I have other stuff to do but I blog very rarely and also there’s a new Star Trek TV show and I watched it. So. Here’s a little review/response and then a little bit about the impact of audience expectations/branding.
Real quick no spoilers review: I liked the first two episodes of Star Trek Discovery. Sonequa Martin-Green is great. Doug Jones is great. Michelle Yeoh is great. The production design is lush and manages some big budget gravitas. There are things I liked more and things I liked less. I have big picture reservations about the CBS All-Access model and the nature of the show as a prequel. I also think it’s kind of a bummer to watch so far and strains a little more than I expected against my expectations of Star Trek. I’m going to blog about more of that below.
First, the Star Trek bonafides preamble: I’ve been watching Star Trek all of my life. I grew up on the shows and the movies. I’ve seen every movie for the last 30 years on opening weekend and I’ve seen the majority of the TV episodes multiple times* (there’s an asterisk here because I really didn’t like Voyager or Enterprise). When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine first premiered it played at 11 PM on Sunday nights in my area. I was in middle school but I stayed up every Sunday until midnight to watch it and went to school bleary eyed. I’m not a convention-going Vulcan-ear-having fan but I’m more inclined to give the brand a chance than literally any other property I can think of based on the strength of my affection and nostalgia for spaceships and budget SFX and phaser sounds. That said, half of the Star Trek TV shows and movies have been pretty bad and William Shatner is not doing his legacy any favors with Twitter. I will always happily give Star Trek a shot but Star Trek: Nemesis happened, you guys, and I’ll never forget.
Here’s what you should know about Star Trek: Discovery. I’m not going to summarize the whole plot but there will be some details that you may want to avoid if you want to watch it without any advanced knowledge. The show’s titular ship, the Discovery, does not appear in the first two hours of the show. The bulk of the cast also does not appear in these first two episodes. This is not an ensemble show in the Star Trek model. It’s a show with a clear protagonist (Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham) and it seems determined to upend some of the familiar Trek conventions. The good news there is that Martin-Green is a charismatic and versatile performer and she can more than carry a show. The decision to give the show a central character and to pin the emotional and storytelling stakes on her is a good one and if the show ultimately goes on to have a long and celebrated life it will be a big part of why. The first two episodes unfold directly as a result of Burnham’s actions – and those actions are not all heroic or sympathetic. That’s a pretty significant change to the usually squeaky clean boy scout image most associated with Star Trek (mostly, to be fair, from Star Trek: the Next Generation onward). The show is steeped in interpersonal conflict and that really creates narrative possibilities we haven’t seen in this property before. I can dig it.
Here’s some other things you should know about Star Trek: Discovery. It doesn’t feel much like Star Trek yet. The characters use Star Trek words and interact with Star Trek things but despite the title it isn’t terribly interested (so far) in strange new worlds, new life, new civilizations, etc. Klingons feature very prominently in these opening two episodes (and, based on what happens, will probably be pretty involved for the rest of the first season at least) and there is some philosophical debate around inter-species contact, but more than ever before these Klingons feel particularly contemporary and familiar rather than strange and new. Where the original iteration of Klingons seemed to cast them as grumpy mustached space Russians, Discovery makes them religious nationalists eager to restore the Klingon empire to glory. That might sound familiar to viewers because we see these sorts of characters on the nightly news. This observation isn’t necessarily a criticism but it gives the show a weary cynicism. At it’s best Star Trek is buoyant and optimistic and this is a little bit dour. It may be that the show runners intend to start with dour, to show a journey through hopelessness and out the other side, but for viewers like me that could do with a little bit more aspiration it’s a little bit disappointing. There’s not really any warmth or humor or wonder. The ending of episode 2 is, frankly, pretty bleak.
There are other things that Discovery does that I liked a lot. The opening credits are beautiful and the makeup is really next level, particularly for Doug Jones’s Saru. Unfortunately, the script has some real weak points that only seem worse with further scrutiny and the pacing, especially in episode 2, is a little too decompressed. I’m also not convinced that this show needs to be a prequel or that they really needed to go back to the most famous Star Trek IP; Klingons and Vulcans. The same story and themes could be explored with new ideas. It makes the universe feel too small to me and the storytelling feel too timid. By opting to go this direction, the show necessitates comparisons with prior iterations and for a franchise that started out with all-new ideas that’s totally unnecessary.
Ultimately, I think Star Trek: Discovery is an appealing television show with a strong, interesting lead and compelling visual design. I am definitely interested in seeing more but it’s a poor fit for the Star Trek brand – especially right now. If Discovery had been released in context with other more traditional Trek content it would seem like a bold alternative and I think would be easier to embrace. But this is the first Star Trek show in 12 years. A lot of fans, and casual viewers, might rightly expect it to feel something like the franchise they know.
Branding is a powerful presence in a story (or content). “Star Trek” has a meaning for people. I show up for “Star Trek.” That’s to the property’s advantage but if they stray too far from what “Star Trek” means for people they create disappointment that they didn’t need to create. There seems to me to be a lot more latter-day Battlestar Galactica in this show than bolding going where no one has gone before. In fact, these seems to be a lot of similarities between these Klingons and Cylons. That really creates a backlash for me with the brand, I’m afraid.
Similarly, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why I so aggressively hate the CBS All-Access distribution model and it has a lot to do with the name and the associations the name generates for me and how it forces me to compare it to other alternative services. I don’t mind paying for TV. I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go. I buy TV shows I want to watch that don’t air on those services on Amazon. I would pay up to $3 for each episode of Star Trek: Discovery and feel pretty good about it. That’s more than CBS is asking for with All-Access. My complaint isn’t about money. I value good content and I pay for it. I think that’s part of being an ethical grown up consumer. No, my reticence is about not wanting to get another user name and password, give out my credit card to another company that might will probably Equifax me on a long enough timeline, install another app, learn another UI, learn all new bugs and quirks. I don’t want that. I think most consumers are sick of that. I would probably pay for an add-on channel on Amazon or Hulu for CBS All-Access.
More than my app fatigue though, CBS All-Access does not compare favorably to its competitors. To get the commercial free version they want a comparable amount of money to HBO Go, Netflix, and Hulu and it does not compare in terms of content available even a little bit. Out of context, it seems like a pretty decent deal. I could watch Star Trek: Discovery and, uh, well, I literally would watch nothing else because CBS is not a network that makes content for me, but if I was the CBS target demo (older, whiter somehow), I could get a lot of enjoyment out of 2 Broke Girls and NCIS and all the fucking Macguyver. I assume. The thing is that Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go make content for multiple kinds of audiences so I can not watch that show with the scientologist guy from That 70s Show that doesn’t appeal to me and still watch the show with the scientologist lady from That 70s Show that does. Next to the alternatives CBS All-Access is real thin. Also, it’s CBS. My whole life CBS has been a TV station you can watch for free with an antenna and it had that comparble quality. Star Trek: Discovery seems like a real stretch in terms of budget and content for that CBS but it’s still called CBS so I expect CBS. The previews of upcoming episodes of Discovery look more like the CBS I expect – the effects look worse and there’s a lot more white dudes – so I have to wonder, are these two episodes of Discovery a bait and switch? If the service wasn’t called CBS All-Access I might be less skeptical. This is the downside of branding. I show up for “Star Trek.” I change the channel on “CBS” before Mark Harmon shows up. These two big brands crash into each other for Star Trek: Discovery and I’m not sure what to do. I want CBS All-Access to fail so it sends a message to stop making new subscription services for every damn thing maybe more than I want this cynical post-Trump new Star Trek.