The following post is rated S for spoilers. I can’t discuss this properly without going deep. You’ve been warned.
I’ve been hyper-critical. I’ve been hopeful. I’ve been nervous as hell. It all comes down to this. The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have officially been released, the first one on CBS, the second on Discovery‘s permanent home, CBS All-Access. Some of what’s going to follow is likely to be stream of consciousness as process what I’ve seen. If you’ve not seen the episodes for yourself, this is probably going to be a bit disjointed in places. My intention is to praise the good, to question the questionable, and to call out the bullshit for what it is.
Let’s start with the premise. By now, it’s understood this series takes place 10 years before Kirk took the bridge of the Enterprise on its historic five-year mission. The opening two episodes of Discovery place the Federation at the opening salvos of a war with the Klingon Empire. A Klingon outsider by the name of T’Kumva calls out the 24 great houses of the Empire at the fringes of Federation space with the basic message of “Let’s make Kronos great again.” (Sound familiar?) To him, the Empire has suffered from personal infighting and indignity for far too long, while the Federation’s diversity threatens the purity of the Klingon race. To him, the great lie of the Federation is “We come in peace.”
Commander Michael Burnham is first officer aboard the USS Shenzhou (
possibly named for Ming dynasty Chinese painter Shen Zhou (?) who contributed to the rise of the Wu School style, reviving the idea of the inspired scholar-painter and offering a marked reverence for historical tradition, definitely named for the manned Chinese space program — should have guessed). Burnham’s parents were killed in a Klingon raid when she was young. She was raised as ward in the house of Sarek of Vulcan, the first human to be trained in the Vulcan Science Academy. Sarek requested she serve aboard the Shenzhou under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou. Captain Georgiou is considered a legend in Starfleet, the best of the best who has seen a lifetime of hardship and death, yet she maintains a belief in hope, a human trait that Sarek wishes to be revived in his ward. After seven years aboard, Georgiou believes Burnham to be ready for her own command. But when the Klingons come knocking, Burnham’s logic and understanding of their culture leads her to believe the best way to save her captain, ship, and crew is to disable the captain and take over the ship, offering a critical kill shot to the Klingon ship in a demonstration of strength that will lead to respect and open negotiation. The order is countered when Georgiou regains consciousness and confines Burnham to the brig as the Empire’s ships arrive en masse.
That’s the setup. To discuss this properly, I need to break this down considerably.
The Klingons speak Klingon. The only time we hear them speak English, they are communicating briefly with the Federation ships, and it’s as though it hurts them to speak it, as though English is beneath their contempt. It’s a nice touch. The look of the Klingons has been considerably updated, which is nothing new. The last major update was done for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The reasoning is always practicality and improved effects, and they always find a way in canon to explain it, even if it takes decades. The costumes and sets are so intricate, it’s difficult to really focus the eye on anything. The facial prosthetics are so heavy, most of the acting is done with the eyes. My hat’s off to the actors underneath all that, speaking that much Klingon through heavy teeth appliances. I love the concept of the sarcophagus ship and the ceremonial torchbearer. The methodology of doing everything in the name of Kahless likewise seems spot-on. It’s no different than Americans doing things in the name of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. We always prop up our heroes and think we do the right thing for our people when we get all patriotic. Sometimes the lines of patriotism blur. As a reminder to history, fascism always wraps itself in the flag of the nation it invades, and there is no such thing as a recapturing of “glory days.” The setup and parallel to our own current political divisiveness is about as subtle as a heart attack. As Burnham suggested, when T’Kumva is killed, he becomes a martyr for the entire Klingon cause to rally around. That’s going to be the catalyst that drives the upcoming war.
The prologue sequence with Georgiou and Burnham was exposition heavy as it set the relationship between these women under the pretense of saving a species from a decades long drought. In what I can only claim as one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen on television, let alone in Star Trek, they walk around until their footprints in the sand create a Starfleet delta insignia by which the ship can find them when storms black out communications. The ship then bursts through the sandblasted atmosphere to pick them up. Corny as hell, with no logical sense to the capabilities of a starship. I suspect this is the sort of shit we’ll get every time Kurtzman puts his fingerprints on this. I truly despise that man.
