After watching the first episode Star Trek Discovery, CBS’s new dalliance into the Star Trek universe, I realized immediately it would take more than one episode for me to be able to formulate an opinion. So, here I am after episode 4, finally able to talk about it.
Two things that are important, before we start. First, I was born in 1964. I have been a trek lover since the very beginning, having seen every episode of every series and every movie multiple times. Of all the fandoms, I am Trekkie first.
Second, I have made no bones about my distaste for a Star Trek series being put behind a paywall. I understand that we are in a new world, where centralized TV is dissipating, and soon we will have to essentially pay-per-view every individual show we want to watch. In addition to cable, I have subscriptions to Amazon Prime, Netflix, CBS All Access, and HBO Go or Now or whatever it is called. Now there is another original show I want to watch on Hulu. That isn’t financially sustainable. Ask my very patient wife. There is a certain irony that Star Trek, which Gene Roddenberry envisioned as an Earth without money, is the show that CBS decided to monetize like this. I’ll return to the paywall a few times more.
Initial Reaction to Star Trek Discovery
As I have mentioned many a time before, I am a liker of things that I like. I like Star Trek – a lot. The Fantastic Four movies too, well, the first two. I liked Blade Runner 2049. Note: Liked, not loved the FF movies and BR 2049. So, CBS would have to do some really awful things to a Star Trek series for me not to like it. They didn’t. So, overall, I like it, but there are some big problems too. And, here’s the thing – it is really hard to produce a sci-fi prequel to something that was originally produced 50 years ago. The advancing film and special effects technology is what incredible, and it needs to be used. That immediately makes things dicey for long time fans. It challenges continuity and some fans can’t let that go.
There is a lot to like about Star Trek Discovery, from writing, to acting, to effects. First and foremost, while departing some things that show creator Gene Roddenberry enshrined in his original series, CBS and production partners maintained the commitment to a very diverse cast of characters. The show even starts out with not one, but two women as the top officers of the USS Shenzhou.
Discovery also takes a look at life on a starship from a slightly different point of view. In the past five iterations of shipboard series, the show made the captains of the vessels the main character. In a nice departure from that,
Discovery focuses on the life of Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a human woman who has studied in the Vulcan Science Academy, so, while human first, she has a decidedly Vulcan bent, as well. While living on Vulcan, her mentor and host was Sarek, father of Spock, played by the outstanding actor James Frain, who does an excellent job of recreating a character that all Trekkies already know well. Martin-Green has done an excellent job this far. In the beginning she is so rigidly Vulcan, and as the series has progressed through the past four episodes, there has been great character growth. Watching her inner struggle between logic and emotion has been a joy. It is interesting that the struggle between those two is different to watch in Burnham than it was in Spock. Perhaps a conscious directorial decision that a human would react differently to the battle than would a Vulcan. Perhaps just two great actors in Martin-Green and Leonard Nimoy, bringing differences to their roles. Michelle Yeoh does a great job of creating Philippa Georgiou, Captain of the Shenzou and Burnham’s mentor. Jason Isaacs’ character, Captain Gabriel Lorca is also well-done. The problems I have with him have nothing to do with Isaacs’ performanace. There are also a number of great performances by lesser known actors, who I hope are able to move on to awesome things because of this.
Another huge departure from Star Trek tradition, Discovery is a serialized show. Each of the 15 episodes is a part of one large story. Past series were all week to week stand alone episodes, with only a few multi episode stories, most of which were only 2 episode arcs. Discovery was originally envisioned by creator Bryan Fuller as an “anthology” series that would span all of the different series eras, however, CBS dismissed the idea in favor of the season long arc, which is fairly standard in episodic television drama these days. The disagreement with CBS on what the show would look like was reportedly one of the things that drove Fuller to exit the show in October of 2016.
I am a nut for visuals. Shows live and die for me based on how they look. We all know that TV series have a tendency towards scaling back effects because per episode costs are where shows live and die in the actual world. The production design by Mark Worthington and Todd Cheriawsky and most of the visuals in Star Trek Discovery are outstanding. In some respects, they’ve done a great service to the chronological evolution of Star Trek, even while taking advantage of the film and effects techniques that are light years ahead of where they were in 1960.
Before writing this, I decided to revisit a couple of episodes of Star Trek Enterprise to have a look. Enterprise was the most recent of the TV series, ending in 2005, but the design work did a great job of showcasing that Starfleet was in its infancy. The Enterprise NX-01 was small, and cramped, with the bridge being tiny, with little room to maneuver. The quarters for captain and crew were equally as small and spartan. Once we reach the Enterprise NCC-1701 in the Original Series and beyond, there is more attention paid to crew comfort, both in personal and shared spaces. Both the Shenzhou and the Discovery fall nicely into the evolution, with spaces being larger, but still a bit cramped and utilitarian in feel. I particularly liked one Discovery decision to have crew members share quarters. A first, I believe.
The visuals are well done throughout. Ship design, uniform design, the phasers are a really nice tribute to the originals. Overall, even most of the special effects are good. There are some effects that I don’t love, but overall, I think they are exceptionally well done.
Here is my first return to the paywall. While having a discussion with David Duncan, a consummate Trekkie and one of the anchors of Synthaholics, an excellent Star Trek podcast, he pointed out something I hadn’t considered. The paywall raises money. The deal with Netflix, who carries the show in every country except the US and Ca decisionnada, raises money. This extra money helped really up the production values of this show. According to this article in the LA Times, the Discovery cost per episode is $8 million, and Netflix licensed the show for $6 million per episode. Having most of their costs covered before having to sell a single subscription on All Access certainly helps CBS feel better about taking a risk. Initially, it appears that the bet has paid off, with All Access enjoying record setting sign-ups. The key will be retention. I’m not going to lie, I imagine I will cancel the subscription at the end of the series and renew if and when a second season materializes.
