This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery.
In the run-up to the release of Star Trek: Discovery, one of the programmes it was compared to was Game of Thrones, with showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg naming it as an influence. On the one hand, that makes sense – Game of Thrones level popularity is a height that most new shows are going to aspire to, after all. And yet, on the other hand, there’s something strange about drawing a similarity between each series, given they’re two very different franchises in terms of their spirit and outlook.
Berg commented in Entertainment Weekly that “Game of Thrones changed television. They almost made it difficult to fall in love with people because you didn’t know if they were going to be taken away from you. That show’s had an influence on all TV dramas that have come after it.” Meanwhile, Harberts said of Star Trek: Discovery that “Death isn’t treated gratuitously on this show. It’s not for shock value. But when it happens we want to make sure that people really feel it.”
Unfortunately, though, as Star Trek: Discovery has continued, it’s started to become clear that if Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg have learned anything from the HBO epic, it’s the wrong thing.
Character deaths aren’t meaningful because they’re surprising. Indeed, too many shock deaths – casual, throwaway deaths, with little build up – is very much the definition of treating death gratuitously. Rather, killing off a character is significant because of the bond an audience has built with the character; it’s meaningful because of how it’s able to evoke and inspire emotions.
What’s also particularly troubling is the – hopefully unintentional – trend that’s emerged as each major character is killed. The first was Captain Michelle Georgiou, a female character of colour. The second was Head of Security Commander Landry, a female character of colour (who was killed off fairly unceremoniously, and really only for shock value). In the most recent episode, it was Doctor Culber – another person of colour, and one half of Star Trek: Discovery’s gay couple.
It’s a series of deaths that’d be a problem for any show, but there’s something about it that feels worse with Star Trek: Discovery. A big part of the marketing for Star Trek: Discovery drew focus to its diversity – the fact that it saw the first black female lead, the first Asian female captain, and the first openly gay characters in Star Trek history. In a real and meaningful way, Star Trek: Discovery was going to realise the promise of the original series at last – finally, a vision of the future that genuinely was as utopian as it was meant to be. If the series gained any credit for that, it’s surely squandered a lot of it now.
Yet it does suggest that, at one point, there was an understanding of just what Star Trek is meant to be. While it hasn’t always lived up to its reputation, Star Trek is a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic series – an idealistic one that looks towards a better future.
The deaths we’ve seen so far haven’t been in keeping with that – they were nothing short of cynical. You can see how they’ve been influenced by Game of Thrones; they’d fit right in there. Thrones, after all, is a much more pessimistic series – that’s not a slight against it, not at all, but it is one of the things that set it apart from Star Trek.
And that, in the end, is key. Star Trek has its own strengths, its own appeal, and its own identity. Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones, and it shouldn’t try to be.
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