Thursday, September 28, 2017

On The Cold Side of War – Star Trek: Discovery

Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.

The world needs Star Trek now as much as it ever did.

I don’t need to enumerate the problems we’re facing in our communities and society at large, because your eyes and ears are full of them already. Something that’s largely absent from our feeds, though – unless you really dig for it – is a sense of hope, a promise that things could be better. That we, as human beings, could be better. This is the distilled essence of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for Star Trek, and it often gets lost in new incarnations of the Trek mythos, wrapped up as they so often are in their own zeitgeists and styles and disparate audiences. Star Trek: Discovery, the new Trek for our new zeitgeist, stumbles in its own way towards that lofty ideal – but ultimately, I was left with that feeling of hope that I so desperately crave.

For the people vehemently expressing their disapproval, there can be no solace. I don't understand what they want from Star Trek that Discovery doesn't provide, except, of course, for the kind of philosophical character-based quandary that takes seasons to develop anyway. What were they expecting, a "The Inner Light" right out of the gate? Discovery is far from perfect (what pilot ever is?) but it struck chords with me despite its problems, the most resonant of which is that it feels like Trek. I can forgive a lot about the surface elements of a work so long as its essence is purposeful and pure.

The pilot’s opening scene depicts Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), as they wait for their ship, the USS Shenzhou, to rescue them from the threatening weather of the planet they’re exploring. This sequence perfectly situates Discovery in the Trek continuum, halfway between the stuffy technobabble and consummate professionalism of The Next Generation and the flashy, boneheaded swagger of JJ's nuTrek films. Burnham demonstrates her razor-sharp intelligence and practical field knowledge, and Georgiou reflects on her first officer’s potential for leadership. Then they shoot a rifle into a well before immediately abandoning it, and signal their location to the Shenzhou by carving a hemisphere-sized Starfleet symbol in the sand with their footprints. The sequence is equal parts encouraging and disappointing, attempting to cater to both the hardcore Trek audience and the popcorn munchers fresh from the cineplex. I was troubled by this divided approach, but over the first two episodes (essentially a feature-length pilot), Discovery’s potential to overcome that identity crisis became much more clear.

The premiere’s obvious problems – its clunky expository dialogue; its derivative story ideas (couldn't Burnham have been the ward of some other Vulcan? why'd it have to be Sarek?); or the way its flashy modern technology and updated Starfleet attire seems wrong for the larger timeline (given that Discovery is meant to take place several years prior to The Original Series) – are easy enough to spot. Thankfully, they’re also easy enough to dismiss, given the vast precedent in previous Treks (especially in their early seasons) for things like clunky dialogue and bizarre costume inconsistencies (let’s not talk about Generations, please). These are, again, the surface-level concerns that do little to detract from the things in which Discovery actually does right by its heritage.

Chris Obi in Star Trek: Discovery.

These are often strange and reassuring reflections of the influence that the Trek series has had on general pop culture. Other sci-fi properties as disparate as video games, comic book films, and Japanese anime have worshipped at Trek’s altar, and Discovery in turn takes some cues from those sources too. Watching the premiere episodes felt as much like playing Mass Effect as watching TOS, and to my mind that’s an excellent thing; an avatar of the creative growth that keeps a series as old as Trek feeling fresh and vital. (The nuTreks were certainly fresh and vital, but they were also dumb as a bag of hammers; Discovery knows better than to fully emulate that lowest-common-denominator style.) The character work, focused this time on the first officer instead of the captain, is constrained by the need for exposition across the premiere, but still shines through. Burnham is a great character, whose human-Vulcan upbringing nicely echoes that of one of Trek’s best-known characters. The pilot episode, titled “The Vulcan Hello,” sees her grapple with her own dual nature in an interesting way when her Vulcan-bred logic wins out over her own natural humanity. This isn’t Spock struggling with the strangeness of being human; it’s a human simply struggling to be a human as her Vulcan upbringing pulls her away from herself. It’s a neat twist on a classic concept, a tactic Discovery often adopts in its effort to carve out an identity for itself (the depiction of Klingons – more on them in a bit – is another good example). Martin-Green is wonderful in the role, delivering the sharp brusqueness we love and expect in our Vulcan characters as well as a passionate and fierce human emotionality. I can’t wait to see Burnham grow to the point where the two battling halves of her personality can work in harmony with one another. The promise of her character is a neat parallel to the promise of the show as a whole.

Martin-Green doesn’t provide Discovery’s only impressive performance. Doug Jones, as science officer Saru, does a lot of strong work underneath some heavy makeup, proving that the physical presence he’s so ably displayed in things like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t all he has to offer as an actor. But when it comes to acting through makeup, nothing matches Discovery’s Klingons. I love that the show doesn't bother to cater to audiences who might find it tiresome to sit through extended scenes of subtitled Klingon, performed under inches of prosthetics. It leans heavily into its depiction of the Klingons as a divided race, soon to be united against the Federation by religious zealotry, and in order to sell this idea the premiere immerses us – deeply – in their culture and language. Chris Obi's portrayal of their messiah figure, T'Kuvma, is alternately droning and subtly captivating – the latter of which is no mean feat when you're acting through that much makeup (and in an invented language to boot). The scenes in which T'Kuvma preaches to his assemblies of warriors necessitate a barking, stilted delivery (just so that he can be understood), but when he speaks to the Federation in English – and when he quietly intones his race's death rites for his fallen comrades – you can see that Obi's range in the role is broader and more interesting than it initially appears.

But then T'Kuvma dies. And Georgiou dies. And a broader issue emerges, hinted at by Yeoh’s billing as a “special guest star,” which instills some doubt about how well these episodes actually represent what's to come. Discovery will be an entirely different show than the one sold to us by the premiere, which is instantly suspicious – given that CBS expects people to sign up for their paid streaming service on the strength of these two episodes. If people are won over and purchase the service, only to be confronted with something wildly different from what we saw – a new captain, a new ship, a new villain, and our lead character sentenced to life imprisonment for mutiny – that’ll be an extremely disingenuous move by CBS, and a cruel disservice to a show that has demonstrated a lot of promise. Then again, perhaps they’re using their flashy special effects, action-packed space battles, and exciting music to lure in a general audience before delivering the real, subversive, intellectually challenging Trek that the rest of us came for. The narrative set-up wasn't all for naught, as there's a strong conflict established with the Klingons and some good character work in place for Burnham, but you can bet the following episodes will ruffle many people’s feathers (even more so than these initial episodes did). It’s still too early to say if this is for good or ill, but it’s very clear that, one way or the other, Discovery‘s identity crisis will be resolved.

In the second episode, Sarek tells Burnham, "You must do better . . . because I know you can." It’s hard not to see this as a guiding principle for both Discovery and the philosophy of Star Trek as a whole. This sense of constantly striving for excellence lives in the very marrow of the brand, even when it’s disguised by explosions and prosthetic masks and snappy one-liners. It’s what every member of the Federation does; it’s what the Vulcans and Klingons do; and it’s what the best Trek properties always manifest in their own writing, directing, and performances. Discovery started strong – stronger, I daresay, than any other Trek I can think of – and I know it can do even better. There are lots of challenges to face on the way there, though, not the least of which is a venomous internet community ready to nitpick the thing to shreds. If the first two episodes are any indication, Discovery is going to leave them in the wake of its warp engines, and carry that feeling of hope throughout its run.

I need it to, frankly.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment