An Essay Wherein I Generally Praise Star Trek: Discovery

My love for Star Trek -- as a brand -- has mostly grown over time, because it has proven itself, in most cases, to be thought-provoking, inspirational, hopeful, progressive, and quite often fun. Admittedly, to me, the multiple series have involved slightly diminishing returns since the original (and still most iconic) one -- and I have BBC America to thank for catching me up on The Next Generation long after its broadcast years when I was too busy living on Earth (and working alongside the crew at Paramount! in the U.S.!) to obsess about space. I appreciate Deep Space Nine, caught random episodes of Voyager and Enterprise, and I adore The Animated Series. The movies? Just give me the first ten, all excellent. Now we know where we stand.

When I say “progressive,” incidentally, I don't merely mean it in a lazy, parroting, us-vs.-them, hive-mind kind of way. (Millennials may sneer at the mild hedonism of the original series, but it was brazenly of its era, it still rocks, and it gave us Nichelle Nichols as Uhura: most vital game-changer in television entertainment, if not pop culture itself!) What I do mean is that -- Beastie Boys, lens flares, and smacking the U.S.S. Enterprise around like a hacky-sack notwithstanding — Star Trek is like a friend we can trust. Perhaps this is obvious, but Star Trek is a vast, rich portrait of a hopeful future: an inclusive future, an intelligent future, a future wherein even capitalism has fallen, in favor of supporting individuals and their needs -- not enslaving everyone to corporations. Sure, dystopian elements and battle scenarios abound, but the heart of Star Trek -- Gene Roddenberry's creation -- is inherently optimistic; thus it is easy for intelligent people to love.

<strong>A new Star Trek series is cause for celebration!</strong>
A new Star Trek series is cause for celebration!

Enter Star Trek: Discovery. Fans were expecting this new series last year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of (Mr. Shatner dislikes this term -- Sir Bill, please provide another, and I'll use it) the franchise. Kerfuffles ensued. But here we are, amidst the relentless insanity of 2017, in a world with a new Star Trek series, to consider and enjoy. Last Tuesday, the good people of CBS kindly allowed me to attend the world première of Discovery's first two episodes (“The Vulcan Hello” / “Battle at the Binary Stars”) in Hollywood; in return I kindly agreed to withhold my feelings thereupon until after the episode(s) premièred for the public on CBS, CBS All Access, and around the world on Netflix. That's now, so let's boldly go . . .

Most vital about Star Trek: Discovery is its lead character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), for we've had women and people of colo(u)r in Star Trek leads before, but since the beginning with pioneering Ms. Nichols, not both at once. I'm not going to sit here and mansplain to you why it's important to focus on a woman's story as the core of a Star Trek series (or, for that matter, in Doctor Who), but rather, I'm celebrating that Michael (a woman -- apparently; hey, the series is new!) is truly complex: even within the first arc, we learn that she has served under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) for seven years, that she's extremely headstrong, that her parents were killed by the then-unfriendly Klingon species (Discovery is another prequel series to the original -- but already feels unique unto itself), and that she was thereafter raised in the logic-lovin' Vulcan ways of her foster father, Sarek (whom even casual fans will know as Spock's -- and Sybok's! -- father: James Frain proves exemplary at filling the late Mark Lenard's presumably pointy shoes).

Other characters, at this point, remain sketchy, except for the wonderful addition of Doug Jones as Lieutenant Saru -- oddly a new species (the Kelpians, apparently) in Star Trek canon, but as a mildly passive-aggressive science officer from a “binary prey species” (he can smell death a-comin', and says so), Jones' rubberheaded Saru is allowed to bring a tiny dollop of desperately-needed wit to this otherwise dour and heavyhanded, ahem, enterprise.

<strong>Daunting costume? No problem for Trekkers!</strong>
Daunting costume? No problem for Trekkers!

Frankly I'm surprised that Star Trek: Discovery is as good as it is -- which is quite good, like stylish new shoes just needing some breaking in -- because it's had a very disparate array of cooks in the kitchen, for too long already. Among the show's thousands of producers, there's sharp storyteller Nicholas Meyer, who masterfully directed Star Treks II and VI, and had a hand in IV -- but there's also the dreaded Alex Kurtzman, strong contender for Most Clueless and Bombastic Writer in Hollywood, his M.O.: “Make badass setpieces!!! Then lurch among them sans logic, character motivation, or anything resembling a sensible plot!!!” Somewhere in the middle is Akiva “Somehow I Get Paid to Do This” Goldsman. But then again, Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry is also aboard, and he knows his dad's Trek better than most. With all these hands stirring the pot, Star Trek: Discovery could have been -- maybe even should have been -- a catastrophe. But whew, as of its first episode(s), it launches with aplomb, albeit thus far only on its own relentlessly badass terms (seeming to give Game of Beheadings and The Walking Dullards a run for their dourness). To me the writing feels too much like bratty boys bickering on a playground, but make no mistake: there's enough good here to make Discovery worth watching.

