Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Luxury of Principle – The First Season of Star Trek: Discovery

Jason Isaacs and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. 

Admiral Cornwell: We do not have the luxury of principles.
Michael Burnham: That is all we have, Admiral. A year ago . . . I stood alone. I believed that our survival was more important than our principles. I was wrong.
– Season 1 finale, Star Trek: Discovery
Last Sunday, the explosive first season of Star Trek: Discovery came to an end. The series premiered on CBS All Access (and on CraveTV, in Canada) with a splash back in September. At the time, our own Justin Cummings wrote powerfully about the feature-length premiere episodes, which introduced us to this new Trek space, set a decade before the adventures of the Enterprise crew we know so well from the original Star Trek series. Other Star Trek series before it had war stories, some told over the course of multiple seasons, but Discovery showed up on a war footing right out of the gate. Those first two hours promised a darker, more morally ambiguous Trek story – Star Trek in extremis, so to speak. Now, 4.5 months and 15 episodes later, one thing is clear: it has been a heck of a journey, and Discovery has more than earned its place in the expansive Star Trek universe.

As Justin pointed out, the premiere offered a strange introduction for a new series. We meet our central character, then-Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), serving on a different ship, under the command of a different captain. Neither ship nor captain survives the premiere – and there is a dramatic 6-month jump before the events of the third episode has Burnham end up on the USS Discovery, court-martialed, imprisoned, and disgraced by the earlier events. Watching the first several episodes of Discovery is as unsettling and complicated for us as they were for Burnham herself. Unsure of her place on the ship and unwilling to forgive herself, her interactions with others are all at a self- (and other-) imposed distance. This narrow, and unfamiliar, entry point for a Trek series (with its conventional bridge crew ensemble and captain-centred storylines) allowed for a number of things to take place. We meet the members of Discovery haphazardly, through small – largely tense – interactions with Burnham, and through all of that, one thing becomes abundantly clear: few of those crew members are any more comfortable on board than Michael is. The crew of Discovery that Burnham meets is overworked, harrowed, snippy and exhausted. Discovery is a science vessel on a mission of war – and its captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), is a driven war commander with a “by any means necessary” ethos that is at odds not only with his crew's inclinations, but with Federation ideals as a whole.

With the Discovery narrative firmly focused on Michael’s story, we get a refreshingly leisurely reveal of the ship’s crew (and the show’s ensemble cast). Gone is the usual, invariably awkwardly staged introductions – recently mocked mercilessly in the first episode of The Orville. Instead, we meet whom Michael meets, under often less than ideal circumstances. Captain Lorca, mercurial and mysterious, offers a few mannered words in his Ready Room. The rest of the crew approach Lorca with a mixture of mistrust and fear, not unlike the way they approach “the traitor Burnham.” Whether it’s Michael’s awkwardly enthusiastic bunkmate, Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman); the short-tempered and impatient Chief Engineer Stamets (Anthony Rapp); or Discovery’s first officer Saru (Doug Jones), who has the best of reasons not to welcome Burnham back into the fold, it is genuinely challenging to get a bead on who is who and what, if anything, drives them. Characters whom neither Michael nor viewers ever really connect with die almost pointless deaths (goodbye, Security Chief Landry, though notably not yet goodbye to Rekha Sharma, the actor who ably portrays her). This shifting ground kept me at a distance from the series for the first several episodes, unsure of precisely what I was watching or why – paralleling Michael’s own feelings of displacement and aimlessness. But of course none of this was apparent to me until, suddenly, it all shifted precisely at the mid-season mark, with the seventh of 15 episodes.

That episode, marking the second energetic appearance of Rainn Wilson (NBC’s The Office) as the lowlife we love to hate, Harcourt Fenton Mudd, remains one of the few stand-alone stories of the season. (The episode’s mouthful of a title is also worth repeating: "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.”) It told a Trek standard plot (time loops and all), but, in three acts, its story tested and confirmed crucial relationships that had been growing slowly, if only in the margins: Burnham and Tilly, Burnham and Stamets, and of course Burnham and the newly-arrived prisoner-of-war-turned-Security-Chief Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif, Penny Dreadful, BBC’s Spooks). Up to that episode, I see now only in retrospect, I had been watching from the edge of my seat – unsettled and questioning. But from that point onward, I found myself genuinely invested and engaged in the range of the story – the Klingon politics, Michael’s dual nature as a human raised with Vulcan disciplines, the transformative journey Stamets was on, and the build-up to the latter half of a story that, at the time, I honestly could not have seen coming.

Doug Jones, Mary Wiseman, and Anthony Rapp in Star Trek: Discovery.

It was also a journey that I am grateful I got to travel week by week, instead of bingeing it all post-season. As with last season’s Westworld, this season of Discovery turns out to be as much about what it was about as its intricate plotting, and I genuinely enjoyed those seven long days between shocking, cliff-hanger twists and the next episode. Some of these late-season twists were telegraphed, but no less powerful – was there ever any doubt as to who the as-yet-unnamed Terran Emperor would turn out to be? – and others arrived with such a bang that I am unashamed to say I literally stood up from the couch in amazement. (There was only one other show this season that regularly generated comparable, and always audible, expressions of sheer disbelief at its narrative audacity: the triumphant second season of NBC’s The Good Place. There are few television series’ that have felt like they are telling stories without a safety net, and it is notable to have two on the air at the same time.)

That all these twists and turns rounded off into a single powerful story is a credit to its character-focused narrative. By the season’s final scenes, it wasn’t just Burnham’s story, it was also Tyler’s, and Tilly’s, and Lorca’s, and Stamets’s. And whatever wayward and unsettling path it took to get there, it landed with a confidence that still, a week and a half later, amazes me.

Any prequel story – like Enterprise before it – has an especial and potentially limiting challenge before it: it has to take an unfamiliar journey to a too-familiar destination. And Discovery’s evocative opening credit sequence, building beautifully to the familiar strains of Alexander Courage’s signature music, lets us know at the start of every episode that the new series is eager to take on that challenge. Moreover, the themes that this first season of Discovery set up for itself are not in themselves unique in the Trek canon – after all, the tensions between Federation principles and on-the-ground pragmatism have marked almost every classic Trek story since the by-the-book Commander Spock faced charges of treason in the first season of the original Star Trek series.

But last week, as the finale’s closing credits rolled and the music swelled, I was blown away by how far Discovery has taken us – while still effectively bringing us full circle. That last episode built to a dramatic interaction we've seen staged so many times before, both inside and outside Trek (that scene between Burnham and Cornwell from which the quote above was taken) – though here is a moment, and a resolution, that was hard fought and hard won, as plot and character meet up dramatically: idealism without naiveté standing before pragmatism without cynicism.

Principle, as Captain Kirk has taught, can be an irritant, and even a straitjacket. It can leave us with few realistic options, seemingly asking of us the unthinkable or even the impossible. This season of Discovery paints both sides of a principled life, not only its seeming weakness but also how it can be threatening (Klingons and Terrans alike both mock and fear the principles of peace, cooperation, and compassion). Principle, it seems, is also a luxury, born of privilege and even ignorance. This is Admiral Cornwell’s point, as she resigns herself to sanctioning a near-genocidal action: “We do not have the luxury of principles.” But what the first season of Star Trek: Discovery so powerfully dramatizes is that a life lived by principle can be other than merely a crutch – it can be a task, an orientation. And that when principle precludes a given action and seems to render victory impossible, it can be through that very principle that unimagined possibilities emerge, and the world itself is transformed.

A second season of Star Trek: Discovery is already in the works, with a slated released for early 2019.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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