After several well-publicized delays, the launch of CBS All Access’ “Star Trek Discovery” finally happened this past Sunday night (9/24) and now that I’ve had opportunity to see the first two episodes (“Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at Binary Stars”), I’d like to offer my two (thousand) bits on this latest series to spring from the 51 year old entertainment juggernaut known as Star Trek.
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! COLLISION ALERT! *****
Discovery is the 2nd prequel series (well, third if you count the alternate reality of the last three movies) of Star Trek, and it takes place in the year 2256, or about 10 years before the time of Kirk and Spock’s five year mission aboard the USS Enterprise.
Here is a summary of the first two episodes:
It’s the year 2256 (ten years before the 5 year mission of Kirk and Spock aboard the USS Enterprise).
After a mission of mercy to help dying alien eggs survive a planetary drought, the starship USS Shenzhou arrives at a binary star system at the edge of Federation space to investigate and repair a damaged relay satellite. Once there, they see an object that is curiously obscured from all forms of sensors. Captain Philipa Georgiou (an elegantly understated Michelle Yeoh) and her first officer Michael Burnham (“Walking Dead” veteran Sonequa Martin-Green) decide to investigate.
Alien science officer Saru (brilliant prosthetics/mime actor Doug Jones) warrants caution due to the binary system’s radiation risk. Saru is a “Kelpian”, a species that is natural prey on his homeworld; hunted and bred for food. This gives his people an especially heightened sense of approaching danger.
Nevertheless Commander Burnham decides to take a thruster suit out for a quick, 20 minute jaunt to inspect the object for herself. Once at the ornately crafted object, she encounters a space-suited Klingon ‘torchbearer’ and is attacked. She kills the armored Klingon by ramming him with her suits rockets and plunging his own sword through his body. She’s injured, and winds up getting a near-lethal dose of radiation exposure till she is beamed back aboard the Shenzhou. She awakens in sickbay and rushes to tell her captain and bridge officers of the Klingon threat. Her captain orders her back to sickbay so that she can complete her recovery, and be at her sharpest should the need arise.
The Klingons haven’t had much contact with the Federation during the past century (skirmishes and border conflicts aside), but they are back in force; a fundamentalist sect of Klingons, led by a radical named “K’Tuvma” (think: Klingon ISIS) is seeking to unify the warring 24 Houses of the Klingon Empire by starting a war with the Federation, whom they perceive as falsely benign overlords (“We come in peace”), who are encroaching on Klingon sovereignty (a similar argument was made in the 1991 Nicholas Meyer-directed “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”; Meyer is listed in the credits as a consulting producer).
Once fully recovered, Burnham (who lost her parents many years ago in a Klingon raid) consults with a hologram of her surrogate father, renowned Vulcan ambassador Sarek (and father of half-human Spock), who tells Burnham that Vulcans have learned, through experience, to strike first in any direct conflicts with Klingons (the titular “Vulcan Hello”). Burnham, growing increasingly anxious with her captain’s seeming inability to strike first (Starfleet policy), mutinies and tries to destroy the Klingon vessel herself.
“Battle at the Binary Stars”:
Georgiou re-takes control of her ship, and remands Burnham to the brig just as a fleet of 24 Klingon vessels arrive on the scene (one vessel representing each of the Houses).
Soon a fleet of Federation starships, including the admiral’s flagship “Europa”, arrive and an all-out battle ensues. Shenzhou is heavily damaged, with hull breaches throughout the ship. Forcefields barely maintain ship integrity, as Burnham sits in a partly destroyed brig. As her forcefields threaten to give way to the vacuum of space, Burnham uses the ship’s computer’s ethical program to allow her (technically still a prisoner) to escape the collapsing brig and save her life.
As both Starfleet and Klingon fleets take a pounding, the admiral’s ship is destroyed and the demoralized Shenzhou crew see a chance to strike back by beaming a photon torpedo’s warhead onto one of the many adrift Klingon bodies being recovered for mummification by their fellow Klingons (Klingon mummification was first mentioned in 1986’s “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”). The warhead severely damages the Klingon vessel, thus giving Burnham and her captain the opportunity to beam aboard and capture the Klingon leader K’Tuvma; thus denying him martyrdom and disgracing his name for generations. They see this as a last ditch effort to stop the Klingons from uniting under his banner. A disgraced Klingon is a pariah in their culture’s eyes (a concept first introduced in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).
