Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #25

Sonequa Martin-Green

File 770’s Black History Month Part Two, Star Trek: Discovery, Season One

By Chris M. Barkley:

Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access, ***1/2) with Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Wilson Cruz with guest appearances by Michelle Yeoh, James Frain, Riann Wilson, Jayne Brook, Clare McConnell, Mary Cheiffo and Rekha Sharma and Chris Obi. Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry.

The defining factor of Roddenberry’s vision is the optimistic view of the future … Once you lose that, you lose the essence of what Star Trek is. That being said… Star Trek has always been a mirror to the time it reflected and [the topical question now] is how do you preserve and protect what Starfleet is in the weight of a challenge like war and the things that have to be done in war.

—Executive producer Alex Kurtzman on the balance between classic Star Trek and new elements in Discovery.

SPOILER WARNING

Before we dive in here, I must say in full disclosure that I have purposefully avoided a great many critiques of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery to avoid copycatting anyone else’s opinion or views. I would like to think that as a fan of a certain age (sixty -one, for the record), and having watched every incarnation of the series since it started, I have a uniquely comprehensive view of the franchise.

On Sunday morning at Capricon 38, I joined forty-five fans and three panelists gathered in a small meeting room. The subject of the panel was Star Trek: Discovery vs. The Orville.

Basically this was a contrast and compare panel but the vibe of the room felt as though there were some very passionate feelings about both shows, but especially against Discovery. and as the hour-and-a-half panel unfolded, most of the discussion was centered on that issue.

When I was asked point-blank by an audience member how I would compare the two side by side, I pointedly stated that for the most part, Discovery was professional grade television and The Orville was some very nice fan-fiction.

Mind you, I stated in my review in a previous column that Seth McFarlane’s show was a pretty decent effort for someone who is demonstrably a big fan sf, of the original series and The Next Generation in particular. But the first several episodes featured some very off-color and rude humor mixed into the rudimentary sf concept. There were several outstanding episodes as their first season progressed (“Pria”, “In the Fold,” “Cupid’s Dagger” and “Mad Idolatry” among them) and for the most part, the show is worth keeping an eye on.

Star Trek: Discovery however, dazzled me right out of the gate with its pilot episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “The Battle of Binary Stars”, as I recounted in my impressions from another previous column. At the end of these episodes that Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) of the Shenzhou is dead after a surprise raid on an enemy ship went sideways, the Federation is in an all out war with the Klingon Empire and that First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) was convicted of mutiny and imprisoned for life.

And then things got decidedly more complicated.

Six months into her sentence, Burnham’s transfer to another prison is delayed by an emergency “rescue” engineered by Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) of the USS Discovery. Lorca deliberately sought to have her diverted to serve on his ship under the title “Specialist” in order to help the Federation’s war efforts. (Or so it seems.) Burnham, who is still feeling quite a considerable amount of guilt about Georgiou’s death and her part in starting the war, somewhat reluctantly accepts the assignment over the objections of First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), who was the Science Officer aboard the ill-fated Shenzhou. The only person besides Lorca who welcomes her aboard is her roommate, Syvia Killy, a somewhat ambitious (and talkative) Starfleet Cadet.

Captain Lorca is unlike any officer Burnham or any of the crew has ever served with before. Having lost his own crew in a wartime disaster, he seems to be driven by a desire to avenge his loss at any means necessary. Starfleet has seen fit to overlook his obvious symptoms of post traumatic distress and the bending or breaking regulations and laws because of his success in battle against the Klingons.

Aiding in those victories is the innovative spore-drive developed by (and eventually guided by) Science Officer Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) that can teleport the Discovery to practically any point in known space. But what Staments has withheld from Lorca and the ship’s chief medical officer (and his lover) Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) is that there are some debilitating side effects each time he uses it.

Meanwhile, the Klingons have not been idle; following the death of T’Kuvma, the leader who briefly unified the twenty-four houses of the Empire, two outcasts, L’Rell (Mary Cheiffo) and Voq (initially played by Javid Iqbal) formulate their own plan to take the USS Discovery and the spore drive for themselves…

As the season progresses, Burnham faces off against a future frenemy of Captain Kirk, Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson), is reluctantly attracted to a former prisoner of war turned crewmate, Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), is forced to deal with her relationship while close proximity to Saru, who is wary of her and her motivations for being on the Discovery and is plunged, along with the rest of the crew, into the infamous “mirror universe” where the Federation’s xenophobic counterpart, the Terran Empire, holds sway.

One of the great storytelling devices of all time is to throw the protagonist(s) into a very deep hole and see if they can claw their way out. I think that the creators of Discovery knew that this would be the only way to start the series out, with the Federation being faced with its greatest challenge; how does an organization dedicated to peace stay true to their beliefs in a time of crisis.

