Thursday, 15 October 2020

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 Episode 1 Review + Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1 Review

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY - Season 3, Episode 1: 'That Hope Is You, Part I'

Having been a Trekkie for most of my life, the return to television of the Star Trek franchise with Discovery ought to have been cause for celebration. Instead, Discovery proved not just to be Trek in name only, but a lousy television show in its own right, its reputation only somewhat salvaged with the airing of the considerably worse Star Trek Picard. If Discovery was seemingly written by people who'd memorised Trek lore but didn't understand what gave the series its soul, Picard knew what Trek was about but seemed to actively despise it.

Star Trek: Discovery's third season premiere is a step up on that nadir, at least. Regrettably, it immediately falls into the same flaws which sank the preceding two seasons: leaden dialogue, storytelling burdened with filler and repetitive action, charmless characters and, once again, a fundamental misunderstanding of what Star Trek is about.

The 'previously on' recap hurriedly summarises the preceding season's finale, which scarcely made any sense then and hasn't improved with time. Having flung herself into the future - to give further detail would be to enter a morass of incoherent plotting, which I don't intend to do - protagonist Michael Burnham finds herself stranded on an unknown planet. She quickly comes across a smuggler called Book - no relation to the character from Joss Whedon's Firefly - who is initially abrasive but turns out to have a heart of gold, as well as a very large pussy... cat.

David Ajala isn't a terrible actor, but not a very good one either. He's stuck playing the most archetype-y or archetypes and doesn't know how to pronounce 'temporal' despite being cast in a science-fiction show. In looks, accent and performance, he's Poundshop Idris Elba: a hurriedly assembled imitation of a better, more expensive original. It's not entirely fair to blame the actor given the awful lines he's asked to deliver: at one point, Book actually described himself as 'space broke' (as in impoverished, and in space) and I was so astonished that I had to rewind just to be sure I heard correctly. If Peter Capaldi's Doctor were here, he'd be furious*.

*In Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi's title character was often irritated by his companion Clara's habit of prefixing the word 'space' to anything which seemed even loosely sci-fi by her present day standards.

If Ajala struggles to make anything of a barebones character, pity Sonequa Martin-Green, who has been pushing her own boulder up that particular hill for two seasons now. Her Michael Burnham remains not just the most irritating lead in Trek history, but surely one of the most misjudged to ever headline a major television show. She has no personality to speak of except a complete lack of emotional control. The in-universe excuse is that as a human raised on Vulcan, she was forced to repress her emotions for much of her life and struggles to control them when rediscovering her humanity on joining Starfleet. 

There might once have been dramatic potential in this idea, but not only has it been squandered with her incessant bursting into tears (she just about holds them in here, but the lip quivers mightily) but she's no more stable now than she was two seasons ago, being either tediously monotonous or infuriatingly weepy, with no middle ground. Burnham is here dim-wittedly aghast and moist-of-eye upon discovering that the Federation isn't still around almost a thousand years into her future, despite even the biggest historical empires not lasting more than a few centuries at most. Perhaps she's confused by Book's exposition making everything sound as though it happened over the course of a particularly bad month since her departure. As we'll discover later on, this is not a series which comprehends the concept of things changing and progressing over long periods of time.

Having paired the joyless Burnham and Book in a distrusting partnership which plays out exactly as distrusting partnerships always do, the episode burns through its running time with a diversion to a trading outpost. Martin-Green gets to pretend to be high and speak in modern vernacular ('save all the things'), one of several leaden attempts at humour which suffers from feeling aggressively contrived and lacking a performer with as deft a comedic touch as the likes of Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner or Andrew Robinson, to name but a few of Trek's finest dry wits.

The sole purpose of this is to teach us what is immediately apparent by the fact that Book has a cat - he's a real sweetheart beneath the gruff exterior! That almost the entire episode comprises either statically staged punch-ups or firefights where the bad guys cannot hit Book or Burnham on a wide open plain at an excruciatingly short distance tells you everything you need to know about how little substance there is on offer. There's nothing wrong with action, either in Trek or entertainment in general, but it should be used in service of the story and to raise the stakes, not as padding in lieu of anything else to offer.