Once aboard, the two Starfleet officers engage the Klingons in vicious hand-to-hand combat, and Georgiou is killed. Aboard the Shenzhou, Saru is unable to lock onto her body for retrieval (in this era, the transporter lock apparently only works on living bio-readings, not corpses… don’t ask), thus Burnham has to leave her beloved captain and friend’s body aboard the Klingon ship to allow herself to escape. K’Tuvma is also killed in the attack, but remains with his fellow Klingons, and is thus martyred. The worst possible outcome.
Burnham is last seen in a surreally-staged (overly so) court martial, and is sentenced to life imprisonment for mutiny, and for the full-on fustercluck that followed. She barely offers a defense.
Interestingly, the show is called “Discovery” and we have yet to see the titular starship after the first two episodes. We’ve also yet to see most of the cast, either (an interesting parallel with the original series; the first two Star Trek pilots didn’t feature their regular casts either… only the character of Spock survived through all versions of the show).
The only characters from the regular series we’ve seen (so far?) are Michael Burnham and Saru.
Well, that’s the story, now onto the nerd-picking…
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT DISCOVERY’S FIRST TWO EPISODES:
* Production value.
This is, without a doubt, the most opulently appointed and best-looking Star Trek series ever produced (including the movies). The $8-$10 price of monthly CBS All Access is more than worth it to get a new Star Trek series that looks more polished than a lot of feature films. From the obsessively ornate detailing on the Klingon makeups and costumes to the feature film visuals and special effects, this series is visually stunning.
* Three strong new characters, right out of the box.
The character of Michael Burnham (played with energy and gusto by Sonequa Martin-Green) is a terrific character; despite a few clunky lines of dialogue given to her now and then. She is smart, resourceful, flawed, and (like Spock) at odds with herself. It’s fitting that she was a ward of Spock’s father Sarek, since her journey is almost a mirror-image of Spock’s. She is a human raised by Vulcans who is learning to re-embrace her human side after many years of separation. Spock was a half-Vulcan, living among humans, who tried to suppress his human characteristics. Burnham’s flashbacks also do an elegant job of telling her fascinating backstory.
Lt. Saru, played by Doug Jones, will be (I predict) this franchise’s Data; the audience favorite who will get the lion’s share of fan adulation and affection. His seeming cowardice in the face of danger stems not from poor character, but from innate instincts within his species. Add to that, an amazing physical performance by Jones, who walks almost like a long-legged, upright goat (Saru’s race are hooved; reinforcing the cattle analogy of Kelpians within their planet’s ecology).
The ill-fated Captain Georgiou (played by “Tomorrow Never Dies”/“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Michelle Yeoh). She carries herself with a grace and authority (and bit of wry humor) that I just loved. I was genuinely saddened to see the character die. Up until the night of the premiere I hadn’t really dwelled upon the character’s assumed fate, other than the fact that Yeoh was a two-episode guest star, not a series’ regualar. I assumed she might be seen now and then to consult with her former first officer, but no such luck. Captain Georgiou is one character I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing come back for a post-mortem flashback…
* The new Klingons; as well as their makeups and costumes.
Lovingly detailed and crafted, even if I can practically hear fans screaming about their seeming lack of continuity with Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, etc. Personally I don’t care. Just as I didn’t care back in late 1979 when the Klingons suddenly had new uniforms and lobsters on their scalps in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” I liked the redesign then, and I like the upgrade now. Yes, it’s seemingly at odds with what we’ve seen before, but these are also a new fundamental sect of Klingons we’ve never seen before, and the new makeups and ornate costumes reinforce their individuality.
To be honest, Klingons were probably the LAST things I wanted to see in a new ST series (they were done to death for 18 years of televised Star Trek), but this is a new aspect to them we’ve not seen before. In the Cold War ‘60s, they were stand-ins for the Soviets and the Chinese; in the ‘90s, they stood in for post-Soviet glasnost (with Federation-friendy Lt. Worf). Now? They are stand-ins for fundamentalism and radicalism. And not just ISIS or another radical Islamic faction, but also for Donald Trump’s followers, or North Koreans under Kim Jung-Un. People who embrace a cult of personality at the expense of their own wills and even of their common sense. There was also a bit of commentary about racism thrown in; with an albino Klingon ‘outcast’ who is ‘radicalized’ into K’Tuvma’s sect. This is what I was glad to see in these reinvented Klingons; a new relevance that speaks to RIGHT NOW, and not the former Soviet Union or post-revolutionary China of the ‘70s.
* James Frain as “Sarek.”
