My love for Star Trek -- as a brand -- has mostly grown over time, because it has proven itself, in most cases, to be thought-provoking, inspirational, hopeful, progressive, and quite often fun. Admittedly, to me, the multiple series have involved slightly diminishing returns since the original (and still most iconic) one -- and I have BBC America to thank for catching me up on The Next Generation long after its broadcast years when I was too busy living on Earth (and working alongside the crew at Paramount! in the U.S.!) to obsess about space. I appreciate Deep Space Nine, caught random episodes of Voyager and Enterprise, and I adore The Animated Series. The movies? Just give me the first ten, all excellent. Now we know where we stand.
When I say “progressive,” incidentally, I don't merely mean it in a lazy, parroting, us-vs.-them, hive-mind kind of way. (Millennials may sneer at the mild hedonism of the original series, but it was brazenly of its era, it still rocks, and it gave us Nichelle Nichols as Uhura: most vital game-changer in television entertainment, if not pop culture itself!) What I do mean is that -- Beastie Boys, lens flares, and smacking the U.S.S. Enterprise around like a hacky-sack notwithstanding — Star Trek is like a friend we can trust. Perhaps this is obvious, but Star Trek is a vast, rich portrait of a hopeful future: an inclusive future, an intelligent future, a future wherein even capitalism has fallen, in favor of supporting individuals and their needs -- not enslaving everyone to corporations. Sure, dystopian elements and battle scenarios abound, but the heart of Star Trek -- Gene Roddenberry's creation -- is inherently optimistic; thus it is easy for intelligent people to love.
Enter Star Trek: Discovery. Fans were expecting this new series last year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of (Mr. Shatner dislikes this term -- Sir Bill, please provide another, and I'll use it) the franchise. Kerfuffles ensued. But here we are, amidst the relentless insanity of 2017, in a world with a new Star Trek series, to consider and enjoy. Last Tuesday, the good people of CBS kindly allowed me to attend the world première of Discovery's first two episodes (“The Vulcan Hello” / “Battle at the Binary Stars”) in Hollywood; in return I kindly agreed to withhold my feelings thereupon until after the episode(s) premièred for the public on CBS, CBS All Access, and around the world on Netflix. That's now, so let's boldly go . . .
Most vital about Star Trek: Discovery is its lead character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), for we've had women and people of colo(u)r in Star Trek leads before, but since the beginning with pioneering Ms. Nichols, not both at once. I'm not going to sit here and mansplain to you why it's important to focus on a woman's story as the core of a Star Trek series (or, for that matter, in Doctor Who), but rather, I'm celebrating that Michael (a woman -- apparently; hey, the series is new!) is truly complex: even within the first arc, we learn that she has served under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) for seven years, that she's extremely headstrong, that her parents were killed by the then-unfriendly Klingon species (Discovery is another prequel series to the original -- but already feels unique unto itself), and that she was thereafter raised in the logic-lovin' Vulcan ways of her foster father, Sarek (whom even casual fans will know as Spock's -- and Sybok's! -- father: James Frain proves exemplary at filling the late Mark Lenard's presumably pointy shoes).
Other characters, at this point, remain sketchy, except for the wonderful addition of Doug Jones as Lieutenant Saru -- oddly a new species (the Kelpians, apparently) in Star Trek canon, but as a mildly passive-aggressive science officer from a “binary prey species” (he can smell death a-comin', and says so), Jones' rubberheaded Saru is allowed to bring a tiny dollop of desperately-needed wit to this otherwise dour and heavyhanded, ahem, enterprise.
Frankly I'm surprised that Star Trek: Discovery is as good as it is -- which is quite good, like stylish new shoes just needing some breaking in -- because it's had a very disparate array of cooks in the kitchen, for too long already. Among the show's thousands of producers, there's sharp storyteller Nicholas Meyer, who masterfully directed Star Treks II and VI, and had a hand in IV -- but there's also the dreaded Alex Kurtzman, strong contender for Most Clueless and Bombastic Writer in Hollywood, his M.O.: “Make badass setpieces!!! Then lurch among them sans logic, character motivation, or anything resembling a sensible plot!!!” Somewhere in the middle is Akiva “Somehow I Get Paid to Do This” Goldsman. But then again, Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry is also aboard, and he knows his dad's Trek better than most. With all these hands stirring the pot, Star Trek: Discovery could have been -- maybe even should have been -- a catastrophe. But whew, as of its first episode(s), it launches with aplomb, albeit thus far only on its own relentlessly badass terms (seeming to give Game of Beheadings and The Walking Dullards a run for their dourness). To me the writing feels too much like bratty boys bickering on a playground, but make no mistake: there's enough good here to make Discovery worth watching.
