Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Discovery, Season 1: The Vulcan Hello

http://www.treknobabble.net/p/rating-system.htmlDiscovery, Season 1
"The Vulcan Hello"
Airdate: September 24, 2017
1 of 15 produced
1 of 15 aired

Introduction

Up and coming Starfleet officer Michael Burnham begins to chafe against her Captain's orders and advice when an old nemesis, the Klingons, rear their heads again after a long absence.



 Fingerless gloves: cool in any century

Writing

Matthew: I just want to establish from the outset that my first concern when watching any new Star Trek series in the post-Abrams franchise is whether or not it is "Real Star Trek." I don't feel the need to establish at length what that is, given the history of our blog, but it's the first thing I'm looking for. Can I care? Should I invest? And the answer here is yes. From the teaser onward, several themes and questions were established and effectively developed in a way that is consistent with the Star Trek I love. Can two cultures with radically different values coexist? What is it like to be caught between two cultures? Which is the higher duty - the chain of command or one's own estimate of outcomes? Any of these questions would be "Star Trek enough" for me, and they are all present and pleasingly developed over the episode. I was very pleased that, bizarre redesign notwithstanding, the Klingons had a clear motivation with obvious allegorical parallels to our world today (hatred of a neighboring liberal society and fear of being diluted by it), as well as internal disagreement (the 24 disunited houses, and differences of opinion with respect to uniting them). The way the Starfleet personnel approached these problems was also consistent with the Star Trek I love - they sought diplomatic solutions first, and bristled at suggestions of a more aggressive posture. I will say, I was hoping for a diversity of looks within the Klingons that might explain the wholesale visual overhaul, but alas, so far I have not been given this. 

Kevin: The teaser actually had me making several direct comparisons to nuTrek right away, and Discovery came out the better for it. Both this and Into Darkness start with the crew attempting to covertly save an alien species. Here, there are no dumb jokes, and the button on the scene, while I admit a little contrived, still looked cool, and was based on the captain being competent instead of bumbling. Indeed, the scene largely centers on two competent experienced people talking about their mission and careers. When Georgiou tells Burnham that seven years as an XO means it's time to start thinking about being a captain, I could have wept. Instantly, it made this Starfleet feel like a real institution with real people who have real jobs, not college juniors who get the keys to the flagship because the script says so. 

Matthew: The characters we've been introduced to were rendered pretty well. The relationship between Georgiou and Burnham seemed pretty organic, even when their dialogue did not. As far as tropes go, it seemed pretty clear from the outset that Burnham would witness some manner of death and destruction within her crew, thus hardening her against her early optimism. But tropes are tropes for a reason, and it worked pretty well. Saru was also given an interesting sketch of a backstory, with his race's history informing his own personality and the kinds of arguments he makes. I do have to ask - why "Michael?" I got over it pretty quickly, but it seems like an odd choice to make intentionally. 

Kevin: The name didn't bother me. I assume it will be revealed her full given name is Michaela or this is just the drift of names like Beverly or Evelyn that were men's names but become en vogue for women. I liked the rapport of the Georgiou and Burnham as well. With Saru, it felt like a conscious call back to the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad with Saru the sarcastic foil to balance Burnham's logic. Hey background is interesting, and I am curious to see where it goes. My only complaint there is it makes Sarek look not just like a jerk, but ill-informed. Her response to being confronted with trivia over her parents' death is clearly a PTSD episode and that's not emotion, it's biology. From a psych perspective, her brain is not recalling the incident, it is reliving it in real time. It's what makes trauma so hard to process, the brain can't make the distinction. We know so much more in 2017 than 1966 about the physical components to our emotional awareness that the Vulcan tut-tutting goes from pompous to dangerous. 

Matthew: The pacing of the episode is solid, exciting but still Trek-like, and the conversations being had fit the ethos of the universe. I don't think anyone could accuse this two-parter of lacking action, but there were still enough debates to satisfy a devotee of TNG-style boardroom drama like myself. Burnham's conversations with Sarek served to illuminate her character (if not his, calling into question why you would even use him), while Georgiou and Burnham's conversations served to illuminate the conflict of ideas at work. Everything built to a nice crescendo with Burnham attempting a mutiny, and the standoff was excitingly tense. Overall, I think the entertainment value of the script was pretty high.

Kevin: I was glad her attempted mutiny got shut down so easily. It makes it more about her character and choices than succeeding by being a cowboy. Also, I like the touch that her nerve pinch would be less effective. By the end of the first episode, I was intrigued enough about what is happening to be excited in a way I haven't in a while about what comes next.

