We're five episodes into the latest instalment of the Star Trek television canon. Despite some weirdness about the Klingons appearance and the way they speak, I think Star Trek: Discovery has the potential to be the best Star Trek series put to air. Some, perhaps many, will disagree but after just five episodes, I've seen enough to make me think this could take the franchise into places Gene Roddenberry never went before.
If you haven't watched an episode of Discovery yet and plan to - be warned. There will be plenty of spoilers following.
I grew up watching Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS). While the original series was released before I was born and cancelled before I could walk, I watched every episode on re-runs and bought the digitally remastered set, watching it again a few times. I've recently rewatched all of Enterprise - it never really got going until seasons three and four.
Deep Space Nine and Voyager were both consistently better than TNG. TNG had some great episodes but its episodic nature meant there was plenty of filler between the really good bits. The ongoing narratives of DS9 and Voyager resulted in more consistent writing although the final episodes of DS9 were a little disappointing.
Many people look back at TOS through rose-coloured glasses but it was far from perfect. There are some great episodes ('Bread and Circuses' stood out to me), some terrible stunt doubles (the fight between Khan and Kirk in 'Space Seed' has stuntmen who bear almost no resemblance to the actors they are filling in for) and some controversy like American TV's first inter-racial kiss between Uhura and Kirk in 'The Naked Time' (which was reprised in 'The Naked Now' during Star Trek: The Next Generation between the android Data and Tasha Yar).
There are a number of recurring themes in all the different Star Trek series.
We see the transition from a military operation into a mission of exploration through Star Trek: Enterpise. There's the ongoing balancing act between logic and intuition (Spock/Kirk, Data/Picard, Tuvok/Janeway). And a decided lack of conflict and unflinching loyalty between crew members. Even the start of Voyager where two rival crews work have to work together is resolved into a happy family within a short time with most disputes sorted out in a convenient 42 minute episode.
That last one is what I think is really pissing people off when it comes to Discovery. The series starts with the threat of war, a civil uprising in the Klingon empire and a mutiny onboard the USS Shenzhou. It's that mutiny and its aftermath that sets the scene for the first season and we have a starship captain, in Captain Gabriel Lorca, who has a pretty dark view of things.
He intercepts a disgraced mutineer, the central character Michael Burnham, who is on a prison vessel and seconds her to his crew. Despite the name of the ship being Discovery, which harks to Roddenberry's "wagon train to the stars" pitch to Paramount and Desilu Productions in the 1960s, he is a ruthless military commander - we're told he even destroyed a ship with live crew on it rather than leave them to the "mercy" of the Klingons.
In contrast, Picard's crew risked everything to save him from The Borg. Kirk's crew marked themselves as mutineers when they stole the Enterprise to save Spock. Lorca seems to be a very "un-Star Trek" captain so far.
One of the things all the previous Star Trek series had in common was hope. Despite the many "human" failings (despite many of the characters not being homo sapiens) of Picard, Data, Kirk, Janeway, Spock, Archer and others, they were almost always driven to a higher purpose - peaceful exploration and learning about new civilisations.
Discovery, despite it's name, is a vessel of war. Its Spore Drive, fueled by the suffering of living creatures, is all about entering conflict zones, wreaking havoc and getting out before it can be detected.
One of the chief criticisms of the Spore Drive is that it is far more advanced than any technology we've seen in the rest of the Star Trek canon. But I suspect its use will be banned in forthcoming episodes, in much the same way Warp Drive was limited in later series of TNG when it was revealed travelling beyond Warp 5 was damaging sub-space.
Many of the critics of Discovery point to how it doesn't "fit" the existing Star Trek canon. Sure, we had a nice tip to some other characters in the Star Trek universe, when Saru tried to science his way to being a better captain by referencing the records of captains Archer and Pike. But the military nature of Starfleet and conflicts between crew members set it apart.
And that's why Discovery has the potential to be the best of the Star Trek series. It is the back story of how the Federation and Starfleet develop into what we see in the series set in later time periods.
Enterprise had the potential to do the same but the first two series were let down by some lack-lustre writing. But we saw the genesis of increasing warp speeds, the evolution of transporter technology and the first signs of the need for a Prime Directive - a rule that was constantly broken later!
Discovery enters the fray a couple of decades before Kirk and his crew take command of the NCC-1701. And Starfleet, the Federation and all the attendant rules and structures they bring either aren't there yet or are in their infancy. And that's what gives it such potential.
It may answer why there is such enmity between humans and Kilingons? Is it because humans never took the Vulcan Solution - to shoot first - seriously? Eventually, in Kirk's time, some diplomatic relations are established with Klingons but early encounters with the Klingon empire are still hostile (as we see in the series 1 episode "Errand of Mercy").
Star Trek has often championed diversity and Discovery looks to continue that tradition. Unlike JJ Abrams ham-fisted ret-con making Sulu gay in the Star Trek: Into Darkness, the relationship between Stamets and Colber seems natural and unforced. While it's not taboo-breaking like the kiss between Kirk and Uhura, it highlights the series' commitment to being broadly representative of all people.
The dropping of an F-bomb was silly move in my view. I get that people swear and that we can't expect people saying "fuck" to be sent to the penal colony on New Zealand for swearing but that just felt to me like the writers know they're on a streaming service and can get away with it. In over 50 years, Star Trek's writers have been able to use far more imaginative language. I hope it doesn't become a crutch for writers who have run out of more colourful adjectives.
Discovery is not without challenges. For starters, there's the short attention span of today's viewers. It seems to me that many series with promise are cancelled before they can really hit their stride. The relationship between Burnham, Saru, Stamets and Lorca needs time to develop. The set pieces between Saru and Burnham have been great. The contrast between Saru's caution, born of being the prey on his homeworld, and Burnham's impetiousness, perhaps even recklessness, make for great interactions.
Stamets is a great character - I suspect he'll be a fan favourite. For the first couple of episodes we saw him, he was painted as a brash scientist with little regard for the consequences of his work. But, in the most recent episode, we saw him laugh and we had glimpse into his personal life.
Lorca is the big unknown. We've already seen one captain killed, in episode 2 when Michelle Yeoh's Philippe Georgiou was taken out on a Klingon vessel. I doubt we'll see him killed but I expect the hard-headedness we've seen thus far tempered as we learn more about him. The dialog about killing his crew rather than letting them be captured is a loose thread that I'm sure we'll see pulled in future.
That act is very out of keeping with Star Trek's morality. I can only guess his hand was forced in some way and that he had an impossible choice about the lives of his crew and some other, greater ideal. I hope that is resolved as it's hard to like a captain that would rather kill a crew than go down with the ship.
When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek in the 1960s he envisioned it as a way of presenting hope. The crew was multicultural. Russians, Americans, Vulcans, women, Asians and other cultural bgroups worked together for one ideal - to make the universe a better place. It was a quest for a utopian future.
But that journey was never smooth. And Discovery suggests it was rougher than we imagined. That's why it could be the best Star Trek TV series yet. It is unbridled by Roddenberry's instructions that each episode should stand alone and that there ought not be any major conflict between crew members. It's those elements that will allow the writers, if they're given some time, to develop a series that can delve deeper into big issues and the history of the Star Trek future.
Star Trek: Discovery airs in Australia on Netflix with a new episode released each week.