The Sunday Magazine: State of Star Trek 2020

I did overview posts on “Watchmen” and “Star Wars” examining where they are and where I hope they’re going. With the conclusion of Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard It seems like the right time to look at “Star Trek” in the same way.

The Star Trek shows can be categorized as “What If?” or “What’s Next?”. The first category follows plots which generally are prequels or in-between series. Examples are “Enterprise” and the current “Star Trek: Discovery”. The second category follows the continuation of the timeline begun in the original 1966 series. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Star Trek: Picard”. Each has its pleasures and its pitfalls. I presume each has its fans since they continue to produce shows in both categories. I’m going to look at the two current incarnations of each.

From the moment it started Star Trek: Discovery was a “What If?” show. Of any of this type of show it has been the one which has happily thrown out the previous Star Trek history, referred to by fans as Canon. It is that rich history that boxes in the writers. They are picking a blank space in a tapestry woven around them. Forced to try and fill that space without being a blot they mostly fail. They can’t help asking questions we know answers to. So interactions with different alien races happens decades before the first contact we saw in previous series. Other plot devices add in technology from later series into shows taking place much earlier.

My biggest problem with these series is they too often seem like something a bunch of fans were talking about in the food court at a Star Trek convention. What if Spock had a hidden sister? What if that sister was the reason the Federation and Klingons were at war? What is she served on a super-secret starship with technology that allowed it to travel faster than warp speed? On and on it goes. The thing that every Star Trek series has done very well is the casting. Every crew they’ve put on the screen has been played by actors who infuse them with the right amount of seriousness to make it believable. When the shows have failed it has been because the writers have given those actors dumb things to do.

Because I enjoy the characters, I’ve had to turn off my criticism of all the nonsense plotting on Discovery. I found that it made it more enjoyable if I just enjoyed the high-level fan fiction for what it was.

My expectations were higher for Star Trek: Picard because it is a “What’s Next?” series. It picks up with Captain Jean-Luc Picard after he has retired from Starfleet to oversee his family vineyard. The writers here are given much more freedom to choose which stories they want to add to. Which parts of Canon do they want to extend? In this case they took one of the running plot threads about synthetic life; as portrayed by the android Commander Data from The Next Generation and the villainous hive mind of the Borg. If Discovery is all about thrills and chills, Picard aims for a more cerebral tone. Asking high minded questions of morality. Which has been a Star Trek staple since the beginning. They also come with easier solutions than in reality, but that is what science fiction does.

The writers chose to surround Picard with a new rag tag non-Starfleet crew. This was a great decision on their part. The nostalgia of seeing Patrick Stewart play Picard again was enough. The previous characters brought back into the plot all made sense. There was plenty of callback to previous story from the TV show and subsequent movies. To credit the writers they made some of those previous episodes be seen with a new eye. Giving new motivations to things we had seen previously. That is when a “What’s Next?” show is at its best. For the most part Picard is one of those.

The future of Star Trek is on the streaming service of CBS. It is also going to continue with Discovery and Picard each working their side of the Star Trek street. I think it allows every fan to find a place where they can ask the question they like best.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Star Trek Discovery

Sometimes you just have to give in and enjoy something for what it is. Somewhere while watching season 1 of Star Trek Discovery I quit questioning all the retroactive continuity that was making me annoyed. Once I did that, I realized this new series was like all of the Star Trek novels I read after the original series left the air in 1969; a way of keeping the spirit alive.

Star Trek Discovery takes place about ten years prior to the original 1966-1969 tv series. It dives right into the problem I have with prequels as it gleefully throws away any previous history in favor of a new version. Over the first few episodes I kept talking back to my television screen which went like this, “Oh c’mon! Somebody would have mentioned this before.” Somewhere in episode 6 or 7 where we were facing new versions of Spock’s father Sarek and original series villain Harry Mudd I stopped caring and just let it go. I put myself in the mindset that this isn’t part of the real Star Trek universe but some alternate version.

One of the reasons I was willing to do this was the crew of Discovery. I stayed with Star Trek Voyager long after the stories dropped in writing quality because of the crew. Discovery, I believe, will have the same effect. It has an advantage of having shorter seasons of 15 episodes. Also, the writing team has seemingly a big board of everything mentioned in the original series and pulls two or three things down and adds them to every episode.

They made a very odd choice to spend the first two episodes on another starship setting up the main character Michael Burnham played by Sonequa Martin-Green. She is a human who was raised by Spock’s parents. Don’t ask more than that because her existence makes no sense. Her actions in the first two episodes are even more illogical. They are meant to put her in a situation where she is looking for redemption when she is added to the crew of Discovery in episode 3. From there as the crew gets to know Burnham and we as an audience get to know the crew things improve.

Like all series these days there is an overarching conspiracy theory plotline. What makes this fun, instead of dreary, is the writers take it to one of the more fun places in Star Trek history setting many of the later season episodes there. Taken as a whole, episodes ten through thirteen are where Discovery takes off. Again as long as you don’t spend too much time thinking about what we know from previous iterations. I was looking forward to the next episode as each one ended.

The resolution of that plot brought season 1 to a two-episode finale that was enjoyable. It ended with a call back to the original series as the Enterprise was hovering in front of Discovery as the season ended. Which is an example of the not quite fan fiction quality of Discovery. There were times it felt like the writers had started with a premise found on a fan forum somewhere.

The second season of Discovery begins in a couple weeks. I’ll be watching. With my mindset perfectly adjusted to enjoy the silly ride.

Mark Behnke