Star Trek Discovery | Episode 101 & 102| ‘The Vulcan Hello’ & ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ | Aired September 24, 2017
Last weekend, CBS aired the first Emmy ceremony to honor a streaming service with an award for best series. Prognosticators expected the 69th Primetime Emmy to be a big night for network TV. But after the ceremony, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon proved they have more cultural clout than ever. Flash forward seven days and its a network TV station, CBS, who is trying to change streaming. And they are doing it with one of the most important titles in television history: Star Trek.
Audiences have waited in desperate anticipation for Star Trek to return to their television screens. JJ Abrams reintroduced to Star Trek movies through his “Kelvin Universe” starring Chris Pine. But at its heart Star Trek is a television property. Star Trek has always been most impactful on television. With the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, CBS is ending the second-longest Star Trek television drought since 1967. They also want to use the series to go where no broadcast network has gone before.
CBS hopes to use the show to boost subscriptions to their online streaming platform: CBS All-Access. While the network aired the first episode of the series Sunday night at 8:30, the rest of the show’s first season will only be available through a CBS All-Access subscription. They hope that Star Trek has enough name recognition that audiences will shell out to keep up with the show week-to-week. And if the title doesn’t do it for you, the network has a few more names to drop as well.
What Makes It Different
First Officer Michael Burnham
The series stars Walking Dead alum Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham. Martin-Green is making history as the first black female Star Trek lead. Discovery is also the first Star Trek show that doesn’t center around the ship’s captain- a fact that will likely disappoint loyal Trekkies who see the Captain’s Log as a cornerstone of the franchise.
Martin-Green’s central role immediately sets it apart from Star Trek shows of the past which have been more focused around an ensemble cast made up of the ship’s crew. While William Shatner and Patrick Stewart commanded the story’s attention in their respective series, previous iterations of Star Trek have always been focused on the relationships between members of the crew. Discovery is far more interested in exploring Burnham’s internal struggles.
Discovery without The Discovery
Then again, Discovery‘s first two episodes might pay so little attention to the crew because the Discovery’s crew isn’t in the first two episodes. One of the places where the first two episodes fall short is in not introducing us to the titular ship or her crew. Instead, the first two episodes are a prelude to the main series, taking place on the USS Shenzhou.
Burnham’s time on the Shenzhou is interesting and, without a doubt, the fulcrum which turns the plot of the entire series. Nevertheless, without any connection to the ship or the 1,000+ people who man her, the stakes feel almost nonexistent. There are multiple moments in the first episode when the camera attempts to heighten the dramatic tension by cutting to the worried faces of all the crew members on the bridge. But without a formal introduction to any of those characters, they provoke confusion more often than fear.
Discovery‘s versions of the Klingons aren’t exactly what Star Trek fans will be expecting either. As individuals, they are meek and hesitant to fight with the Federation when, in the past, we’ve known their culture to be brash and eager to enter battle.
The plot of Discovery‘s first two episodes centers around T’Kuvma, a Klingon who wants to unite the 24 Klingon houses into one Empire. He hopes that with this Empire, he can stand up to the United Federation of Planets, which he says is an inferior group. He faults the Federation for uniting many different species together under one banner. He claims that the maxim “We come in peace” is a lie because race mixing will destroy Klingon purity.
On the whole, the plot is a bit heavy-handed. Some scenes that give the impression a Klingon is about to come around the corner in a red MAGA hat holding a sign about building a space wall. But if this is the story the turns the Klingon species into the warmonger culture Star Trek fans know them to be, it will be interesting to see them go through that journey.
The Bottom Line
The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery were interesting. Unfortunately, interesting does not mean exciting, nor entertaining. And for a Star Trek show to survive, it’s going to need more than $8M per episode. It’s going to require action.
For example, in the opening scene of Star Trek: Discovery‘s pilot, some of the central plot points are: projecting weather patterns, using starts to navigate, and calculating the permeability of bedrock. And there is nothing wrong with that. This is the kind of hard science that makes Star Trek different from other forms of Sci-Fi. But that can’t be all that Star Trek is.
If Discovery wants to convince audiences that they should subscribe to CBS All-Access, they are going to need to deliver action. The first two episodes of Discovery center around the lowest-stakes standoff of all time. The Federation fleet is pitted against an armada of Klingon vessels, without anyone being willing to fire a shot. And when there is finally action, the formula is “We will do _______ now”, and then _______ happens. It’s not exactly riveting.
The Future of Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery is not going to be the show that changes television forever. But it might end up being an excellent Star Trek show. The first two episodes do not seem like they will end up being a fair barometer of the show overall. Aside from the setting and character roster being entirely different, things will be much smoother behind the scenes.
The show’s first two episodes were developed by Bryan Fuller, who was running the show before he left for American Gods. CBS hired Akiva Goldsman, a man who shits the bed professionally, to flesh out Fuller’s script. Moving forward, showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts need to demand a tonal consistency that makes Trekkies happy. Bryan Fuller is a genius who got his start writing Star Trek. But Star Trek is a recognizable brand for a reason. If Discovery wanders too far afield from the model, then it’s just a sci-fi show with branding slapped on it.
But I’ll give the last word to my dad: the biggest Trek fan I know, and the reason I love it too. When we got to the end of the first episode, I asked him if he wanted to watch the second. And his take on the second episode is mine for the third: “If nobody is getting kissed or shot in the first 15 minutes, we’re canceling it”.