“Star Trek Discovery” – Who Will Be The Torch Bearer?

Contains spoilers.

Who indeed?

This line, uttered in the first episode of the new Star Trek series by Klingon-with-issues T’Kuvma (and by “uttered” I of course mean “delivered in slow, portentous, guttural Klingon”), might well be seen to apply to Trek itself – who’s going to be responsible for ensuring the continued success of a multi-million-dollar franchise, now fifty years old and counting?

The immediate answer in the case of Star Trek Discovery is its executive producers, and some key figures are or have been involved in birthing the new series – Bryan Fuller, who started out writing episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, created the main story and characters along with Alex Kurtzman (who co-wrote the films Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), and a team was assembled that included Eugene Roddenberry (son of the famous Gene, Star Trek’s original creator) and Nicholas Meyer (who wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). But Fuller stepped down as showrunner last year after tensions with the CBS network, and one wonders to what extent his original vision has been watered down.

Certainly, Discovery (which debuted here in the UK yesterday, on Netflix) looks luscious enough, with grand production design and a cinematic feel, and though it’s a shame it’s not available free-to-air as previous Star Trek series have been, the money from the subscription services it will be available on is right up there on the screen. However, like the recent Star Trek films, the visuals are often very busy, with sweeping camera shots, lens flare (enough with the lens flare already! It’s become a visual cliché. I’m surprised the characters can see what they’re doing half the time), and that strange, unnatural fluidity that computer effects, even now, still tend to have.

People who are interested in these things (like me) might care to note that Discovery is set in the prime timeline, not the “Kelvin timeline” of the reboot movies (I’m sure you know what I’m talking about), and that the Klingons, whose role as chief antagonists is crucial to the establishing pilot episode(s), have undergone a major design overhaul, during which they have mysteriously lost all their hair.

But the key to the success of Trek has always been character and story, and in this department, I’m afraid I felt that Discovery was somewhat lacking.

OK, OK, so I know I’ve only seen the first two episodes, and that we haven’t even had so much as a glimpse of the USS Discovery itself yet, as so far the story has been sketching in the background of chief protagonist Commander Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green – I wasn’t aware that Michael could be a woman’s name, but, hey, it’s 2017, and I don’t want to sound even more of an old fuddy-duddy than I already do most of the time). And I know too that pilot episodes are always tricky, as they have to cram in the premise, setting, themes, backstory and characters before the story proper can get going, and that it always takes a while for new series like this to settle down – but, but…

There were some strong ideas. Making Burnham the adopted (human) child of Vulcan ambassador Sarek (otherwise known as Spock’s dad, played by James Frain) was an interesting creative decision, and we were given a little taster of their relationship, and of Burnham’s difficult childhood on Vulcan, that left me wanting to know more. Also, the opening scene, of Burnham and her commanding officer Philippa Georgiou (captain of the USS Shenzhou, a somewhat underwritten role I thought for Michelle Yeoh) trekking (see what I did there?) across a desert planet to save its pre-warp civilization from drought introduced their characters and their surrogate mother-daughter relationship nicely. I also enjoyed Doug Jones as Saru, the gently nagging, slightly camp (and very tall) alien science officer, from a species – the Kelpiens – who can “sense death”.

But despite lengthy scenes of T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) and other Klingons getting tetchy with each other (and the Federation), and saying grammatically garbled things like “Remain Klingon!” (in Klingon, naturally), there didn’t seem much to these old Starfleet adversaries here beyond a bit of two-dimensional moustache-twiddling (metaphorically speaking, as the new design means they don’t have moustaches anymore). I missed the complexity and contradictions inherent in characters like Worf and Martok in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But deeper characterisation may come in later episodes, I suppose.

Likewise, would the peaceable Vulcans really advocate a policy of shooting down all Klingon ships they encounter in order to teach them a lesson after one of their own craft is destroyed? And would Burnham be so quick to apply that to her own situation when the Shenzhou is facing off against T’Kuvma’s warbird (up to and including incapacitating her old friend Georgiou, earning herself – as the cliffhanger at the end of Episode Two – a life sentence for mutiny)? Such a dispiriting “force is the only thing these barbarians understand” approach is grim enough in the real world, but I always thought the Federation of the 23rd Century was supposed to have moved on from such a blunt use of power. Where was the moral complexity, the knotty ethical questions that Starfleet officers grapple with in the best episodes of Trek? Has subtlety and nuance been sidelined in favour of spectacle? I hope not, because if so that would not bode well for the future of this new series, and like every fan I want so much to like it.

So I will reserve judgement for now, and watch a few more episodes before making up my mind. It’s important to remember that even some of the classic iterations of Star Trek took a season or more to get into their stride. But they often had a thoughtfulness and intelligence which is all too rare in mainstream entertainment. Star Trek may be “just” a TV show, but it’s often been one that has nurtured and promoted humane, tolerant values, whilst also being exciting to watch. Gene Roddenberry understood that to build a better future, you first of all had to imagine it. I hope Discovery doesn’t lose sight of that.

 

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