Whilst Star Trek: Discovery takes its mid-season break, we can take a breath and revel in the announcement that it has been renewed for a second season!
The signs have been good since May 2017 when, during the filming of episode 6, we reported that the first Star Trek TV series in over a decade was to be extended from the originally commissioned 13 episodes to 15. Followed by After Trek, a post-broadcast discussion/behind the scenes show. The episode expansion signalled high confidence in this second attempt at a Star Trek prequel set 10 years before the original series (the first attempt was Star Trek: Enterprise, set 100 years before the original series and was cancelled in 2005).
From a fangirl perspective, I am loving Discovery. The score is as haunting as ever. The promised cinematic feel to the sky-high production value has been fulfilled. The special effects are epic without being overpowering. But, since the franchise has literally written the book on gaining science fact from science fiction, we were hardly anticipating it to be lacking in innovation. In 2018, we already have communicators (mobile phone/instant messaging), Uhura’s wireless earpiece (Bluetooth hands-free) Data’s instantly accessible music database (iPod/mp3 players) and there are a few more just around the corner – the universal translator, the dermal regenerator, and the medical tricorder!
The creators of this series have opted for mostly new characters in a season-long, single story arc, following the current trend of killing characters off at any time, as revived by RR Martin’s Game of Thrones – something Star Trek TOS (1966-69) also did quite well. Overall, this story of the last Klingon-Federation war and the Federation’s experimentation with the mysterious spore drive is accessible and compelling.
We applaud the canny decision to cast African American actress Sonequa Martin-Green as the series lead since she has already proven capable of building a sci-fi fan base from her portrayal of the iconic ass-kicker Sasha Williams (2012-17) in 69/115 episodes of The Walking Dead (2011-). It was a disappointment when we heard she would not be a Star Fleet Captain. However, Martin-Green’s Commander Michael Burnham is a brilliant xenoanthropologist and starts out as a commissioned science officer – an expert on alien societies, cultures and their development. Named after her late father, Burnham was an orphan who became the first human to be raised from childhood on Vulcan, as a Vulcan, and is, therefore, awkward in the practice of human social norms.
The series begins with Burnham as First Officer on the USS Shenzhou, second in command to her mentor Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). She appears self-confident, certainly secure in her Star Fleet training and in line for her own command. However, in episodes 1, The Vulcan Hello, and 2, Battle of The Binary Stars, she sacrifices her career to save her crewmates and the Shenzhou. Despite Burnham’s specialist knowledge and Vulcan logic, she decides to ignore the Federation’s non-aggressive stance against the Klingons and engage in a pre-emptive strike against them. Little did she know that Klingon zealot, T’Kumva (Chris Obi) and his followers, the albino Voq (Javid Iqbal) and L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) were preparing for an almost holy war to restore their warrior reputation and recover territories. They attack and call for back up. Burnham is blamed for inciting war and is court-martialled, charged with dereliction of duty, assaulting a fellow officer and mutiny, to which she pleads guilty. She is sentenced to life imprisonment and the war rages on, the Klingons now led by the treacherous Kol (Kenneth Mitchell).
Episode 6 “Lethe,” gives further insight into Burnham’s character. Flashbacks show her as the only human child dressed, taught and reprimanded as a Vulcan. We see her human side yearn for the approval of her adoptive father Sarek (James Frain). A pivotal moment is what we learn from a dilemma reminiscent of 1982’s Sophie’s Choice. As she comes of age The Vulcan Science Academy insists upon Sarek that they will only accept one ‘half-Vulcan’ – his son Spock, a ‘half’ by nature, or his protégé Burnham, a ‘half” by nurture. Sarek chooses Spock. She carries the burden of inadequacy from then onwards, until this episode, when it’s revealed that the denial of entry wasn’t because she wasn’t good enough for the Academy. She is understandably upset, not so much at what could be seen as a betrayal by her father figure and mentor, but in his allowing her to carry the feeling of being less. This might have caused her to distrust that her Vulcan logic and anthropology expertise could convince her captain, and lead her to use physical force and deception on the Shenzhou. It could also explain her passive submission to the harsh outcome of her court-martial.
In episode 3 Context Is for Kings, the news of Burnham’s mutiny has spread seemingly throughout the Federation, and she is treated with contempt by everyone. Her prison transfer, however, is unexpectedly interrupted as she is brought aboard the Discovery, a science vessel under the command of maverick Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). The Captain asks a reluctant Burnham to help with a top-secret Federation project. She is then sent to help Chief Engineer Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) on an away mission, during which she saves everyone… again. But, feeling suspicions about Lorca and his ship, Burnham again acts rashly and breaks into a top-secret lab looking for clues. The Discovery enters the hugely Freudian ‘Black Alert’ after which Burnham realises that the Discovery is now a warship and pivotal in the raging war.
