Owning A Star Trek: A Review (With Spoilers)
Its’ been about 12 years since the Star Trek franchise left our TV screens; well (repeats aside); it’s been even longer since good Star Trek left our TV screens. (I never cared for Enterprise, found Star Trek: Voyager boringly problematic, but will fight anyone who has anything ill to say about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.)
Bringing the franchise back to TV screens was always going to be problematic: while there’s plenty of space on TV for fantasy, sci-fi is a bit more difficult to sell, especially when a significant amount of that genre has moved to the bigger screen to develop blockbuster effects-heavy movies and leaving the TV screen for the slightly-more-character focussed fantasy and superheroics. The recent cinematic Star Trek franchise made for grand action pieces, but none of them felt like a real fit for the name, and the re-hash of The Wrath Of Khan to become Star Trek Into Darkness left a very odd taste in my mouth.
But episodic Star Trek, just like the olden days, had to work, right?
Except it wasn’t going to be just like the olden days: we have the internet now, so Star Trek: Discovery would be produced for the CBS All-Access digital station in the US and shared on Netflix through the rest of the world. (Netflix couldn’t fuck up sci-fi, could they?)
Episodic Star Trek tends to differ from the cinematic franchise, giving a lot more time and space for character development and smaller action pieces: Trek was never a grand adventure that has to prove itself, but a smaller adventure to suck you in and win you over and if it could address the human condition on its way, all the better.
The interesting thing about Star Trek is this: EVERYONE HAS A DIFFERENT TREK. With five different TV series (now six, seven if we include the animated series) and thirteen different movies, there are plenty of moments for different people to fall in love with. Or to hate. Keep that in mind the next time you argue that something isn’t “real” Star Trek: it’s just not your Star Trek.
There’s a few touches to Star Trek: Discovery that go out of their way to be different and some of those things are more successful than others. The narrative begins on-board the USS Shenzhou with Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou and her First Officer Michael Burnham (Senequa Martin-Green.) All of that has changed by the second episode: after going against Georgiou’s orders, Burnham commits mutiny and begins a war between Starfleet and the Klingons, an act that gets Georgiou killed and the Shenzhou destroyed. It takes until episode three before we’re introduced to the Discovery of the title, a ship that comes to the help of Burnham’s prison transport. Aboard the Discovery, Burnham meets several of her previous shipmates with differing reactions, including First Officer Saru, an old shipmate from the Shenzhou, played by Doug Jones. Aboard the Discovery, Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) sees fit to re-enlist Burnham to help the war effort,
News flash: Lorca’s evil, we just don’t know it yet. There is no real clue to understand why either: we’re just treated to a captain who’s keen to win the war, using whatever means necessary, and that includes manipulating Burnham and the rest of the crew. But at the beginning, every time Lorca’s nature is revealed, the show provides some explanation: that explanation is usually the war with the Klingons.
We’re treated to a few different incidents along the way, the usual Trek-like-capers like (in no particular order) a time-loop episode (thanks to Harry Mudd, a character who appeared in the original Star Trek series), a relatively boring Saru episode that proves important for the series’ mid-season climax, and a prisoner-of-war episode that introduces Starfleet officer Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) whom Lorca also enlists aboard the Discovery.
And then in a breathless rush of reveals, we end up in the Mirror Universe (already established throughout the universe of Star Trek) which uses this change of pace to reveal that Tyler has been Voq, a Klingon spy introduced earlier in the series all along, Mirror-Georgiou is Empress of the Terran Empire (and Mirror-Burnham’s adoptive mother) and Lorca is actually Mirror-Lorca, Mirror-Georgiou’s previous lover with a weird inappropriate thing for Burnham.
Written in such a fashion, none of those reveals feel fit for the series: they look overly-busy and messy, but play out well on the screen. Whether they stand up well to analysis is another matter entirely.
With fifteen episodes to the season, there are dramatic differences between the first and second half of the season, in no small part due to the changes in the series’ show-runners, with producer and developer Bryan Fuller leaving the series in its early days. Episodes in the first half of the season prove somewhat boring and a little tired, becoming quaint traditional character-focussed Star Trek episodes that don’t really fit into a modern world of viewing. In contrast, the second-half of the season is packed with reveals that come so aggressively quickly that the dramatic beats don’t really stand up to narrative analysis, as if they’re just happening because someone needs or wants them to happen.
Those beats prove uncomfortable when they play out, and one such moment leaves a particularly cold moment in the narrative as Voq/Tyler kills the Discovery’s doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) who also happens to be partner to Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), the brains behind the ship’s unique system of instantaneous transport. Stamets is initially portrayed as a somewhat unlikable character who admits to having poor social skills, making his partner the yin to his yang.
The murder has some narrative perks, turning audience, crew and, most importantly, Burnham against Tyler, her developing love interest. But it’s a moment that feels quickly written off in order to reach the show’s next reveals, all done in a fashion that doesn’t pay any of the characters involved any credit.
Similarly, Yeoh’s return to play Mirror-Georgiou provides a heavy-handed interaction between herself and Burnham, forcing the two characters to interact at length, discussing themes of betrayal in both universes. Both actresses are very capable of carrying the emotional burden of that narrative, but the show forces it heavy-handedly and undermines what should be familial-style drama with a pseudo-sexual narrative wherein Mirror-Lorca has been grooming Mirror-Burnham to overthrow her Mirror-mother Mirror-Georgiou.
It’s only in writing this post that I’ve truly realised how fucking melodramatic this show is: for fifteen episodes, I’ve had to over-explain every single beat just to explain and understand the narrative behind it. And that’s before touching on many of the show’s other characters or narratives. I can’t tell if such storytelling is irritating or amazing.
The plot of Star Trek: Discovery works, with breath-taking shocks and reveals to keep you watching until the next episode (which is, of course, the whole point of episodic TV…even if that’s TV through some digital platform.) But in the rush to provide those beats, the show lacks a chance to breathe, developing either its world, its characters or even the ship at its heart, all of which are changed too dramatically to embrace.
Despite its flaws, Star Trek: Discover is still an interesting and entertaining TV show which, unlike the recent movies (in my opinion) is worthy of the Star Trek name. With a second season already commissioned, and the season finale promising to put the Discovery face-to-face with the Enterprise albeit the captain from the original pilot episode, the show has proven one thing: there’s still a place for old-fashioned TV sci-fi in a modern world, and once those fantasy shows dry up and/or come to an end, we can go back to boldly going where no one has gone before.
Also published on Medium.