Star Trek: Discovery, S1 E1, “The Vulcan Hello” and S1 E2, “Battle at the Binary Stars”
Episode 1 Written by Brian Fuller and Eva Goldsman, directed by David Semel
Episode 2 written by Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, directed by Adam Kane
“With respect, it would be unwise to confuse race and culture.”
Forget the quibbles and stream the show. Not only is the show good but it’s also a relief! The first two episodes down and we’re already right in the thick of it. Not the Klingon war-that’s just the disguise. We land right in the middle of what Star Trek has always done best: use a story set in the far future to hold up the most accurate mirror possible to what is going on right here, right now.
The Orville may be the more faithful tribute to the Roddenberry vision; in fact, it feels like a NextGen do-over with more and raunchier jokes. It’s like the Star Trek equivalent of a cozy. I love The Orville. But compared to Discovery, it’s Star Trek Lite. I will watch both. I will laugh with The Orville, but I will feel Discovery.
How appropriate that the start of the show was delayed by Oprah hosting a bunch of white people complaining in outrage that other people could have the temerity to demand the same privilege they themselves have always enjoyed as an entitlement (essential info for potential trolls and hate-mailers: I am white and I still see it this way).
So far the key villains evoke flavors from both North Korea and Islam and I am afraid. All the Klingons but one have dark skin and the Federation thinks they are terrorists and the Klingons think they have to go to war just to ensure their very survival and I am afraid. Too many people will find in this justifications for their own already entrenched prejudices in the real world; they will just group Klingons in with all the other villains they have created in their own minds.
The plot even relies upon the rise of Klingon nationalism to explore the undercurrents of the Federation’s unacknowledged and perhaps even unconscious imperialist and colonialist attitudes towards space exploration. The show posits that just because you think you’re a do-gooder doesn’t mean you actually do good. That constitutes a brilliant bit of science fiction tricksterism. If you’re going to hold up a mirror, you should make sure you use it to capture all the angles.
This show advances the feminism of the franchise enough that the creators have already received flak about it. Here for the first time we have not only a female captain, but also a female first officer. The feminism was always present even way back in the original series in the late 60’s. Though there was always a fetching love interest with magnificent eyelashes and skimpy outfits, there were also female lawyers and female officers and female diplomats. As sketchy and intermittent as the feminism has remained throughout the long history of the Star Trek multiverse, it reached a low point with the latest film entries in the franchise. The last couple big screen Star Trek entries reduced the female characters to love interests and villains, not actual working people. Those films appeal more heavily to the male portion of the audience. They made women irrelevant except in relationship to the male characters. This show doesn’t do that. There is no Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver’s character) in Galaxy Quest inanely repeating what the computer says and justifying her presence by stating, “it’s my only job on this ship, and I’m damn well going to do it.” Star Trek traditionalists might not like this new female ascendancy, but the world has changed and keeps changing. Discovery intends not only to keep up but also to lead the way.
Optimism stood as the central tenet built into the original Star Trek multiverse as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. During his lifetime, he insisted that the future was going to be better than the present. This show honors that legacy by positioning female characters front and center unapologetically. In addition, Discovery refuses to kowtow to critics who contend that any franchise we tweak to increase the female factor must be inferior to its predecessors. That demonstrates great courage. Further, one of the show’s key characters is female but uses a male-sounding name. Perhaps she is transgender. Transgender people have figured in earlier Star Trek storylines, but they have never portrayed main characters. This is a show that boldly goes where some audience members may not care to go along, and it is better for it.
The story opens at a time when the Klingon Empire has remained a dormant threat due to internal conflicts and weakness. However, a would-be Messiah rises with a fundamentalist zealot’s fervor and decides that he can lead his people, not only to new prominence but also to relevance. He plans to elevate his civilization through war. By disabling a communications relay, he sets up whatever Federation ship comes to investigate for a conflict. A Klingon warrior attacks the Starfleet officer sent to examine the Klingon device. This officer, Cmdr. Michael Burnham, kills the Klingon warrior, igniting not just a battle between two ships, but between two civilizations.
True to its original creator’s intent, the show sets out for territories ahead, but remains faithful to many fixtures of the established multiverse along the way. A youthful incarnation of Sarek appears both in flashback and in real time. The Prime Directive, here called General Order One, already sits in place ready to be violated inadvertently and thereby provide many options for future plot lines. Cmdr. Burnham happens to be the only human at this point in the timeline to attend Vulcan M.I.T., known as the Vulcan Science Academy. The hand to hand combat scenes incorporate that favorite Klingon weapon, the Bat-leth.
The visuals are outstanding. This is the slickest and best designed ST TV series ever, rivaling even the films. And this is the first of the ST TV series to emphasis the beauty of the universe created as the setting. Borrowing lightly from both Gravity and the Alien franchise (ironically, the least optimistic space multiverse), the TV show highlights both the terror and the exultation of what it must be like to man a starship. The battle scenes and special effects boggle the eyes.
Led by the always effective James Frain who plays Sarek and Michelle Yeoh who possesses a giant presence despite her diminutive size, the actors deliver quality performances. The only flaw lies in CBS’ refusal to provide the entire season all at once for bingeing.
The writing captures our interest and attention and absorbs us immediately. In fact, the first two episodes together form a nifty little mini-movie on their own. Regarding influences, this show has learned a thing or two from Game of Thrones about how to hook an audience. As exciting as the story line is, it turns out to be mere prequel to what is coming in the rest of the season.
While some people may feel that CBS’s method of delivering the show is a limiting factor, I did not find this to be the case. Methods of delivering entertainment content are in flux right now, just like the rest of our world, and the ST multiverse portrayed in Discovery. I chose to sign up for the commercial free streaming and found this to be a most enjoyable experience. Also, this streaming service gets you access to every ST TV show ever made plus a bunch of other CBS content. At least check it out.
This is the best ST TV series ever. Hardest hitting, most topical – and the bravest. Let’s go where very few dare to tread, and examine, through the lens of science fiction, our greatest fears and most horrible failings and prejudices. Watch with me. Whatever color you are and whatever you think, including about me and this review, watch this with me. Maybe we can find a future together through the diplomacy of a TV show.