Star Trek Discovery boldly sets up its table…and then shockingly flips it

For over a year now, Cult of Whatever has been counting down to the premiere of Star Trek Discovery. Finally after twelve years of waiting (plus a few extra months due to delays), after a botched reveal that turned fans off to the look of the titular ship, after the departure of highly respected Bryan Fuller, after the drama of CBS All Access that has hovered over the production from the beginning, finally the show is here. Now, none of the drama matters. All that matters is whether or not the show at least lives up to the legacy of Trek, and at best adds to it. Does it? Let’s talk about the two-part debut of the new show and notice the hits and misses of the newest iteration of Trek.

THE AESTHETIC

So much of this feels like Star Trek, while at the same time being unlike anything that’s ever worn the title before. The title sequence looks like something drawn by Michaelangelo. The theme is so subdued compared to prevous theme songs, it sounds like the opening movement of a much grander theme that never kicks into second gear. The ship’s interior is much darker than in previous shows and even the new movies. Klingons look drastically different, although they’ve evolved so much over the years it’s not really a new continuity error but more a nod to past inconsistency. It’s all Trek, but not in any way you’re used to.

Watching it is watching Star Trek, but this is the first non-Gene, non-Berman Trek we’ve ever had on TV and everyone behind the scenes has really embraced the change. It’s odd watching it because I’ve seen every episode of the old shows so many times I have a sixth sense about how a Berman-era Trek story goes, how the beats are spaced out and what direction the plots usually take (usually they go for cliched twists and pat endings). This Trek seems to revel in zagging where I expect a zig. The look and feel of the show was the first hint at that.

THE STORY

Comparing this first two-episode debut to any of the previous pilots is like comparing Vulcans to Romulans. There’s a shared DNA but too many differences to ignore. The very first scene introduces the antagonist to the two-parter, the Klingon extremist T’Kuvma (unexpected) before offering an exposition-heavy walk-and-talk scene that fills the audience in on pertinent information (expected). There’s a focus on the star of the show, Michael (expected), who is not the captain but is—at least for the opening—the first-officer (unexpected). You’ve got the traditional banter among bridge officers (expected) that also features characters openly challenging each other and arguing viewpoints (the ultimate Roddenberry/Berman no-no). Can you imagine Tuvok blurting out “we need to retreat!” or Scotty? I’m not complaining, it’s just different. The first hour offers an obligatory pan around the bridge where we’re introduced to the secondary characters, in particular the Science Officer Saru (expected), but by the end of the second hour everyone in the senior staff except for Michael and Saru are dead (unexpected).

You’ve got the promise of a show about an eager second-in-command that ends up a show about a mutineer without a ship or even a career and an unpredictable path ahead of her. That scene near the end of the first hour—where Michael attacks her captain and tries to hijack her ship and fire on a Klingon vessel—was so unexpected and frankly shocking, it almost single-handedly sold me on the show and the vision Bryan Fuller (and everyone who took over after him) has for it. In addition, while I expected Michelle Yeoh’s character to exit the show one way or another (since she was listed as a “guest star”) Chris Obi was so highly compelling as T’Kuvma his death was another big surprise, and one I’m much more saddened over. I had expected and accepted that he’d be a recurring villain for the remainder of the season right up until a moment before he croaked.

It’s like the creators meticulously set up the table with all the pieces where a long-time Trekkie would expect them to go and then, at the last second, flipped the table and sent everything flying. As someone who doesn’t just appreciate being surprised but craves it, having Star Trek—a franchise that made playing it safe a hallmark of the Berman years—be willing to do the unexpected was a pleasant surprise indeed. I went into this expecting a well-made but traditional new iteration of Trek. It’s still Star Trek, but it’s a whole new ballgame too.

THE COMMERCIALS

Network TV has really dropped in quality, hasn’t it? Maybe you’re someone who watches your local broadcast stations on a regular basis; I am not. I haven’t even had access to local channels in four years. I’ve been meaning to get that digital antenna but I’ve yet to have the need. I have no cable or satellite either. I have Roku and a life too busy to watch much TV anymore. I have a computer hooked up to a 120 inch projector screen and I can stream (legally or…otherwise? I’m not saying that.) whatever I want via Amazon, HBO, Netflix, the WWE Network and now…CBS All Access.

But Star Trek Discovery didn’t debut on All Access. It debuted on good old fashioned CBS, where apparently both Survivor and The Big Bang Theory are still things. Sixty Minutes and Oprah are too apparently. My prevailing non-Star Trek thought for the opening of the two-hour premiere was how little I missed watching network TV. I don’t even watch Raw or Smackdown live anymore. Why should I? WWE releases everything on Youtube soon after and there are…other means to watch when necessary. A life without commercials has been so rewarding: Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, DareDevil and such like have spoiled me with long-form storytelling, uninterpreted by advertisements for toothpaste, beer or medicine for erectile dysfunction. It’s just me and the screen and whatever story I’m being told.

