Ooookay. After hyping this a bit on Twitter, I really hope this delivers. Before we get to the ST:D, however, a bit of background.
I was practically raised on Star Trek. My parents have been huge fans of the original series since well before I was born, and they own the entire thing on VHS. Yes, it wakes up a lot of space. I’ve been told that it was regularly on when I was an infant, so in a sense I watched the whole series before I was even old enough to know what it was. As might be expected, I later properly watched the whole thing, not factoring in the episodes I watched more than once. (I could watch Balance of Terror anytime, anywhere.) And, of course, the movies as well–the good ones more than once. My parents have remained Original Series purists, but I eventually also watched all of Deep Space Nine, which I greatly enjoyed. In particular, the Dominion War arc of the last two seasons has been a big creative influence for me, and I regularly will look up and watch some of the show’s best scenes. Keep this in mind for later.
I even enjoyed the J. J. Abrams films for what they were. Yes, they were a bit too actiony, and so on, but it was a separate timeline, and the spirit of Star Trek was still there–and, more importantly, the characters were likeable, and believable re-castings of those I grew up with. Into Darkness was a step back from the 2009 film, but Star Trek Beyond was the most Trek of the series–a pity that it didn’t do well, and that the series might be over. My TOS-purist parents also enjoyed these films, in case you were wondering.
I will also add that while I never got into The Next Generation, Voyager, or Enterprise, I have watched several episodes of each, and for all their flaws, they still kept to the spirit of what Gene Roddenberry instilled in the first series. With TNG in particular, I particularly understand why so many love it, even if it doesn’t quite work for me.
And then we have the the STD of the hour (that’ll be last time I use that joke, I promise–and yes, I know that the “official” acronym is DSC): Star Trek: Discovery.
Like most Star Trek fans, I was excited to see a new show being announced, what was it, over a year ago now? While I did enjoy the Kelvin timeline films, I was ready to return to the Prime timeline, and to true Trek again. There were so many interesting things that could be done in the universe set in the aftermath of the Dominion War & the Star Trek: Nemesis film (as bad as it was). Unlike Star Wars, whose main narrative limitation is that everything (in the main films) seems to have to relate to the Skywalker family, Star Trek has no such problem. We’ve seen five separate ships & crews as the focus over the years, and there is so much untapped potential outside the Federation. It could be really good!
What, it’s going to be a prequel? Oh. Don’t we all love prequels? Look how well it went for Star Wars–wait, forget that. How about Star Trek: Enterprise? No, let’s forget that too (though it did eventually get a bit better.)
Alright, so it’s a prequel. That doesn’t mean it has to be bad, right?
Well, it’s three episodes in, and yes, yes it is. (Also, for the purposes of this review I’m going to focus on the problems with the show itself as a piece of fiction, not on the political stupidity of those involved with it, who seemed determined to alienate half of their potential fans over politics, myself included.If the show had been good, then I would’ve decided whether or not to support the work of people who hate me for my politics and have injected partisan politics in the show. As it stands, it’s also terrible, so I of course am not supporting it. And the CBS All Access crap is monumentally stupid as well.)
Where to start? There’s so much to say, and it’s hard to decide how to organize this. For the sake of organization, I’ll start with the 2 episode pilot, then episode 3, and conclude with some overarching thoughts.
So, episodes 1 & 2: The Vulcan Hello and The Battle at the Binary Stars
There’s so much to comment on, so I’ll just start at the beginning.
We start off with a group of aliens that we’re told are Klingons. They look almost nothing like Klingons. And yes, some will argue that their appearance has changed before, but it really was only one major change, from the original series to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. From that point on, they pretty much kept the same appearance and aesthetic, both in species appearance and ship design. These things….nope. But they had to be Klingons, of course, because people know what those are–but they also needed to be new, edgy Klingons, more so than the Kelvin timeline ones we briefly saw. Why couldn’t they have created a new species? See above. Also, those poor actors were really struggling to speak past those costume teeth, and their Klingon speech was unbearably slow. But that’s a relatively small problem. After their leader, T’Kuvma, gives a talk, we then cut to our main character, and her captain.
