Monday, September 25, 2017

Zaki's Review: Star Trek: Discovery

Episode 1: "The Vulcan Hello"
Episode 2: "Battle at the Binary Stars"


When Star Trek: Enterprise signed off the airwaves more than a decade ago on May 13, 2005, it brought to a close an extraordinary run of TV Trekking that by then encompassed 29 seasons and literally hundreds of episodes. Some were good, some were great, and some were forgettable. But the collective value of that catalogue -- and the fan ardor that came with it -- had long ago transformed Star Trek from a three-season sci-fi oddity in the ‘60s, into a United Federation of Programs by the mid-aughts.

While the original series’ cast (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, etc.) transitioned to a successful run of theatrical features a decade after their show went off the air, it wasn’t until the 1987 premiere of syndicated sequel Star Trek: The Next Generation (celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this week) that the franchise’s then-minders realized the raw dollar value in keeping the small screen Star Trek spigot in a perpetual “on” position. So successful was this enterprise (sorry) that at its peak -- from 1993 to 1998 -- there were two Star Trek shows airing concurrently, each cranking out around 26 eps a pop annually.

It was probably inevitable that they couldn't sustain that momentum, especially when the worst possible thing happened for any phenomenon: It became...ordinary. Somewhere along the way, as The Next Generation gave way to Deep Space Nine (still the best of the modern skeins) and Voyager (which I’ve never seen the whole way through), with four Next Generation features sprinkled in the mix, Star Trek went from being a beloved cult artifact to something you didn’t need to search very hard to “seek out.” It was just always there. And with that availability and accessibility, a kind of apathy set in.

By the time the (unfairly maligned) prequel Enterprise’s finale aired on the now-defunct United Paramount Network, there was barely enough of that once-sizable audience left to turn the lights out. It marked quite a precipitous drop for a brand that once seemed so invincible. And while it went back to the big screen in ‘09 for a run of three (and counting?) films rebooting the original cast, Star Trek languished on the on the small screen from whence it sprang, partially a result of the rights being split between CBS (TV) and Paramount (movies).

Still, even while that intervening interregnum seemingly stretched to infinity, there was little doubt Trek would eventually find its way back to television. And tonight’s premiere of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS and CBS All Access not only marks the end of that long sabbatical, it also raises the curtain on what promises to be a whole new iteration of the property, one that encompasses and is informed by all the ways the medium has changed since Scott Bakula’s Captain Jonathan Archer sailed into the syndicated sunset lo those many seasons ago.

When it was first announced two years ago, Discovery didn’t even have a subtitle. All we knew was that it was Star Trek, and it would be produced for CBS’ streaming service. From announcement to debut, it’s been beset by by all manner of production delays, some understandable, some not, coupled with behind-the-scenes shuffling and a general air of bad buzz that tends to prevail in lieu of anything concrete. Some of this was exaggerated, some entirely predictable, but with the final product now available for consumption, hopefully the conversation can finally shift from the optics and marketing to one about quality of content.

Though initially developed by Trek vets Bryan Fuller (who got his start writing for Deep Space Nine and Voyager before making a name for himself on Pushing Daisies and Hannibal) & Alex Kurtzman (co-writer of director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek and its 2013 sequel), Fuller left the proceedings early on (taking a lot of fan goodwill with him), but he left show-runner duties to Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts. (Nicholas Meyer, writer/director of 1982’s beloved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, also adds some genuine bona vides while serving as Consulting Producer.)

While you’d think they’d want to eschew further prequels after Enterprise’s lackluster reception, Discovery is set ten years before Kirk, Spock, etc., and while it takes place in the “prime” universe of the five prior shows, it still owes a pretty clear debt to the “alternate reality” aesthetic of the three “reboot” films. This may end up being one of those distinctions that’ll only matter to hardcore Trek fans, but then again, I have to imagine it’s hardcore Trek fans that CBS can expect to make up the bulk of the audience (and the new subscribers to All Access.

As far as the premise, The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green stars as Commander Michael Burnham as Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou, a Federation starship commanded by Phillippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Burnham was raised by Vulcan ambassador Sarek (James Frain, taking over the role originated by Mark Lenard) following her family’s death during an attack by Klingons (sporting a very different look here than we’ve ever seen before). When she encounters the warrior race on an in-space expedition, she inadvertently sparks what could turn into an intergalactic war.

In a unique arrangement for a production of this kind, CBS aired the pilot, “The Vulcan Hello,”” which was then made available online, along with the second, “Battle at the Binary Stars.” (There will be a total of fifteen entries for the first year -- a far cry from the 48 Trek hours-per-season of the ‘90s.) This two-pronged assault is mostly set-up, laying out the characters and the quest, while also putting a bunch of balls in play to be resolved later. In essence, this show does over roughly 80-some minutes what the Chris Hemsworth-starring prologue in Abrams’ ‘09 movie did in under ten.

That’s not meant as a criticism, by the way. There are also several factors that make Discovery distinct from its forebears even as it very comfortably exists within the extant Star Trek milieu of transporters and communications and phasers (Oh my!). For one, there’s the rather novel idea of making the main character not the captain of the titular ship. For the others, there’s the even-more novel idea of not even introducing the titular ship until (at least) three eps in. (We also haven’t even met most of the series regulars, including Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca of the aforementioned Discovery.)

The sense of extreme serialization, where we can have several chapters with ever-escalating tension without any clear resolution is right out of the Walking Dead/Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad playbook. Nonetheless, it’ll no doubt feel alien (no pun intended) to the generations of folks who’ve grown accustomed to the “comfort food” aspect of much prior Star Trek, where each adventure offered up a neat little set-up and resolution within its forty-some minutes. This most isn’t that, but that’s not a bad thing.

For Star Trek to survive, it had to evolve, and while it dabbled in serialization before via the (excellent) latter seasons of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, it’s never seen episodes interconnected to this degree. As such, while the lack of clear resolution makes it difficult to offer firm judgement on the show’s quality based solely on the two installments on offer, what I can say is that thus far we have a solid start that’s dripping with story possibilities for the future. Both episodes end at a place that makes you excited to see what happens next.

I have no idea if this will play to anyone who doesn’t have at least a cursory knowledge of this universe going in, but I also can’t imagine longtime fans persnickety about “canon” will have too much to complain about either. Granted, I’m a Star Trek fan practically from the cradle, so maybe I’m just an easy mark, but the effects are suitably impressive, the characters and premise are compelling, and a clear effort has gone into producing something new and different that still upholds the spirit of hope and optimism the entire franchise embodies. So far, this is most definitely a Trek worth discovering. Let's see what happens next week!

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