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Star Trek: Discovery S1E5: Choose Your Pain

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When Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is captured by the Klingons, Commander Saru (Doug Jones) commands the USS Discovery in a rescue attempt. Using the Tardigrade’s space-jumping powers is critical to the mission – but Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is convinced that with every jump the creature is moving closer to death.

Now that we are five episodes into the series, it is becoming easier to predict how Star Trek: Discovery is going to play out on an episode-by-episode basis. “Choose Your Pain” appears to be the series in a nutshell: a dark aesthetic and emotional tone, comparatively graphic violence and coarse language for Star Trek, morally compromised characters and a cavalier attitude to the franchise continuity into which the series’ creators deliberately boxed themselves. It is enjoyable in fits and starts, but is – much like the series overall – a red-hot mess of highly variable quality.

Somewhere nestled into the core of the episode is a very Star Trek concept: the alien Tardigrade used to power the Discovery’s weird spore-powered engine is wracked with pain every time it is exploited, and Burnham is growing rapidly convinced that it is a sentient creature. Releasing it from captivity and finding another method of powering the drive is a very traditional sort of Star Trek storyline. Also on familiar ground is Captain Lorca’s experience on the Klingon spaceship; pretty much every space captain in the franchise has done their ‘space prison’ episode, so in a way it’s nice to see Lorca get his out of the way early.

On the Klingon ship he meets a human trader named Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) and a Starfleet officer named Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Tyler feels relatively inoffensive and by-the-numbers at this stage. Mudd of course is a famous guest character from the original Star Trek, played in two live-action episodes by Roger C. Carmel. He was played for laughs back in the 1960s; here he is an embittered Klingon collaborator with a decidedly unpleasant sense about him. Like the rest of the series, he’s been dragged down into the grim pit of the Federation-Klingon war.

That, to me, is one of Discovery’s key problems. There is always going to be a debate about whether Star Trek is a setting or a genre. I find myself leaning towards the latter. You can find grim and unpleasant science fiction elsewhere, but Star Trek was established and went along merrily for decades as pretty much the epitome of Utopian fiction. There was conflict, but the characters were good-hearted. There were difficult choices from time to time, but the various Starfleet officers ultimately wound up making the right decisions. Discovery features a former mutineer for a protagonist, working for a captain who murdered his entire former crew rather than have them be captured by the Klingons, whose first officer deliberately orders the torture of a sentient creature to complete a mission. Klingon crack human skulls beneath their boots. People get stabbed. The Discovery’s security chief got graphically mauled to death. ‘This fucking rocks,’ explains Ensign Tilly in this week’s episode.

I don’t think it rocks. To be honest, I don’t really think it’s Star Trek. There is visible talent involved in making the series. Much of the design work is great, and the actors are all giving one hundred per cent, but it is all in service of what seems more and more to be a fundamentally wrong-headed vision of what Star Trek is supposed to be.

 
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The Babysitter

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Following on from her turn in the Australian psychological thriller Bad Girl, Samara Weaving is once again hiding evil intent under a welcoming, not to mention sexually alluring, facade in the Netlfix original horror comedy, The Babysitter.

Weaving is Bee, teenage babysitter and object of both affection and desire to her 12 year old charge, Cole (Judah Lewis). And why not? For one thing, she looks like Samara Weaving, positioned as a very American kind of adolescent sex dream via director McG’s exceedingly male-gazey camera, all short shorts, perfect teeth and honey-coloured hair.  For another, she’s the kind of “cool girl” who can go answer for answer at sci-fi trivia games and quote along to a cult movie like Billy Jack (screenwriter Brian Duffield might be indulging in a little wish fulfillment here, bless him).

But she’s eeeevil, and plans to use Cole as a blood sacrifice in a magic ritual, along with the help of her hunky and hot high school coven (Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Andrew Bachelor, Hana Mae Lee). And so we’re off on a horrific Home Alone riff (the film even openly acknowledges the debt via dialogue at one point), with Cole trying to stay out of the cult’s clutches as the body count rises and the claret is spilled with gusto.

The Babysitter sits right at the crossroads of Passable and Problematic – if McG’s lens leering at Weaving and her co-stars is a dealbreaker for you, it’s best to steer clear (to be fair, Amell spends most of the film shirtless – a concession for those whose tastes run to beefcake). There’s some business about Cole undergoing a rite de passage, but it never hits home enough to give the proceedings any real emotional heft. We do get some fun gore gags, though, from one hapless character taking a fire poker through the eye socket, to another straight up exploding in a welter of gore.

McG has never been the most restrained of directors, and even here he doesn’t trust the guileless material to connect with the audience, peppering the already OTT story with jarring freeze-frames and to-the-audience captions  – think Zombieland, but not as sly. Still, he handles the action well, which is the main KPI in something like this.

The Babysitter is not going to set anyone’s world on fire, but strong, engaging performances, a brisk pace, and a cheerfully perverse, juvenile attitude to boobs and blood means there’s definitely an audience who will groove to its undeniable but still limited charms.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1 E4: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

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While Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) races to activate the Discovery’s experimental spore-powered warp drive, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is assigned to study the captured alien creature that killed a Klingon boarding party on the USS Glenn. Back at the binary stars, the Klingon Voq (Javid Iqbal) continues to repair T’Kumva’s flagship.

