Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Episodes 1 & 2

When I first heard the premise for Star Trek: Discovery I was disappointed. The show is set marginally before the original series relative to the broad continuity of the TV shows. As a decision, it implied the kind of navel-gazing or over-reverence to the original material that ends in both stagnation and a confused need for re-invention. It is the contradiction that leads to repetitive reboots of superhero origin stories but with odd new twists. I assume the thinking with Discovery was that they wanted to re-introduce viewers to the established Star Trek galaxy by having the protagonists encounter familiar elements while changing those elements so as not to be too predictable.

So you end up with a setting that is familiar but different but in a way that contains no real surprises and which makes the differences jarring. Why not just set the story AFTER the period of The Next Generation/DS9/Voyager shows? Create a sense of civilisation moved on? Perhaps here the baggage of all those shows felt too much – too many big bads (the Borg, the Dominion etc) too many alien antagonists (the Ferengi, the now unfortunately named Cardassians). The galactic quadrants had become too busy and too packed with rubber headed aliens. By setting the series back just before the original series the show could make the Klingons the bad guys again.

It’s not fair to compare this decision with the Doctor Who reboot because despite their similar age the shows don’t treat continuity in the same way. However, Russell T Davies made a smart move from which Discovery could have learnt. Set a new series in a time that follows a catastrophe that creates both a bridge to the previous series, and allows the viewers to re-encounter familiar protagonists in a new way. That doesn’t imply a new Star Trek would need to have a post-apocalyptic vibe, rather some sort of event that disrupted galactic civilisations sufficiently that the Federation is needing to rebuild (a gamma-ray burst, a contagion that spreads via transporter beams, a big-bad alien did more damage than usual).

Discovery hasn’t taken that option but the setting kind of looks like it did. The technology is both old and new, the spaceships look both updated and more grungy, some aliens are now more familiar and closer to humans (e.g. the Vulcans) while others have become even more alien and Star Fleet understands them less (the Klingons). The whole feel of the show implies a setting where change has occurred but which claims that it is about changes that will occur and I find that somewhat annoying.

Visually the show looks fantastic. The capacity to produce a SF TV show with stunning visuals has grown tremendously. An alien desert planet in episode 1 looks like more than just a sandy patch. An EVA to an alien artefact in the accretion disk of a binary star system consuming itself makes little astrophysical sense but again looks suitably spacey and has a nice echo with the first Star Trek film. [Minor spoiler] Episode 2 features a full-on multi-starship space battle and some very good action scenes. The new version of the Klingons are still rubber headed aliens but distinctly more alien looking.

Meanwhile, the phasers and the communicators are reverently remodelled versions of the ‘classic’ props. Which is fine but together it doesn’t make much sense. It feels like the story team (who want the setting to be distinctly just a few years before TOS) and the effects and design team (who want to show off all the new things that can be done) are at loggerheads. It works when what is showed is things that we didn’t see before but which have always been implied (e.g. episode 2 use the shields and force fields effectively as visuals and as part of the story on a damaged starship). It works less well when funky new things are added because they are cool (starship communications now included projecting hologram avatars right in front of you because that looks cool).

The Klingons speak Klingon and end up speaking a lot of Klingon – maybe a tad too much to be honest. Meanwhile, the Vulcans just look like Vulcans and the main protagonist Michael Burnham (more on the name below) is a human who was brought up as a Vulcan and looks a bit Vulcany. The unfortunate effect is that the nice aliens look more human than ever and the nasty aliens look even more alien than ever.

I don’t want to delve too much into the details of the story but I thought, despite all my griping above, that it was decent. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the first two episodes are about the federation re-encountering the Klingon Empire – the first episode’s cold open is a Klingon speech that reveals their anxiety about a growing menace and a “lie” that they see as an open threat: “We come in peace.” The story suffers a bit from wanting a sense of realism but then pitching events and circumstances that require a more generous suspension of disbelief.

Interspersed with the main story we also see more of the backstory of the central character. Michael Burnham is a human who has been raised by Vulcans – specifically Sarek, the guy who is Spock’s dad (although that connection is not mentioned in the show). Her name is giving the Scrappy-Doos conniptions because it is a boys name! (OMG! A girl with a boys name! I guess they’ve never met a Robin or a Cameron or an Ashley or a Meredith, heck isn’t the Gamergate mascot called Vivian?) Assuming that you can cope with the shocking news that there are women in the future called Michael, I really liked this character. She is a mess of contradictions and makes some very bad decisions and this aspect is where the show starts doing something genuinely different and interesting.

Now, it is only two episodes in but the approach here appears to be to follow a central character’s story through a set of events set in the Star Trek universe rather than to have a show that follows the standard Star Trek story structure. By the end of episode 2, the titular starship “Discovery” hasn’t appeared, nor has its captain and the central character is not in a good place. I think this is a smart decision. A planet/monster of the week show is something that other shows can do quite effectively (e.g. see Killjoys) on a smaller budget. More substantial story arcs make more sense for a pricey show on a streaming service (CBS’s own service in the US, Netflix for the rest of us – which is probably a better deal for the non-USAians). Showing us a character that fits with the Starfleet and Federation ethos but whose bad decisions drive the plot is a clever change.

Worth watching? If you already have a Netflix subscription, yes, definitely I’d say. Despite the annoying continuity/not-continuity element of the show, it looks good, it was nicely acted and the dialogue gets snappier (no laughs though). A strong attempt to do a serious space opera. For Americans, I don’t know what else the CBS streaming service has and I’m not sure I’d feel happy having paid for access JUST for this show. Your mileage may vary.

