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New Podcast! On “Filibuster #72” Talking “Star Trek: Discovery” with Lee Hutchinson

I had the pleasure making a guest appearance on Filibuster with the great Lee Hutchinson, who very kindly invited me on to talk about the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. It was a welcome invitation, as I’ve been writing reviews of the show by my schedule and other commitments mean that I haven’t always been able to keep up. So it was good to talk about the season as a whole; what I liked about it, what I didn’t, what I’d like to see more of going forward. Indeed, how much I’d like to see more going forward.

You can listen to the podcast directly at the Filibuster website, but you can also listen to it directly below.

 

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Star Trek: Discovery – Choose Your Pain (Review)

Choose Your Pain is perhaps the most traditional episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date, at least in terms of basic structure.

One of the central tensions of Discovery has been trying to figure out exactly how much to modernise the standard Star Trek storytelling template, the basic model of storytelling that has been in play through Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. These shows were produced over an eighteen-year period running from the second half of the eighties through to the turn of the millennium. However, a lot has happened in the twelve years since These Are the Voyages…

Avenging angel Gabriel.

Quite simply, television has changed phenomenally over the past decade. A number of these changes are obvious even in the way that Discovery is produced. After all, Discovery is the first Star Trek show to premiere on a streaming service. However, Discovery also conforms to other expectations of contemporary television. Discovery is much more tightly serialised than The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Discovery is also the shortest season of Star Trek ever produced.

There is a sense that times are changing, and that Discovery is attempting to provide an early twenty-first century update to a thirty-year-old template. After all, no other Star Trek series opened its first season with a two-episode prologue before introducing its core setting and premise. No other Star Trek series feature as many extended sequences with characters speaking subtitled Klingon. No other Star Trek series has featured swear words like “piss”, “sh!t” or “f$@k.” These are all new frontiers for televised Star Trek.

An echo chamber.

At the same time, Discovery has proven itself remarkably conservative in other respects. Although the show is very clearly serialised, the production team have worked hard to ensure that each individual episode has its own plot with its own structure and its own agenda. Unlike other streaming dramas, the episodes of Discovery are clear and distinct from one another, each serving as a bullet point in the overall arc of the season. Similarly, Discovery has made a point to use standard Star Trek narratives imbued with standard Star Trek morals built in.

For all the noise being made in certain quarters of the internet that Discovery is not really a Star Trek series, Choose Your Pain is the most conservative and old-fashioned episode of the series to date. Choose Your Pain is an episode that could easily have worked as part of Deep Space Nine or Enterprise, preserving the structure and rhythm with only a few minor tweaks along the way. Ironically, the episode’s biggest issue is that it feels just a little bit too much like classic Star Trek.

Here’s Mudd in your eye.

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Star Trek: Discovery – The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry (Review)

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry represents another attempt to reconcile one of the central tensions of Star Trek: Discovery, the conflict that exists between the expectations of a Star Trek series and the demands of a piece of prestige television. It frequently feels like there is a tug of war between these two competing impulses within the series, and the production team are trying desperately to find the right balance between these two very different storytelling models.

Much like Context is for Kings, the basic story at the heart of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is quintessential Star Trek plotting. The contours of the plot will be recognisable to any viewer with even a passing familiarity with the narrative structures and templates of the larger Star Trek franchise. At the same time, a lot of the episode’s finer details are more recognisable as the hallmarks of contemporary prestige television. The result is a piece of television that tells a very simplistic Star Trek in a manner that feels somewhat dissonant.

Hanging out with the Kol kids.

There is an awkwardness to The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, a sense that the creative team are still working out the proverbial kinks. Much like the engineering and science staff on the Discovery itself, the production team are creating something new and exciting, but something without a clear precedent or blueprint. Discovery often struggles to properly mix its constituent elements, some of its narrative choices feeling clumsy and others struggling to mesh with the story being told.

At the same time, like Context is for Kings before it, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is an episode that exists primarily to reassure viewers that Discovery is still fundamentally Star Trek, no matter the production design or the prestige trappings. However, Discovery is investing so much time in proving that it is Star Trek, that it is still searching for its own clear voice.

Resting uneasy.

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Star Trek: Discovery – Context is for Kings (Review)

Perhaps what is most surprising about Context is for Kings is just how conventional it is.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars were very much atypical episodes of Star Trek, an opening two-parter designed to demonstrate a lot of how Star Trek: Discovery would be different from the earlier series in the franchise. The two-parter introduced a new captain and a new ship, only to kill the captain and destroy the ship at the climax of the story. The primary character ended these opening two episodes as a disgraced mutineer, sentenced to life in prison.

