In the history of live-action science fiction, there are two names that stand out above all others: Star Wars and Star Trek. Which of the two is better is the subject of fierce debate within nerd culture, but the general assumption is that if you’re a sci-fi fan you prefer one over the other. In my own case, this mostly holds true, for while I’m a fan of Star Wars, my loyalties lie with Star Trek.
When the news came that CBS was putting together a new Trek series I was pretty excited because it would be the first series to air on broadcast television since I became a fan (I was late the party, coming in after the JJ Abrams films).
However, as production commenced and news started trickling out, that excitement started to fade. You see, only the shows debut episode is being broadcast on live television. The rest is only available for streaming through CBS’s new All Access app, which requires a monthly fee. Not a huge deal, but an annoyance for sure. Then there were the comments from the cast and producers that suggested that social issues of the present, like feminism, and the current political climate, would influence storylines. Mind you, social commentary is a hallmark of the series, but the fear was that it would be too on the nose, rather than the subtle but effective approach the series was known for.
With the first episode of Discovery having just aired, my overall takeaway is that it’s just ok. What sets Discovery apart from past installments is that instead of focusing on a Captain of the Federation the focus is on the First Officer. Sonequa Martin-Green plays First Officer Michael Burnham (yes, a woman with a man’s name), whose family was killed by Klingons and who was then raised by Spock’s father Sarek. Her character is definitely the standout and it’s clear why she was cast for the part, as she’s likable, and believable as someone raised by Vulcans but still completely human.
In a series known for its large ensemble casts Discovery’s comes off as small and confined. The biggest problem is that the entire episode mainly revolves around 3 characters, a Federation Captain played by Michelle Yeoh, the aforementioned First Officer, and a Kelpien Science Officer named Saru. Michelle Yeoh’s thick accent made it hard to understand her and for me, it got in the way of her delivering a good performance. The Kelpien, played by Doug Jones, seems to come from a race that is biologically typecast as prey and is overly cautious about everything. The concept of his race is interesting, but here he mostly plays the expository character, like a Spock or Data, but without much to work with outside of dropping lines of analytical information.
The other half of the episode revolves around the Klingons. The character design looks nothing like what was seen in any of the past series. Even the way they speak Klingon sounds more foreign and alien than we’re used to. Continuity issues aside, there was a tiny seed of a storyline planted here involving a pale Klingon born from a non-noble family volunteering for a mission of some sort, presumably dangerous in nature. I’m interested in seeing where that goes.
We’re led to believe the Federation is locked in a tense situation with the Klingons yet nothing is done to indicate this. The Klingons don’t appear to even acknowledge the Federation presence from what I could see (something usually handled with the view screen). It would have been helpful if they did more to ramp up the tension between these two, but the closest we get is the sight of several Klingon ships, birds of prey I believe, coming out of hyperspace and surrounding the Fed ship.
The show does seem to have good production values going for it, with great practical effects for the non-humans (my preferred approach to aliens) and solid CGI for the space-oriented scenes. The beam up sounds and ships deck background whistle all are there, but I don’t watch Trek for production values. I’d prefer shitty production values and a great script any day of the week.
Things did start to pick up once Burnham decided to contact Sarek (James Frain) and ask him how the Vulcans were able to establish a relationship with the Klingons. Unfortunately, just when things got interesting the episode ended abruptly. On TV this was especially jarring because there were no end credits, it simply cut to commercial and when it came back they were showing us scenes for the next episode. The whole thing came off feeling like half a story, a part 1, and if you want to see part 2 then you’ll need to pony up for the subscription service.
I am going to sign up just so I can see if they introduce more characters, and if the series actually goes anywhere, so in a way this model kind of worked on me. But if the show remains as it is and never picks up then I’ll likely cancel it after the first month, forget this show exists, and go back to watching “The Orville” (which is already more Trek-like than Discovery), so I’m not sure I’d call that a complete victory for CBS.
The Rebel Domain Score: