After a couple of false starts, I think I finally have my thoughts on the new Star Trek: Discovery organized enough to pass for a coherent critique.
And it goes like this…
That’s it. My critique in a single word. The show is frustrating. It has no groove. The first two episodes (which should have been edited into one) were a MacGuffin pilot. If you’re not familiar with the concept of the MacGuffin, look it up. Sure, these two episodes establish the Trek universe we’ll be playing in, but beyond that and a couple of characters (notably Saru and Burnham), NOTHING survives the second episode. All of it gone. Might explain why the plotting was kind of slow and talky, also why I never felt like investing much in Michelle Yeoh or the Klingon ‘Bad Guy’, T’Kuvma. They weren’t in it for the long haul. Kind of disappointing because it made me feel like all there was some truth to the ‘troubled production’ rumors.
Also, I really liked the look of the Shenzhou. That ship was bad ass.
My feelings at this point: mixed.
Episodes three and four were pretty good. Three was the proper pilot, putting Burnham on the starship Discovery and introducing us to Captain Lorca, whom I believe to be the spiritual descendent of Captain Ahab, and the somewhat ‘damaged’ crew of Discovery. I say ‘damaged’ because it seems like everyone on the ship had a chip on their shoulder or a secret agenda. Episode 4 was very strong with good plotting and pacing, great characterizations, and some nifty special effects. Also present, the soul of Star Trek, using sci-fi to comment on current politics. How willing are you to abandon your principals in order to safeguard your ideas?
My feelings at this point: All in! It’s going to be great.
Then there was Episode 5. What a load of shit. It’s like they didn’t even try. Maybe someone from corporate told them to dumb things down because the show was over HIS head. Whatever. This one was a clunker. Major plot holes. Weak characterizations. Shit that just didn’t make sense like maybe the Klingons had a dry cleaner on board to keep the Federation uniforms from looking ‘seven months in prison’ old. It felt rushed, out of step with the preceding episodes, and included an F-bomb for no discernable reason other than it was on cable.
My feelings at this point: Gotta wait until next week to see where this thing is going.
Episodes 6 and 7 have been okay. They move things along and we get some fresh perspective into Burnham’s character, but this felt like a couple of checklist episodes: Let’s do something with Vulcans and Let’s do the Time Warp again. I’ve watched both episodes twice now and I’ve dialed back my original criticism of Episode 6. It still feels kind of forced, but I’m willing to live with it for Burnham’s humanization and the ‘Disco’ t-shirts.
Episode 7 was very entertaining. We have the return of Harry Mudd…with a vengeance. Also, space whales, which we haven’t seen since Star Trek: The Voyage Home. Technically not the same, but then again, Harry had a space suit with antenna on it so take it with a grain of salt. I liked watching the crew throwing down, Tilly’s ‘Musician Phase’, and Lorca being killed over and over and over again. You know that someone in the writing room was having a blast. And then they were told wrap it up quick and neat and quick again. Outside of an ending that I felt was a little too rushed and convenient, and no mention of a missing admiral, this was a great episode.
Which brings me to my current sense of frustration.
The show is hit or miss, no two ways about it. It has moments when you think it’s going to be great and we’re going to see a ship not just at war with the Klingons, but with itself as the crew compromises their way to victory. Then it has moment that make you think you’re watching the original Battlestar Galactica, which sucked hard, BTW. I’ve watched it in reruns, it was terrible.
I like that the show focuses more on the crew than the captain, especially one as ‘ethically challenged’ as Lorca appears to be. I think that it could lead to some interesting moments of drama as the crew tries to balance the ‘optimistic’ mission of Star Fleet with the realities of winning a war. In the beginning I was pretty sure Discovery would take a contemporary approach to storytelling and follow a season long dramatic arc. Right now it flirts with an arc, but is still pretty grounded in stand-alone ‘adventures of the week’. I would like to see more focus on character development.
I do love the design of these ‘mid-canon’ ships (between Enterprise and TOS). The Shenzhou, in particular, stands out. I wasn’t sold on the Discovery originally - the warp nacelles are stupid long- but I do love the effects they’ve come up with for the spore drive. That shit is cool as hell, which touches on another one of those hit or miss aspects….the tech. Enterprise made every effort NOT to upstage the TOS technology. No such effort being made here. From uniforms to bridge design to the overly helpful ‘Alexa/Siri’ computer voice overs, there’s no way to say this is pre-TOS with a straight face. I understand that we can do so much more in terms of FX, so I ought to let it slide, but it’s hard to do when you consider when this is supposed to take place. A tribble of a quibble, I guess.
Special effects (which I touched on) and set designs are top notch. The show looks great. The only real issue here seem to be too much budget. A lot of stuff gets overdone. The asteroid field from first two episodes…too many rocks. Add in the two fleets for the Battle of the Binary Stars and all you’re looking at is visual noise. Also overdone are the Klingons and Saru, the actors drowning in prosthetic makeup. They look like ventriloquists. You hear them speak, but their mouths don’t move a whole lot. And how do the Klingons even move those ridiculously bulbous heads. Hell, how do they even raise their arms in all that costuming. Less is more, people. Less is more.
I think it has potential to be a really good show, but to make it so means they’re going to have to forgo the ‘traditional’ Trek approach of visiting a strange new world every week and do some bold storytelling. I hope they grow a pair and go for it.
Otherwise, we’re stuck with frustrating.
Episode 1: The Vulcan Hello and Episode 2: The Battle of the Binary Stars – 3 out of 5
Judged together because they should have been one episode. The second half is the better half. More ‘splosions.
Episode 3: Context is for Kings – 3.5 out of 5
As far as Star Trek pilots go, this one was decent.
Episode 4: The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry - 5 out of 5
This one made me not regret signing up for CBS Access.
Episode 5: Choose Your Pain - 1 out of 5
I’ll be honest. This episode managed to undo all the good of the previous episodes.
Episode 6: Lethe – First Viewing: 2 out of 5, Second Viewing: 3.5 out of 5
Had to watch it twice to better appreciate what it was trying to do. Wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t suck the second time through. More Stamets, please.
Episode 7: Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad – 4.5 out of 5
Started as a 3.5 out of 5 on the first go round. Definitely benefits from watching it over and over and over again.