The first thing that struck me about this scene was not its pointlessness, but the stilted, expository dialogue. Now I know both of these actresses, Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green, have done quality work in the past, so it’s likely due to the script, but it really felt like “maid-and-butler dialogue.” Characters saying things purely for the benefit of the audience. Apart from our main character, Michael Burnham (yes, a woman name Michael–thanks 2017) trying to be smart by predicting how long a storm would take to arrive–down to the second!–then being dead wrong. Some have issues with the characters’ apparently violating the Prime Directive here, but it’s happened before in Star Trek and it’s honestly the least of this episode’s problems. The reveal that the actually clever captain was walking in the delta shape of a Starfleet insignia was a nice touch, but from my recollection Starfleet ships (of that era, at least) couldn’t enter atmosphere–and certainly couldn’t come that close to the ground. As a whole, the scene was pointless, unrelated to the story.
The credits were meh.
We are next on board the USS Shenzou, and two things are immediately clear. The ship and the crew, with one notable exception, are completely expendable. Thus, there is nothing to even potentially allow oneself to become invested in, apart from Michael, the first officer, and Saru (Doug Jones). As we will soon see, only one of these characters is worth our time. (Also, a quick aside: while some quibbled about the main character in the show not being the captain–a bigger issue is that in truth Star Trek hasn’t really ever had a singular main character as its focus–it really didn’t both me. Benjamin Sisko was only a commander when Deep Space Nine began, though he was still the ranking officer on the station. This sort of change to the status quo is fine.) No, the problem is that Burnham is an awful character, completely unlikable. She’s that type of person who thinks she’s the smartest person in the room, and acts on that belief. Just in this scene, she pushes Saru, the ship’s experienced science officer, away from his console to “correct” him, only for him to have to correct her. She also shoots down his totally reasonable advice that with the situation unclear and potentially hazardous–in part because his species is capable to “sensing death” approaching–and manages to convince the captain to let her–the first officer–go out in a space suit into dangerous radiation to take a closer look. When she reaches the strange object near where they had been repairing a damaged satellite, she disobeys orders and lands on it, where she encounters a Klingon…just waiting around. He moves to attack, and she uses her suit’s boosters to charge into him, and somehow manages to kill him by impaling him on his own bat’leth (Klingon sword). After killing a member of a warrior race specially chosen for an important job (making it fair to say that this was likely not some inexperienced scrub), our 90-pound heroine at least has her suit badly damaged, and suffers severe radiation damage before she is rescued.
We then go back to the Klingons, who are memorializing the dead warrior, the “Torchbearer.” We see that these alleged Klingons wants to unite the different houses of the Empire to confront the Federation, who they fear will take away their individuality, or something like that. I really want to avoid the political crap the series’s creators brought into it, but this isn’t making it easy, as they have explicity stated that the slogan “Remain Klingon” was inspired by the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again.” However, I actually sympathize with that desire. T’Kuvma’s desire to spark a war to unite the Empire and prevent the Federation from drawing them in “peacefully,” thus eroding their culture–he specifically calls out the human greeting “we come in peace” as they way they trick others–it is completely understandable for him to fear an erosion of their ancestral ways.
Back on the Shenzou, Burnham awakes, still not fully recovered from her injuries–the doctor says her “DNA is unraveling,” or something like that, which sounds serious enough that she should stay in sickbay. But no, she has to do the “hero” thing of ignoring her wounds to run to the bridge and warn the captain, as if they didn’t have intra-ship communications…oh wait. Also, did she ever finish her treatment? She tells Captain Georgiou what happened on the object, and urges her to go to battle station. Saru objects, and speculates that Burnham could be confused from her injuries, but despite him voicing a reasonable suggestion and one more in line with how we as fans know Starfleet to act, the captain orders weapons locked on the object.
Meanwhile, the Klingons are considering attacking the Federation ship, while completing their memorial and attaching the body of the fallen warrior to the outside of the ship, which seems to be covered in coffins. This veneration of dead bodies is not in line with how Klingons have acted in the past–they viewed dead bodies as merely empty vessels, with the spirit what truly matter–but I’ll let that slide.
T’Kuvma chooses to reveal their massive, cloaked ship–though in another continuity flap, Klingons even in the period of the Original Series did not have cloaking devices–and wants another volunteer to be Torchbearer and light some massive beacon, and fulfill a prophecy of some kind and unite the houses. Voq, an albino Klingon with no house of his own, volunteers. He lights the literal beacon, sending literal light (and possibly also some signal that could travel faster than light) spreading out.