I love spoilers -- to me they're a terrific barometer in determining whether someone is an adult and can handle hearing a detail or two about a movie or TV show without wetting their pants in a screeching rage -- however I understand that not everyone shares my grownup attitude, so here's the official SPOILER WARNING for this piece. If you DVR-ed Discovery for later, or plan to binge-watch the box set next summer or whatever, reading further here may harsh your mellow, or mellow your harsh, or something.
The plot of Star Trek: Discovery's opening two-episode arc is functional but rudimentary; its purpose being to set up Michael Burnham as an uncompromising loose cannon who (presumably) becomes an important figure to the Federation. To this end, it is she who Spock-suits (lifted from Robert Wise's The Motion Picture) out to investigate some creepy Giger-esque space glob unscannable by the Shenzhou's sensors, sparking a battle with one of many barely-recognizable Klingons (who growl moodily with subtitles here, a LOT), leading very promptly to the sort of insta-war -- with those damned lens flares -- seen most recently in the unfortunate Star Trek reboot movies. Somebody picked up at least a little bit of storytelling logic since 2009, though, as rather than petulantly jettisoning insubordinate Michael down to Hoth (as alleged Spock does to alleged Kirk in alleged Star Trek), Captain Georgiou actually remembers that her starship indeed has a brig, and remands Michael to it, that the latter may spend much of the obligatory badass space battle struggling to escape its nifty laser-lines and Siri-esque warden.
While the bad taste of those latter-day Trek movies' horrendous attempts at storytelling -- after the première, an astute Trekker and I cheerfully concurred that the third one is “the least terrible” (LLAP!) -- is mostly washed away by the energy and excitement of Discovery, some elements still clunk. The Tatooine/Jakku opening scene allows Yeoh to disgorge awkward exposition, but boils down to a walk in the sand as a gigantic and literal act of Starfleet brand-placement. Indeed, Yeoh -- bless her (does anybody else love the third Mummy movie? I do!) -- basically spends the episode(s) flatly reciting all her words in the right order: a performance, to slip briefly into clichè, so wooden it gave me splinters. Weird. This puts almost all the weight of the series, initially, on Martin-Green -- previously unknown to me, as I was done with zombies in 1985 -- and between hairstyles (including Vulcan-chic, in flashback) and wardrobe changes, it's hard to grasp the full import of her character -- but it's early, and she's really good, could soon be great.
Given Discovery's place in the timeline, it's sensible to feature the Klingons as the main baddies here -- but for all their absurdly ornate costuming, reptilian prosthetics, and fangs, they nonetheless come across as one-note villains: bullies who (in the way of most bullies) loudly trumpet themselves as victims. Mama's boys, really. Belligerent and boring. (Much like the Federation's racist white male admiral, who is promptly killed.) The Klingons' Cold War origins left in the dust of previous decades, perhaps these new-old Klingons -- with their aggressive refusal to assimilate -- are stand-ins for some other real-world sect? Are these Klingons Amish?
Anyway, these Klingons promptly murder Captain Georgiou (hardly a spoiler, as Yeoh is billed up front as “Guest Star”) -- because she doesn't think twice about beaming over to the beheaded Klingon flagship for outrageously risky hand-to-hand combat with, essentially, a troop of extra-irritable Orcs. Thus, at this point, it’s any fan’s guess what's in store for mutineer and prisoner -- and genuinely complex female character -- Michael Burnham, when she next boards the eponymous starship at the behest of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
Will Star Trek: Discovery prove to be an important new phase of (sorry again, Bill) the franchise? Y'know, given its first two episodes’ glaring witlessness (boys: grins, too, are expected of Star Trek), and its pulverizing insta-war, I could lean cynical, say, “Whatevs,” and go back to watching The Search for Spock by myself. But I'm opting for optimism here. Star Trek: Discovery is undeniably Star Trek, yet it's also a new hybrid for a new era — with hella talented people bringing us forthcoming episodes. It's the ballsiest that Trek has been since Meyer's The Undiscovered Country in '91, it's got bitchin' big-screen effects, and most importantly, it pushes the philosophical buttons intelligent viewers desire and demand from Star Trek: What is our shared future? What is it to be human? Where are we going together? Can we make it good?
I happily join those who'll be joining Michael Burnham in finding out.
The eleventh Star Trek movie is opening this Friday, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve already bought my ticket. It’s a reboot of the original series, which means more James Tiberius Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the gang. It’s enough to make me jump up and down in excitement.
Thinking about the various iterations of Star Trek made me think about all my favorite aspects of the series. One of my absolute favorite things about it is the terminology. In his book Brave New Words, Jeff Prucher has a short essay about Star Trek and its influence on the language of science fiction. “Words coined for the series and its spin-offs have stuck in the popular imagination, and are used by people in all walks of life,” he says. And it’s true. So, in celebration of a new Star Trek movie, I decided to put together a list of my top 10 favorite words from the Star Trek universe.
In case this isn’t enough of a Star Trek fix for you, here are some more posts about the series and the upcoming movie: a list of lists (from io9) and Trek for kids (from Time Out Kids). I’ll probably be back next week with a follow up post, looking at how many of my favorite terms and technologies worked their way into the movie. I’m hoping at least half will show up somewhere. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I’m sure I will!
1. Transporter, n. Transportation device that converts objects or persons to energy, sends that energy to the destination, and reconstitutes the objects/persons back into matter. Transporters cannot beam objects through deflector shields. (Star Trek Library)
The transporter is one of the most useful inventions of the Star Trek universe. It can get you from point A to point B (and sometimes, inexplicably, point Z during electrical interference) instantaneously. Worried about being torn apart and put back together at the molecular level? Don’t be. Rarely does a transporter user have his DNA scrambled. However, this doesn’t account for the occasional creation of an exact clone caused by glitches in the transporter stream.
2. Tricorder, n. A hand-held Starfleet device combining sensors, records, and built-in computing capability. Issued in a variety of models for engineering, scientific and medical uses. As of 2366, the standard model tricorder sensors could not detect subspace phenomena or neutrino particles. (Star Trek Library)
Who didn’t want a tricorder as a kid? Something you could wave around, beeping, and then (pointing it at an annoying younger brother) “I’m registering large quantities of methane emissions. Everyone evacuate! He farted!” Or, in a more practical sense, I’d love to have one as an adult. A hand-held device that can detect carbon monoxide, or tumors, or any number of things? Imagine how much easier than a CAT scan that would be.
3. Mind-meld, n. In the Star Trek universe, a telepathic union between two beings; in general use, a deep understanding. Hence mind-melding, adj. 1968 J. M. Lucas Elaan of Troyius (“Star Trek” script) (May 23) 40: Mr. Spock, […] he refuses to talk. I’ll need you for the Vulcan mind-meld. (Brave New Words)
This was an ability I always envied Spock—well, this and the Vulcan nerve pinch. Can you imagine how useful that would be in quieting said annoying younger brothers? The mind-meld is equally neat though; I’d love to know what a whale is thinking (Star Trek IV, for those of you who are not as nerdy as me).
4. Phaser, n. An energy weapon that fires a beam which can be set to varying degrees of intensity. Also used fig. [in SF, primarily associated with the Star Trek universe.] (Brave New Words)
Famous phrase from the original series: “Set phasers to stun.” Often followed by a death of some kind, so I’m not sure how good the “stun” setting was… although it’s hard to argue with giving Bones another opportunity to say “He’s dead, Jim.”
