Even the casual “Star Trek” fan is well aware of the assorted heroes, villains and alien species that inhabit the Star Trek universe. Vulcans and Klingons are now very much a part of our everyday vocabulary, and even the mission statement of the Star Trek Federation – to boldly go where no one has gone before – is something that has become a part of the pop culture mainstream. But here comes “Star Trek: Discovery” and it already looks like it is going to change some of what we thought we know about this Star Trek universe.
Klingons are a lot more complicated than you ever imagined
Let’s start with the Klingons, since they appear throughout the first two episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery.” In fact, the pilot begins with a Klingon point of view. We see them as different kind of antagonist. If, in earlier iterations of the Star Trek series, they were uniformly presented as evil, war-like and obsessed with values like honor and tradition, here we see a much more nuanced type of Klingon.
In many ways, it starts with how they look, which some critics have described as “Afro-futurist.” Others have described them as having a “gothic” look that wouldn’t be out of place on “Game of Thrones.” They definitely come with a new look, everything from their faces (both their nostrils and mouths) to the armor they wear (which looks much more impressive, filled with spikes). And the language they speak is also different. It used to sound much more Slavic, but now it has the rhythm and cadence of a tribal language.
Moreover, we see their battle against the Federation as being motivated by much more than just martial aggression or avarice. It has become almost a holy war, in which they are avenging the loss of one of their spiritual leaders. We still do not want to root for the Klingons, but we also realize that they might be more complex as a species than we ever gave them credit for. It’s hard not to think of them as a modern-day version of Islamic extremists, only set in outer space.
The Federation is not exactly a shining beacon of democracy and freedom
One linchpin of every Star Trek film and TV show is that the Federation is some kind of monolithic entity dedicated to bringing peace and understanding to the universe. It is a force of optimism and hope, and full of the wonder of mankind exploring the cosmos.
But “Star Trek: Discovery” seems to ground the Federation in much more of a contemporary ethos. From this perspective, the aims and motivation of the Federation might not be as pure of heart as we would like. And it is not monolithic – it is filled with tension, conflict and doubt. And it is also polyglot, no longer offering a single view of mankind and what its goals should be as it explores the universe.
You can think of this as the difference between a Star Trek for the Cold War world and a Star Trek of the post-9/11 world. In the Cold War world, America was a dominant superpower, bringing peace and prosperity to the world. It was very easy to discern the power of good and the power of evil.
However, in the post-9/11 world, the whole element of Islamic radicalism, combined with the rise of multi-polar world and emerging markets, has changed the equation. In many ways, “Star Trek: Discovery” is grounded in contemporary geopolitics, showing us how all of the fundamental tensions and conflicts in today’s society will inform, ultimately, how we explore the universe.
The Vulcans are no longer a purely rational species capable of perfect decision-making
Perhaps one of the most fascinating and most compelling characters ever to appear on Star Trek was Dr. Spock, the legendary Vulcan. He came to symbolize pure scientific rationalism. He was able to think and reason about emotion, and with limited exceptions, never let these emotions influence his decision-making.
But now it looks like “Star Trek: Discovery” is willing to challenge some of what we thought we knew about Vulcans. For example, consider the “Vulcan hello.” This term quickly becomes shorthand for acting very emotionally and irrationally when meeting someone – as in the Vulcans opening fire on the Klingons before ever trying to establish rational, diplomatic contact with them. It is offered up as a symbol of the hypocrisy found within the Federation.
And there’s another angle here, and that’s the role of First Officer Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green), who herself has a Vulcan past, being raised on the planet Vulcan by Spock’s father Sarek. Part of the two-part pilot episode, in fact, has shown us her struggling with this Vulcan background. You might expect her to be calm, rational and un-emotional when making decisions (especially since she attended the Vulcan Science Academy) – but nothing could be further from the truth. This is clearly a new take on the Vulcans.
“Star Trek: Discovery” shows us a brand new alien species
One of the new characters in “Star Trek: Discovery” is the Discovery’s chief science officer, Lt. Saru. As a Kelpien, he has hoof-like feet and is also biologically capable of sensing impending death. We are told that the Kelpiens are largely raised like cattle on their home planet, and that they are essentially a race that’s been doomed to become food for a more dominant predator species. There’s a whole plotline in the pilot episode, in which Saru senses the impending death and destruction brought on by the Klingons. He also reveals the tragic back story of the Kelpiens.
And that’s not all – this new “Star Trek: Discovery” offers plenty of new characters (including the first openly gay character), plenty of high-tech Hollywood special effects, and plenty of fascinating back stories to bring us up-to-date with the first ever version of “Star Trek,” which appeared in the 1960s. It’s futuristic and yet retro at the same time, and that means there’s a good chance that “Star Trek: Discovery” is going to absolutely blow your mind if you’re a Trekkie.