Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

#ICFA39 Talk: “STAR TREK after DISCOVERY”

with one comment

(One of the nice things about my recent promotion is that I can perhaps start to think a little differently about the way I publish. With that in mind here’s my ICFA 2018 talk, delivered earlier this morning on the Star Wars and Star Trek panel, which builds on some recent writing I’ve been doing on franchise SF but which doesn’t really have a natural home in any of my current writing projects. As you can see it winds up in a similar place to my “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” post but takes a somewhat different path to get there.)

Hello, and thanks for coming out to this early morning panel. I did indeed just find out that I’ve been promoted — this is actually the first official thing I’m doing since I found out, which is nice because I really think of ICFA as my “home” conference. I’ve been coming here since the very start of my career and many of my earliest and best opportunities (my first publication, my first book contract, in various ways most of the editing projects I’ve done) have come out of my association with ICFA. It’s a very good place.

That said, I also like SFRA, where I am the outgoing vice-president, and one of the organizers of the upcoming SFRA18 conference to be held on the campus of Marquette University July 1-4, 2018. I have a few flyers, which I’ve also been secreting to various locations on the conference tables when no one is looking—I hope to see some of you there! Please email me with any questions or for any additional details.

I’ll be talking today about Star Trek (and Star Wars just a little bit), which is coming out of some pieces on franchise SF I’ve been doing over the last couple years, including a piece I was proud of that was shortlisted for the Pioneer Award this year (“Hokey Religions: Star Wars and Star Trek in the Age of Reboots”), popular criticism at The Los Angeles Review of Books and Sight and Sound, Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes’s Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling book, and even a blog post for the recent An und für such blog event on Discovery that went up this Tuesday night. So if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook some of this might be familiar to you, though I think most of it will be new.

Since this is a Star Wars and Star Trek panel I wanted to start off my remarks with an observation of the intriguing convergence that has been happening between these two in recent years. People who’ve been attending ICFA for awhile may find this convergence somewhat unexpected, as Star Wars and Star Trek have long been understood here as doing significantly different things, and perhaps as not even properly belonging to the same genre at all. This critical distinction was matched by or, more likely, produced by a parallel divide in SF fandom of the 1980s and 1990s; people who are old enough to have been active on the early Internet will recall that Star Wars vs. Star Trek was a banned topic on many forums, especially in its more fannish varieties (like the infamous question “Who would win in a fight, a Star Destroyer or the Enterprise D?”).

Now, this all may seem a little strange—of course the Enterprise D would win that fight, as the military applications of transporter technology alone far surpass any of the known tactical capabilities of the Empire, much less their sad devotion to the ancient Jedi religion.

But it’s also a bit strange to see fandom elevate the at-times rather slim distinctions between these two mass cultural corporate megabrands to the level of political or even moral principle, especially as those distinctions are largely originating on the level of affective response (what kind of person does watching Star Trek make me feel like I am, what kind of person does their watching Star Wars make me feel like they are, and so on), rather than any particularly rigorous distinction on the level of either form or content.

The thin line dividing the two properties has only grown thinner in recent years,as the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline expressly bringing a Star Wars action-comedy sensibility to Trek (with J.J. openly trumpeting that he wasn’t a Star Trek fan in his promotion of the first reboot film)

and the J.J. Abrams “sequel trilogy” bringing a dyspeptic, 80s-Trek-movies sensibility to Star Wars (where the once-carefree franchise becomes, in its 2010s formulation, an extended and grim meditation on the unfulfilled promises of youth, the roads not taken, the disappointments of parenting, and the sadness of growing old).

In 2016-2017 we saw each property embark full-throatedly on a project of metanarrative revision, directing their attention not only to telling new stories about categories of people they had previously ignored but also interrogating the assumptions that had previously undergirded appreciation of each franchise. I’ll talk most about Star Trek: Discovery in what follows but I hope this produces an immediate glimmer of recognition as a description of both Rogue One and The Last Jedi, which both not only center on women as central protagonists, and which both proliferate new points of audience identification beyond just “Bad Empire” and “Good Rebellion,” but which also give us new ways of understanding the mythic logic that structures the Holy Trilogy of episodes IV, V, and VI. Rogue One shows us “Star War is hell” after all, recentering our attention on the nameless extras in the background who need to die, anonymous and unmourned, so Luke Skywalker can be the Chosen One — while The Last Jedi shows us that being the Chosen One isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be either, and that the fantasy we thought we wanted (“You think what? I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?”) is infantile and embarrassing, and in any event when it does come produces not “new hope” but a new world of death that has the same no-future in the end (Kylo doesn’t turn Good; to a rounding error the Resistance doesn’t escape; Luke doesn’t save the day, and in fact, Luke dies).

For the rest of my talk I’ll be elaborating on what Discovery does to Star Trek, in the opposite direction, but my central claim can be summarized in a variation on a recent tweet of mine: Today Star Wars wants to be Star Trek and Star Trek wants to be Star Wars, and everyone is sad.

Have people been watching Star Trek: Discovery? Who’s seen all the way to the end?

I really hope I’ve pitched the paper at a level where everyone can enjoy what I’m about to say whether you’ve seen the series or not.

Because this is an academic talk I will have to break the spoiler seal, so I apologize if you were planning on going back to the room to watch some CBS All Access tonight. (That goes for you, too, Internet.) And it’s strange in a way to even have to worry about, as Star Trek has historically been a primarily episodic concern, with season and series arcs existing only at the margins of the franchise, especially in its paradigmatic formulations of TOS/TNG. It hasn’t previously hinged on “spoilers.” But Discovery is nearly all arc, nearly all mythology episodes: there is only one properly standalone episode in the series after the pilot, episode 7, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” and even that one is nominally a sequel. (I’ll return to the subject of that episode a little bit in a moment). The other fourteen episodes are almost nothing but series arc, each episode feeding directly into the next, and sadly comprised of mostly “shocking” plot twists.

I feel as though I should also apologize the way Steve did yesterday, too, for this being all a little bit fannish. But this is ICFA, after all.

The initial arc of Discovery, which is set approximately a decade before the adventures depicted in the original season of Star Trek (1966), concerns Cmdr. Michael Burnham, who in the pilot has served on the Shenzhou under Captain Phillippa Georgiou (most recently as the first officer) for seven years. (That’s no arbitrary number; seven years is the typical run of a modern Star Trek series, so we are essentially being introduced to these characters in the context of the series finale of the TNG-style series Star Trek: Shenzhou, which of course never actually aired.) Burnham is a human orphan, her parents having been murdered in a raid by Klingon marauders; afterwards she was raised on Vulcan as a Vulcan by her adopted parent, long-running Star Trek secondary character Sarek (Spock’s father). She is therefore the adopted human sister of Spock, whom he just never happened to have mentioned on camera in any context before now.

Encountering a massive Klingon installation at the edge of space, Burnham becomes convinced that the Shenzhou needs to fire on the Klingons or the Shenzhou will be destroyed. Georgiou refuses on the basis that Starfleet does not fire first — so Burnham disables her with a Vulcan neck pinch in her ready room and gives the order as if it came from Georgiou, becoming Starfleet’s first-ever mutineer. Georgiou recovers quickly and belays the order, and in the ensuing battle the Shenzhou is lost, Georgiou is killed, and the Federation plunges into a cataclysmic war with a newly reunited and newly dangerous Klingon Empire that soon threatens its very survival.

(I should say here the series never exactly commits to whether Burnham’s impulse was correct, whether it could have stopped the war or saved the Shenzhou if she’d been allowed to see it through. That’s deliberate: in Discovery we aren’t in a place where we can simply trust our heroes implicitly anymore, and nobody knows what’s actually right or what’s best.)

This is just the pilot and we are already quite far afield of our expectations of a Star Trek series: mutiny, war, death, blowing up the ship and killing the captain and then not undoing it by the end of the episode. But things only get worse from here.

Burnham is found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to life imprisonment on a Federation work colony; however, sometime later, while being transferred with some other prisoners, there is an accident with her shuttle and she is brought aboard the science vessel U.S.S. Discovery, captained by Gabriel Lorca.

