Whiz-Bang Space Stuff: Star Trek Discovery
There are two versions of Star Trek on TV. You can only pick one. Or both. Comic Booked is gonna break them down for you. Sure, why not?
This article is about Discovery, and is the only one of the two new shows that is actually canon Star Trek.
Ripping a hole in your wallet as you pay extra to see this on a sub-par streaming service, Star Trek Discovery is an elaborate production for a franchise whose legacy had begun by dangling cheap models on strings and creating low-rent creatures. Dishing out the tediously long seasons that come close to twenty five episodes that are (largely) self-contained, now Trek has entered the new age of binge-watching by creating one long story made up of thirteen episodes. Despite the shortened season, they won’t even let you binge it: it still takes a week for these episodes to come out. But the production is lavish, with each episode gunning toward a production cost of over $8 million each, with detailed sets, the most elaborate makeup designs ever featured on the small screen, (I mean, like or hate the new look of the Klingons, you can see that each one has to break the budget, even blowing away what Trek did in the 90’s with the fantastic Cardassian makeups). Even the Klingon ship sets seem truly alien, and there is intricate detail to be found all across the frame. Even more unusual for the show, however: is its approach. This isn’t just a standard crew exploring space running into new aliens each week while dealing with moral and ethical dilemmas and shipboard drama. Instead, the focus is on a single character and how she help set off the spark that started the war between the Federation and the Klingon. What’s more, the characters here aren’t really valiant Starfleet heroes. Any heroism that can be attributed to them comes at the cost of bending the rules, and of manipulation of science to the ends of how it might fare in times of war.
So here’s a brief recap of how the episodes themselves shape up.
The Vulcan Hello/ Battle of the Binary Stars: Neither of these episodes feature the titular ship or it’s captain. They essentially set up the backstory for the main character, Michael Burnham, a first officer who, though human, was raised on Vulcan, and who has committed treason here by insisting that – as the Vulcan’s once did – the only way to respond to a Klingon threat properly was show them a show of strength by firing first. Just want to make it clear that these episodes are awesome, and using them to set up the backstory was a brilliant move. Some fans of the franchise insisted that the events that have happened here could have been summarized in a few lines of dialogue. I ask: how involved would the viewer be? I recently watched the pilot episode for star Trek Voyage (I must have been really bored, like seriously) and Tom Paris has a whole back story about what he he did that led to the wrongful deaths of, uh, people that we never meet and that led him to the group called the Maqui and which eventually led him into conflict with another regular character on the show. All of this was handled through lines sprinkled in the first twenty minutes of the pilot, and I still wouldn’t be able to accurately tell you what his backstory was, nor would I care. No, these events – in essence, Burnham starting the war with the Klingons, are important enough.
Context is for Kings: We finally meet the crew of the Discovery, and see how they are using a once-microscopic organism to perfect a crazy new form of propulsion. I get the impression that the Discovery is a Section 31 ship.. And it’s more than the fact that the ship’s registry is NCC-1031, or that the ship’s captain seems to be a man if secrets and has a similar disposition to Sloan. The Butcher’s Knife cares not for the Lamb’s Cry continues asking the ethical questions of using what could be a sentient being for science and warfare, but the show’s writing starts to become choppy here. We see the Discovery come to the aid of a colony that produces the lion’s share of the Federation’s dilithium. There’s a cool action scene here, sure, but why wasn’t such an important place already well-defended?.
From here, the show ventures awkwardly into a few largely standalone episodes built on shaky logic. In Choose Your Pain the captain, who is somehow taking shuttles to meet with the brass, is captured by the Klingons. He could have chatted with them using the phone, but there had to be a contrived reason to separate the captain, and in prison he meets a Federation office named Tyler, who he will alter assign to the Discovery (but anyone with internet access already knows this dude is a Klingon spy) as well as Harry Mudd, a mustache twirling villain, who, though performed quite well here by blah, really only fits in with the original series. Have I mentioned that Burnham was raised not just by Vulcans, but, more specifically, by Spock’s father, and the episode Lethe goes into a bit more detail as to their history as she sets out to rescue him. Here, the show’s choppy writing becomes more evident, as it was made clear that the Discovery, with its spore drive, is the only ship that can make it to Sarek as he is drifting somewhere, yet an admiral comes aboard via shuttlecraft while that is all happening to have sex with the captain and figure out if he’s on the level. At the end of the episode, she replacing Sarek on a peace envoy that was an obvious ruse and is captured by the Klingons.
Before that can be resolved, another awkward stand-alone store must come first, and while the title might be Magic to make the Sanest Man go Mad, it’s really another version of Groundhog Day or TNG’s Cause and Effect, this time with Mudd plunging the Discovery into a time loop so he can sell the spore drive to the Klingons, I think. The real point is less about the time loop and more about us learning that Burnham has never been in love. Yeah, all that time looping causes her to admit that. And the captain is supposed to be a mysterious bad-ass so why would the writers of this show let him down by having him be killed over and over again in this episode?
The latest episode has some strange Latin title, but it’s not nearly as good as Inter Arma enim Silent Leges, though it tries to be. Here, Saru (a really cool “outside perspective” alien character) communicates with aliens on a planet that are the planet. Yeah I hated the idea back when it was the plot of the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, and it’s worse here because the special effects for these aliens look identical to the special effects for the Discovery’s spore drive. The choppy writing also keeps cutting back to that admiral that was captured by the Klingons. And I can’t figure out what the female Klingon’s plan was when she she tried to break her out. Are they writing bad episodes, or just setting us up for a reversal later? It’s hard to know.
The show is beautiful, and I love the idea of letting Star Trek dip it’s toes into a more modern, more serialized take. They’d tried having multi-part and even season-long arcs before, but now they are trying to create something that can compete with other shows that are doing it now. The problem is that I’m not sure what the story is and where it’s supposed to go. What is the Discovery’s mission? Why not just tell us if it is part of Section 31? That would explain a lot, even the discrepancies between this and the original series, which takes place only ten years later. I mean, we all know Section 31 works independently of Starfleet, and it keeps a lot of cool things (yes, science, and weapons) off the record books.
I want to like this show. It’s a fresh take on star trek storytelling. Yet the choppy writing is a problem.. Every episode is as frustrating as it is involving. And while the overall production is more elaborate than anything Trek has done before, the CGI ships lack the weight and heft that a model would have if properly photographed. This show IS magic to make the sanest man go mad indeed. It’s compelling and frustrating, but feels like I’ve actually seen something interesting at least.
And there’s literally no humor.