It has been some fifteen odd years since last we had a Star Trek series on-air. While often looked down as a weak successor to the legacies of the Star Trek legacy in the 80s and 90s, Star Trek: Enterprise nevertheless covered one of the most interesting periods of human history in the franchise, the years before the Federation existed and when humans were still finding their way in a complex Alpha Quadrant. As such, Star Trek: Discovery aims to capture a similar feeling since it starts some ten years before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series and is thus another prequel in an ever-expanding universe.
Debuting last night on CBS’s premier streaming service, CBS All-Access, Star Trek: Discovery posits itself as a hard-hitting action series set in the Star Trek universe. Covering as it does the years of a Federation-Klingon war that, to my knowledge, has not been mentioned before in the lore, this was perhaps inevitable and is also exciting because it carries on a theme from ST:E that being mere explorers is not enough. You need some big guns too. With a brand-new crew and a new ship, it is a ripe time to dive back down into the franchise, given the parallel lines of the rebooted movies, but unfortunately much of the series opener falls flat, either due to the writing or production choices.
Note: This review contains major spoilers for the two episodes.
The series premiere starts off on a very dire and tense note as a Klingon of unknown provenance declares that the scattered parts of the Klingon Empire must come together to defeat the Federation, an enemy that wants to erase the divine individuality of the Klingon race. Then we cut to the opening sequence for the show and launch into the story proper over a period of two hours as we learn who Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is and what her place is on the USS Shenzou commanded by Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou.
First things first. The intro credit sequence of ST:D is atrocious. The music is rather muted and low-key. The visuals are of what I assume are digital art-frames for the various props and vessels on the show. And it just meanders along without any kind of a payoff to it. Contrast that with the same for the older shows, even ST:E. There you at least were rewarded with the climax of a visual journey of exploration across hundreds of years. Not so here. It just… happens. The color contrasts are decent, but it wasn’t exactly an inspiring sequence either. And no dialogue of any kind at all? Definitely not my thing. Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at least give you a good visual of the central locations of the respective shows.
Second, the character of First Officer Michael Burnham. Michael is presented as a human orphan raised by Sarek, whom fans will recognize as one of the Federation’s greatest ambassadors and also the father to fan-favourite Spock. As such the possibility of seeing a clash between Michael’s human heritage and Vulcan upbringing is juicy and exciting, since it is so different to Spock’s own situation. However, the payoff is just not there. As the two episodes progressed, this is something that reared its ugly head again and again: no payoff. We see some of the troubles that Michael had growing up on Vulcan, we see just how much of a Vulcan she became in her adult life, and her failings during the events presented herein. At no point were we actually shown what made her as good as she was made out to be in. In one of the character’s first scenes, she is told by Captain Georgiou that she’s being considered for command of her own Starship and later on we learn that she’s the first human to attend and graduate from the Vulcan Science Academy. Pretty special, yeah? Except she’s little more than an emotionally-driven mutineer willing to start a war with another culture with which Starfleet has had no contact with for almost a century.
Furthermore, again and again Michael talks about how she wants to save Georgiou and her shipmates from the aggression of the Klingons. It is a deep driving force inside of her that she just cannot control. It makes her act stupid and impulsively. Beyond learning that the Klingons were involved in the attack that killed her biological parents, there’s nothing else. We are expected to take a lot at face-value and little of it is any good. For instance, just what is the strong bond between her and Captain Georgiou? The writing will have you believe that they are as close as Kirk and Spock or Sisko and Nerys or Picard and Riker. But those relationships were earned over time or through valuable and various shared experiences. ST:D just jumps into things and expects you to not question that Burnham is absolutely devoted to Georgiou and will go to extremes to keep her safe. The climax of episode one is just one bizarre moment after another where Burnham breaks multiple Starfleet regulations and Georgiou’s trust and faith in her. And the climax of episode two just makes things worse because it was another moment that wasn’t earned by the story so far.
Third, the visuals and the production value of the show. ST:TOS came out in the 60s and visual effects have progressed several generations since then. So it makes practical sense for Discovery to employ superior visual effects in order to portray one of the richest science-fiction franchises ever. All the present-time action of the first two episodes takes place against the backdrop of a binary star system that is imploding and some of this action happens in and around a massive asteroid debris field in local space. As such, I loved many of the outside-the-ship visuals that we got to see and the camerawork was fantastic. The scenes of Burnham exploring the unknown object inside said debris field are among the best of the premiere, but once you start looking at more than that, it all starts to fall apart.
For instance, the USS Shenzou appears to have a much larger bridge than we’ve seen to date in any of the ship-based Star Trek series. It might even be twice the size of the bridge of the NCC-1701 Enterprise A of ST:TOS even. That just makes it extremely weird, like there is too much empty space on the bridge of an exploratory vessel. Cynically, you could say that the bridge is that large so that when the bridge takes damage the actors have enough room to not bump into nearby consoles and other bridge crew. Practically, it doesn’t work. Then, all the technology we see on the show is far superior to that of ST: TOS and the later series that followed and makes no effort to disguise any of that. Perhaps the most egregious offense is that the USS Shenzou has access to holographic communications technology that has never been seen on any of the other shows aboard a Federation ship at least, and which allows the ship’s crew to talk in real-time with individuals hundreds of light-years away and these holographic projections can even walk around the confines of the chambers they are in, or even the bridge. That’s just nonsensical. Sure, it looks amazing, but it just doesn’t fit here. And the Shenzou is supposed to be an older vessel even ten years before the events of ST: TOS. None of that is logical in any way.
Moving on, an important question is, are the performances on the show any good? Most assuredly yes. Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green are perfect. Sure there is some sort of smugness to the characters all over, as if their lives are so relaxed at the edge of Federation space, on the border with the Klingon Empire, but the actors definitely shine through. Yeoh in particular gets the short shrift I feel. She is an amazing actress with a long and august record, and I loved seeing her on ST: D. The starpower that she adds to the show is obvious from the get go and I definitely rooted for her character more than I did for the supposed lead. While Martin-Green’s material was often lacking, her performance certainly wasn’t. She presented herself as sincere and dedicated and you could definitely feel lost in the scenes with her, ignoring many of the glaring mistakes in events and actions. And Doug Jones was just superb. His character, Lieutenant Saru, is part of a species created anew for the show, and his shtick was that even though he was a science officer on a frontier ship, he was sort of a cowardly person, one who wanted to and looked to avoid conflict at every possible opportunity. This brings him into conflict with Burnham and her “action-action, action, let’s take all the risks” attitude more often than not, but I enjoyed that. He was a good counterpoint both as a character and an actor to the other two primary characters.
Something that I definitely want to point out here at this point is that I am definitely not a fan of the new visual look of the Klingons. It makes them look too alien than any iteration before and also seems inconsistent with what we know they look like just ten years later in ST: TOS. Additionally, the dialogue delivery of the Klingon actors was somewhat irritating since it appeared that they had trouble speaking the dialogue. The Klingons in the ST: TNG era had much better delivery and I’m not sure why things were like they were in ST: D. I’ve seen some people suggest that it’s because of dental prosthetics or whatever, and that’s something that I can agree with. The actors were more often than not talking as if through a full mouth. Combine that with dialogue in a non-English language and that makes it all the worse.
And speaking of the Klingon characters, Chris Obi’s T’kumva was just pure badassery. Not in terms of the dialogue per se, no, but in terms of screen presence and actions that play out as the story progresses from the start of episode 1 to the end of episode two. Watching him and you can really feel that he is a threat, and so is his ideology of war against the Federation, a war that will be entirely of his own making, plunging the Klingon Empire in a long drawn-out war that is wholly unnecessary. And his interactions with other Klingons, whether aboard his own ship or those of the 24 great houses that make up the Klingon High Council, were definitely telling. He commands respect and takes his due by force rather than kowtowing to anyone else on anything. Messianic in his devotion to Kahless and his interpretation of the Klingon legendary warrior’s teachings, T’kumva is certainly a force to be reckoned with in the premiere. And Obi’s physicality is simply a great addition to that.
Another point to think on: just why the hell is SGM’s character’s first name Michael? Like, these episodes give absolutely zero reason for why she has a male given name. Apparently this is a naming convention for former showrunner Bryan Fuller, but it is one in a long line of meaningless decisions made about this show and it is also one of the most irritating ones, by far.
In all of this though, another important question to be asked though, is ST: D a true Star Trek show in the vein of those that have come before it? That’s a hard one to answer since we have seen so little of anything substantial here and it is all new lore in a time where we simply aren’t already aware of what has happened. This is entirely new ground with a new crew and a different motto behind them that powers everything. After all this show sits between ST: E and ST: TOS and has to bridge those two, but there are certainly some elements that work against that such as the visual aspects. The irresponsible behaviour by Burnham in episode 1 and some of the downright silly elements of episode two such as Burnham’s long-distance mild-meld-thingamajig with Sarek are more examples of the same.
Yes, the show seems to be tackling the concept of fierce individualistic and nationalistic identity versus the concepts that the Federation stands for. It is reminiscent of what is happening in the real world right now, especially in the western hemisphere, but equally has implications in the rest of the world too. In that sense, perhaps yes, this is a Star Trek show as it should be. But equally, it is also far too early to say anything concrete. We need to see more of the show and determine whether or not all the subtlety extends beyond what you see on the surface and whether or not the writers tackle some of the questions that their predecessors did in the previous series.
The core negative is that the writers want the viewer to take on too much at face-value and don’t appear to be willing to provide the necessary justifications. Hopefully that is something that improves in the future episodes.
All in all however, these first two episodes did not work for me. There were just too many problematic elements and I couldn’t ignore them at all. The protagonist being so un-Starfleet was a huge sticking point, and the fact that we don’t even see the USS Discovery, the ship the show is actually named after, at all in the first two episodes was just not working for me.Sure, once the second episode is done we get a bit fat preview of the next episode and Jason Isaacs finally makes an appearance as the Captain of the USS Discovery and everything starts to pick up steam, but that was something that didn’t appear to have been earned yet. The ending of episode two is just so… out there. It upends a lot of what you learn till then and makes for another WTF moment for Michael Burnham.
I had very high hopes and low expectations of the show. Still, I’m in for a few more episodes. After all, despite everything, this is still a Star Trek show, for better or for worse.