Damn it’s exciting to have Star Trek back on TV. With last night’s premiere, Star Trek Discovery has finally stepped into the public eye, after years of secrecy, delays, staff changes, and troubling production reports; we finally have something we can actually watch and analyse rather than speculate about…
There is a lot of potential in what Discovery is setting up, but unfortunately the pilot fails to actually set-up the series: bafflingly enough, it reads as a prequel or cold open to the series, but fails to tell us where it’s going or what we should be excited for. While many reviewers received the first three episodes, only the first two were aired last night and the result is confounding. The premiere feels like the cold open of J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek film…but stretched out over two hours. What we do get is an introduction to at least one new classic Trek character in Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru and a potentially interesting lead in Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham, though the jury is still out on that one as so far the series has dwelled far too much on her past and not nearly enough on her present (and the alarming similarities to Spock, including be raised by his father Sarek already make her feel like a bit too familiar). We encounter an unfamiliar looking Klingon Empire in disarray (not loving the new design so far…they look a bit like melted orcs) and get a sense of what the antagonists’ goals will be, a couple of twists that would have been incredible had they not been telegraphed by every possible means leading up to the show’s release, and a cliff-hanger that isn’t really all that interesting since we know the lead character ends up on Discovery…a ship and crew that don’t even show up in the first two episodes.
While a fully serialized format is new for Trek, this is an astounding oversight for a pilot as we end the two hours not really knowing where we’re going. We’ve had a neat TV movie that introduces our lead and sets up a war, but not a whole lot else; this might be fine in the first hour, but so much time is burned on flashbacks that ultimately provide a bit of back-story but nothing essential to our understanding of the action, that if the series ended you actually would have a complete, stand-alone film. The style of the show will invariably draw comparisons to Deep Space Nine writer/producer Ron Moore’s excellent Battlestar Galactica and I can’t help but compare this ‘TV movie launch event’ to their’s: where Galactica introduced us to the universe, all the major players, all the initial plots, and managed to get the entire series into motion in two hours, Discovery has yet to introduce most of the cast or the title vessel. In Galactica terms, this is ending the movie before the Cylons attack and blow up the colonies not mentioning a Battlestar. Imagine a pilot to LOST where they don’t board the plane, let alone crash by the end of the episode, or a pilot to FRIENDS that just deals with Rachel leaving her wedding but ends before she enters the coffee shop; you’re asking for a lot of faith from your audience that they’ll tune back in. If it were any other series, I’d probably stop watching around this point: it feels built to binge, but is being released one week at a time (on a streaming service, strangely enough). All I needed is what, from the sounds of things, the third episode brings (an introduction to the main cast and ship), but by denying me that piece of story and set-up I’m instead left feeling dissatisfied and mystified. Not a great way to leave your audience (and a dedicated fan, no less) at the end of your pilot episodes.
Visually, the show is gorgeous, definitely taking everything from its design aesthetic to its camera angles (and, regrettably, lens flares) from the J.J. Abrams-verse (the Kelvin Timeline, for my fellow nerds). While the designs definitely clash with what we traditionally think of as TV Trek, they necessarily take into account modern technology while also acknowledging Enterprise, the black sheep of the Trek family, in its costuming, and will make film fans feel right at home (while us old timey Trekkers and Trekkies grumble about the new Klingons…I’m still not over how distracting the change is). We’ve already seen a tonne of interesting new ship designs and have seen how the show will handle space combat (in a much more fluid way than the technologically-necessary static battles of the past). The alien designs have been fascinating and suggest we’ll be seeing a bunch of interesting new ideas coming out of the show (another thing the Abrams movies did well).
Canonically, the biggest hurdle the show has to get over is the Klingon re-design (yet-to-be-explained, but theoretically that there are different Houses in the Klingon Empire and each is visually distinct. Which I guess also ties into the Enterprise disease that took great lengths to explain the variance in Klingon head ridges over the years). Otherwise, we’re exploring an era of Trek history that is mostly untouched, so the show actually has a lot of freedom; taking place between Enterprise and The Original Series, we can safely meet all sorts of characters without breaking the universe too badly and the show makes sure to use the technology we’ve seen – classic phasers, communicators, etc – alongside new stuff to make sure it fits (again, similar to the new films).
Ultimately, the pilot is failed by leaning too heavily into serialization and embracing a binge model in design but not in practice (if it was all on Netflix right now, I doubt we’d be having this conversation as I would’ve watched at least three in a sitting). Visually, it’s incredibly beautiful and shows what a powerhouse a modern Trek show can be. The performances are a bit uneven, from the already iconic (Jones), to the mixed (Martin-Green balancing a sense of awe and earnest excitement about the galaxy, which is engaging and awesome, with the tired ‘Vulcan baggage’ routine that we’ve seen one too many times now), to the flat out bad (the Klingon leader is not only one-note but also has incredible difficulty speaking Klingon – I think his vocal chords were damaged or somesuch? – and the result is that it’s incredibly painful to listen to him talk and feels like it adds an hour to the show’s runtime. This was happily remedied by the end of the second episode, but it was pretty rough until then). The support cast is all very solid and it’s a joy to see so many local faces on the bridge – still hard to conceive of Star Trek, once squarely stowed away on the Paramount lot in Los Angles, being shot locally here in Toronto. It’s super, super cool. The show respects what has come before but is also taking liberties where necessary (jury is still out on the Klingon choice) and already feels more at home than Enterprise did when it launched (originally as long-time Trek producers’ trying to make an accessible show that angered fans and bored new audiences in equal measure before a massive late-series course correction saved the series from being an all-out disaster).
And so, I’m left being uncertain of where we’re boldly going, but, to quote the most disastrous Trek theme of all time, I’ve got faith of the heart*: if the interplay between Saru and Burnham is an indication of how the main cast will play, we’re going to have a fun, interesting bridge crew…I just wish I’d met them by now. Serialization is no excuse for glacial pacing (looking at you, later seasons of House of Cards) but particularly when you’re spreading that serialization out week-to-week, you need make sure we’re all-aboard.
We’ll have a better idea this coming Sunday. Until then, I’m left in the same state as Burnham: uncertain, stationary, and slightly defeated. Here’s hoping the show delivers on the promise it has hinted at and delivers the Trek we hope it can be.
Nevertheless, I can’t overstate how cool it is to be waiting for next week’s episode of Star Trek again: for all its problems and all its successes, there was a very real risk, for a very long time, that Trek would never return to TV, where it can fully explore the kinds of stories, ideas, and characters that made it so iconic. At the very least, Star Trek has completed its voyage home and a welcome return it is.
Here’s hoping Star Trek will continue to live long and prosper.
*My apologies if that stupid song is stuck in your head now. But it is canon, after all…Good news is, Discovery’s theme is much, much better – like a Trekified version of the Westworld theme.