Sunday, September 24, 2017

"The Vulcan Hello" Makes An Absolute Mess Out Of Star Trek.

The Good: Lt. Saru is a cool character and well-performed by Doug Jones, Production values
The Bad: Dull story, Riddled with continuity issues, Atrocious character issues, Lack of impressive performances, Design issues
The Basics: "The Vulcan Hello" gets Star Trek: Discovery off to the worst start of any Star Trek franchise television show.

Star Trek: Discovery is here. As I prepared for the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery, I found myself deeply conflicted. Not since Enterprise was promoted without "Star Trek" in its title and under the development of a man (Brannon Braga) who was being actively quoted as saying he did not like the original Star Trek - and he was working on a prequel! - have I been less excited about a Star Trek premiere episode than I was about Star Trek: Discovery. My lack of enthusiasm can easily be defined: Star Trek: Discovery is a tool, an advertising mechanism that is once more being used to exploit the subculture I most actively identify with. I am a Trekker. I have an expert level of knowledge of the Star Trek franchise and Star Trek: Discovery was insulting to the Star Trek legacy from the first moment it was announced.

Allow me to explain.

Star Trek: Discovery was first announced as a program that would help to launch CBS All Access. Apparently, the executives at CBS did not learn from Paramount's utter failure with UPN (Star Trek: Voyager finished its run, the network collapsed and merged with The WB) and is now attempting to launch a streaming service on the back of Star Trek fans. CBS is neglecting all the available data that suggests that, like social networks, consumers have reached their peak interest in streaming services and launching CBS All Access. The insulting aspect of this to a Star Trek fan is simple: Star Trek: Discovery was not created based on a great story idea, a strong narrative or interesting characters. Before any of that - or even its title - were created, CBS announced that there was a new Star Trek series that would become the flagship of CBS All Access streaming service. Strike one - a show with strong anti-capitalist roots being used as a cheap tool for a major capitalist venture.

Then details for Star Trek: Discovery started to be released. The show was announced as a prequel to the original Star Trek, taking place approximately ten years before Captain Kirk took command of the U.S.S. Enterprise. So, as a fan, the first promotional materials for Star Trek: Discovery set me off. The uniforms in Star Trek: Discovery look nothing like the uniforms that would be in use during this time period in the Star Trek universe: "The Cage" (reviewed here!) taking place only five years prior to the events of "The Vulcan Hello." The first two pilots of Star Trek had remarkably similar StarFleet uniforms so how "The Vulcan Hello" would look so different within the canon was baffling. But hey, I get it: the outfits from the original Star Trek would look pretty dull in high definition television.

Then the characters started to get announced. Star Trek: Discovery was going to feature a female starship captain and that instantly raised my ire. My goat was gotten not because I am a sexist pig, but because I am an expert in the Star Trek franchise: a prequel to Star Trek could not feature a female starship captain and still maintain any semblance of continuity to the already-established canon of Star Trek. Only a neophyte to Star Trek would fail to recognize that "Turnabout Intruder" (reviewed here!), the final episode of Star Trek clearly established that StarFleet did not allow female starship captains (don't kill the messenger - I didn't write the episode!). The antagonist in "Turnabout Intruder" was so frustrated by the prohibition that she went insane - she had been fighting for the position her entire life. So, Star Trek: Discovery could not even be an explanation of why StarFleet did not allow female captains.

Two of these three issues could easily have been avoided by simply setting Star Trek: Discovery in a later era of the Star Trek franchise. But no, Star Trek: Discovery opted to keep the franchise mired in prequel hell.

Finally, before sitting down to watch "The Vulcan Hello," I was innundated with a load of disingenuous media surrounding the launch of Star Trek: Discovery. A few days ago, The Independent published an article from a set visit that was one of the worst pieces of factchecking I've ever read. From a title - "How Sonequa Martin-Green Became The First Black Lead Of Star Trek . . . " - that was criminally inaccurate (Avery Brooks wasn't black lead enough to be the first?!) to ridiculous, unchallenged assertions by the cast (first officer Michael Burnham is given a male name not out of any incredible bit of empowerment, but as a conceit of Bryan Fuller's works - it was a holdover from when Bryan Fuller was still developing the series, much like Lt. Saru's very un-Trek ability to sense death, a topic that Fuller's works are obsessed with). Even the IMDB's pre-launch article on the women of the Star Trek franchise was sloppy - there was a picture of Linda Park's Ensign Hoshi Sato accompanying text about Rosalind Chao's Keiko O'Brien . . . and Sato's character does not appear in the article!

So, I sat down to "The Vulcan Hello" with incredibly low expectations and a general sense that the episode would have a very difficult time living up to the scrutiny of a Star Trek expert.

Unsurprisingly, "The Vulcan Hello" did not even rise to my lowest expectations of what it could have been without nitpicking at it.

Opening with a Klingon warrior rallying Klingons with anti-Federation, pro-Klingon unification dogma, Captain Georgiou and her first officer, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham rescue a planet from a drought. The U.S.S. Shenzhou is retasked to repair a relay station near a binary star system. Burnham and science officer Lt. Saru clash on identifying the device that they suspect caused the damage to the relay station. Burhnam takes an environmental suit to go into the asteroid field to investigate the object. Fighting a timetable against a lethal radiation exposure, Burnham investigates the object, which is massive and she is unable to determine if it was constructed or carved. Burnham encounters an armored Klingon on the device and she kills it.

