New Star Trek is becoming more like old Star Trek, but that’s not necessarily a good thing

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Star Trek: Discovery’s first season was often uneven, not infrequently messy, and rarely introduced one new idea when three would do instead. It’s not that it wasn’t good – sometimes it was great, and there’s a not unreasonable argument to be made that Discovery had the best debut season of any of the Star Trek shows – but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t concede that there was room for improvement.

The second season has seen something of a course correction, though watching it each week it’s difficult not to feel as though perhaps the wrong lessons were learned from Discovery’s early growing pains. Picking up from last year’s cliffhanger ending that saw the sudden appearance of the USS Enterprise, Discovery has been consciously positioning itself as much more in line with the rest of the Star Trek franchise – from classic style uniforms to throwback storytelling, but most obviously with the introduction of Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike.

Pike, actually, is particularly interesting in this regard. He’s a character taken from the original Star Trek series, but not in the same sense as, say, Harry Mudd, who appeared in Discovery’s first season played by Rainn Wilson. Rather, Pike – then played by Jeffrey Hunter – was Captain of the Enterprise and lead character in the original Star Trek pilot rejected by NBC; the show was heavily retooled ahead of its second pilot, by which point Hunter had been replaced by William Shatner, playing the younger, more dynamic Captain Kirk. Footage from the original pilot was eventually used in Star Trek as a cost-saving measure, establishing Pike as Kirk’s predecessor within the fiction of the show too; Pike is referenced from time to time in other Star Trek spinoffs, and appeared in the JJ Abrams movies played by Bruce Greenwood.

In that sense, Pike is something of an ur-Captain – there’s a certain mythic weight to him as a character, a foundational ‘first Captain’ figure within the context of Star Trek. He’s all iconography, with relatively little in the way of actual characterisation to maintain fidelity to. Invoking Pike offers Discovery the chance to recontextualise the entirety of the franchise in a way unlike any other character would; Kirk has too much baggage, Archer doesn’t have the same connection to the show’s beginning, and Robert April is really just a fun trivia answer. With Pike, Discovery has a chance to scribble in the margins of the franchise and declare some broad, sweeping truths about what Star Trek is, and what it should be – exactly the sort of thing Discovery should be doing to make Star Trek vital and fresh in 2019.

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Rather than treat Pike as an opportunity to recontextualise the wider world of Star Trek, though, he’s instead positioned as the spectre of the 1960s, come to set things right – come to bring Discovery back in line with more traditional Trek. Continuity here is nostalgic and backwards looking; it’s not the basis for something new and more compelling.

It’s not, notably, that Pike doesn’t work as a character – for the most part, he does. Anson Mount is a genuinely charming screen presence as Pike, and it’s difficult not to enjoy the sheer charisma of his performance (a far cry from his role as Black Bolt in Marvel’s Inhumans, but the less said about that the better). Sometimes, in all fairness, that’s all a side character like Pike needs to be – fun and engaging and entertaining to watch. Equally, it’s also perhaps a little early to comment on Discovery’s use of Pike – one recent episode implied Pike was a religious man, and that’s exactly the sort of writing that would prove an effective use of the character, complicating Star Trek’s ongoing relationship with matters of faith and rationality.

Nonetheless, though, it’s telling how much screen time is being devoted to bringing Discovery in line with more acceptable, known elements of Star Trek. Scenes grind to a halt to explain why the Klingons have started to grow their hair again to look more like their Original Series and Next Generation counterparts (including one Fu Manchu style moustache – some things should be consigned to history, irrespective of ‘canon’); the same exposition is repeated and emphasised over multiple episodes to explain why the Enteprise doesn’t use the same holographic communicators seen in Discovery’s first season. The most recent episode opens by panning up reverentially to Number One, another character from the unused Star Trek pilot alongside Pike – though this was surely lost on anyone not only already familiar with said unused pilot, but also the news that the character had been recast for Discovery as well.

Which, ultimately, is the problem – a problem that goes beyond Pike, even if he is a neat representation of the opportunities open to but not taken by Discovery. Season 2 is catering primarily to a narrow segment of traditional Trek fandom; it’s looking backwards, not just obsessing unnecessarily over minute continuity details, but retreading old Trek norms. It’s a fannish instinct that could only ever limit the show – more concerned with being Star Trek, than redefining what Star Trek can be. Indeed, it’s the sort of limitation that would’ve curtailed some of the best of the Star Trek that already exists – Deep Space Nine wouldn’t exist at all – and it’s difficult not to wonder what Discovery might look like if unburdened from those restraints.

