Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Star Trek: Discovery" Year One

All the spoilers.  All of them.

For the first half of "Star Trek: Discovery," I was firmly in the position of the patient, long-time Trek fan who wasn't particularly happy with what the new series was doing, but who understood that "Star Trek" shows often had bumpy first seasons.  There were a lot of things that weren't working, but I was optimistic that things could improve with time.

And then the Discovery went to the infamous Mirror Universe, and everything got much better in a hurry.  It honestly didn't occur to me that the first half of the season was doing so much set-up for the second half, because that's not how "Star Trek" traditionally operates.  However, this time around with the benefit of a serialized story and ongoing character arcs, "Discovery" could do things like big plot twists and evolving relationships and all that good space opera melodrama.  And the payoffs, though often predictable, were so satisfying to see play out. Purists might have fretted that this wasn't what they wanted out of "Star Trek," but I was ecstatic to find the show's creators committed to trying something so different.  There was a definite sense of ambitious experimentation, of turning the old formulas upside down and seeing what interesting things could be done with all the familiar "Trek" tropes.

The flip side of this, of course, is that the series is dreadfully inconsistent and some of the ideas are very badly executed.  Most of the season embraces a darker, gloomier aesthetic and more serious atmosphere, which works great when the show is fully in that groove.  This is the most apparent in the Mirror Universe episodes, where the narrative momentum gets a big boost from the nightmare scenario of an alternate dimension populated by evil versions of everyone we know.  Much less successful are the adventures that try to incorporate lighter material, like the Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) episode with the time loops. It's mostly thrilling and darkly humorous, but then has a weirdly sentimental ending that doesn't fit.  Or there's the finale, where a lot of time is spent on a big exciting mission, except it also has to tie up all these loose ends, and winds up feeling sloppy and unfocused.

I liked the central character of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) more than most, though her stoicism made it difficult to really empathize with her, and rendered her romance with Ash (Shazad Latif) difficult to swallow at times.  There have been a lot of awkward romantic relationships in "Star Trek" history, but this one was still pretty rough. Fortunately Martin-Green's performance was consistently strong throughout, and she managed to sell the tougher aspects of the character and nail a few big monologues.  The rest of the Discovery crew quickly grew on me, especially Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Commander Saru (Doug Jones). I will also be extremely disappointed if this is the last we ever see of Ash, Lorca (Jason Isaacs), Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Culber (Wilson Cruz).

It has to be said that Fuller's treatment of the Klingons was a huge misstep, not only because the redesign made it so much more difficult for the actors to get anything across, but having all those lengthy Klingon language scenes in the early episodes was mind-numbing to sit through.  I don't think the Voq storyline was worth it, even if the twist was very clever. The Discovery handing L'Rell (Mary Chieffo) ultimate power doesn't make any damn sense. The whole resolution of the war happened far too quickly. I suspect that there was some significant rewriting that went on to reduce the amount of Klingon involvement in the second half.  This is a disappointment, since the Klingons have a lot of potential for more epic storylines, and they were never remotely so problematic in the past.

Going forward, my hope is that "Discovery" relies less on spectacle and stunts, and widens its scope a bit so that we can focus on characters other than Michael Burnham.  I had no issue with how corny some of the big plot developments were - this is "Star Trek" after all - but it did get tiresome how everything seemed to revolve around Michael.  Stamets (Anthony Rapp) or Tilly or even Ash would be good candidates to take a bigger role next year. And I'll definitely be back for next year, if only to see how "Discovery" continues to change and grow.  I don't think the show is done surprising us yet.


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