Star Trek Discovery is CBS’ bait to bring people over to their own Netflix-like subscription service. For six dollars or so a month you can watch basically everything CBS (and Viacom?) has the rights to show, plus twelve commercials per hour, in blocks of four at a time.

Now help me understand this: I am supposed to pay CBS for All Access. My paying them funds CBS All Access, which in turn means I get to watch the shows on CBS All Access, such as the new Star Trek show. But now what do the advertisements pay for? They’re not paying for Star Trek. Netflix is actually paying around seven of the nine million dollar budget each episode runs (Netflix has streaming rights to the show outside of the USA and Canada). So I’m paying CBS, Netflix is paying CBS (and no ads are shown on Netflix)…why do advertisers need to pay CBS too? Why do I need to see advertisements for toothpaste, beer or medicine for erectile dysfunction right as I’m getting into an exciting part of the show? What is this? The 90’s?

It’s interesting how different the flow of the show was on the CBS Network hour compared to the All Access follow up. The first hour of the show was interrupted by a commercial break about every three minutes. Some scenes were rushed in order to have some semblance of a beginning, middle and end between each break, while others—which took their time—had a feeling of “that’s it?” because as soon as a single good scene happened we were off to another credit card ad.

On All Access there were just as many ads, only they were blocked together in chunks of four every five or six minutes, so scenes had more time to breathe but then just as you were settling in and maybe even forgetting you weren’t watching HBO, boom: an ad blitz sucks you right out of the atmosphere. Is this a first-world problem? You bet, but spoiled is spoiled and I am spoiled. I’m also paying for this, as well as Netflix. CBS is being greedy, but making their own network when they have no business doing so is greed-personified anyway so who am I to be indignant.

ODDS AND ENDS

The special effects are the best on TV. It’s cinematic quality.

Saru’s natural desire to flee like a deer from any dangerous situation is a new dynamic for Trek. I’m excited to see how he plays off of Michael’s much different tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.

Speaking of, my second favorite thing about the debut was another shocking surprise: The meaning of episode one’s title. I expected the “Vulcan Hello” to be a play on “Live Long and Prosper” or at the very least the other common saying “Peace and Long Life.” Instead the Vulcan Hello is apparently “sucker punch a Klingon.” If Discovery keeps logically zagging where I expect a zig I will have a new favorite TV show.

The Klingon’s opening salvo against the Federation was the galaxy’s biggest lens flare. It probably wasn’t a wink and nod to JJ Abrams, but I choose to believe it was.

I’m torn on the Sarek character. I like the idea of Michael being a human raised by Vulcans, and I’m cool with her father figure being featured, but it didn’t have to be Sarak. There wasn’t a need to shrink the universe like that.

Similarly, this show doesn’t need to be a prequel. Just pretend for a moment that this show is set a century after Voyager, after the Alpha Quadrant had re-stabilized from the Dominion War. Imagine the Klingons went into isolation and were radicalized by a zealot like T’Kuvma, who initiated violent contact with humans after a generation, sparking a war. The story is the exact same only you’re not forced within a box of the predefined universe and you’re not limited in what you can show or do without an army of hardcore fans crying foul. They’re already crying foul over the advanced tech on display in a ship that predates the five year mission of Kirk and Spock by a decade. It seems like an unnecessary handicap.

OVERALL

There are probably more jaded fans than I am who will criticize the misses and miss the hits but I think this was a solid debut for the most part and occasionally a great one. It was the most long-term-story-focused episode ever for a Trek debut, with so much of the plot yet to be unfolded. Not even DS9 was this obviously laid-out in advance (in fact DS9 was famously winging it, despite having such an open-ended plot toward the end). Rick Berman’s “new, same-looking, adventure every week” model is dead. Newer episodes may be more episodic but the narrative that follows Michael is going to be season-spanning. That’s refreshing and new for Trek and I’m all-in on it.

Criticisms range from the wooden acting from a few characters, particularly Yeoh, and some clunky dialogue that leaned too much on exposition. But that’s expected for a first episode. The other knock is the lack of “hard, morality play science fiction” that has always defined Star Trek. Even in its worst seasons and on its worst episodes, the show always at least tried to make a point about something. This show danced around a few ideas (the difference between culture and race, mostly), but never really committed to hammering home a message. That said, characters had conversations; real, honest-to-goodness, whole, minutes-long discussions were had between Trek characters. We haven’t had that in a long time.

Too long. Welcome back Star Trek.

9/10 – The two-hour debut was not perfect, but it was the best beginning to a Trek show to date and offered plenty to be excited about, especially for fans who grew up with but who also grew weary of the same old-same old story twists and turns. Discovery is new and fresh and potentially great.

It just deserves a better home than All Access.

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