Star Trek: Discovery’s first season wasn’t perfect, no – but it was, in many ways, a more compelling programme than Discovery’s sophomore effort. It was a more confident programme, a more challenging one, and clearly much more willing to boldly go somewhere new.

Related:

Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones, and it shouldn’t try to be

Why Star Trek: Discovery must deal with the legacy of Janice Rand

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Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Episode 15 Review – Will You Take My Hand?

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The parallels to the first episode are there, of course; it’s quite emphatic in its embrace of the cyclical structure. Where The Vulcan Hello saw Georgiou and Burnham saving a planet with a ‘water bomb’ to stop a drought, here they’re in conflict about using a steam device to destroy a planet; where Burnham once stood before a tribunal, she now stands before the Federation council. Over and over, there are echoes of the beginning, a reminder of the journey Discovery has been on. To borrow a phrase, it’s like poetry.

Taken together, it’s an effective piece of structural symmetry, particularly from a programme which has at times struggled with its form. But here it works, and it builds up to one central moment, something we can see that the show has been leading up to for some time: the definitive positioning of ideals over pragmatism, an embrace of Starfleet values and a rejection of the idea that they need to be compromised. Burnham’s speech to Admiral Cornwell – proving once more, if proof still were even needed, just how good Sonequa Martin-Green is in this role – is surely the defining moment of Star Trek: Discovery, the scene that makes it all work.

In that sense, then, Discovery does have a grand climax. It’s right there in the title, itself an allusion to the image we’ve seen each week as the show opens – a pair of hands, outstretched, reaching for one another. The connotations are clear, and the impact resounding; Star Trek: Discovery, despite the fumbles it made along the way, really does want to embrace the much vaunted spirit of optimism that’s so closely associated with the idea of Star Trek.

A review of the Star Trek: Discovery finale, which took me ages to write, but I was rather pleased with in the end. Not a perfect episode, nor a perfect season; I’m hoping to do a series retrospective at some point soon, but overall, I rather liked it.

(I never actually got around to that Star Trek retrospective, but I figure I might give it a go ahead of the next series.)

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Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Episode 14 Review – The Battle Without, and the Battle Within

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It’s worth a word on the title, I think. What it refers to, largely, is obvious. The first part, “The Battle Without”, is easily understood; alluding to the past nine months, it signifies the Klingon war – the battle – without the USS Discovery to turn the tide. The Federation is no longer on the brink of war, but they’ve essentially lost it; arguably, this universe is now just as driven by strife and conflict as the Mirror Universe we just left. More abstractly, though, it denotes a lack – what are they “without”? In turn, then, it’s worth looking at this episode to see what’s absent.

What’s missing is Captain Lorca. Our attention is drawn to this at the beginning, with Sarek’s dramatic reminder of his death; it’s worth interrogating just why this line was delivered as it was, given it’s not a revelation for the Discovery crew or the audience. In essence, it’s a statement of intent, an indicator that this episode takes place in the shadow of Captain Lorca. Despite this, it’s oddly easy to forget, in fact, what’s missing; the crew gel so well in his absence, but then that’s also part of the point. There’s an emphasis on the Federation values, at least amongst the crew and on the ship; the scene shared between Tyler and the rest of the crew is telling in this regard, as is the terraforming to create new spores.

That is, at least, until Captain Lorca returns. Or a version of him, anyway: there’s an obvious parallel between installing mirror-Georgiou as the new Captain, and the ship under Lorca.

I quite liked this episode! And I quite liked this review, too. I think it’s a decent piece of writing.

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The Orville is just Star Trek fan-fiction, but that’s not such a bad thing

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Yes, for any given episode of The Orville, you can quite easily point to which episodes of The Next Generation it’s riffing on and remixing. No, it’s never quite as clever or novel as the source material that inspires it – if nothing else, they got there first. What it does offer is the feeling of watching Star Trek, in largely the same way fanfiction does. And that makes sense, because that’s pretty much exactly what this show is. Not fanfiction at its most subversive or compelling, no, but at its most basic level – a fun little thing on the side that lovingly recreates the sense of the show you love.

So, an article about The Orville. It took me a while to warm to this show, which at first wasn’t great – especially with the, for lack of a better term, “gender-themed” episode, which remains the nadir of the series – but I did eventually reach a point where I had mixed-to-positive opinions on it. Mostly, I found it quite entertaining by virtue of how shamelessly Star Trek inspired it is. It’s quite literally Seth MacFarlane’s self-insert fanfic, and I found that rather endearing.