The final scene lays out what is presumably the thesis of Discovery's third season, the rebuilding of the collapsed Federation. Book takes Burnham to meet a fellow who scans the surrounding sector of the galaxy for Starfleet vessels despite not officially being a Starfleet officer himself. Burnham offers him the post of Chief Communications Officer of nothing in particular (because apparently she can do that) and the episode's big emotional moment hinges on a character we've known all of two minutes. They unfurl a Federation flag, Burnham is announced the last hope in the galaxy (for most characters, such a moment would be the most important of their lives; for Burnham, it's just Tuesday) and there's a bit of ramble about Starfleet values and whatnot.

This fetishisation of the flag shows that Discovery remains in the same rut it has been for the past two seasons when it comes to understanding what makes Trek beloved. Discovery thinks it is about the lore, an iconography of humanity's virtue and inward-looking moral superiority. It is in fact quite the opposite: Trek is about curiosity, expanding one's horizons and looking beyond the safe and familiar to test oneself at the edge of the final frontier. It's not about symbols or static belief systems, but evolving beyond them. Risk is this franchise's business. Regrettably, Discovery has no greater ambition than to (literally) rebuild the past. Even beyond the vapid characters, clich├ęd dialogue, tonal whiplash, hollow plotting and general sense that a once adult franchise has been put in the hands of ADD-addled juveniles, that insularity is what really betrays its aspirations of being a worthy entrant in the Trek canon.

STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS - Season One review

Discovery and Star Trek animated spin-off, Lower Decks (named for an episode of The Next Generation which focused on lower-ranking Enterprise crewmembers), both commit the sin of obsessing over the past, but where Discovery does so with a seriousness both grim-faced and misguided, Lower Decks has the benefit of approaching the franchise lore from a more light-hearted perspective. Created by Rick & Morty's Mike McMahan, Lower Decks struggles out of the gate with fast-talking protagonists and an over-reliance on nods to Trek past, but comes into its own once the characters and premise settle down and find a dynamic of their own.

Being both episodic and comedic in nature gives Lower Decks an in-built advantage capturing the Trek spirit lacking elsewhere. Trek has always been funny, so expanding that side of the franchise into a dedicated comedy isn't too much of a stretch, while the episodic nature of the show greatly cuts down on the story filler afflicting Discovery and Picard. Requiring that each plot be wrapped up in twenty-odd minutes means we get to see the characters in a wider variety of situations, allowing their relationships to develop and their personalities brought to the fore more quickly.

Within a few episodes I could name more of the Cerritos crew than I still can of the Discovery, and while none of the characters rival any from the classic series for depth, it is possible to at least identify what drives each of them and how they relate to each other. Ensigns Boimler and Marriner are the quintessential odd couple, him studious but pathetic under pressure, her irresponsible and chill until required to raise her game. Rutherford is a LaForge-esque engineering enthusiast with a crush on Tendi, who is just generally an enthusiast. The ship's captain, Freeman, struggles with the frustrations of being captain of a second-tier ship, as well as secretly being Marriner's mother.

Lower Decks functions best as comfort food for Trekkies frustrated by Discovery's adolescent posturing or Picard's lust for eye-gouging. Early episodes struggle with being a bit too, well, cartoonish, in addition to a propensity for recreating Trek storylines and tropes under the mistaken guise of subverting them. The show pulls together once it begins exploring the parameters of its own premise - from the third episode onwards - specifically the challenges unique to being a ship assigned to Starfleet's mopping-up duties, such as second contact.

If the show is not exactly deep, it at least has a consistent theme which allows it to take familiar elements of the Trek universe and view them from a slightly different perspective. It feels somewhat of a piece with Star Trek Beyond, the best of the alternate timeline movie series, which similarly explored the idea of those left behind by the progress towards a futuristic utopia.

This comes to a head in the final episode of the season, the aptly named 'No Small Parts', which ingeniously repurposes the Pakleds, one of The Next Generations' one-shot comedy villains, into a more significant threat. The thematic mirroring between the crew of the Cerritos, Starfleet's largely ignored worker bees, and the Pakleds, whose development into a credible military threat is facilitated by the Federation not viewing them as worthy of attention, gives the action-heavy episode a dramatic weight lacking in Discovery's meaningless spectacle. That Riker turns up to save the day is a deus ex machina of the most pandering variety - albeit a burgeoning tradition for Trek finales - but at least feels earned by a show which, appropriately enough, may not be as glamorous as its bigger, shinier relatives, but may be the only one keeping the Trek spirit alive.


No comments: