It’s Star Trek, Jim, But Not As We Know It – Discovery Arrives

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Star Trek: Discovery finally arrives, after troubling tales of behind the scenes problems and somewhat less-than-thrilling trailers, and I suppose the first question to ask is whether it’s the disaster many were expecting?

Happily the answer is no. The first two episodes, which dropped yesterday on CBS and the network’s CBS All Access subscription service in the U.S.A. and on Netflix almost everywhere else today, are generally exciting and well-told, with high production values and a decent cast. However, at least with the evidence at hand, it does veer away from creator Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful spirit of exploration, and this may be an issue for some.

Taking place some ten years or so before the original series’ tales of Captain Kirk and co (a point I’ll come back to later), Discovery features as its focus not the traditional Starfleet Captain (though there is one, played by Michelle Yeoh) but instead on the first officer of the USS ShenzhouMichael Burnham, as portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green.

Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons, which resulted in her being raised by Spock’s father, Sarek, on the planet Vulcan. This becomes important in the opening episode when Burnham’s ship is the first to engage in a direct encounter with the Klingons in almost one hundred years. Needless to say, the encounter quickly goes pear-shaped and we’re treated to a pretty epic space battle, alongside some interesting twists and turns for the characters (particularly in the second episode).

Michelle Yeoh is good value, and thankfully brings more humour and emotion to her role than the stilted trailers led us to believe, Science Officer Saru, played under heavy prosthetics by the always welcome Doug Jones, is also immediately likeable. Without these two the show would definitely have been lacking the human touch, as the rest of the crew singularly fail to register anything beyond dark-haired man, red-haired woman and grizzled admiral who only appears as a hologram, etc.

Viewers should be advised there’s also a lot of Klingon grousing about purity of race and what a rum lot we humans are. With subtitles. Of course, looking at the state of the world right now, it’s difficult to disagree with their summation of mankind. Let’s hope the show gives us enough of an opposing viewpoint to feel better about ourselves as it goes on.

Jason Issacs, another actor I usually enjoy, didn’t make an appearance in the first two episodes, so we have that treat to look forward to.

My biggest problem with Discovery was with Martin-Green, who faces the tricky problem of engaging us with a human raised by the emotion-subsuming Vulcans. It’s a delicate balance pulled off marvellously over the years by the late, great Leonard Nimoy, but across the first two episodes I found that balance to be weighted in favour of some stiff-sounding line readings and an inability to connect with the character.

Martin-Green faces a difficult task, especially being the viewer’s eyes through these shenanigans, but the cliff-hanging climax to the second episode at least suggests she’ll be getting a promising arc as we move forward. Of course, some better dialogue might help too. *cough*

My second big issue comes with the show’s setting. As mentioned above, we’re rolling around a decade before Kirk and co, but everything here looks WAY more advanced than the original series. Again, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack: you either embrace the 1960s-produced vibe of the original series or you say “Screw it, no one will buy that in the age of shiny CGI” and go for a modern design ethic. The producers of Discovery have chosen the latter.

Is this a geek-only problem? Will more casual viewers give a hoot that it looks more like the new timeline-set, JJ Abrams movies (particularly in its annoying overuse of lens flare) than a prequel show? Casual viewers may not care but this decision is baffling when so much of Discovery’s Klingon Cold War setting relies on understanding its place in Star Trek’s chronology. If nothing else it smacks of indecision at best, and downright carelessness at worst. The large number of producers and executive producers listed in Discovery’s opening credit sequence may suggest an answer to this…

What is for sure is that most of Roddenberry’s idealism is gone, as Discovery has more in common with a Game of Thrones viewpoint that humans suck and war is hell than it does with discovering Tribbles and dallying with green-skinned dancing girls, while it rams home analogies about fundamentalism with all the subtlety of a Klingon punch to the face.

Finally then, Discovery shows some promise in its set-up, but it’s likely to tick-off many long-term Star Trek fans. Personally, we have endless hours of Star Trek in its various forms before this, so I’m happy enough to see the franchise try something different. However, it’s so mired in Star Trek history (while simultaneously contradicting it left, right and centre) that I’m not certain how much it will appeal to Trekkies or non-Trekkies. Which could be something of a problem.

Whether or not that different feel is enough to sustain my interest in the long run remains to be seen, or to bring in those obviously much-hoped for casual viewers, but I’m certainly intrigued enough to see what this… sorry to use the word, but… grittier take on the final frontier has to offer. I had fun for its duration, and there’s something to be said for that, plus it’s good to see Star Trek back on television, its spiritual home.

Beam me up, at least for now…

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