The Discovery has been retrofitted for the war, and in fact soon becomes the key tactical asset of the Federation, as it possesses a unique “spore drive” that taps into a fungal substratum of the universe, allowing the Discovery to appear and reappear anywhere it likes instantaneously. Lorca—a disabled, traumatized veteran of the war who has already lost one ship to Klingon attack, its only survivor—runs the ship not in the loose, avuncular style of previous captains but as a warship, an actual military vessel, with strict military discipline, unquestioning obedience, and a shoot-first-and-take-no-prisoners attitude towards the prosecution of the war. Indeed, our early episodes on the Discovery indicate that a decidedly un-Starfleet cult of personality has developed around Lorca on the Discovery, with some officers utterly worshipful of his leadership and others (especially the Discovery’s initial science complement, who have now found themselves conscripted as soldiers) deeply skeptical of his attitudes and decisions. One of Burnham’s compatriots from the Shenzhou, Lt. Saru, from an evolved prey species called the Kelpians, has been promoted and is now Lorca’s first officer, though he seems weirdly out of the loop compared to earlier first officers we’ve known.

And if you were at the Trek/Star Wars/Mass Effect worldbuilding panel yesterday, and heard Steve Rabitsch say he doesn’t like any of the DIS characters yet: I defy anyone not to like Saru.

Lorca doesn’t stand on ceremony with Burnham; he knows her past but also her ingenuity and incredible usefulness, and offers to allow her to resume service in Starfleet despite her crime as a non-commissioned enlistee, under his broad wartime legal authority.

The first arc thus details Burnham’s reintegration into Starfleet under the unusual Discovery command structure, as the Discovery first perfects the spore drive and then uses it to singlehandedly turn the tide of the war.

Until, that is, the last episode of the first arc, when Lorca uses the now-perfected spore drive to teleport the Discovery not home to Earth, where it can win the war, but to the Mirror Universe, first seen in the classic TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror,” home of the infamous Evil Goateed Crew.

In an extremely Star Wars twist, it turns out Lorca is not our father; he is not the affable, dad-joke Kirk, nor the dignified and distant but he-really-loves-you-on-the-inside Picard, nor the bombastic, affectionate Sisko. He’s actually the Mirror Universe Lorca, who was marooned in our universe after a transportation accident years before and who has successfully impersonated a proper Starfleet captain ever since (actually rising to extreme prominence in the fleet as an incredibly effective, brilliant war hero, due to his merging of Starfleet’s collectivist organizational ethos with brutal Mirror-Universe tactics). Lorca has done all this in a convoluted plan to return to the Mirror Universe and overthrow the Mirror Universe’s “Terran empire” and put himself at its head, with the Prime Burnham ruling by his side (the consequence of a creepy obsession he has with her, due to his having groomed the Mirror Burnham for a likely sexual relationship while acting as a literal father figure towards her in her childhood).

Luckily, in a Star-Wars-style, Throne-Room-fight high-speed resolution, Lorca is dispatched almost immediately after revealing himself as a bad guy, falling through a hole in the floor into the spore drive, presumably never to be heard from again.

Problem solved, the Discovery then goes back to the Prime Universe, where it arrives nine months late to find a Federation at the brink of defeat. But, through another extremely convoluted plan and a very high-speed resolution, they solve that problem too, and give a quick speech affirming the superiority of the Federation’s values that has not been borne at all out by any the events we have witnessed over the course of the season, while they all give each other medals—the end.

I write in last month’s LARB piece about Discovery about the way the series is unwilling to fully commit to its revisionist narrative (much moreso than either Rogue One and The Last Jedi, in fact), and instead characteristically uses its moments of “shocking revelation” as an opportunity to eject the suspect element from the series and start the narrative over.