While recovering from her ordeal, Burnham flashed back to her childhood on Vulcan. When the Shenzhou arms its weapon, a massive Klingon ship decloaks. Saru advises retreat, but Burnham denies his instinct. When the Shenzhou experiences a bright, blinding, beacon, Burnham turns to Sarek for aid in understanding it. Knocking out Captain Georgiou with a Vulcan neck pinch, Burnham assumes command and prepares to attack the Klingon ship. But when the Klingon fleet appears, the Shenzhou is menaced.

"The Vulcan Hello" is a mess. The creativity of showing a Klingon environmental suit is almost instantly diminished by the fact that the first alien Burnham sees in Star Trek: Discovery, she kills (the aliens she rescued by ending the drought emerging only after she and the Captain left the area). How very Trek; murdering when threatened.

The Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery look nothing like the Klingons that would be the established order by this era. The Klingons did not have cloaking technology in this era (it was a huge tactical issue for the Federation when the Klingons got the technology from the Romulans in the third season of Star Trek), but a massive Klingon Ship - that is textured more like a Borg ship - decloaks near the Shenzhou.

Lt. Saru steals his scenes in "The Vulcan Hello." Saru is rational, reasonable, and intriguing. Saru is a new alien race and he is given a decent characterization, while Burnham is presented as a somewhat generic soldier in her role as first officer. The science officer feels like the most direct link to the familiar Star Trek, despite the ridiculous conceit that he can sense death. Doug Jones, who plays Saru, is wonderful at managing the technobabble and speaking with a tone of reason in his voice.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Sarek. Sarek appears in the fastest transmission ever for a StarFleet communication . . . using a technology that was not introduced until late in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (holographic communications technology). Sarek speaks with metaphor and with a level of emotion that does not jive with his established character, much less Vulcans. And with Sarek being recast yet again, viewers have to wonder why the producers did not go with Ben Cross, who played Sarek in the 2009 film Star Trek (reviewed here!) and would have been an age appropriate version of the character. How is it that Sarek looks younger in "The Vulcan Hello" than Spock did in "The Cage?!" (For neophytes, Sarek is Spock's father and Sarek looks younger than an adult Spock did in an adventure that happened five years prior to this one!)  In "The Vulcan Hello," Sarek refers to Vulcans as if they were separate entities from the Federation for which he is an ambassador.  By this time period, there should have been a much more integrated Federation and StarFleet than during the last prequel.

The character of Michael Burnham is problematically established, both as an individual and as a StarFleet officer. Burnham has been serving as Georgiou's first officer for seven years and her solution to a disagreement is a Vulcan neck pinch?! Really?! How has Burnham risen the ranks and had any sort of effective working relationship with her captain when the Vulcan neck pinch is her go-to when they disagree on confronting the Klingons. Sure, Star Trek: Discovery is new, but seven years of working together (as characters) and Georgiou is unsure how the crew will react in a battle situation?! What the hell has the Shenzhou been doing for seven years?

"The Vulcan Hello" features the most inorganic introduction of characters of any Star Trek series. The characters are supposed to be a crew that has been working together for quite some time, but Saru has to give a seminal explanation to his species this far into their working relationship?! Yes, I am using "?!" an obscene amount, but "The Vulcan Hello" begs the use of the baffled explanation as the episode falls apart with even a little bit of scrutiny.

I was worried that my initial viewing of Star Trek: Discovery would be cripplingly biased by technical problems and issues with minutia, but even the broad strokes of "The Vulcan Hello" are a mess. The Shenzhou almost lands when it first appears, making it somewhat ridiculous that the transporter would need to be used instead of a shuttlecraft or a very long cable. Star Trek: Enterprise was set about seventy years prior, but Klingons are supposedly virtually unseen for the past hundred years in "The Vulcan Hello." And the title of the episode refers to Vulcans shooting Klingon ships on sight as a diplomatic tactic. Did not one of the writers of "The Vulcan Hello" or not a single executive producer of Star Trek: Discovery ever watch "Errand Of Mercy" (reviewed here!) and recognize that it characterized both the Klingons of the era and the Vulcan value of pacifism?! Spock, a half-Vulcan, allows himself to be tortured rather than succumb to violence. And for an episode and a show that seems to have been made by committee, did not one person involved raise the issue that it might seem pretty racist that the first StarFleet ship with a Chinese name is captained by a Malaysian woman?! Did it not occur to anyone on the production staff that giving the ship with the Asian name to an Asian Captain might not seem like a clever cultural nod, but an upsettingly racist concept?

Even on its own, "The Vulcan Hello" is a fucking mess. The inorganic introduction of the Shenzhou crew is paired with a familiar adversary that is presented in such an unfamiliar way as to be utterly ridiculous. The Klingons in "The Vulcan Hello" are more akin to Hirogen (the bones of their dead lining their hull) and the aliens from fluidic space (the Klingon beacon is almost organic in appearance) than anything recognizable as Klingons. Yes, if "The Vulcan Hello" is any indication, Star Trek: Discovery will be an absolute, clusterfuck of a mess that will not be worth the time and attention of Star Trek fans. If only there had been clues before the show aired that it would be such a waste of time . . .

For other Star Trek franchise pilot episodes, please visit my reviews of:
"Where No Man Has Gone Before" - Star Trek
"Encounter At Farpoint" - Star Trek: The Next Generation
"Emissary" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"Broken Bow" - Star Trek: Enterprise


For other Star Trek episode, movie, and season reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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