Now that Burnham has proven herself invaluable several times, Lorca explains the mysterious experimental spore drive engaged during a black alert. Again, offering her a conditional return to Star Fleet aboard the Discovery. Burnham accepts the demotion to enlisted Science Specialist, and joins the crew led by First Officer and her former subordinate, Saru (Doug Jones), who was the Shenzhou’s bridge Science Officer. It’s in episode 4, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for The Lamb’s Cry, directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, that there is a thaw in attitudes towards Burnham. When under intense pressure to save crucial Star Fleet mining operations and their worker families from Klingon assaults, Burnham’s scientific expertise, and cool, pensive logic proves resourceful once again.
In episode 5 Choose Your Pain, Lorca is captured by the Klingons and finds himself imprisoned with ace pilot Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Pakistani-Brit Shazad Latif – Penny Dreadful), and a much more sinister future Captain Kirk adversary, Harry Mudd. Tyler has undergone physical and psychological torture at the hands of his Klingon captor L’Rell, but he works with Lorca to escape, fatefully leaving Mudd behind. Lorca brings Tyler into his Star Fleet crew. Feeling like an outsider, Tyler shares an unexpected empathy with Burnham and a friend nd ship is kindled.
Empathy becomes genuine interest during episode 7, Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad, in which Mudd boards the Discovery and engages a time loop to give himself limitless time to discover the Federation’s secret weapon, the spore drive, and exact revenge. Burham, with the help of Tyler, saves everyone (yet again). The increasing intimacy they share each time around the loop is sadly forgotten as time resumes, but that empathy is deepened.
By episode 8, we start to feel comfortable with the new cast. Burnham and Tyler express a tender affection as they accompany Saru on an away mission.
In the mid-season finale, episode 9, Into the Forest I Go, Lorca takes the Discovery into the heart of Klingon territory to try to gain their cloaking technology, or at least, disable it. Burnham and Tyler sneak aboard Kol’s flagship, which also holds Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) hostage. Tyler suffers a PTSD shutdown on unexpectedly facing L’Rell, and Burnham must complete the mission alone and go one-on-one with Kol. Tyler recovers enough to help get the Admiral to safety, but we are left wondering about the extent of L’Rell’s influence over him and whether he is doomed as a possible love interest for Burnham.
Whilst he was still alive, Gene Roddenberry’s ground-breaking multi-cultural, gender-blind approach to casting was evident throughout The Original Series (1966-69), The Next Generation (1987-94) and Deep Space Nine (1993-99), which was in development when he died in 1991. All of them have multiple African American or non-white Star Fleet officers as regular, recurrent and guest stars. Discovery doesn’t quite measure up and follows in the less multi-cultural, less gender-blind later series Voyager (1995-2001, which only offered Vulcan bridge security officer Tuvok – Tim Russ) and Enterprise (2001-05, which only offered pilot Ensign Travis Mayweather – Anthony Montgomery).
There was one other African American amongst the Shenzhou’s bridge personnel/speaking characters – Communications Officer Lt. Troy Januzzi (Romaine Waite). As Burnham settles into life aboard the Discovery, we meet two more in minor recurring speaking roles to date – Bridge Operations Officer Ensign (Lt. junior grade) Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) and Vulcan Star Fleet Admiral Terral (Conrad Coates). Commander Ellen Landry (Rekha Shanti Sharma), deceased, was Discovery’s blindly loyal, surprisingly reckless human Security Officer who was the architect of her own death in the same episode (3) that we meet her. The fantastic Wilson Cruz (Ricky Vasquez in My So-called Life, 1994-95) plays openly gay Dr. Hugh Culter in a committed relationship with Chief Engineer Stamets. African American staff writer Kemp Powers has writing credits on all 9 episodes, but has a ‘story/teleplay by’ credit for episode 4.
So, the Star Trek franchise is still frustratingly disappointing, as far as African actors are concerned. Because, at the mid-season break, our first black female lead isn’t the First Officer we were promised, but a felon convicted of mutiny and dereliction of duty since episode 2. She also doesn’t make this an Afrofuturistic series, since everything about Burnham reflects the challenges faced by highly skilled, highly intelligent Brit and American Africans right now, without a social commentary feel or addressing the institutional racism faced by today’s Burnhams. That is literally the subject of a forthcoming discussion.
President and CBS Interactive’s Chief Operating Officer Marc DeBevoise, confirmed that Star Trek: Discovery has “driven subscriber growth, critical acclaim and huge global fan interest for the first premium version of the iconic franchise.” Discovery set new CBS All Access records for subscriber sign-ups in a single day, week and month. “This series has a remarkable creative team and cast who have demonstrated their ability to carry on the Star Trek legacy. We are extremely proud of what they’ve accomplished and are thrilled to be bringing fans a second season of this tremendous series.”
So, roll on 8th January 2018, when we will also be only a month away from THE Super black hero movie, the ultimate Afrofuturistc adventure (we hope) – Black Panther.