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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Catching an ST:D

I'm not letting that joke go. You can pry it from my cold, dead hands. 

Over the last week, I've watched 5 entire seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and just today I watched all three JJ Abrams movies. This helped me get a perspective on where Trek has been, and where it's going.

On the night of its release, I watched the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery and and the third episode of The Orville. Suffice it to say, I had a much better time on one of those three episodes.

I feel that it's necessary, before I begin properly, to point out that there's a strawman argument going on right now amongst critics of critics of ST:D's marketing. The story goes that people are objecting to the diversity of ST:D's cast, and that it would be a real (irony here) shame if Trek were to have a cast that included a black woman, a Russian, a Japanese man, a Scotsman, and a half-human, or if it were to have a blind man and a formerly hostile alien race on the bridge. That's an excellent point, but it's countering an argument that no significant number of people actually have. No one is objecting to a diverse cast in Star Trek. Trek has always had a diverse cast, even when it wasn't 'safe' to do so. Rather, people are objecting to the show being marketed as "good because it's diverse" when Trek has always simply been diverse without having a brass band trumpeting it from the heavens of Hollywood's finest spin rags.

With that out of the way, what did I think?

I'm torn. Had you removed the Starfleet livery, called the "Klingons" something else, and just called it Discovery, I might have felt very differently. Much like The Orville, this could have worked as a tribute to Trek while making an entirely new IP. But being in Trek's playground, this just doesn't work, for a number of reasons.

While there may be inconsistencies between the Kelvin Timeline (of the Abrams movies) and vintage Trek's Prime Timelikne, there is a very good reason for that. The Narada Incident irreparably changed the timeline, with highly advanced and experimental technology being introduced in a very public and very messy way hundreds of years before it should have been developed. This accelerated both the technological level of advancement (which is why the Kelvin Enterprise is larger than Picard's Sovereign class Enterprise) and historical events (Kirk taking command, the Khan incident). However, Discovery takes place mere years after Star Trek: Enterprise -- long before the timeline was disrupted -- so there's no explanation for certain things that don't fit, including:
  • The robot (?) woman on the bridge of the Shenzhou when Lt. Commander Data was the first AI in Starfleet. 
  • The use of holographic communicators, when they were at an experimental phase in the later years of Deep Space 9
  • The design of Burnham's space suit being lighter and thinner than suits shown in series that take place over a hundred years later. 
  • The Klingons possessing a cloaking device when those were obtained from the Romulans during Kirk's service.
Another common complaint that I see is that Trek shouldn't focus on war and that Discovery is dropping us into a war in the first episode. I'd be a hypocrite myself if I said Trek shouldn't handle war, as DS9 is my favourite series, but it needs to be handled properly. DS9 spent years setting up the characters and the setting, letting us get to know the crew, before they raised the stakes and had us invested in their experiences. DS9, in short, earned their war.

Then there's the things that are just inconsistent in and of themselves. For example, the Klingons:

  • Their language seems to have changed fundamentally. Despite there already being an entire existing language for the Klingons, they're speaking something that doesn't sound at all like the Klingon language, with such a stilted cadence to their speech that it makes them difficult to listen to.
  • Visually, they've changed again. They don't look anything like the Prime timeline (which the show claims to be part of) or the Kelvin timeline Klingons (which expanded the bone ridges across the head, but retained the iconic visuals). They look like they're wearing misshapen cockroaches on their heads. 
  • The Captain and First Officer speaking loudly to each other about not violating General Order One (aka the Prime Directive - do not interfere in the natural development of a pre-warp species) while in the hatchery of a pre-warp species on their way to interfere with the natural development of that species? 
  • And how is a mind meld from years ago allowing a Vulcan to communicate telepathically across light-years?

There were a few things I liked, although most of them were undercut by the end of the second episode. I adored Captain Philippa Georgiou and the Shenzhou. The ship was quite well-designed, and Michelle Yeoh's performance was top-notch. She had the perfect blend of mature serenity and well-earned smugness, with a French name and a decidedly not-French origin that reminded me quite a bit of Captain Picard. Had the show followed her, I felt she could have become a fine proto-Picard figure, and seeing her use a phase rifle as a tool early in the episode, even if it was in violation of the Prime Directive, was pleasing as well. I was also fond of Doug Jones's alien Lt. Saru, the highly intelligent and highly bent on self-preservation attitude providing a smile.

The show is inconsistent with its pre-release messaging as well, considering that the Klingons were billed as a very clear analogue for Trump voters and the emphasis on diversity. The main character, Burnham - a black woman with a male first name raised by Vulcans - gets chewed out by a white male Admiral for judging by race, by which she responds to 'not confuse race with culture' - something that critics of Islam frequently have to say to progressive accusations of Islamophobia. In short, ST:D is so woke it comes back out the other side, as the episode climax is brown-skinned religious zealots destroying a ship called Europa headed by a white man by driving a vehicle into it. In trying to build the perfect analogue of Trump voters, it crashed headlong into every ugly stereotype of people from the Middle East.

The most frustrating part, though, is I have no idea if these criticisms will stand. Burnham -- whom I dislike as she's written basically like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory -- is seemingly the only returning cast member come episode 3, when she joins the crew of an entirely new ship with a new captain. The show might take a completely new direction, or it may hang on tightly to all of the complaints I have with it.

It's almost a shame I won't know, as I have no intentions of paying CBS $7 a month to watch one show that I don't know if I'll be invested in and still have to watch commercials on CBS All Access, and I can't help but feel that's not a coincidence. Internally, ST:D will be judged by how many account sign-ups it garners for CBS, but that's not data we'll ever see. Instead, we'll see that The Orville, which airs on the same night that ST:D premiered, got significantly higher ratings. And maybe that was the plan all along.

I'm going back to re-watching DS9. I still have a season and a half to get through before I start a new job.

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