Sunday, September 24, 2017

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - Michael Journeys Through Space to Explore a Curious Object in 'The Vulcan Hello'

CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 1.01 "The Vulcan Hello"

While patrolling Federation space, the U.S.S. Shenzhou encounters an object of unknown origin, putting First Officer Michael Burnham to her greatest test yet.

Star Trek: Discovery was first announced in November 2015 as the grand introduction for original programming solely on CBS All Access. Since then, the show has been a story of delays and complications. Casting turned out to be a long and arduous process that pushed back the production start date. Bryan Fuller was tapped to serve as showrunner of this show but had to step down due to scheduling conflicts with Starz's American Gods. He's still credited as the series creator and co-writer of "The Vulcan Hello." So, his early influence will still be felt but the show could morph into something completely new once additional episodes are seen. Moreover, CBS didn't allow any reviews to be posted until after today's premiere event. That created a sense of mystery with this project that could go either way. It could be the network trying to protect its crucial project after seeing all of the recent hacks and leaks. Or it could be seen as a way to get people to tune into the premiere on CBS without any preconceived notions about what's going to happen. Not a lot has actually been shared about the plot of this show. The quality really could be anything as well. This embargo kept anything from being out there before tonight. And now, the first episode has finally debuted. And it's clear that this franchise is still capable of producing stories that can be strong and resonant.

The power of the visuals alone in this show is quite stunning to watch. Yes, the actual special effects are great. The moments of Michael Burnham and Captain Philippa Georgiou on the desert planet as well as Michael's solo journey into space are exquisite to look at. It shows just how advanced technology has become over the years. But the more important visuals come from the makeup of the show itself. CBS has been ridiculed so fiercely over the past few years for its refusal to deviate from shows led by straight, white men. It's been a huge problem for the network. They can talk about the overall portfolio of the company - which includes The CW and Showtime - being diverse. But the CBS channel itself is incredibly white and male. And then, the 2017-18 broadcast season is set to start with the launch of one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall. It is fronted by two woman of color in Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh. That's just a powerful visual that shows that this company can tell stories about people that have never been at the front of their own shows. Of course, this is still a show that will be airing weekly on CBS' subscription service, CBS All Access, instead of the main channel. So, this show ultimately won't help the statistics all that much. It will confirm that CBS All Access is a strong place to go for diversity in storytelling - where The Good Fight started things off nicely. It's also going to cost more each month in order to see these shows.

As such, the actual content of Star Trek: Discovery needs to be worth that huge ask. CBS is airing this premiere on the main channel in order to get as many people hooked and willing to subscribe to All Access as possible. This is still the tentpole show for that streaming service even though The Good Fight aired earlier this year. It's the return of a beloved franchise after a decade away from television and a new timeline in the movies. It sets out to tell a new story in this familiar world. It's set on the dawn of a potential war between the Starfleet Federation and the Klingons. This is a very exciting and thrilling first episode. It sets the tone right away that this is going to be a big and expressive show. It looks expensive. CBS is going all out with this show. The conflict itself doesn't seem all that original or inventive in the early going though. It's mostly just a lot of exposition at the moment. The Klingons are led by T'Kuvma who is preaching that the various races need to unite in order to wage wars on other cultures once more. They believe they need to send the signal to unite the various ships of the Klingon army. Those scene aboard the Klingon main ship are very broad and not all that engaging at the moment. Yes, they are threatening. They are imposing characters who can be very vicious and beholden to a specific way of life. T'Kuvma is very demanding of his people in search of a higher calling. But that's essentially all that they are doing right now. Seeing these scenes doesn't inform the audience of anything new regarding what's going on. It just establishes the threat early on that Michael and company need to be worried because they are representatives of Starfleet.

