable comparisons arise: Lorca is the first “unethical” Captain, Picard would never have stood for any of this nonsense; the appearance of Captain Georgiou somehow cancels out Janeway as the first female Captain; characters are referred to as grim, unlikable; backbiting and drama between crew members exists. And on, and on, and on.

According to the producers, specifically Akiva Goldsman, the differences viewers are noting are not because the show is darker, but because it is serialized. For instance, if Kirk had dealt with the death of Edith Keeler (“City on the Edge of Forever”) in any meaningful way, it would have carried over into the next few episodes at the very least, rather than having just gone on to more fun adventures the next week. He essentially boils this down to character and complexity of storytelling. Because we focus on similar things the characters are going through week-to-week, it seems darker than it actually is. But, as Goldsman goes on to point out, there is a light at the end of that tunnel because they are working towards the optimism that we know the Original Series will reflect.

Goldsman also offers that this show is a sort of “redemption” series.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham (CBS)

Granted, we have not seen specifically what Starfleet needs redemption from. Indeed in the premier/prologue, they went to great lengths to point out truisms about Starfleet we already knew, such as “Starfleet does not fire first,” or “We’re explorers, not soldiers.” More likely, though, he is referring to the redemption of the main character, Michael Burnham, getting out from under her title as Starfleet’s only mutineer, and viewed as being the cause of the Klingon/Starfleet conflict this season is centered around.

Then again, it has been a long road from Enterprise to this series, and there is the entirety of the Romulan War between then and now. Starfleet may have lost the path in ways we have not yet been privy to. Whatever the case, this show is supposed to be about “earning” the ideals of Roddenberry’s original vision.

Amongst the negative reviews and other click bait that is available to Internet denizens, there is also the obvious flip-side to the series, FOX’s The Orville, which disheartened fans point to as the more deserving successor to the Star Trek franchise. Irreverent humor aside, The Orville does seem to offer a more direct reflection of the values and ideals presented in the Original Series and The Next Generation. It has a more anthological structure, although some story points are carried over week-to-week.

Jason Isaacs as Capt. Gabriel Lorca and Mary Chieffo as L’Rell (CBS)

There seems to be more of a focus on characters and their reactions to various situations. From that we hear the type of dialogue one would expect as characters reinforce each other’s abilities. Captain Mercer frequently asks Lt. Kitan to “open this jar of pickles” as a way of building her up and not demeaning her regarding her otherwise freakish super-strength. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard the phrase, “You can do this.” And in the pilot episode Bortus tells the pilot Malloy, “If you can… hug the donkey… you can do this,” when inducing him to perform a difficult maneuver. This dialogue was a particularly nice touch, as it has a layered, nuanced quality to it. It calls back to a throwaway joke from several minutes prior in the episode, but also reinforces the idea of the characters backing each other up during trying times.

All of this seems like something you might find in an episode of The Next Generation, or even Voyager.

To be fair, the darkest Star Trek ever got before Discovery were episodes like Voyager‘s “Year of Hell” or the Dominion War storyline of Deep Space Nine. The Captains remained stalwart, even when doing questionable things like faking evidence and effecting a political assassination in order to get the Romulans involved in the war effort, or making pacts with The Borg. You always knew where you stood with a Starship Captain, even if the occasional Ronald Tracey, willing to break the Prime Directive, cropped up. But the main captains never did that kind of thing.

Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca on the bridge of the U.S.S. Discovery (CBS)

Lorca just might. In fact, with the events of this week’s “Lethe,” it looks like he just might have already started down that path.

Lorca is a military man amongst peacekeepers. A hawk among doves. He has been tasked with not just making Starfleet’s secret weapon work, but with honing a crew that thought they were signing on for scientific discovery into a fighting edge.

And he has his work cut out for him.

Ed Mercer, on the other hand, has little more than The Krill to worry about. All he needs to hone is his keen sense of humor. Even with the unlikely premise of having his ex-wife as a First Officer, the drama and tension rarely are felt between crew members on The Orville. As a captain he exhibits excellent leadership skills, even though this is his first time out, and he has succeeded in creating strong bonds with all of his Bridge Crew.

As much as Orville is light-hearted and fun, there are a number of deeper themes and points of view that the show has explored. Gender and trans issues are taken on in “About a Girl,” an episode that has been called “completely insensitive” about the topic, and “surprisingly emotional” by disparate quarters. To me, this episode is the most Star Trek-like the series has been yet. In it, Bortus’ child is born female. To Bortus’ race, who are all male, this is a travesty, and he is compelled to submit his child to a gender reassignment surgery. There are a variety of reactions amongst crewmates, and in the end we get a decision that one might not expect from the show, a twist that shows nuance on the part of the writers: Bortus is forced to revert his female child to male, in spite of a last-minute action during court proceedings that seemed sure to sway the council’s decision in his favor. In the end, Bortus has to live with the council’s decree, and accept his husband’s choice in the matter, as well as the changes forced upon his daughter.

Mary Chieffo as L’Rell and Chris Obi as T’Kuvma (CBS)

In a more recent episode, Mercer and Malloy go into enemy territory. The Krill are The Orville‘s equivalent of Klingons. Little is known about them, and they have been tasked with retrieving a copy of that race’s version of The Bible. The Union (read: Federation) feels that if they can understand the Krill’s religious practices they can find a common ground to begin diplomatic measures. This episode also presents its share of moral questions, as Mercer realizes he must destroy the ship. But there are children aboard, so he has to come up with creative solutions to stopping a super weapon the Krill are about to unleash on Earth colonies. The end of the episode also leaves an unsettling note, as a Krill prisoner informs him that all those children will grow up to hate The Union and, more specifically, Captain Mercer.

In all its years, Star Trek has never shied away from tough issues. It has always been multicultural, even at times when it wasn’t easy to be. An argument can even be made that the TV and film landscape encompasses more ethnic variety today because of Roddenberry’s push for a black, female lieutenant to appear on the bridge of the original Enterprise, among a plethora of other subjects it has pressed. And the show has had its share of darkness. The afore-mentioned “City on the Edge of Forever” deals with Kirk, having fallen in love with a woman from the 20th century, letting her die in order for the future to remain intact. More than 30 years later, Deep Space Nine would present us with “Past Tense,” a two-part arc that dealt with similar themes and highlighted some very dark times for our possible near future (a near future that doesn’t seem that far off from where we are right now). There have also been numerous Borg episodes and films, as well as the previously mentioned Dominion storyline that have offered a darker vision of the future.

But all of these examples have existed within the bubble of the brighter future offered by the Trek franchise. In five episodes of Discovery, we have witnessed torture, beatings, brutal hand-to-hand and weapons-based combat, an all-out firefight between a large force of Klingon and Federation ships, body horror, and a security officer being ripped to nearly literal shreds by a tardigrade-type creature. All of this against a backdrop of character interactions that reflect interpersonal friction, mistrust, and even downright nastiness.

Shazad Latif as Lieutenant Ash Tyler and Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca (CBS)

But among all that, it seems, the bright spots have shown through. In “Choose Your Pain,” not only did we meet a younger Harcourt Fenton Mudd (who acted in his own best interests), we also saw Tilly, Stamets, and Burnham come together and get past their differences to solve the problem of the Spore Drive. It appears this solution will lead to further problems down the line, but we have also seen many points in which Tilly might stand for the idealism rampant in TOS. The bookends to “Lethe” in which Tilly is coached by Burnham are particularly stirring. Additionally, Burnham stood in defense of the tardigrade several times, and even proved that the beast’s actions were a result of it defending itself. Its release at the end of “Choose Your Pain” was possibly one of the most uplifting moments I have witnessed in Trek.

Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd and Shazad Latif as Lieutenant Ash Tyler (CBS)

Whether your preference is for The Orville, mirroring the bright-eyed optimism of TNG-era storytelling, or you enjoy Discovery for its path-to-idealism meta-arch, there is plenty of content out there for Star Trek fans to enjoy this season. Each in its own way reflects the idealism of Star Trek, and each in its own way is working to keep the dream of a better world and a better life for all alive. Where you decide to go is up to you, but it seems that both of these shows will get you there.

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