MOVIES & TV
Review: Star Trek: Discovery
Plot: Told from the point of view of a young commanding officer, Star Trek Discovery introduces us to a Federation ten years before the original voyages of Captain Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise, on the brink of war with the Klingon Empire, and on the verge of discovery of a larger galaxy out there.
Review: When analyzing Star Trek, you’re almost required to provide your geek credentials to verify you know what you’re talking about.
I grew up during the Star Trek: The Next Generation era, love the Original Series the most, have seen every episode of every television incarnation, including Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Enterprise. Like so many others, I also feel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the definitive theatrical Trek experience. I’m on board with the J.J. Abrams incarnation of the franchise.
I’m also a huge Star Wars fan as well. Oh my gosh! Say it isn’t so!
This review is based on Episode 1: The Vulcan Hello and Episode 2: Battle at the Binary Stars.
Star Trek: Discovery is potent and effective at times, and struggles at other times. It is sometimes polarizing and different, and sometimes drab. The result is a show that has redeeming qualities, which yearns to be groundbreaking, but isn’t quite boldly going there…just yet.
I’m not one of those who gets flustered by inconsistencies in the timeline. Is this 10 years before the Original Series universe, the J.J. Abrams universe, or is this an entirely new universe? For me, who cares? Trek has shown there are parallel dimensions all around us. I’m not really wondering how the Federation goes from monotone long-sleeved outfits from Discovery into colorful miniskirts from the Original Series.
But what I do want is a show with fantastic characters and stories, interesting science and tech, cool special effects, and an energy, spirit and optimism consistent with Gene Roddenberry‘s original vision.
Discovery has the science and special effects nailed and this is its most awesome aspect. There’s plenty of technobabble, consistent with the Trek iterations we know and love. There’s scientific exploration, which is so welcome to see.
While Nicholas Meyer‘s subtle credit as “consulting producer” seems tucked away, his influence seems to be the most felt with the look and tone of the show – from the more naval-style uniforms to the sharper, more jagged-angled militaristic Starships reminscent of the Wrath of Khan era. There’s an opportunity here for some really cool-looking space battles. We get a small taste of this in the first two episodes, hopefully with a lot more to follow.
We spend the bulk of our time on board the Starship Shenzou, commanded by Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her “Number One,” First Officer, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green.)
Yeoh’s seniority, her presence, is instantly felt, and welcomed. Her performance is a highlight. The show is being told through the eyes of Martin-Green’s “Burnham,” she’s our lead, and this is where we’re looking for the heart and soul of this latest incarnation of Trek.
Martin-Green is up to the challenge. Her performance is strong, intelligent, physical. Burnham is an entirely new kind of protagonist for Trek fans, and yet she’s arguably an amalgam of two of our favorite characters. She is a human who was brought up through her childhood on Vulcan and trained in their ways. There is a lot of Spock flowing through her veins. She seems to be channeling Leonard Nimoy when she’s called upon to deliver cold hard scientific facts, articulated to perfection with an exacting and calculated prose. Even Spock’s father, Sarek (James Frain), is a literal father-figure mentor to her.
Spock was half-human, half-Vulcan, and Nimoy’s character desired to be wholly Vulcan but often couldn’t suppress the human emotions that would surface.
Burnham, however, is entirely human, and is merely trained in the ways of Vulcans, but without their green blood. As we see in a brief flashback to her childhood, this puts her at an extreme disadvantage amongst her peers. If Spock was treated with prejudice as a half-vulcan, as we saw in Star Trek (2009), imagine what life must have been like for Burnham?
The humanity within her is where one of our other favorite characters resonates. She has the impulsiveness, the confidence, and the strength of will that Captain Kirk demonstrates. There is a similar tug-of-war within her, as with Kirk, between exercising restraint, compelled by her sense of duty, versus insubordination when she feels morally correct according to her own personal code.
If Burnham is half-Spock, half-Kirk, that should bode well for the character as our main protagonist of Discovery as the series progresses. It should.
What we see in the first two episodes at times, though, are illogical actions, reprehensible morals, and baffling mistakes. Lives are lost, and dishonored, as a result. Asking audiences to rally behind a character who starts off on such the wrong foot may be Discovery’s biggest challenge, and boldest move, to attract audiences.
Whether this is by design (Episode 3 appears to have her being sent to a penal colony to atone for her criminal behavior) is yet to be seen.
This feels more than a mere creative decision to give us a flawed character needing growth and evolution, though.
Here’s what I mean:
Sarek informs Burnham in a ready-room sidebar that to keep the Klingons at bay during their encounters, the Vulcans chose to “fire first” and let the show of force and bloodshed provide a respect to keep them from going to war.