From a writing standpoint, I do enjoy seeing this political rise of the Klingon Empire. The first four episodes are well written, exciting, and have some real “I didn’t see that coming” twists. This story is the beginning of a political force in the galaxy that carries us through the next 50 years of TV. It is very well thought out and very well written stuff.
In addition to the writing about the politics of a resurgent Klingon Empire there is some other really great writing in Discovery thus far. There has been more than once where I was totally taken by surprise. The show starts off going in one direction and in no time at all things are completely upended. No characters are safe, and we have had several important characters whose fate has been completely astonishing. That’s good writing, and Discovery has no shortage of it.
Finally, the move to a paywall has allowed writers to use more adult imagery, language and topics as they pursue this new Star Trek story. There is one moment already when the Klingons discussed what was done to a character where I was a bit taken aback by the gruesomeness of it. I was a big fan of Star Trek in my pre-teenage years, so I hope that this newfound freedom doesn’t put Discovery out of reach for younger fans. This series was influential in my youth. I am still bitter that Starship Captain isn’t a job I could apply for out of college. I hope producers keep this family friendly.
OK, like I said, some good and some bad. Even in the areas I listed above, there are some things that I do not like. If I had to rank them, my largest complaint would be the Klingons…. like every bit of the Klingons, other than the writing about the rise of the Empire that I mentioned above.
I don’t like the redesign of their look, and I really don’t like the idea that all of their speech is subtitled. It wouldn’t be bad if used sparingly, but this is actually a show about the Federation and their escalating tensions with a Klingon Empire that is on the rise, so there is A LOT of Klingon dialogue, all subtitled.
I don’t like the exterior design of the Klingon ships. They don’t look look like the Warbirds I love. The interiors, however, scream Klingon, so I like those. Those things are huge departures from Trek tradition, and I don’t think they actually make the series better. The subtitles make it hard to watch, as you really have to focus. The new look of both the Klingon people and their ships make it hard to actually connect them with Klingons. Important to point out, I am not against change, if it makes the show better. I just don’t feel like these things do.
Additionally, there is a real difference in the feel of the show. I understand that this show takes place between Enterprise and The Original Series, and that is a time of unrest for the still relatively young Federation and Starfleet. Unrest, in order to create tension, needs big actions and big consequences. The trouble for me is that Star Trek isn’t a war story. While there have always been weapons and conflict, sometimes ending in war and the death of beloved characters, this story feels more like a military sci-fi instead of the traditional story of exploration. I realize that I am only four episodes into a 15 episode arc, but this is a major sticking point thus far. With the Klingon redesigns and the warlike attitudes, it feels more like a stand alone us versus the aliens hard sci-fi film than an installment of Star Trek.
The last thing I hated (yep, actually hated was the grossly overused lens flare. I’ll admit that I noticed it much more in the first two episodes when the majority of the action was on the Shenzhou. That may have been a conscious decision because of the design of the Shenzhou that puts the completely glass enclosed bridge below the saucer section of the ship. Once the action moves to the Discovery, there seems to be less of the offensive flares.
As I said in the beginning, I believe there are a lot of challenges in producing a prequel to something so old that was created in a time before computer animation. There is some tech that I absolutely love, and won’t give a moment’s thought to the idea that it seems too new since it was never explored in series before. My favorite new tech is the holographic communications, where the person you are talking to appears in three dimensions right in the room with you, as opposed to on a view screen of some sort. Super cool, and I wish someone had thought of it before.
The biggest problem with the tech from my point is the Discovery herself. The ship is powered by a spore drive which is capable of incredible speeds; almost instantaneous teleportation speeds. In Star Trek Enterprise, they were shaking out speeds of warp 4.5 and the ship was shaky while engaged. In the Original Series Warp factors near 9 were top end, and according to the Memory Alpha Wiki, top speeds of Warp Factor 14.1 were not achieved until the 23rd century.
During the third and fourth episodes, they delve into the developing spore drive technology, and there are some real problems with it at this point, so I suppose that they could reach the end of the series and decide to abandon the use of spore drives as a way to explain why it never advanced in chronologically later series. If you watch Discovery, you’ll see that that there are real ethical problems with spore drives. This technology is so much more advanced than the previous series, and that troubles me. Hell, Voyager could have been home for dinner.
Lastly, I am no fan of Captain Gabriel Lorca. He is such a departure from a what a Starfleet Captain is, that it is hard to warm up to any scene he is in. I am certain that is the point, making the audience empathize with Michael Burnham’s plight. Lorca contributes to the largest failing of the show to me, the military feel of it. Make no mistake, thus far, this is a war story, and that is a bit hard to swallow. Hopefully, Discovery has a few seasons and addresses this as it moves closer to the Original Series when wonder and exploration are more prominent themes. The producers could have easily addressed all of these problems by simply placing Discovery in the Kelvin timeline. Not sure why they didn’t. It seems like the opportunities would be enormous if they didn’t feel at all constrained by canon.
Final Thoughts on Discovery
At the very top I started with, “I like it”. The show, like all science fiction offerings, requires some willing suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to do that. The creative staff needed to make some big decisions, and to not stick to all of the traditions of Star Trek, if they were to create a new and exciting show that they could charge people for. While I don’t love all of the directions they went, I do like some, and the others, I will live with as I continue on. The casting, production design and most of the writing is really outstanding.
The creative staff did an admirable job of blending the old Star Trek that we have grown to love, with the different ideas and modern film techniques that will potentially make this franchise exciting and new.
Have you checked out Star Trek Discovery? What did you think? Leave me a comment below.
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The Grumpy Geek, Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.
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