Is ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Too Dark?

Kim Taylor-Foster
TV Star Trek
TV Star Trek

Since Star Trek: Discovery returned for the second part of its inaugural season, it’s become increasingly dark. The first half of the season introduced the start of the Federation-Klingon war, plunging the show right from the get-go into a state of instability – not only within the story but also to its viewers.

It was set up as a show that can switch in a heartbeat, with Captain Georgiou being quickly killed off, First Officer Michael Burnham leading a mutiny and being stripped of her rank and imprisoned for it, and the show’s ‘real’ Captain – Jason Isaacs’ Gabriel Lorca — introduced in Episode 3.

The second half of the season has seen theories about Ash Tyler confirmed, Lorca’s betrayal revealed and a ruthless set of back-stabbers introduced in the Mirror Universe. As the series has progressed, the themes and imagery have become increasingly troubling. But has Star Trek: Discovery become too dark?

It’s Just Not Star Trek

Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham, with Jason Isaacs as Lorca.

Some fans have criticized the series’ direction as being a departure from the show they love. In its other iterations, fans argue, Star Trek pushes positive messaging. In Star Trek: Discovery, bleakness prevails. We don’t even know who we can trust, or whether anyone is wholly good. And just when we think we’ve got a handle on someone, the rug is pulled out from under us. Even Saru displayed signs of jealousy and resentment towards Michael Burnham after she was re-appointed a Starfleet officer on board the Discovery by Lorca. Which was, honestly, disappointing. Realistic, perhaps. But disappointing nevertheless.

Some fans have taken to the Internet to express their opinions. This person, for one, had this question for special guests on Star Trek: Discovery discussion show After Trek:

While Joe D. suggests that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wouldn’t agree with the direction Star Trek: Discovery has taken:

And this Twitter user seems to dispute Discovery‘s right to belong to Star Trek canon:

Gritty Themes

Star Trek has always dealt with real-life themes. Star Trek: Discovery picks its themes to be relevant to modern audiences and presents them in a way that’s startling. One of the most shocking revelations in the series has been the storyline involving Voq/Tyler. The character has been used to explore Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as to touch on rape, torture and issues of race. Not to mention extremism. All troubling aspects of the modern world that are discussed at length in the media.

In its depiction of Tyler’s traumatic experience via flashback, Disco brought us the kind of imagery we’ve never seen before in Star Trek. That’s got to be a step forward if it’s going to spark the kind of conversations the show has always wanted to ignite among its audience.

Brutal Violence and Death

Star Trek Discovery
That Klingon sex scene, positioned and remembered as rape.

Where racial tensions, personal politics and power have also always been part and parcel of Star Trek and the themes it tackles, they’re issues that are still worth examining today. And to resonate with modern audiences, they need to be presented in a way that makes an impact, as touched on above.

It’s been more than a decade since the last Star Trek series, Enterprise, was on screens, and in that time, television has changed. The programmes we watch and the way we consume them now means that more of us are being exposed to – and enjoying – graphic violence on screen on a regular basis, alongside an exploration of taboo subjects.

Game of Thrones, as an example, is a phenomenon that has brought graphic, savage violence and aggressive sexual imagery, among other controversial things, to huge audiences. As well as a willingness to kill off significant characters — and, of course, bring them back. Every one of that show’s viewers laps it up, proving that there’s an appetite for this kind of fare.

If Star Trek: Discovery were to shy away from presenting its narrative in a fashion that reflects this sea-change, it’s to refuse to acknowledge that the last 10+ years of small-screen drama has existed. It wants to speak to modern audiences, and it does so by appropriating the necessary tools.

Politics Questioned…

… across the board. In the modern era of political unrest, which has seen the re-emergence of far-right views, Star Trek: Discovery takes a complicated — and, yes, worryingly dark and bleak — look at politics. Not only does it examine extremist views via the T’Kuvma-initiated war, it also effectively makes the Klingon case for waging war.

Similarly, the Empire of the Mirror Universe isn’t as evil as, say, the Empire in Star Wars – its emperor has been revealed to be Georgiou, a woman who Prime Universe Burnham still has a lot of affection for and who exhibits honourable traits. And during a speech by Gabriel Lorca, the ethics, operations and intentions of the Federation itself are called into question. He highlights its fragility and naivety.

While this complexity can be an issue for viewers who want positive messages and clear-cut good guys and bad guys, Star Trek: Discovery refuses to do this. And it’s all the more interesting and relevant because of it. Yes, Star Trek: Discovery is dark — but it’s all the better for it. It updates the franchise to make it more resonant while bringing Star Trek to new audiences and speaking to all of us with a contemporary tongue.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.