Star Trek Discovery has an Identity Crisis

Star Trek Discovery, the first iteration of Star Trek to hit the small screen in over twelve years, has just screened its third episode. After a promising, if somewhat derivative two-part pilot, reactions to the show were mainly positive and anticipation for episode three, Context is for Kings, was high. That episode was released this week and served to highlight a major problem Discovery will have to address if it hopes to succeed. 

No, it’s not that the theme tune is immediately forgettable and un-hummable. Star Trek Discovery has an identity crisis.

During production we were assured by former show-runner Bryan Fuller that Discovery was taking place in the Prime universe, i.e. the universe the five previous Star Trek television shows and pre-2009 movies have taken place in.

Fuller is reported to have said this was to keep it separate from the “Kelvinverse” movies starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, et al, saying “we don’t have to track anything and they don’t have to track what we’re doing”; that’s as maybe, but in all likelihood it was down to legal shenanigans with Paramount owning the movie rights and CBS the television rights, and never the twain shall meet.

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for all three episodes broadcast so far.

The Technology

Despite this crowbar separation there is, naturally, a very similar aesthetic to the Kelvinverse and Star Trek Discovery.

Many critics of the show have argued that some of the technology on display in Discovery – holographic communications, floating holo-display interfaces – is more advanced than the tech used by the Kirk and co in The Original Series.

James Frayne as Sarek

A holographic communication projection of Sarek

That, we must forgive.

We have to allow the show some logical creative licence with technology, otherwise it would look terrible and dated from the off. Remember when Scotty created the bridge of the Enterprise (no bloody A, B, C, or D) on the holodeck in Relics? You really want us to go back to that aesthetic?

In 2017 we have touchscreens, tablet computers, and video communication, all of which are more advanced than the technology available to the crew of the original NCC-1701, and are on par even with that used by the Enterprise D crew. To think that by the 2250s, roughly when Discovery is set, we’ll still be using this technology on military and science vessels is silly. So of course a 2017 re-imagining of the year 2250 is going to look more advanced than the 1966 vision.

The Klingons

I love the way that Discovery’s Klingons are the ideological seed of the 24th Century Klingons we know from TNG onwards, but it’s the way the Klingons look that maybe the biggest upset of Discovery and one which starts to bring the identity crisis I mentioned into the light.

A Star Trek Discovery Klingon

The Klingons in Discovery look very different to the Prime Universe Klingons we know such as Worf or General Martok. In fact, the Klingons of Discovery look very similar to those of the Kelvinverse, as seen in Star Trek Into Darkness. They’re hairless, and almost bug-like.

Now you may be thinking that they’ve redesigned the Klingons throughout the show’s history and explained it with the Augment Virus in Enterprise. What’s one more time? Previous redesigns which began with ST:TMP were subtle, and retroactively written in to be gradually developing cranial ridges as the virus was bred out generation by generation.

T’Kuvma and his followers, and all the Klingons of the twenty four Great Houses, should still be in grip of the virus and in the process of redeveloping their ridges, but at the very least they shouldn’t all be hairless!

The “new” Kelvin-esque look, which was actually a bit of a nod to the ST:TMP look, feels like a step in the wrong direction. It serves to link the series to the Kelvinverse movies where there should be none.

A New Way To Fly?

The Iconian Gate from Contagion

It took until episode three to introduce the actual ship for which the show is named. This seemed odd to me after the first two episodes but having now seen episode three and gotten a feel for where the show is going, I can see why. This is where it gets annoying and weird.

It is suggested that the USS Discovery will be powered by some sort of space fungus which can somehow transport the ship anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of eye. Long-time TNG fans might think this sounds somewhat similar to the Iconian Gate technology from the episode Contagion – and you’d be right, pretty much. That’s what it looked like in the closing scenes of episode three.

The Discovery crew are on an experimental ship with an experimental drive which, when engaged, causes the ship to go into a state of readiness called Black Alert. If the fate of sister-ship the USS Glenn, the appearance of a monster-sized tardigrade, and the revelation by show runners that they will visit the Mirror Universe are anything to go by, this involves some sort or reality-hopping, dimension-tearing, wibbly-wobbly, insy-outsiness.

Burnham surrounded by magic space fungus

Burnham surrounded by magic space fungus

The trouble is, this is not a method of propulsion used by any species in the series after Discovery so we already know – spoiler alert! – that they’re onto a loser! Everyone uses warp drive or transwarp; warp drive is a staple of Star Trek!

What is Discovery?

Episodes one and two felt like Trek of old with a 2017 twist, but after episode three and the introduction of those presumably long-stretching plot points it doesn’t feel like Star Trek anymore, but neither does it feel like a reboot. The show is confused. It feels like some odd hybrid of Hollywood and high budget fan-film and, for me, that is where Discovery needs to focus its attention and decide exactly who, when and what it is.

Star Trek Discovery is available now on CBS in the USA and internationally on Netflix

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