What you read on Quillette two weeks ago is true. As Barrett Wilson argued in his essay, “What Is This Thing You Call Social Justice?,” Star Trek: Discovery did indeed prove to be a polarizing new front in the culture war—at least for a few months. But that’s mainly because the conservative forces in that conflict have grown to be as sensitive and performative as their leftist counterparts. Discovery, like so much else these days, has become fodder for wearying debates over identity and virtue.
The CBS show, the sixth live-action television Star Trek series, just launched its second season this year. The new season is a form of “soft reboot” (in the words of one reviewer) after a tortured first season, which was marred by long production delays and changes of top-level creative talent. Though it’s too soon to say whether the second season will address some of the real failings of the first, even after only a few episodes, it’s become evident that the tone has changed. Discovery season two is lighter, funnier, more action-packed—and judging from the (admittedly small) sample size on display, notably lacking in anything particularly controversial.
Trek fans find things to be angry out, of course. An inaccurately rendered photon torpedo tube can dominate web boards for days. But the specific controversies that beset Discovery’s debut are, unlike most Trek controversies, mostly connected to issues that lie outside Trek subculture. Wilson noted, correctly, that Discovery has proven divisive among fans, and that a perceived emphasis on progressive virtue signalling was one of the common complaints among a vocal segment of Trek’s fanatically passionate fanbase.
But in fact, Discovery’s at times heavy-handed progressive social commentary didn’t actually last all that long. Indeed, the griping about it lasted longer than any of the alleged virtue signaling.
The show’s protagonist, a female human officer named Michael Burnham (yes, “Michael”—that one hasn’t been explained yet, as Wilson noted), is played by African-American actress Sonequa Martin-Green. Commander Burnham’s superior officer and mentor, Starfleet captain Philippa Georgiou, was played by Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh. This meant the show’s new leaders were two strong female characters, in commanding positions of great power and authority—and both women of colour, to boot. White men weren’t absent entirely from the crew of the Starship Shenzhou, where the first episodes were set, but the junior officers of the ill-fated ship were themselves a diverse bunch (including the usual assortment of aliens). After the Shenzhou is wrecked in battle, some of the crew transfers over to the newly built Starship Discovery, which—gasp— also has a diverse crew, including two men in a stable, loving same-sex relationship. So yes, the cast is unusually multicultural and diverse (as I will discuss below). But by itself, that doesn’t really provide evidence of a social-justice agenda. Multiracial crews, in particular, have been part of the Star Trek universe from the get go.
Discovery’s first season depicts a war involving the Klingon Empire, which has united after a long period of internal strife to wage war against Earth and its associated alien allies, which together constitute the democratic United Federation of Planets. Discovery’s Klingons had been heavily reimagined, with new costume and makeup designs, new starships, new weapons. They waged war against the Federation not only to unite their squabbling Great Houses once more under the banner of a single empire, but also to resist the expansion of the Federation, with its multicultural and democratic values. “Remain Klingon!” is the rallying cry that unites the alien warriors.
And, insofar as social justice messaging goes, that’s about it. If you’re wondering what the big deal is, join the club. Seriously. With the exception of a single line of dialogue later in the season that evokes Donald Trump’s slogan about making America great again, the above constitutes the sum total of Discovery’s progressive posturing.
Discovery had other problems. According to numerous widely published reports, the development of the series was a disaster. Show creator Bryan Fuller was out of the top job before the first episode even aired. His successors were replaced before the second season premiered. Martin-Green, in the series-leading role of Commander Burnham, struggled for much of the first season. It’s impossible to say if that was because of inconsistent writing or simply the learning curve many performers encounter when trying to master the particular nuances of acting in sci-fi. (You try to sound convincing when yelling about the made-up thing that will happen if a fictitious device doesn’t properly break the laws of physics in an impossible way.) Some plotlines seemingly led nowhere, others were wrapped up and then forgotten about with obvious haste.
Discovery is more diverse than previous Star Trek series. But only by a character or two. Excluding two alien characters and focusing only on the humans, the main characters portrayed on the Discovery during the first season include six HoC (humans of colour) and four Caucasians. (The two non-human officers are both portrayed by Caucasian performers.) Male characters outnumber female seven to five. The inclusion of two characters in a same-sex relationship was long overdue for a franchise that once prized breaking barriers, and was portrayed movingly and professionally by actors Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp. Again, even with sensors set to maximum, I’m not seeing much here to be outraged about.
