Jan 29, 2018
5 things I want out of Star Trek: Discovery
The newest Star Trek series Star Trek: Discovery is two and a half months from its premiere. Does it seem weird that a site named after a Star Trek device hasn’t weighed in on it yet? That seems to be par for the course with Discovery. As hard as the studio, mainstream TV journalists, and the targeted ads in my Twitter timeline have been humping this show, there doesn’t seem to be much buzz in the actual fan community yet. We’re wary. Star Trek has burned us in the past. The last few Trek projects include a string of lackluster Hollywood interpretations and the Series-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Still, the prospect of a new Star Trek show is worth speculating about, particularly when Discovery promises so much new ground for the series. It’s the first Trek series where the protagonist isn’t a captain (rather, a first officer); she’s a nonwhite woman to boot, serving a captain who’s also a nonwhite woman. It’s the first Trek series made for a streaming platform, and the first written with full-season story arcs in mind from the beginning. They’ve promised that main characters are going to get to argue and fight, as well as die. That stuff is all well and good. But as long as they’re doing so much new stuff with Discovery, I can think of a few things that the Star Trek franchise is long, long overdue in bringing to the screen.
1. Starfleet’s obvious human bias should be explored, or at the very least, pointed out.
Given as many planets and species the Federation has within it, humans are almost certainly ridiculously over-represented in the Federation in general, and Starfleet in particular. The Federation’s headquarters are on Earth, which is “Sector 001” on the galactic maps, and both things are weird considering that humans are supposed to be relative newcomers to galactic society, but whatever. Gotta put the capital somewhere. What I’m less willing to overlook is that almost every member of Starfleet who appears onscreen is a human, to say nothing of officers, captains, and admirals. Moreover, the ships are almost all named after Earth landmarks and phenomena. There can’t be even one ship named after a Vulcan mountain, or a famous Andorian explorer? How does this ridiculous ethnocentrism square with the idea of the Federation as an egalitarian paradise?
Official Trek canon (per Memory Alpha) tries to handwave this away by saying that humans are the species most interested in and/or suited for space travel. This assertion is made completely without citational support, and sounds suspiciously like the arguments people used to make about why most members of [X] profession were white and/or men. “You see, those other species (who had to figure out space travel on their own to even be a member of our club) just aren’t cut out for space travel!”
Cut the baloney, guys. We all know the real reason; it’s the same reason every Star Trek species looks like humans with weird shit glued to their foreheads: makeup budgets are limited. But that didn’t stop the Next Generation producers from doing a whole episode providing an in-universe explanation as to why all the Star Trek species were so similar. If you can do that, then you can come up with a similar workaround for this issue.
2. There should be romance and sex scenes suitable for adults.
If you want to gauge the level of realism in Star Trek’s depiction of sex, love, and relationships, you need look no further than Commander Riker’s success with women. Riker played the trombone. You know who else played the trombone? I did. I lettered in band for four straight years, earned one-pluses in a dozen or two solo contests, was a marching band section leader, won a major jazz award, played in numerous honor bands, and majored in trombone performance in music school. So you can take it on my authority when I tell you that no one who has touched a trombone within the past week has ever gotten laid. Other band kids beat up trombonists. It’s the musical equivalent of Hello Kitty boxer-briefs.
Star Trek’s treatment of relationships in the future generally plays like the product of a writing staff full of trombonists. Sex is in all cases referred to in language alternately juvenile and coy or coldly clinical. Romance is all awkward platitudes and stilted, flowery lines that might have come from a Mormon romance novel. The default sexual identity is “generally celibate but prone to episode-long bouts of gushy teenaged infatuation”; other acceptable ones include “in a long-term relationship” (O’Brien, Sisko, Paris and Torres), “frivolous playboy” (Kirk, Riker, Bashir), and “effectively asexual” (Spock, Data, the Doctor). If you’re a woman, you get to pick from the first two only. Pretty much everyone important is straight, cis, monogamous, and if they have any kinks, they keep ‘em secret even from the viewer. What’s more, people in long-term relationships inevitably get married and have kids, both options which even today are becoming less and less popular.
Maybe the constraints of network television, and the stereotypes associated with Star Trek’s audience, once kept the franchise from tackling these juicier issues. Times have changed. Broadcast standards have relaxed. Star Trek fandom is grown-up, diverse, and overwhelmingly broad-minded. And they’re used to seeing sci-fi with mature themes in it, including sexual ones. Trek has to adapt.
Not only would the franchise grow in artistic merit, but a whole host of new plotlines could open up. They could dig into the dynamics of plural relationships. They could feature a gay couple incubating their own genetic child inside an artificial womb. How about, say, a transgender character getting an anatomically perfect sex change? How about a bit of comic relief where a private holodeck session is interrupted, and a character is caught givin’ it to a tentacled creature with a couch-sized ass and his kindergarten teacher’s face? It’s the future. Go for broke.
