Saturday, 6 January 2018

Discovery, Orville, Callister: A Starship Trinity (part one)

With the second half of Star Trek: Discovery imminent, it seems a good opportunity to look back over the series so far, as well as two other TV productions which have used Star Trek as their starting points. The first season of The Orville finished in late 2017, while the fourth series of Black Mirror, a very different sort of science fiction show, was released on Netflix just before the new year. This run of Black Mirror kicked off with "USS Callister," an unusual story for an always varied series that involved an extended Trek parody.

So that's three 2017 TV series which each serves as a different sort of tribute to Star Trek, particularly in its earlier forms. Discovery acts as an official continuation/prequel of the Star Trek franchise, clocking in as the seventh series since the original was broadcast back in 1966, but one that makes efforts to both reference earlier versions and take it in a new, modern direction. The Orville, in spite of being officially unrelated to Trek, is a loving pastiche which is closer in many ways to earlier iterations of the franchise, but also tries to market itself as a comedy, with mixed results. "USS Callister" is a near-future horror which involves a sustained Trek parody to make a comment on the sorts of toxic fanboys who have made fandom so unpleasant for so many people.

The three productions make very different attempts to comment on Star Trek and real life, but each one covers some of the same ground as both the others. It's interesting to see how each of them works both as a science fiction adventure in their own right and as a meta-commentary on Trek fandom.

Star Trek: Discovery maintains Trek tradition by being named after the lead ship, although the two-part opener revolved around the ill-fated USS Shenzou as an extended set-up for the Federation-Klingon war that has dominated the first half of the series. The previous three series (Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise) all took their name from the main setting (a starship in all but DS9's case), and so do The Orville and "USS Callister." It's a small thing, but one that flags that we're dealing with works by people who are all inspired by the same material. Discovery, as a prequel set ten years before the original Star Trek, treads some of the same ground as both Enterprise and the recent Star Trek reboot movies, each going back to an earlier future and filling in bits of Trek's future history. None of them has made too much effort to fit in rigidly with existing continuity, which is exactly as it should be. The broad strokes are there, sometimes some very specific detail, but the stories come first and any continuity aspects that get in the way are ditched.

This is, of course, exactly how it should be. However, for a very vocal contingent of fandom, by-the-letter continuity is more important than quality of writing, production or acting. While a browse of my blog will make it clear how much I enjoy obscure continuity stuff, but at the end of the day it's a fan game and not something that should dictate the content of a major TV series. Especially considering the level of inconsistency that was present in the original series and the earliest days of The Next Generation. Some fans are getting very angry that the miraculous, pseudo-scientific "spore drive" of the USS Discovery doesn't fit into established Trek history. They're right, of course, and it may or may not be explained away, but if it leads to some interesting stories, it's a fudge worth accepting. I'd rather smile at references to obscure planets than get tied up with that.

The other, fouler contingent of fandom that has made itself known is the "anti-SJW" brigade. These are the people - almost solely white men - who cry foul whenever someone outside of their particular category of human is included in a series that they consider rightfully theirs. It happens in Marvel comics, in Doctor Who, in Star Wars, in bloody Disney. Yet it seems willfully perverse that a Trekkie would be like this. Star Trek has always been about diversity and inclusion, and no, it's not always got it right, but it's at least always tried to get it right. To be against this is to be against the very ethos of the franchise, one that included thinly-veiled social commentary right from the very beginning.

Times have changed, of course, and so the commentary has changed. The showrunners of Discovery - Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, and at least to begin with, Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman - have created a series that looks at a darker set of themes than earlier Trek series commonly did. In a world where the worst acts of our governments are reported on and spread across social media, where terrorism and religious fundamentalism are a worldwide threat and where violence seems to be escalating, looking at the worst aspects of ourselves couldn't be more timely. Star Trek, the original show, had trips back to the past and present and the occasional out-of-time dictator to show that humans were once cursed with savagery and intolerance, but that we had moved past that. Discovery looks at this differently, putting us in the position of the future people and showing that no, they're not perfect, but that they are moving forward. The Star Trek ideal is just that, and it's something for both the Discovery crew and us to strive towards.

