Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Vulcan Hello/Battle At The Binary Stars Vs Encounter At Farpoint

Before you ask, yes, I am still alive. Just really busy. Learning 2D animation is kind of intense and it eats up approximately 99% of my time. But you're not here to read about my personal misadventures (well, actually, maybe you are, I've definitely set a precedent for that) you're here because, for the first time in twelve years, there's a new Star Trek on television (well, a pay-per-month streaming service, but I'm not here to split hairs, unless maybe I am, I've also set a bit of a precedent for that) and, for whatever reason, you're interested in my thoughts regarding said new Star Trek.

Settle in, kids. This is a long one.

First off, a warning: There will be LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD so, if you don't want to be spoiled, just go ahead and stop here.

Discovery's pilot, A Vulcan Hello, finds Michael Burnham and her captain, Phillipa Georgiou, trekking around a desert planet hoping to help a species with their drought problems. When they get stuck under an incoming storm  and the Shinzhou's sensors can't locate them, Georgiou has the two of them walk in the shape of a giant Starfleet insignia and... somehow the Shinzhou can... pick them out from space? I don't know. In spite of this weirdness it's a fun moment but it still felt like a last minute addition to the pilot--something someone shoehorned in to say, "Hey! Please don't go anywhere! We promise this really is Star Trek!" because so much of the rest of the pilot feels kind of alien

But how alien? After finishing The Vulcan Hello I went over to (another monthly streaming service) Netflix and spooled up TNG's pilot, Encounter at Farpoint. And, as I watched, I asked myself, what is Star Trek? What does it mean? What does it set out to do? These are sort of big questions. But I've been writing this weird blog that is both about Star Trek and about the impact it's had in my life for four years now and I guess I've thought about these things as much as anyone.

-In spite of the silliness, I did love the chevron in the sand with the swell of the theme
-The line, "With respect, it would be unwise to confuse race and culture." Holy shit I love this line.
-Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones are both well cast and perform in their roles admirably if, at times, a little stiff
-The Klingon language. This is, according to several Klingons I follow on Twitter, the most accurate version of Klingon we've ever seen on Trek because it comes from, hardcore fan and top Klingon grammarian, Robyn Stewart.
-Everyone calls Burnham, "Number One."
-Burnham uses logic to make the computer aid in her escape from the brig
-That sweet escape pod effect

So... both pilots are shaky. They move slower than they should because they are pilots and have a whole lot of exposition to get out. They both set up big questions, "Are humans worthy of space exploration or, even, existence at all?" and "Are humans (and this particular human specifically) ready to be part of a bigger and more nuanced galaxy than they had anticipated?" They both set out to feature strong female characters and both hit and miss the mark in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Both show off new, redesigned Klingons (even though both times the Klingons had been redesigned in interim movies.) They both feature a bit of a mystery (what's really going on at this space station/what's this weird object floating around in this part of space) and they both feature characters who struggle with their humanity (a must-have in Trek at this point.) They're both very clearly a product of their time both intentionally (when it's subtle) and unintentionally (when it's obvious and cringe-inducing) but that's also a solid Trekism now as well. Both have clunky dialogue and both, and this is important, came after a very long time without Trek on TV. 

When I was a kid, and TNG was about to premier, my parents (both die-hard Trekkies) almost didn't watch it. My mom grew up watching TOS with her little brother and cherished those memories and when I started this blog she told me how nervous she was about TNG saying that she was worried it would be too different... that something about it would taint those memories. My parents watched TNG anyway and loved it. And, because they loved it, I grew up on a steady diet of Trek. It's because they tried TNG that, on Sunday night, I found myself in the same position they were in thirty years ago. Thirty years ago today, in fact, was the premier of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This morning, I asked my mom what she remembered about watching that premier. She said she remembers being worried, worried that they were remaking her Trek and that it didn't feel right but that she got totally involved with the new crew, especially Picard and Data and LaForge and Crusher and she was happy to see the way Starfleet had evolved over time. But, she was still hungry for her old Star Trek--her old TV friends. 

If I could go back in time, and watch Encounter at Farpoint with my mom, I would. I would ask her, "What do you think about these Klingons?" "What do you think about this female character?" "What do you think about this crew?" "What about the secondary characters?" "Does this feel like Star Trek to you?" But I can't. So, instead, I'll ask myself those questions in regard to Discovery. 

1- The Klingons
I've seen some folks complaining about The Klingon redesign. The design itself didn't offend me--in theory--though, Holy Light of Kahless I do miss that fabulous Klingon hair. I feel that Discovery is trying to add new depth and dimension to Klingon culture and making them look less human is likely a part of that. But, with all the extra apparatus on the actors' faces, I worry that it obscures their ability to really emote and this is kind of a problem because it's clear that the Klingons are going to be around a lot in Discovery and the emotional journeys of their characters are set up to matter. There's a reason that all the TNG-ENT aliens just had some kind of turtle on their head--because it let the rest of their face do some acting. 

