September 25, 2017
Star Trek Discovery
Episodes One and Two
CBS All Access
The latest incarnation of Star Trek comes to us from the streaming service, CBS All Access. I may blog separately about this product. For now, that’s the only place people in the US will see episodes 2-15 of this new series.
There are many things to love about this series. First, the cast is amazing. The plot appears to revolve around First Officer Michael Burnham, ably played by Sonequa Martin-Green. The ineffable Michelle Yeoh plays Captain Georgiou, her commanding officer. Doug Jones plays Science Officer Saru and brings a charming insouciance to his character, despite what must be lock-jaw inducing makeup. James Frain delivers a solid performance as Sarek, creating a believable younger version of the Mark Lenard character in the original series. It’s harder to assess the cast playing the Klingons due to their costumes and the fact their dialogue is all in Klingon with subtitles, but they all appeared to be competent. The bottom line is that the casting seems excellent.
I note in passing that the series blurbs list Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca, but he fails to appear in the first two episodes. Nonetheless, he’s a superb actor, known for roles in not only Harry Potter but also in the lamentably cancelled series Awake. The teasers for episode three suggest that he becomes Burnham’s Captain in episode three. One can hope that the writers find interesting ways for the Yeoh and Martin-Green to interact, as their relationship is one of the more interesting to come out of the first two episodes. I sincerely hope Yeoh isn’t relegated to flashbacks–more on this below.
The production quality for this series is also top-notch. I understand that it’s costing six million dollars per episode–substantial for forty minutes of television–and the investment shows. Not only are the special effects excellent, the lighting, costumes, cinematography, score, and other production aspects are all cinema-quality and far exceed prior versions of Star Trek’s televised series.
The series is set about ten years prior to the original series. There are some possibly disconcerting discontinuities with the original. For example, there are many more aliens in ST Discover, and they are more exotic. We’ve also got a fully human adoptive step-sister for Spock, something never mentioned in the original. But these are things clever writers can and probably will account for in later episodes.
The Klingons, despite the actor-debilitating costuming, seem to have a more nuanced backstory than in the past. Rather than comic-book fusions of Satan and Nazis, they have their own unique cultural and biological/genetic motivations. I’m thinking it’s more like the portrayal of Germans in The Enemy Below, the 1957 film on which the Star Trek original series episode “Balance of Terror” was based. There are hints that Saru’s species has a similar intriguing back story. I see this kind of thing as adding to the established Star Trek canon and thus as a positive, although I’m guessing that many dedicated Trek fans will disagree.
War with the Klingons dominates the first two episodes. Indeed, the peaceful and collaborative vision of Starfleet is exposed as a failure. We learn the ultra-logical Vulcans historically have dealt with the Klingons by attacking first and asking questions later–what we will recognize as a “shock and awe” strategy. This is fundamentally counter to the Starfleet of Gene Roddenberry and all later incarnations of the Star Trek universe. Even where there is conflict and war, the series doesn’t waver from values of community, collaboration, and peace. We’ll have to have faith in the writers that we’ll retain the Star Trek values despite the ethical problem posed by the Klingons.
For what it’s worth, the dilemma posed by the Klingons is a form of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. There are hints that it’s a multi-player version of the game, which can lead to “tit-for-tat with occasional forgiveness” as a winning strategy as opposed to an escalating cycle of “tit-for-tat.” Indeed, cooperation among multiple players using this strategy leads to cooperation as a stable equilibrium, much like the universe we see in STNG. In my perfect world, the writers would find a way to work game theory into the plot. Yeah, right. In my dreams.
I understand that the plan is to have a fifteen-episode story arc for season one. While I like this idea–many successful series now use this approach–it could and probably will run against expectations of the fan base. Still, some of the best series on television today (Better Call Saul, True Detective, and Fargo, to name a few) use this strategy to great success. Mixing it with non-stop action adventure might be a trek too far, but time will tell.
As I said, there is much to love here. Overall, I think the launch is successful, even amazing. But…well, there are some pretty astonishing failures, too.
Hitchcock said that the audience cares about the characters. The plot, he continued, is there to give the characters something to care about. This is a lesson for all writers of fiction, whether short stories, novels, or screenplays. It’s in this place–the characters, their motivations, and their relationships–where I think the opening episodes fail.