The light is blinding to those on the Shenzou (I guess they never considered that there was a risk of the bridge crew getting blinded through their window). At this time, Starfleet orders the Shenzou not to engage (and an admiral personal shuts Burnham down when she interjects into a discussion between him and the captain). Then, Burnham privately contacts none other than Sarek. Yes, Spock’s father, who we learn was her adoptive father. (I’ll save the rant on this for when I discuss episode 2.) He talks about how the Vulcans came to a peaceful co-existence with the Klingons, and Sarek says that they earned the Klingons’ respect by firing on them first whenever they met. First, that goes against the Vulcans’ largely non-violent nature, and second, I don’t buy the logic that a warrior culture would react to a first strike by saying “oh, you’re cool. We won’t fight.” More likely, they’d see a worthy foe, a challenge to meet. But regardless, Vulcan ships at this time were much more advanced and powerful than Starfleet ships, and this course of action was in no way guaranteed to work for humans. But the Vulcan-raised Burnham decides this is what they must do, and tells Georgiou as much. The captain refuses, and then our main character, who we are meant to like and root for, uses the Vulcan nerve pinch to knock out her captain and mentor of seven years. Yes, she is committing mutiny (another continuity issue–in TOS, Spock says that there is no record of any mutiny happening on a Starfleet vessel in the past. Of course, the show might find a way around that, such as erasing records, but they still wrote themselves into a corner that they’ll need to BS their way out of simply for cheap drama. Overriding Saru’s objections, as he correctly suspects that Burnham is not acting under orders, she commands the crew to fire on the Klingons. Fortunately, Georgiou recovers quickly (guess Burnham wasn’t as good with the neck pinch as she thought) and countermands the order, holding Burnham as phaserpoint and orders her arrested.
Then, a bunch more Klingon ships arrive. They must’ve been really close, or had super fast warp drives ,to have received the beacon signal, whatever it was, and decide to all show up. The episode then ends, and I feel for anyone who watched this, the only episode aired on actual TV, who were then stuck at a cliffhanger. It was a very cheap move made by CBS to try and entice more All Access signups. Wasn’t an issue for me, as I found my own way to watch it online…that I cannot endorse.
Episode 2 begins right where we left off.
We start with a flashback to Burnham’s childhood on Vulcan, where we see her learning in a center that looks straight out of the Kelvin timeline films–so where does this take place again? Either way, here’s where we fully address the utter STUPIDITY of shoehorning Sarek into this. Put simply, this is now fanfiction. How convenient that our Mary Sue protagonist just happens to have been adopted by Sarek, who is only really important because we the audience know him as the father of Spock. This is supposed to show us how awesome Burnham is; she’s the only human to have graduated the Vulcan Science Academy, after all, and now in Starfleet. So are we really to believe that Sarek, who we know for years did not talk to his ACTUAL son, not only took in this human girl, helped her through Vulcan schooling, and then encouraged her to join Starfleet–Spock’s decision to join it is what cause the rift between them. This is supposedly set 10 years before TOS, so Spock is very much around, and in Starfleet. This is either abysmal fanfiction writing, or Sarek is truly an awful person. I don’t buy that. This is the writers throwing things we know at us in an attempt to make it seem like they know Star Trek and to artificially show us how awesome their character is. This is not good writing. We also learn, through flashback, that Burnham was so awful that Sarek, and actual Vulcan, had to reprimand her for being coldly disrespectful to Captain Georgiou during their first meeting. We also learn through that that Saru has been on the ship longer, which means that he was skipped over when Burnham was promoted to first officer. Poor Saru, he deserves better.
We then go to some more awkward Klingon talking, with T’Kuvma trying to convince the other house leaders to stand with him and fight the Federation. They don’t like his tolerating outcasts like Voq, and one leaves. The others stay, however (or at least their representatives do; I doubt all these leaders personally showed up.) T’Kuvma predicts both the arrival of federation reinforcements, and their stating “we come in peace,” which Georgiou exactly says in greeting.
Then the shooting begins! Because this is what we want from the pilot a new Star Trek show… The Shenzou and other Federation ships take heavy damage, but the Shenzou is saved from destruction by the timely arrival of the admiral on his ship, the USS Europa, which tractor beams them to safety in a legitimately nice little scene. The admiral, who properly represented Starfleet, then contacts T’Kuvma for a cease-fire, which is agreed to. Then a giant, cloaked Klingon vessel collides with the Europa, which then self destructs, destroying both, and we lose an interesting character. (And some might read something into the fact that a ship named Europa was destroyed immediately after it’s introduction, but that’s a separate discussion, for a different time, perhaps.)
