First up, full disclosure: I am not a huge fan of Star Trek. It’s not my bag as far as science fiction goes, and as a result, I am far from being a trekkie and/or trekker. There’s no nostalgia glasses or fan lens in effect here.
What went well?
Attention to technical detail went extremely well. Of the various Star Trek series, this one has benefited the most not just from advances in special effects, but also in attention to technology. This becomes apparent in the opening credits, which include a glorious series of technical drawings and lovingly animated sequences. I can’t even lie, this is by far the best opening credits sequence I have seen in ages. The show, so far, and at least on the Starfleet side, has had a tremendous amount of attention poured into it, and even though it breaks with the aesthetics of the original series and subsequent ones, the natural feel of it overcomes it.
Another thing that went well was the acting. For the most part, the acting was very organic and natural. It was believable that the crew of the USS Shenzhou was a crew. Nothing was forced, the interactions were pretty natural for the most part, and the actors were clearly into their roles, no matter how small. Well done overall.
What was problematic?
Diversity was a problematic thing in the show. While the show did knock it out of the park in some terms, like having a good number of both women and ethnic minorities on screen in important roles, it did fall down in other places. The trope of “Black people are bad and ugly” happens to be the biggest one, with the Klingons being horrifically depicted in every possible way. This was a let down, and one that, frankly, I had been anticipating since seeing some promo material. The Klingons were, in my opinion, the result of someone digging hard and deep into the worst stereotypes of about how Black people look, then adding extra nostrils and bizarre ridging. I say this bearing in mind that what Klingons looked like was well established, and deviations explained, in Star Trek Enterprise, which occurred approximately 95 years prior to Discovery in this timeline. The only purpose this appears to serve is to dehumanize them in the eyes of the viewer, making whatever actions taken against them more acceptable.
What went wrong?
The plot. As a veteran of Afghanistan and person who studies conflicts, this was a paper thin reskinning of modern conflicts by someone who doesn’t care about the deeper causes of them. The best way to look at it is to break it down into Starfleet, the Klingons, and Michelle Yeoh’s character, Captain Philippa Georgiou.
Starfleet in this show is portrayed as the conservative strawman version of the pre-9/11 western world. Starfleet is a limp-wristed, useless United Nations style group that is all about talking and diplomacy, even in the face of naked and known aggression. Klingon “terror raids” are a thing, and Sonequa Martin-Green’s character, Michael Burnham, is a victim of them; but everyone treats the sudden appearance of Klingons as a chance to talk? In the face of evidence that they were baited into the area? Then the two choices that aggressive Klingons are given are to leave, or enter dialogue. Seriously? I know that the show is based on a utopian vision of the future, but this pushed it past the limits and well into doctrinal brainwashing. It was asinine. Then, predictably, Starfleet got it’s ass handed to it. Not even a little bit either, it was a massacre. Even understanding Starfleet’s “explorers not combatants” mindset, it boggles the mind that so many captains would throw away their crews lives in a grossly disorganized fight against the Klingons.
The Klingons in this show are a poorly built analogue of various Islamist groups and Nazi ideology, mixed with sprinkles of nativism and xenophobia. They bang on about purity, and the need to remain Klingon (too late for that according to Star Trek Enterprise), how they must fight inclusivity, and about their prophecy. The Klingon Empire is broken, but a religious nutter with a prophecy to follow is going to reunite them to wage a glorious holy war on the Federation of Planets. It was jarring, and lame. It was like someone on the writing and planning team skipped the long, ugly history that lead to our modern conflicts and just decided to go with the Star Trek equivalent of “They hate our freedom.” The Klingons in this show are such a crudely assembly patchwork of bad tropes and stereotypes it makes them hard to take seriously. But hey, they have a martyr now, so ongoing conflict is guaranteed.
Captain Philippa Georgiou, expertly portrayed by Michelle Yeoh, was a problem. Mostly because she was inconsistently characterized and nonsensically written. This is one of those cases where an actor is given a bizarre character, and heroically overcomes writing to be amazing, but is still an issue. Part of the problem is that we don’t know enough about her background; sometimes she’s the Asian equivalent to the Magical Negro, sometimes she’s a free thinking officer, other times she’s a poster child for indoctrination. Another issue is that she implies she has extensive combat experience, but consistently makes terrible tactical decisions. Her final acts are also out of character for what we learned about her. From doctrine hampered officer unwilling to make a snap choice on good information against a recognized threat to a Sun Tzu quoting killer sending the equivalent of an IED in a corpse into an enemy ship (something that is against the Geneva Conventions now, and the Laws of Naval Warfare, so probably stuff Starfleet is not into) is a serious developmental leap. As is leading a two person raid into an enemy vessel to capture its commander. Really? In what possible world is that a good idea? I’m sad that she died, and that she wasn’t a more completely developed character.
Like I said in the full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Star Trek. So, in that light, I’ll say that for people like me and those who take the next step of disliking Star Trek, this show is no great shakes and is unlikely to win us over. It offers the same problems and issues about the series that prevent us from liking it or cause us to actively dislike it. Starfleet is still averse to making good decisions, and the “bad guys” are still sad, unnuanced cardboard cutouts. The flipside of this is that for the bulk of Star Trek Fans, the show is probably on target. You have your idealistic Starfleet standing as a neocolonialist line of “civilization” against the evils of the totalitarian regimes that surround it, unflinching in its adherence to its ethics.
The show is eye-candy, and visually stunning. I cannot say enough to praise the level of technical detail that has been lavished on the show. The acting is solid, much more so than I expected. The plot leaves a lot to be desired. There are still a lot of troubling tropes at play. The political dynamics of the show still set my teeth on edge. Will I be watching more of it? Probably not. Like I said, I’m not a series fan, and what I’ve seen doesn’t incline me to give up an hour of my night to watch something that will ultimately only frustrate me. That said, if Star Trek is your bag, enjoy the latest installation of the series.