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Star Trek: Discovery’s first season shows dark, gritty reboots can have a purpose

As it wraps season one, the show examines the difficulty — but ultimate rewards — of striving toward utopia.

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Star Trek: Discovery
Sarek (James Frain) and Saru (Doug Jones) head off on a new adventure.
CBS All Access
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery contorted and twisted itself multiple times to comment on its characters’ actions and then force them to take long, hard looks at their reflections. This was, perhaps, fitting for a series that spent lots of time in the Trek “Mirror Universe,” where everything is dark and horrifying and the characters we love are villainous versions of themselves.

But this also reflected something that novelist Charlie Jane Anders pointed out not long ago on Twitter: Every Trek series introduces main villains who reflect that series’ greatest themes. And on Discovery, that theme takes the form of a fear about humanity. We are our own worst enemies, capable of disappearing down dark paths that can’t be reversed at a moment’s notice.

That’s why Discovery’s visit to the Mirror Universe — where humans became not part of the peaceful Federation but, instead, a terrorizing force sweeping the galaxy for alien life forms to exterminate — was key to helping the series figure out what it was doing.

Before that point, the show had a certain smugness when it suggested that the Klingons were just trying to make the Klingon Empire great again, or trying to preserve their racial purity, or what have you. In the Mirror Universe, the show could reveal that this wasn’t something unique to Klingons. Any species — any group of people — can become a destructive force if it’s not careful. And it’s so much easier to slip into anger and hatred than it is to cling to peace.

But clinging to peace can also be sort of anticlimactic, as shown by the show’s first season finale, “Will You Take My Hand?” And yet Discovery’s dogged refusal to disappear down a path of action-packed excitement reflects an admirable commitment to its own principles: This is a show about people who find ways to avoid conflict, dang it.

Somehow, the crew of the Discovery finds itself contemplating genocide

Star Trek: Discovery
Fortunately, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her cooler head prevail.
CBS All Access

If there’s been a constant drumbeat from critics of Star Trek: Discovery, it’s that the show’s darkness grows so bleak that the series doesn’t resemble Star Trek. Its version of Starfleet feels very little like the rational, thoughtful Starfleet of many other Trek series and movies.

“Will You Take My Hand?” likely won’t cause the show’s critics to abandon this particular line of discussion. At one point, the Mirror Universe version of Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), the ruthless Terran emperor from that dark timeline, but now a Starfleet prisoner in the main timeline, is poised on the brink of activating several bombs within the volcanic system of the Klingon homeworld, something that will kill millions upon millions of Klingons — if not all of them. And then comes the next twist: She’s doing this at the command of Starfleet, which has granted her freedom if she carries out this horrible plan, not because she’s such a ruthless person.

Cooler heads prevail, as we know they must. (Discovery is set before the original 1966 Star Trek series, and in that show, the Klingons are still around.) But this is still a seeming contradiction of everything we know about Starfleet. Yes, the Federation is backed against the wall in its war with the Klingons. Yes, it might very well lose that war. But flirting with committing genocide? It seems like something the Federation would never, ever do.

Yet it’s this very quality — this flirtation with sending Starfleet and its many officers down a darker path — that has made me like the series as much as I do. It’s easy to adhere to Starfleet’s principles when things are going well, when the Federation stands astride the galaxy like a colossus. But it’s when things aren’t easy that those principles most matter, something the show has spent all season teaching Michael Burnham, its lead (played by the endlessly charismatic Sonequa Martin-Green).

Discovery, though occasionally ham-handed about it, considers the difficulty of utopia, the idea that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. There are so many paths toward destruction and darkness, as Michael has learned time and again, but there are very few that lead to a world where humans don’t give in to their own worst impulses, where kindness and peace can win the day.

Discovery’s neatest trick is the way it opens with Michael committing mutiny to start a war with the Klingons, because she thinks it’s the only way for her ship to survive, then closes the season with her threatening mutiny (and winning other Starfleet officers to her cause) when she realizes what Starfleet plans for the Klingon homeworld.

In many ways, the finale is a microcosm of the season as a whole. It has the eye-rolling stabs at “adult content” (here a visit to an alien sex club, with plenty of bare flesh all around), the occasionally ridiculous attempts to bring stories full circle, and the genuinely thoughtful consideration of what it would mean to try to truly live by Starfleet’s principles. As the episode ends, with Michael’s criminal record (a result of the season-opening mutiny) expunged and the Discovery heading off to meet its new captain, the series feels as if it’s earned its deconstruction of the Trek mythos, no matter how many weird missteps it took along the way.

And then the characters hear a distress call from an unknown ship and come across none other than the USS Enterprise, out in the middle of nowhere. (It’s commanded not by Captain Kirk but by his predecessor, Captain Pike.) So ends this season of a show that has done its damnedest to both live within Trek’s shadow and see just how dark that shadow can get. Now, its bona fides established, it can run straight into the heart of the series’ canon.

Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS All Access in the US. (Yes, I know. Booooo, hisssss.) It’s on the Space Channel in Canada and on Netflix in all other non-US, non-Canadian countries with Netflix.

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