2-The Women
Trek has always tried to have strong female characters. Going all the way back to Number One in TOS' pilot, The Cage. They often fell short, like when they only ever gave Crusher and Troi bad boyfriend plots for the first three seasons, but those characters grew along with the show and the introduction of Guinan (and the sorely underrated Pulaski) helped a lot. In Discovery we have Burnham and Georgiou. I like the idea of these two characters and the first ten minutes of pilot ensures that they pass the Bechdel test with flying colors but Burnham is kind of all over the place when it comes to whether she can keep a Vulcan grip on her emotions.  In spite of this, Martin-Green, portrays Burnham's issues capably and, at times, truly shines. Over time, I think she'll grow into this role and, really, I don't think it'll take that long. 
Georgiou, meanwhile, is played by Michelle Yeoh and should be kick-punching Klingons left, right, and center. I've loved (been a little in love with) Yeoh since I saw Heroic Trio when I was a kid and, when I saw that she was captaining this pilot, I was sure there'd be some epic fight scene that harkened back to the TOS roots only, you know, actually good. But... no. When Burnham and Georgiou transport over to the Klingon ship they're both immediately disarmed and the most we get of the captain is a bit of her "oofing" and "owing" while she's beaten up by T'Kuvma in the background. She's killed without even putting up a decent fight and that's a missed opportunity. Otherwise, it seems Yeoh has a hard time getting her mouth around all the techno babble. You could argue it's because English is a second language but I've seen her in other English language stuff (most recently Strike Back, in which she was amazing) and I don't think that's it. I think it's more likely that SciFi techno-speak is just hard for a lot of actors to deliver convincingly. It's something actors like Roxann Dawson and LeVar Burton seemed to do naturally but most folks have bigger issues and end up sounding stiff and robotic when they start talking about all the ways they could polarize the neutron flow or whatever. It seems like Yeoh falls in that second category. 

3-The Crew
Ok, this is my biggest issue with Discovery so far. Two episodes in and we still haven't even met the crew. Ok, we know two characters: Burnham and Saru (who kind of hate each other, more on that later) and that's it. At the end of the pilot, Burnham is court-martialed (another Trek mainstay) and shipped off to the next episode where we will presumably meet Captain Malfoy and the rest of the Discovery crew. But, as much as Star Trek has always featured specific characters who stood out, as much as Saru is this Trek's Spock/Data and Burnham is this Trek's Worf, Trek has always been about the crew. These are the TV friends that make Star Trek as comforting as it is thought-provoking, interesting, sometimes action-packed, and, in turns, funny. The crew is the reason you tune in (or buffer, as the case may be.) 

It's about people who love each other, who would fight for each other, who respect each other even if they don't always agree, and who would stand shoulder to shoulder together to do the right thing--even if it means doing the impossible, even if they're flying headfirst into the no-win scenario. Here, all we have so far are Burnham and Saru who bicker incessantly while the captain tries to regain control of her own command. It irks me a little bit but, then again, it wasn't so long ago that I rewatched all of TOS and had to be reminded that, while Spock and McCoy would do anything for each other, they were constantly at odds. Discovery is much closer in era to Kirk's crew (and their tendencies) than that of Next Gen and their kumbaya dynamic. And, when rewatching the TNG pilot, it was interesting to see the way Tasha was constantly trying to jump and in take the militant route, the way Riker is set up to be a guy who has a tendency to second-guess his captain, the way Crusher straight-up disobeys orders by bringing Wesley onto the bridge (or the turbo lift adjoining the bridge.) In the next episode we'll (I assume) meet Discovery's real crew and I'm hopeful (and optimistic) that they'll reveal a crew we can latch on to.  

4- Secondary Characters
One of my favorite characters in all of Trek is Sarek. I loved him in The Original Series and I love that the national treasure that was Mark Lenard returned to play him in the breathtakingly beautiful episode, Sarek, in The Next Generation. I love that character. And, while TNG had a passing of the baton from McCoy to Data, this episode had Sarek. He's played very capably by James Frain and, because I just finished up Orphan Black I expected to be a little traumatized at the sight of Ferdinand with pointy ears but Frain acquits himself admirably. I was slightly more distracted by all the ways Discovery managed to have Sarek chat with Burnham on the regular. Flash back? Check. Star Wars Full Body Hologram? Check. Long distance call made possible through mind meld? Check. Considering Burnham is basically Spock's adopted sister, I wonder whether Spock was subjected to this kind of incessant parental check-in. Was Sarek there in the radiation chamber with Spock saying, "Son, forget these losers and I'll take you out for milkshakes." It opens up an interesting can of worms. Like, giving a superhero the ability to go back in time, why can't he just go back in time whenever he gets into trouble now? It's a dangerous precedent but I'm interested in seeing what they do with it--if they keep it around.  

