A new television series set in the Star Trek universe is cause for celebration among those of us who consider ourselves Trekkies.
As difficult as it is for me to fathom, the last Trek series, Star Trek: Enterprise, went off the air in 2005, twelve years ago as I write this. The gap between Star Trek: TOS and Next Generation was eighteen years, to put this in perspective. Thanks to reruns and Netflix and DVDs, plus the J.J. Abrams movies that rebooted the franchise, it doesn’t seem like we’ve ever been in a Trek drought. But, there it is: twelve years. It feels great to be here at the beginning of another television series.
The pilot episode, “The Vulcan Hello,” was broadcast on the regular CBS network, while episode 1.2 “The Battle at the Binary Stars,” which is actually the second of a two-part episode, let’s be honest here, was broadcast on CBS All Access, CBS’s new subscription platform. The remainder of the series will be broadcast on CBS All Access as well. In this situation, the name “All Access” is a cruel joke, since so many people who would like to watch the series may be excluded from seeing it, since paying for every streaming service can be cost-prohibitive. I understand that a new Trek series is a valuable property for CBS, and I understand the financial reasons for presenting the show in this fashion. At a reported cost of 6 to 7 million dollars an episode, this is not a cheap program to produce. That they will eventually see a healthy profit is not really in doubt, however. The fact that the show is streaming on Netflix internationally hurts my feelings a bit, but I’ll get over it. True fandom finds a way, right? I mean, I watched these episodes.
There is also a Talking Dead-style aftershow that also airs on the exclusive CBS site. It’s called After Trek and is hosted by Matt Mira, a self-described Trek superfan who co-hosts his own Trek podcast, Star Trek: The Next Conversation, with Andrew Secunda. It’s a great podcast, and you can read more of what I’ve said about it here. Mira was the natural choice for this gig, since Chris Hardwick can’t be everywhere. I expect that After Trek will be a great show as well, at a fraction of a fraction of the series budget.
I’ve avoided most of the pre-broadcast hype and Internet chatter about Star Trek: Discovery, although I caught enough of it to understand that many so-called “Trekkies” were complaining about everything from the choice of the central character to changes to the appearance of Klingons. To be honest, I didn’t bother to read all of the gripes, which were numerous. Also, they weren’t unexpected. At times, it seems that the primary purpose of the Internet is to provide a platform for people to freely share their negative vibes. People, by nature, abhor change (no matter what your HR professionals tell you), and viewers who see STD (an unfortunate abbreviation, but there you go) as change have been vocal about it. I choose to see it as growth instead. Yes, I would have preferred movement into the future beyond Deep Space 9 and Voyager, but I have faith that I will still see that in my lifetime. If this show is successful.
This series is set 10 years before The Original Series, the one with Kirk, Spock and Bones. Enterprise was set a century before TOS, so that’s some progress, I suppose. It’s a tired argument that STD looks more technologically advanced than TOS. This same accusation was leveled at Enterprise as well. And, to jump franchises for a moment, the same was said of the Star Wars prequels when comparing them to the original trilogy. Even if a tired argument, it also happens to be true. This new series has a look that is more J.J. Abrams than classic Trek or even the Okuda-designed sequels. I even noticed a couple of lens flares.
Here’s the thing: I don’t care.
If the creators of this new series made this show look too much like the series produced on a budget in the late ’60s, it would look hokey and fake, at best, and a sick parody at worst. I stand by my statement that Seth MacFarlane’s new series The Orville is actually another new Trek series disguised as a parody. Its look and design are more faithful to classic Trek, and especially the Trek series of the sequel era, than STD is in the first two episodes. And while I believe the MacFarlane series is done well, I’m happy that the official new Trek series is taking a different tack. I, for one, am a fan who doesn’t just want more of the same, however safe and comforting that can be.
At first impression, I was dazzled by all of the glowing lights and the intricate set designs of the show. While I found them initially distracting, I no longer noticed them by the second episode. I haven’t seen the USS Discovery yet, except its exterior appearance, and that ship doesn’t even make an appearance in the first two episodes, which was a ballsy move. I love the design of the USS Shenzhou. For various reasons, the name Shenzhou evoked both Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the Mass Effect video game series. This was the best-looking bridge set I’ve seen in a Trek show to date. I’m not certain yet, but I think the forward viewscreens are actually windows, with most of the ship-to-ship communications taking place in the form of holograms. Something borrowed from the Star Wars universe, perhaps. The great swath of galaxy visible outside the ship looks amazing as well, teeming with things to look at instead of mostly static starfields. The new warp and teleportation effects seem somehow hightech and organic at the same time. Like liquid light, if that makes any sense to you. There is also somewhat of a feel of the Ronald D. Moore Battlestar Galactica reboot from a few years back. A more reality-based space fantasy.
