RogerBW's Blog

Star Trek Discovery season 1 21 March 2018

2017-2018 science fiction, 15 episodes. Ten years before original Star Trek, the USS Discovery has a unique advantage in the war with the Klingons.

Like The Orville, this series makes some attempt at exploring what would it be like if the people in Star Trek were more fallible humans than the other Star Trek shows have portrayed. But unlike The Orville, it does this by making them all horrible.

The primary character and centre of the show is Michael Burnham, Starfleet's first mutineer, who got her captain killed and contributed to the start of the war. (Whenever she has an idea for how to solve something, she insists on doing it her way, no matter what her superiors say; in GURPS terms she has Overconfidence and Stubbornness.) She ends up on Discovery, where Captain Lorca is a (well-observed) manipulative addict, clearly happy to lie, cheat, and use up everyone who cares about him as long as he gets to keep his command and do what he wants with it. First Officer Saru (the token alien) is from a prey species and has a paralysing lack of ability to take risks. And so on. And so on. Whenever the show threatens to kill one of the principals, or makes them look like a traitor (and at least one of these things seems to happen every episode or two), I just don't care.

There's only one vaguely sympathetic character, Cadet Sylvia Tilly, who's portrayed in that socially-inept, borderline-autistic way that's usually Hollywood code for "very smart person"… except that she doesn't get to do much in the way of being smarter than anyone else, and her character arc such as it is is about her learning to come out of her shell. Even she gets to suffer the same fate that happens to every character, of having to do the thing they would hate most of all to do, because War Is Hell and the scriptwriters are carefully setting things up so that that's the only option. The way you win an interpersonal conflict in this series is by proving that you're hurting more than the other person.

There's a whole new sort of doubletalk drive, letting the ship go wherever the plot needs it to go, instantly, except when that would be too easy and it isn't allowed to work any more. Since this will never be heard of again in Trek series set later in the timeline, clearly something catastrophic will have to happen to it later. (The saucer section spins when the magic drive is activated. 'Nuff said.)

There's The First Gay Couple In A Star Trek Series, but it's no spoiler to say that nobody here will get a happy ending. Yay, a Star Trek series has finally caught up to where TV was twenty years ago. Well, after Bryan Fuller was fired from this show for having actual ideas, Akiva Goldsman seems to have taken up the slack; he's the Hollywood hack's hack, with his fingerprints on a surprising proportion of the crap that's been produced in the last couple of decades. There's constant close-up shaky-cam, reminding me of the revived Battlestar Galactica. The title sequence is visually decent, though the music reminds me of the plinky going-nowhere of Westworld. Unlike previous Trek, this season forms one long story, with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode.

There's the usual Star Trek indifference to detail: something that's supposedly utterly reliable proof is the same thing that the same people were talking about casually faking in the previous episode. But this show borrows its mistakes from other shows too: one threat is that "life as we know it will cease to exist", not just at home where the characters keep all their stuff but in every universe at once - an attempt at escalation which just comes over as bathetic, very much in the manner of modern Doctor Who. What are you going to threaten in season 2, eh?

Most of the plot is about taking the easy short-cuts, about being as bad as the enemy (a third major makeup iteration for Klingons) because Tough Times Need Tough Measures and to hell with ethics; a brief moment of "we're not really horrible, we're supposed to be better than that" in literally the last episode of the season doesn't change what's gone before, or the fact that the people who made all those evil decisions are still the people in charge.

There are plenty of gobbets of continuity thrown to the long-time fans, in a way that reminds me of the dying years of original Doctor Who; but at the same time, everything is glowy blue touch-screen displays and casual use of force fields, looking much more like the advanced tech of later-set Trek series than like the original show to which it's supposedly closest in time. (They even wear metal badges, rather than the shiny fabric of the original series.)

In terms of reception, this is pretty much the opposite of The Orville: audience approval ratings have been poor, but the critics and Serious Fans love it. It's Star Trek with all the optimism stripped out and replaced with hopeless pointless war and torture and gruesome death: very much a series for modern times.

But Michelle Yeoh, very obviously the only Real Actor in this crowd, is great. Pity the budget wouldn't stretch to having her as a regular; I'd watch a series with her as the captain. Though they'd probably have found a way to make that horrible too.

It's been renewed for another season.

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:14pm on 21 March 2018

    My patience seems to have run out in the mirror universe sequence which is Double-War-Is-Hell with Extra Pointless Sadism.

  2. Posted by John Dallman at 09:58pm on 21 March 2018

    I detect a faint whiff of preparation-for-remake. Surely a modernised remake of TOS could make lots of money?

    It may be possible to be too cynical about TV executives, but I doubt I can manage it.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 10:25am on 22 March 2018

    Michael: with a squid garnish.

    John: I think remaking the original show would require the producers to establish a third continuity (all existing TV series plus original films, new films, TOS remake) which might seem like too much work. But certainly they seem to have lost their taste for extending the timeline into the future, and they've already reissued TOS with updated special effects so they may finally have run out of people who want to buy it…

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:30pm on 22 March 2018

    I was going to watch this for Michelle Yeoh, but it became clear she wasn't a regular before I got as far as watching any episodes. I lost interest in the entire thing at that point, and your review only re-inforces the correctness of that decision.

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