Not since The Next Generation premiered in 1987 can I remember a Star Trek show being as divisive as Discovery before it even aired. Many a rant has been written about sets, costumes, Klingon makeup, and canon. Heck, I wrote one. The most disturbing fracturing of fandom over Discovery has been regarding race. How dare a franchise that had a black main character and a woman main character have a black woman main character? In 2017 of all times! “Forced diversity”, they called it, as if casting a white guy as a lead is some kind of meaningless default and not a tactical decision. In fact, it’s become painfully obvious that Discovery is in a heavy weight battle with Orville cast as the “Great White Hope” of TV sci-fi. So there’s a lot riding on Discovery being good. Is it? I don’t know yet.
There’s a lot this show has going for it right off the bat. The cast is great. They grated on me a bit in the trailer because its dialog consisted solely of “big idea” cliches. Hearing them speak like mere mortals throughout the two hour premiere certainly made them more human, nuanced, and likable. The lead character, first officer Michael Burnham, is an interesting twist on the stoic Star Trek character. Unlike Spock, who was a mostly-Vulcan struggling to suppress his human side, Burnham is a human raised on Vulcan who may not mind showing her humanity, but doesn’t quite know how. She’s cold and meticulous, yet bursting with passion that she’s not exactly embarrassed by. She’s openly and outwardly in (nohomo) love with her captain, Philippa Georgiou who has been her tutor in the humanities for seven years. Georgiou is a great captain – wise, patient, and strong in the mold of Picard. It’s a shame we won’t see enough of her in this series, as her relationship with Burnham was the best part of Discovery so far. The next best part is Lt. Saru, who is, for all intents and purposes, C-3P0 on Xanax. His pride in his abilities and intensely paranoid sense of self-preservation are, fortunately more subdued than his droid analogue, but no less hilarious.
I’m still not sold on Discovery‘s look, however. My criticism of the show’s cliched sci-fi military blues and bland, dark grey sets stand. I also am not thrilled about the ship design. The most memorable space ships have always been the simplest, with instantly recognizable silhouettes. Discovery lacks this entirely. Every ship is so cluttered and messy looking that I found it hard to tell the difference between Klingon and Federation vessels during the big shoot out at the end of hour two. In fact, it was even hard to tell what was a ship and what was an asteroid at times. The ones with the lasers coming out of them, I guess. New viewers won’t mind, but long time fans will be completely baffled and annoyed by the strange mix of Original Series and Next Generation sound effects.
Where Discovery really falls down is its semi-nonsensical plot and its main character’s completely off-the-wall behavior. Burnham was raised by Vulcans because her colony was attacked by a random group of Klingons, killing her parents. Because of this she’s a total Klingon racist. When the Shenzhou finds itself nose-to-nose with the first Klingon ship it’s ever seen, Burnham wants to shoot at it because that’s all Klingons understand. Her desire to fire first on the Klingons is so strong she nerve pinches her beloved captain and attempts to commandeer the ship. That makes Burnham come off like a total loon even though, apparently, she’s right. Seeing Burnham’s prejudices come to pass doesn’t make her seem like a hero, it just makes the show writers seem prejudice.
Things shape up a bit during the battle with some nice action pieces, including Burnham reasoning the ship’s computer into helping her escape the brig. Georgiou’s solution for defeating the main Klingon ship by beaming a warhead into a dead warrior being tractored in for preservation brilliantly uses established (within the episode) Klingon cultural quirks against them. It’s at this point that the newly freed Burnham states that avoiding a prolonged war would involve capturing the Klingon cult leader at the helm of this battle rather than killing him and making him a martyr. Makes perfect sense to me. The execution, however, is completely absurd. I get the whole Trekkie thing of putting the command staff at the heart of an away mission because drama, but Kirk never landed anywhere dangerous without a bunch of red shirts at his side. So, when Georgiou and Burnham beam over to the massive, hugely populated Klingon dreadnaught alone they look like idiots and Georgiou’s death is as predictable as it is upsettingly pointless. What’s not expected, in a WTF kind of way, is Burnham killing the Klingon big bad instead of capturing him as she, herself, suggested.
I’m not a big fan of war stories in Star Trek. There are already a dozen sci-fi franchises that are entirely about war. Only Star Wars has ever matched the wide popularity of Star Trek at it’s most pacifistic, so I don’t know why, exactly, this genre is being mined for Star Trek‘s first TV outing in a decade. I had been hoping that Discovery would at least be a nuanced approach to the topic, perhaps a situation where you’re the good guy but you’re still in the wrong. The trailer made it seem like some kind of misunderstanding or cultural incompatibility on the part of Burnham had caused the conflict. “You helped start this war, now help me end it,” was one of the big lines. There was even some ambiguity on the Klingon’s motivations. I may have been misreading things, but at some point it seemed like all this mishegas was an overture of peace on their part – one that Burnham’s hawkish stance might completely ruin. But that wasn’t the case. The Klingons were bad. Nothing our heroes did made that better or worse. There was going to be a war no matter what. Burnham’s part in it was practically irrelevant.
There’s a lot of really bad racial stuff going on in Discovery, which I alluded to earlier. It’s kind of annoying that the evil Klingons have gone from a shoe-polished brown to all out black-face. They are still seemingly genetically-hardwired, like most fantasy races, to a single personality type – in this case aggressive warriorness. There is some discussion amongst the humans of knowing the difference between a race and a culture, but it’s a complete throwaway line and the fact that the writers know how tone-deaf they’re being but don’t care makes things all the worse. No one says the “Germans” are a bunch of genocidal maniacs. That description is reserved for “Nazis”. Culture and ideology are separated from ethnicity by using specific terms. Klingons are just referred to as Klingons. I also found it exceptionally cringe-worthy when, in this same conversation on race, a white, male admiral point-blank chastises Burnham for being prejudice because she’s a black woman who should know better. Um, what? This leaves me wary about the kinds of wisdom the USS Discovery’s white guy captain is going to impart on Burnham when he arrives.
Despite it’s flaws, Discovery is a satisfying watch. I saw it with the whole family and, even though we all seemed to be yelling the same frustrations at the screen, we each came away wanting to see more. I like the concept of the characters. Although half of my favorite dynamic was lost, I’m still willing to see where the survivors go after this. At this point I’m as annoyed with Discovery‘s opening two hours as I am with Encounter at Farpoint, and I like Encounter at Farpoint.