Once again, Spock’s father Sarek is recast. James Frain is the third actor to essay the role, which was originated by Mark Lenard in the classic series (as well as the movies and “The Next Generation”). “Chariots of Fire” actor Ben Cross took over in the 2009 reboot movie, and now James Frain offers his interpretation of the man who raises Spock and (surprise, surprise) a human orphan girl named Michael Burnham. That she is not Spock’s actual sister (or any real relation) easily explains why the characteristically tip-lipped half-Vulcan would’ve never mentioned her. Frain’s Sarek maintains the character’s calm and stately cadence, if not Mark Lenard’s stylized vocalizations. There is also that nice, wry warmth similar to what Ben Cross brought to the role in 2009.
Sarek’s scenes with young Burnham are quite moving, even with the character’s minimal expenditures of emotion.
* The austere look of the Federation spacecraft interiors.
Since we’ve not yet seen the full tour of the titular USS Discovery (yet), we can only speak of the interiors of the starship USS Shenzhou. And while I agree with criticisms that the ship looks ‘too modern’ to precede the USS Enterprise of the 1960s Star Trek, I would have to rebut that by saying this is a modern show made for a modern audience. If the producers of the show made a ship to the exacting specifications of the ‘60s starship, it’d be laughed off of the screen by audiences who don’t (yet) share the affinity or affection for the older series. Even the 30 year old “Next Generation” looks somewhat dated these days (so much so, that the new Fox spaceship series “The Orville” gently parodies that “Hilton-in-Space” look it with laser accuracy). So the Shenzhou is designed a bit more in keeping with the look of the starships in the “Kelvinverse” Star Trek movies of 2009-2016. With lots of metallic finishes giving the ship a look that is not too out-of-keeping with the black and silver finishes of the original USS Enterprise in the 1964-produced first pilot, “The Cage.”
^ The Shenzhou transporter room (seen in flashbacks to when Sarek brings his ‘ward’ Burnham aboard the ship) is a clunky, very retro-looking affair, with large rounded wall panels that’d almost look more at home in Doctor Who’s Tardis than aboard a sleek starship. But I love the attempt to make a retro-future look.
Which brings me to my next point…
* The new uniforms.
Looking like an intermediary step between the blue near-NASA-looking uniforms of the 2001-5 series, “Enterprise” and the two-piece numbers of the original series, the new uniforms of “Discovery” are snazzy, heroic and nicely retro-chic. Matching blue two-pieces, with metallic inlaid panels to indicate department colors (gold for command, silver for medical/science and bronze for engineering/security). They look heroic, and remind me vaguely of the similarly ‘retro-futuristic’ space stewardesses of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, particularly in the cut of the pants in relation to the top.
Do they match what we see in the original series? No. Do I care? Not really. Star Trek series have a long-standing tradition of radically changing uniforms every few years anyway. Who’s to say that in ten years of onscreen Star Trek time, space-age t-shirts and miniskirts won’t make a comeback?
* Use of sound effects, props, references and names to place the show within the Star Trek ‘prime’ universe.
The sound design of the show uses many sound FX cues from the original series (bridge sounds, the alert klaxons, the communicator chirps, sliding-door sounds, etc) and even a few from the later series (the hailing frequency sounds). The Starfleet props (communicators, tricorders, phasers, etc) are close enough in design to look related to what we’ve seen in original Star Trek, but are detailed enough to be fairly convincing as futuristic devices, and not just loving recreations of ‘60s TV props. That’s a tough balancing act, but it’s handled with care.
There are also many references to classic Trek as well as its subsequent spinoff series/movies; a passing reference to the ‘battle of Donatu V’ (mentioned in “Trouble With Tribbles”) we hear ship names such as the “T’Planahoth” (a Vulcan philosopher mentioned in “The Voyage Home”) and many others. This isn’t just name-dropping for name-dropping’s sake; this is a subtle reinforcement that this show is indeed set in the prime Star Trek universe that we all grew up with. Yes, it looks a lot more sophisticated, but its heart is still very much Star Trek; and it’s obviously being made by people with great affinity for the original.
* The serialized format.
“Deep Space Nine” proved nearly 20 years ago that a serialized approach to Star Trek could work. “Discovery” takes it to an even more modern, 21st century-level; where almost all shows run with shorter seasons and more heavily serialized storytelling. Star Trek finally catches up to the binge-watching generation. A fitting marriage with its new streaming delivery system as well. Discovery’s endings aren’t the familiar, cozy captain and crew enjoying a nice, post-mission pat on the back. They leave you on the edge of your seat, mouth agape, until the next one.
* The new main title sequence.
