The new Star Trek films baffle me. They have proved popular despite their obvious lack of quality. They are incomprehensible to newcomers because they rely so heavily on material from the established franchise, and they are a slap in the face to established fans who find only a fatuous bastardisation of the once heady social science fiction. Now we have a return to television for Star Trek with the first series since the reboot – Star Trek: Discovery. Oh, what a misstep.
At time of writing, the first two episodes have premiered on Netflix. In keeping with so many original series that Netflix has been churning out lately, this is a stillborn effort. It’s not even as though the problems stem from its interpretation of the Star Trek universe. Discovery fails on the basis of trying to be an engaging television show. Once more, I cannot see what this possible offers for the new or the long initiated to Star Trek.
Having characters exposit their qualities and backstory is not good writing
Much can be gleaned from the first scene introducing the Federation characters. Here, Lt. Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) trudges across a desert planet with Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and the former has to explain to her commanding officer what they are doing there, why they are doing it, and some of the basic rules of conduct for Starfleet. This scene makes no internal sense, is a very poor introduction to the characters, and ultimately contributes nothing to the plot that emerges in the opening two-parter.
The other thing to be noticed in this opening as that the characters don’t actually have character traits. They simply recount their backstory at one another, often citing information that their counterpart already knows, and using this to make assertions about their personalities. Assertions which are not borne out in the writing. Captain Georgiou does not come off as wise or experienced, she is dithering and exhibits arbitrary moments of distrust towards her supposedly close executive officer to randomly provide spikes in interpersonal conflict. Burnham by comparison is meant to have been trained by Vulcans and therefore be intelligent and logical. All she does in these episodes is oscillate wildly between whatever emotions the writers thought would produce more drama at any given point.
Discovery was at times painfully bad to look at
It is worth bringing up production value. The classic Star Trek shows were never made on blockbuster budgets. They made up for weak sets and alien make-up with intelligent and engaging writing. There has been some attempt to invert this formula, but even then this is botched: it’s not even a consistently well-produced show with crappy writing. Though I can applaud the CGI and some of the alien make-up here, the notorious lens flare that the JJ Abrams films have been mocked for goes beyond the pale here. Furthermore, the lighting is just awful. Everything is rendered in stagey lighting that undermines some genuine hard work in set and costume design. It would have been better to go with the flat TV lighting of the 90s shows than this repellent visual style.
I am even feeling cynical about the vaunted inclusivity of the cast. Part of me wonders if this was fielded as a way to deflect criticism from the fact that this is a badly written and ultimately very boring opening to the show. There’s also a sense that Discovery doesn’t understand its own heritage. The declarations about the female-led and largely POC main cast always reeked of a certain degree of ignorance of the boundaries Star Trek had pushed in the past – as though Discovery was the show pushing the envelop, unlike those old shows. Nonsense. You can see this ethos in the scenario too. It’s just a very drawn out Klingon attack that we see in these two episodes (and I must say that classic Trek was able to get through far more material in a single episode than this slog), and it was clearly done because the Klingons are the only enemy with any sort of currency with casual or unexposed viewers. No thought has been put into the fact that originally the Klingons served as an analogous foe to the Soviet Union as the Cold War played out in real life, They were a relevant threat that provided commentary in the period. The cartoonish bogeymen we see here (as much as they are more compelling than the Federation cast) don’t represent anything. This show, at a basic level, has nothing to say.
Now, it is worth saying that these are just the first two episodes and of course many a show has picked up after a shaky start. Hell, Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t hit its stride for two whole seasons. But having said that, TNG did not have so ignominious a start. Taken on its own, Discovery is bland, uneventful, sluggish, poorly written, and badly lit. Relative to its heritage, it feels utterly perfunctory and has no insight to offer.
Verdict: An unnecessary and aberrant iteration of the much-abused Star Trek brand.