I love spoilers -- to me they're a terrific barometer in determining whether someone is an adult and can handle hearing a detail or two about a movie or TV show without wetting their pants in a screeching rage -- however I understand that not everyone shares my grownup attitude, so here's the official SPOILER WARNING for this piece. If you DVR-ed Discovery for later, or plan to binge-watch the box set next summer or whatever, reading further here may harsh your mellow, or mellow your harsh, or something.

<strong>All hail the art department!</strong>
All hail the art department!

The plot of Star Trek: Discovery's opening two-episode arc is functional but rudimentary; its purpose being to set up Michael Burnham as an uncompromising loose cannon who (presumably) becomes an important figure to the Federation. To this end, it is she who Spock-suits (lifted from Robert Wise's The Motion Picture) out to investigate some creepy Giger-esque space glob unscannable by the Shenzhou's sensors, sparking a battle with one of many barely-recognizable Klingons (who growl moodily with subtitles here, a LOT), leading very promptly to the sort of insta-war -- with those damned lens flares -- seen most recently in the unfortunate Star Trek reboot movies. Somebody picked up at least a little bit of storytelling logic since 2009, though, as rather than petulantly jettisoning insubordinate Michael down to Hoth (as alleged Spock does to alleged Kirk in alleged Star Trek), Captain Georgiou actually remembers that her starship indeed has a brig, and remands Michael to it, that the latter may spend much of the obligatory badass space battle struggling to escape its nifty laser-lines and Siri-esque warden.

“Mac-’n’-cheeze. Vegan. Hot.” (Thank you, Cineramadome-adjacent Veggie Grill!)
“Mac-’n’-cheeze. Vegan. Hot.” (Thank you, Cineramadome-adjacent Veggie Grill!)

While the bad taste of those latter-day Trek movies' horrendous attempts at storytelling -- after the première, an astute Trekker and I cheerfully concurred that the third one is “the least terrible” (LLAP!) -- is mostly washed away by the energy and excitement of Discovery, some elements still clunk. The Tatooine/Jakku opening scene allows Yeoh to disgorge awkward exposition, but boils down to a walk in the sand as a gigantic and literal act of Starfleet brand-placement. Indeed, Yeoh -- bless her (does anybody else love the third Mummy movie? I do!) -- basically spends the episode(s) flatly reciting all her words in the right order: a performance, to slip briefly into clichè, so wooden it gave me splinters. Weird. This puts almost all the weight of the series, initially, on Martin-Green -- previously unknown to me, as I was done with zombies in 1985 -- and between hairstyles (including Vulcan-chic, in flashback) and wardrobe changes, it's hard to grasp the full import of her character -- but it's early, and she's really good, could soon be great.

Given Discovery's place in the timeline, it's sensible to feature the Klingons as the main baddies here -- but for all their absurdly ornate costuming, reptilian prosthetics, and fangs, they nonetheless come across as one-note villains: bullies who (in the way of most bullies) loudly trumpet themselves as victims. Mama's boys, really. Belligerent and boring. (Much like the Federation's racist white male admiral, who is promptly killed.) The Klingons' Cold War origins left in the dust of previous decades, perhaps these new-old Klingons -- with their aggressive refusal to assimilate -- are stand-ins for some other real-world sect? Are these Klingons Amish?

<strong>Old-school starship design?</strong>
Old-school starship design?

Anyway, these Klingons promptly murder Captain Georgiou (hardly a spoiler, as Yeoh is billed up front as “Guest Star”) -- because she doesn't think twice about beaming over to the beheaded Klingon flagship for outrageously risky hand-to-hand combat with, essentially, a troop of extra-irritable Orcs. Thus, at this point, it’s any fan’s guess what's in store for mutineer and prisoner -- and genuinely complex female character -- Michael Burnham, when she next boards the eponymous starship at the behest of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).

Will Star Trek: Discovery prove to be an important new phase of (sorry again, Bill) the franchise? Y'know, given its first two episodes’ glaring witlessness (boys: grins, too, are expected of Star Trek), and its pulverizing insta-war, I could lean cynical, say, “Whatevs,” and go back to watching The Search for Spock by myself. But I'm opting for optimism here. Star Trek: Discovery is undeniably Star Trek, yet it's also a new hybrid for a new era — with hella talented people bringing us forthcoming episodes. It's the ballsiest that Trek has been since Meyer's The Undiscovered Country in '91, it's got bitchin' big-screen effects, and most importantly, it pushes the philosophical buttons intelligent viewers desire and demand from Star Trek: What is our shared future? What is it to be human? Where are we going together? Can we make it good?

I happily join those who'll be joining Michael Burnham in finding out.

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