Star Trek: Discovery – A First Season Review

Ordinarily, when reviewing TV shows, I would watch 4 to 6 episodes to get a good feel for the program. With Star Trek: Discovery, I decided to wait until it concluded its first season before doing a review because I honestly could not decide how I felt about it. This latest Star Trek spinoff has been the most difficult to form an opinion about. It has many commendable features, yet there are so many aspects about it that misfires so badly, that we have to wonder if the creators behind this spinoff understand Star Trek at all. Major spoilers will follow.

Star Trek: Discovery takes place in the 2250s, which makes it a prequel to the original Star Trek. Then again it does not feel like a prequel but more like a remake. Naturally, it does not recreate the mood and production of the original because it would have been laughed off and this is part of the reason why it is so controversial with fans. Overall, this show has to be accepted as a remake rather than a reboot because there are many attempts to stick to canon and some elements established in the original Prime timeline, such as numerous Easter eggs, references and sound effects. On the other hand, they’re not always consistent with sticking to canon, which can be irritating. But once you put aside these feelings about this latest Star Trek spinoff, it becomes easier to watch.

Star Trek: Discovery is updated to today’s standards in terms of special effects, set design and writing. The entire show is beautifully executed and each episode feels more like a feature-length film than a TV show. While this is welcome, at times the creators went too far in reimagining Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic universe. A case in point is the unnecessary re-do of the Klingons, the show’s main enemy race. The poor actors portraying the Klingons seem to be drowning under all the heavy makeup and wardrobe and we have to wonder why the showrunners thought this was an improvement over the perfected Klingon look seen in the other spinoffs and films. Be that as it may, the subtle updating of other alien races like the Andorians and the Tellarites are executed well.

The Star Trek spinoff follows the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a former first officer who mutinied against her captain and was jailed. Her actions helped spark a war between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets and most of the first season is devoted to this storyline and her redemption. Burnham is freed by the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), and enlists her to his crew for some ulterior motive. He assigns her to aid the ship’s science officer Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and find a way to utilize an experimental spore drive being tested on the Discovery to win the war against the Klingons. Eventually this results in Stamets using himself as a conduit for the spore drive, which allows the ship to instantaneously travel anywhere.Even though Burnham is the main protagonist, Lorca has emerged as the most fascinating character thanks in part to Isaacs’ exemplary acting and the way he is written. Lorca was introduced as a mysterious, and unusually brutal commander who was obsessed with winning the war. He was not above tossing aside ethics to get the job done, and pushing people beyond their limit, yet he was a capable commander. But in the second half of the season, the Discovery wound up in the Mirror Universe where humans are evil and it was revealed that Lorca himself came from this reality. This confirmed many suspicions that fans had but in the end, this development was a disservice to Lorca who became a moustache-twirling villain and unremarkable. Hopefully, some way can be found to return some version of Lorca in the second season.Therein lies the fault and strength of Star Trek: Discovery and this is typical of its conflicting nature. Some characters are compelling and well developed like First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), a lanky and fastidious alien, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a bubbly young cadet, and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a Starfleet officer who is actually a Klingon that was surgically altered into a human in order to infiltrate Starfleet. While others are interesting background bridge crewmembers  that  the show largely ignores. I’m not even sure what their names are, I just know them as the cyborg lady, or the woman with the metal implant on her skull. They barely have any dialogue and are begging to be examined more closely.