5. Stardate, n. According to Gene Roddenberry in “The Making of Star Trek,” stardates were originally created “simply to keep from tying ourselves down to 2265…” and to make clear that Star Trek was set in the future. There wasn’t a method used to calculate the date, but the producers of the original show did keep a rough track of stardates and there was some logic as to how they progressed. However, as the shows aired out of order from the production order, the stardates would sometimes go backwards. To address this problem, Roddenberry formulated a clever explanation that used a bit of scientific double talk to make stardates sound more plausible, i.e. they “adjust for shifts in relative time which occur due to the vessel’s speed and space warp capability…” (Star Trek Library)
I never knew how they came up with the stardates, and now I’m going to have to pay attention to the new movie and how it does them. Of course, it won’t match up to the original series because the whole plot revolves around alternative futures and time travel, but still. Something to pay attention to!
6. Warp speed, n. In the Star Trek universe, a faster-than-light speed attained by a spaceship using a warp drive; in non-Star Trek use, a very fast speed. [1968–69 J. L. Arosete All Our Yesterdays (“Star Trek” script): Beam us up. Maximum warp as soon as we are on board.] (Brave New Words)
I loved the idea that not only would humans one day be able to go at warp speed, but that we would have different levels of warp speed. We could go Warp One if we weren’t really in a hurry, Warp Five if we wanted to get there fairly quickly, and Warp Nine if we were fleeing from a star going nova unexpectedly behind us.
7. Prime Directive, n. The most important rule or law, which must be obeyed above all others. Also in extended use. Often cap. [Popularized by the television show Star Trek.] 1966 B. Sobelman Return of Archons (“Star Trek” script) (Dec. 1) 50: KIRK: Landru must die. SPOCK: Our prime directive of non-interference… KIRK: That refers to a living, growing culture. I’m not convinced that this one is. (Brave New Words)
Every captain needs a rule to rebel against. For the captains of Star Trek (and I mean that in just about every iteration of the series), it’s the prime directive. Kirk, Picard, Janeway and the others are not supposed to interfere in the normal development of a civilization, especially pre-warp civilizations. Yet time and time again, they get drawn into it somehow. Does NASA have a prime directive in place yet? If not, they should start thinking about one.
8. Cloaking device, n. A device which renders something invisible or undetectable. 1968 D. C. Fontana Enterprise Incident (“Star Trek” script) (June 13) IV-61: The cloaking device is operating most effectively, sir. And the Commander informed me even their own sensors cannot track a vessel so equipped. (Brave New Words)
How is it that the Klingons, an alien race whose main identity is that they are warriors, and Romulans, of a similarly martial tradition, were the ones who used cloaking devices most often? That doesn’t seem particularly fair to me.
9. Holodeck, n. A room-sized chamber that creates a complete holographic environment; 1987Encounter at Farpoint (“Star Trek” script) (May 22) 65: Lieutenant Commander Data… now located in Holodeck area 4-J. (Brave New Words)
The holodeck is famous for malfunctioning, making it someplace I don’t think I’d want to go on a regular basis. Interestingly, the holodeck made its first Star Trek appearance not in The Next Generation, but in the animated series that was on from 1973-74.
10. Redshirt, n. [After the red shirts worn by crewmembers in the television show Star Trek, who were frequently killed after arriving on a new planet] a character who is not portrayed in any depth; an extra; especially one whose main plot function is to be killed. 1985Major Inconsistency (Usenet: net.startrek) (May 28): You’re right, Redshirts are never allowed to survive an episode. (Brave New Words)
Whenever an away team was formed in the original series, it always seemed to consist of a mix of Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Spock, Uhura, and a poor random ensign. The away teams would change, but there was always that ensign in a bright red uniform, and as soon as you saw him, you knew the unfortunate man was doomed to die in some horrible way. While not a term that was ever used in the series, I’m interested to see if the phenomenon continues in the new movie. And also kind of hopeful that it does. After all, the new movie is supposed to pay homage to all the things we love about Star Trek, right?
Bonus Word: Tribble, n. Origin: unspecified. A small animal characteristically soft, furry, and pleasing to most humanoids (with the exception of Klingons). Tribbles give off a soft purring sound that is soothing to many. They are also asexual, born pregnant, the only determinant of birthing being how much food they consume. (Star Trek Library)
Admit it, it’s your favorite episode too.
Featured Image Credit: ‘The southern constellation of Carina’ by NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, 2009. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.