What's really got the bros fired up, though, is the showrunners very conscious decision to make the series inclusive. The lead character, Michael Burnam, is played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a black woman, a first for a lead of a Trek series. She initially serves under Captain Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh, giving us, for a short time at least, two non-white women as the senior crew of a starship. The status quo changes once we move to the USS Discovery, where Jason Isaacs plays Captain Lorca, a white male American, but on this ship we have Anthony Rapp, a proudly gay man playing a gay scientist who is in a healthy long-term relationship with another male crewmember. We also have Mary Wiseman as Cadet Tilly, a character hinted as being on the autistic spectrum, and Shazad Latif, a British actor of mixed Asian-European descent, as troubled officer Ash Tyler. It's a main cast that is notably light on straight white male characters.

The ongoing narrative of Discovery concerns the war between the ostensibly peaceful Federation and the recently radicalised Klingon Empire, something that is blamed on mutinous actions by Burnham. This doesn't actually wash with what we see on screen, in an example of some very poor writing which fails to square up the events seen in one episode and what we're told about them in another. Nonetheless, it maintains a strong narrative thread throughout the series so far. While there are standalone episodes - in particular the tremendously fun time loop story "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" - the core of the series' narrative is the war and the consequences it has for characters. While this focus on war is unusual for Trek - with the exception of the latter seasons of DS9 - it's actually very much in keeping with its philosophy. There are questions about whether war can ever be justified, about what actions in war can be so justified even if the cause is just, and the overall message is that war is a terrible thing for all involved, and is something to work to move beyond.

Perhaps the most noteworthy story thread involves Tyler, who is found by Lorca in a Klingon pow camp, along with a reimagined version of original series villain Harry Mudd. Tyler has been surviving in the prison by allowing his female jailer to use him as her plaything. He is very clearly suffering from PTSD, but is brought on as chief of security by Lorca - an unstable individual himself. While Tyler begins to move past his trauma by beginning a relationship with Burnham, he continues to have flashbacks to his abuse, all the more so when his abuser, the gigantic Klingon woman L'rell, is captured. It's extremely rare for television to present a storyline on male rape, rarer still for this to be part of a military narrative and very unusual in that it is played entirely seriously. Male rape is frequently and shamefully seen as a joke in so much media, particularly American media, and so to see it taken seriously here is hugely positive. There are persistent rumours that Tyler is actually a Klingon character surgically altered and mentally processed to act under deep cover, and that his memories of abuse are twisted recollections of consensual sex with L'rell, but I truly hope this isn't the case, as it would so damage the storyline as so far presented.

The Orville is quite a different sort of series, yet it does cross over with Discovery in some unexpected ways. Seth McFarlane initially made inquiries to pitch for a Star Trek series, but these came to nothing, and so created his own faux-Trek which was picked up by Fox. While a comedy series, at least in part, it's very much not a parody of Trek, with the comedy elements being more based on human interaction and scatological humour. It's very blatantly inspired by Star Trek, though, in particular The Next Generation, although there's a distinct flavour of Voyager there as well. McFarlane isn't shy about it either, and the series wears its influences on its sleeve. The uniforms look like TNG Starfleet uniforms (unlike those of Discovery, which look like an evolution of those seen on Enterprise). The ship, the USS Orville ECV-197, though different in design to the Starfleet ships, looks like a plausible evolution of it. There are alien crewmembers, including Bortus, played by Peter Macon, and Alara Kitan, played by Halston Sage. Bortus, in particular, is a clear lift from both Worf (big, black, strong, laconic, weird forehead) and Spock (unemotional, logical, struggles to understand humans). There's also a Data-like android, named Isaac, sent from an advanced race to study humanity. Instead of the Federation, there's the Planetary Union, and there's faster-than-light travel, phase pistols, shuttlecraft, and all the Trek trappings (although, interestingly, the Union doesn't have teleporters).