Since there has been little in the way of a historical accounting of the ten years prior to the adventures of the original Star Trek series, creators Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman (who also was involved in the big screen “Kelvan Universe” films) decided that this would be a fertile ground to explore.

The biggest complaint that I have heard among critics and fans was simply, “This is not Star Trek.”

Star Trek, with the notable exception of Deep Space Nine, has been mainly about peacekeeping, diplomacy, seeking out new life forms and civilizations and boldly going where no one had gone before. And, under the dictum of creator Gene Roddenberry and his successors, Rick Berman and the late Michael Piller, personnel in Starfleet NEVER engage in significant personal conflicts (unless they are mentally ill, possessed by an alien life form or worse, whatever that might be) discouraged to show any basic human flaws. This rule has been inconstantly enforced at times over the course of the series but many a writer and producer have found out the hard way that while this may be noble cause in practice, but it is a hell of a roadblock for storytellers to hurdle on weekly basis.

Refreshingly (as far as I’m concerned), series creator Bryan Fuller and his team of producers decided to brilliantly defenestrate this rule in the very first episode and had its main character commit mutiny to put an exclamation point on it. “The rules of Starfleet remain the same,” producer Gretchen J. Berg told Entertainment Weekly in June of 2017. “But while we’re human or alien in various ways, none of us are perfect.”

I imagine that a lot of fans felt put out that these drastic variances in the series were completely outside of their previous experiences with Star Trek.  Factors such as the décor and uniforms not matching previous incarnations, the addition of openly LGBTQ characters or the introduction of more women and people of color and in command positions. But this is the 21st century and Discovery, by far, has the most diverse cast in the Star Trek canon, especially with the casting of people of different ethnicities in key roles and a black woman in the lead role.

Critics of Discovery also nitpicked about the aesthetics of the art and set direction (which Kurtzman freely admits was based on the current movie sets). Other complaints were aimed the design of the Klingon’s makeup and costumes; some enormous, balding prosthetics along with the organically baroque looking uniforms designed by Neville Page and Glenn Hetrick are reminiscent of the best work of the late H. R. Giger. I, for one, was not as bothered by all of that as much as I was by how slowl*y and deliberately the Klingon characters were speaking and acting.

Admittedly, this new look was very interesting and invigorating to me, a long time Star Trek watcher. But I rolled with it because I appreciated what these creators were doing, forging a new, sustainable path for Star Trek.

While most of the main storyline involved the redemptive path of Michael Burnham, I was also very intrigued and ultimately surprised by others, especially her ill-fated friendship with Ash Tyler, L’Rell’s long game of treachery, seeing the chemistry between Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), the depths of duplicity committed by Captain Lorca and revelation of Tilly’s lofty career ambitions, which reach some shockingly surprising heights by her counterpart in the mirror universe. The only major criticism I have is that the bridge crew, as stalwart, loyal, upstanding and brave as they are, remain ciphers to me. I am hoping that the writers and producers have some big plans for including them in more storylines in season two.

THE biggest and most vocal objection I have read online or heard from fans and at conventions was CBS’s decision to place the series on its All-Access streaming channel after airing the first episode. Full disclosure; I signed up immediately for a monthly subscription immediately. Because (a) I liked what I saw and (b) the freaking cliffhanger!

My continuing subscription is $5.99 a month, which comes out to a little over $2.50 an episode for the fifteen episodes of the first season. I am still paying. Why, you might ask? Because that nearly $6.00 a month not only grants me access to thousands of hours of CBS programming (Hello Perry Mason and NCIS and Medium), it also supports original programming like Discovery, The Good Fight (a sequel to The Good Wife) and the just announced revival of The Twilight Zone which will be produced by the newly minted media mega-hyphenate and Oscar nominee, Jordan Peele. Other shows, genre and otherwise are currently in development.

And Discovery was not cheaply made. The actual cost of each episode of Discovery was estimated to be between $8 and 8.5 million dollars each, the cost of a small independent film!

It’s been twelve years since a Star Trek series was on the air. Would Discovery have been a smash hit if were broadcast on cable or the network instead of streaming? It’s certainly possible. But it’s already a moot point; Star Trek: Discovery was considered so successful from CBS’s point of view in the form of paid subscriptions, that they ordered a second season in October of last year the day after the sixth episode aired.

I have encountered people who think that the shows they love should be available at no charge. But someone is paying and it is you. Television shows produced for legacy networks and syndication were never really “free. They charge a premium price to allow advertisers to showcase products on programs and in turn, those costs have been passed along to you, the consumer, through the prices of those products you buy. As the decades have passed, this business model has been changing; first, the advent of cable eroded traditionally huge audiences for networks, and further divided them as hundreds of cable channels were created, giving the limited pool of viewers an unprecedented amount of material to see.

