ReelReviews #114: Star Trek: Discovery, Ep. 1: “The Vulcan Hello”

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2017: Discovering Discovery

 

Star Trek Discovery just might be the longest-delayed pilot episode in TV history, so it was with great relief that the show FINALLY aired its premiere on CBS Sunday evening – but not before one final delay that pushed the episode’s start time to 7:48 p.m. CST. There’s been a great deal of behind-the-scenes problems with Discovery, and oodles of merciless Discovery bashing on the internet. Anyone who has followed my posts in recent months knows that I have been firmly in the “very pessimistic about Discovery” camp. So, now that we can actually watch the show instead of just speculate on what it will be like, I tried my darnedest to keep an open mind and hope for the best. Perhaps the end result would prove me wrong and turn out to an hour of fantastic television.  One day later, the results are in.  The good news? I didn’t hate Discovery. The bad news? I didn’t like it, either.

 

The biggest problem here is that CBS pretty much set themselves up for failure. If you study the history of Star Trek, most Star Trek TV series have had rocky starts (even the original series with its now legendary first season), but CBS insisted that only the first episode of Discovery would be aired on actual television. All future episodes– including the second episode that immediately picks up where the first one left off— would be locked behind a pay wall and available exclusively online through their paid streaming service, CBS All Access. To convince both seasoned Star Trek fans and newcomers to Star Trek to sign up for All Access, CBS really needed to have their first episode knock it out of the park and leave the audience thrilled, at the edge of their seat, begging to know what will happen next. Did Discovery accomplish this? In one word: No.

 

To be fair, having a mind-blowing pilot episode is an extremely difficult task, so I can’t blast them for failing to pull that off.  Likewise, no matter how doubtful I was of Discovery, and did not care for the setting, characters, and direction the show planned to go in (and I especially hated the “Ghostbusters reboot style” marketing where Discovery and its defenders accused naysayers of the show of being motivated by bigotry), there is little doubt there were many positives about the show.  The opening theme music is much more dignified and appropriate for a Star Trek series than Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Faith of the Heart” theme was in 2001, and the credit sequence itself (showing interactive sketches of things from Star Trek like Tricorders, phasers, etc.) was a clever idea, even if it seemed more appropriate for a documentary about Star Trek props.  The visuals: and especially, the cinematography, special effects, and art direction lived up the hype and were the best I’ve ever seen for Star Trek on the small screen, and were indeed very “cinematic” in scope.  Obviously, a lot of time and attention was paid to getting the “look” of this show right.

 

The biggest issues I had with the first episode was that the episode utterly failed to accomplish some major things it needed to do from the start.  The marketing and trailers for Discovery made the show look ultra-dreary and serious, which is totally against the upbeat spirit of optimism found in the most beloved Star Trek shows: the original series and the Next Generation. I was hoping the pilot would prove me wrong and demonstrate that Discovery could be fun and adventurous, too. It did not.  Likewise, Discovery has been under fire nonstop for looking nothing like a “prequel” set “10 years before Kirk” in the original Star Trek timeline. Discovery needed to alleviate those concerns in the pilot and demonstrate that it legitimately fits into the existing Star Trek timeline and believable takes place “10 years before Kirk”. Not only did it fail to do that, its look and feel was so inconsistent with past Star Trek series, it felt like a total reboot.  Star Trek: The Next Generation began the tradition of having an existing Star Trek actor reprise their role in the new show (namely, DeForest Kelly showed up as an elderly McCoy in the 1987 TNG pilot) and every Star Trek series and movie that involved “passing the torch” to a totally new vision/setting for Star Trek has followed suit. This is such a major hallmark of Star Trek that even JJ Abrams’ 2009 “reboot” brought back Leonard Nimoy as the classic Spock, in order to have the movie tie-in with existing Star Trek.  Discovery’s failure to do so is very disappointing, and makes the new show awkwardly stick out like a sore thumb in the Star Trek universe.

 

 

Stylistically, Discovery was much more similar to the JJ Abrams movies than the “prime timeline” it claims to be set in.  Like the JJ verse, Discovery relied on lots of lens flares, sleek tech, frantic non-stop action, shouting, and shoot ‘em up action sequences.  The one major difference is that the Kelvin universe movies at least kept the fun, humorous, and lighthearted style of the prime timeline Star Trek (even “Star Trek Into Darkness” was actually very “dark”), whereas Discovery is extremely dour and somber, making the experience more like watching Blade Runner or Alien.