Anyway, ONWARD! 

Lt Saru, played by the wonderful Doug Jones is, like Burnham, also conflicted in ways that don't seem on purpose. He has the whole, "My species can sense the coming of death," line which feels a little more magic than science but, whatever, I totally can buy that a species could evolve a heightened instinct of danger. What's interesting to me is the fact that he's not just played as a cautious worrywart but as a coward. He's pretty terrified of the unknown so I'm not super sure why he's serving in an organization whose sole purpose is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Is he really the guy you want on the bridge informing all your decisions? I don't know. But I'm interested to see. Up to now every single character on Star Trek (minus, maybe poor Harry Kim) has been the fly straight into danger headfirst because COURAGE! So what can they do with a guy who's proudly afraid of everything? 

In Enterprise a big part of the story was how in-over-their-heads the crew was. Here, it seems more like this iteration of Starfleet is, probably unintentionally, being imperialistic and simplistic in the ways they deal with alien species and these characters and (as yet unseen) crew will have to figure out how to better navigate the complicated diplomatic waters of the galaxy. And that's fine. It's potentially a more nuanced version of Star Trek and that's a good thing. Ideas in black and white tend to reinforce our current beliefs, but ideas presented with nuance, in shades of gray, make us think. And Star Trek has always sought to get us thinking.

In both Encounter at Farpoint and The Vulcan Hello, we get a trial. One is a trial of humans as a species. The other is the trial of one human in particular. 

Encounter at Farpoint leaves the viewer with the message that, yes, humans screw shit up. Humans have been imperfect and impetuous and dangerous to themselves and others but, at their core, humans are capable of so much more. They are capable of so much good. The episode ends with the hint that we will continue to be judged, as a species, by our own actions, by the way we treat each other, by the way we treat those less familiar, those who we fear because they are so different and dangerous. 

The Vulcan Hello ends with the admission of guilt by one human for betraying her crew, her captain, her friend. Starfleet is cast in shadow. Burnham stands alone in a single pool of hard light. From here on out, as in TNG, Burnham will continue to be judged, as an individual, as a member of her species--a member of Starfleet--by her own actions, by the way she treats her fellow officers, and the way she treats those less familiar, those who she fears because they are so different and dangerous. 

It has been my hope, for as long as I've been writing this blog, that a new Star Trek series would show up on TV and I'd get to write about it. This weekend that happened. And it made me remember being a kid, watching TNG with my parents. It made me remember growing up with Star Trek--watching it through my parents' divorce, through all the moves, the shuffling back and forth, going in and out of poverty, learning to deal with sickness, death, loss of friends, family, learning hard lessons about the world but, all the while, tuning in to Star Trek. All the while looking at this bright, shining, optimistic future and thinking, "This is a place for me. This is a future that I can believe in. This is a humanity I can believe in."

I hope that Discovery will eventually come to the same place that all Star Treks have eventually found themselves. A place where they can prophecy hope and optimism and a future where we are better than we are now. Burnham's path seems dark and difficult and outside the scope of the rosy-colored TNG era that so many of us think of when we think of Trek. But Star Trek has always been a reflection of our times. And now, our times are dark. I hope, in spite of this darkness, though, that Discovery will find a way to be a beacon of something brighter. Something that can both inspire and comfort. Something that can speak to kids who are downtrodden and say, "It gets better. There will be a place for you and it will be better than the place you are in now." I hope that they will. 

Like my mom, thirty years ago, I am interested in this new Trek. But I am also hungry. I'm hungry for the themes of hope and optimism that have always accompanied Star Trek. And I'll be watching Discovery, every Sunday, to see where they go and what they do. Unfortunately, my mom won't because, like so many other people who need to hear a message of hope in these dark times, she can't justify the monthly cost of a streaming service for a single show. Instead, maybe she'll watch The Orville (Seth MacFarlane's love letter to Star Trek) which has hardcore geek references, a solid crew, a big dose of optimism, and enough pluck to go around. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with a lot of this. I think in 2017 they should be able to write a better Star Trek pilot than this. It was honestly kind of boring, and I definitely did not feel a connection with Michael or the other characters at all. And like you, it bothers me that two episodes in and we haven't actually met the crew of the Discovery yet. It's like we got a really long prologue before the actual story begins. But I certainly hope that the show will find its feet and voice and improve throughout the season(s).


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