The stories themselves are also just as uneven. Some episodes are genuine classics and belong up there with the great Star Trek episodes. These include “The Wolf Inside”, “Despite Yourself” (two fantastic Mirror Universe tales), “Lethe”, “Choose Your Pain”, and “Into the Forest I Go”. As great as those were, Star Trek: Discovery is also weighed down with some downright clunkers that are poorly plotted and clumsily executed. One example is the first episode that aired for free on CBS, “The Vulcan Hello”, which needed to be great to entice people to subscribe to the CBS All Access app that streamed the rest of the episodes. Unfortunately, the season also ended on a less-than-thrilling note with a two-episode storyline that ended the war too quickly and unsatisfactory. However, the final shot of the last episode “Will You Take My Hand?” brought a thrill when a sparkling and graceful Enterprise appeared on the screen.Despite these faults, I have to admit that I genuinely enjoy Star Trek: Discovery. As far as first season Star Trek shows go, this is the best one since the original Star Trek. Unlike some other Star Trek spinoffs that first started out, this show is rarely dull and takes some genuine risks, even if they do not pay off. Of course, the criticism is valid that unlike its predecessors there isn’t any exploring done. This is something that is a vital essence of Star Trek, but it does push the envelope, chiefly with its characters and focus. The captain is not the main hero but a broken and disgraced former officer. Many of the characters are out to prove themselves and most of them do, which is why they are so easy to watch and root for.Another thing to note is that putting aside all the action and eye-popping visuals (seeing the Discovery spin its saucer while it goes into spore drive never gets dull), certain elemental truths about Star Trek are still there. We just have to recognize them: accepting diversity, seeking diplomatic solutions, and bettering yourself. As Alexander Courage’s iconic theme played during the end credits of the season finale, I found myself eagerly waiting to see more from Star Trek: Discovery, and for that reason the show is a success.

José Soto

 

 

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The Negativity Towards Modern Star Trek & Star Wars

The two big live-action sci-fi franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars, are undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. Or rather the crisis is about how their fans are reacting to the latest incarnations of both franchises.

The properties are several decades old by now and although so much of what made them popular still resonates with people, they have to remain fresh. In other words, Star Trek and Star Wars have to keep up with the times. This meant that the recent incarnations are distinctly different from the original versions, which has sharply divided fandom.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek returned to home screens with Star Trek: Discovery, a show that is in many ways a radical departure from the 1960s TV show. The lead is not a white male captain, but a black female science officer who committed mutiny. That’s not all. Star Trek: Discovery features an openly homosexual couple, a starship captain with questionable morals, and a much darker tone where adult language and violence are commonplace.

The premise of Star Trek is about a starship exploring new worlds and meeting new races. There is very little of that in Star Trek: Discovery as it takes place during a war with the alien species, the Klingons. This was something that Star Trek’s original creator, Gene Roddenberry, would not approve. He presented a futuristic show about an enlightened humanity.

While Star Trek: Discovery explores issues like its predecessor, the characters, not the guest aliens, are the ones undergoing their own ethical crisis. An early subplot of the show dealt with the morality of the ship’s crew forcibly using an alien creature as a means of propulsion. This brought up the problem of animal abuse and later the characters’ ethics were heightened when it was revealed that the creature was sentient. The captain’s justification for the abuse was that he was trying to win a war. Another main character is actually a Klingon disguised as a human, who suffers from PTSD and is grappling over his sanity. Then the main character, Michael Burnham, committed treasonous acts that ignited a war with the Klingons and agonizes over her past. These characters are not exactly clear cut heroes.

The Ambiguous Star Wars

The new Star Wars trilogy films have featured women as the lead characters, as well as non-whites. Unlike the original films that concentrated on a young, white male savior, the new films have strong women who are the central characters.

The films are also more ambiguous than the original ones with their simplistic good vs. evil plotlines. For example, in the latest film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the issues of war profiteering, class inequality, and animal abuse were brought up. The film’s villain had a more ambivalent nature as Kylo Ren was genuinely conflicted about embracing his dark nature. Actually, his descent into evil was more interesting than the film’s other one-dimensional foes, who were little more than cackling caricatures.

One of the heroes featured in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Luke Skywalker, the main protagonist from the earlier films. In this film, he was a fallen man, full of defeat and bore little resemblance to the optimistic savior of the original trilogy. This arc gave Luke more dimension and provided a vehicle to explore his spiritual reawakening and redemption.  In the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the main characters were also spiritually murky as they carried out dubious actions in the spirit of winning the war. For example, one of the leads, Cassian Andor, cold bloodedly murdered an accomplice in order to escape the bad guys. The overall tone of that film was harsher as it dealt with the brutality and ambiguity of war.

