How Star Trek: Discovery is challenging my understanding of my own fandom

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Seven episodes into the debut season of Star Trek: Discovery, we’ve seen a complete revamping of the Federation for a modern audience. We’ve heard swear words, we’ve met snippy crewmembers, criminals, mutineers, and Klingons that seem unlike any we’ve seen before - continuity be damned.

While all of the works in the franchise created by Gene Roddenberry over half a century ago have embraced diversity, this is the first to be made in a time period where that’s finally truly being represented on screen. The result of these things have left me at the end of every episode rushing to the internet or my iPhone in order to immediately connect with my best Trekkies and ask, “What did we just watch?”

For the first time, I suddenly know what it must have felt like to be someone in 1987 who saw the debut of Next Generation after a lifetime of love for the only Star Trek they’d ever known. To be like the people who were handed this strange new series with a brand new Enterprise that looked more like a space hotel than a Federation starship and told “Nope, this is Star Trek now, deal with it.” I never fully got it because I was always such a big fan of Next Generation and felt so at home with the later shows that I just always felt like saying, hey this is still Star Trek though!

Having been six years old when it first premiered and thirteen when it ended, Next Generation became the automatic baseline for me when it came to any and all things Trek. I am from that blasphemous generation for whom it was my first true experience with Roddenberry’s vision of the future. Only later would I explore the tales of Kirk and Spock in the form of the movies and the original series. TNG was my constant, it was the standard by which I held its immediate spin-offs like Deep Space Nine (which exceeded it for me) and Voyager (which did not).

What I've personally held onto throughout my love of Star Trek, what makes it an interesting franchise for me is that despite the a sci-fi setting Trek is not ever tethered to one single genre. Instead, the Federation, the Enterprise, the Prime Directive, Vulcans, Klingons, etc., all of these things are just part of a large shared-universe mythos which can be used to tell a variety of stories. I could ramble on for a while about The Next Generation as procedural philosophical drama, or DS9 as a frontier and eventual war epic - and I have, many times. I've even found room in my heart for the recent reboot movies as an action adventure series in which Chris Pine gets to do his thing all over the place. 

I’ve always been able to defend the “still Star Trek” feeling for every single iteration of the franchise that I’ve come across. Discovery is the very first time in my life of consuming Trek that suddenly I’ve found myself questioning if I even understand exactly what it is. Discovery is as different from my baseline of TNG as TNG was from TOS. It’s complicated, its morals are ambiguous and even sketchy, it doesn’t have that crew with the perfect camaraderie level that gets us through the tough challenges.

All of this as a build up might sound like I hate Discovery, but the reality is actually quite the opposite. I’ve been loving it so far. I’ve been excited every week to check it out. I’ve been both lamenting the weekly serialized format for an online streaming show that I’m desperate to binge, and relishing in its ability to make me question everything that I’ve ever felt that I’ve understood about a franchise.

I legitimately have no idea what to expect from the unfolding, serialized narrative for this show. I don’t know which characters will survive to the end of the season, I don’t know what parts of the ship will still be there from one week to the next. There are stakes happening that I’ve never seen in a Trek story before. In the universe where the term "redshirt" originated, we have a show where several relatively significant characters have already died. It's a universe where, from the right angle, the Klingons' xenophobic fears of the Federation echo stories of Italian city states like the Etruscans as they slowly began to discover that peace with Rome meant becoming Romans. 

It’s a show that sparks controversy by having a captain who veers far past the side of moral ambiguity. We’ve seen characters with dubious agendas wear the uniform of Starfleet in the past, but they’ve never been in the opening credits. They've never been someone that our main characters, in this case someone with her own shaky foundation, has to take direct orders from. The juxtaposition of Michael Burham, who has painful lived experiences from the last time she defied her captain, to now be placed under the command of a captain who positively screams out for defiance is a fascinating look at a different take within the chain of command. This testing of how the Federation’s principles really stack up when in the hands of someone who doesn’t as neatly fit right into their utopian ideals has always intrigued me as a viewer. To see it play out in such a dynamic way is not something I ever expected to actually see explored so intently in a Star Trek show.

So much talk these days about fan service and pandering, and here we are with a show that seems to completely disregard any concepts of such. It’s not just been a fascinating experience as a Star Trek fan, but as a fan in general. It can be really great to have a series deliver exactly what I wanted, and had this series simply been set in the aftermath of the Dominion war of latter DS9 seasons, I’d have been super excited. But it is so, so rare to truly feel surprised and uncertain about a TV show, especially one that seemed to have had its identity so firmly locked decades ago.

I feel like more and more in recent years there has been a debate brewing about who truly owns a property: its creators, or its fans. We constantly see backlashes against decisions made that seem to betray the characters, or plotlines that disrupt our own headcanons. For me, Discovery seems to be the show that has the most boldly said, "This is what we're doing now with this thing you love. You can either get on board with us, or here's links to streaming sites with our previous body of work." And what I've learned about my own fandom from this: I am someone who will still try to get on board.  

This direct challenge to every feeling I’ve ever loved about Star Trek has only deepened that love, and I am so excited to see how the rest of this series unfolds.