T’Kuvma proclaims hismelf Kahless reborn (essentially Klingon Jesus) and decides to allow the Federation ships to escape to be messengers of this, while sending the other Klingon leaders back home to similarly spread the message while he begins gathering their dead–again, a strange thing for Klingons to obsess over. But the plot requires it, as we’ll soon see.
Our heroine, meanwhile, is in the brig, where she belongs. At some point, the bridge crew’s token white male suffers a head injury, and is then told to find his way to sickbay, inexplicably on his own, and somehow winds up in the brig. After telling Burnham that she belongs on the bridge (keeping with the show’s theme of characters telling us she’s great), he starts talking about how Starfleet was supposed to be for explorers, not soldiers–and then the ship is hit and he’s sucked out into space. It really felt, between this and the admiral’s death, that this stupid show is outright mocking classic Trek, and destroying it.
Burnham is then trapped in the brig’s force field with empty space around her, and we’re supposed to be worried. I wasn’t. After she almost gives up (they need some tension, after all), the stupidest thing ever happens. Sarek appears to her in a vision. I shit you not. This is like a full-on force ghost thing. He’s lightyears away on Vulcan, and somehow both saw the physical light from the beacon (and this is supposed to be a “scientific” show), and that his adopted daughter was in danger. There’s some nonsense about him putting a piece of his katra (soul) into her. Because we know what that it from The Search for Spock, I guess. Utter nonsense, and saying again that Sarek cares more about this random human girl he found after Klingons killed her parents (what a convenient backstory) than his actual son. Anyway, she gets inspired to escape, and manages to logic the computer into letting her out of the forcefield to fly through space and back into the ship. A lot of this is questionable, but I’m getting tired of this episode, and there are dumber things to come.
Burnham gets back to the bridge, where they’re glad she’s not dead and she also isn’t immediately arrested again. Laws, where are they? She then convinces Georgiou that they need to capture T’Kuvma to end the conflict, because humiliating him via capture would achieve peace. Ok? Then, the Starfleet crew needs to damage T’Kuvma’s ship to disable it and let their strike team of Burnham and Captain Georgiou in. I know it’s a Trek convention for the main characters/ranking officers to go on away missions, but this is far, far different. Not to mention that they’re both small women supposed to deal with a ship’s worth of Klingons. Strong Female Characters, I guess. But back to damaging the enemy ship. They want to try the trick of beaming a torpedo onto the ship’s narrow neck, but the shields prevented that, or something. So then, the principled Federation crew makes a suicide bomb, of a sort. Yes, they beam the torpedo warhead onto a Klingon corpse the ship is tractor beaming in (not beaming, for some reason). This is not Star Trek.
So the ship is disabled, and the two women beam over. They fight much larger foes hand to hand, and shockingly, the mentor captain is killed by T’Kuvma. Burnham sees this, adn then the dumbest thing happens. It’s very quick, and easy to miss, but clearly there. Burnham intentionally changed her phaser’s setting from stun to kill, and kills T’Kuvma. Remember, she had been the one to emphasize the importance of taking him alive…have I mentioned that I don’t like this character.
The episode then ends with Voq promising T’Kuvma that he will be remembered, and Burnham is sentenced to life in prison for the mutiny. As she deserves.
These pilot episodes were basically prequels to the actual first episode, and besides for all of the other problems mentioned above and that I will cover in my broader thoughts, this was the wrong place for the series to start. We only had only 2 characters in these episodes who will play major roles going forward. One we are supposed to love–and told we should like–and one we’re supposed to be frustrated with. The former, Burnham, is a jerk of a person and generally unlikeable Mary Sue. Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance doesn’t help things, but I suspect it’s more the fault of the script. Saru, on the other hand, is an interesting, if so far underdeveloped character. His species, which evolved from a prey species and can “sense the coming of death,” is interesting, and the make-up is excellent. Doug Jones, well known for roles involving heavy makeup and prosthetics, gives a good performance, and Saru really feels like a real Star Trek character, making reasonable suggestions and correctly challenging Burnham when she mutinied. He deserves better than this show.
Holy crap, this is ridiculously long. I think I’m going to cut it off here, and do a part 2, on episodes 3 & 4 later this week. In that post, I’ll give my broader thoughts on the shipwreck of a show–I don’t plan on reviewing the whole thing, it’s too irritating.