Sunday saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. The first story was a 2-parter, only the first part of which aired on CBS; the rest of the season will air on the new “CBS All Access” subscription streaming network, which I have no interest in subscribing to, so I only saw the first episode, which ended on a cliffhanger.
As my readers may know, I’m working on over 30 years of disappointment in Star Trek. Despite the occasional good story here and there, Star Trek has been a dramatic, storytelling and characterization wasteland since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I guess it’s a testament to how wonderful the original series (and Star Treks II and III) were that I keep trying the new series. (Well, okay, I passed almost entirely on Voyager, since Star Trek was entirely superfluous from 1994-1999 due to the presence of Babylon 5.)
Despite hoping that the decade-plus since Enterprise went off the air would lead to some philosophical changes in the Star Trek TV franchise, the first episode of Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello”, was about as mundane as ever. The series takes place in the original timeline (i.e., not the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline), approximately 10 years before the original Star Trek series (i.e., about 2 years after the events of “The Cage”, the one Christopher Pike episode), and it focuses on the (apparently last) adventure of the USS Shenzhou, which encounters an alien object while investigating damage to a remote yet apparently important satellite.
There isn’t really a way to discuss the episode without spoilers – frankly, there isn’t enough story here to discuss otherwise – so I’ll continue after the cut:
The episode starts – and is occasionally punctuated by – a scene with a bunch of Klingons who frankly look like Uruk-Hai wearing Power Rangers gear. They’re talking in Klingon with subtitles, apparently about wanting to unify the fractured Klingon empire. The writers could not have come up with a better way to take the wind out of the episode’s sails if they’d tried. It then switches to a scene with our hero, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the Shenzhou’s Captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh, who out-acts the rest of the cast whenever she blinks) in a fairly pointless scene to save an endangered race. Cue the opening credits, which resemble those of Enterprise, albeit with less-engaging visuals and a less-memorable theme.
The bulk of the episode involves finding the Klingon ship, with a tedious sequence in which Burnham flies into an asteroid belt, encounters a Klingon warrior, kills him, and is pulled out (off-camera!) just before she succumbs to radiation poisoning. Then we have a stand-off between the two ships, which are each signaling their fleets to come help, and we learn that the Federation hasn’t encountered the Klingons in about a century, that Burnham was raised by Ambassador Sarek (Spock’s father) after her family was killed by the Klingons, and that the Vulcans had a policy of firing on the Klingons whenever they saw them until the Klingons engaged them diplomatically. Somehow all of this took 30 minutes to get through, culminating in Burnham employing a Vulcan neck pinch to disable Georgiou to try to get the Shenzhou to fire on the Klingons, failing, and then the Klingons reinforcements show up. Tune in again next week – except you can’t, because it’s not available on cable.
The writers would have been hard-pressed to have dragged out ten minutes worth of story more than they did here, since everything up to encountering the Klingon warrior was either superfluous, or could have been covered in the 4 minutes before the opening credits. Honestly until Burnham knocked out Georgiou (leading to what in a reasonable show ought to be Burnham’s court-martial in episode 3) I wondered if anything was actually going to happen before the cliffhanger. I’m not sure the scenes with Sarek could have been any more soporific.
In true NextGen fashion the episode does its best to avoid real characterization, as only Burnham gets even at attempt at some. (The token alien, science officer Saru (Doug Jones) gets a few generic character traits, which is not really the same thing.) But we are mostly told, not shown, her character, there are lots of platitudes about how long she’s served with Georgiou, and blah blah blah. Georgiou, for her part, is perfectly happy to confer with an admiral about what to do (I thought Starfleet hired Captains who could do this sort of stuff?) and then sit around and not even consider withdrawing when the Klingons send out their overly-dramatic call for help.
So in sum, there’s a lot of talking, our hero does something stupid and career-ending, and then some Klingon ships show up. Yeah, pretty much the latest iteration of NextGen.
A lot of people have said that the show looks great. I guess? It’s very gray with bits of blue, and a decidedly bland bridge set. Considering it’s roughly contemporary with the Pike era of Star Trek, there’s no explanation of why it looks completely different (and much blander). Did this wing of Starfleet get the nifty technology (holograms and space suits), while the Enterprise’s wing got a good design sense and better writing?
Once upon a time I gave letter grades to Star Trek episodes, and in that spirit I’d give “The Vulcan Hello” an unenthusiastic D.
It also occurs to me that the premise of the show was basically a mistake. Plumbing further depths of the 22nd-24th centuries feels like a waste of time – the show needs to move beyond the NextGen/DS9/Voyager era and do something new, and the starting point here would have been an excellent point to do that. Consider that they could have bumped the timeline, say, 200 years further down:
- Something happened along the way to fragment the Klingon empire and it fell out of touch with the Federation, and is only now starting to come back together.
- Something happening in the Federation that caused it to contract – maybe a major economic crisis – and it’s now getting back on its feet and re-exploring the parts of the galaxy that it had to withdraw from. Lots of potential drama regarding lost colonies, feelings of betrayal, and the Federation trying to do the right thing despite a spotty recent past.
- This would help explain why Federation technology hasn’t gotten ridiculously good, or why the Federation hasn’t just gone through the technological singularity.
- No need to try to tie in to pre-classic Trek continuity, or leave any questions about why things look completely different from the original series.
But Star Trek stopped being about exploration – especially story exploration – a long time ago. Despite the impressive creative names attached to Discovery, this first episode is a testament to the staying power of a corporate franchise, and its lack of interest in going anywhere new. Star Trek has been creatively lapped by shows like NCIS, which seems nearly impossible, but nonetheless here we are.