Star Trek #1453: The Vulcan Hello

FORMULA: Balance of Power + Enterprise + J.J. Abrams' Trek + Worf's back story

WHY WE LIKE IT: Trek is back! Looks great! Michelle Yeoh! Burnham is an intriguing character!

WHY WE DON'T: These Klingons, man, I dunno.

REVIEW: Ok, let's get it out of the way early. I do not care ONE JOT that the past has been redesigned, and that visually and even technologically, Discovery doesn't really fit the timeline (it's set in 2256, a couple years after The Cage and 10 before TOS). I didn't care about that in Enterprise. I didn't care about it in the Kelvin timeline. The old shows look dated because they failed to truly envision the future of technology, especially where computers and their interfaces are concerned, and new versions of the show should be updated to take into account what we now view as the future. Truth be told, Discovery looks gorgeous - beautiful costumes, sets, and effects. Would it have been simpler to create a similar story decades after the TNG era? In a way. But though a lot can fall apart over decades, Trek's bright future means the tech already established - and their ability to produce deus ex machinae - would have evolved to even greater levels. By setting it in the past, we get to see a piece of missing history (the Federation-Klingon conflict), and the explored universe can be relatively small, the tech relatively low-powered, the frontier relatively more dangerous. So if you can't stomach the visual retcon, I get it, but as soon as they decided to set Discovery in Pike's era, a redesign was the only way to go. The important thing now is, is STD (eeech someone didn't think of the inevitable acronym when they named the show) telling good stories?

The big difference in story telling style, of course, is that like a lot of modern television, Discovery is a serial, each episode a piece of a larger, season-long (if not series-long) story. Instead of an ensemble cast who might all get feature episodes over time, it's the story of one character, Michael Burnham, and everyone else is a supporting player in that story. Indeed, the first two episodes don't take place on the Discovery at all, don't even feature the entire credited cast, and serve as a prologue to the actual show. There's much that we might miss after these two episodes aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou, sadly. The ship itself is a cooler design, in my opinion. The bantery relationship between Captain Georgiou, First Officer Burnham, and Science Officer Saru evokes the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad without repeating it, the latter two (one super-tall, the other comparatively tiny) competitive and resentful of one another's points of view, and the Captain having to defuse their personality conflict with well-honed levity. The other crew members we see have potential (who is that with the robot head?!) - I especially like the humor the navigator brings with his airline pilot shtick - but very few will make it to series.

Burnham, at least, has a great deal of potential as a lead character. A human being, sole survivor of a Klingon attack on her outpost, adopted and raised by Vulcans, she keeps tight control of her emotions, but they tend to overwhelm her when she lets them out. There's no pretense of unemotionality like there is with Spock, merely the product of a culture where emotion is distasteful. When Burnham shows the most emotion, it's when she's alone. Emotion is a social taboo. I also like that she's an anthropologist, perhaps the best suited to deal with a Klingon resurgence despite her tragic personal connection with them. It's a specialty I should think would be extremely useful in Starfleet's line of work, and narratively more interesting than the purer (or applied) sciences that result in much techno-babble. Her dialog is fine, but her monologues (logs) feel over-written, and things like "the only way to describe it is 'Wow!'" is unbecoming of a Vulcan-trained Science officer. I'm not very enthusiastic about Sarek acting as her surrogate father either (just how crowded was Spock's household?), though it probably makes sense given that he was married to a human woman. Perhaps it's James Frain's fault. I severely disliked his character in Gotham, and it seems to have tainted how I look at his performance here (it's actually fine).

