Monday, 25 September 2017

STAR TREK DISCOVERY: first impressions

The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have aired in the US and are now available on Netflix in most other countries. Here's my thoughts after watching both episodes.


First up, the first two episodes, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, are a single two-hour episode, and really should have been presented as such. Dividing the two episodes doesn't help either half (and shutting the second episode behind a paywall in the US is a really bad idea). Secondly, the two episodes combined are a prologue to the rest of the series. We know that the premise of Star Trek: Discovery is that it will cover the adventures of the USS Discovery during a time of renewed Federation/Klingon hostilities, ten years before the events of the original series. These first two episodes establish the reason for the renewal of hostilities, but the Discovery itself and Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) are both MIA, which is a weird choice. At the end of these two hours we may have gotten to know a couple of the characters but we really don't know how the series itself will play out week-by-week.

Instead the two episodes focus strongly on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a Starfleet officer who had been been raised on Vulcan after her parents were murdered in a Klingon border skirmish. Burnham is a mass of contradictions, her human emotions straining against Vulcan logical training and conditioning, which leads to a couple of bad choices which stain her reputation. Burnham is the executive officer of the USS Shenzhou, serving under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), who has mentored Burnham extensively and considers her now ready to step up as a captain in her own right, just before a crisis gives her an opportunity to show those skills...and she fails. The two-parter ends with Burnham being court-martialed for mutiny and imprisoned.

There's a lot to unpack here and a full review will have to wait until the season (or at least the first half, which is airing as a discrete mini-season with a break over Christmas) is complete. It's a brave idea to show such a flawed central character in Star Trek and have them disgraced and having made several bad calls before the pilot is over. It's even odder to have them making those decisions for stupid reasons. Sarek reveals that the Vulcans would attack Klingon ships on sight, attacking with overwhelming force until they had earned the Klingons respect. With the Shenzhou already outgunned and then, seconds later, massively outnumbered by the Klingon reinforcements, this option - logical under other circumstances - is clearly not viable, but Burnham pursues it regardless of the change in circumstance. I'm hoping this is a well-thought out character flaw - Burnham's need to win Vulcan respect results in her pursuing courses of action through dogma which even Vulcans would reject - rather than bad writing, but I am not hopeful on that point.

Performance-wise, the episode is a strong success. Doug Jones is exceptional as Lt. Commander Saru and Martin-Green gives an excellent performance, especially compared to her less-developed role on The Walking Dead. Michelle Yeoh is, of course, utterly superb. The Klingon actors fare less well: the new Klingon makeup is incredibly restrictive and inhibits emoting. The need for all the Klingons to speak Klingon all the time also massively restricts their performance. Whilst the TNG-era Klingons could be theatrical and OTT, they at least got across their passion and the actors could go to town with the roles. The Klingon actors here might be doing exceptional work, but with both the make-up and language choice constraining them, we can't really tell. This is something they need to address moving forwards, otherwise the Klingons are going to be a pretty tedious enemy.

Effects-wise the show is quite impressive, with tons of ambitious tracking shots and full-on space battles. Things aren't as hectic and nonsensical as with the Abrams movies and some of the shots are breathtaking. However, there's less attention paid to things like strategy in the space battles, which devolve into lots of ships flying around firing at things randomly. Ship design could also be better: the Shenzhou is derivative of earlier designs (particularly the NX-01 Enterprise and Akira) and the Klingons are a baffling mish-mash of random designs which don't follow very logically on from established Klingon designs.

Discovery's connections with the rest of the Star Trek canon are questionable: Spock having an adopted human sister he never once mentioned ever seems...unlikely. The Shenzhou looks more advanced than Picard's Enterprise-D, let alone the Constitution-class Enterprise which (according to the timeline) is already in service at this point in Star Trek history (with Spock on board) under Captain Pike. And the less said about the awkward new Klingon design the better.

As the two-parter draws to a close, it has certainly set up an interesting paradigm that is worth exploring further. In terms of effects, casting and performances the show is very promising, but the writing needs to be better, the characterisation more coherent and the show really needs to start paying attention to the canon and stop trying to change things just for the sake of change (if you're going to do that, why even make a Star Trek show in the first place?). Based on this evidence, Discovery still has it all to play for and The Expanse is in no danger of losing its title as "Best Space Opera Show Currently on Air" just yet.

Star Trek: Discovery airs every Sunday on CBS All Access in the States and every Monday on Netflix in most of the rest of the world.


Anonymous said...

So the first episode, the only one not behind a paywall, was actually the first half of a long episode? I'm so happy I didn't watch it; I would have been extremely upset! That's a pretty underhanded trick and the chance that I pay to watch the series just went to zero.

Ryan said...

Why did they beam their captain and first officer onto a Klingon war vessel? Was the plan seriously to have two 120lb women gun down an entire ship of Klingons?

To further add insult to injury, I'm pretty sure they had six transporters and a room full of gun-toting grunts available for the raid one scene earlier.

I was fairly pleased with the rest of ST:D (hopefully it takes some time to slow down and explore), but that one decision was so mind-bogglingly stupid it completely broke immersion.

LeftHanded Matt said...

Absolutely loved it myself, it felt like Star Trek has finally been brought into the modern age. The tech update is not only a sensible choice, it was essential. Great characters (Saru in particuarly, excellent) and a compelling story line. It FELT like Star Trek, too, which was the most important thing to me.

I agree that the new Klingons are an issue. The look is certainly off putting, but having them always speaking in Klingon becomes very tiresome due to how slowly they do it. That said, I do quite like the effort to make them a far more interesting species than the drunken "honourable" warriors that '90s Trek reduced them down to.

Bronk said...

I agree, the Klingons were all over the place with their voices. First they're too slow, then at the end they start trilling a bit? It's like they crossed them with the aliens from Enemy Mine. The followed that up with a heavily accented English, then a not at all accented English. Very strange!

Having a two episode intro, then changing everything up again is foolish, because the next part will have to be yet another intro, and will also change up the feel of the show. It's a lot like the first 4 episodes of the anime Outlaw Star, in fact, they both killed the awesome female captain!

The Klingons were too weak, too. It was immensely foolish for a Klingon warrior in space battle armor to accidentally stab himself with his own weapon. Come on! Batleths are completely foolish as it is, they really need to sell its dangerousness, and this doesn't help!