Captain Georgiou is beautifully established in these episodes before she’s taken from us at the end of episode two. Michelle Yeoh brings all of her gravitas to this character, and the effect is that she brings her own style to the bridge of her ship. There’s humor, subtlety, and respect in grand measure. I’ll say it outright: I would follow her. She’s one hell of a role model for Starfleet and for humanity as a whole. The reputation they imbued into this character as the fleet’s finest is well deserved if what we’ve seen is indicative of her entire career.
Burnham’s character is one that, by design, will grow and evolve across the course of these 15 episodes (and beyond into later seasons). She’s a strong character, hyper-intelligent, overconfident, and now she has the weight of the loss of her ship, the death of her captain, and the entire war with the Klingons weighing down on her. Sonequa Martin-Green is offering up a nuanced performance that is a joy to watch. The problem I’m having right now is that her actions in these episodes have given her the rightful sentence of life in prison, stripped of her rank. She effectively flushed all dreams. To get to Discovery (which they’ve not yet shown to us) implies two things. The first is that Captain Lorca plays by a very different agenda, which I expect. The second is that we’re about to see the same kind of rank-dodging bullshit we saw in the Abrams Trek films with Kirk going from stowaway to captain to Starfleet rewarding him with the Enterprise in two hours. There is so much wrong with that, I won’t bother wasting my time on it here.
That leads me to the Kurtzman level crap that’s obviously inspired from the films he was a part of. The visuals are all hyper-shiny with tilted camera angles and lens flares as far as the eyes can see. The Vulcan schools are the same bubble pit things we saw in those films, which made no logical sense then either. These touches drive me bananas because this is supposedly “in canon,” back in the Prime timeline, but it suggests, as with the ostinato string line in Jeff Russo’s opening theme, that the Kelvin-verse isn’t quite dead after all.
I’m telling myself that what we’re seeing is, in fact, not the Prime timeline. In my head, I’m using the exact same head!canon that I used on Enterprise. We got TNG era Klingons and Borg on that series. How? Because in Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg went back in time, and there was a timeline split. Anything that didn’t quite line up with the TOS timeline could then be fudged a little with that explanation. That’s what I’m using here. I think what we’re seeing is a promise of the Prime timeline, but it’s another divergent fork that was influenced from the Kelvin-verse (which didn’t even start in the Prime timeline if you look at the Kelvin‘s TMP era ship design) and the parallel universe inspired by First Contact and Enterprise. It helps me to work with a world of ills that way, such as those gawd-awful uniforms. That much metallic fabric design just smacks of disco to me, sorry. They’re eyesores, though admittedly not nearly as bad as they could be.
The above explanation is how I’m also justifying the change in characterization of James Frain’s Sarek. I think Frain is a good choice for this role, but he seems to be playing it… snarky? And he has virtually none of the command presence of Mark Lenard. I think that was an inborn conclusion, however, as Lenard was a dynamo when it came to presence. Even so, I saw Frain deliver a similar kind of quiet dignity as Cromwell on The Tudors, so I know he can do it. I think the writing informed the portrayal, and it came through. The one thing I will say is that every time he or Burnham offered the Vulcan salute, I felt like they were honoring the legacy of Leonard Nimoy. If nothing else clicks, for some reason that did it for me.
Doug Jones as Lt. Saru. This is our other big star for the series, so he certainly needs to be discussed here. Saru’s species, the Kelpians, are a race of prey. They are bred to sense the oncoming danger and death, and they are instinctively afraid of it for all the reasons you can imagine. Jones is a character acting legend in the annals of science fiction and fantasy, a name in the prosthetics that rivals Andy Serkis for CG motion capture performance. Seriously, Jones is that good. His abilities shine through here nicely. Saru offers an interesting counterpoint to what we expect from the brave exploration types Starfleet tends to inspire. Even with the instincts he has, the fact that he can challenge situations and stand firmly at his post in the line of duty, that he made it through Starfleet at all, is impressive. It says a lot for what Saru has had to overcome. That in itself is inspirational for those who care to think about it.