After four episodes there is a definite trend emerging among Star Trek: Discovery’s characters: they tend to make a poor first impression. Burnham grated slightly in her first outing, but now is a brilliantly portrayed and multi-faceted protagonist. Saru (Doug Jones) seemed ridiculously flighty and unrealistic in the series premiere, but now seems a thoughtful and intelligent contrast to his captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). Last week introduced Stamets and Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who seemed unlikable and grating respectively, and here they are in episode four being both well-rounded and entertaining. Some things simply take time, I guess.

This is very much an episode of two halves. The first sees Burnham working to understand the massive alien creature that she encountered on the Glenn – and which Lorca had secretly transported onto the Discovery for study. He wants a weapon. Burnham finds something vastly more interesting. This storyline is the most overtly like previous Star Trek television dramas that Discovery has managed so far. There are elements of scientific study and new horizons, as well as a core moral dilemma that asks questions of what is and is not an acceptable action in a time of war.

It seems to have long-term implications for the series going forward too. Captain Lorca will clearly do whatever is necessary to safeguard the Federation from the Klingons. Burnham, despite starting the war in the first place, is clearly not comfortable with the choices Lorca is forcing her to make. This is clearly going to lead to a conflict between the two characters, and thankfully it looks set to be one that speaks very directly to what the ideals and principles of the Star Trek characters are. In many ways it most clearly reflects the earlier Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine, since both series highlight and emphasise the values of Starfleet by contrasting them with a grimmer reality. Martin-Green is a tremendous asset to the series, and her performance is Burnham is just getting better and better. By focusing the series on her it opens up wonderful new opportunities for the ship’s captain. Lorca is a dangerous war-monger, and a sharp contrast to what one expects from a Star Trek captain, but because he is not the focus of the series he is allowed to be. He is not a character to be liked, but he is absolutely entertaining to watch.

The other half of the episode focuses on the after-effects of T’Kumva’s death back in “The Battle at the Binary Stars”. There is always a risk that a Klingon storyline will test the audience’s patience, but in this case the actual plot developments shown should be pretty engaging and effective. That they are not is less down to Jesse Alexander and Aron Elie Coleite’s teleplay and more down to the restrictive prosthetics and ridiculous fake teeth forced upon the Klingon cast members. When you must struggle to emote, and have to slur your words over the top of a pointy set of dentures – and with no post-synched dubbing to make the language sound clearer – your performance is going to suffer badly. The result is that the episode flies by when on the Discovery, but drags to an interminable crawl when within the Klingon Empire. Thankfully the former makes up for the latter; this series is definitely on the rise. If you watched the pilot and turned away, it really is worth sticking on for a few more episodes to properly judge where things are going.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E2: Battle at the Binary Stars

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Caught in a violent confrontation with the Klingons, Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) attempts to command the USS Shenzou to victory. Meanwhile her mutinous first officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) attempts to escape from the brig when the Shenzou suffers heavy damage.

Released hot on the heels of the series premiere, the second episode of Star Trek: Discovery already shows quite a bit of improvement from the first. While many of the series’ more pronounced problems seem to remain, there is definitely positive change going on. From its action-packed opening to its surprising conclusion, it maintains a sense of momentum and energy much more effectively.

Both Martin-Green and Yeoh suddenly feel settled into their roles, with the heavy emphasis on action allowing the episode to avoid the weak exposition-heavy dialogue that crippled “The Vulcan Hello”. Instead of telling the audience of the close relationship between the two women, this episode actually showcases it. Flashback sequences reveals their first meeting, as well as key elements from Burnham’s childhood that colour how her attempts to fight the Klingon warship is received by both crewmates and audience.

Burnham’s strange back story – she was adopted by Sarek after her parents were killed in a Klingon raid, and was raised on Vulcan with a strong philosophy of logic – does not sit comfortably, but to the credit of writers Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts her instinctive collapse into very human emotions of rage, affection and grief start slipping out more and more obtrusively as her situation worsens.

Scenes featuring the Klingons still drag interminably. It all feels like sound and fury, with ranting warriors posing and swearing loyalty to one another. There’s very little variation in the tone, but thankfully less scenes involving them than in the first episode.

Putting aside hard-core fan obsessions with continuity, the redesign of the Klingon race is poorly done. The prosthetic make-up seems much more extensive that the traditional style, and it prevents the actors from properly using their faces to express themselves. Likewise, the large dental prosthetics each actor wears interfere badly with their diction. They may be speaking Klingon with subtitles, but their slurred speech still distracts badly. The latter could be easily fixed with some re-recording of dialogue during post-production. The former I suspect audiences are still with for the long haul.

