Feature: In Star Trek Discovery, I still don’t know who the villains are

People are talking about how Discovery is a fresh take on the Star Trek formula, and I’d have to agree, though whether it’s better than the others remains to be seen. Taking place ten years before The Original Series (TOS, to fans), and settled snugly within the prime timeline, Discovery has been planted in fertile ground. It sets about addressing a huge part of Star Trek lore: how did The Federation and the Klingon Empire come to such an impasse? Why are they fighting all the time? And can replicators synthesise decent blueberries?

If you haven’t already gone back and watched last week’s opening salvo of episodes, I urge you to do so, but I will say this: they pair very well with this week’s episode. I’d argue that viewing all three is close proximity is a must, given how they end.

…I’m going to warn you right now: this piece is going to be pretty spoilery from here on out, so gird your eyes and/or loins.

So, yes, once again for the back row: I still don’t know who the villains are in Star Trek Discovery, which is a pretty rare thing. After finishing episodes one and two, I was convinced that the lead of the show, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) was the baddie, given that she commits the following errors which are flawed at best, sociopathic at worst.

She insists on flying by herself over to an object that they could have just brought the ship closer to, thereby placing her desire to showboat over logic – odd, given that she was raised by Vulcans. Once there, and once confronted by an angry Klingon warrior, she made a strange choice: rather than fleeing, she lunged at the Klingon, thereby killing him, thereby kicking off the war. She made the baffling decision to bomb the Klingon ship, to “cut off it’s head”, based on apocryphal advice from her psychic mentor, and little else.

She knocked out her captain, an apparent friend, of seven years to doggedly pursue this course. She then talked said captain out of nuking the ship in a suicide mission on the grounds it would do nothing but get her killed and make the bad guy a martyr for the Klingon cause, then insisted they go over in person – without an away team – thereby getting the captain immediately killed. She then shot the Klingon bad guy, making him a martyr to the cause.

Sonequa Martin-Green.

Burnham might be the shittiest Starfleet officer since Lieutenant Barclay, and he lived almost exclusively inside his Holographic Masturbatorium.

My worry was that the show would vindicate, or ignore, this series of insane decisions being carried out by who I assumed would be the hero of the piece. Star Trek does, however, have a proud tradition of morally grey characters who either get redeemed, or do so and then careen aggressively back towards evil (I’m looking at you, Gul Dukat). So imagine my visceral delight when episode three opened with a six month time jump, and with Burnham now a sullen, contrite, disgraced prisoner of Starfleet, stuck on a transport to a penal colony. The transport is intercepted by the U.S.S. Discovery, and finally, FINALLY we get to meet the crew, and the ship, and, crucially, our captain.

Typically, Star Trek follows the captain (Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko, Archer), and eventually a slew of colorful crewmates who fall into the captain’s orbit. Discovery follows a disgraced first officer, Burnham, then kills the captain (Michelle Yeoh) in Episode Two, then, in episode three, we finally meet a captain who is decidedly… dark. Perhaps. Captain Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs, is immediately saddled with the “is he a baddie” mantle because, to be blunt, he’s a Malfoy. He’ll always be a Malfoy.

But Lorca is, regardless, likeable enough; he has an eye condition which demands he reside in semi-darkness, so he’s literally standing in a metaphor when we first meet him. He laments that he can’t be a captain who gets to explore – he voices that desire to Burnham later in the episode – and he knows that he’s got to win the war, at any cost. In this respect, he’s less Kirk, and more Sisko when he was knee-deep in the Dominion War. He’s complex, and shady as hell. Maybe he’s the villain.

Or maybe Stamets, the science officer, is the villain. We know he’s a rude bastard, but he’s also clearly under insane duress, having been conscripted by Lorca, his scientific work bastardised to help in the war effort. We see a ship full of people who’ve died because of the results of his work. He knows he’s partially responsible, and he hates himself for it. He’s a space-age Oppenheimer.

Because this is a wartime show, we seem to be largely bereft of the charm and humour that accompanies most iterations of TrekCadet Silvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) as Burnham’s roommate is a notable exception, but I’ve yet to be won over by or fall in love with any particular member of the crew. Then again, I can hardly imagine anyone from the TNG episode ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ riffing and making jokes about luke-warm raktajinos or Barclay tapping one out, again, as the war effort fell to pieces around them.

I will say this much about the moral muddiness of Discovery. I find it telling that in Episode Three, the only Klingon we see alive spends his last moments trying to aid a group of Starfleet officers by shushing them. An instant later, he is eviscerated. By a living weapon, made by Starfleet.

Star Trek has always been an inherently optimistic show, and I think it still ought to be. The Federation mightn’t be perfect, but the entire point was that a group of people decided to strive to be better than this – and by “this”, I mean war. Death. Inequality. Even when they failed, they failed trying. So perhaps Discovery is about that failure – perhaps this is a show about the saddest villains of all: good guys who lost their way. Or maybe they’re going to pull a fast one, and the convicted mutineer, Burnham, will be the one to school them all on how to pull out of nose-diving towards becoming their worst selves.

There would be something so profoundly Star Trek-ish about a ship full of people who’ve lost their way managing to find it again, under the tutelage of a disgraced pariah.

In short… I can’t look away. And neither should you.

Star Trek Discovery is out every Monday on Netflix Australia.