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?

—“No, we can’t name a shuttle after your planet’s greatest folk hero, they’re already all named after my planet’s rivers.”
—“What if we get more shuttles?”
—“My planet has a lot of rivers.”

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.

You can see the pure lust on Crusher’s face.

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.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Singh. Your Tamagotchi didn’t survive the cryogenic freezing.”

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).

“Check your head, citizen!”

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?

How much goddamn seating does a notoriously solitary bachelor need in his apartment, anyway?

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.

—“How many redshirts ate it this week?”
—“Four. Pretty slow.”

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.

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  • maarvarq

    “4. Create an actual 23rd Century culture.”
    This would be great, but probably beyond the abilities of most of the writers that will work on the show.

    • Kenneth Morgan

      The problem with trying to project what future culture will look like is that it will tend to reflect what the current era believes it’ll look like. Wait a few years and it’ll look dated, because the next era will have different ideas. Case & point: the way “Buck Rogers”, back in 1979, though 25th century culture would look like. Anybody think that’ll be accurate?

      • Thomas Stockel

        It’s a valid point. Hell, watch Quantum Leap and see what the producers thought the near future would look like. It looked silly then and looks even sillier now.

        But you know, he’s got a point. People in the future are so utterly fascinated with the 20th century that it gets pretty silly. Tom Paris is an excellent example; the dude had a replica of a 1950s television, for God’s sake. That’s like future hipster or something.

    • neidhart

      And it seems like whenever a character reads a book, it’s always something public domain, like Dickens or Sherlock Holmes.

      Not only are there no authors in the 23rd century, but nobody reads Stephen King or Dave Eggers? Are there copyright issues with just mentioning names or book titles?

  • Cristiona

    3 and 4 sound good, but don’t really care about the others. I’ve never tuned in to Star Trek hoping for an episode that will expand my understanding of futuristic space-plumbing.

    I’ll be happy if it tells interesting stories and doesn’t suck. Bonus points if it spends less than 10% of its time on a soap box.

  • Daniel Longcore

    Wasn’t #5 the premise of the TNG episode “Lower Decks”?

    • Thomas Stockel

      Sort of. But those were all ensigns. The author is suggesting they go even lower, simple crewmen with mundane jobs who probably never go on away missions, technicians and security personnel and the like.

      B5 in it’s fifth season had a fun episode where they focused on two guys like that, it was a fun episode.

  • PhysUnknown

    “Sisko plays baseball, which appears not to have undergone any significant rule changes in nearly four hundred years.”

    Given how beholden that sport is to its “traditions”, I’d buy that it doesn’t change in any significant way in the next 400 years.

    • Steven Birkner

      I don’t know about that… the designated hitter, intentional walk rule change, wild cards, interleague play, replay, etc. I’d say there have been a bunch of changes already.

      As for the article, numbers 4 and 5 are especially good points, though as others have pointed out, there have been a few episodes that have dealt with the latter issue.

      • I’m pretty sure it was established in TNG (S3E1 “Evolution”) that general interest in baseball had disappeared sometime in the 21st century, largely because the game hadn’t changed enough to respond to audiences’ desire for more fast-paced sports.

  • mamba

    Voyager had an entire episode completely dedicated to the low grunts once, and it was cute. Janeway’s going through the reports and notices that 3 people never ever had an away mission, like that was the first time she ever THOUGHT of these people at all. Up to that point, they were just the people working under the important people she dealt with, and even THEY never thought of these grunts at all. They were just buried in the lower decks and side-medbay, and one of them even was quite the little genius!

    That means that these 3 people volunteered to go into space, but never even got to actually DO anything interesting in space. That’s gotta suck for them…

  • ussafs3

    I’d love a Star Trek show called “Redshirt,” where every week it focused on a new character who wasn’t going to survive until the closing credits.

  • Captain’s Orders

    My hopes for this show are extremely low. Given that it is a prequel series to TOS and that Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman are involved. Kurtzman is one half of douchebag idiot writing duo Orci and Kurtzman, you know the dumbass who thought cold fusion produces extreme cold?

    I wish they made this a sequel series to DS9 and we got to see the fallout of the Dominion War and maybe the return of the two biggest badasses in Trek Sisko and Garak

  • Hutchy01

    Doesn’t have to start good, it just needs to last a couple of series to try improve like such as TNG did and not just get canned before it grows the beard like enterprise.