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 ****