And maybe, by going back to where the future should have started, but never really did, we can dream a way into the future that we might yet live to deserve? Seeing the Enterprise destroyed hurt. The future was a human race that had perfected itself, but which also felt comfortable—for white men—because not so much had changed. Uhuru was a service worker and Worf was a punching bag; when the show made a black captain, was it a coincidence that the show also became “darker” and less optimistic, when its characters started to be “flawed” and “ambiguous”? The visuals of the crew staring up at their home, in flames, wordless, mute; it’s a payoff the show earned by building a home, for years, for them to mourn. First, I won’t lie, I am left a little raw, a little tired, a little drained by that first two-part episode. But to get there—and I have to say this as clearly as possible—this show needs to clean up its fucking act with respect to the deeply racist portrayal of its Klingons. Is it a step forward or back? It hurts. Rather than recap one show, however, we’ll be checking in regularly with a variety of shows and topics throughout the fall. It’s a pretty damned competent show, with strong actors and high production value, and that has to be said. The dialogue is wooden and poorly delivered, but the visuals are spectacular; My God, says Kirk, what have I done? As the first Star Trek from the Peak TV era, it benefits from the much higher bar we now have for TV, and it almost totally lacks the Completely Hokey Dumb and Bad Star Trek Moments that you used to have to just sort of grin and shrug at (watch any but the very, very best Star Trek episodes and see how long it takes for them to throw some piece of utter trash on the screen, the answer might surprise you; call it “campy” if you want, but a lot of times it’s just incompetent writing, production, and acting, and Star Trek has been those things so many, many times). Looking back from two decades later, Next Generation (1987–94), Deep Space Nine (1993–99), and Voyager (1995–2001) feel like a single continuous 1990’s moment, a moment that began in a renewed liberal optimism for multiculturalism and progress and the general advancement of humanity. The question I must therefore beg us to ask is: What happened to the next next generation? Discovery lives in a different kind of present, when we know better than to think that we are already great. I buy her as someone who can carry this series—who will grow into the role—and that’s all we need right now. I want the utopian vision we used to have; I miss the relief of seeing the future perfect on screen, arrived and triumphal, and I mourn its absence. And the fact that the single character carrying the franchise is a black woman—and that we will see her grow to be worthy of her captaincy, rather than being handed it, at the start of the series—well, there is a lot to say about that today. Enterprise and Battlestar Galactica have a retro technological realism in common—which The Expanse has recently perfected—and while the new Star Trek movies and Discovery have a much more glossy, scintillating, and saturated feel, they are technically throwbacks to a time before the 1990’s, back to the era of Captain Kirk, when Picard still had hair. It was the show that suggested that maybe we weren’t all destined to progress forward, forever, and that maybe the future wouldn’t be a gently increasing harmony and understanding for all; at its most subversive, it allowed itself to suggest that humanity’s crimes of violent exploitation would be what destroyed us. We could all work and learn and grow and love, together. We really did need that, of course. The most wonderful thing about Star Trek was always its vision of a utopian socialist family workplace, a future in which everyone worked and lived together and could figure out, as a group, how to reconcile its differences. It even built itself on the conceit that networked computers would be the thing that would destroy us, and that only a pre-networked museum piece could survive the coming deluge. There was no more progress, just more reboots of the same. It’s hard to believe that a baby who was born the fateful day that theme song was debuted is now old enough to drive, and the fact that there are probably actors on Discovery who were too young to remember it makes me feel so, so old. We were alone in the universe. I refer, of course, to this theme song. In that sense, the fact that Michael Burnham will have to work ten times as hard to get where Kirk and Picard had the privilege of starting; that she will have to survive disgrace and incarceration to find that family, that home will burn down before we can try to find another one, well… all of that makes me sad. There is work to do. But it was always too easy. Maybe Star Trek’s future perfect was always hollow, a paper-thin smugness covering over a triumphalist presentism. I remain optimistic. Remember that? But maybe it had to die. It’s hard not to be, in the face of such beauty,
Aaron But that theme song changed us, as a country and as a Star Trek fan community; it’s become a cliché to say it, but nothing would ever be the same again. How do we keep going after this? “How is Quantum Leap guy on television again?” I demanded, and, “Will someone please murder the man who composed that theme song?”