In darkness dwells.

Although the two-parter was traditional in some respects, its structure was consciously designed to subvert a lot of the expectations of previous pilot episodes. Typically, Star Trek pilots find a new crew coming together in a way that sets the tone for the following series. In contrast, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars joined the Shenzhou at the end of its seven-year mission, and reduced it to floating wreckage. It was a subversive (if not entirely unpredictable) narrative decision, a clear attempt to contextualise Discovery as a modern television series.

All of this means, of course, that Context is for Kings finds itself cast in the role of a conventional Star Trek pilot. In many ways, Context is for Kings is clearly intended as reassurance that Discovery is still fundamentally Star Trek, in spite of the tweaks and alterations that have been made to the framework of the series.

Seeding the future.

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Star Trek: Discovery – Battle at the Binary Stars (Review)

In some ways, Star Trek: Discovery will always be overshadowed by what might have been.

It is not the first Star Trek series to face this particular hurdle. Both Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise spent the majority of their runs in competition with phantom versions of themselves. Voyager was supposed to be a show about two rival crews, one a bunch of explorers and the other a group of terrorists, forced to work together when stranded alone on the other side of the galaxy. Enterprise was supposed to be a show about the building of the familiar Star Trek universe, a tale about how mankind got “from there to here”, to quote the theme music.

The great Star Trek Beyond.

Both series struggled to live up to that premise. Voyager abandoned any question of compromise and culture clash in Parallax, the very second episode of the series. For the rest of the show’s seven seasons, Captain Kathryn Janeway oversaw a fairly typical Starfleet crew on a fairly typical Star Trek mission, with rare nods to the original premise in episodes like Learning Curve, Alliances, Worst Case Scenario, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. Similarly, most of the first two seasons of Enterprise were stock Star Trek, even if the third and fourth seasons were a bit more ambitious.

In contrast, Discovery is competing against a slightly different shadow self. That shadow self appears in the opening credits of the show week after week, in the “created by” credit assigned to Bryan Fuller. Fuller departed early in the creative process of Discovery following disagreements with CBS, to the point that he identifies his most meaningful contributions to Discovery as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Commander Michael Burnham, one of whom is dead by the end of Battle at the Binary Stars.

No Khan do.

Indeed, Bryan Fuller’s contributions to Discovery really end with these two episodes. Fuller is credited on the script for The Vulcan Hello, along with producer Akiva Goldsman. Fuller is also credited with the story to Battle at the Binary Stars, even though the teleplay was written by replacement showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts. In some ways, then, it feels strangely appropriate that The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars serve as something of a self-contained prologue setting up the thirteen episodes that will follow.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars mark the end of Bryan Fuller’s short-lived Star Trek.

Empirical research.

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Star Trek: Discovery – The Vulcan Hello (Review)

What does Star Trek look like in 2017?

Star Trek: Discovery was always going to have to reinvent the franchise. It exists twelve years removed from the end of Star Trek: Enterprise. That is a lifetime in pop culture; it is worth noting that Star Trek: The Next Generation was thirteen years removed from the end of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Resurrecting the franchise was always going to require innovation and reconceptualisation, and it is clear that any new interpretation of Star Trek would look as different from the Berman era as the Berman era did from the original series.

Navigating by the stars.

Still, that does not answer the question of what Star Trek looks like in 2017. In many ways, Discovery is an effort equivalent to The Next Generation, an attempt to return the franchise to television after some time as a relaunched movie franchise. The parallels all but suggest themselves; the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the distinctly British character actor playing a senior officer with a much more continental surname, the use of the Star Trek brand to embrace a relatively unconventional distribution model.

Given all of this uncertainty, the vocal objections of a certain strain of fandom are almost reassuring, striking a consistent note at this most inconsistent of times. Star Trek fandom has always responded with trepidation to anything new or challenging, anything the pushes beyond the boundaries of expectations of what Star Trek can be. Fandom strenuously objected to the very concept of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fandom dismissed The Next Generation. Fandom argued that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was an affront to the very idea of the franchise.

Time is the fire in which we burn.

However, while all of this provides a framework through which Discovery might be understood, it comes no closer to answering that core question. What does Star Trek look like in 2017? Even the question itself comes loaded with all manner of ambiguities and uncertainties. Is the question being asked in terms of television production? Is the challenge being made in terms of political and social values? Is the inquiry posed in terms of continuity and legacy?

Discovery does not have the answer, at least not in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, but it is certainly asking the right questions.

The next phase.

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