The criticisms of the Klingon as proxies for Trump voters doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, either. It is true that the Klingons portrayed in Discovery are xenophobic, hyper-nationalist and thuggish—and they’re repelled by the Federation’s liberal-democratic values. But any suggestion that this is somehow a proxy for Trump voters misses a key point: These Klingons are entirely consistent with how Klingons have always been portrayed. The Klingon Empire has always been aggressively expansionist, has always been bigoted against non-Klingons, and has always distrusted the Federation’s liberal ideals. The Star Trek canon is absolutely littered with instances of this.
In Star Trek III, a rogue Klingon captain laments that the Federation may soon dominate the Empire. In Star Trek VI, Klingon elites openly scoff at the Federation’s professed tolerance for equal rights for aliens. In Deep Space 9, the third live-action TV series, the Empire launches a series of invasions of rival powers in large part because it has concluded that its long peace with the Federation has sapped its warrior ethos. Other races are routinely dismissed by Klingons as weak and inferior. Even Discovery’s much-derided Klingon battle cry of “Remain Klingon!” is only slightly different from an oft-spouted Klingon cliché that turns up in series after series and film after film: “We are Klingon!”
This is not an overall defence of Discovery. The show’s Klingon plotlines were among the weakest of the first season and seemed to be rapidly de-emphasized in later episodes (which were produced after Bryan Fuller’s departure ended his creative control). The decision to have all Klingon characters speak Klingon all the time, with English subtitles, was odd and seemed to be unpopular with fans. The new makeup was also not well received by many. These are creative failures, and they have seemingly not gone unnoticed by CBS, which produces Discovery. The show is now on its fourth showrunner. The tone of the second season is wildly different. There is an obvious effort underway to adjust, if not outright reinvent, the series after its difficult maiden voyage. It’s hard to read an insidious social justice agenda into what actually looks a lot more like an acceptance of fan criticism and a sincere effort to course correct. Only in today’s bitterly divided culture war atmosphere would that fail to be noticed.
In many respects, Discovery has ended up being, when at its best, an entirely worthy addition to the Star Trek canon. Old characters, such as Vulcan Ambassador Sarek, father of Spock, and irascible human con-man Harcourt Fenton Mudd, have been given new depth (the latter, in particular, played by comedian Rainn Wilson, has been an absolute delight to see on screen). The events of the first season have added nuance and understanding to plotlines that are later taken up by Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in the original series (which was produced 50 years ago but takes place 10 years after the plot arc of Discovery). The Mirror Universe, where Spock has a goatee and Earth reigns over a conquered empire instead of finding a home in a peaceful Federation, has been explored with deeper more frightening realism. And many topical issues that culture warriors on both sides should regard as important—including terrorism, the targeting of civilians in wartime, post-traumatic stress among military personnel, and degrading abuse of captured POWs—have been explored in that uniquely Star Trek way.
Late in Discovery’s first season, the war with the Klingons is going very badly for the Federation. Starfleet’s defences are collapsing. A major battle near Earth has been fought and lost. The Klingons are advancing on the solar system. The genocide of mankind seems imminent. And at this darkest hour, apparently leading the fight for the good guys is…a blue alien: The Andorian Rear Admiral Shukar. An officer from an entirely different world, of an entirely different species, is desperately rallying Starfleet forces to protect the home world of humans. Because in the future, being from another species, not just another race, isn’t a problem. We’re all in it together. Andorians aren’t aliens anymore. Nor are Vulcans or Tellarites or all the rest. They’re mankind’s kin.
It was a classic—and classically liberal—Star Trek message, true to Roddenberry’s original vision of a better future. And for all the whining about Discovery’s blunt virtue signalling, it was delivered with total subtlety. It’s a shame so many viewers apparently were too busy fighting the culture war on planet Earth to watch the much cooler war being fought against Klingon forces in the inky vastness of space.
Matt Gurney is a broadcaster and columnist for Canada’s Global News. He argues about Star Trek on Twitter at @mattgurney.