Saturday, September 30, 2017

"That dream is over." Star Trek: Discovery thoughts

Star Trek is back on television kind-of... CBS is releasing it via 'CBS All Access,' so that viewers have the convenience of streaming an online video which still has the network watermark defacing the bottom corner. Keep working on that prestige television!

I stumbled into the Star Trek franchise during the first season of Star Trek: Voyager. I had seen episodes and films here and there and thought it was all 'okay' but in 1995 I began making an effort to follow Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine regularly; over time I caught up on all I had missed. I lost interest during the 2nd season of Enterprise but eventually I did go back and see it all; heck, I've seen every episode of the animated program and the three J.J. Abrams films - I have seen everything Star Trek.

The new series is titled Star Trek: Discovery and is set about a decade before the original series. No real effort has been made to keep the visuals consistent with the original program, but that's acceptable. Maybe Kirk's Enterprise was last decade's model. CBS debuted the program with two episodes ("The Vulcan Hello" & "Battle at the Binary Stars") which together form a sort-of pilot. Actually, they don't do much to establish the series itself as the titular USS Discovery is not in either episode and most of the lead cast are not present either - the program's lead character, Michael Burnham, is featured and the episodes seem to exist in order to grant the character's backstory so as to inform her actions in the series itself. In a way, I guess this 'pilot' is really a prequel to the series?

Star Trek: Discovery has been a troubled production behind-the-scenes as its release has been repeatedly delayed. It has ultimately panned out well as the debut brought in the best ratings the franchise has seen in more than 20 years. However, the developer of the show and author of the debut, Bryan Fuller (himself a veteran writer of Deep Space Nine and Voyager) was ousted as showrunner early in production and Alex Kurtzman (writer of the first two J.J. Abrams films) assumed control. The program is certainly reminiscent of Abrams' Trek, what with having a lead character who has never been to Starfleet Academy yet is considered a natural leader and figure of destiny who is nurtured by their paternal superior officer; said lead character commandeers the starship; and the villains are vicious brutes.

I don't know how I feel about Discovery's take on Klingons. Perhaps there will be more nuance to come, but the first episode plays them as religious fanatics, which is not an interesting place to take them (thank you Trek, we've already got the Xindi). However, the second episode leans a little more into the idea of Klingons being xenophobic and authoritarian which would be in keeping with the tradition Enterprise began of using Klingons as a mirror to contemporary US culture (rather than as stand-ins for the Russians). I'd like it even more if the Klingons were using an appeal to Kahless as a means to stifle dissent among the ranks and so advance a populist agenda, but if you've read my recent political-themed posts on this blog that won't surprise you.

What did I actually like? Doug Jones is good as Saru, it's always neat to see Trek aliens who are physically unlike humans (note his hooves) and who bring a different cultural perspective in the grand tradition as Spock. I liked the ship designs, interior designs, costumes, props, special effects...

My problem with Discovery is Michael Burnham. I prefer Trek to be an ensemble program with episode-to-episode continuity but overall the ability to produce episodes which can stand on their own. I'm less-interested in a series where one character has central focus and the series tells a single story across the season (the 'prestige television' model). This is all complicated by the fact that I can't bring myself to care about Burnham. She's far too arrogant and removed in the debut episodes for me to appreciate her fall from grace; I was not absorbed in the tragedy of Michael Burnham because the show hadn't convinced me she was a person I wanted to see succeed. Her determination to launch a preemptive strike against the Klingons in the hopes of averting a larger conflict is such an odd note for her character to strike, because the mutiny fails within 45 seconds; we never learn whether her decision to mutiny was defensible and because that action is so controversial it further distanced me from her. If she had mutinied, attacked the Klingons, then learned it was the wrong decision that would be something meaty - she'd have definitely done something wrong which she needed to atone for. As it is, she violated the trust of her commanding officer but we barely knew her c.o. and the c.o. is dead an hour later anyway. (I'm also a bit unclear why the Klingons seem to hover around for an hour before engaging in combat; no matter the time or place, don't Klingons who are spoiling for a fight tend to simply launch into one? Why do they wait so long for Starfleet to get their heads together? What was preventing them from leaving, dropping a "catch you later" buoy as they depart?)

Too much of Discovery leans on informed statements. We're told about the deaths of Burnham's family; we're told she's emotionally compromised where Klingons are concerned; but we don't see her family's death and we don't get to know her well enough to form a basis for her typical emotional level. Compare to Deep Space Nine's pilot "Emissary" which opens with the death of Jennifer Sisko so that Benjamin Sisko's uncertainty about his future in Starfleet and his anger at Jean-Luc Picard are established for the audience.

But then again, I can't say much about what Discovery is like because these two episodes are just a preamble to the series proper. We'll see how it fares.

No comments: