CBS All-Access’ SECOND best show, goes where the franchise has been going for the past nine years
I have to hand it to Star Trek fans, they are THE most loving and accepting fan universe in all of Nerddom & Geekery. When followers of a video game franchise or ‘Star Wars’ fans sense a change in the air, one that might inject fresh new ideas and induct new fans, they immediately GASP! As if the hint of freshness and inclusivity made them suddenly breathless. Not so with Trekkies, who embrace change wherever they go. Their reputation among outsiders to me is sort of like Science Fiction Canadians to Star Wars Americans. I must say even through I watched all 15 episodes of Discovery, alone, in the comfort of my own home on Space, through contributing a few thoughts through Twitter and AV Club‘s episodic coverage and watching a few key episodes of After Trek I still felt like I was part of a greater community of fans even though by Trek standards I am relatively new to the series.
I was formally introduced to the franchise through the 1-2-3-punch of the excellent 2009 Star Trek trailers which anxiously brought me to the theatre to see the reboot. I was pleased and afterwards I was filled with a sense of hope for even greater franchise prospects for the franchise now that the proper groundwork was laid. I remember chatting in high school with the resident Star Trek nerd who was also a Star Wars fan and we asked which one was better? We agreed that if Star Trek had one more good movie and one that was better than the reboot then it’d be Trek that triumphs. That reboot was written by Discovery Creator/ Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman who apart from the Trek reboot and stale sequel also wrote the first Transformers movie and the semi-okay The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the mess that was Cowboys & Aliens, and wrote/ produced and directed one of the worst movies of 2017 The Mummy. If I were Leslie Moonves (head of CBS) I’d look for an additional creator to head up this series since the other series co-creator, the fantastic Bryan Fuller (watch the Hannibal tv series) walked and Kurtzmann doesn’t really ever know what to do after the first stage of his projects are completed [see Transformers 2 or Star Trek Into Darkness]. His lack of answers on the After Trek show seem pretty telling he has no vision for the franchise, rather he’s just keeping the motor running. Perhaps Drew Goddard (The Good Place, Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian, first season of Daredevil) could lend a hand.
Let’s get into the most interesting part of this series and that is the characterization which holds the show’s strongest and weakest points. Captain Philippa Georgiou of the Shenzhou is okay and I wish her early character had stuck around a few episodes longer as her later iteration feels a bit awkward and miscast. Michelle Yeoh who I have been a fan of since her turn as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies does the best she can do in her role where her warm and patient presence in the pilot is noted but her return and mirrored arc to end the season is not really given the attention it deserves. Sonequa Martin-Green gives a memorable turn as Michael Burnham, and it’s smart of the series to focus on a character who is not a captain or really even captain-esque. Instead you have a mutineer whose actions lead into a war with the Klingons. Frustrating in its similarity to Captain Kirk’s actions in the Kurtzmann penned Star Trek Into Darkness the show doesn’t ever really ever condemn Burnham for the dangers her rebellious actions might cause for others or make her account for consequences instead frequently commending her for acting on instinct without evidence and against protocol. Because Green is so effective in this role and the writers apart from setting up the series don’t provide her with serious consequences the only interesting dynamic that really generates friction in the series is her initial relationship with Lieutenant Commander & First Officer Saru played by Doug Jones. Saru is by far the most consistently written character on the show and is somewhat of a Spock Clone. It’s odd because he’s Kelpien, a new creation of the series and is less Vulcan than Burnham who was raised Vulcan but rarely shows evidence of that beyond when it’s convenient. Saru is my favourite character on the series who holds the principles of Starfleet even when the federation inexplicably does not (again when its convenient or interesting, lazy writing abound). Science Officer Paul Stamets also adds a lot of heart to the series despite being introduced as rather prickly. He gets the centre of the first good episode: Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad, and many carries the confusing plotline of a vessel for the Mycelial Network, a plot hole device that Kurtzmann uses not too different from the black hole from the reboot or the magic blood of Into Darkness and Amazing Spider-Man 2. His character softens dramatically as the show goes on to the point where when confronting the person responsible for his life partner’s loss of life gives a small harshly toned speech and an angry stare then leaves. Anthony Rapp is able to pull off both sides of this character and though I hate to mix art and the artist, is believable because he was brave enough to come forward about his experience being victimized against a very powerful foe and stand up for himself without ceding ground or overstepping it. That sort of intertextual grace played out on Trek and in Hollywood pairs well as a vital signal marker of the times we live in. Moving on, additionally he plays an interesting if completely underdeveloped version of his character in the mirror universe that I wish stuck around longer.
My biggest gripe of this series is the entire Ash Tyler character who is best described as the bad girlfriend/ love interest type from every show character you hated. Skyler White before the writers knew what to do with her on Breaking Bad, Peeta from The Hunger Games, Finn (one of far too many) from The 100, Karen Page from Daredevil & The Punisher, these are people who function primarily as weak plot points to manufacture tension. They are a burden on the pacing and raising the dramatic stakes, you just know every time they get handed something they are going to screw it up entirely and function as a liability. Worse they always do it in the name of protecting someone when they can’t protect anyone including themselves and lose every fight physically, intellectually and morally they get challenged on to the point where you wonder how could they have survived in this universe. Tyler is introduced as an imprisoned member of Starfleet onboard a Klingon ship having been tortured for several months is later unquestionably promoted by Captain Lorca (a solid Jason Isaacs) before he gets to know the rest of the crew. He has PTSD and is a rape survivor who is romantically linked to the main character for no other real reason other than he’s a guy, and SPOILER ALERT* – is brainwashed into murdering Medical Officer Hugh Culber and is still allowed to roam the ship. [Attempted murder on this show, even when it approaches genocide in various different timelines gets hand waived away at least twice.] He ends the series absconding away with his rapist indifferent to his presence and who receives no real consequences for it. Anyways you get it I hate him as a character and the writers never should have been included beyond his first episode.
Trying to look back at the best episodes, the Jonathan ‘Riker’ Frakes directed “Despite Yourself” midseason premiere is probably the best. Its pacing is fast, the story is exciting and twisty, which seems to be highest mode of operation for Discovery. So few episodes, like the Saru focused Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum are distinctive. This show works best as non Trek comfort food and fan fiction considering its uneven nature and works best if you don’t think about it too much. That style, a successful echo of the visceral 2009 Blockbuster is a short term gamble with diminishing returns and is long term Anti-Trek. To me the Trek series is about ideas and the new series lacks them. The finale sucks and the end reveal feels like the writers have already run out of ideas and will just piggyback on name checking the original series like the first two movies did. I am excited to see where Discovery could go now that the awkward set ups are out-of-the-way, but it totally does not deserve a prequel name or the fans that carry it.