Acting

Matthew: At first I thought Sonequa Martin-Green seemed stiff with line readings that were distractingly wooden. But as the episode developed, I realized that instead she was really killing it in terms of showing the evolution of a character who had been raised by Vulcans but was becoming more comfortable with her humanity over her career. Overall, she seems quite capable of anchoring the show in terms of skill and charisma.

Kevin: I noted her very Vulcan quality but they revealed the reason before I had put too much though into it. Martin-Green did a really good job holding my attention, even through a few clunky pieces of exposition. Moreover, she just has one of those faces that I just can't look away from. She's arresting. Trek had a history of working a bit to find the strengths of their actors, but not so here. Served by good scripts, I think she could be a signature actor in the franchise. Also, this is less immediately relevant, but she had been KILLING IT on the red carpet leading up to the premiere.

Matthew: Michelle Yeoh was predictably excellent, seeming to effortlessly project the presence that a Starfleet captain requires, while also seeming to have an emotional life and meaningful relationships with the other characters. Doug Jones also made a nice impression with Saru, both in terms of line readings and with his spindly physicality.

Kevin: If anything, Yeoh was underutilized. I liked listening to her talk. When she pronounced the name of the Shenzhou, it had the notes of the tonal inflections of Chinese and I liked the implication that the language would survive in some active form. I agree totally on her presence. The balance of cool reserve with approachability to the people who know her puts her in good company with her fellow captains. If anything, I'm sad the show won't focus (spoilers) on the pair of Georgiou and Burnham. They could easily anchor the show. Saru was a lot of fun and had a lot of internal life. He nailed the light comic relief job. He relieved tension without breaking the flow of the scene. I am separately THRILLED that the line from the trailer about sensing death was a apparently a metaphor.

Matthew: While I can't say with certainty that any of the Klingon actors truly overcame the helmet-head appliances they were placed in, I did get enough from Chris Obi's T'Kuvma and Javid Iqbal's Voq to follow the dramatic beats of the Klingon story, and that's probably a notable accomplishment in itself. It remains to be seen how much the actors can make me care over time in the series.

Kevin: They were the hardest to latch onto for me. It may be more of a physical issue but I could tell they were all committed. I just hope their given the quiet space to really differentiate themselves.

Production Values

Matthew: There are two schools of thought when it comes to Trek series visuals. One is "Do it the best you can with the technology and budget you've got, consistency be damned" and the other is "Make it fit somehow with the established world." The show seemed to tend towards the former (with some kowtows to the latter), while my preferred stance is the reverse.  The visual style maintained the aggressive "Look At This!"-ness of the Abrams movies, though it did stay within at least "Enterprise" visual parameters. The Shenzhou looked nice. The uniforms in particular were irritating. The rank insignia were practically invisible, being placed on the insignia. I think they should have been placed on the sleeves. The uniforms were slick but ultimately a non-presence. The color scheme was not apparent in terms of what it was signifying. 

Kevin: I could never really tell rank insignia from the the TOS sleeves so that bothered me less. I agree overall, it annoys me that this has no visual connection to the original Enterprise, given that not only is TOS ten years away, but the actual ship is already in service. How do we go from jumpsuits to miniskirts? And before anyone jumps on me for being overly pedantic, I think the show invites it. You cannot set it in this era to draw the connection and make fans who like the original want to watch it and then complain about the comparisons that you invited by placing it here. The problem is not just one of continuity but ability. This ship appears to easily do things the TOS Enterprise cannot. If they had said that after the Dominion War, the Klingon Empire fell into disarray and withdrew from interstellar politics for 80 years and that the show took place a century after TNG, I would have no trouble believing it and would have enjoyed it more as a result.

Matthew: CGI effects were top shelf for television, and competitive with movie effects. Was everything a bit dark? Yes. Were HUD displays ridiculously overdone? Yes. But it all certainly looks slick. I'd prefer it to be toned down a bit in service of narrative, but that's me I guess. Speaking of which, personally I found the opening montage to be a little blah. It struck me as something a graphic designer would be really proud of, but not something that really serves the series. How does an exploded diagram of a phaser tell me what the show is about? Also, how many producers can a show have? Is this some sort of record? The theme song similarly did nothing for me, but the in-episode music was really solid and enhanced the drama.

Kevin: I actually enjoyed the opening sequence. I think they wanted to do something that was not ship traveling through a star field. Is that the decision I would have made? Maybe, maybe not. But I appreciate that if they're going to stretch for something, the result was pretty to look at. The Creation of Man with the use of the EV suit gloves was the most I will allow them, but they stopped just at that line.

