Star Trek: Discovery and how Star Trek fans are trying to sink it
How I came to question whether I wanted to call myself a “fan” of Star Trek.
As a fairly active member of the Quora community, I come across all kinds of questions. A favourite — let’s say — genre in recent months is the opinion piece on television shows and movies. Quora favourites include Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and generally hating Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. However, one of the most popular pursuits in this section of Quora of late has been the reviewing and subsequent evisceration of Star Trek: Discovery.
This trend isn’t limited to Quora. Rather, it seems to be the case across the Internet and, most worryingly, the vast majority of complaints come from core fans of the series. These aren’t independent reviews either. Instead, we are witnessing a kind of bandwagoning, the likes of which I’ve never encountered before, in which the same arguments are repeated over and over, regardless of their relevance or originality.
Having seen the entirety of Star Trek’s opus, including all the available episodes of Discovery, I would say that I am a fan. Yet, I’ve been left puzzled by how vehement the reaction has been to the new series — not least because much of it has come in the wake of only a few episodes.
If this trend in pre-emptive and uninformed negativity was simply down to the paywall that CBS has erected around the show, then perhaps it could be understandable.* And, while this is an issue with fans, it is but one complaint amid a plethora of otherwise petty and nit-picking criticisms that range from ire at the new-look Klingons to critiques of the science in a show that has always had about as much fidelity to physics as Ridley Scott does to history.
* Though, one cannot really fault the logic in making new Star Trek the flagship of your fledgling competitor for Netflix and Amazon. The fault is perhaps in neglecting to consider that people might not wish to pay for yet another monthly subscription.
It’s hard to see what exactly Discovery has done to deserve this kind of reaction. For some reason, after five separate series in which we have seen warp travel, time travel, wormholes, transcendental species (including a seemingly all-powerful continuum and godlike aliens that live inside a wormhole), and all manner of creatures and aliens, suddenly how radiation is treated and how binary stars look are deal-breakers.
Whatever the reasoning, the consensus among “fans” is clear: Discovery is not Star Trek.
What exactly defines Star Trek, in this case, is unclear, but it appears to be an arbitrary and, at times, deeply personal concept, based on the perceived vision of Gene Roddenberry. This is easy to understand, especially as someone with their own personal connection to Star Trek. The problem is, this movable definition is no longer welcoming to new ideas, rather now it is being used to insulate the fan-base from the change that they feel Discovery represents.
So, objectively, what is Star Trek: Discovery? Unfortunate acronym aside, it’s a Star Trek that is trying new things — whether it be its new point of view or its genre-bending. We have grey characters with potential for great depth, aliens that actually look alien, beautiful effects, moments of pure science-fiction mixed with horror, and more work for Doug Jones (who is to acting in make-up what Andy Serkis is to motion-capture). From where I’m sitting — admittedly in a country where Discovery is a Netflix property — it looks like an attempt to open Star Trek to a new audience, experiment with an old and tired formula (that contributed to Enterprise’s failure), and capitalise on the momentum of the recent films — none of which is intrinsically bad.
Discovery, in its first season, certainly isn’t perfect, but then the third episode of the now-sanctified The Next Generation (The Naked Now, TNG 1.03) had a whole crew act drunk and a fairly long sequence explaining and demonstrating how an android could, in fact, have sex. All of which was harking back to an episode of The Original Series. For fans, apparently that is the kind of hard-hitting sci-fi Discovery is missing. Suffice to say, no Star Trek series, except maybe Voyager, hit the ground running.
However, none of the series’ flaws indicate that it deserves the reaction it has received from supposed Star Trek fans. But then, these are people who are willing to suspend their disbelief when a white man beats the living hell out of a massive lizard (Arena, TOS 1.19) but an Asian woman going toe-to-toe with a Klingon? (Battle at the Binary Stars, DIS 1.02) That’s too unbelievable.*
*Incidentally, there were few complaints when two of her male counterparts, weakened by imprisonment, did the same thing to several Klingons. (Choose Your Pain, DIS 1.05).