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23 thoughts on “Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Episodes 1 & 2”

  1. Michael as a girl’s name may be rare, but it’s far from unheard of. It may be more common in Europe than North America, but I’ve seen one ‘baby names’ site which says 4,272,976 boys and 19,180 girls named Michael since 1880 in the U.S. alone. Seems to have mostly been popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

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      1. Oh yes, Mother Walton. I knew there was a female actress named Michael, but I couldn’t remember her surname.

        I have to confess that I don’t particularly like the US/UK custom of giving women traditionally male names, simply because that’s not done in Germany. German law actually used to require (probably still does) that children with gender ambiguous names, e.g. Kay or Kim, be given an umambiguous middle name. You could not call your daughter Michael in Germany, you’d have to go with Michaela or Michelle.

        However, women with traditionally male names is already a thing in the English speaking world, including at least one precedent for a female Michael. And considering Star Trek is set in the future and Michael Burnham was raised by Vulcans, who knows how naming conventions might have involved until then.

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      2. You could give a male name to a child in Germany, but you have to give a second name which indicates the gender. On the other hand: The decision is made by the civil servant who’s handling the case. My niece was not allowed to be named simply Ruby, because apparently this could be a boys name as well and was required a second first name. On the other hand, we were able to name our daughter Malaya and I doubt many children in Germany have that name (which is tagalog for freedom)

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      3. @Peer —

        That sort of restriction would never fly here in the States. I think our main restriction is that it not be offensive — no swear words and so on.

        A year or so ago a woman in a small TN town had some trouble because she wanted to name her child Messiah and the local magistrate wouldn’t allow it, but the mother took the case to court and won.

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      4. @camestros —

        “And the Michael of the bible is an angel and hence surely Androgynous ”

        Nonono. All Biblical angels are male. That’s why everyone gets so excited about the men of Sodom wanting to “know” the visiting angels, after all — if they had been women angels, nobody would have cared (remember, the supposedly righteous man Lot offered up his own daughters for similar treatment). And that’s also how the angels could interbreed with human women to make the Nephilim.

        Come now. You know perfectly well that women aren’t worthy of any sort of divinity. Heck, they’re not even supposed to speak in church, so how could they possibly have anything to do with angels?? Tsk.

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      5. Peer, yes, what names are considered acceptable depends very much on the respective registry clerk. Hence you get pretty unambiguous female names like Ruby or Raven rejected (and I’ve never come across any men with either name, at least not as a first name), because some civil servant believes they could also be male. On the other hand, regional names that are unambiguous in one region, but unknown and ambiguous everywhere else, get a pass. A family I know hails from East Frisia and gave their three kids traditional East Frisian names. The two daughters frequently get mistaken for male based purely on their names, which are unknown outside East Frisia. Yet none of the three kids has a middle name, because East Frisian civil servants are familiar with those names.

        For immigrants this is even more difficult, because if they want to give their German born kids traditional names from their countries of origin, they often run into unsympathetic registry clerks. A student of mine, born to Spanish parents in Germany, was supposed to be named Pascual, but the registry clerk nixed it and now he is called Pascal, which is the version of the name that is more common in Germany. Turkish people who are our biggest immigrant group have particular problems, because German civil servants rely on a list of approved names issued by the Turkish government. However, this list does not include Kurdish, Armenian or other ethnic minority names. A Kurdish classmate of mine ended up with a Turkish name he hated, because his parents weren’t allowed to use the name they had chosen and out of frustration just tapped at random on the list and said, “Well, that one then.”

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      6. LOL.

        Ummmmm….Lessee…. even the Virgin Mary had to cover her head, and I bet she wasn’t allowed to speak in church either? And she’s only famous because God got her pregnant?

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      7. Contrarius: even the Virgin Mary had to cover her head, and I bet she wasn’t allowed to speak in church either? And she’s only famous because God got her pregnant?

        AND a major production is made in the Bible about how Joseph was such a nice guy and did her such a huge favor by being willing to marry her, despite the fact that she was a “ruined” woman, and of no value to any man. 🙄

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      8. You’d think Puppies/Scrappies/etc. would have more respect for Ma Walton! The perfect woman for reactionaries.

        I only saw the first one b/c I’m not paying 6 bucks a month just for that, but I liked it a lot.

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  2. I think Case wound up dating a girl named Michael at the end of Neuromancer. I could be misremembering.

    Much dislike from the Scrappier elements of the Star Trek Online forums is already being directed at Ms Burnham (can’t say Commander Burnham just at the moment). Under my alter ego over there, I suggested that the characterization they objected to would be “ohh, he’s a maverick who gets things done his own way and doesn’t play by the rules” if she were only a male Michael.

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  3. The female variant of Michael is usually Michaela, but women named Michael is not uncommon. The pilot was a bit of a mess. It solves a few of the more minor issues if you picture Discovery as being in another alternate universe/timeline where some things developed differently, like the recent Trek movies set themselves an alternate universe to play in.

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    1. I was a bit put off after the first minutes had already to plot holes, but then it got better. Ill liked it overall. Although future law enforcement seems deeply flawed.

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  4. I’m not at all conversant with the ways of the torrents, so I suspect we may end up waiting till this batch of episodes is done, then do the one week free trial and binge the lot.

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