Boldly go forth into SPOILERS
Look, I’m not going to tell you that Star Trek: Discovery is a perfect addition to the the Star Trek canon, or even a stellar sci-fi show. It isn’t. Not yet, anyway. It’s simply too early to tell. Only the first two episodes of the series are available — one of which aired on CBS Sunday night, and the other launched on their CBS All Access online streaming portal shortly thereafter — and those two episodes are inconclusive. There is a lot of promise and potential, and some flaws as well. You get a feel for the point in time that the series will take place (the year is 2256, so about 10 years before the events of The Original Series), but you have no sense of the crew.
Because — and seriously, SPOILERS — almost all of them are dead by the end of the first two hours. Star Trek: Discovery pulls a Battlestar Galactica and makes a mini-movie with these two episodes, something designed to grab viewers and launch them into the series proper. And, sure, it definitely worked out for BSG. But it also means that we haven’t actually SEEN what this series is going to be yet. We’ve met our protagonist, First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, The Walking Dead). We’ve gotten a sense of her personality and background. And we’ve seen her mutiny, right at the start of a war between the Klingons and the Federation. By the end of the second episode, the entire universe of Star Trek: Discovery, which we’ve just barely begun to explore, has already been upended. In fact, we haven’t even seen the ship called Discovery. All the action takes place on the Shenzhou, helmed by Captain Georgiou. And before you get too excited, the fact that Michelle Yeoh, who played Georgiou, is only listed as a guest star in the credits is a spoiler unto itself. Because, sure enough, her character is amongst those who die in the first two episodes.
Personally, I think that’s the second biggest crime committed by Star Trek: Discovery. Because Michelle Yeoh is a big part of the potential I saw in this series during these episodes. Sure, she’s not the first female captain in Star Trek universe. But there is something undeniably powerful about watching her warm, sly, commanding presence decked out in a Starfleet uniform — and especially about watching her work with Michael as her right-hand officer. These two women demonstrate a close bond, a genuine connection based on mutual respect and affection, and yet still come into conflict (like I said, Michael mutinies… to protect Georgiou and the rest of the crew). You root for both of them. In their own ways, both are right. I’d like to think that Roddenberry envisioned something like this in his idealized, hopeful view of our future.
Sadly, the writing isn’t always as nuanced as the ideas themselves and unfortunately Michael’s characterization suffers as a result. This is not a knock on Martin-Green. Seeing her in her spacesuit amongst the stars, I felt tingly. This is the new face of Star Trek. She’s a black woman, yes — the first black female lead character in Star Trek history. But she’s also luminous, otherworldly, full of confidence and intelligence, looking wide-eyed at danger and adventure — and she could be someone’s first introduction to the Star Trek universe.
So of course Georgiou dies and Michael is stripped of rank and imprisoned before the series has even truly started. And I’d be furious that Michael will soon be finding her way under the command of a white man, if they hadn’t cast the always delightful Jason Isaacs as the captain of the titular starship Discovery.
In the spirit of Gene Roddenberry - If I could take one knee on the bridge I would.#StarTrekDiscovery— Jason Isaacs (@jasonsfolly) September 24, 2017
(Seriously, follow him on Twitter. He’s outspoken, engaging, and very funny)
But I said killing off Michelle Yeoh was the second biggest crime. So what was the first?
Well, it didn’t really have anything to do with the show at all. It has to do with CBS, and their decision to use the show to lure people into subscribing to CBS All Access. Now, I’m fine with standalone streaming services in principle. And I’d be fine with making people subscribe to this one… if CBS were a cable channel. But it’s a fucking NETWORK, something anyone with an antenna could watch. The idea that they’re going to charge people $5.99 a month ($9.99 without ads!) is kind of disgusting. All you get for your money that you couldn’t get by just tuning into the channel (with an antenna! those still exist!) is access to back seasons of CBS programming and… well, the ability to watch Star Trek: Discovery. Nevermind that your cable or satellite provider probably ALSO has an app that gives you access to CBS, but no — your login won’t give you access to CBS All Access. This show is being held hostage, essentially. And maybe what stings the most is precisely that it’s THIS show. It’s Star Trek, a show about the hope for a peaceful future and the ability for creatures of all kinds of backgrounds to unite and work together. For a network that is being consistently criticized for its lack of diversity, CBS could use this show on its airwaves — and instead it’s charging an entrance fee for the courtesy of experiencing that diversity.
And frankly the rest of us could use a chance to see it. We could use some hope for the future as well. In some ways this show couldn’t come at a better time. So it’s too bad that, for those kids who could be looking at Sonequa Martin-Green as their first Starfleet officer, they’ll need to have parents with a subscription. Turns out, the CBS corporate overlords may be the biggest threat to Star Trek’s utopian future after all.
But they aren’t the only threat. One of the things the show does really well, in my opinion, is bring back the Klingons as a force to be reckoned with, while investing in them as a people. They aren’t a caricature of some primal, hyper-aggressive (dark-skinned) race. They are… well, Trump supporters. They just wanna “Make Klingons Great Again.” They’re afraid of the Federation because they see unity with other races as a loss of individuality. The only way to preserve the Klingon way of life is to keep outsiders away, and not mix cultures. They’d absolutely build a fucking space wall if they could. They aren’t evil, they just have their own reasoning, their own viewpoint — and their view is that the phrase “We come in peace” is a lie. The fact that basically every second of Star Trek that we’ve ever seen takes place in the future of this show is reassuring. We know that one day we’ll see a Klingon named Worf serving on the the Starship Enterprise. We know that some sort of alliance is possible. We’re all, hopefully, being dragged into Roddenberry’s inclusive future whether we like it or not — Klingons and Trump supporters alike. Change is scary, but it’s unavoidable.
Sure, we could talk about the fact that the main Klingon honcho, T’Kuvma, who rallies his fractured people into action, is martyred by the end of these two episodes. We could talk about the fact that he somehow creates a cloaking device for his ship, something that the Klingons should still be years away from getting (and I think they were supposed to get it from the Romulans). We could even talk about the fact that the Klingons speak… so… very… slowly, and seem to favor heavy-handed speeches. But mostly I want to talk about their outfits, which are like armor-plated Elizabethan garb, right down to the bejeweled neck ruffs. I could NOT look away.
The fact that these 2 episodes are only a precursor may be a blessing, because the promo for the rest of the season is pretty exciting (WTF Rainn Wilson?!). It’s easy to hope that the on-the-nose, shout-everything-from-the-rooftops writing will be toned down, while still banking on the fact that Michael will only grow to be an even stronger protagonist. There is still a whole new ship, with a whole new crew and mysterious mission, that we have yet to meet. And so far there are enough strong ideas present that I can forgive the flawed execution. Or who knows — it could all be disappointing. All I know is that I’m not sold just yet (still smarting from the loss of Yeoh, tbh)… but if this whole show was airing on CBS I might actually make a point of tuning in to give it a shot.
Other assorted musings:
- Star Trek: Discovery is definitely capitalizing on the refreshed look of the J.J. Abrams films. There isn’t as much lens flare, but there is a lot of odd ambient track lighting. Overall it looks sleek. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. I dig it, and I especially dig the updated Starfleet uniforms. This may be set prior to the adventures of Kirk or Picard, but nobody had to tug their jumpers down, so apparently the uniforms are only going to go downhill from here.
- More on Michael’s muddled characterization: She’s a human child who was raised from a young age as a ward of Sarek, Spock’s father (played by a spot-on James Frain). She’s had years of Vulcan training before joining Starfleet. And while Spock, who was half-human himself, had that dichotomy between logic and emotion explored across several iterations of Star Trek, Michael has it all forced out into the open at the start. Despite everyone claiming that she’s too logical, too Vulcan, we see immediately that she isn’t. Her fear and hatred of the Klingons, as well as her love and loyalty for Georgiou, are obvious. In fact, the only truly Vulcan-ish moment she has is when she out-smarts the ship’s computer into releasing her from the brig as a matter of survival. The rest of the time she didn’t read as particularly smart or emotional — she just kinda seemed cocky and impulsive. And she made some TERRIBLE decisions.
- Also Sarek can talk to Michael in her mind. Which I’m hoping becomes a thing on the show. Though having him pop up for a pep talk and then claim he was only doing it because it was logical was preposterous. I like Michael, but she’s not THAT important that she simply MUST get out of that holding cell and back into the action. Admit it, Sarek. You’re just fond of her.
- Doug Jones as Lt. Saru, the science officer, did survive and will seemingly continue into additional episodes. He didn’t get much to do here other than be a foil for Michael, but he was an intriguing foil. He comes from a race of natural prey creatures (livestock, essentially) called the Kelpien — and thus he has a well-honed survival instinct. That outta prove handy. Maybe he’ll go full paranoid/tinfoil hat at some point!
- I wasn’t expecting a new Star Trek series to kick off with violence, mutiny and death, but here we are. If nothing else, we are probably going to see a different side to Starfleet than we ever have before. We’re used to seeing them as explorers, with space as a final frontier rather than a field of battle. This conflict with the Klingons is shaping up to be more than a random skirmish, and that could be a valuable lens with which to explore the Federation in a new light. I just hope they don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what sets Star Trek apart has always been the exploration aspect. We have countless other movies and shows with blasty space battles. It’s nice to see a universe where diplomacy matters.