Come on Yori, all the guy’s asking for is a little beheading, is that so much?
So Joe caved in and subscribed to CBS All Access to watch his precious Star Trek, allowing me to reap the benefits of his lack of willpower! We watched the first three episodes of STD (that’s Star Trek Discovery‘s unfortunate acronym), and my feelings are decidedly mixed. On the positive side, it looks great, with plenty of slick, high budget effects that feel right in line with the new Abram films.
Thankfully, STD is a bit more smartly written than those films, but it’s also not THAT smartly written. The acting is strong, the directing and cinematography are top notch, but the plot is all over the place and is working overtime to be ‘not just another Star Trek show’. It’s the Stargate Universe of Star Treks, trying to be darker and edgier in an attempt to appeal to a larger potential fanbase; the kind that love raw, violent dramas like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Certainly STD isn’t that level of grim, but you’ll see far more explicit gore in its first three episodes than you’d ever expect in Star Trek. The contradiction here is that CBS has made it far more difficult for those potential new viewers to watch the show by locking it behind its subscription streaming service. Likely the only people ready to fork over money to see STD are hardcore Trek fans, who will then be dismayed to find that the show is not a true return to form but a major formula mix up.
In terms of how it fits into the canon, well, it really doesn’t. The technology seems significantly more advanced than what we’ve seen in any of the Prime Universe shows and yet it takes place 15 (?) years prior to The Original Series. It’s really more of a Star Trek soft reboot than any sort of continuation. The main character is Sarek’s adopted daughter (geez, Spock, how many siblings did you have??), and her apparent struggle to control her emotions in the face of almost certain death at the hands of a monster-like Klingon Empire.
The Klingons in STD are less cultured and individually diverse than what we’ve seen in the TNG era. The old shows had Klingon characters with many different personalities, grappling with a warrior culture that expected them to fill a roll. They felt nuanced. Not that I expected to get that same nuance from STD’s two episode premiere, but this new version of Klingons definitely come off more animalistic and bloodthirsty, with relatively simplistic internal politics (someone shined a bright light and they all went to war). I’m hoping/guessing that will change as the show goes on, but right I’m willing to give the new Klingons a pass. I honestly don’t care much about canon as long as the story is well structured with satisfying character arcs, and I do have some issues with those aspects of STD.
Specifically, the first two episodes are bloated with a massive amount of drama and action, and yet only have two characters, maybe three, we’re supposed to care for (the science officer has some endearingly quirky dialog but is mostly observing the conflict between the captain and first officer). By the end of the two part opener, the captain is dead, and the first officer is labeled a mutineer and sentenced to space prison. The lead up to that outcome is a confusing mess involving an away mission of ONLY the captain and first officer. They beam over to a Klingon flagship to capture their leader in the hopes of turning him into a symbol of failure, as opposed to killing him and turning him into a martyr for the Klingons to rally around. Why only these two go on this mission is a big fat mystery, the only reasonable answer being that they’re kind dumb. The captain gets stabbed by the klingon leader and then the first officer kills him with her phaser. I don’t know why she didn’t use stun and complete her mission, maybe she couldn’t control her anger. Either way, it seems to be the catalyst to the show’s main ‘redemption’ plotline for first officer Michael (her first name is Micheal, they acknowledge that’s an odd name for a woman so maybe we’ll get an explanation for it).
I almost wish the first two episodes had been completely skipped in favor of revealing those backstory elements in flashbacks. It might have been a more clever way to dramatically reveal Michael’s story while jumping straight into the show’s actual premise. The third episode sees Michael transferred from prison detention to the advanced science ship Discovery, where she’s put to work assisting with some very shady science projects to potentially help win the war against the Klingons. This leads me to believe the show’s structure will be episodic ‘science projects of the week’ where Michael works to figure out how whatever she’s working on will be used in war, and then grapples with the shady morality of the crew and their ultimate goals, and whether she should sabotage Discovery’s efforts in the name of moral principle, or work toward a fast end to the war they she feels personally responsible for starting (which, honestly, would’ve started even without her).
Many of the old Trek shows have had some very weak pilot episodes, if not all of them, and I don’t even think STD’s is the worst of the lot. The setup has a lot of potential for great television. I’m specifically reminded of Fringe, which also had an episodic ‘science project gone horribly wrong’ structure to it for the first couple of seasons, and they were great.
So STD has potential, and yet I can’t help but feel this is not what Star Trek’s themes have always been about. The Trek Universe has always favored political allegory, and asked us to question the normalcy of our modern world when compared with the idealism on display in its vision of the future. From the originals series’ commentary on race with “ Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to TNG’s questioning of gender norms in “The Outcast”, this has always been Star Trek’s greatest strength. And, considering the world we live in today, where injustices have become so nakedly visible that they’re no longer shocking, don’t we need that Star Trek commentary more than ever? But who knows, maybe STD is revving up to blow us away with insight.
PS. I also saw Blade Runner 2049 and loved it, but maybe I’ll talk about that next time.
Published on by Alex Kolesar