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Star Trek: Discovery Struggles to Attain Warp Speed

“Your human tongue is not the problem. It’s your human heart.”

— Vulcan School Instructor

 

Marshaling the kids at the TV for Discovery, the first new Star Trek series since 2001, we spent the preceding moments watching SyFy’s 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) had just ordered the Galactica to attack the nasty Cylons, when the kids reminded me, “Dad, it’s time for BRAND NEW Star Trek!” I held my breath and opened the appropriate subspace channel.

The problem with Star Trek has almost always been money. Smarter than Star Wars, Star Trek hardly ever looks as grand because Paramount Studios is rarely willing to grant enough time or money for proper rehearsal, blocking, or postproduction. Rarely in Star Trek’s history have Federation astronauts been able to afford spacesuits. Discovery, however, boasts an average $8 million episode budget, shy of Game of Thrones’ $10 million, but twice The Walking Dead’s $3.5 million, and armed with that much gold-pressed latinum Discovery succeeds in its near cinematic appearance. The best sequence in the premiere, “The Vulcan Hello,” is a glorious ride with star Sonequa Martin‑Green as she rockets, in spacesuit, through an asteroid belt to get a close look at the Klingons. Pretty entertaining for NASA and other astronomy enthusiasts, but you have to stop looking at starscapes and say something, and that’s where Discovery stumbles.

In the debut, the U.S.S. Shenzhou’s Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and First Officer Michael Burnham (Martin‑Green) suspect that the Klingons are lurking in Federation space at the behest of warlord T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) who’s determined to make the Empire great again. I suspect the concept of Star Trek centered around “perpetual war” would be repugnant to creator Gene Roddenberry, especially when it’s a tale told with the silliest dialogue and most ridiculous plotting in Star Trek’s 50+ years.

Two or three times, Yeoh reminds us, “Well, you’ve served with me for seven years, and, in case you’ve forgotten, that’s SEVEN years.” Once was sufficient. The orphaned Burnham, raised by those zany laughmeisters the Vulcans, is hysterical to the point that, at one point, Georgiou pulls a phaser on Burnham, threatening to blast her if she doesn’t sit down and shut up. If that seems a little extreme, it’s because, during their first engagement with the Klingons, Burnham says to Georgiou, “I have to go make a phone call,” and vanishes for 10 minutes, then returns to the bridge ranting. I can suspend disbelief long enough to buy warp drives, phasers, and transporters, but not a naval officer deserting the bridge to go call Dad for advice.

Burnham’s phone call is to Ambassador Sarek (James Frain), her Vulcan stepfather who, for non-Trekkies, is also Mr. Spock’s father, possibly portending an eventual cameo by Zach Quinto. Frain looks embarrassed to be standing there in pointed ears, and Obi, as warlord T’Kuvma, is wearing so much makeup that he can barely get his lines out. It’s not the fact that Obi’s dialogue is in Klingoni. Actors like Christopher Lloyd delivered plenty of lines in their gutteral bark, but made it sound natural. And Doug Jones, a vastly underrated actor largely unknown because he specializes in suits and makeup, is reduced to comic relief as the show’s cowardly “C3PO” substitute.

I still don’t know if I’m a Trekkie or not. I want to be, but Paramount does everything it can to dissuade me. Trek’s progressive message depicting an optimistic future is more important now than at any time since the ’60s, but being smart isn’t enough to attract the action crowd, and flashy visuals aren’t enough to attract people who want some substance beyond the space battles. Why can’t we have both?

It’s just the first episode. Maybe it’ll get better. Yet, as I was watching, I wondered if, over on SyFy, Commander Adama and the Galactica were prevailing over those Cylons.

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