It’s been a long road, getting from here to there. Yes ladies, gentlemen and Tribbles we finally had the long awaited premiere of the brand new Star Trek TV series Star Trek Discovery.
The last time the more than 50 year-old franchise was on tv was in 2005 when the fifth series Star Trek: Enterprise faded into cancellation. But excitement for this momentous return and the premiere of Discovery has been clouded by news about the show including: delays, being exclusive to CBS All Access in the US, strange looking Klingons, apparent canon inconsistencies and the fact that it was another prequel series, set decades after Star Trek: Enterprise and about a decade before The Original Series. And the final red alert was the fact that the premiere was not pre-screened critics. Insert dramatic music stab.
But I am a life long Trekkie and despite all this hullabaloo I maintained hope that Discovery would be brilliant and live up to the name Star Trek. Sadly the first two episodes, which sees the Federation ship Shenzhou battling a mysterious Klingon sect, have left me disappointed as a Trek fan and as a television fan in general. With a black hole-sized SPOILER ALERT here is my review of the first two episodes:
Part 1 – The future looks good
Right out of the gate I will say this show looks great and you can see they spent their budget to make all the aliens, ships and space phenomenon look impressive. The alien effects on the Klingons (more on them next point) and Doug Jones’ Kelpien Saru are all very well done. There was one robot looking guy on the bridge though who looked like he escaped from a Buck Rogers convention. Anywho the effects overall are beautiful and vivid, worthy of any Hollywood movie. I could have done without the JJ-Abrams-esque lens flares though. The look of the ship was really dark probably to go with the dark themes of the show.
The opening credits sequence is cool and does its own thing while nodding at Trek of old. The opening scene on the desert planet is reminiscent of Jakku from Star Wars especially with the two women appearing to have raided Rey’s closet. We do get a feel of exploration in this sequence especially with that insect species. But just as the shot of these aliens is fleeting so is the exploration aspect. These first two episodes are about building up to action and then showing action.
The costumes are fine though I found the gold side patches looked a bit tacky onscreen. The show features some TOS technology like old style phasers, flip communicators and even TOS beeps and bloops. The ship to ship communication, however, was via holograms which is more Star Wars than Trek so that was somewhat off putting as a Trekkie.
The full scale ship battle looked decent but the description of the shield mechanics was confusing. The Shenzhou received major damage with its shields up, then shields dropped to 15 per cent and then a little while later it was back up to 42 per cent. That’s not the way starships work. Are you people just calling out random numbers?
Part 2 – Oh those Klingons
The premiere episode begins promisingly enough with a close up eye shot of Klingon leader T’Kuvma on his ship. All Klingons speak to each other in Klingon and I appreciated that. The ornate look of the ship and their armour was also interesting. But let us deal with the targ in the room. The Klingons have been redesigned and these dark, almost reptilian aliens do not resemble the bronze human-like Klingons of The Original series or the ones with large forehead ridges in the other four series. They most resemble the Klingons from the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness though this series is supposed to be set in the Prime Universe and not the Kelvinverse of the new movies.
But the showrunner Aaron Harbert said in an interview that the look of the Klingons have not been consistent in the past and Discovery would show different styles and different houses. Actually there had only been two main looks of the species and the original look was retconned to be the cause of a virus called the augment virus. In Discovery there is no mention of this virus, which should have been widespread in the empire, and the Klingon house leaders in the second episode look physically like T’Kuvma so apparently the differences referred to by Harbert are aesthetic and not physical. In terms of the Klingon appearance the show has rewritten the canon in this redesign and there is no getting out of it.
There are also three inconsistencies in these Klingons. Firstly there is no explanation why this set of Klingons are burying their dead in ornate tombs when before all Klingons viewed the bodies as worthless husks. I appreciated them shouting to welcome the dead to Stovokor (Klingon heaven) but the funeral arrangements needed explaining. There has been reference to Klingon mummification previously in the franchise and they could have explained this change with a line from T’Kuvma or the Klingon leaders but we get nothing. The bigger inconsistency is the sneak attack by T’Kuvma where he pretends to broach for peace and then slams a cloaked ship into the admiral’s ship. That is a deceptive strategy worthy of a Romulan or a Ferengi but not an honourable Klingon, and from his dialogue we know he is all about honour.
And while it is explained why T’Kuvma’s ship is different there is no explanation why the other Klingon ships do not match previous Klingon designs. It seems they have thrown continuity out the window simply for a new look. I presume hardcore Trekkies will not be pleased by all the changes and personally I found them unnecessary. It would have probably been better if they had chosen a completely new species. But I presume for casual viewers they would not care about these changes so if that is the target audience then it is no big deal.
Part 3 – Time to talk about Michael
But enough about Klingons. Let us chat about our new main character Commander Michael Burnham played by The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green. And for these two episodes it almost seemed that the show was trying to make you not like her. She is excited about exploration and boldly goes (get it) to check out the weird object in her space suit or to attack the Klingon ship. But she is also brash and overly emotional, which is odd for someone raised on Vulcan.
She seems to have a genuine connection with her captain played Michelle Yeoh which makes it inexplicable that she would nerve pinch her (I see your fan service) and then lie to the crew to get them to fire on the Klingons. This is a woman she worked with for seven years! Klingon childhood trauma or not that is some odd behaviour. The whole thing seemed contrived just to create a climax for the first episode. And don’t you have to go to Starfleet Academy before you can serve? Did she just walk on to the ship and take up a position?
We learn early on that her parents were killed in a Klingon terrorist attack – not very Klingon of them but whatever – and she was rescued by the Vulcan Sarek, father of fan favourite character Spock. Her origin is similar to the Klingon character Worf and, though we have never heard of her before, she has a much closer relationship to Sarek than Spock ever did. In the flashback when she first comes aboard the Shenzhou she acts more like an android than a Vulcan. Her calling Sarek for advice is reminiscent of Kirk calling Spock in Star Trek Into Darkenss and did nothing for the agency of the character. His telepathic pep talk across the stars was an ability never seen before but canon schmanon. And why did it have to be Sarek though? It seemed like any other Vulcan could have filled that role and the character was included for name recognition only. Michael’s Vulcan history, at least for these two episodes, did nothing more than inflate what was an undeveloped character. I found Jones’ Saru more interesting than her. More of him please.
In Battle at the Binary Stars Michael tells the captain that killing T’Kuvma would make a martyr for the empire to rally behind and then she kills him after he kills the captain. Not a very smart move and one driven by raw emotion, Michael’s go to mode. When she is imprisoned for life by Starfleet, which seems overkill for attacking a superior officer and dereliction of duty, I really could not care less. This was supposed to be a dramatic climax but I barely connected with the character. Let us hope in the next 13 episodes they do a whole lot more with Michael because as a main character she has not been engaging so far. Martin-Green is a decent actress but they need to give her more to work with. Commander Michael Burnham is following in the footsteps of Patrick Stewart’s masterful Picard, Avery Brooks’ complex Captain Sisko, Kate Mulgrew’s iron Captain Janeway and William Shatner’s iconic Kirk (Scott Bakula’s Arhcer not so much) and they definitely need to do a heck of a lot better.
Part 4 – JJ is that you?
After watching these two episodes I felt like I had watched one of the reboot Trek movies minus the cool characters: entertained by the Trek setting, cool effects and big action sequences but missing the deeper themes and concepts of Trek on TV. The attack by Michael and the captain on the Klingon ship at the end – which was hanging around there for no good reason – feels like a carbon copy of the attack on the Romulan ship in Star Trek. But sadly these two are no Kirk and McCoy.
When the captain died I did not care because we barely knew the character. It felt hollow and by the numbers. Michael’s escape from the brig also screamed Abrams Trek as well. Other than Saru and the insect aliens at no point during these episodes did I feel invested or intellectually stimulated. And at no point did we see the crew come together and work out a problem with their minds rather than their phasers.
I hope from the next episode we get a course correction, better development of the Michael character, other interesting characters, actual exploration and some thoughtful scenes. Because if the next 13 episodes are like these first two then it would have been best that Star Trek Discovery had remained undiscovered.
For my ranking of the Top Trek series you can click here.