Spoilers ahead for the mid-season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, “Despite Yourself.”
Reception to Star Trek: Discovery’s first season has been mixed since it premiered back in September 2017. But its two-month mid-season break might have made a significant difference for the Trek franchise’s first foray into the golden age of television. January 7th’s mid-season premiere episode arrived at an optimal moment, unburdened by competing fall lineups. It’s the dead of winter, when people are staying in more. And it arrives on the heels of the fourth season of everyone’s favorite technological bummer, Black Mirror, which includes a particularly depressing but noteworthy Trek homage.
Discovery’s return episode, “Despite Yourself,” proves that the first new Trek show in more than a decade isn’t bound to the franchise’s utopian legacy, which might be exactly what Trek needs. The winter premiere hit its narrative stride quickly, sending its cast into their own darkest timeline, where humans have embraced fascist xenophobia instead of evolving past it. By asking fans to re-examine Star Trek’s rosy future as hard-won instead of inevitable, Discovery’s creators are reinventing the franchise for a political era where the inexorable march toward social progress is no longer a given.
So far, the consensus on Discovery among fans and critics has been muddled, and the first half of its launch season had a lot working against it. There were endless debates over whether this Star Trek is worth paying for on its own; the CBS All Access paywall has certainly been a hurdle, especially in an era with so many streaming-service options. And back in the fall, CBS faced the unfortunate debut concurrence of Seth MacFarlane’s Trek parody series The Orville, which premiered two weeks before Discovery. Discovery itself chose to upend many of the franchise’s traditions straight out of the gate, sidelining the usual duty-bound captain protagonist in favor of a convicted mutineer, raised by Vulcans and played by a black woman. The Klingons have been reinvented, the Trek timeline has been subverted, and the plot hasn’t yet conformed to the familiar Trek narrative structure.
But by nodding to the traditions of Trek’s past while hurtling headfirst into its future, the newest episode smashes the buttons for every type of viewer, from traditional conservatives to sociopolitical idealists to conspiracy theorists. Directed by Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Jonathan Frakes, whose presence injects a much-needed sense of canon into the show, “Despite Yourself” finds the contumacious crew where the mid-season finale left them: in the middle of unknown space, light-years from home. At first, it seems like a familiar predicament straight out of Star Trek: Voyager. But the crew rapidly learns they’ve been flung not into deep space, but into a mirror universe, where they’ve swapped places with an alternate version of Discovery.
It’s not a friendly universe, either. In this timeline, humans haven’t created a United Federation of Planets, the utopian intergalactic alliance that’s always been Star Trek’s foundation. Instead, they’ve doubled down on a chilling “Terran supremacy” doctrine, and built a warmongering, bloodthirsty empire bent on blasting alien races into submission. This universe’s Discovery is helmed by a ruthless warrior version of the usually timid Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Terran Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) was the captain of the Shenzhou — a winking glimpse of the timeline teased in the pilot, before the abrupt death of Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou. But she’s currently presumed dead at the hands of the Terran Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who attempted to overthrow the Empire’s mysterious ruler and is still at large.
Cue the classic Trek cosplay plot, in which the ship’s crew must roleplay their way out of danger, assuming the roles of their own mirror-universe doppelgangers. The human race has effectively become the Nazi Germany of the galaxy. The Terran Empire uniforms are fascistically ornate, the seig heil salute is back in vogue, and the crew must confront their own potential for evil — what atrocities were their mirror selves capable of committing in a world that rewarded brutality instead of curiosity? And how far are they willing to go now, when “just following orders” may be the key to their survival?
Meanwhile, Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) is disintegrating under the weight of his PTSD flashbacks. The latest development is a familiar, frustrating bury-your-gays plot, with one of the two major LGBTQ characters that brought Discovery positive press now left dead. That complicates Ash’s originally straightforward role as a sympathetic victim and avatar for the underexamined side of sexual assault, and it revives a supposedly debunked theory about his true identity. It also foreshadows his role as the deeply ambivalent Jekyll/Hyde avatar that this generation needs and deserves, as it grapples with issues of bodily autonomy, identity, and consent. Given the mounting evidence for another dark prediction concerning Lorca, and Burnham and Tilly’s new roles as pseudo Space Nazis, some loose threads from the season’s first half are coming together.
In 2018, we certainly need a utopian north star like Star Trek to suggest a positive future exists for the human race. But as Discovery’s creators understand and declare in “Despite Yourself,” we also need to take a sobering look at our own reflections. Previous Trek series largely took Starfleet’s underlying righteousness for granted. The franchise was built on the premise that humanity had left many of its pettier bigotries in the past. But in 2018, when well-meaning white men and women are being forced to confront the consequences of their privilege, it’s essential to reassess such self-satisfied assumptions.
In its mid-season premiere, Star Trek: Discovery has presented that simple yet crucial question: what might getting to Star Trek’s utopian future cost us as a species? By asking us to reckon with our Trek avatars becoming the white supremacists of tomorrow — not to mention trust the structure the show’s creators are piecing together — Discovery is poised to reveal just how much is at stake, both for the show and for us. It’s a timely political angle that comes at an appropriate political moment. If “Despite Yourself” is any indication, things just might be looking up.