It says a lot about hardcore Star Trek fans that so many of them are flocking to the parodic The Orville. By its nature a pastiche, The Orville was expected by many to be “Family Guy in Space”. However, it has turned out, in many ways, to be a thoughtful recreation of Gene Roddenberry's vision, borrowing much from Star Trek’s Original Series. If nothing else, it is yet another demonstration of Seth MacFarlane’s dedication to science and, by extension, science-fiction. It’s a good show, but its influences are obvious and give the show a dated feel. This isn’t such a bad thing, but this, and fans’ insistence that Star Trek Continues is superior to Discovery, does give us a vision of the kind of Star Trek “fans” are looking for: unchanging, familiar, and stuck in the past. Not only is that not Roddenberry’s vision, but that’s also not even science-fiction.
This exodus to The Orville and the accompanying movement towards a toxic community is a hard one to reconcile with a property built upon the opposite values. The development of an “us and them” attitude in a fan-base — in which new fans are mistrusted and ultimately driven away by fans who see themselves as superior due to their own longevity, how much they’ve consumed, or perceived superior knowledge — naturally breeds venom. It makes for an unwelcoming fandom driven by a single point-of-view, in which any challenge or change becomes unacceptable. While there has been opposition to every new iteration of Star Trek, the change among vocal groups of “Trekkies” that Discovery has instigated is worrying.
I have found myself constantly surprised by how fandoms conduct themselves online. Things have become so bad that one begins to question whether it’s worth identifying as a fan in some cases, such is the reputation of some communities. Whether it be the often disgraceful Dark Souls community, or the persistently threatening and poisonous fandoms of properties like Star Wars and Harry Potter, down to the genuine human slime surrounding events like Gamergate — wherever you look, communities are starting to skew towards toxic more often than not.
For daring to suggest that J.K. Rowling is an objectively average writer possessed of a dynamite idea, one can expect vile messages, angry rants, and suggestions that one should kill themselves. Reviewers who pointed out that The Force Awakens was an unoriginal film were subject to, among other things, death and rape threats and having their personal details shot across the Internet. Heck, I was once told to “just die” because I didn’t enjoy Andrew Garfield in The Social Network, not because the fan felt I was wrong but because “he’s dreamy”. The lines between fandom and possessive obsession are becoming increasingly blurry.
Surely, being a fan should amount to the adoration of a property — be it a show, a book, or a game? As such, shouldn’t your prime concern be the continuation of the property a) through new entries that further expose the franchise to newer audiences, and thus b) the growth of the fan-base? A greater community means more voices demanding more content, after all.
Yet, this subset of hardcore Star Trek fans is boycotting Discovery due to it not being exactly what they want. Never mind that it’s the first Star Trek series in over a decade, never mind that success here could open the way for future series and films, and never mind that — at the time of writing — only six episodes have aired. The “fans” are determined to sink it through a lack of viewership and uninformed reviews; under the misbegotten belief that this will bring them the series they want, when, in fact, it is more likely to see Star Trek shelved once again.
Reading the IMDb reviews of Discovery, even after only a couple of episodes, I was struck by one review, in particular, a rare positive one, and one statement therein:
“I used to think of myself as a Trekkie, but after reading the comments I don’t belong…” (Ken MacLean, 2017).
And there it is. Existing fans are starting to question where they stand in the community in the face of a possessive and vocal group of devotees who seek, in maintaining an aging status quo, to sink Discovery — perhaps unaware that to do so may well derail the entire franchise.
I never quite called myself a “Trekkie”, but I called myself a fan. I grew up watching The Next Generation and it had a profound effect on me. Similarly, Netflix’s monopoly on Star Trek in the UK has provided a welcome distraction from continuing illness and unlocked a fresh appreciation of Star Trek as a whole. Now, I’m forced to question whether this expanding trend of aggressive negativity is a group I want to be associated with.
Fans would have you believe that Star Trek: Discovery is the end of Star Trek, but I would disagree. Discovery could be the beginning of a new modern era in the franchise and, if it is allowed to evolve and find its feet, could lay a foundation for future series. I would suggest that the possessive and toxic elements of the fan-base will eventually fall away, either through their boycotting of Discovery or being brought round by its increasing quality.
Whether that spells success, however, remains to be seen. It could be that those possessive elements, so keen to push ratings and opinion to the low end of the scale, might still sink the show. But the sad truth is that it isn’t due to Discovery being an objectively bad show; Discovery isn’t the problem, Star Trek’s biggest issues right now are its fans.