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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Star Trek: Discovery 1-01: The Vulcan Hello (Quick Review)

Episode:1|Writer:Akiva Goldsman & Bryan Fuller|Air Date:24-Sep-2017

Hey, look at this thing that finally exists for real!

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm reviewing the massively expensive, endlessly delayed first episode of Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek series on TV for 12 years. It missed Star Trek's big 50th anniversary by just over a year, but it's just in time for Star Trek: The Next Generation's 30th! Almost. If they'd just waited 4 more days...

I'm so excited to get the chance to watch this at last because I've had this question on my mind for months: which one's going to be the crap one, Discovery or The Orville? Can they both be good? Also, the 2009 Star Trek movie feels like J.J. Abrams trying to make a Star Wars film, The Orville is obviously Seth MacFarlane attempt at making a Star Trek series, so I'm curious about what Discovery's trying to be.

This episode's co-written by the writer of Batman and Robin and Lost in Space, but I'll try not to let that influence my judgement. After all, this is a modern US TV show with a room full of other writers working on every episode. For instance, the original story for this one came from the co-writer of Transformers and Star Trek Into Darkness! I'm going to stop looking at the credits now before they put me off.

This is going to be a super quick review, written in a hurry without screencaps or a synopsis slowing it down. I'm just going to leap straight into giving SPOILERS and sharing my thoughts on this major cultural event/TV show.

Man, I can't believe that I've actually seen the first episode of this bloody TV series at last! It took 8 months longer than expected but it's here now and I've watched it and I have opinions.

I already had a bit of an idea of what I was in for after watching the trailers, or so I thought. Turns out I had all of an idea as, they'd basically given away the whole plot! Very little that happened this episode surprised me, aside from the prologue teaser and the ending, and that surprised me.

Turns out that The Vulcan Hello ain't referring to the famous v-shape hand gesture you see on the posters. Nope, it refers to firing at Klingons without provocation, and it's what Burnham nearly has the Shenzhou do after first incapacitating her captain with a neck pinch! I didn't even know that humans could do them. But the most shocking part of the ending is the fact that it just... stops. Surprise two-parter!

I knew that the episode would likely open with Captain Philippa Georgiou and her first officer Lt Cdr Michael Burnham stuck on a planet, drawing a Starfleet arrowhead with their footsteps to signal their ship for a pickup, but the trailers didn't mention anything about them being there to covertly save the locals by finding a new water source for them. With a gun!

Right away the episode demonstrates what Starfleet is about: exploring strange new worlds, helping out without interfering, coming up with ingenious ways to get out alive when it all goes wrong, and repairing communications relays. And they didn't even need an opening monologue to spell it out.

It also demonstrates that Georgiou is very much a typically heroic and resourceful Starfleet captain and Burnham's her Spock. Then once they get back to the ship we see they've got a happy, friendly, professional crew who are all hyped to be out exploring. And Burnham's the most hyped of all when she gets to do her cinematic Star Trek: The Motion Picture EVA trip, narrating the journey as she goes.

But the episode also likes to switch over to check in on what Team Klingon are up to, and these guys are a bit less cheerful. This is the first ever Star Trek pilot to feature Klingons (outside of the ones in a Starfleet uniform) and they're all over this episode, mostly gathering to listen to T'Kumva's latest rant about how the Federation's out to stop them being Klingons. He seems absolutely convinced that he has to unite the 24 houses and lead them on a crusade of self-preservation but there's never any hint of why. Especially as they've apparently been staying off the Federation's radar for 100 years by this point.

It's ironic that they're so keen to 'remain Klingon', when they've had a huge, apparently unnecessary makeover for the series. Seems to me that once you've got 400+ episodes featuring either Worf or B'lanna as a regular character then the Klingon look is pretty much set in stone. I mean you don't see the producers changing the Vulcans, they'd never dare doing that! A makeup change isn't really a deal breaker for me though, I somehow managed to cope with the Trill looking entirely different on DS9 for instance. Unfortunately, this particular makeup change has put the actors in hilariously huge rubber masks that they appear to be struggling to act through, and it seems like speaking is an issue as well.

Also, if there's one thing you can count on with Klingons it's that they're going to be fun to watch. Because they're typically crazy samurai Viking bikers who live every day like it's a good day to die. Not these guys though, they're utterly dour and joyless, and I really wish they'd drop the subtitles and speak English, for the actors' sake as much as mine. Though on the plus side, none of them appear to be quoting Shakespeare.

I'm not 100% on Saru's big rubber mask either yet, but his playful rivalry with Burnham immediately cemented him as one of my favourite characters... on this ship with only three actual characters on it. Which is good, because he was a real question mark for me after his 'I sense the coming of death' line in the trailer. Fortunately, that whole conversation was probably the worst of his dialogue in the episode (especially the bit about his world not having a food chain), and his death sensing ability seems to be a gut feeling rather than anything supernatural. It's more like what a redshirt would feel when beaming down with Captain Kirk, and I'm 100% with him considering their luck in this episode.

Everything the crew of the Shenzhou does in this episode backfires on them horribly, from the storm cutting off their communications on the planet onwards. Even the communications relay they fixed turned out to be cheese in a mouse trap! The episode's not exactly the rollercoaster ride of the Kelvin movies, but it's a tightly plotted tale about good people making a chain of bad calls in a situation where it seems that the only winning move is not to play. Which is what Saru was saying all along! The moral of the story: always listen to Saru.