While I was writing this article, though, I did start to wonder if there’s actually a more compelling piece to consider – comparing The Orville and it’s relatively simple recreation of Star Trek to the more subversive, often female-driven, fan fiction that exists. Especially, actually, considering the legacy of Star Trek fanfiction as a whole – arguably some of the first fanfiction in the sense we understand it now was Star Trek inspired, and it wasn’t just remixing the episodes, it invented slash fiction. I hope someone who knows enough about this stuff has written a piece on it. Equally, though, I might go and research it and write about it myself.

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Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Episode 13 Review – What’s Past is Prologue

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It’s difficult to say that the twist about Lorca’s identity works. Up to a point, that’s just a personal thing; I have long since gotten bored of identity reveals that rely on the idea that everything we know about a character has been a pretence. There’s a lack of nuance to it, and ultimately there’s a lack of nuance to the ‘real’ Lorca. He is, in the end, little more than a power-grabbing usurper with delusions of a destiny and a sexual obsession with Michael Burnham. It’s not so much that this casts a new light on everything we’ve seen already – it’s that everything we’ve seen already was entirely false.

Sure, there was interesting stuff that could have been done with this idea – but, at the same time, I’m starting to grow a little tired of that caveat. After a point, there’s little to be gained by focusing on what could have been done with the idea, when time after time Discovery makes the least interesting choice. Taking such a simplistic approach with this reveal diminishes Lorca’s character, and all the nuance and subtlety we’ve seen so far; it’s a waste of Jason Isaacs, to be frank, who gives a great performance but in the end is still limited by the constraints of the script. If all he’s given to do is sneering, snarling villain, the character can’t rise above that – and it’s a shame that such an interesting character as Lorca was reduced to this.

A much more negative review, because honestly, I was feeling a little frustrated at Discovery this week. I suspect my thoughts vis a vis Captain Lorca are an unpopular opinion, but I’m not sure.

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Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Episode 12 Review – Vaulting Ambition

star trek discovery vaulting ambition captain lorca jason isaacs mirror universe dr culber fridging

Of course, though, there is one part of this episode that must be mentioned: Captain Lorca is, in fact, from the Mirror Universe, and he’s been manipulating Burnham and the crew of the Discovery throughout the series in the hopes of returning home to finish his coup.

I am in… well, no, I’m not in two minds about it. I just don’t particularly like the idea.

Mirror-Lorca has been something of a popular fan theory for a while now – second only really to ‘Ash Tyler is Voq’ in terms of how ubiquitous it was, but largely lacking in the same ancillary details to substantiate the idea. Indeed, more often than not, the idea that Lorca was from the Mirror universe was borne from a rejection of the idea that someone like him wouldn’t exist in the main universe – essentially a rejection of the nuances of the character, dismissing them because they were a bit different from the Star Trek captains we’ve seen before. Sure, there’s since been a couple of vague hints, but that’s largely always been the starting point.

In this review, I spoke largely about my trepidation about the mirror-Lorca reveal (spoilers, sorry) and my frustration at fridging Culber (again, sorry), particularly after the show had depicted itself as the ‘progressive’ Star Trek at last.

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Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Episode 11 Review – The Wolf Inside

star trek discovery the wolf inside michael burnham ash tyler shazad latif sonequa martin green tv review analysis

It’s worth taking a moment to focus on and celebrate Shazad Latif here; playing a dual role is difficult under any circumstances, but he really excels here. Latif has given a very mannered performance up to this point, with a precise awareness of his performance; watching the façade slip, and seeing the distinction between Voq and Tyler begin to fall away, it becomes evident just how skilled he is.

With a lesser actor, it’d be easy to imagine this plotline not quite working – but Shazad Latif really elevates it, with a brilliantly nuanced performance underscoring just how painful this process is. Hopefully (and I do suspect this will be the case) we’ll get a chance to see him dive deeper into the dichotomy between Ash and Voq in future episodes. Surely Ash is still in there on some level, and I’ve little doubt that Shazad Latif will continue to pitch that duality perfectly.

My review of Star Trek: Discovery, which is mostly about how great Shazad Latif is, but also the show’s character work.

