After a brief hiatus to do some wall repairs, Dear TV is back at it. Rather than recap one show, however, we'll be checking in regularly with a variety of shows and topics throughout the fall. 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. Spoilers for the pilot ahead, so, if you haven't watched, I don't know, beam yourself up, I guess? 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. And let’s be blunt, a lot of Star Trek has been terrible. 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. 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. 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. But they all share an ethos. 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. 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.
I refer, of course, to this theme song. 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. 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. 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. “How is Quantum Leap guy on television again?” I demanded, and, “Will someone please murder the person who composed that theme song?”
But no one answered. We were alone in the universe.
Instead, it was Battlestar Galactica that carried Trek forward into a new era. 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. It was the show Enterprise couldn’t be, and it went where Star Trek couldn’t go; it asked What have we become? How do we keep going after this? Do we even want to? 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. 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. The way to survive what we had become, in the future, was to go back.
Why did Science Fiction stop moving forward? The last three Star Treks, including this one, are set in the past, well before Next Generation ever happened. 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. The question I must therefore beg us to ask is: What happened to the next next generation? 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. 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. There was no more progress, just more reboots of the same. Humans are not perfecting themselves.
What, then, do we do with Discovery? Is it a step forward or back?
It’s a pretty damned competent show, with strong actors and high production value, and that has to be said. 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).
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. 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. I buy her as someone who can carry this series—who will grow into the role—and that’s all we need right now.
We really did need that, of course. 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. 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.
First, I won’t lie, I am left a little raw, a little tired, a little drained by that first two-part episode. 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. 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. 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. Remember that? The dialogue is wooden and poorly delivered, but the visuals are spectacular; My God, says Kirk, what have I done? 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. Seeing the Enterprise destroyed hurt. We had lost something, as had they.
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. 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 could all work and learn and grow and love, together. We would survive.
But it was always too easy. Star Trek tended to begin with its ensemble in place, more or less, and the Kirk and Picard Treks never had to earn the future. The future, in which humanity was perfectible, just came. Progress was as simple as sitting back and watching it happen. And it looked reassuringly like the present; yes, there was diversity on the bridge, but not that much of it, not really. Uhura 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”? 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). 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. The future was a human race that had perfected itself, but which also felt comfortable—for white men—because not so much had changed. We were still in charge.
Discovery lives in a different kind of present, when we know better than to think that we are already great. 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. There is work to do. There are losses to grieve and to prepare to mourn. Maybe it will get better; it will certainly get worse first. The present sucks.
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. It hurts. 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. I would watch the living shit out of a Star Trek with Michelle Yeoh as Captain Picard.
But maybe it had to die. Maybe Star Trek’s future perfect was always hollow, a paper-thin smugness covering over a triumphalist presentism. 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? 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?
We shall see. 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. 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. 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. 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. This is a problem.
But, again, we are early days. 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. When she is, perhaps, she will have learned to know better? I dare to dream that that will have proved itself to be the real future perfect.
I remain optimistic. It's hard not to be, in the face of such beauty,
by Sarah Mesle
There’s a moment in the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery where the central character, First Officer Michael Burnham, alone in a space suit and equipped only with thruster pack, blasts through the emptiness of space into a dense belt of rocks and debris. It’s dangerous and physically demanding and her breathing changes as she presses fast against space’s emptiness. Watching, we’re worried if she’s okay. And then her face changes: lit up, she laughs.
Back on Michael’s spaceship, the crew on whose behalf she’s performing this mission can’t see her joy; they can only check her vital signs. Her blood pressure is low. Is this a matter of concern, wonders an officer on the bridge? No, interprets Michael’s captain with a slight grin: “She’s having fun.”
Watching this scene I immediately knew what I wanted to say about this new series of Star Trek: that I wanted every smart lady watcher of television I knew to tune in. I’m not sure we will all like it. Whether or not you do might depend on your patience for conversation pushing the believable edge of zestiness as well as your ability to find interesting the semi-camp costumes of throat-talking alien villains. It’s been a long time since I was really committed to a Star Trek series, and even I’m not sure if I like the genre anymore.
But this scene I begin with, one of exploration and approving oversight, was remarkable to me. It was remarkable because it was a woman soaring, semi-ill-advisedly but definitely very pleasurably, out into space, and even more so because it was a woman, a woman captain, who was looking over her, recognizing the pleasure this exploring woman felt.
Also the woman captain was Michelle Yeoh. Michelle Yeoh? Yes, Michelle Yeoh.
I REPEAT: THE CAPTAIN, THE WOMAN CAPTAIN, IS MICHELLE YEOHHHHH!
I mean, I am far from some a martial arts movie expert (my friend Michelle Chihara had to remind me of this scene) but it’s impossible to overstate how genius this casting decision was, how when we see Michelle Yeoh, as Captain Philipa Georgiou, sitting on the bridge, we can immediately imagine all the talent and good grace she deployed as she battled her way to the captain’s chair. Imagining that what she would do, once she arrived there, is seek out a talented young woman to mentor and to trust, stirs something deep in my soul.