Trek has always borrowed from, or been influenced by, the science fiction that came before it. There’s no reason to expect that trend to stop now.
Since I’m praising the production design here, I’ll go ahead and mention the character designs now. I, like my complaining brethren and sisthren, initially balked at the new appearance of the Klingons. Again, by the second episode, I no longer noticed. In fact, I’ll go so far as saying that I like the new Klingon look, and changing the appearance of the Klingons has almost become a Trek trope. I will soon begin another viewing of TOS, and I’m certain that I won’t like the original appearance of the Klingons now that I’ve adjusted to the subsequent ones. The new character design seems more complicated, and I’d guess that the actors have to spend much more time in the makeup chair, but it looks great.
On the bridge of the Shenzhou, most of the crew seem to be human, with a couple of exceptions. Apparently a member of Daft Punk joined Starfleet. I’m not sure what this character’s story is, and it doesn’t seem germane to the plot. The other is Lt. Commander Saru, who is referred to as a Kelpien. His character design is terrific and believable, and he could be portrayed by no one as well as the lanky Doug Jones, a veteran actor who often plays science fiction and fantasy characters under heavy makeup or prosthetics. Jones was Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, and the Silver Surfer in one of those Fantastic Four movies I didn’t like, among many other memorable roles. Saru is chief science officer on the Shenzhou (which makes him our Spock or Data analog), and I have reason to suspect he will reappear on the Discovery.
It’s genuinely too early for me to compare this series to any of the others. But, I found myself thinking more about Enterprise than any of the others while watching these two episodes. That’s not an unfavorable comparison for me, since I’m enjoying Enterprise even as of this writing (I’m into the third season now). The familiar trappings of Trek all seem to be present. Captain, science officer, first officer called “Number One.” Klingons, Vulcans. Transporters, warp drives, shields both regular and cloaking, ship armament, phasers, communicators. Even the Prime Directive, referred to as General Order Number 1, is on-hand, as Captain Georgiou and First Officer Burnham are secretly bringing water to an alien society during the teaser. All of these familiar things ground us in the Trek universe, even while new visuals and concepts are being introduced to us. It’s very well done, really.
Now, about the episodes themselves. Matt Mira made a comment on After Trek that I wholeheartedly agree with. These episodes felt like a cold open for everything that’s to follow. I mean, the namesake of the series doesn’t even make an appearance until episode 3, which I haven’t seen yet, of course. So, in a real way, the first two episodes are a prologue to the real story of the series. Within this prologue, we get flashbacks of Michael Burnham’s childhood. She had been the ward of the Vulcan Sarek (yes, that Sarek), now portrayed by James Frain, after she was orphaned. She is a human raised by Vulcans, and there is an eternal war between logic and emotion within her. This is a great touch. Captain Georgiou is her mother-surrogate, while Sarek remains as her father-figure (no mention of Spock yet).
The story of these two episodes is straightforward. The Klingon T’Kuvma is attempting to reunite all of the warring Klingon Houses, invoking the name and philosophy of Kahless. Burnham accidentally kills a Klingon during a first contact situation, which sparks an incident between the Shenzhou and the Klingons. Starfleet has ordered the Shenzhou to hold position and take no action while waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Meanwhile, Burnham has had a conversation with Sarek, who tells her about the “Vulcan hello.” This refers to preemptive strikes the Vulcans learned to make against the Klingon, because force was the only thing they respected. Burnham recommends that they make the first strike against the Klingon, but Captain Georgiou refuses. This leads to Burnham making the logical choice to use the Vulcan nerve pinch against her mentor and attempt to make the first strike herself. Her nerve pinch is less than Vulcan-like apparently, since the captain recovers in time to arrest her first officer for mutiny. It’s too late, however, since T’Kuvma has ignited the Light of Kahless that summons all of the other Houses to their location.
The story continues into the second episode, “The Battle at the Binary Stars,” which pretty much describes what happens next. While Burnham is in the brig, Starfleet battles the Klingons, and doesn’t fare well. Using her wits, Burnham manages to escape from the brig. She and the captain hatch a bold plan to defeat T’Kuvma, which works, even though they make a martyr out of him and the captain ends up dead. At the end of this episode, Burnham is court martialed and sentence to life in prison. Somehow, I think this isn’t going to happen.
A love and respect for the fifty years of Trek lore that preceded it permeates this series. Despite a few nitpicking issues, there was nothing here to cry foul over. As ever, I am a Trek fan, and, so far, this series has not disappointed me. It is a new series, still trying to discover its own unique visual language, and Trek first seasons don’t always run smoothly. I have to keep that in mind going forward with Star Trek: Discovery, and withhold too much critical judgment too early in its run. We are embarking on the maiden voyage with a new crew that we want to get to know.
After this opening salvo, I feel like we’re in safe hands again. I’m happily optimistic.