Introductions are hard – especially when your reputation precedes you.
Star Trek is now 51 years old: that’s half a century plus one grey whisker of collected canon, and story, and imagination, and fevered, face-painted fandom. And now, after a 12-year lull, here comes Discovery… late to the cocktail party of prestige TV, familiar enough for everyone to gather their hopes, and different enough to let them all down. Television has changed drastically in the decade+ since Trek last boldly went. Added to that: the departure of key creatives during Discovery’s production, and CBS’s bonkers paywall scheme… it’s clear – this show smacks a bit of the Kobayashi Maru (I swear I’ll keep the references to a minimum, also: I’m totally lying to you right now).
So, how was it? Well… it was okay. A lot worked. And a lot was pretty clunky. But, hey this is Star Trek – premier episodes are always wooly. By that metric, I’d say this was pretty damn good. I’m far from sold, but have no doubt: I am rooting for this show.
I really want Discovery to succeed. Because I like good storytelling. Because I like writing about things I enjoy more than things I don’t. But mostly because I just bloody adore Star Trek. I love its optimism, its imagination, the cleverness and loveliness of its language (technobabble notwithstanding). Corny as it may sound – Star Trek gives me hope. It has since I was a boy, when my dad would make me cinnamon toast and coffee (it was mostly milk), and we’d watch the Original Series together. I’d like to think it’s not escapism to long for a time where diverse people unite to explore the vastness of the universe and the meaning of their own brief existence in it through grit, swagger, ingenuity, and reason.
Make it good, Discovery. Make it fun. Make it smart.
Make it so.
. . . . .
Number One is the loneliest number…
One of the most radical departures for Discovery is its decision to eschew the episodic storytelling of its forebears, in order to tell a fully serialized tale – an ongoing arc that will build with each episode and, one assumes, throughout the seasons. To do that, you need a lens – someone to focus the story around.
Enter: Michael Burnham (played sharp, quick, and prickly by Sonequa Martin-Green). A human woman raised on Vulcan, and the adopted ward of Sarek (Spock’s dad), Burnham is intense. Confused. Direct. She’s the first human ever to attend the Vulcan Science Academy, and for the last seven years, has served as First Officer aboard the USS Shenzhou, under the tutelage of Captain and matriarch Philippa Georgiou (a stately, leonine, and apparently ageless Michelle Yeoh), and squabbles occasionally with the Kelpian science officer Saru (played by Guillermo del Toro mainstay, and human Muppet Doug Jones) – a lean and willowy species, apparently bred as prey on their homeworld, Kelpians are tetchy, prim, and preternaturally attuned to the proximity of death. Hi – It me.
He’s basically half tadpole, half C3PO. Toad the Wet Blanket.
Despite the brutal tragedies of her childhood – parents expired at the business end of a bat’leth, raised in a glowing lecture ball by a pointy-eared sociopath – Burnham has all the requisite makings of a family structure aboard the Shenzhou. Georgiou is even toying with the idea of recommending her for command of her own vessel. All is well. Nothing could possibly go wrong. The episode is gonna play out slow and peaceful, everyone’s going to stand around and debate the finer points of consciousness before attending the head of Stellar Cartography’s alpine horn demonstration at ten-forward.
Eh, no. This isn’t that kind of Star Trek.
Fast-forward about 30 minutes, and Burnham has inadvertently skewered a Klingon warrior, sparked a galactic war, her face is camouflaged with radiation burns, her DNA is unspooling like linguini, and everybody thinks she’s crazy. She pleads with her captain to listen to her – insisting that the mysterious Klingon ship they’ve discovered (two actually – one a tiny lighthouse, the other a floating sarcophagus factory – it’s weird…) must be met with direct force if they’re going to survive their interaction. Georgieu waves her off imperiously. We’re Starfleet. We don’t hit first. Burnham backs down. Of course. You’re right. And then she hits her captain first.
This goes about as well as you’d expect. Burnham winds up in the brig. And in the end, after a raucous and sometimes even terrifying space battle, both the Shenzou and Georgiou are gone. Burnham followed logic to its most irrational conclusion, and it cost her everything. Bereft of her family and stripped of her rank, Burnham is sentenced to life in prison.
And that’s how the show starts. Damn.
. . . . .
“Make Kronos Great Again”
There’s been concern – mostly my own – that this newest iteration of Star Trek would flounder for relevance. Indeed, earlier stories of Brian Fuller’s departure suggested CBS’s desire to avoid overtly political storylines in favor of something broader and a little more rock’em sock’em. A terrible disappointment to say the least, considering how closely our current political and social issues scan to those in 1966, when TOS premiered. If ever there were a time for trenchant (if a little silly) social commentary, it’s today.
So, imagine my relief when the episode opens with a hyper-populist monologue barked by a mush-mouthed demagogue, dressed entirely in gold and jewels, and flying a gigantic machine he inherited from his father. All the guy was missing was a cheap red tie taped to his chest and worn just past the frenulum.
I kid. Mostly. To call T’Kuvma a straight proxy for Donald Trump isn’t entirely fair – there’s some Putin in there, and a little religious fundamentalism as a garnish. I wouldn’t say the show is a takedown of the Trump Administration, per se, but the comparisons are there for sure. What’s more, while the premiere spends most of its time establishing who Michael Burnham is, it goes a long way to set up the world she inhabits, namely the philosophical, cultural, and political differences between the Klingons and the Federation. This kind of setup could easily slip toward the preachy and cringey. But it doesn’t. Mostly.
The premiere presents the Klingons as the unmistakable baddies of the upcoming episodes, while still providing them with dimension and complexity. Discovery manages to remain empathetic toward the Klingon worldview, while obviously not siding with it. And it’s an interesting concept to consider: When you’re from a warrior culture, you see peace as a threat. Passivity negates violence. And if violence is where you derive your honor and identity… passivity is eradicating. To us, the Federation’s growing diversity, discovery, and pursuit of equal justice is a given good. It’s a utopia, after all. It’s PBS in space. But to the Klingons, these are harbingers of something dire – a symbol of impurity and an encroachment upon their traditions. We want progress. They want to go back to the good old days. Sound familiar?
This is solid writing – at once nodding to the crooked, wretched, violent goons of today, while insisting on our ability to empathize and understand the motivations of those we stand against. Not because we should be expected to agree with them, but because if we’re really interested in discovery, we’ve got to be willing to explore everything. Even the things that make us uncomfortable. It’s the smartest a genre TV show has treated me in a while – it knows I know who to root for. And it knows how important it is to know about who you’re rooting against.
. . . . .
Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.
- So, this obviously isn’t anyone’s favorite Star Trek at this point. It couldn’t be. So – tell me (yes, I’m doing this) what’s your series? I’m a dead split between TNG and DS9.
- You guys… Burnham using a syllogism to break out of jail? That’s the trekkiest Star Trek move that ever trekked.
- I was looking for a place above to make this point, but there wasn’t a natural spot to do it – so I’m giving its own spot here: I am so. goddamn. happy. about how diverse this cast is. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, ladies and gentlemen. Listen to the Vulcans. They’ll never steer you wrong.
- Kelpians. Long. Slender. Food. Get it? Kelp-ian? Guh…
- Same goes with Crepusculans. Guys, get with it on the names would you please? I invent portmanteaux for fun. Bring it to the waltz, wouldja?
- Seen a lot of differing opinions on the design of the ships. I’m for it, personally. Though I absolutely miss the carpeted, parabolic, oatmeal safety room of the Enterprise-D. <3 Galaxy Class Starships.
- Love that the Klingon burial right includes opening the eyes of their dead. “I see you as you see the end.”
- Klingon dialogue overall was pretty on point.
- Very much looking forward to the rest of the cast joining the party.
- Ship Name Cooler than Discovery: U.S.S. Robespierre; U.S.S. Anders Celsius