On the bridge of the Shenzhou, the back and forth between characters felt like Star Trek to me. Regardless of what the visuals said, the characters fell into a rhythm that spoke to me of Kirk and Spock, of Picard and Riker (in later seasons). And as a treat to my ears… did anyone else catch this? The bridge sound effects were those heard on Kirk’s Enterprise. The exact same effects. They were more subdued rather than cranked to 11 like on TOS, but they were unmistakable. It’s amazing how a little soundscape can create an atmosphere where even the visuals do not.
Speaking of soundscape, let’s go back to Jeff Russo’s music. As I’ve stated previously and now here too, I’m not in love with the theme. that ostinato kills it for me because it has no place in the non-Kelvin timeline. Add to that, every Trek should rightfully have its own identity. The last time I was this pissed off about it was when they reused Goldsmith’s The Motion Picture theme for The Next Generation. It was inappropriate then, and it’s inappropriate now to crib from the Abrams films. Visually, the opening sequence that theme is married to is stunning. The art major in me is duly impressed. It’s still not my favorite, but I applaud the effort. For me, the winners are Goldsmith’s theme for Voyager and the historical visuals for Enterprise. I do, however, applaud the notion that we get the beginnings of Alexander Courage’s traditional fanfare when we see Gene Roddenberry’s name. That Kurtzman’s name kicks in there before that fanfare finishes… he’s so not worthy, but you can’t have everything. That’s just the main theme. On previous Trek series, the background music was generally atonal wallpaper. Not much to write home about, save for specific queues. It got better over time, and I love a lot of what I heard on Enterprise in particular. What Russo offers Discovery is subtle enough to be wallpaper if need be, but to the attuned ear, it really brings this series to emotional life. That’s what I was looking for from the music. There is a subtle theme offered in the main theme when I stop hearing the ostinato that is carried over into the rest of the score. It’s not dynamic enough to give the series an identity yet — that may change as we are introduced to the Discovery itself. The Klingon music is likewise not nearly as strong as what we heard from Goldsmith or Horner, but it does the job nicely. I’m looking forward to hearing Russo’s work evolve. It’s a tough job following Goldsmith or Horner. That’s the nature of the beast. In the spirit of Trek, I’m keeping it optimistic that he’ll rise to the occasion.
Bottom line… this is not nearly the storytelling promise of the Axanar project that was building in recent times, and I still trust Kurtzman about as far as I can throw him, but there is considerable storytelling promise to be had here so long as the identity and purpose of Star Trek is kept in mind at all points. The writers clearly care about the characters and story. The actors are giving it their all. As much as I can’t speak for the camera work, the effects teams are running at top notch, and the design teams have had a great deal of fun putting this upgrade together. If we can keep Kurtzman’s influences from Abrams and the Kelvin-verse to a bare minimum, and if we can push this forward without further logical fallacies like giving officer ranks to mutineers, Discovery can shake off some of the negatives. Aside from TOS, every Trek series has had a rough start, and they evened out by season 3 or 4. Honestly, that’s too damned long. Classic Trek had it figured out nearly from the start, and people are impatient today. I feel like we’ll have a bead on Discovery by the end of this first season, and the serialized novel format should help to speed that along for good or ill. I hope for the best, I expect the worst (which has been now set aside by what I’ve seen), and I trust the process. Trek fans are loyal, but they are vocal in the extreme, not unlike the fans for a great many other series and franchises. I feel like course corrections will come in later seasons as notes are compared and storylines are pushed forward. Time will tell.
EDIT: I need to address the “Vulcan hello” alluded to in the pilot’s title because I completely forgot to do so. Vulcans are pacifists. Beyond anything else, it makes no logical sense to attack Klingons at every turn until they decide they respect you, even if that tactic works. Genocide is not logical as defensive measure. I would expect that kind of play from the Andorians, because as warriors, they would at least come up with something like that. Those are the ones who should have been able to pull that off. Missed opportunity. I like the idea, it just shouldn’t have come from Sarek and his people.