So, for better or worse, this may be the model that the broadcast networks may follow in the next decade.  And the success of Star Trek: Discovery is just another indication that it works.

Like it or not, welcome to the future. And if you love Star Trek, you’ll be there, too.

(Just a word of warning: The photo is actually an Instagram post from August of 2015 and has been photoshopped to convey the message above.  BUT, in this December 2017 interview from Gulf News, Sir Patrick gave his enthusiastic approval to discovery (even though he hasn’t seen the show yet) so that is my justification for including it here. Discretion is advised for using it , but, what the hell, it’s cute!

6 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #25

  1. I never bought the argument that there can’t be a Trek show set in a war.

    TOS referred to wars with the Romulans and the Klingons, and Kirk came close to war with both. TNG had O’Brien as a veteran of the Cardassian war, with lots of left-over hate and fear, and his old shipmates are worse, right up to the captain. And of course the big bad were the Borg, which wasn’t really a war but was nearly an extermination.

    DS9 got a lot of this abuse at the time for its war with the Dominion, aftermath of war and occupation by the Cardassians, Starfleet building anti-Borg battleships etc. It was silly then, and it is silly now.

  2. It’s pretty astonishing to consider what a variety of things people mean by “it is/isn’t Star Trek”.

    Some people mean optimism; others mean the gradual construction of a galaxy-spanning mileau, with at least the pretense of consistency; others mean the 45-minute episodes that are so reminiscent of SF-nal short fiction. Some people’s “Star Trek” means “like TOS”, others mean “like TNG,” “like DS9,” or any of the others.

    On the other hand, if they could define what that special, irreducible thing was, they’d be able to just say “it is/isn’t [THING],” and wouldn’t need to define things in comparison to Trek at all, now wouldn’t they 😛

  3. My brother and I rated all episodes of TOS, TNG and DS9 and the first 3 seasons of voyager. For the heck of it I rated Discovery and compared my ratings with these. It did better than all seasons of TOS, better than the 1st and last season on TNG and better than the first 3 seasons (I think, maybe just the first 2) of TNG. Its rating is quite close to the best season of TOS (the first), which is not a surprise for me. Like TOS it focuses on a small group, wiith most of the bridge crew just being there (and most Season-1-TOS-episodes where like that). It also had some decent stories, hiidden by some campy stuff. Now, I can understand anyone disliking Discovery – its messy, a lot of episodes should have been better, the Klingon War didnt really work for tension at all (something even the writers realized, I think and put the focus on the mirror). But what I do think works is the neew stuff: The tone and the overall arc.
    There are just so many singular episodes you can make about a ship, encountering space problems, that put everything in peril and then coming out of unscathed. This predictability and this limitation was what (imho) made Voyager and Enterprise very formulaic and account for many boring episodes.
    (And it might also account for why The Orville may feel like fan-fiction)

    Disco however foreshadowed a lot and things were guessed – but you were never sure if you were right. There was always the possibility that something unexpected happens and that made the speculation fun. So Discovery worked for me. Which iisnt to say, there isnt a lot of way the show can improve.

  4. To me, Orville is a kind of anti-Trek. In Star Trek in pretty much all its incarnations, the crew makes an impact on others. The disintegration machine is destroyed, the Borg are defeated, etc. Some episodes are the opposite, leaving the crew or Federation changed. The Organians end the war, Picard ends up with a lifetime of memories of living on a doomed planet.

    In Orville, they pretty much have no impact on others, and are left mostly unaffected themselves. It’s like they introduce a situation they have to deal with, and then it ends with nothing changed. This in large part is why it ends up being such a pleasant show. Nothing matters, in the end, see ya next week.

  5. @Niall McAuley
    I dont think the point is that there cannot be a Star Trek show set during wartime. Instead, we have seen Star Trek during a war that is a biggest crisis ever so many times by now (occasional episodes of TOS and TNG, most of DS9 and the entire third season of Enterprise) that the question whether the Federation can hold on to its ideals during wartime is no longer all that new or even interesting. Never mind that Discovery shows – probably inadvertedly – a Federation that doesn’t even remain true to its ideals in peacetime.

    There are things that worked about Discovery, mostly the cast and the characters, and it could still become a good show in time. But at the moment it’s a huge and inconsistent mess with a few good episodes.

    As for The Orville, I’m planning to start watching that soon, so I’ll report back once I’ve seen it. But occasionally, I like episodic TV which wraps up whatever the problem is in a single episode.

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