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Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones, and it shouldn’t try to be

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What’s also particularly troubling is the – hopefully unintentional – trend that’s emerged as each major character is killed. The first was Captain Michelle Georgiou, a female character of colour. The second was Head of Security Commander Landry, a female character of colour (who was killed off fairly unceremoniously, and really only for shock value). In the most recent episode, it was Doctor Culber – another person of colour, and one half of Star Trek: Discovery’s gay couple.

It’s a series of deaths that’d be a problem for any show, but there’s something about it that feels worse with Star Trek: Discovery. A big part of the marketing for Star Trek: Discovery drew focus to its diversity – the fact that it saw the first black female lead, the first Asian female captain, and the first openly gay characters in Star Trek history. In a real and meaningful way, Star Trek: Discovery was going to realise the promise of the original series at last – finally, a vision of the future that genuinely was as utopian as it was meant to be. If the series gained any credit for that, it’s surely squandered a lot of it now.

Yet it does suggest that, at one point, there was an understanding of just what Star Trek is meant to be. While it hasn’t always lived up to its reputation, Star Trek is a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic series – an idealistic one that looks towards a better future. The deaths we’ve seen so far haven’t been in keeping with that – they were nothing short of cynical. You can see how they’ve been influenced by Game of Thrones; they’d fit right in there. Thrones, after all, is a much more pessimistic series – that’s not a slight against it, not at all, but it is one of the things that set it apart from Star Trek.

This is a very spoiler-y piece on Star Trek: Discovery – it contains discussion of various deaths that happened in the series.

This was an article that had been on my mind since, I think, the third episode of the series. In the run-up to Discoverys premier, showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg spoke about being influenced by Game of Thrones, and wanted to have deaths you wouldn’t expect throughout the show. It struck me as cynical at the time, even more so when watching the show itself.

The excerpt above admittedly doesn’t have a lot to do with that – it’s part of a digression about an aggravating trend that developed across Discovery – but the article as a whole tackles the idea that Star Trek should have lots of deaths in it, because… well, I’m not convinced. It’s kinda also part of the ongoing development of a theory about death in fiction and storytelling, because I’m becoming increasingly convinced that death is typically the least interesting storytelling choice available.

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Star Trek: Discovery Series 1 Episode 10 Review – Despite Yourself

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One thing I’d not considered, and I must admit that’s a lapse, is that the Mirror Universe has the potential to be a really interesting milieu to explore in 2017 – especially given that we’re visiting the fascist Terran Empire. At this point, the concepts were only sketched in quite quickly (understandable, given Discovery had a lot of exposition to work through this week), but there’s a lot of different avenues to explore with the concept of a dark reflection. Hopefully, Discovery will be able to pick up on some of those ideas, and give us a new approach to the mirror universe.

In turn, I was glad that the story wasn’t wrapped up in this episode alone; there’s a lot of potential there, and it’ll be nice to see how things continue to develop. Presumably, at some point we’ll be set to actually meet the alternate Burnham or Lorca – and what’re the bets that we’ll see Emperor Georgiou at some point? There’s a sense that we might be about to establish a new status quo for Discovery, with these episodes acting as a pivotal turning point – it’s not difficult to imagine a vision of the series that explores the multiverse, a brand new final frontier of its own.

Here is one of my Discovery reviews again! This was the first episode back after the midseason break, kicking off Discovery phase two in earnest.

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Black Mirror’s USS Callister is a perfect metaphor for nerd culture in 2017

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The escapist fantasy is based on a slavish adherence to the idiosyncrasies of the original, yes – but, crucially, an unthinking and uncritical adherence, without acknowledgement of the flaws inherent to the premise. It’s the same fundamental mentality that prompts outrage and fury at the inclusion of women or people of colour in Star Trek, Star Wars, or Doctor Who; the impulse to curate rather than create, the desire to maintain a static and staid world. Shaped around the ego of a single white man, this is of course a world that equates foreign with alien, dehumanises people of colour, and never lives up the ethos and code of conduct it claims to assert.

USS Callister continues to advance its metaphor, though, and in turn posits a solution of its own. And, in turn, of course said solution comes from a woman.

A piece about Black Mirror I was quite pleased with. (So pleased with it, in fact, I put it into my portfolio, if that’s something you’re going to want to check out.)

Something I didn’t mention at the time, but find interesting, is the fact that this episode is about exorcising toxic masculinity, and then the subsequent five episodes are all very female-oriented. You can see how the order of the anthology shapes the broader meaning of the series, which is neat.

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