First Impressions of Star Trek: Discovery
First impressions of Star Trek: Discovery
Warning: the following article contains references to 50+ years of Star Trek mythology, including SPOILERS. It’s not intended as a review, just musings on a fictional universe I’ve loved nearly as long as that of Doctor Who, and based on a single first viewing of episodes 1 and 2. For the uninitiated, it’s written in British English (which means we spell things slightly differently to US English).
Star Trek: Discovery looks beautiful. It’s awash with orange tones and operatic umbers, golds and deep blue hues. It did its utmost to look and sound like Star Trek, but somehow didn’t quite feel like it, perhaps because this style of serialised storytelling is new for this grandest of SF franchises. It seemed to me that there was more emphasis on the presentation and gloss of it as much as its spirit and how it played. The substance of it, obsessed with re-inventing Trek mythology (particularly Klingon lore), came across to me as more JJ in its DNA than Gene - well, until the ending, anyway. There was a lot of set-up and exposition in a quite talky first episode and then a spectacular battle in the second. Rapid character development ensued.
Where it was most successful was in establishing the relationships between the characters of Captain Giorgiou (Michelle Yeoh), Lt. Saru (Doug Jones) and First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Michelle Yeoh’s a legend for a good reason – her Captain Giorgiou is instantly fully-rounded, wise and humorous and totally in command, mentoring her junior officer with an effortless grace and warmth that makes you believe they’d served together for several years.
Sadly, even having avoided most of the advance PR, I saw Giorgiou’s death coming. Okay, it’s a rites-of-passage story of sorts, a world in which it sucks to be Michael Burnham. Yeoh’s Giorgiou is instantly appealing, as is Doug Jones’ Saru – he steals every scene he’s in. First Officer Michael Burnham’s designed to be more prickly, neither entirely human (by nurture and cultural influence) but not comfortably Vulcan either. Martin-Green delivers a nuanced performance, navigating some at times slightly clunky, expositional dialogue. She makes Burnham by turns vulnerable, resourceful, and at points so sure of herself she comes across as a thrillseeker. And of course, she’s deeply well-intentioned but the outcome of her decisions all go wrong. So, Discovery’s first two episodes succeed in setting all that up admirably via complex and believable character relationships. (And isn’t it just so cool to see two Women of Colour in opening scenes so non-Bechdel-testing and so open-minded in their imaginative scope…)
The reimagined Klingons looked great, very alien, but when we got holo-images of the other 23 great houses, I thought we might get some more trad ones glimpsed in there as a nod to past iterations of the show. Alas, we didn’t. Not a big deal, I suppose (it's only a TV show, right?), but it'd make gluing the various chapters of this fictional universe together in one’s own imagination easier.
I found the Klingon scenes a bit ponderous. Their new look is sumptuous, all shining, regal golds and bright glitter, but visual impact aside, I really wanted them to get on with it. Those sequences ramped up a little more when T’Kuvmar, the Klingon leader, elected his new torchbearer, an albino follower of his doctrines in whom he sees a worthy “mirror.”
Can’t fault Discovery, production-wise – which spectacular bit do you pick as a favourite? The scenes in the brig were high points, and deftly demonstrated Burnham’s clarity and ingenuity in tense situations. Her relationship with James Frain’s Sarek once again gives credence to the idea that Vulcans are big-hearted ol’ softies underneath. Frain gave us a likeable Sarek as Burnham’s father figure, outwardly stern and unflappable but threaded through with glimpses of a thoughtful, humane man, open to instinct as much as he is to the cultural codes of Vulcan logic. All good.
So why am I not delighted? Star Trek’s back on TV! I dunno. It all felt slightly laboured and talky. a little too self-consciously serialised, in that these first two episodes are all set-up for what follows – we haven’t even met most of the series regulars yet. I’m all for well-told stories, but in modern times I think both TV and movie producers sometimes forget the value of brevity and bringing a viewer into a story as late as possible. (Or, perhaps I'm an impatient, curmudgeonly old snark.)
Consider what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s pilot did in two hours and how brisk that pacing was, but how much depth and detail it yielded. You got a massive space battle in the opening, and, immediately following that, the introduction of a new planet, a whole culture and its orbiting space station and, by episode's end, the whole character ensemble introduced.
I don’t actually watch Star Trek for massive space battles alone; I watch it for characters, for big SF ideas and allegory, for that much-vaunted sense of optimism for the future, all of which Discovery delivered, although there was perhaps more political metaphor in this two-part opener than any other ingredient.
Burnham’s an intriguing and very appealing lead, and I look forward to how her (surely redemptive) story unfolds, although I can’t help thinking that if we’d met her at a greater rate of knots, and learned more of this story in flashback rather than via extended prologue, I’d be more genuinely hooked. (Plus, we’d get Michelle Yeoh for longer.)
Also, I still don’t understand why this iteration of Star Trek was crafted to be a prequel set ten years before the original series. Try as I might, I just can't fully comprehend why that so absolutely had to be the case. This story would’ve worked just as well if it was set post-Voyager in a depleted Klingon empire, with the coming of this new saviour, perhaps with the Federation too having suffered some kind of crisis. You’d need to set the stage and change a few character and story details, but otherwise, no biggie. And all the Starfleet tech would look less anachronistic for longtime fans. So why such an insistence on this time period? Maybe later episodes will make more sense of this.
Either way, I’m cautiously optimistic that we'll soon be boldly going to yet stranger new worlds. I’ve got faith of the heart, y’see. Looking forward to episode 3.
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