Burnham decides she has to convince Captain Geiorgiou of the “firing first” strategy. She tries to do so in front of the bridge crew, and Geiorgiou wants no part of it. “The Federation doesn’t fire first” is her mandate. When Burnham continues to act up, they have their own ready room sidebar to hash it out. Burnham commits mutiny and gives Geiorgiou a Vuclan neck-pinch to incapacitate her, then returns to the bridge and relays to the crew her orders to target all weapons on the Klingon ship and fire.
The crew is like, “Um…where is the Captain? You just went into the ready room with her and now you come out on your own and tell us to attack and start a war? Is the Captain in there using her private bathroom or something? Why isn’t she out here issuing the command to fire?”
Burnham is basically like, “Oh, don’t worry about her – she’s in there making a phone call to the Admiral to let them know our strategy. So go ahead and fire on my order.”
This is a Vulcan-disciplined, Federation-trained, seasoned officer on the verge of the Captaincy?
She didn’t even get the neck-pinch right, because Geiorgiou emerges not one minute later with a phaser aimed at her.
So Burnham gets thrown in the brig, and the second episode of the show literally has our lead character sitting there doing absolutely nothing for 25 minutes.
This brings us to a frustrating aspect of these first two episodes: The structure and pace feel off.
The 45-minute second episode has something like 15 minutes of slow-talking subtitled Klingons, two 5-minute “ready room” discussions with a Klingon battlecruiser bearing down on the Shinzou, and 25 minutes of Burnham sitting in the brig doing absolutely nothing.
I have no issue with this new take on the Klingons. But the scenes are slow-paced, frozen, and feel so stretched out. These are the episodes that are supposed to compel us to subscribe to CBS All-Access, and so much time is spent on the same set listening to the same characters in masks and makeup standing around talking in slow motion and subtitles.
After two full episodes, we don’t have any sense as to the direction and tone of this new series. On the one hand, their attempt to break from tradition, from the episodic voyages of a Starship, in favor of a more modern serialized structure similar to, say, HBO‘s Westworld or Game of Thrones, is commendable. On the other hand, in both HBO examples, we are introduced to several rich characters, several intriguing plotlines, we get a feel for the larger world and are given a real sense of the flavor of the shows.
Discovery gives us just two notable recurring characters and we barely make it off the bridge of the Shinzou or of the Klingon vessel. All the sets feel stark, darkly lit, there’s hardly any movement, there isn’t any sense of vibrancy, this world doesn’t feel like it’s teeming with life, ready for exploration…for now.
Here’s the thing: Westworld‘s first episodes take us out on the land, let the world breathe, allow new and exciting characters and environments to be revealed, and tantalizes us with what’s to come. There’s a scale and a budget that is evident, which justifies a premium service subscription.
There are a couple of cool action sequences in Discovery, no doubt, some really nice-looking visual effects shots, but what we’ve seen in the first two hours doesn’t feel definitively “premium.” Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t feel cheap. It doesn’t feel unfinished. But there isn’t an undeniable “wow” factor either.
This show has the disadvantage of being compared to its predecessors, all of whom have had their versions of Klingons, Starship sets, and space battles. The difference is that these aired on free network television, and CBS is asking us to pay extra for Discovery, so we have no choice but to place this extra layer of scrutiny on this show.
It needs to bring it’s “A” game. It needs to go big and take risks.
I don’t want Discovery to feel like a sci fi series you can find on network television, and yet it does…for now.
I don’t want the scale of Discovery to feel on par with the pilot episodes of earlier Trek incarnations, and yet somehow, it does….for now.
Granted, technology has evolved to allow for some more astonishing visuals than its predecessors. The show gets a lot of mileage out of tantalizing us with new starship designs, new uniforms, and a new visual style.
In one sense, it’s militaristic Wrath of Khan-inspired feel does great service to the fans. It’s also hindered by this continued obsession that Trek needs to be “dark” in order to be interesting. It doesn’t. It just needs to boldly go.
In the hint we are given at future episodes to follow, it looks like we finally get to meet Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and we get to see the Starship Discovery for the first time. Perhaps then, the world will be opened up further, the vision will become more clear, the premium value of the show will be more evident.
Star Trek Discovery does entertain. There’s hints of its potential and promises of interesting things to come. There’s just enough in there to convince us to pay a few bucks and give it a further shot. Just enough. We really should be jumping out of our chairs with excitement, proclaiming Trek’s triumphant return to television, excited by the emergence of this explosive new show, salivating for the next episodes to follow!!!
I will continue my subscription. I will continue to watch. I will stay cautiously optimistic…for now.
by Jeremy Howard – “JERHOW”
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