Matthew: Sooo, the Klingon look. I am not opposed to upgrading makeup and visuals. But I am opposed to making characters less interesting. And I think the over-the-top (literally) makeup on the Klingon characters threatens to drown the actors and make them hard to empathize with. Thin Jem'Hadar on steroids.The ship designs are not consistent with TOS, and that's fine, but again, it was hard to see the ships and really get a sense for their shapes - which is a big deal in Trek, where the ships are almost characters in their own rights. The costumes are cool, I don't mind the fabulousness and detail on display.

Kevin: I was not a fan of the Klingon design either personally or their ships. I'm not opposed to a redesign per se. I understand the Klingons have been redesigned several times and show great variation over the course of the franchise. My question is literally a practical one. The makeup comes down so far down their face that most of their face is obscured by it and then actually hinders both acting and just plain speaking. I think back to Robert O'Reilly or JG Hertzler and how they were able to really infuse their characters with personality. I also think back to episodes like Soldiers of the Empire where the Klingons showed great personal variation and it really helps cement them as a real people. I also do not have a sense of what the Klingon ships actually look like. So aside from any concerns I have about the Integrity of continuity of their design over the other franchises, I just don't know what they look like.

Conclusion

Matthew: I went into this series with the lowest possible expectations. The movies had so thoroughly disabused me of the fantasy that anyone else "got" Trek, and then the trailers all seemed to indicate that this was more of the same. Bryan Fuller left, CBS embargoed reviews... but you know what? It works. The characters we got (admittedly just a few) are compelling, the drama was tight, and the ideas were both present and reasonably well-developed. There are things to be concerned with long term, such as the nearly inconceivable decision to try to shoehorn in YET ANOTHER prequel, as well as whether things go darker once Fuller's influence wanes. But this was above average on all fronts, and so I give it a 4. Which is about 4 points more than I expected to give it. It feels really good not to hate Star Trek!

Kevin: At the end of the teaser in the opening credits I felt an odd and unexpected glow deep inside. The bones of a really good show are here. The show is far from perfect. There are a lot of questions that are going to need good answers to keep me engaged. But in the final analysis I am more enthused, more engaged by this premiere than I was by Enterprise's. I like the core group of actors. I like that they are presenting stories in the way I think Star Trek should present stories. My only concern is, particularly given that this story is credited to Brian Fuller, that the things I like about it are going to be the things that left with him. But I'm willing to keep an open mind in a way that I did not expect to when I started the episode. So I agree with the four for a total of 8 for the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. 

And on that note, THANK GOD. I have been living in mortal terror I would hate this show. I need new, good Trek in my life right now. I need something to believe in because the world is awful. And even if this entry is uneven, it appears to be in good faith, and I will take it.

Podcast
Join us for a reaction podcast, this time with a special guest, Klingon language expert John Harness.

4 comments:

  1. Up until about a week ago, I was pretty convinced I was going to hate this, but then I started reading more about the vision the creative team had (plus got the sense that they were actually pretty thoughtful, actual Trek fans), which gave me a glimmer of hope. Once it aired, I could tell immediately it was much better than the nuTrek films. This is what those *should* have been.

    I'm a bit baffled by how polarized the response has been though. Some people seem convinced that this will be a dystopian show that will: (1) be about nothing but brainless war, and (2) wallow in humorless darkness. I'm really wondering if I saw the same show. The early Shenzhou scenes indicate that (b) is not going to be the case. It also seems clear they're setting up an arc of the hot war with the Klingons cooling down, probably mirroring Burnham's personal journey coming to terms with her own past trauma, while she, and the viewers, learn (dare I say, discover) more about Klingon culture.

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    1. I agree, it seems like they're going for a tonal balance, neither terribly dark nor light. At no point did I feel this story had veered too dark. Was there dark stuff happening? Sure. But the human responses were those of recognizably Federation citizens, not residents of the nuTrek Dum-Dum-Verse or the Zach Snyder DC Murder-verse.

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    2. Agreed. Tonal balance is good way of putting it. Also, as I posted right before the podcast dropped, I want to clarify that my complaint about reactions doesn't apply to legitimate concern (as Kevin and John expressed) that Discovery *could possibly* become tonal imbalanced and grim-dark. I share those concerns, but am optimistic. It struck me as being somewhat lighter than a series like "The Expanse," which I was getting some vibes of.
      I also read somewhere that the writers are sticking with the story beats that Fuller mapped out for multiple(!) seasons.

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    3. "I also read somewhere that the writers are sticking with the story beats that Fuller mapped out for multiple(!) seasons."

      I can't tell you how happy those words make me. Even if they're ultimately not true, I will hold them close to my heart.

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