Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Star Trek Discovery

2017, Space/CBS All Access (5 episodes reviewed)

I'm not a Trekker. I'm not even a Trekkie (the less hardcore of the franchise's fanbase).  I'm an admirer, from a distance.  The Next Generation was my Trek.  I watched the pilot when it aired and each subsequent episode weekly for 7 seasons and 3 movies (I only recently watched the 4th).  I watched a scattering of the first few seasons of Deep Space 9, I watched Voyager sporadically, I never made it past the pilot of Enterprise and I've only seen random episodes of the original series ("TOS").  Every movie, though, I've seen every movie, many multiple times.  So yeah, I've put some time in with the franchise, but this is all to quantify what comes next.

I freaking love Star Trek Discovery.

Unabashedly.

I don't care what the continuity gripes are for a show taking place ten year prior to TOS.  I really don't.  Would this have been maybe better if it were 30 years past the end of Voyager?  Sure, it would help to resolve that stabbing dagger in the back of many fan's brains that make it impossible for them to resolve the better looking sets, the much different looking Klingons, the better technology, the nicer outfits...all the things that modern day television can do so much better than 50, 20, even 10 years ago.  But the showrunners, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, are operating in this time frame to tell a very specific story, which is the war between the Federation and the Klingons. 


The easy fix though would be to have the Federation at war with another, newer civilization, given that we know tenuous peace between the Federation and Klingons is the eventual outcome.  But that presupposes the fanbase, both hard core and casual (and new) would care as much about the conflict between a new alien race versus an established -- nay notorious -- adversary like the Klingons.  Beyond that, just because we know the outcome of a battle has never stopped anyone from recounting stories from that time.  Every major war has millions of stories to tell.

The opening salvo for Discovery is a 2-parter, a full-blown movie, essentially, and as a movie it is one of Trek's best.  Sonequa Martin-Green is the show's de-facto lead as Michael Burnham, the first officer of the starship Shenzhou under captain Captain Philippa Georgiou (the always welcome Michelle Yeoh).  The show immediately thrusts us in the mix of Burnham and Georgiou's almost familial relationship, it should be noted the first ever female captain-first officer pairing in Trek.  The dynamic is incredible, with spot-on writing that hints at how incredible Georgiou is as both a leader, mentor and person, as well as how Burnham is so utterly capable and yet flawed.

As a child, Burnham was rescued from a Federation space station by Vulcans after a Klingon raid that killed everyone else on board.  Burnham was raised by Sarek (yes, Spock's dad, making Burnham Spock's adoptive older sister...probably the most flagrant attempt the show makes to pander to the fanbase by tying it to TOS), giving her a superior educational experience as well as teaching her to suppress her emotions.  She's no Vulcan though, and her humanity is sometimes at odds with her calculating nature, which keeps others at a distance.

The opening "movie" also introduces us to the Klingon side of the conflict, largely a cultural quest by one Klingon, T'Kuvma, to unite the scattered 24 houses against the threat of the Federation and their gentrification of the galaxy.  Long story short, by the end of the movie, the war has begun, Burnham is jailed as a traiter, the Shinzhou floats lifeless in space, and T'Kuvma is martyred, making him a rallying point for the Klingon armadas.

There's a sense of "where do we go from here" by the end of the gripping two-parter.  With over half the cast gone -- dead, or left for dead, or imprisoned --  there's a thrill of the unknown, especially with the titular starship Discovery yet to be revealed.   It's easy to underestimate how exciting this is both as a movie and the opening act of a new ongoing series.  To establish a cast, to build an exceptional rapport among them, to get the audience excited for the future adventures of this crew together, not to mention their contention with a particularly dedicated adversary, and then rip not one, but both away, it's rather unprecedented. 

The third episode opens 6 months later with Burnham in chains, pleading guilty to her crime (the Federation's first ever traitor) and ready to accept her punishment.  What an amazing point of view character for a Trek show.  Burnham as a human-raised-by-Vulcans, female, person of colour as lead of the show was a marvelous feat on its own, but this turn for her makes her journey a thousand times more fascinating.  Her guilt looms large, though the public blames her for starting a war, her guilt is in not actually finding out whether her treasonous act would have actually stopped it or not, and saving the lives of her crewmates.  When her prison transport ship encounters problems, she's rescued (not by chance) by the Discovery, where she meets a few familiar -- though no longer friendly -- faces from the Shenzhou.  She meets its difficult captain, Lorca (a wonderful Jason Isaacs), who has taken pains to recruit her to help her with the ship's mysterious experiment.

The third episode effectively acts as pilot after the "movie" and it does a good job of establishing all the new and returning crew, giving them distinct personalities from the outset, and then playing with the expectations of those personalities within the next two episodes.  This is a crew of scientists and explorers being led by a military captain during wartime.  Needless to say, no one is particularly thrilled with the situation, least of all Burnham who is trying to both atone and fit in.  Meanwhile, things are no easier on the Klingon side.  In the wake T'Kuvma's death, the outsider Voq has taken the helm of the only ship with cloaking technology, but it's dead in space and the crew is getting desperate, so when another house comes to claim T'Kuvma's cloaking technology, Voq has to determine what he compromises first, his leadership or his convictions in the teaching of the martyred T'Kuvma and Klingon traditions.

Many complaints are lobbed at Discovery... "too focused on action and not enough on science" is one of the main ones early on.   This particular season is meant to focus on the war, so action will be a part of it.  But the focus is never of a particular action set piece, it's always on the players involved, and science (if really comic-booky science) is still a mainstay in exploring the Discovery's new spore drive.  Recently, "Captain Lorca abandons another human on a Klingon prison ship ...that's not the hopeful Trek I'm used to"... because you haven't had a warmongering Captain before.  Lorca is cold, Lorca is calculating, Lorca is shrewd... he's given his command because the Discovery is trying to engineer a weapon, a tactical advantage against their enemy, and they need the most hard-bitten man to get the job done (which flies in the face of the traditional "peaceful explorers" model of Trek's past).  Ultimately Discovery is telling a much different tale, one that is effectively exploring how war impacts a society's tenets (both Federation and Klingon) and the impact it has on the people involved.

This is easily the best looking Trek, the costuming, make-up, effects, and sets are all amazing.  Despite not advancing the Trek chronology, it does advance some of what we see in Trek culturally.  From more people of colour and women in positions of power to gay relationships, it's full of long-overdue progression (even off screen with women and people of colour directing, writing, costuming, and beyond).  As well, the bulk of Trek is episodic in nature, where as this is highly serialized.  While the two-part opener definitely stands on its own, what comes next builds and builds, and is set to make a fascinating season as a whole.  The showrunners have said the war will be resolved by the 15-episode season's end and what happens for season 2 is still a mystery.

As I said, I love it unabashedly.  It's fascinating, it's exciting, it's one of the better looking shows on TV (well, on TV in Canada at least, it's the inaugural show of CBS's "All Access" streaming service), which isn't wholly unexpected when much of (now expunged) showrunner Bryan Fuller's crew is involved.