More HBO’s Westworld-feeling than Star Trek. And as a fan of both, I hardly mind. In fact, I was surprised (and pleased) to see a new main title sequence that both embraces the iconography and history of Star Trek, but eschews the all-too-familar ship porn shots, starry backgrounds and planetary flyby shots that have become somewhat cliched by now. The new theme music embraces this philosophy as well; familiar in spots, but uniquely different and modern as well.
MINOR THINGS THAT IRKED ME A LITTLE BIT:
* Some of the Klingon scenes affected overall pacing a bit.
While I enjoyed the new Klingons (both their look and their new ‘mission’ in the show), I thought a few of their scenes felt a bit redundant and slowed the pacing of the show in spots. Nothing too show-stoppingly awkward, but some of those slightly lengthy Klingon scenes just seemed to gum up the forward momentum a bit. It becomes more apparent on the 2nd viewing than the first, when I was too busy gawking at the makeup and costumes…
* The first season’s planned war arc.
While the Klingon incursion made for a stunning and dramatic rollout, I was also hoping to see a bit more of that idealized Federation utopia as well. In these dark and uncertain times, this is an ideal chance for Star Trek to once again shine that optimistic beacon of hope for a better future; just as the show did back in the turbulent and uncertain late ‘60s. From what I’ve heard in writers’ panels, this first season Klingon war arc is indeed temporary, but after just finishing the grim and arduous first season of “The Expanse”, I was really craving some of that old Star Trek optimism. And while I enjoy my occasional dystopian science fiction story (“Blade Runner” “Battlestar Galactica” etc), I used to always look to Star Trek to re-fill my optimism glass back to half-full.
* Nothing about this story required it to be yet another prequel.
I have a problematic relationship with prequels; most of the time they’re self-contradictory and damaging to the fictional history they’re supposedly enriching. The last ST prequel “Enterprise” was especially problematic at first, but it had many episodes that genuinely worked; even if they made a bit of hash out of the original series at times.
Prequels tend to paint themselves into a corner, and Discovery really didn’t NEED to be set before the time of Kirk and Spock. With its very modern looking ships, uniforms and technology it could’ve just as easily been set post-“Voyager” in the Federation’s as-yet-unseen 25th century. Sarek could’ve just as easily been a 25th century Vulcan who’d adopted a human orphan as his daughter, rather than an established canonical character who now has this ‘other child’ he’s raising in addition to his famed, half-human son Spock. The Klingons (however exquisitely imagined now) could’ve just as easily had been a new alien species with an all-new raison d’etre. Not to mention the minority of pissed off fanboys who will get (and have already gotten) irked when you step upon the toes of ‘classic’ Star Trek’s continuity.
Personally, I don’t consider myself one of that type of fan (I may have been a bit of one when I was younger), mainly because I see “Star Trek” in the same way I see Sherlock Holmes or James Bond; it’s a way of telling certain types of stories within a certain format. The details are occasionally celebrated, but at the end of the day you just want (need) to tell good, solid stories within those formats. That’s the most important thing, not the mountains of continuity bits to pick over. That said? There’s still no reason to set “Discovery” 10 years before the original. A new as-yet-unseen century of Star Trek’s future might’ve given this new show some much-needed room to grow and to be its own thing, much as “Next Generation” grew from under the shadow of the original. As it is? “Discovery” is now a sequel to a prequel (ENT) and a prequel to an original (TOS Star Trek). And it didn’t have to be this way…
So, to sum it up, I very much enjoyed this newest iteration of Star Trek. It’s magnificently crafted, handsomely designed, well-acted, and cinematic-as-hell.
And while it has a similar visual aesthetic of the last three Star Trek movies (particularly in the space shots and the ship interiors), it ditches much of those films’ shaky camerawork and lens-flare tricks (more or less) and embraces a more stately and regal style that is more in keeping with the grandeur one would expect from a space opera, and not a generic action movie. This was appreciated. While I was okay with the lens flare/shaky-cam use within the action film-context of the 2009-16 movies, I was hoping the new Trek series would return to a more traditional look with its cinematography. It has, indeed.
But more importantly, I found that the soul of Star Trek was also intact. “Discovery” feels as legitimately Star Trek as any of its predecessors; despite its more modern storytelling format and aesthetics. Star Trek is not just about phasers and photon torpedoes; it’s about a group of characters at the edge of the universe learning about others and about themselves. That’s the soul of the show. That’s the new ‘discovery’ awaiting these characters in this series.
Here’s hoping this show will allow the Star Trek brand to continue to ‘live long and prosper,’ and give us fans, who are living in increasingly uncertain times, that much-needed beacon of uniquely Star Trek flavored optimism.