And yet, the show does succeed in the early going because of how nuanced the dynamic is between Michael and Georgiou. They are a captain and her first officer. It's important to note that the lead character of this show isn't the captain of the title ship. That allows Michael to be a bit more reckless and willing to go into danger herself. She's a strong representative for this ship. She's a very capable officer. But she's not the one ultimately making the decisions about what should happen. Michael and Georgiou have worked together for seven years now. Georgiou believes that Michael is ready to have a command of her own. The events of this premiere reveal that that may not ultimately be the case. Michael still has a lot to learn. There is still so much for Georgiou to teach her. They are sent on a mission to repair a space shuttle. While there, they discover an object of unknown origin. Michael's willingness to do a fly-by to assess the situation shows how fearless she is. It's important to know her backstory in this regard as well. She's a human who was raised in the Vulcan culture. She still has her emotions which can always affect her judgment at any point in time. But she has a very rational and logistical approach to her manner as well. It's still surprising when the other officers aboard see her get excited about something like she does during this space walk. She ventures out into the unknown and it's thrilling. It's a bold and exciting adventure for the audience as well. We see everything she does. We experience the beauty of it alongside her. Of course, it quickly turns to tragedy and that's where things quickly become morally compromising.

Michael engages with the Klingons while she's out there all by herself. She is successfully able to make it back to the ship. She's able to warn her captain about what she saw out there. From then on, it becomes a great debate regarding how the crew should handle this situation. The Klingons make themselves known but they aren't responding to any of the diplomatic messages. Michael is preparing for all-out war. Georgiou fears that that is a possibility as well but is more cautious about her handling of this. There is no backup waiting to arrive. They are still several systems away. It's up to this crew to decide what to do. Michael may be motivated by personal vengeance because her parents were killed in a Klingon attack. She believes she's being rational when she makes the decision to attack the Klingon ship. The Klingons are clearly doing something that could unravel the natural order of the federation. She has the personal connection to learn what to do in this situation. Her Vulcan roots give her a justification to fire. But that could only serve as justification for the start of this war. Georgiou truly believes that Starfleet doesn't fire first. So, it's ultimately a battle for control of the ship. They both believe to be right and are giving contradictory information to the officers. In the end, the ship doesn't fire. But the premiere ends on the ominous note of more Klingon ships appearing. So, this war is bound to escalate while the personal dynamic between Michael and Georgiou just got more complicated.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Vulcan Hello" was directed by David Semel with story by Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman and teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Akiva Goldsman.
  • There really aren't many supporting characters of note so far. The only one of significant importance aboard the main ship is Doug Jones' Saru. He comes from a race that is able to sense the coming of death. He can sense it now. That's a very foreboding sign that things are about to escalate severely. But it's also just an empty tease at this point as well.
  • James Frain appears as Sarek, the father of Spock. He also has a paternal dynamic with Michael. The flashback reveals that she is technically his "ward." He is responsible for her upbringing. That gives her an immediate connection to the history of the franchise. But it's much more interesting to see their dynamic in the present as he believes she's allowing her emotions to dictate her actions here.
  • A big deal is made about the condensed time frame for Michael to make her journey out into space by herself. She only has twenty minutes to explore what this object is before the radiation will kill her. There's the big uncertainty over whether she will get back to the ship in time. But she's able to make a full recovery in the span of a few minutes. Sure, hours go by. But it just shows off the medical capabilities of this world.
  • Of course, I'm already very worried about Michelle Yeoh's long-term prospects on this show. She's billed as a Special Guest Star in the opening credits. That basically produces the expectation that she's going to die at some point in order to create a personal sense of loss in this war. That moment will be very crushing as well because of the great dynamic between Georgiou and Michael in this opening hour.
  • The first episode debuted on CBS tonight and the second episode is already available to view exclusively on CBS All Access. It's the same strategy that the networks employed with The Good Fight. So for those who saw it in primetime tonight, are you signing up for the streaming service now? Do you plan on watching this show on a weekly basis? Or are you still just waiting until the entire first season is available and will view it all during the free trial that comes from initial signup?