Michelle Yaoh as Captain Phillipa Georgiou
So, tonight Star Trek: Discovery premiered. First Trek on TV since 2005 and first to be distributed via internet (the first episode on over-the-air CBS in a "first one's free" strategy, behind the CBS Internet paywall thereafter). The leadup was a bit chaotic, with personnel changes and debut delays and a total prohibition on advance reviews of any kind. Expectations were ... let's say moderate.
In some ways, it didn't disappoint. Production values were off the scale. Visually striking, detailed, and I was especially geeking out over the sound effects in the background. Performances mostly good.
In other ways, it rankled, but in minor nitpicky fashions; continuity discrepancies between other Star Trek series, Treknological/scientific liberties that could've been avoided with more attentive writing, that sort of thing.
And in the most important ways, it left me ambivalent. I'll need to see how the story develops to form an opinion on the basic identity of the show and its fidelity to Star Trek ideals and its overall strengths. I think it's a failure of a pilot to leave that much ambivalence, but there's plenty of potential for redemption. What little has been reported about subsequent episodes suggests episode 3 begins a somewhat lighter tone as the titular ship and crew are introduced.
Things I liked:
- Michelle Yeoh as Captain Georgiou. Yeoh presents a complex character of ideals, confidence, compassion, and gravitas, and does it very well. (Spoiler: Too bad she doesn't survive episode 2, hopefully we'll see more of her in flashbacks.)
- Doug Jones as Lt. Cdr. Saru. Saru is an alien of a type we haven't seen before, and both his racial background and his individual demeanor are interesting. He comes from a planet where his species is/was livestock to another species, which is kind of fascinating, and as such his response to potential danger is most often to flee, instinctually preferring the flight aspect of fight-or-flight heavily. He's also caustic and a bit brazen, and he's a science officer, making him kind of a Spock/Bones hybrid character. Clever.
- Design. Mostly. As I said, the visuals are rather impressive and the care that went into graphics and background sound is admirable. There's a touch too much JJ-verse influence on the bridge of the Shenzhou (complete with occasional lens flare), but not enough to distract.
- The "feel" of the culture on Georgiou's starship Shenzhou, which is laid-back yet professional, casual yet disciplined. Captain Georgiou would be fun to work for.
- Starfleet sideburns on the men. Yes! In your face, JJ Abrams.
Things that left me raising my eyebrow Spock-like in a skeptical-not-amused way:
- Our lead character, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequah Martin-Green), is somewhat unlikable. This may well change, but in the pilot episodes she makes some decisions that are simply too contrary to what we're supposed to believe about her as a character to make her sympathetic. We're apparently supposed to be left thinking she was right and did what she did for good, sensible reasons, but it doesn't fly with me. (Spoiler: It may well have been logical to want to show immediate force when encountering Klingons to get them to respect you, making a kind of effort to speak to them on their cultural grounds, but (a) that's counter to what she's supposed to believe in; (b) she was raised in Vulcan culture and as such would expect to err on the side of pacifism; (c) she's supposed to have this awesome mentor-mentee bond with Georgiou that she completely betrays as if it's of no consequence; (d) the history she's basing her course of action on is from pre-KirShara reform days on Vulcan, which may not be strictly relevant, but does play into its ethics; and (e) it rather predictably would play right into the Klingons' hands, and though she wouldn't be aware of the specific Klingon machinations here, they already have a working theory that they were lured here for a confrontation and she is sufficiently forward-thinking [supposedly] to plot out a few moves ahead and realize engaging Klingons violently would be counterproductive to Federation interests. She thinks she was totally in the right, and I think we the audience are supposed to think that too, but really she just fucked up and betrayed her friend and mentor out of recklessness. The war may have started anyway, but her decidedly un-Vulcan bullheadedness did not help avert it.)
- James Frain as Sarek. I'm cool with using the Sarek character here, and he was written well enough, but Frain didn't fit the role. Frain is a fine actor, but he does not remotely evoke Mark Lenard (original portrayer of Sarek) in appearance, cadence, expression, really anything, nor does he bring anything new to the role to distinguish himself from Lenard (or Ben Cross, who played the role — badly — in the JJ movies). As my friend Mark pointed out as we were watching, it is rare for any actor to play a Vulcan well; we came up with only the Big Three Vulcan actors who've successfully pulled it off, not counting Zach Quinto's JJ-verse Spock — Lenard, Leonard Nimoy (obvs), and Tim Russ, who was in some ways channeling Nimoy. I added Gary Graham, whose Ambassador Soval became pretty decent by the end of Enterprise's run, and gave special dispensation to Jolene Blalock's T'Pol due to the writing she was given (mostly good, but often given "reasons" to be un-Vulcanlike) and Kim Catrall, who had the unenviable job of playing an atypical Vulcan pretending to be typical. Not one guest-Vulcan did it well. (Well, maybe Dame Judith Anderson in a rather small role. And Robin Curtis put in the effort.) Even Celia Lovsky's original T'Pau was a bit like your old grandma who's cantankerous and a bit racist but you tolerate it because she's old and will die soon. It's a difficult task, and not even the best actors are always up to the challenge. But with Sarek being such an important character, it's disappointing to have a subpar performance in the role.
