In a world where the only stories that can be told and retold are Harry Potter, Star Wars or Star Trek, Netflix has been in the forefront of generating the most exciting, creative, and daring new TV content. Their sci-fi series in particular: Expanse, Salvation, Ascension, have been visionary and the latest series of Black Mirror the most beautiful yet. So it was odd that they would stream the fifth incarnation of Star Trek. Discovery promised be full of innovation but is, in the end, a very dark vision of a society based on an insular identity politics.
Star Trek: Discovery, set after Enterprise but before Star Trek, is a CBS production (international audiences were able to view it on Netfix, but CBS has resisted selling it to Netflix domestically). Plot-wise, it probably imagines it is following in the original trail-blazing series’ footsteps. In 1966 the USS Enterprise challenged the social cleavages of its time and re-imagined a better society: Cold-War hostility evaporated through the inclusion of a Russian officer, Chekhov. Soon after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Uhura was a leading black officer on the comms desk. The Enterprise was a floating United Nations bringing its view of human rights to the Universe and the creatures they met.
Star Trek: Discovery, however, is not an optimistic vision of a re-imagined society. It is a didactic presentation of a peculiarly zeitgeist identity politics fully imagined and realized in the future. The vision is terrifying: characters are reduced to a diversity check box, thin, not fully-realized, and robotic.
No more so than the central character, the non-captain, Michael Burnham, a woman with a man’s name, adopted by mixed-species parents. She is the central lead and fulfills the function usually played by the captain: she calls the shots, uses renegade or maverick tactics, and demonstrates that little bit of extra Star Fleet magic (though nothing she ever does is that spectacular.) This captain who never sits in the captain’s chair is a critical and central element of the identity politics imagined here. But the device reveals the central flaw of that agenda. But more of that later.
The show too is perhaps victim to the Netflix format. The Crown was released in its entirety, reflecting the new appetite for binge-watching complete box-sets in one go. Discovery, however, was released internationally on Netflix as weekly episodes. And yet there was nothing episodic about Discovery. No villain of the week, no new planet to explore. Just one long narrative arc that grew ever ambitious until not even this Universe could contain it and the ship found itself in another: a parallel universe of toxic masculinity and narcissistic murderous females.
And this was because there is no room in Discovery’s universe for white male heterosexual characters.
The oddly named (because he was distinctly non-Hispanic) Captain Garcia Lorca is the “official” captain, and plays the alpha-male willing to take risks. Why? Because it turns out he is a sociopath from another dimension who wants to be emperor in his version of reality. (Poor Jason Isaacs cannot escape his villain type-casting, after slaughtering too many children in The Patriot, and siding with Voldemort as Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter.)
Lorca is replaced by a sort of walking shrimp with very thin legs and frilly gills that display his fear, Captain Saru (Doug Jones). His shaky ascendancy to captain is by a fault of his diversity inclusion as first officer. He appears physically weak, timid, camp in the tradition of C3P0, but is celebrated as an “other,” because in the alternate reality his species is at the bottom of the food chain, eaten by humans.
As with Jones/Saru, white male straight actors are only permitted on set wearing prosthetics: James Frain as Vulcan Sarak, and Kenneth Mitchell and Damon Runyan as Klingons. The exception is Harry Mudd who makes an appearance from the U.S. version of The Office, but he turns out to be a self-serving megalomaniac.
Even the heterosexual Ash Tyler (Shaza Latif), Captain Burnham’s former lover, is drippingly pathetic. His relationship style is entirely co-dependent, deriving his slim sense of identity from his relationship to Burnham. He offers nothing, often cries, and ends up murdering the gay doctor. In previous episodes of Star Trek, Tyler would be the relative non-entity in a red shirt that dies in episode two on a planetary excursion (of which there are almost none on Discovery). Here he survives to the season finale where, at last, he self-identifies as trans-Klingon having undergone a sexually abusive relationship and/or species reassignment surgery (we’re never quite told which). But we are happy he leaves with his abuser or surgeon, who is now female leader of the Klingon Empire—even this warrior caste have accepted the non-patriarchy.
Rather than explore, discover or embrace new worlds, the crew of the USS Discovery find themselves at Star Fleet HQ lecturing the most pan-plural association ever conceived on their values. Captain Burnham holds forth in a speech on their own righteousness.
They have pursued the endless frontiers of identity politics, that shark that must keep moving or die in its quest for new offense.
Because it is not the discovery of new worlds that animates Star Trek Discovery, but the need to relentlessly devour and challenge those in power. It is why Burnham is the non-captain. Burnham is internally-displaced: so that she can forever challenge power without ever having to hold it.
This vision of an inclusive society is disappointing. The writing is self-conscious and insecure, unable to cope with the full human experience, such as one with white male heterosexuals in it. Sadly, Star Trek Discovery does a huge disservice to those whose identities it is trying to celebrate and affirm. The newly imagined world of Star Fleet is insular, insecure and populated by robotic non-characters whose only function is to be a protected characteristic. In the end, Discovery discovers very little.
Christopher Bullivant is a UK-based writer who has appeared in the Sunday Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph, New York Post and Wall Street Journal.