But no one answered. Alas, that moment had clearly run out of gas when September of 2001 happened, and when it brought with it the terrible, epoch-shaping tragedy of that year. First up is Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle on the triumphant return of Star Trek with the new Discovery series on CBS All Access, which is a thing apparently now. Discovery is going where the show has never gone before, by building a single-character arc as the series’ spine, by putting everything on the back of one character. Maybe it will get better; it will certainly get worse first. I’m not fluent with Star Trek stuff, but Aaron and Sarah are…
by Aaron Bady
We can be relieved that this show is good, I think, or at least that it’s far from terrible. This is a show that began by declaring that it doesn’t have the answers; Michael Burnham’s embrace of the Bush doctrine is worrying, but, then again, she’s not the captain yet. But the point is this: Star Trek has always wanted to be more progressive than it ever really managed to be, because it wanted its cake and also to eat it. Voyager had a female captain, but it marooned her to the farthest reaches of the galaxy (and the less said about the garbage politics of the reboot movies, the better). Why did Science Fiction stop moving forward? And for all the familiar Star Trek touches, I can’t help but feel lost and confused that the basic and essential unit of the show is not an ensemble crew and that we start the show by blowing up the ship. The last three Star Treks, including this one, are set in the past, well before Next Generation ever happened. We were still in charge. This show is post-racism, but still believes in “culture” with a Victorian faith in white mythologies; when Burnham declares that “It would be unwise to confuse race and culture,” it’s hard not to hear her saying—and being vindicated by subsequent events—that while humans have evolved past racism, there are other races who have not yet evolved, who are still savage and ugly and vicious and violent, and because we are better than them—because we come in peace—the correct thing to do when you see them is to attack immediately. It’s why I never really got into Enterprise, I think; the 1990’s were over, and the future was canceled; instead of marching forward to the stars, we turned back the clock and were somehow mucking around with basic principles again. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both feel like spin-off series of Next Generation, and while they will sometimes make you miss Patrick Stewart, there are a lot of gems hidden in those ensembles. She literally does, in fact, make this kind of claim, just as the Klingons might be right to distrust a smug imperialist Navy that shows up and declares they come in peace. Do we even want to? Progress was as simple as sitting back and watching it happen. Seeing so many people die, right off the bat, seeing Michael Burnham become a mutineer, lose her mother-figure, go to jail… The future is fucked up. But they all share an ethos. The old Star Trek did that, of course, by building on a very masculine military family structure—the homosocial band of brothers structure that launched a thousand slash fictions, and was also pretty sexist across the board—but Next Generation at least helped move the franchise forward from those military roots, starting to turn a cowboy-imperialist exploration show into a show as much about diplomacy as it could manage to be; it was communication and idealism and each other’s better angels that would save us all, it dared to dream. We had lost something, as had they. The present sucks. SEPTEMBER 25, 2017
This week on Dear Television:
After a brief hiatus to do some wall repairs, Dear TV is back at it. If the 1990’s thought that the cold war was over—and were overcome with a delightfully smug self-regard that sowed the seeds of its own destruction—the 2000s apparently decided that the horrible, horrible future would never ever end, forever. The way to survive what we had become, in the future, was to go back. The Next Generation thrashed around for at least a full season until they figured out what they were doing, and even then, there was a lot of backsliding into holodeck episodes, Wesley Crusher episodes, or all manner of really misguided uses of Troi. We can’t just wait for the old white racists to die off or become enlightened; they became president when we weren’t looking, and everything that one might have imagined an Obama presidency would represent for America, now, seems hard even to remember. And while the original series certainly had its moments, we tend to grade it on a really generous curve when it comes to anything but sparkling little nonsense scenes between Kirk, Spock, and Bones. What, then, do we do with Discovery? The year 2404 is about as far as we really get in the main timeline—when Voyager returns and immediately starts playing games with time travel—and the future beyond that point just turns out to be an endless temporal cold war. Star Trek always started with its ensemble in place, more or less, and it never had to earn the future. I dare to dream that that will have proved itself to be the real future perfect. But a B+ is a strong passing grade, and she has moments of sublimity; I buy her as what Riker was supposed to be, a hot-headed young officer on the way up, not there yet, but with tons of potential. The future, in which humanity was perfectible, just came. And let’s be blunt, a lot of Star Trek has been terrible. There are losses to grieve and to prepare to mourn. We would survive. Michelle Yeoh is outstanding, already playing at the level it would take Patrick Stewart years to get to—remember what a cranky and wooden old grandpa he was in Farpoint?—and while I’d only give Sonequa Martin-Green a solid B+, it’s mainly because the character hasn’t yet taken shape; you can’t nail a character that’s not yet there to nail. Humans are not perfecting themselves. When she is, perhaps, she will have learned to know better? The entire show was pretty obviously an elaborate allegory for the events of September 2001—and for the horrifically disastrous military conflict that “Where My Heart Will Take Me” by Russell Watson helped drag us into, and, by the way, I still hope to see Watson in the Hague for his crimes—but there’s no way to watch BSG without seeing the context it sprang from. Maybe it’s a show that, because it knows it doesn’t already have the answers, will do some work to think of a few? This is a problem
But, again, we are early days. I would watch the living shit out of a Star Trek with Michelle Yeoh as Captain Picard. Instead, it was Battlestar Galactica that carried Trek forward into a new era. Blowing up the ship became a Star Trek cliché, at a certain point, but it was a story arc they went to so many times because of the power of the moment they first did it. It was the show Enterprise couldn’t be, and it went where Star Trek couldn’t go; it asked What have we become? Spoilers for the pilot ahead, so, if you haven’t watched, I don’t know, beam yourself up, I guess? The only language the Klingons understand is violence, as the British used to say about all the inferior races they conquered and enslaved, and Michael Burnham, it seems, is exactly the kind of xeno-anthropologist that would make this kind of claim. And it looked reassuringly like the present; yes, there was diversity on the bridge, but not that much of it, not really. We shall see.