When the series Enterprise went off the air in 2005, the consensus was that the whole Star Trek enterprise (so to speak) was exhausted: The show’s ratings were too low to keep it on the air and the franchise’s two most recent movies were critical stinkers that fared poorly at the box office.
It seemed a feeble end for the storied franchise. Star Trek, the original series with William Shatner’s Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, premiered on NBC in 1966. That show had a cult following by the time it was canceled in 1969, and thanks to several years of repeats in syndication its fan base grew and demanded more—and eventually got plenty of it: movies, several spin-off TV series totaling more than 600 episodes, video games, comic books, and hundreds of novels. Even setting aside the most ardent Trekkers—the ones who attend conventions, collect actors’ autographs, wear costumes, and speak Klingon—the franchise’s cultural footprint over its first four decades was sizable. Star Trek contributed catchphrases to the American language, shaped our vision of the human future, and inspired generations of scientists and technologists.
By 2005, though, Trek was tired. While some fans and critics blamed the waning interest on weak stories, bad writing, and stiff acting in the franchise’s later incarnations, changing social trends also played a part. Some of the things that made the original Star Trek extraordinary had over time become commonplace. A multiethnic cast was revolutionary in 1966 but has long been normal on TV (and in much of America; today, most large cities and the nation’s largest state lack any majority ethnicity). Some of the futuristic technology dreamed up for the show had found its way into reality. And, in contrast to grittier offerings like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, perhaps the Trek franchise’s general optimism was not well suited for the American mood in the years just after 9/11.
But you can’t keep a good franchise down. After four years away from screens big and small, rebooted movies began coming out in 2009, with new actors playing Kirk, Spock, and the other characters from the original series. All three movies released so far have been successful at the box office.
And now along comes Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise’s first TV show since Enterprise was canned a dozen years ago. The new series—the initial 15-episode season of which is being made available only via the CBS network’s streaming service—focuses on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Burnham is a human woman, but was raised on the planet Vulcan as the elder stepsister of original-series character Spock. She is the most flawed character to serve as the lead of any Star Trek series: While possessed of enormous intelligence and bravery, she is awkward, insubordinate, sullen, and headstrong. Viewers meet her as the first officer on the starship Shenzhou under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). The show’s first two episodes involve Burnham staging a mutiny that sparks war with the Klingons—a warrior race and frequent antagonist for Star Trek’s heroes. By the end of the second episode, Burnham is sentenced to life in prison for this mutiny. But in the third episode she is sprung from prison by Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), captain of the starship Discovery, who uses special wartime powers to add her to his crew as a junior science specialist.
The new show offers plenty of what we might, more than a half-century into the franchise’s history, confidently call traditional Trek. Major plot points involve the more-than-slightly-dubious science of a mushroom-powered teleportation system (really), an alien that controls it, and the return of one of the franchise’s more interesting villains and of a beloved supporting character. Notwithstanding what some reviewers have written, Discovery is not the first Star Trek show to depict important characters doing morally questionable things and not the first to imply that the “bad guys” may sometimes have sympathetic or even noble aims.
Discovery is best thought of as a Trek remix, with several tweaks to the franchise’s formula of space adventure, social commentary, and progressive politics. The shift in focus from the top command officers to lower-ranking crewmembers, a rethinking of the Star Trek visual look, and more freedom for script writers (since streaming shows are not bound by FCC rules) are all slight but refreshing changes. And although Discovery is not the first Star Trek show with story arcs, it takes the continuing plotlines further—all but eliminating the “reset button” that ended episodes of earlier Trek series, which those shows needed since they were expected to go into syndication and would likely air out of order.
While Discovery does (slightly) shake up the Star Trek formula, with characters a little less perfect and more complicated than those featured on previous series, the stories and morals remain entirely recognizable—tales of bravery, exploration, overcoming barriers, and self-reinvention. Early on in the first episode, Burnham states what appears to be the show’s major theme: “You do understand that being afraid of everything means you learn nothing. There’s no opportunity to discover, to explore.” It’s a sentiment that’s quintessentially American, and quintessentially Star Trek.
Two weeks before Discovery debuted, the Fox network aired the first episode of The Orville, a new science-fiction comedy. Understanding The Orville at all—much less appreciating its humor—requires as a prerequisite some knowledge of the Star Trek franchise’s many tropes. It’s clear that The Orville’s creators, producers, and writers have intimate knowledge of and great affection for the franchise they are parodying. (In fact, some of them are Trek alumni.) And the idea of a comedy built along Star Trek’s lines is certainly a worthy one, not only because many of the best-loved Trek episodes are comic romps, but also because the 1999 gem of a film Galaxy Quest—centered on naïve aliens who come to believe that the cast members of a Trek-like show are real space adventurers—showed that a send-up of Star Trek could work.
The problem is that The Orville doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The show is created by, mostly written by, and stars Seth MacFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer. Mercer is assigned to command a starship alongside his cheating ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). This is a promising conceit. But several episodes in, the show’s direction remains unclear. At some moments, it seems like a sitcommish, character-driven version of Star Trek that takes its plots and ideas of space adventure more or less seriously. At others, as when characters “solve problems” by spouting streams of techno-babble or have sex with space aliens, it’s clearly mocking its source material. Apparently, MacFarlane hasn’t really decided if he’s producing a tribute or a parody; by trying to do both at once the show succeeds as neither.
Since The Orville’s ratings have been good enough to earn it a second season, its makers may have the time to sort out what the show really is. So far, though, it has been good for just a few chuckles—and for a reminder of the cultural reach of the long-lived and prosperous franchise it parodies.
Image by Kathy Hutchins