Star Trek: Discovery continues to offer the best looking Star Trek ever, but the writing continues to take the show where no Star Trek has gone before.
Star Trek was built on a foundation of hard science fiction, not the magic of fantasy. Star Trek TOS occasionally touched on fantasy: a planet the fulfills wishes, and a pair of magician that hypnotize Kirk’s senior officers and dangles the Enterprise over a candle. Those magical moments were delivered via androids animated by a vast underground factory, and by an alien species from beyond the galaxy that focused energy to transform reality through a device called a transmuter. The magic, it turns out, wasn’t magic. It was science.
It may not have been science we understood—or even science that was even possible, but it tried to be science. In Star Trek, greater power meant greater evolution of mind and technology.
The time travel trope reared its head in Star Trek from time-to-time, becoming an increasingly easy crutch as the show developed. Early instances required slingshot effects around a star, using the mass of the matter-anti-mater reactor to create a speed fast enough to travel backward in time. It tried to be science.
In Discovery, we find time travel does require technology, but at the heart of that technology lies a fantasy, a time crystal. We also learn that Klingons created a cult around time crystals on a single planet where they explore and protect them. Even for the Klingons, it seems, time-based weapons are too powerful.
The Red Angel, we discover was a prototype time suite created by Michael Burnham’s mother. And while the science veneer returns to try and keep her stabilized in this time, the pull of time, time storms and the time crystal wash over that veneer and tarnish it mightily.
Stamets (Anthony Rapp) makes a face during episode 12, Through the Valley of Shadows, during a time crystal discussion. It seems even the character in show formerly responsible for the most out of science science assertion (the mycelium network) doesn’t get the time crystal thing.
But there is science in Discovery, most raucously in the figure of canon smashing Control, an AI turned up to 11th volume by an ancient data dump. Control has mastered nanotechnology beyond anything in the Alpha, Beta, Delta or Gamma quadrant in past shows. And reaches far beyond the AI on exhibit in the failed automation of the TOS episode The Ultimate Computer.
The characters continue to grow, however, even if they too, continue to wreak havoc on Star Trek canon. Anson Mount is a fine Captain Pike. Saru (Doug Jones) has found the necessary assertiveness for his position as first officer following his fear deflowering. And Michael Buhrnam (Sonequa Martin-Green) brings a very good kind of Star Trek grit, almost a Captain Kirk kind of swagger—it remains too bad she is Spock’s adopted sister and so much of the plot runs around slicing up our imagined histories of beloved characters and turning them in a cubist stream of data we have to look at askance to recognize.
Discovery is the best looking Star Trek. No one will ever look back on this series and thing about crud armatures and, plywood boxes and commissary salt and pepper shakers. But this will look back on it as a turning point in a franchise that admittedly has experienced its ups and downs, but even in its worst moments, the shows remained anchored in hard science fiction and a semblance of respect for its predecessors and the future histories they wrote. Making a nod or a reference isn’t the same as understanding context. Captain Pike’s uniform was better and different than Captain Kirk’s, but I’m not sure it needed to be. What I am sure of is that Star Trek doesn’t need to become Star Wars with kyber crystals and mystical moments. Star Trek needs to trek, into the stars, and show us what we would see if we ended up someplace at the long end of a journey delivered through the science of warping space-time for travel, and how a crew of humans deals with what they find.
The 4th season of The Expanse is about to launch. I’ve read the book. And I’m guessing the show is going to be very much about how humans deal with each other in extraordinarily alien situations. And while I can take Discovery as it is, The Expanse’s season 4 will likely be more Star Trek in character that Discovery has been to date.
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