In fact, despite the slick cinematic look and wonky camera work, the episode's structure is more like the Original Series pilots than the other spin-offs, as it's got no interest in taking time away from the story to introduce the crew and given them something to do. You've got Burnham, Georgiou and Saru as Spock, Kirk and cowardly Spock, and everyone else is just around to make the bridge seem more friendly and active. Which is good, because it feels like most of the story takes place there, or the adjacent ready room.

Speaking of Burnham, she seems like a decent enough lead character, plus she's the most messed up since Sisko. She's basically Worf, Seven, T'Pol... all the alien outsider characters from all the series combined, (orphan raised by Sarek to be logical who rejoined her people and is dealing with emotions) which is interesting because she's entirely human. I wish I could share my thoughts about Jason Isaacs as Captain Lorca, and the Discovery herself, but they don't actually show up! I figured there might be some time jumping between the past and present to get both Discovery and Shenzhou into the story simultaneous, but nope, the eponymous hero ship is entirely absent.

Well, except for when it shows up in the opening titles.

Take a Klingon cruiser, stick the bottom of a Cardassian cruiser to the underside and bolt a droid command ship from The Phantom Menace on the front and you've got the new-look USS Discovery! She's not all that different to how she looked back in the Test Flight teaser last year, but the changes have helped strip away some of the ugly off her, and I think she actually looks pretty good from this angle.

I have to wonder why they didn't replace it with the Shenzhou for this episode though, as it's all over the credits, flying by various kinds of biology, technology and weaponry... including an old-school Original Series phaser and communicator! I'm sure some people are annoyed by the lack of a starfield, but I think the whole sequence is great, with its Leonardo DaVinci/technical manual illustration style, and its endless list of executive producers. And I'm not just saying that because it's the closest they've come yet to a James Bond title sequence.

The theme's alright too, though it's more moody violins and less heroic brass section, plus it doesn't have much of a... theme to it. It's a massive step up from Faith of the Heart, but for some reason the visuals sent my brain searching for a Muse song that'd be a better fit. Maybe they could've used Supremacy, that's a bit like a Bond theme. Plus it'd be easy to swap 'Supremacy' for 'Discovery' in the lyrics!

After the credits, Burnham gives the stardate of the episode in the Original Series format, confirming that this takes place in the Prime Timeline of the TV series instead of the Kelvin Timeline of the last few movies! And I'm very happy about this because, a: it proves that the events of Star Trek '09 didn't change the timeline, they really did create a new one, and b: it means we're back to the established continuity that I've grown very attached to and hope to see continued past Star Trek: Nemesis at some point.

So if Commander Riker had a moral dilemma on his mind during an episode of Next Gen and told the holodeck to bring up the USS Shenzhou from 2256 so that he could pretend to be the ship's chef while he dwelled on his problems, this is where he'd end up.

Interestingly this is also around the time of the first Kelvin timeline movie, so it's not straying too far from the most recent Trek time period, even if though it's in a different dimension with different looking spaceships. Though the thing is, this is 2 years after the first Original Series pilot, The Cage, and 10 years before season one, so we've seen time period before in the Prime timeline and it didn't use to look like this.

Really the ship's bridge should look more like this, with screens around the outer walls, a pair of consoles up front, and a stylish captain's chair in the middle. Well okay, the Shenzhou bridge has all of that, but they should be less shiny, and they should turn the damn lights on!

I'm really good at getting irritated by visual discontinuity, and if the Enterprise turns up and doesn't look just like this I'm going to rant about it for sure, but I'm honestly not bothered about the Shenzhou looking more advanced than the Enterprise. Because I'm sure by 2250 these guys could make their ships look like anything they want them to, and I doubt every ship was designed by the same Federation designers with the same tastes and goals. The Shenzhou feels like it belongs to the post USS Kelvin era, when bridges were getting cleaner and less cluttered, but before the USS Excelsior era, when physical controls were being phased out, so it's in the ballpark and I can live with that. The various beeps and other sounds around the bridge seem right at least, so if I close my eyes all is right in the world.

I should be bothered by the uniforms though, seeing as they look somewhere between Sealab 2020 and Zapp Brannigan... but I stopped noticing them about 10 seconds into the story, so I'm not. Those holograms, on the other hand, those were a bit weird (especially how they were lit by the room they were projected into). I don't remember Starfleet using holo-communicators until late Deep Space Nine, and then only briefly. I guess it's just a fad that comes around every few decades.

Overall I liked the episode, I thought it was very watchable and true enough to Star Trek to feel like it deserves the name. Plus it exists and it's brought the franchise back onto television the internet, which is a real step up. It's darker than your typical Trek spin-off, but with Bryan Fuller co-writing the script I kind of saw that coming, and it's still kept its optimism and ethics in between all the mutinies and the sarcophagus-covered spaceships. Though if the series really wants to be true to Star Trek it really needs to take a sudden nosedive in quality after this opening two-parter and hold at 'thoroughly mediocre' for the next two seasons or so, before becoming great in season 3. And if it wants to compete with The Orville it's gonna need to start with the obvious allegories soon. More obvious than the Klingons being Trump supporters I mean.

Star Trek: Discovery will continue with Battle at the Binary Stars. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm writing about Star Trek: Discovery's Battle at the Binary Stars! So I'd better get on with that then.

The comment box is now ready to receive your responses.


  1. I think "hero ship flies past cosmic scenery" has been exhausted as a Star Trek credits concept now, so I approve of this new title sequence.