Burnham's background doesn't justify the way she's treated in the episode's climax, however. She's been with Georgiou for seven years and has a spotless record, she's an expert on other cultures, has probably studied the Klingons extensively, saw the Klingon with her own eyes, and only advises they attack first after doing further research (and from what we, in the audience, know of the Klingons, a show of force tracks). Why then does a) no one believe her there are Klingons out there, and b) categorically refuse to follow her recommendation? Now sure, we've got an admiral on the phone who orders the ship not to fire, but that feels forced. Yes, that would be proper military protocol, but Star Trek's tradition has mostly shown the higher ups as disconnected impediments to proper leadership "in the field". You don't call them unless you want that kind of interference. Saru is also dead set against Burnham's idea, but then, he's overdramatic in the extreme (the whole "bred to sense the coming of death" is an over-the-top definition of a danger sense). The script never lets Burnham tell Georgiou she's talked to Sarek and where the notion is coming from. And in the end, though it's going to play out very differently, it's the rest of the Shenzhou that is actually responsible for starting the war, not Burnham. I find that kind of writing rather frustrating.

Of course, the Klingons were counting on Starfleet to do the wrong thing. It was a trap, laid by someone who actually understood his opponents' psychology/anthropology. When the Federation says "we come in peace", it is an idea that is repugnant to the warlike Klingons, and might as well be a slap in the face. It denies their right to aggression. From T'Kuvma's speech, we should also understand that the threat of the Federation is one of assimilation, of losing one's culture in the melting pot. The Klingons, choosing the "remain Klingon", are nationalist zealots, driven in part by faith. Whether they are ISIS or White Supremacists (both ideas are evoked), they are a villain for our time. Unfortunately, and this will become more pronounced in the second episode, I feel like the show grinds to a halt every time Klingons are on screen. Beyond the cute trick of changing the subtitles from Klingon to English at the very beginning, the choice to not translate these characters, while thematically consistent, means we have to listen to slow, halting speeches in an alien tongue. It is BORING and even GRATING. The new Klingon make-up is extremely heavy, so the actors are already lost underneath. Take any semblance of human speech away, and there's really nothing to latch onto. They basically HAVE to make Voq, Son of None, an albino just so we can tell these guys apart. There's some value in making aliens more alien (and thus more realistic), but the show's previous mandate, making the audience connect with aliens by showing as much of the actor as possible a priority, was quite correct. So the season (series?)'s big enemy is one I can't feel invested in. Oops! The carved look of the ancient bird of prey, covering the hull with coffins, the use of the Klingon Death Yell, the general cultural stuff, yes sure. But between the extreme look and the harsh phonics, the sequences become tedious. And though most of the small references are well-researched, did no one realize "Redjac" was a name already taken when they gave it to the Klingon torchbearer?

Before we go, let's talk about some of the mainstays of the show. Like I said, I quite like the look of the program, the cool blues and metals of the uniforms, and the set design that puts the bridge on the underside of the saucer with its bay window (with computer enhancements). The meld is between Enterprise and Abrams' Star Trek, and I think that's a fair way to reinterpret the era. Those holographic calls are a little conspicuous, but dramatically more interesting than talking heads on a screen, so whatever. I neither like nor dislike them. I am, however, disappointed with the show's title sequence. The diagram effects and music feel like they're right out of a tech company commercial and though they tack on Alexander Courage's theme at the end, there's nothing in it I find memorable.

LESSON: Listen to your experts.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: The set-up makes this an important episode (and the serialization will make most episodes more "rewatchable" than if they were true stand-alones), but it's not without its problems, namely recurring villains that try the audience's patience.


snell said...

Log entries used to be a nice gimmick to quickly and easily clue the audience into what's going on. They've become the equivalent of comic books' current narrative captions, a way of overwriting turgid monologues instead of revealing character through dialogue. Do all TV/comic writers long to be novelists nowadays?

Anonymous said...

With so much Klingon content in this first hour, the pilot does a terrible job of enticing people to subscribe to the CBS All Access service (in the U.S.) to watch the second half of the pilot.


Radagast said...

Definitely agree they misfired on the Klingon stuff. Good effort - the design details are amazing - but it's a narrative fail.

Incidentally, the official three-letter short-form is DIS (like VOY and ENT before it).

Siskoid said...

That isn't nearly as funny, Rad ;-)


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