I came to this series with many of the same questions Aaron addressed in his post above: questions about optimism, violence, nation. But watching the actual episode shifted my focus because I shifted the part of my brain I was watching with. I’d been in a particular sort of critical analytic mode, and then all of a sudden found myself in the gaspy lady mode. (Please note: gasping is not less analytic, it’s just differently analytic. )
A few years ago I wrote something about Outlander and how its narrative conceit—plucky British WWII nurse “falls through time” to have hot kilt sex with Scottish rebel—was the ultimate womanly television fantasy. Now, I stand corrected, or at least amended. I mean, yes, Outlander’s rich fantasy attaches together the ideas of sexual and political freedom, using as glue an extremely foxy man who, because a Celtic rebel, gets to have a powerful heroic eroticism not freighted with the bullshit of American masculine power. It is fucking great. But just as great is what Star Trek: Discovery sets out to do with Michelle Yeoh’s powerful beauty. It marries an ideal of independent, ambitious womanhood to another, often antithetical-seeming ideal: mentorship by an older woman. Centering this relationship puts this series, potentially, into the genre of shows I gasp over with lady friends; seeing in it reflected some of what we hope and want and make in our lives.
I’ve spent some time trying to think of other relationships like this, a young woman with an older woman mentoring her into adventure, in stories I love. Many of these stories feature head-strong women: Laura, Jo, Arya, Menolly, Leia, Miriam Ravenswood, Janie Crawford, etc. In most of these stories, a central feature of this strong independent woman is her identification with an older, mentoring man. Being free is often about rejecting the role-modeling of women, or at least about stepping outside of womanhood. Stories, of course, have lately been changing: as one example, you might think of the Pixar movie Brave, which is the story of how a mother learns to love her daughter’s independence, rather than to discipline it. (Another version is Tiffany Aching, in Terry Prachett’s Wee Free Men.) But these stories are still few and far between. And a story like Star Trek: Discovery, that takes a mentoring relationship between women as its starting part, without making a big deal about it? Fucking remarkable.
I just keep lingering on that phrase: “she’s having fun.” How pedestrian it is! It partners for me with another key moment in the episode, when Michael urges Captain Michelle Yeoh, against a certain measure of reason, to put the ship on red alert in anticipation of a Vulcan attack. Michael, in this moment, is addled by radiation sickness; she is burned, emotional, and in pain. She is, in other words, speaking in the position from which women are least often listened to. And Captain Michelle Yeoh trusts her, because of course she does.
Fun plus trust friendship. Lady TV watchers, we know: this is as good as hot kilt sex, and just as rare.
This seems especially resonant to me because of the story’s setting, both temporally and generically. These women, First Officer Michael Burnham and Captain Michelle Yeoh, are in the future; they are in science fiction.
And watching them I had a sort of revelation about the fantasy life of my own narrative pleasure—the future, as it’s imagined in fiction, seems sleek and male, and deprived of the textures that make genres aligned with the past (fantasy, historical fiction) seem so womanly to me. This may be completely idiosyncratic. It’s not that I don’t like science fiction or that I can’t think of examples of science fiction that work differently, and it’s certainly not that a lot of fantasy is so great at passing the Bechdel test. But I’m putting this observation out there to think through. Growing up I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation almost daily—it was in syndication, and on every night at nine—for literally years, and I watched often with both my parents, and yet it seemed to me mostly a “my dad” activity, not because my mom liked it less or wasn’t there, but because my dad was the one who knew the original Star Trek backwards and forward and because it was my dad’s sci-fi collection filling the bookcase on the wall and because I thought about my dad and the great pleasure of talking to him when I read the great science fiction classics—Stranger in a Strange Land, I Robot, Buy Jupiter (not a great read, but I really liked it), etc.
The novels and shows that I associate most closely with womanly ties, and with my own excellent mother, are not less important because they are primarily historical, in fact, quite the contrary. Nevertheless: they are mostly historical. (Maybe it’s that science fiction seems less interested in hair?) And this interests me: by virtue of where I’m from and who I am and the books that were around me, as a girl reader, when I imagined the future, I imagined it shaped by men, and I imagined my relationships in this fictional future shaped by male expectations. Is it just me? Reading science fiction was one way to show that I mattered to a male dominated world, and that the source of my mattering—I wouldn’t have seen it this way without recent conversations about feminism with my friend the excellent Hester Blum—was in my willingness to imagine myself in future spaces that didn’t imagine other women being there. It was in the past where I sought out other women.
It’s worth saying again, as Aaron mentions above, that one of the great accomplishments of Star Trek: TNG is that it shifted that orientation. Picard’s Earl Grey sipping presented a very necessary and different kind of masculinity, and Deanna and Beverly were good friends, and talked about hair and relationships, and had great hair and relationships, and the fact of their friendship, that they had time and space for it, was a vital part of that series’ optimism. In the future, Star Trek: TNG said, women can be friends, even if their friendship was not the center of a major plotline or a focus, that I can recall, of any of my favorite episodes.
Still, what happens in the first episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, with a woman guiding another into exploration and discovery and technology, fun and trust, it felt new and fresh and riveting. It seemed to pick right up from Rey and Leia’s embrace at the end of The Force Awakens, to extend the relationship that might have been imagined in that moment. Women guiding each other into the future! Watch out!
The problem of course is that, as it turns out, the relationship between these two women is not actually going to be the center of Star Trek: Discovery’s story. Its memory will be central to the story, but its presence and evolution will not, because at the end—you were warned about spoilers, right?—Captain Michelle Yeoh is dead. I mean I guess I should have seen it coming, because I know what genre does. But I didn’t quite see it. And then, even when I did, it hurt.
So the question I’m left with, what I want to ask my lady friends, is: how do we feel about a show that starts with where we want it to end up? Can the memory of Captain Michelle Yeoh anchor the story, which—let’s be clear—is still going to be the story of a powerful and talented woman of color coming into her own, still something that can seem directed primarily at us, in the way that Outlander is? Where are women’s friendships, in this future?
Your confidence is earned too,
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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