We’ve often discussed Star Trek here. In fact, our very first podcast episode opens with a conversation about Captain Kirk‘s third season sexism. I even followed that up with an article, and Star Trek has been a common subject of other guestless podcasts. Accordingly, it makes sense that I take a look at the two instalments of Star Trek: Discovery currently available to us. I’ve been an enormous fan of the franchise for the majority of my conscious life, so I hope I can provide some context and perspective beyond that of a fresher viewer.
With my overall feelings ending rather mixed, it would be pointless to sum up my thoughts in an opening soundbite. Instead, I’ll simply have to write about the two episodes with whatever commentary occurs to me. I have much to say about The Vulcan Hello, the series’ debut episode. A lot of it leans on cynicism, and certain frustrating choices made by the production team. However, by the conclusion of Battle at the Binary Stars, I was impressed by its many redeeming qualities.
Following the USS Shenzhou across its investigation of a damaged satellite, things start off Trekkie enough. Set against the backdrop of a Klingon reunification, against the Federation, there’s an immediate and welcome tension. Though our introduction to the world is on the wrong side of heavy-handed, it definitely feels more faithful than 2009’s piss-poor reboot. That leads directly into a brief analysis of the show’s treatment of the Klingons. This has been a source of some contention within the fandom, and understandably so.
To what degree they reflect supporters of Donald Trump, and the alt-right, has been the main concentration of many fans. Aaron Harberts, a showrunner on Discovery, first gave credence to the idea by commenting that Trump’s effects were “front and center in our minds” throughout production. It’s not difficult to see that influence either. Having said that, I quickly found reading the Klingons under that light to be both unfair and shortsighted. Ironically enough, that attitude actually mirrors the lazy processes of a blinkered Trump supporter. In practice, the Klingons struck me as a faithful and intriguing interpretation that transcends any liberal bias aiming to label it.
Their redesign is of more obvious concern. Though Klingon appearances have changed wildly in the past, explanations have never been particularly satisfying. Even Star Trek‘s most famous ridge-headed warrior, Worf, shrugs it off in one or two episodes. Electing to approach their aesthetics differently has divided fans. At first, it’s natural to question why muddying the waters any further was necessary. With no reasoning being hinted at so far, all we can do is take them – quite literally – at face value. Here, I can reduce my opinion to something of rare salience. In their performance, realisation and pure visual stature, this show’s Klingons are its finest element.
It’s in other areas that Discovery‘s first episode drops the ball. I’ll begin with its title sequence and theme tune; two things that are richly synonymous with its sister shows and, usually, of high-quality. My disappointment in this series’ is something I didn’t predict. Indeed, I didn’t consider what the title sequence might be like at all. Unfortunately, it seems to be mimicking James Bond films in its style. While it should set a grand stage for the events to come, it’s a shame how little it speaks to the universe it hopes to join. The music, which had only vague inflections of its kin, is unspeakably weak. Perhaps a bombastic theme would be unfitting for Discovery, but what we have is barely fitting of a video game spin-off’s menu screen.
More important, of course, is character. Here, Star Trek has repeatedly excelled. The shows are often most memorable through their multitude of ensemble casts. At this point, the same can’t be said or anticipated of Discovery. Conversely, The Vulcan Hello feels like a one-woman crusade. Michael Burnham, the protagonist, takes centre stage in a way never before seen in this environment. Whether brashly insubordinate or merely needlessly disrespectful, she has much more in common with other rebellious upstarts (like Ensign Ro) than the idealised icons of previous first officers (such as Spock or William Riker). My problem isn’t in Burnham’s gender; rather her tendency to step on the toes of her colleagues in the name of ill-conceived impulse.
This was a constantly irritating feature of The Vulcan Hello. With many opportunities missed to offer Saru, USS Shenzhou’s fascinating science officer, something of merit, he stood as the loudest example of Burnham’s quest for unprecedented screen-time. Battle at the Binary Stars was some remedy to this though, largely by bringing greater attention to the wider setting. It helps that Burnham eventually meets an agreeable level of discipline too. Precocious confidence is laudable – if not desired – in a Starfleet officer, but Burnham may take that too far in her unbridled tenacity. Admittedly, I trust that her arc will take her in deeper directions as the season develops. Until then, we can only cross our fingers that the power of collaboration will become – as ever – a key ingredient.
My second worry, in order or priority, dwells on an apparent lack of science fiction. Moral questioning has always been a cornerstone, but so too are tales that couldn’t be told outside of a dedicated sci-fi setting. When I say that, I’m thinking of classic episodes like City on the Edge of Forever, Yesterday’s Enterprise and anything else that heavily utilises scientific speculation or imagination as a backbone. Without that mindset, writers would never have conceived of the Borg or inventive methods of travelling time. The dialogue drowns in a smokescreen of technobabble, but any true reverence for science seems jettisoned in deference to a bigger focus on politics.
Being closer to politics than science proves itself a very troublesome aspect. Reflecting contemporary issues appears to be key for the writers. In moderation, that’s something any good script should incorporate. Like the bulk of Discovery, it’s implemented too clumsily to appreciate. In addition, it’s undoubtedly distracting to the surrounding narrative. With science confined to a single, pointless action scene about launching through a force-field, I wonder how much of the Star Trek I really adore will survive the transition. At the moment, I’m waiting for many integral components to get their due exposition.
Despite my clear negative takes, there’s a lot to enjoy about this latest chapter. As stated, Battle at the Binary Stars leaves me somewhat reassured on the path ahead; if nonetheless weary of its final impact. On the whole, it remains faithful to its source material. You can pick that up from its use of characters like Sarek. There’s plenty of ground that I’d like Discovery to explore before I can sing its praises wholesale, but it’s off to a promising start. Since Star Trek shows often take at least a season to pick up steam, it’s admirable that these first episodes have so much to enjoy. After all, The Next Generation didn’t hit its stride until Picard got himself assimilated. As long as it’s better than Enterprise, the franchise’s shit-stained step-brother, I’ll be happy.
We still have a settled crew to meet. How the group will shine next to the overly bright light of Burnham may tip the balance on my viewpoint. They need to be imbued with strength and integrity. If they’re diluted to thin targets for the main character’s imposed superiority, I’ll soon lose interest. Likewise, the Klingons need to continue their compelling portrayal. By descending into constrained political allegory, Discovery would fail to inspire generations of scientists and visionaries as its predecessors did. There’s time to plumb the depths of sci-fi storytelling too. As it stands, that’s precisely what’s missing and sorely needed from this otherwise endearing series.
Only hindsight can say whether Discovery is destined for timeless respect. It could retire as just another Netlix whim; as sparsely endured as The Animated Series. It might be hard to see this new venture going where no show has gone before, but it’s worthless and impatient to disregard it so soon. Though it’s sentimental to say, perhaps there is too much negativity on our planet. Star Trek was always about the best of humanity, and what we’re capable of. In the wait for the full run of episodes, let’s try to keep that thought close.