- Burnham leaving the bridge during crisis to call home, even if it was to ask for specific info about dealing with Klingons. Paints her in a bad light, and besides, it's dramatically unnecessary. She could have known this bit of history already (might have actively sought it out much earlier given her Klingon-related trauma, and that could have been integrated as part of her flashback sequence).
- The reimagined look of the Klingons. I've read somewhere that the series will over time show us greater variation of the species than we've seen previously, but right now it just seems like the Klingons have a new look just because this time there was more money to spend.
- The music. The opening theme is quite forgettable save for the Alexander Courage fanfare and carries nothing of the splendor found in Jerry Goldsmith's, James Horner's, and Dennis McCarthy's respective themes. Maybe it'll grow on me. Also, the opening credits visuals are different — not bad different, I actually like the storyboardish style — but a little jarring, at least at first.
Things I cringed at, at least a little bit:
- The Klingon scenes. My late friend Scott was a big fan of all things Klingon, and I know others are too, but they were never among my favorite Trek cultures, so maybe that informs my relative lack of interest in the scenes on the Klingon ship; highly expository, and in subtitled Klingon spoken haltingly by actors through prosthetic teeth, these bits give important setup information for what's to come, but are just not compelling. One of the Klingons, Voq, is mildly interesting as an outcast wanting to prove his worth, but the rest are, to this point, kind of cardboard.
- The aforementioned scientific/accepted Trek-lore writing laziness:
- The Klingon fable played out by our villains involves a giant beacon that lights up bright as a star to signal all the heads of important Klingon houses to meet. Signaling across light-years with, well, light is a long-term proposition and completely ill-suited to bringing anyone to you within a handful of centuries. Yes, there were additional components to the signal that shook and vibrated the Shenzhou's superstructure, but the idea was that it was a literal beacon. The light from which was useless. Oops.
- Technological anachronisms. Holographic two-way transmissions, even in real-time across light-years? The "new" holographic communicator was used a couple of times in Deep Space Nine to reasonable effect, but here — 100-plus years earlier — the tech is way more elaborate and serves zero story purpose. In and of itself, it's fine, but as an anachronism that could have been easily avoided it takes me out of the flow of the story. And Klingons with a cloaking device. It wasn't called that and it was implied that it was unique or at least uncommon, but Klingons don't get cloaks until they trade with the Romulans for it later on.
- The mind-meldy conversation between Burnham and Sarek was bothersome not for its content (which was actually quite good), but for its utter non-believability and for exacerbating the real-time-holographic-transmission issue as it rendered that prior bit somewhat redundant. The only similar type of established telepathy with Vulcans is a psychic link between bonded sexual couples, and borrowing that and explaining it away with a "katra" mulligan (contrary to earlier uses of katra mulligans) was irksome and a little icky given Burnham's familial relationship with Sarek.
- The background bridge character that was ... a robot? Cyborg? Weird augmented alien with a full helmet display head? A refugee from Star Wars or the JJ-verse. In the words of V'Ger's probe, "this device serves no purpose."
- I'll swallow it, but the (understandable) retcon of using what becomes the Starfleet-wide delta insignia as the Starfleet-wide iconic image 15-20 years too early, in an era in which we know it is linked exclusively to the starship Enterprise, is a nitpicky nerd-gripe that I will have to explain somehow in my internal head-canon.
- And finally, too much emphasis on action and gee-whiz-neato look-what-we-can-do effects (which, as I said, look great) at the expense of theme and substance. In the absence of the full story and most of the regular characters, this is perhaps an unfair criticism and may change with context. Hopefully it will. But as a pilot it's odd to give this sort of thing short shrift.
Potential here is vast, and it's more solid as a production (even allowing for budget/tech inflation) than The Next Generation's pilot, but with Star Trek I always expect on some level to be, if not overwhelmed, satisfactorily whelmed; DS9's pilot was very good, Enterprise's had flaws but gave a fine foundation, Voyager's was...well, it was much better than what followed. But Discovery's jury is still out, at least until next week.
UPDATE: TrekMovie has a decent recap/review up now that's worth a look. It is spoiler-heavy, though, so beware.