It’s been two weeks since Star Trek Discovery premiered with a solid debut. The two-part opener effectively established the look and feel of the new show and introduced us to our new lead-character, Michael. It also established the number one rule that long-time Trek fans will have to remember if they have any hope of enjoying the show: This is not your daddy’s Star Trek.
Discovery began with a perfectly Trek-like captain and her perfectly Trek-like first officer on a perfectly Trek-like planet where they did perfectly Trek-like things before beaming up to their perfectly Trek-like ship on its perfectly Trek-like spacefaring mission. And then, once you were all settled in, it flipped the table over and upended everything you thought you knew. The first officer attempts a mutiny, is arrested, her captain is killed and her ship half-destroyed. That’s how the two-part opening concluded.
Since then we’ve had two more episodes and now it feels like the show has settled into its template. So how does the Discovery measure up now that it’s laid bare its intentions?
EPISODE THREE: CONTEXT IS FOR KINGS
As mentioned, a lot of the opening two episodes felt like a semi-standalone miniseries, ala Battlestar Galactica. Context is for Kings moves the plot forward six months and introduces us to the environment that, presumably, the rest of the show (or at least the 2017-2018 season) will feature.
The opening segment with Michael on the prison ship very ably established three things: The timeline relative to the first two episodes, the reputation that Michael has acquired since the show’s beginning, and the introduction to the titular ship, which looks gorgeous in the brief glimpses we’re given of its exterior. Considering the look of the vessel was widely criticized when a rough-build of it was released last year, it’s nice to see the final version turn out so beautifully.
We’re also introduced to Discovery’s enigmatic captain. And I only call him enigmatic because I refuse to believe he is as transparently villainous as he’s being presented. There must be depth here; there just must be. So until I’m proven wrong I’ll call him enigmatic.
Discovery’s crew—like her captain—is also uncomfortably villain-like. The ship doesn’t feel safe and I can’t help but wonder whether that’s a stylistic choice since we’re following the show from the perspective of Michael (who is obviously distrusted by Starfleet in general) and thus everyone seems evil since no one likes her, or if almost everyone really is objectively villainous and there’s some grand plot yet to be unfolded that will justify such an un-Trek like environment. Right now Discovery’s primary cast features a captain who seems like the kind of rogue captain that Kirk would go up against in the Original Series, a security officer that seems to take pleasure in dehumanizing others, and a chief engineer who is just a jerk. The traditional seven-person cast (captain, first officer, helmsman, engineer, doctor, science officer, specialist) that Trek has mostly adhered to is out the window. We’re not given any names of the bridge crew besides the captain. We’re not even shown the doctor. The only characters who are likeable are Michael’s eager-beaver newbie roommate, Michael herself (who really shouldn’t be likeable but is simply because she’s the protagonist) and Saru, who also isn’t actually likeable because he’s clearly in opposition to the show’s lead character, but who is also so intriguing and “Trek-like” it’s hard not to like him. Everyone else is either invisible, a jerk or potentially evil.
As to the plot…well there is one, but it’s a bit slight. It’s a small storyline about collecting material from a sister-ship that is working on some secret project so that the Klingons don’t get to it first. That leads to an away-mission and a run-in with a CG creature. It’s action for action’s sake and without a moral/allegorical skeleton to build around it, it’s not much to hold on to. It seems like the show is trying to push a very superficial “anti-war” allegory, and there’s a place for that in science-fiction, but so far they’ve not tread any ground that Battlestar Galactica sufficiently explored over a decade ago at a time when such a message was far more relevant.
And yet, I’ve not lost interest.
There’s a persistent feeling that I’m not being told everything and there are more reveals to come that keep me from just writing the show off. Every time I want to complain about something—like the seemingly pointless monster fight—the show finds a way to turn the seemingly pointless into a teaser for something potentially important. By the end of the episode the monster that most would have assumed was one-and-done ends up on Discovery in the captain’s personal collection, raising questions and keeping me intrigued enough to want to see the next hour.
EPISODE FOUR: THE BUTCHER’S KNIFE CARES NOT FOR THE LAMB’S CRY
I now have some serious problems.
First of all, I keep going back to the weird feeling that Michael is on a ship run by villains. Am I supposed to feel like that? Maybe the grant plot-line of the series (or the first season) is to show how a science vessel can become corrupted by war before remembering its purpose. If so I’ll change my tune because right now I can’t help but think of this skit…
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It’s odd to have such a dark, warlike tone on a show with such an uplifting main-theme. It’s weirdly contradictory.
On the positive side, the show has managed to open up its cast a little more in the past couple episodes and it’s starting to feel like a more traditional “crew.” We met the ship’s doctor finally, though he’s not given much to work with. A few of the bridge officers are given lines and reaction shots, though we don’t learn any of their names. It no longer feels like a ship solely comprised of evil-doers; chief-engineer Stamets is humanized a bit more and even becomes mildly sympathetic, though his character’s dialogue was far too blunt in this week’s episode.
There’s no depth to any of the cast outside the core trio of Michael, Cpt. Lorca and Commander. Saru, but I suppose that’s in the tradition of “Kirk/Spock/McCoy” taking up the lion’s share of the TOS screentime. On the other hand, there was a clear co-dependence to the TOS trio that gave that show its identity: Kirk was the human being pulled by McCoy’s fiery passion on one side and Spock’s cold logic on the other; Spock and McCoy individually with Kirk offered their own magical scenes, while their own scenes together were a different sort of treat. You don’t get that dynamic with “Michael/Lorca/Saru,” in fact the trio haven’t even had a single substantial scene together. So they’re not a trio so much as just three separate characters who are going to receive the majority of the screen-time. That feels like a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, who knows how long any of them will live. Just when it seemed like Commander Landry was going to go on a season-long character arc—from cold-hearted to contemplative—she gets offed in the most ludicrous way possible, and leaves the series (or at least seems to) in a most undignified manner. More on that in a bit.
The Klingons are back, thankfully, but I’m struggling to see the value in their storyline. I suppose the idea is to humanize the villains, but I wonder if it won’t backfire. I spent half the episode thinking of Voq (the Klingon disciple of T’Kuvma) as a sympathetic character, if not a protagonist, while Lorca, the captain of the titular ship, was positioned as the baddie. Black is white; up is down.
We found out at the end of the previous episode that the big secret project on Discovery is not a new weapon but a new warp drive. “Ohhhh!” all the Trekkies said, “so it was a headfake; they’re not developing a weapon at all! How un-Trek would that have been ha ha ha.”
It’s just a new warp drive that allows them to get the jump on enemies and kill them faster.
Wouldn’t it be something if this new warp drive could be used to explore? How silly would that be; just exploring the galaxy, landing on planets filled with allegorical morals of the week and occasional bad guys to skirmish with. But I guess the point of the show is to avoid doing the traditional Trekkian thing. I guess the point is that the captain is supposed to be bad. But am I supposed to like it? Am I supposed to enjoy it? Lorca’s villainy may be intentional, but is it also intentional that I’m rooting for the albino Klingon? That can’t be intended.
What cripples this episode and what makes me worry for the rest of the season is the poor writing across the board. Not just the dialogue, but the plotting is really lacking, especially in the common-sense department. Case in point is the needless (in-story) death of Commander Landry. I think I understand the end-game the writers were hoping to achieve: They wanted to get us to the point where Michael would risk her life to prove the creature is harmless unless it’s provoked. Having the creature kill Landry raises the stakes when Michael herself approaches it later. I understand the thought-process but it’s still reaching an end through very bad means. Lorca even says to Michael “don’t let her death be in vain.” Uh, her death was in vain. She was an over-aggressive moron who let a monster out of its cage in order to cut off its big toe. What did she think was going to happen? Of course it attacked her and promptly ripped her to shreds.
Remember when Tasha Yar died by the oil slick monster and it was sudden and arbitrary? That at least was used to express a point about the universe: Sometimes evil just kills without care or purpose. It was a senseless death in-story, but it taught a lesson to the audience. That’s good science fiction.
This was just an idiot doing something idiotic and dying because of it.
The show is trying to tell a story about understanding a monstrous looking alien instead of judging it by its looks. It’s trying to tell a story about how it’s wrong to torture an innocent creature (warp drive by way of nipple twisting!) in order to placate “the greater good.” You can see the “want-to” all over the episode, but it stumbles because of shoddy writing, plain and simple.
But at least the visuals are still cool.
It’s going to take some time getting used to a Star Trek series that is very much a one-person show. Lorca and Saru are obviously important as is Voq on the Klingon side, but this is Michael’s show and Michael’s story.
I miss T’Kuvma already. He was a solid villain and it’s a shame he was just a glorified red herring. Episode Three did little to nothing with the Klingons but the potential for them was established in the opening two episodes. The follow up in episode four was better although right now they’re so detached from the rest of the show it’s a little like the Helo/Sharon subplot during BSG’s season one (it lead to important things for the main plot but for a while there it was basically another show altogether).
I still maintain what I said in the review of the premiere, that if this was set 100 or so years after Voyager all the differences people are nit-picking (about technology, the look of the Klingons, etc) would be perfectly acceptable. Instead the rather breathtaking production values are constantly undermined by the “square peg/round hole” contrast to the world it’s supposed to be a prequel to.
Overall, this doesn’t feel like Star Trek; it feels like a show set in the Star Trek universe. It’s like a dark side-story happening in the corner of the galaxy while the more traditional Star Trek—filled with optimism, wonder, “discovery” and moral lessons—happen elsewhere (on reruns of the old shows, I suppose). But again, that’s a feeling largely based around growing up with the Roddenberry/Berman shows which maintained a certain set-in-stone look and feel from 1966-2005. It’s natural that a new show with a new creative team is going to “feel” different. I imagine Bryan Fuller didn’t want to just do TNG2.0.
And I know DS9 was a “darker, side-story” Trek show, but DS9 was always a companion show. There was always the more traditional Trek show happening on another night (TNG in the beginning, Voyager after that), and even then DS9 stuck to the familiar tropes of the Roddenberry/Berman style. Discovery is the only new Trek we’re getting and so it’s natural that some fans are going to be upset that they’re not getting…well, TNG 2.0.
For my part, I appreciate the willingness to venture into new territory with the franchise and I’m going to remain in wait-and-see mode, despite some initial reservations and annoyances. These two episodes together felt like a second pilot to establish the show once the miniseries introduced the basic concepts (again, sort of like “33” and “Water” which opened BSG). Let’s see where the next episodes go and if the show’s writing improves and catches up to the fantastic visuals and great story potential.
And there are still way too many commercials for a show I’m already paying for.