Star Trek Discovery: ‘You only had one job, Burnham’, I shout at the screen in Klingon
Star Trek once offered a utopian ideal. Has demagoguery breached even the final frontier?
‘T’Kuvma is overseeing the funeral of his murdered chum. The speed of the funeral proceedings make me feel he might be one of the Offaly T’Kuvmas.’
Michelle Yeoh as Philippa Georgiou and Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery
Once upon a time Star Trek’s lead character was Kennedyesque internationalist and man-of-appetites James T Kirk, who wished to seek out new worlds and then, if possible, get off with them.
He was partnered by the pointy eared and pointy headed alien Mr Spock, the first of a long line of unemotional Star Trek foils, counted upon to says things like, “That’s illogical, Jim” or “What is this Earth emotion, ‘love’?” thus allowing Kirk to demonstrate the Earth emotion “love” with whatever household objects and industrial lubricants he had to hand.
The rest of the crew were, by the standards of online trolls today, evidence of political correctness gone mad: women, Russians, comedy Scotsmen and accident prone red-shirted extras (there’s clearly no health and safety officer on the bridge of the Enterprise). Of course, the bosses were American-accented white men (or Vulcans) just in case you forgot that while it was the far future, it was also the 1960s.
The plots saw Kirk donning space togas, schooling alien hippies in realpolitik, fighting a plague of cuddly tribbles or, after being sent to depression-era New York by a self-important alien doorway, letting the woman he loves die rather than let a cranked-up speed-freak Bones McCoy change the course of human history so that the Nazis won the war. What can I say? They were heady times (that excellent episode The City on the Edge of Forever, was written by Harlan Ellison, stars Joan Collins and is on Netflix).
The original Star Trek’s ongoing cult status is built on shoehorning legitimately mind-bending philosophical conceits into the shaking sets, erotic costumery and hammy melodrama. Like all the best pop culture, Star Trek was disguised as something childish but was far better than it had any right to be (see also: Smash Hits/2000AD/Viz/Girls Aloud).
That’s a harder trick to pull off in a world of prestige television, where people compare True Detective to Balzac and House of Cards to the pyramids and Narcos to the invention of fire, when they are all, in fact, far less interesting than Star Trek or, indeed, a typical episode of Rainbow.
The new Star Trek prequel Star Trek: Discovery (weekly on Netflix), begins with an isolationist demagogue with a weird head ranting about racial superiority and railing against politically correct social-justice warriors (the federation). It sounds familiar, to be honest (maybe The Handmaid’s Tale has conditioned me to expect my sci-fi to be a direct commentary on events).
We cut to our heroines, wandering around a dust storm on a sand planet talking Trekkie technobabble while being watched, from a distance, by a tentacled weirdo (why, I wasn’t aware you were on this show! You should have said something). In these scenes, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) quickly establishes herself, through the power of clunky exposition, as a sort of surrogate mother to our relatively anti-establishment hero, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green).
Burnham is a human who has been raised by stern, pointy-eared Vulcans (specifically Spock’s old da, Sarek) after angry Klingons killed her parents. Thus, she follows an established tradition of Trekkie characters, and/or people in your office at work, who are troubled by human emotions and don’t like you whistling at your desk.
Before we know it, this duo are back on the USS Shenzhou and we meet a scaredy-cat alien called Saru and a number of forgettable hunks and hunkettes in ironed track suits, for this is the garb of the human race in the far future and parts of contemporary south Dublin.
On a Klingon ship, T’Kuvma, for that is the name of the demagogue from a few paragraphs back, is still practising his racist Ted Talk. His crew all stand around being impressed by his counter-intuitive ideas (summary: we’re the best/we should kill everyone else/we need to be more active on social media). There are a lot of Klingons just standing around watching. If I was a consultant brought in by HR I’d suggest there was some duplication of roles going on on this space ship and that savings could be made.
Back on the USS Shenzhou the track-suited hunks detect a strange entity (the Klingon ship) hiding in a meteor field and Burnham volunteers to investigate. Before you can say, “you’re not going to make this all about you, now Burnham, are you?”, she goes for a spacewalk, kills a random Klingon and instigates a war between two civilisations. “Oh-oh, spaghettios!” as they say in Klingon.
Then, after an across-the-void-of-space mind-meld with her adoptive dad, Burnham renders her boss unconscious with a Vulcan neck pinch and tries to pre-emptively attack the Klingons before being arrested and thrown in space jail. She hates those Klingons.
Over in the Klingon space ship, T’Kuvma is overseeing the funeral of his murdered chum (the speed of the funeral proceedings make me feel he might be one of the Offaly T’Kuvmas). When some holographic Klingon dignitaries arrive he breaks out the old Ted Talk again (one of his PowerPoint slides features a kitten hanging from a washing line with the words “hang in there”) and convinces the formerly divided Klingon empire to join him on his murderous crusade. All of this is happening, of course, in T’Kuvma’s native Klingon, so for those who enjoy the illusion that television is high culture, you can pretend that it’s the same as watching foreign cinema or reading a book.
Then there’s a very exciting space battle featuring many Klingon and federation vessels during which lots of people die in the vacuum of space. Not Burnham though. She gets out of space jail. Then she and Georgiou smuggle themselves aboard the crippled Klingon mother ship where, after discussing the importance of not turning T’Kuvma into a martyr by killing him, Burnham turns the inspiring Klingon thought leader into a martyr by killing him. “You only had one job, Burnham!” I shout at the screen (in Klingon).
All the incarnations of Star Trek are at their best when their most eccentric characters – Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data, Odo, Quark, Janeway, the Doctor – are grappling with weird ideas or moral dilemmas. Thus far Star Trek: Discovery eschews weird ideas for an impressively cinematic but disappointingly conventional war story (though if it’s weird sci fi ideas you want, Rick and Morty throws away more per episode than most shows subsist on for several series). And it doesn’t yet have any eccentric characters, just a hot-headed due-to-be-court-marshalled mashup of pre-existing Trekkie types, who haven’t once tried to seduce a sexy alien or don an ill-advised space toga or trouble a tribble. Maybe there’ll be tribbles in the next episode. Or Joan Collins. We can but hope.