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Quentin Tarantino’s F!*#@ing Star Trek

One entertainment news item that came out of left field lately has been about a new Star Trek movie. What was unusual about the news is that famed director and writer Quentin Tarantino pitched an idea for a new Star Trek film and might direct it. Today, Deadline reported that Tarantino will be heavily involved and part of his deal with Paramount Pictures and J.J. Abrams, who runs the movie series, is that the film be rated R. The shocker is that the film studio and Abrams agreed to this.

OK this is really out there for Star Trek and reflects the state of the franchise. This development will certainly upset fans clamoring for a return to traditional Star Trek. Already, many of these purists are up in arms over the radical departure taken by Star Trek: Discovery such as featuring a black, female lead, a potentially evil starship captain, and an openly gay couple. There was a mini-meltdown in the Internet over one episode where F-bombs were dropped in one scene. As shocking as it was to hear on Star Trek, it certainly was an attention grabber. Now imagine countless F-bombs and other types of swearing from the stars of a new Star Trek film.

Aside from foul language, an R-rated Star Trek film will revel in violence and possibly sex or nudity. All this is fine for most of us who can handle it, but is this the right direction for Star Trek? The franchise is noted for pushing the envelope but by exploring themes and making observations about our current society. And Star Trek: Discovery has been pushing the envelope in showcasing more adult fare such as the cursing, brief nudity and it is violent. It’s no wonder that the show is behind the pay premium wall of the CBS All Access streaming service. Actually there are stronger reasons for this, namely wanting to milk Star Trek fans, but that is for another post.

But why go this route? The answer is that Star Trek has to experiment and try new things. The franchise has been showing its age lately and something needed to be done to shake things up. Of course, this runs the risk of alienating die-hard Trek fans, but it seems as if there are not enough of them to support the franchise. As proof of this notion, Paramount will point to the disappointing box office of Star Trek Beyond. That film, which was the best of the rebooted films, was more of a traditional Star Trek, but it did not have legs. Meanwhile, Star Trek: Discovery has created some buzz with its edgier stories even though the series, as a whole, wildly deviates from the Star Trek formula.

Already, the news of Quentin Tarantino’s involvement is generating a lot of needed attention for Star Trek and that has the potential to pay off. Tarantino is a top-tier director, who is often nominated for Oscars, plus, he is a big Star Trek fan, unlike J.J. Abrams. On top of that, the frontrunner to write the film’s script is Mark L. Smith, who penned the acclaimed film The Revenant. These are reasons to be optimistic. Other genre films have recently gone into the R-rated club to great success like Logan or Deadpool. So perhaps fans are ready for an edgier Star Trek.

But there is also cause for concern. Zack Snyder and others at Warner Bros. tried presenting a darker and edgier DC Cinematic Universe but that did not work out well for those films. Many fans outright rejected the gritter takes on Superman and others, while the latest effort, Justice League, has not turned out to be the blockbuster. Many critics complained about how dark and dreary the films were since they are used to bright colors and lighter themes from superhero films. This same problem could befall an R-rated Star Trek film.

No matter what, a Star Trek film by Quentin Tarantino will be controversial and bold and it will alienate many fans much worse than the Abrams reboots have done. However, they could be better received. Just remember that Tarantino is an avowed fan, so as Seth MacFarlane does with The Orville, he may show the proper reverence and respect to the material. At this point, the franchise (and Paramount) has to take a chance and boldly go where no Star Trek has gone before.

Lewis T. Grove

KINO: Klingons In Name Only

klingon in name only

Whether fans love or hate or fall somewhere in between Star Trek: Discovery, one thing that nearly everyone agrees with is that the re-imagined Klingons are a bad misfire. In fact, many consider them to be the show’s biggest flaw. As the main villains in the latest Star Trek TV show, these Klingons bear little resemblance to the traditional mighty Klingons seen in previous Star Trek TV shows. They deviate so much that they can only be considered Klingons In Name Only (KINO) and this is a problem since they are the main adversaries in Star Trek: Discovery.

From Cold Warriors To Gruff Allies 

Klingons have had a long history with Star Trek going back to the first season of the original show. When they were first introduced, they were supposed to be a mix of Nazis and Soviets and their conflict with the peaceful Federation represented the Cold War going on at the time. Due to limited budgets, the makeup of the Klingons was simplistic: swarthy, greasy complexions with arched eyebrows and goatees. Needless to say, they could pass for humans.

kor and kirk

Later when Star Trek became a film series, increased budgets allowed for the aliens’ look to be enhanced. They were sported browed ridges on their foreheads and wore durable and elaborate body armor. They were bulky, formidable warriors that were more than a match for any human opponent. As the films progressed and new TV shows premiered, the Klingons were better developed until they became a rich alien culture with their own distinct language. This gruff, heavy handed tongue became so popular with fans that it is now the most spoken fictional language in the world today.

The alien race had evolved from simplistic Cold War stand-ins and became a complex civilization with a fascinating back story. They even became allies of the Federation, though the culture clashes remained. Of course, there was the continuity issue of how the classic Klingons looked more alien than the human-like ones from the original show. This was solved in the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise where it was shown that the Klingon race contracted a virus that mutated them into having a more human appearance. It was outlandish, but it worked.

classic klingons

By this point, the Klingons were perfected. Yet, for some reason when it came time to reboot Star Trek the iconic Klingon look was changed. In their only full appearance to date, Star Trek Into Darkness, they didn’t have any hair and looked more alien. They still came off as savage, bloodthirsty warriors, but weren’t as hefty or burly as classic Klingons. The reaction to them was mixed, but everyone knew the reboots took place in an alternate reality, so the new look could be overlooked by some.

One of the most enticing details about Star Trek: Discovery was that the show would take place in the Prime Star Trek Timeline. This excited many fans who felt alienated by the action-oriented reboots. Then images and clips started appearing which discouraged fans. In addition to the advanced technology and contradictory plot details, the Klingons received yet another unwanted makeover.

Meet The KINOs

Everything about them looks different except for the browed ridges that now  are more prominent since they are hairless. Their skin tone is either purple, black or white with super flared nostrils. The KINOs wear ugly uniforms that looked more like bony dresses than armor and aren’t as formidable as real Klingons. What is worse is that brusque and clipped Klingon tongue sounds different, more unnatural. Maybe it is the makeup but now the Klingons sound like they have something in their mouths and it is difficult to listen to them. At no point in the episodes shown have we heard their famous battle cry “Qapla!”, meaning “Success!” Instead we get long, drawn out speeches that is hard on the ears and ponderous to read with all the subtitles.

It can be argued that these could be another unseen-til-now faction of Klingons or something along that line. But this is a needless revision. There wasn’t anything wrong with the classic Klingon look. Why did the showrunners feel the need to meddle with not only the look, but the complex culture of the beloved aliens? If the argument is to be different and update their look then why stop there? Why not update the Vulcans? As aliens go, they are not remarkable in this day; pointed ears and arched eyebrows. Not the most exciting look, but to try to change it would be blasphemy at this point.

klingon burial

What is probably worse for the KINOs is the way they are portrayed in Star Trek: Discovery. They do not seem very bright for vaunted military types. In the episode “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry” the Klingons led by Voq are stranded near an abandoned Federation starship for six months. Voq boards the enemy starship to scavenge for parts, but if they were marooned for six months why didn’t he and the other Klingons scavenge the starship sooner? Then the way they perceive death is radically different than with classic Klingons. Both do the death cry when one of their own dies to warn the afterlife of a coming Klingon soul. However, once a Klingon is dead the corpse is casually discarded because the body is just a husk. These KINOs instead put their dead into elaborate sarcophagi and transfer them onto a special funeral ship. Huh?  Even their ships and weapons bear little resemblance to the iconic Klingon battle cruisers, birds-of-prey and bat’leths.

For a Star Trek show that is allegedly set in the Prime Timeline these Klingons are the best argument that this is not so. But debating about timelines and canon is pointless and would not be so heated if the Klingons were better realized. Frankly, whenever these KINOs appear onscreen the pace of the episodes comes to a screeching halt. There is an interesting subplot about uniting their separate clans to become a major power again. But that gets lost in the slow pace of their poorly written scenes. They simply are not as intimidating as classic Klingons. One attempt to make them frightening is to have them eat dead humans, which comes off as sickening.

Star-Trek-Discovery-Klingon-Kol

Even more distressing is that the showrunners are blind to the negative reception to their version of Klingons and are intent on doubling down on them throughout the season. Maybe this is not the final word on the Klingons, we can only hope that something is done about these KINOs. Until then the best we can do is either re-watch previous Star Trek shows to get our classic Klingons or fastforward Star Trek: Discovery whenever they appear or at the very least stuff cotton into our ears when they open their mouths to talk.

José Soto

 

 

The Orville Captures The Traditional Spirit Of Star Trek

When The Orville was first announced, many quickly noticed that the Seth-MacFarlane’s dramedy had strong resemblances to the vaunted Star Trek. If it was not a comedy, it would have been labeled a rip-off and for good reason.

The TV show, which airs on Fox, is about the adventures of Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) and his crew onboard the Orville, an exploratory starship in the 25th century. Like a traditional Star Trek show, each episode to date is a standalone where the crew would visit a strange planet or deal with some science fiction plot. Sounds familiar?

orville crew

Despite the overtly comedic tone of the early trailers, The Orville is not a laugh-out-loud comedy like MacFarlane’s Family Guy. It is very funny at certain moments but it’s more serious than one would think. This is probably why the show received so many negative reviews since the reviewers were probably expecting a yuck-fest. But if one would actually watch the show and put aside any preconceptions then what will be discovered is that The Orville is actually quite fun.

It is clear that Seth MacFarlane is not trying to make fun of Star Trek. It may be surprising to some that he is actually a huge Trek fan. This is why The Orville does not come off as a spoof that makes fun of the source material; it’s surprisingly respectful.

Anyone who misses Star Trek will be pleased to know that the spirit of Star Trek is alive and well with this show. This is not a knock against Star Trek: Discovery, but while the latest Trek incarnation has the burden of trying to be different, The Orville does not have that problem. It is free to capture the essence of Trek and show us why we loved Star Trek in the first place.

Typical episodes have the crew encountering alien cultures and planets where various themes are explored. In one episode, the Orville discovers a giant generational ship where the inhabitants believed they were living in a world. It was up to Mercer and his away team to expose them to the truth (the bothersome Prime Directive is noticeably absent) despite the efforts of the ship’s rulers.

Another episode centered on the plight of the Orville’s second officer Bortus (Peter Macon). He is a gruff Klingon-like alien that is part of a single-gender species. All the members are male but in this episode he and his mate have a baby girl and want to have her sex changed. This decision clashes with the human culture of the Orville crew and leads to ethical questions. While the episode did have jokes, the subject matter was treated dramatically and with respect, and in the end it was thought provoking like a classic Star Trek episode.

What completes the overt resemblance to Star Trek, especially the ‘90s versions, is the look of the show. The costumes, sets, and props look like they could blend in easily with Star Trek in the post-Roddenberry era. The ship has replicators, holodecks and the crew is adorned with communicators and phaser guns that only look slightly different than those seen on Trek. Of course, Star Trek: Discovery has much better effects, but it is comforting to watch the more downscale special effects in The Orville. It feels less pretentious and just a means to tell a story.

orville ship

With all those pluses for Trek fans, The Orville does have its problems. A lot of the attempts at humor falls flat or feels forced. More often than not, the jokes will only bring smiles, but when they land the humor is quite funny. Also, the natural banter between the crew tries too hard at times to sell the notion that they are everyday Joes. Somehow these characters do not seem like a good fit in an actual starship. Helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and navigator John LeMarr (J. Lee) seem too laid back and casual to be believable starship officers. In trying to make them so relatable to viewers the show instead makes their behavior seem unnatural for their setting.

As for Mercer, MacFarlane lacks the gravitas to pull off a commanding presence. Instead Captain Mercer is more of an officer manager type, although he is quite likeable. Making him more sympathetic is his dilemma of his first officer being his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). Do not be surprised if the show soon veers into will-they-or-won’t-they shenanigans.

For those who are unable to easily watch Star Trek: Discovery because it’s held behind a streaming wall, The Orville is a perfectly acceptable substitute. After watching it, it is easy to see that The Orville in many respects outdoes Star Trek: Discover in carrying on the tradition of Star Trek.

José Soto