The first episode of the newest Star Trek series has finally graced the small screen. When I say the first episode, I really mean what CBS wanted you to think was two episodes (but I’ll get to that in a moment). It was an action packed 80 minutes, but like anything else, had a few stumbles along the road. Obviously, spoilers follow.
CBS needs to get better
To begin the review, I feel like I need to get something off my chest. CBS obviously wasn’t prepared for the amount of people who were going to be streaming this show all at once. I watched the show on a 64 GB 4th Generation Apple TV on a broadband connection with 132 mbps download speed and my stream kept pausing like I was trying to watch an HD movie on a laptop from 1998. Rarely did my stream get above 480p during the first episode (which was live streamed from broadcast through the app), and actually crashed four times during the first episode. My point is, if you’re going to restrict your series to your own propriety platform, make sure it works. Also, don’t bill this as being able to watch the first two episodes. This was obviously film as one episode and CBS chopped it in half and put that second half behind a paywall. I’m also not alone. A cursory check of Twitter reflects this is an issue. Moving on.
It felt like Star Trek
The very first thing I noticed about the first episode is how much it feels like Star Trek. It was like a wonderful blend of both the previous series and the new Abrams films. Much of the series look and feel comes from these movies. Almost every shot of the Shenzou could have been ripped out of Star Trek Into Darkness, including Abram’s accursed love of lens flare. That being said, I never noticed the lens flare coming from anything that wasn’t natural lighting. It did feel like it was added later by the effects team, which I’m going to knock a few points off for that (like we give out points).
To add to the cinematic similarities, the sound effects were on point, and seemed to be a perfect blend of TOS, TNG, and NuTrek sounds, as well as a few original ones. The episode, particularly the first half, really nailed the look and feel of what Trek was and what it’s become.
Michelle Yeoh and Doug Jones owned the episode
Michelle Yeoh is perfect in this first episode. She very much fits in the mold of Picard (fun fact, in her ready room is a bottle of Cheateu Picard). She’s deeply human, but represents the hope and optimism the Star Trek has come to embody. She’s a survivor, but she’s an idealist and diplomat first. Of all the characters, she felt the most fully formed of the ones we met. That may also be because they set her up to kill her at the end of the episode.
Doug Jones as Lt. Saru also brought a great levity to the series and a foil to Michael Burnham, our main character. Every moment he’s on the screen Jones makes you feel something. He’s great, and I can’t wait to see more of this character.
Burnham is a mess, in all the wrong ways
The crux of the first episode, and it’s main arc, revolves around Michael Burnham. She’s the second in command of the Shenzou, and the first human to make it through the Vulcan science academy. She was adopted by Sarek (Spock’s dad) after her family are killed by a Klingon raid. She then joins Starfleet for reasons that are never explained, and served on the Shenzou for seven years. From there her entire reality unspools the second she encounters a Klingon and she becomes a disjointed illogical mess and totally undermines every second of exposition we’ve been given about her.
It seems that the series placed Burnham into a very traumatic position where she is forced to come to terms with her past “demons” — as Sarek puts it — and her character “unspools.” The issue with this is that this is your main character, and this is your first episode. We don’t know this person, we don’t know how they react to normal situations, therefore we don’t understand why this affects her so deeply and irrationally. It makes all of her decisions in the first episode, from attacking her captain, to killing T’Kuvma (knowing that it would start a nearly perpetual war) feel unearned. It also makes me loath her. She’s the antithesis of what a Starfleet officer is, and seems to be trying to hard to be one of the classic TV antiheroes we have become so used to seeing on prestige dramas. The problem with this is that this is Star Trek. Star Trek doesn’t do antiheroes.
The Klingons are great and terrible
I must admit, watching the episode the Klingon redesign only bothered me a little bit. It’s jarring to see them on screen, but seeing as everything else has been updated so significantly, and because everything was happening so fast, my brain was able to accept it. That being said, these Klingons are very different from any others we’ve seen in the past. They talk about Kahless, but the fire symbology has been amped up significantly. Also an unfortunate side effect of having the Klingons only speaking in Klingonese is that you have to read subtitles. The only issue I really have with that, is the way the subtitles are done is probably the worst way imaginable. Often times the text is cast against similar tones, effectively hiding the edges of the text. Complete sentences are almost never on screen, and often times the extensive dialogue forced the use of ellipses, and the subtitles themselves moved so fast that I feel like I missed much of the dialogue. Sitting here writing this I can actually feel the eye strain from having to read it (I am colorblind, so it should be noted that this may be a factor).
T’Kuvma is absolutely the highlight of the Klingons, but like Michelle Yeoh, is wasted.
The last ten minutes is a total mess
So, the episode climaxes with the Klingons wiping the floor with Starfleet, and then proceeding to collect their dead (which, by the way, feels like that was written in specifically to set up the final sequence even though it unjustifiably flies in the face of canon, which they will hopefully explain). It is decided that they will beam a photon torpedo warhead onto a Klingon body, and as that body is brought on board it explodes, disabling T’Kuvma’s flagship. This allows Michelle Yeoh (who, by the way, her name is irrelevant because they only say it a handful of times … and she’s dead now, so no need to remember) and Burnham to beam aboard to capture T’Kuvma.
You see, Michelle Yeoh wanted to kill T’Kuvma, but since Burnham knows Klingons so well, she knows that by killing him you’ll create a martyr that will result in a perpetual war. Then, after beaming aboard, and a very mess, poorly lit, and poorly choreographed fight, T’Kuvma stabs Michelle Yeoh unceremoniously and then Burnham shoots T’Kuvma. So let’s break this down.
Have you seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? What about Hero? Marco Polo seasons 2 … wait I’m the only one who watched that. Okay, but you get my point. She’s known for doing well choreographed martial arts films, and you throw her into a dimly lit tussle. It was a waste of the actress and the character, mainly because we aren’t allowed to spend any time on her death. I have no doubt that the writers aren’t going to mine this throughout the season, but it felt the pacing of the scene hurt the impact of her death. It felt as if the writers were like, “Look, we can kill characters too!!!”
Then we get to T’Kuvma. Not only did his final dialogue make zero sense (both in the history of Star Trek, and within the context of the episode), but we also learn by surprise that he’s always been friends with this albino Klingon that he was totally shit-talking an hour ago? It just feels as if the character and his cult of personality was being built up as this huge season long threat only for him to die quickly and unceremoniously, even though the dialogue and the cinematography screams that they wanted to wrench this moment of every ounce of sentimentality that they hadn’t earned.
My point is, yeah Star Trek, you killed two main characters unceremoniously in an attempt to be like every other prestige drama out there. The problem is that The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine beat you to the punch by two decades. If you want to learn how to kill a main character badly, go re-watch “Skin of Evil.”
Ultimately, the episode was good. It had issues, sure, but no pilot for Star Trek has ever been perfect. What Discovery has to do, more than anything else, is make its protagonist likable. Burnham is difficult to watch (and this is nothing against the actress. She’s only doing what she can with the script). If they can craft her arc in such a way, that she can become a character we can enjoy, instead of an insane mess with a chip on their shoulder, then this show can move to the next level. Until then, it’s a fairly enjoyable ride.