 

Tonally, the only existing Star Trek that Discovery resembled was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This was an odd choice, since the movie was roundly criticized in 1979 for not “getting” the point of Star Trek, and Discovery is (quite fairly) getting the same criticisms.  Like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Discovery relies on wowing the viewer with breathtaking visual effect sequences (there’s even a “spacewalk” scene for the Michael Burnham character that is reminiscent of TMP), and some “big” scary crisis in space to drive the events forward– but it lacks any kind of warmth, personality, playfulness, or sense of wonder and joy.  Looking at it objectively, this tone is likely the reason “The Vulcan Hello” is probably my least favorite Star Trek pilot (falling behind my previous “least favorite”, Emissary), as all the previous pilots seemed to have some compelling ideas and fun characters that Discovery simply lacked.

 

One thing that surprised me going into “The Vulcan Hello” is that it’s really the first Star Trek pilot since the original series that’s not really a legitimate “pilot” episode.   In other words, all the other pilots from Next Generation to Enterprise made a point of introducing the characters and setting up the story that the rest of the series would be about. They were also all two-hour premiere “mini movies” on the small screen.  “The Vulcan Hello” harkens back to the original 1960s Star Trek where the “pilot” may have been the first episode produced, but it’s just a random story that plucks the viewer right into the middle of an established setting and doesn’t really let you get to know the characters. I’m actually OK with Star Trek trying this format again (after all, Roddenberry originally wanted the Enterprise to be a ship with “some history” and to introduce a seasoned crew as opposed the later shows all taking place on the crew’s maiden voyage), so I’m fine with Discovery starting us off with Michael Burnham having already served on that ship for seven years, and pushing the viewer right into a critical mission they’ve having.  That being said, what I question about this episode was the execution of that idea.  Once the decision was made that the pilot would be the lone “free” episode on regular TV and would have to “sell” the viewer on signing up for the rest of the show, there should have been enough time devoted to the first episode of giving us a compelling story and ending with a “tease” of the USS Discovery and its regular crew (perhaps the final scene showing them shaking hands with Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca or something).  It seems bizarre to me that a show called “Star Trek Discovery” gave us a pilot episode that didn’t feature one second of footage showing the USS Discovery.

 

Rather, Star Trek Discovery can be summed up as about 40 minutes of frantic action revolving around a crisis with “Predator-style” Klingons that act like ISIS members.  The Klingons in “The Vulcan Hello” seemed to be depicted as purely evil nasty monsters barking angry orders about some crazy ideology, which didn’t fit with even the most negative portrayals of Klingons in past Star Trek series (at worst, past Klingon villains were more along the lines of arrogant, tough bullies who delighted in putting down the federation). To me, the pilot episode was very much at odds with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future where vastly different cultures try to find common ground, no matter how difficult.  It also seemed to have a very ugly and cynical look at the future that was never present in any incarnation of Star Trek, even “dark” series like DS9.  If there’s one thing it did manage to “sell” me on, it’s that Sonequa Martin-Green did an excellent job as Michael Burnham (I had my doubts about the show revolving around her character before I saw the episode), and she is compelling character in her own right – though she deserves better than a shoehorned in back-story about being raised by Vulcans and having a season-long arc that apparently involves fighting ISIS-like “Klingons”.

 

Although I did not care for the episode, I freely admit that an entire television show cannot be judged by a single episode, so I intend to tune into the next few episodes, and I hope the show improves. In the meantime, however, Star Trek Discovery’s biggest obstacle to succeeding at this time seems to be itself.  Discovery simply hasn’t earned its place as a “legitimate” Star Trek show and it can’t afford two seasons to “find its footing” like past Star Trek shows have done.  In the meantime, the Orville has sprung up to capture the attention and respect of Star Trek fans, and it’s doing something that would have seemed impossible two years ago – it seems to be working as a valid substitute for having Star Trek on television.

 

 

** out of ****

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REELTHOUGHTS: The “New” Aspects of Star Trek Discovery Are Not-So-New

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Is Star Trek: Discovery really a “new” concept?

 

How much of the “new” stuff we’re getting on the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery TV series is actually “new” to the Star Trek universe and has never been done before?

 

For the past several months, there’s finally been some information leaked out to create “buzz” about the long awaited (and long delayed) new Star Trek spinoff, Star Trek: Discovery.

 

I haven’t been shy of revealing that I’m very pessimistic about the upcoming show.  That being said, I am not 100% negative about the series, nor will I simply dismiss and refuse to watch it, and I hope to be proven wrong and that Discovery is far better than I ever dreamed possible. But for the meantime, I am “cautious pessimistic” that the show won’t work out, and I’m not able to envision a scenario where it does.

 

One of the most annoying aspects for me is that all the “buzz” they’ve put out there to “hype” the show just isn’t very interesting and gives me little to be excited about, which is really bad news since this is the first Star Trek series in twelve years and fans should be waiting on baited breathe for it. A major problem is at least three of the announcements about supposedly “new” areas of the Star Trek universe that the series will explore are NOT “new”, and have been done before on Star Trek countless times.

 

This week, one of the latest promo pieces on Discovery (you can see the original article here) gushed over 15 “new” things we’d get on Discovery that had never been done on Star Trek before. So how much of it is actually “new”? I analyzed each one and here’s a point by point breakdown of what we’re actually getting:

 

>> 15. A Lead Character Who’s Not Captain <<

Unfortunately for the Discovery writers and mainstream media hyping this, the Captain hasn’t been the “lead” character since the original series. Starting with TNG in 1987, all the Star Trek shows since that time have had ensemble casts where the captain has equal time with the rest of the cast. Please read up on Trek history. Furthermore, if the intent of the show is to make the First Officer the cool new saavy character that gets the major focus, that is a step backwards to TNG’s first season.

 

>> 14. A Serial Storyline <<

This was done before in DS9 (the whole “Dominion War” arc) AND in Enterprise (season 3 being an entirely serialized story about the Xindi attack on earth). I’m not a fan of either storyline, nor modern television’s trend to force you to watch 5,435 episodes in chronological through 8 seasons before you can make any sense of the plot.

 

>> 13. It Follows Two Starships! <<

What from what I hear, the USS Shenzhou will likely be an important part of the storyline only in the pilot (which again, has been done before. See the Maquis crew in Voyager’s pilot)

 

<< 12. Redesigned Klingons <<

They’ve been redesigned numerous times before. This latest version looks awful, the much derided JJ Abrams Klingons in Star Trek Into Darkness weren’t even as bad.

 

 

<< 11. Main Character Deaths <<

Tasha Yar, Jadzia Dax, and Kes would be interested to learn about this “new” aspect of Star Trek.

 

<< 10. Lots Of Celebrity Cameos <<

Again, this “new” aspect has been common place since Star Trek debuted in 1966. Heck, it’s been common since Gary Lockwood and Sally Kellerman appeared in the pilot for TOS.

 

>> 9. A High Budget, Cinematic Look <<

Well, I suppose that would be “new” for television. But we’ve gotten plenty of it from the JJ movies.

 

<< 8. A New Period In Trek History <<

Ummm, no. We’ve seen “10 years before Kirk” on Star Trek numerous times before. And it looks nothing like The Discovery trailer. Try watching The Cage.

 

<< 7. New Starship Design <<

Nope, again. The Discovery design is based on a rejected redesign of the U.S.S. Enterprise for a purposed Star Trek: Planet of the Titans TV movie in 1972. It was rejected because fans didn’t like it.

 

<< 6. More Graphic Action And Bad Language <<

Hmmm. Okay. I’ll give you one. That’s mostly “new” to Star Trek on television. Not an improvement, but “new”.

 

>> 5. A Crew That’s More Diverse Than Ever <<

Star Trek crews have always been “diverse”, that’s one of the trademarks of the franchise. It used to be organic instead of forced, however.

 

<< 4. The Roddenberry Rule Is No More <<

Roddenberry never had a “rule” that there would be “no conflict” between crew members. Just watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which Roddenberry had TOTAL CREATIVE CONTROL OVER, and let me know if there’s any “conflict” between Decker and Kirk.

 

>> 3. New Look Federation Uniforms <<

Okay, I’ll give you a second one. That is indeed “new”. It shouldn’t be, since a show set “10 years before Kirk” should have the crew wearing The Cage era uniforms, but if they want to ignore canon to be “new”, so be it.

 

<< 2. No Time Travel Stories <<

I doubt there will never be a time travel story during Discovery’s entire run (though I suppose its certainly possible if the series only lasts a single season), but if so, okay, that’s “new”. A big creative step backward that limits story potential, but “new”.

 

>> 1. Streaming Service Release <<

Not “new”. All the previous Star Trek series have been available via online internet streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) at one time or another. It’s just the greedy Fereagi’s at CBS are trying to force us to pay for a new service to get this latest one. Ain’t happening.

 

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Total count: 3 things that are actually “new” but NOT good for the franchise, and 12 things that have been done on Star Trek numerous times before but are being marketed as “new” anyway.

 

As I’m still #TeamOrville all the way. It’s possible Seth MacFarlene could screw that up with too much potty humor, but at least it looks fun and interesting. And unlike Discovery, it actually has “new” things that ARE new – AND that look like they’d be good for the show. For example, Orville will introduce the ship’s first gelatinous-based crew member. Discovery could learn a thing or two from that.