The Orville is very much trying to be an older style of Star Trek, with episodic, standalone adventures and simple morality tales. It's greatest strength and greatest failing is, as one, the comedy aspect. How much of this was in McFarlane's plan and how much was pushed upon him by a studio who expect comedy from him is uncertain, but there's a severe imbalance in tone in the series, particularly in the first few episodes. Yet there are moments that are genuinely funny, such as Isaac's attempt to understand practical jokes. Some of the elements send up tropes in a gentle way: there's an alien character who's a green blob, who complains when he thinks he's being discriminated against because he's gelatinous, which somehow works precisely because all the alien crewmen in Star Trek were uniformly humanoid (even DS9s Odo, who slept in a bucket, was usually human-shaped). The choice to make this a series about a captain and his first officer who were once married until she cheated on him is at once a shoe-horned attempt at comedy, but also a more realistic relationship than Star Trek usually manages. Captain Lorca boffs his old flame admiral and then sells her out to the Klingons; Ed Mercer and Kelly Grayson just have to deal with being awkward around each other and trying not to mention certain things. By having "real" people on the bridge of a starship, it's trying the same thing as Discovery: moving us away from TNG-era Trek's idea of perfect examples of humanity.

The Orville is so brazen in its lifting of Trek that it involves several actors recognisable to Trek fans specifically for that reason, most notably Penny Johnson Jerald, once Kassidy Yates on DS9 and now Dr. Claire Finn, Chief Medical Officer of the Orville. Jonathan "Riker" Frakes is in the unique position of directing episodes of both Discovery and Orville. In some respects, this makes it hard to take the show seriously, as do the frequent tonal shifts to fart and dick jokes, or the fact that anytime you hear Mercer talk you hear Brian from Family Guy speak (what with McFarlane playing both roles and writing the bulk of most series). Yet this is very clearly a seriously made series. It looks fantastic, the scripts are generally well-written and there are some big name guest stars (Charlize Theron was well-publicised but Liam Neeson was a shocker).

Some of the episodes are very Trek-by-numbers but when it tries the series really hits. The hird episode, "About a Girl," is an extended discourse on issues as diverse as race, sexuality, misogyny and transgender identity. It's a rambling discourse, and doesn't always work, but damn, it's trying the right things. Bortus's species are the Moclans, an all-male race engaged exclusively in homosexual relationships that nonetheless produce offspring. When Bortus lays an egg that hatches a baby girl, it turns out that his partner was also born female. the script wanders all over the place but takes in some very interesting discussions on cultural attitudes to various elements of identity. The decision to make Moclus an all-black, profoundly misogynistic society verges on racism, though, although it's considerably less racist than the third episode of TNG. It's all worth it for the aforementioned fanbros who rejoiced at The Orville delivering "proper" Star Trek with straight white people in charge, only to give them an entire planet of gay black men.

While The Orville takes a lighter approach than Discovery it explores some of the same themes, one of which is the approach to war. While Discovery has the Klingons, Orville has the Krill, a people who are utterly convinced that they are the superior form of life in the universe due to their devotion to their holy book. The parallels with religious, particularly Islamic, fundamentalism, are obvious. Some series would shy away from this subject matter, but The Orville sees Mercer and his friend and helmsman Malloy go undercover on a Krill ship to get a copy of this book. While there, they develop a new understanding of the Krill mindset, but also discover that the ship is on a mission to annihilate a Union planet. They devise a plan to destroy the ship, only to discover a school of Krill children onboard.

It's a remarkable episode, one that views the religious hardcore with both sympathy and criticism. Mercer eventually comes up with a way to kill the adult crew and end the threat, but save the children, something that he hates having to do but considers the only way to stop his own people being exterminated. During his time on the Krill ship he connects with some of the children and their teacher, who is the only adult Krill who survives. When asked why he saved the children, he replies, "They're not my enemies," to which she responds, "They are now." It's an exceptionally insightful script for such a silly series. Compare it with Discovery's Klingons. Although the showrunners have spoken of wanting to make the Klingons a sympathetic people and show the war from both sides, they haven't followed through, instead making the Klingon make-up more monstrous than ever, giving them opaque motives, and portraying them as vengeful murderers who eat their enemies' corpses and rape their prisoners. The Klingons of Discovery are monsters far more than their brothers in earlier series, or the Krill.

Onto part two

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