Star Trek: Discovery offers a message of hope in divisive times

Star Trek: Discovery stays true to the progressivism of the original series and offers a message of hope in these divisive times

Michelle Yeoh (far left) and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.
Michelle Yeoh (far left) and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.PHOTO: NETFLIX

With a lot of science fiction today about a dystopian future, the arrival of a new Star Trek series, carrying the same optimism of the 1960s original, is a breath of fresh air.

And it could not be more timely, given the divisiveness of real-life politics, say the cast and creators of Star Trek: Discovery, a CBS show which debuted in Singapore on Netflix this week, with new episodes released on Mondays at 3pm.

The franchise also continues to walk the talk with its casting choices: Almost five decades after the original series featured the first interracial kiss on American television - between actors William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols - the new show's star, Sonequa Martin-Green, will be the first black woman to headline a Star Trek TV show.

In addition, Anthony Rapp will play the first openly gay character in the franchise's 50-year history, while Malaysian Michelle Yeoh has a prominent guest-starring role as a starship captain and speaks in her own accent.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles last month, Martin-Green - the 32-year-old actress best known for her 2012 to 2017 stint on zombie drama The Walking Dead (2010 to present) - promises that the storylines in Star Trek: Discovery will be unabashedly aspirational too.

The series follows her character, First Officer Michael Burnham, as she serves on the USS Shenzhou and the USS Discovery, two starships operated by the United Federation of Planets, which is engaged in a cold war with a warrior species known as the Klingons.

It takes place 10 years before the events in the original Star Trek TV show (1966 to 1969) featuring beloved characters such as Captain Kirk (Shatner) and First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy).

As Burnham and the rest of the crew come in contact with different species and cultures, the narrative will highlight "the aspiration of unity, acceptance, understanding and true acculturation without the sort of dilution that is assimilation", says Martin-Green, who is married to actor Kenric Green and has a two-year-old son.

"Because, while we are in a more utopian society in Star Trek and that has always been the case, in our iteration, there is still conflict - the inner conflict and the collective conflict."

Jason Isaacs - who plays the Discovery's captain Gabriel Lorca - believes the science-fiction and fantasy franchise originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry can provide "an extraordinary prism" through which to "examine the craziness that is going on on the nightly news and how the world is getting more divisive and groups are being pitted against each other".

"I don't know how to explain it to my children," says the 54-year-old British star, who played Lucius Malfoy in the the Harry Potter films (2002 to 2011) and has two daughters, 15 and 11, with his wife, film-maker Emma Hewitt.

"I don't know how to tell them why there are people in power who say and do these awful things and create this much division."

But this series will offer a message of hope.

"There's no question that we are part of a story that shows not just how it can all be harmonious, but also how you get there," Isaacs says.

"There's a lot of conflict. We are complicated characters for complicated times and our journey through the struggles we have together and where we fall out or don't, make poor or good decisions, are everything the show was always about. But (it's made) for the 21st century and for the nuanced times we live in."

The show's progressivism is also reflected in small details such as the decision to give Martin-Green's character the name Michael.

This was an idea from one of the series' original co-creators, Bryan Fuller, who has stepped down to focus on other projects. He likes to give female leads on his shows names typically associated with men and producer Akiva Goldsman says this dovetailed with the series' vision for "inclusion or the dismantling of stereotypes or the ability for people to find ways of living together that maybe they haven't found yet".

"We take it really seriously," Goldsman adds. "What you have here is a lot of folks who can find a TV show to be wish-fulfilment, can find it close to their calling. It may sound absurd, but it's true for us and we are delighted about it."

Co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman believes this iteration of Star Trek - the sixth live-action series since 1966 - would make its original creator proud, too.

"I think the defining characteristic of Mr Roddenberry's universe is its optimism - the belief that we can do better, the belief that we can connect, the belief that species and people around the entire galaxy can figure out a way to exist in the federation and that wars, if they have to be fought, can be stopped.

"So hopefully, when you see it, you'll recognise that the show has been made by people who are trying to protect that legacy."

•The first eight episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are scheduled to be released on Netflix till Nov 6 (new episodes on Mondays at 3pm) and the remaining seven when the series returns in January.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'Optimistic trek through space'. Subscribe