First, the episodes keep whip-sawing the audience between past and future timelines. Flashbacks can be the author’s friend, but the audience needs to first be comfortable in the fictional universe and with the characters. We start in the fictional present with subtitled Klingons talking about their mythology–and managing to sound both like Klingon is a second language and like they are gargling oatmeal laced with razor blades. This jumps to an unrelated snippet with Burnham and Georgiou on a desert. Then finally the main plot starts, but it keeps getting interrupted with flashbacks that lurch the reader from the here-and-now of the starship to the not-here-and-now of Burnham’s backstory. This pattern of snippets jerking us around makes it incredibly hard to engage with what’s happening on the screen. We’re not “in” any fictional present long enough to settle in and start to understand the relationships between the characters. Imagine trying to read The Old Man and the Sea on Twitter. It’s like that, but worse.
We also need a reason to cheer for Burnham. The actor is marvelous, but she needs help from the script. We eventually get there, but we need reasons to cheer for her before she’s tossed in the brig and her life is in danger. There’s a trope known to screen writers as “saving the cat,” in which your main character does a good deed like saving a cat just because it’s the right thing to do. We really need a “saving the cat” moment for Burnham, and we need it early in the first episode. We almost get there in a scene when an injured Ensign–at least that’s who I think he is–from the bridge crew visits her in the brig. But at this point, it’s too late. The scene should have some emotional power to it, but we know nothing about the relationship between the two and have no real reason to care what happens to either one. The action is already too far along, too distracting, and the scene ends too abruptly with no reaction shot of Burnham. It’s a wasted opportunity.
Another point involves starting in media res. As noted above, episode one has three short, stuttering starts in three different, jam-packed action sequences. The middle one, on the desert planet, stands out for doing nothing to advance either plot or character. Moreover, the action in these scenes is at such a break-neck pace that we never get to know the characters. In the third start, Burnham dashes off to risk her life on an almost trivial quest to satisfy her curiosity before we have a clue who she is. We need to see her interacting with other characters in the here-and-now–not as a child on Vulcan–to establish a connection to her as a character we understand and care about.
While I’m at it, there’s the whole idea of non-linear story telling. In at least a couple of instances in the first two episodes, the transitions from the fictional present to the fictional past were so jarring that at first I couldn’t even tell we were in a new time frame. As noted above, these jumps are often so short that I felt I was jerked from one disconnected scene to another. As with voice-overs, which are thankfully absent, this technique disrupts the viewer’s connection with the here-and-now on the screen and should be used sparingly. Instead, elements of Burnham’s backstory get stuck in, like an annoying voice-over, at the most inopportune moments.
All of the above will make it more difficult for this series to acquire viewers. The risk is that the flash of the special effects is ultimately just sound and fury, and bored viewers will leave. What will keep them coming back is the characters. The dramatic leads have the acting chops to make this an excellent series if the scripts give them half a chance. Doug Jones’ Saru may have the most promise, as the geeky outsider trying to fit into a human world. He’s the Spock, the Data, the Odo, or the Doctor on Voyager. Jones isn’t given a lot to work with in the first two episodes, but he really shines. One can hope that he will join the outstanding actors who have played square pegs in other incarnation of Star Trek.
I’m sure that the writers are competent and fully aware of the issues I’ve mentioned. But at six million dollars per episode, the writers don’t control what finally goes in the script or on the screen. I don’t know how much artistic license CBS gave the creators, but given their investment, corporate had to be at least nudging things about. Indeed, I see corporate fingerprints all over my reservations, although I have no evidence other than suspicion that this is the case.
The CBS “All Access” marketing scheme will make it even harder to build an audience, although I understand that the deal with Netflix for non-USA markets has paid the production costs. I could write a separate blog on CBS All Access (hint: it’s not “all access” even for included series), but that’s another topic.
While I have some reservations about the pace and depth of character development and about the balance between action and character, I think these episodes are successful television. Indeed, the production values alone make them spectacularly successful. But the trick for an expensive series like this is building a core audience. Series like Breaking Bad, with lower production costs, could afford to spend a couple of years building an audience. This one can’t. I hope that their gamble pays off and this runs for years. From the first two episodes, I think the characters deserve it. Surely cast deserves it. The fans deserve it most of all. I hope it succeeds.