And I write in this week’s AUFS piece about the way these attempt to eject these non-Trekian elements of the series—many of them the undead remnants of the original Bryan Fuller conception of Discovery that proved problematic during actual production, especially after he left the series—has itself proved failed. I don’t have time to talk about the whole post here or, indeed, to explain the entire time-travel conceit of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”—I advise you to carefully study my blog post on your own time—so in the time remaining to me today allow me to simply summarize the essential problem I found there: like most of the early episodes of Discovery, “Magic,” ostensibly a standalone episode with a happy, we-beat-the-bad-guy ending, is no longer standalone at all, and in fact now almost impossible to watch without constantly thinking about the Mirror Universe twist. To make a long story short:

…having exposed and then immediately ejected Lorca from the series has not “solved the problem” of Lorca but retroactively turned rewatching the series into an exercise of trying to read Jason Isaacs’s exquisitely opaque facial expressions for some slight dropping of Lorca’s mask. On rewatch the whole series is now even more about Lorca than it was before.

Discovery has thus produced a perverse situation where it is primarily—indeed, nearly entirely—about something it has since decided it doesn’t want to be about—and that thing is unfortunately not “Star Trek,” at least not as we have ever understood the concept before. I’ll quote again from that piece:

As of yet we know very little about Star Trek: Discovery season two. But I think it’s fair for us, in this off season, to ask what elements of season one will extend to season two that will reward repeated rewatching by obsessive fans. Lorca is gone; Culber is gone; Tyler is gone; the war is over; Burnham is reinstated; Stamets is a plot device; Sarek is boring; Tilly is extremely inconsistently written, and by the end almost exclusively for laughs. What from the perspective of season two and beyond—from the perspective of the whole series as we will come to recognize it retrospectively years from now—will look like the must-see episodes of season one?

At the moment I think this is still very hard to say.

The last shot of the season, a cliffhanger, has the Discovery literally face-to-face with the Enterprise (still Pike’s, not Kirk’s), a place where Burnham’s adopted sibling Spock is currently serving as science officer. The series, that is, true to form, ends precisely on yet another image of imperfect, failed, mirroring: Discovery and the original Enterprise are clearly two versions of one another, in some sense or another, but the image is oddly composed, tilted and asymmetrical, and the twinned questions of (1) continuity and difference and (2) priority and subordination between the two ships remain very open-ended. Discovery seems unable to either replicate the past or to break free of it; even armed with the incredible power of the spore drive, it lacks direction or destination.

Star Trek after Discovery is thus facing a deep crisis of narrative coherence, condemned to be neither “Star Trek” nor “after”; indeed, having tossed out nearly everything that constituted the first season, there is very little sense of what if anything can extend from this initial season into a future, seven-or-more-year Trek arc like the ones we have been habituated to expect post-TNG. To coin a phrase: What are the spores here? What sort of life can grow on Discovery now, post-season-one? And will the thing this show grows into truly be “Trek,” whatever that means?

I am of course speculating here, but if any such through-line exists I suspect the key figure will actually be Saru, a key character I have spoken very little about here who is sidelined for much of the first season due to the breakdown of his prior relationship with Burnham and his effective nonpresence in Lorca’s inner circle. With the possible, arguable exception of Deep Space Nine, no Trek series has ever managed to be a true ensemble show: a pair or trio of characters always rises to the top to provide the primary locus of narrative interest. Picard and Data; Kirk and Spock (and McCoy); Janeway and Seven (and maybe the Doctor); Archer and T’Pol (and Trip). While Lorca dominates season one—so thoroughly that it is hard for me to imagine what the series will look like without him, and episodes 1.14 and 1.15 don’t exactly fill me with confidence—it seems hard to imagine that Discovery as a multi-season, unified totality can be anything but Burnham and Saru. Their fraught, delicate, but genuine friendship is the last remaining source of compelling interpersonal drama that hasn’t been jettisoned from the series by the end of season one; if seasons two (and beyond) are to feel like an extension of season one, rather than a complete reboot, Burnham and Saru will have to be their foundation.

In short, I argue, to survive as a coherent narrative project rather than an exercise in rebranding, Star Trek after Discovery will first and foremost need to find its way back to being Star Trek—and the fertile ground of the Burnham-Saru friendship is only path I see from where we are now towards that goal. If there’s hope for the series, it starts there. Thanks for listening!

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  1. […] Canavan has an interesting critical take on Star Trek: Discovery. Is it really doing new things, or is its newness just […]


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