27 April 2019

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (CBS, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
Star Trek: Discovery - Season 1

On the outskirts of Federation territory, the USS Shenzhou stumbles upon an ancient Klingon ship – and a secret meeting where a new religious leader aims to unite the feuding Klingon Great Houses and restore glory to their empire in the name of Kahless. In the ensuing battle, Captain Georgiou is killed and her First Officer, Lt. Michael Burnham is charged with treason and condemned to life imprisonment. Unfortunately for the young United Federation of Planets, the Klingons are a formidable force, attacking relentlessly and soon threatening core Federation worlds. Eager to find a weapon to turn the tides of the conflict, the crew of the USS Discovery is experimenting with a revolutionary propulsion system, and Michael Burnham soon joins its crew, at the request of its captain.

I’m very much behind with my reviews, and while I don’t plan on writing about each and every series that I watch, some merit special attention. I’ve been a big fan of Star Trek since adolescence – unlike many Americans, I’ve discovered Star Trek through The Next Generation, and I don’t have high regard for the original series – so I wasn’t about to let this revival go unnoticed. Season two just about finished airing and it’s probably next on my watch list, so this would be a good time to write down a few thoughts about the first one.

There was considerable controversy around launch, especially about the new look of the Klingon race. For me, the outside differences haven’t stood out too much, and naturally much of the changes can be attributed to the limited resources available to TV producers in the ‘70s for portraying alien races. Even to this day most aliens on TV are humanoids, although this is highly unlikely from an evolutionary standpoint. I’ve been impressed that Klingon dialogue is spoken in their own tongue, which lends a more authentic feel to their scenes.

What bothered me somewhat about Klingons was their behavior: unlike their ‘honorable’ warrior code exhibited in previous series, here they employ a range of tactics and subterfuge better suited to Romulans. On some level this is justified by the fact that the action takes place ‘pre-Kahless’, so this code of conduct was not generally adopted throughout Klingon society. And it enables some of the more interesting and suspenseful scenes towards the end of the season, so I won’t complain very much about it. Another amusing detail is how some plots would be completely negated by the simple use of… surveillance devices on board ships! Repeatedly a Klingon pretends to torture a human captive, while she’s in fact plotting an escape with her prisoner – it would be trivial for the Klingon captain to uncover this treason if cabins were fitted with video cameras. It feels a major oversight that this is never addressed, as if the right to privacy were more important than security aboard a warship.

Star Trek wouldn’t be Star Trek without some futuristic technology at the edge of credibility, and in Discovery the writers really went over the top by introducing ‘the spore drive’. This nearly-mystical technology can instantaneously transport the ship pretty much anywhere in the known universe and is powered by… subspace spores from alien glowing mushrooms, if I understood correctly. It will certainly be interesting to see how (and when) the series decides to dispose of this overpowered plot device, since there was no mention of it in previous Star Trek lore.

Other continuity complications are caused by Michael Burnham’s backstory as the adopted daughter of Vulcan Ambassador Sarek. This means she’s Spock’s sister, a relative that he has never mentioned before in hundreds of hours of Star Trek, despite Spock being a frequently recurring character across multiple series. I feel in this case the writers had too little faith in their story and felt the need to tie it to a well-known and loved person to engage audiences, but I think her character development would have been just as effective if she would have had a different background. Some even suggested this would have been a perfect opportunity to present another culture from the Star Trek universe, by making Burnham the adoptive daughter of a Tellarite, instead of a Vulcan.

Her relationship with Sarek permits several shenanigans involving Vulcan mind-meld that defy all previous limitations of this mental power in Star Trek canon. Another inconsistency is how the overall design of Discovery feels too advanced and modern compared to the analog look of the original series, which is supposed to take place decades later. On the plus side, Discovery breaks with tradition by finally having a gay relationship on-screen – and, to its further merit, a relationship seamlessly integrated with the larger story and with emotional impact.

Another common flaw of Star Trek was filler episodes (to be honest, most other series have their fair share of disposable plotlines, including Game of Thrones in recent seasons), and, despite its shorter length, Discovery is not completely free of this issue. At some point, an away team beams down to a planet to rig some sort of emitter to scramble Klingon communications – and falls under the mental control of local aliens. This is an episode that could have been easily scrapped from the final show, and nobody would have missed it.

Star Trek Discovery eyes poster

Despite these shortcomings, the later episodes deliver a thrilling and action-packed arc that perfectly wraps up the clues and hints from earlier episodes. Little spoiler: through a spore-drive ‘accident’, the Discovery finds itself in the Mirror Universe, deep in the territory of the Terran Empire, and must survive and find a way to return to assist the Federation in the Klingon Wars. The twists and revelations, the excitement and the role reversals caused by stepping in the Mirror Universe, easily make up for the previous filler episodes and continuity issues. At some level I wish the show would take place entirely in this alternate Universe, which is the perfect opportunity to tell darker, more tragic stories to contrast the default optimism and positivity of Star Trek. I have to say I enjoyed Discovery more than I would have expected and I hope the second season rises at least to the level of the first.

My rating: 3.5

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