The past several months have been a bit of a dystopian ordeal for science-fiction fans. Grumpy Luke Skywalker and comic relief Yoda – terrible at wisecracking was he – force-choked all the fun out of The Last Jedi, aka the Star Wars movie that hated Star Wars.
A sour revisionism similarly infused Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix). The first Star Trek television series in over a decade beamed down last autumn proffering a gritty look and fashionably glum world-view. Entirely absent was the shiny-lycra optimism of the original Gene Roddenberry saga.
Old school Trek devoteees were in many cases aghast. The damp squib quality of the new show was thrown into further relief by Black Mirror episode USS Callister – a commentary on toxic nerd-dom that doubled as loving homage to classic, rubber-eared Star Trek. Quentin Tarantino’s plans for a sweary reboot of Kirk, Spock and company added to the impression of a franchise lost in space.
Evasive action was clearly required. So it is to Discovery’s credit that it returns from a mid-season break with a renewed sense of purpose and a greater willingness to engage, and perhaps pander to, its core audience (as a member of that core audience I say pander all you wish). None other than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s trombone-tooting first officer Will Riker – aka Jonathan Frakes – has been drafted in as director.
Frakes also oversaw Star Trek: First Contact, one of the series’s outstanding big-screen excursions and a laudatory of example of Star Trek as both smart and uplifting. Discovery’s fan service continues with an explicit nod towards the ghosts of Star Trek past. The eponymous USS Discovery has slipped through an inter-dimensional gateway into a parallel reality ruled by the facist Terran Empire – the very organisation with whom Captain Kirk and Mr Spock had a close encounter in 1967 favourite Mirror Mirror.
This time the mission is led by Science Officer Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green) and Harry Potter alumnus Jason Isaacs, who continues to imbue Discovery Captain Gabriel Lorca with a knowing wooden quality that’s hard not to see as a tribute to/parody of William Shatner.
The Terran Empire is portrayed, fairly unashamedly, as a “Trump-verse” with chrome knobs on. Its denizens are boorish, despotic barbarians against whom the galaxy’s non-human races are allied. The Terrans’s preferred means of attack, one suspects, is an all-caps twitter tirade.
Yet it is an enemy within who is likely to pose the biggest threat to the crew of the Discovery through the rest of the season. Security chief Tyler (Shazad Latif) is revealed to be a mind-washed Klingon double agent, casually snapping the neck of ship’s doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) when his cover is threatened. Sinew-crunching violence was never Star Trek’s forte and the scene is jarring – all the more so to anyone who recognises Latif as horrid hipster Clem Fandango from Matt Berry comedy Toast of London.
A silent bystander to the killing is Culber’s stricken love interest and Discovery chief engineer Stamets (Anthony Rapp). The character has made history as the first openly gay protagonist on a Star Trek TV series (he was beaten to the punch in the movies by Hikaru Sulu). Rapp also had an unexpected walk-on in the post-Harvey Weinstein firestorm with his allegation that Kevin Spacey had propositioned him when Rapp was a teenager.
Stamets has been in a coma since using a fungi-powered “spore drive” – you can see why Star Trek fans are slow warming to Discovery – to whiz the ship across time and space and into the maw of the Terran Empire. That embarrassing faux-past must now be cleaned up by Burnham. Posing as her wicked alternative-universe self, she beams onto her old vessel, the Senzhou. With her is secretly evil Tyler and the openly smarmy Lorca, in this version of reality wanted for attempted assassination of the Terran Emperor.
Their plan is to infiltrate the Senzhou under the pretence that Burnham is bringing to justice the traitorous Lorca. The scheme soon turns as a sour as a post-Christmas vat of Romulan ale. Burnham accidentally wins command of the ship when the incumbent attacks her and dies (as with the Trump White House, succession in the Terran empire is a brutal blood sport). Yet no sooner is she installed in the captain’s chair than she’s off canoodling with Tyler. Lorca, now apparently a prisoner in earnest, meanwhile screams from inside his “agoniser booth”.
It’s a hysterical, highly illogical cliffhanger – would Burnham betray Lorca so quickly? – but one sure to appeal to fans despairing of Discovery’s previous po-faced tone. After endless self-seriousness, there is reason to believe that Star Trek has finally set phasers to “fun”.
A new episode of Star Trek: Discovery arrives to Netflix each Monday