3. Avoid extensive retconning.
One of the original Star Trek‘s most popular and enduring one-off characters is, of course, Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically enhanced human who, along with dozens of others, seized power in many countries and triggered the Eugenics Wars in the far-off decade of (wait for it…) the 1990s.
The 1990s are now in the past, and obviously, this didn’t happen. Somebody would have heard of it. We’re also just seven years away from the Bell Riots; seems like we’d better get a move-on on those internment camps for the homeless. (I’m sure Ben Carson’s working on it.) There are also certain technological developments, like talking computer interfaces, PADDs, and tricorders, which seemed very far-off in the future at the time their respective shows were on the air, but which now, in the year 2017, we either already have, or anticipate in a few years’ time.
This seems to present us with a problem. Star Trek is meant to take place in our own future, as an extension of Earth’s real history. As geeks, we’re fixated on trivia. It’s our natural inclination to “correct” these hiccups, and to rewrite the Trek timeline in a way that more accurately reflects how the late 20th and early 21st centuries really went. Maybe do something with time travel? Alternate dimensions? There’s a precedent.
I say: don’t. Just don’t. Let it be. Discovery, and any other Trek entries going forward, won’t gain anything from such action. All you’ll do is make the franchise tiresomely self-conscious. Contrary to popular belief, science fiction isn’t really about the future. It’s about exploring contemporary issues. The timelines of past Star Trek series reflected contemporary society at the time they were produced, and keeping them that way doesn’t prevent Star Trek: Discovery from doing the same.
4. Create an actual 23rd Century culture.
One of the most distracting details of the Star Trek franchise is its characters’ inclination to dork out over the pop culture of several centuries ago. The most popular holodeck simulations seem to be Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, and 1950s nightclubs. Picard loves hard-boiled detective stories. Tom Paris loves B-movies. Sisko plays baseball, which appears not to have undergone any significant rule changes in nearly four hundred years. Harry Kim and Riker love jazz; that’s more people than I know of who listen to jazz today. The perfect metaphor for this phenomenon is the scene in the Star Trek reboot where a young Kirk, in the 2240s, takes a Corvette (from the 1960s) for a joyride, while listening to a Beastie Boys track (from the 1990s).
Isn’t this just a bit weird? It would be as if the hottest pop-culture trends in 2017 were Christopher Marlowe plays and lute music. It’s especially weird because the Federation’s post-scarcity, interplanetary society a) affords it citizens unlimited freedom to pursue artistic endeavors if they choose, and b) has many planets’ artistic and cultural traditions to work with. Yet it seems to have produced no culture of its own. You never see anyone listen to contemporary music, watch current TV or movies, or read for pleasure. Aside from the occasional holo-novel, everyone’s content that everything worthwhile was already created a long time ago. Let’s change that. Let’s introduce not only contemporary visual and narrative art, but new games and sports (including video games!) contemporary music, and maybe even art forms and media that don’t exist yet.
5. Show the perspective of the grunts.
Star Trek prides itself on its spirit of inclusion and egalitarianism. There are main cast members representative of a huge spectrum of races, sexes, nationalities, species, and what have you. However, in the entire history of the Star Trek franchise, there has been a grand total of one main character (Quark) who wasn’t either an officer of some authority in their respective space corps, or related to one. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with military organization, but the officers are generally in the minority.
There’s an entire side of life on a starship that has rarely, if ever, been shown on a Star Trek series. We have absolutely no perspective from the low-ranking peons that make up the majority of the crew on the Federation’s ships and stations. We can make some assumptions, though. Do you think the ship’s janitors get quarters like these?
Do replicator repair technicians gets their own private replicators? Do the orderlies in sickbay get as much holodeck time as they want? Does a security guard in the brig get a slap on the wrist after routinely and severely violating Federation law? I don’t think so.
How does this jibe with the Federation’s utopian ideals? How does rank and privilege translate into a nominally post-class society? Remember, no one has to work in the Star Trek universe. Every crew member could’ve just as easily stayed home and worked on their free throws all day. Instead, they enlisted in Starfleet, where they’re shoved into a tin can and ordered into mortal danger by people who get to sleep in cushy digs and laugh at the little guy’s troubles at their weekly officer-only poker game. Resentment would only be natural.
Let’s have at least a plotline or two exploring the lifestyle and working conditions of the ordinary person. Let’s have some conflicts between the enlisted men and the officers. In this age of increasing social stratification, I think it would resonate beyond the writers’ wildest dreams.