The episode’s dramatic conclusion presents quite a shock (look away now if you have not seen the episode): the sudden violent death of Captain Georgiou. It is a moment with both good and bad consequences for the series going forwards. Firstly it does introduce a strong sense of jeopardy to the series: is anybody safe in future episodes? It also leads to a very bold conclusion, with Burnham being court-martialled and sentenced to life in prison for everything that has occurred. On the other hand it does obliterate what seemed the most positive and creatively successful part of the series so far: the relationship between Georgiou and Burnham. It seemed a very positive step to base a series around two women of colour. From the next episode we get Jason Isaacs – a middle-aged white man – in the captain’s chair. Given Yeoh’s prominence in the series’ advertising, it feels like a distasteful bait-and-switch: a tease of a more progressive show before a retreat to the status quo. It is too early to tell how this will all work out, but the signs do not look good.

The episode has problems, and it still needs a lot more work to really fulfil its potential, but “The Battle at the Binary Stars” is absolutely a solid step in the right direction.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E1: The Vulcan Hello

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On the edge of Federation space, the USS Shenzhou investigates a damaged satellite. Further study reveals a hidden artificial object buried in a nearby asteroid field. First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin) puts on a spacesuit to investigate. On the object’s surface she is confronted by a Klingon – a species unseen by Starfleet in 100 years – and accidentally kills him. Soon the Shenzhou is facing down a massive Klingon warship. Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) wants to negotiate. Burnham wants to attack. The future of the Federation and the Klingon Empire hang on their decision.

Being tasked with making an all-new Star Trek television series in 2017 must be something akin to a poisoned chalice. It has been more than 12 years since the franchise was last on the small screen. During that time television has advanced considerably in style, tone, prestige, and delivery. A new series must negotiate a new context; one where Star Trek’s patented brand of utopian exploration, technobabble and straight-faced nobility may no longer find a mass audience. Stick close to the format of The Next Generation, Voyager or Enterprise and one may struggle to find a new audience. Strike out and embrace the more complex, nuanced characterisation and serialisation of contemporary television and one risks abandoning the dedicated audience already there.

“The Vulcan Hello”, written by Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman based on a story by Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, visibly struggles to negotiate these waters. As a continuation of the Star Trek tradition and as a new TV drama it succeeds and fails in equal measure. There is potential in Discovery, but at this stage it is unclear in what direction that potential will go.

One glaringly poor choice is to set the new series 10 years prior to the events of the 1966 series. Prequels always run the risk of feeling dramatically weak, since in broad strokes the future of the series’ fictional universe is already known. It also has weird design repercussions, something that also affected Enterprise, since a starship 10 years older than the Enterprise should look 10 years older and not 50 years more recent. The episode also takes unnecessary design liberties with the Klingons; sure, they’ve been redesigned before, but that was after just a handful of television appearances and they effectively haven’t changed aesthetically in more than three decades.

I can sense some of you rolling your eyes, but the bottom line is that these things do matter. Discovery could easily have been a completely original take on the Star Trek concept, picking and choosing story elements to make an entirely fresh presentation. It arguably should have taken this route. The production team and CBS (who are bankrolling the production for their US-only CBS All Access platform) made the deliberate choice to set their new series in the continuity of the previous TV shows, and then made the subsequent deliberate choice to make everything look completely unlike those shows. Obviously I do not expect a new TV series to be beholden to its decades-old predecessors, but the production has boxed itself in entirely of its own volition. It is also genuinely odd that, in a genre effectively purpose-built to look into the future, the last time Star Trek set a TV series or film in the franchise’s own future was the series finale of Voyager in May 2001.

The series suffers from a surfeit of style. The space sequences have been animated to look as if they were shot with hand-held cameras. Half of the interior camera angles are tilted for additional drama. Scenes onboard the Shenzhou look as if the camera lenses were soaked in milk. Hopefully future episodes will dial back the visual excess and focus on better dialogue.

When the tensions are high and the drama powers at full throttle, “The Vulcan Hello” does get suspenseful. When the tensions are low and the setting is being unveiled, it is difficult to watch with a straight face. Early scenes are packed with characters spouting nonsensical scientific banter and explaining their back story in the most bluntly obvious of ways. Old school science fiction fans talk of the “As you know, Bob…” phenomenon; Discovery has it in spades. They talk less like characters in Star Trek and more like a bad photocopy of someone trying to parody them.

After a very weak first 10 minutes, Sonequa Martin does make for a sympathetic and engaging protagonist. Likewise, Michelle Yeoh takes a little while to settle in before becoming a strong and likeable captain. It is very much appreciated to see two women of colour share dramatic scenes; it should not feel like a rare experience. Doug Jones is visually distinctive as the Shenzhou’s science officer Saru, but struggles with a character written too broadly and for comic effect.

In the end it all seems a bit of a mess. The series’ development was a famously troubled one, with original showrunner Bryan Fuller jumping ship over creative disagreements and the slack picked up by a group of contributors including Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman. This is the first of a 15-episode season with plenty of scope to improve and settle into its own identity. It may get better. As a lifelong Star Trek enthusiast, I desperately want it to get better. For now, rather sadly, “The Vulcan Hello” has an awful lot of problems.