A review of Discovery, a new CBS show that just premiered this week.
Discovery is a new show in the Star Trek franchise. It was met with mixed reviews. The review aggregator site Metacritic has it at a score of 67 out of 100, which is 90% just people STANDING AROUND AND TALKING????
I have to give it to the people behind STAR TREK: DISCOVERY… This episode has a lot of guts!
We’re approaching the mid-season hiatus—six weeks without new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery—and one may anticipate a “big” episode with loads of action scenes, suspense, and drama leading up to a massive cliffhanger finale that would have fans yelling “more!” While we did get the aforementioned cliffhanger, the most of the episode—I’d say 90% or more—was simply people hanging about and chatting. Just…talking. A few people were seated, to be sure. But it’s all talking, talking, and more talking.
They didn’t even get out of the room! Almost the whole show was shot on only two sets… and the bridge wasn’t even there! If “Stormy Weather” was a bottle episode last week, “…But To Connect” was a thimble episode this week.
Nonetheless, as God is my witness…
It seems to work!
It would have been simple to write this episode off as a flop. After all, a reasonable complaint of most programs is that they are “all talk, no action.” Don’t even get me started on how much exposition there is in this episode! At points, the conversation seemed like a scientific lecture—or maybe a law lecture…or both—and at others, it felt like watching CSPAN. (For readers outside the United States, we have TV stations dedicated just to the activities of our Senate and House of Representatives.) The majority of the time, watching CSPAN and CSPAN2 is much less entertaining than watching paint dry.)
So, what was it about this calm, no-action, maybe “boring” episode that drew me in? What made me want to provide a nice review rather than a critical one? Let’s get started…
Let’s face it, this episode might have been a complete disaster. In both the A-story and the B-story, relying nearly entirely on talking is a HUGE risk… particularly when the C-story isn’t revealed until the episode’s last 5 minutes!
The performers, on the other hand, made the many, many words work. In this episode, no one offered anything less than an outstanding performance…even BLU DEL BARRIO (Adira Tal), who I still believe has a dearth of acting skills that will hopefully dissipate with time. But, in the end, everyone made the most of a screenplay that was all dialogue with little physical movement or action. Such sequences provide actors with distinct problems as well as possibilities. And I have to believe that experienced filmmaker LEE ROSE, whose film and television career spans over three decades and who has helmed four episodes of Discovery (including this one), had a key part in eliciting such excellent performances.
Granted, some folks are just excellent performers. DAVID CRONENBERG is a well-known actor and director (his career started in the same year as Star Trek TOS: 1966!) Each time he appears as the modest Dr. Kovich, he pretty much hits it out of the park. The dude is just hypnotic.
Similarly, DAVID AJALA portrays Cleveland Booker to perfection, which is difficult given that he may easily come off as a one-note character consumed with loss and retribution if the actor isn’t careful. Instead, I observe Book and sense his anguish, doubt, and desperation…along with his apparent love for Michael tainted by a rising bitterness that the two of them can’t seem to agree on the DMA or Unknown Species 10C. He’s clearly tormented this episode by what he knows will be an inescapable result of full separation from Michael (due to the writers’ artificial “either/or” storyline option).
ANTHONY RAPP had another spectacular performance in this episode. It’s been both intriguing and frustrating to see Rapp develop Paul Stamets’ persona. Do you remember him from the first season? First and foremost, Stamets was a complete jerk. Then he joined the mycelial network and resembled a flower kid from the 1960s. He was eventually saddened over Hugh’s death, grieving much more when his love returned from the dead with new and more complex sentiments, and generally sort of doing the insecure-but-compensating-with-overconfidence whiz-kid thing for most of the previous two seasons. When an episode asks for a “very brilliant character,” Paul Stamets is simply a writer’s tool. But Stamets has the potential to be so much more.
And he was in this episode.
“What if she gets upset at us and opens an airlock?” “What if she gets mad at us and opens an airlock?” Stamets was the quintessential “doubting Thomas,” the voice of audience members (like me) asking the most obvious concerns about Zora: “What if she gets mad at us and opens an airlock?” Or is frightened and launches photon torpedoes? We’d be unable to stop her!” Stamets is required to keep the dialogue and argument going ahead during the sessions with Zora. We wouldn’t have much of an episode if everyone just agreed that Zora was a great new life form who was no more hazardous than everybody else on the ship who had feelings and free will. Stamets, on the other hand, is there at every turning point in the debate, providing the counter-argument. On an acting level, that’s not simple to pull off while being sympathetic. Rapp never strays from his role, and he manages to keep the viewer on his side. They’re dealing with a difficult question, as it should be! I shouldn’t have to persuade Siri to play Billy Joel on my iPhone… let alone entrusting my life and safety on a malfunctioning computer.
Rapp’s performance, of course, is just half of the story. Without ANNABELLE WILLIS as Zora to play against, viewers are more inclined to sympathize with Stamets and want her to be fired as soon as possible. After all, eerily sentient A.I.s have been a mainstay of Star Trek since Landru and Nomad…and neither of them panned out very well. Discovery most recently (as in season two) battled Control for the survival of…well…everything. Not to mention Skynet from the Terminator and HAL 9000 from 2001. The stage has been set for fans to be suspicious of computers that become too large for their databanks.
So Willis had to figure out how to make Zora sound like a computer without being menacing. She had to be both emotional (because she’d only recently developed emotions) and emotionless (because she isn’t Red Dwarf’s charmingly sardonic Holly or Hitchhiker’s not-so-charmingly morose Marvin) because she isn’t Red Dwarf’s charmingly sardonic Holly or Hitchhiker’s not-so-charmingly morose Marvin) (to name two other well-known A.I.s with British accents). Imagine you’re the actor who’s been asked to be both emotional and dispassionate, hesitant yet comforting, and you have to do it all without appearing on screen and without using your facial emotions or body movements to help you. What are your thoughts on Willis’ performance?
The regrettably short conversation between Saru and Ni’Var President T’Rina deserves a last kudos for two excellent performances. Actress TARA ROSLING could teach seminars on how to portray a Vulcan! People portraying Vulcan sometimes overshoot “emotionless” into awkward, wooden performances. That isn’t the point of this alien society. Vulcans (and Romulans) have strong, intense emotions. Vulcans simply choose to calm and regulate their emotions behind a mask of reasoning and even-temperedness. GARY GRAHAM and LEONARD NIMOY both knew this. TIM RUSS had an inkling of what was going on. However, a large number of other performers (both in studio Star Trek and in fan films) do not.
Tara Rosling definitely understands, and her cautious and optimistic flirtations with Saru—and his in return—are delightful to behold. That situation turned out to be just what I had envisioned. Not some sloppy CW Network adolescent foreplay or an over-the-top “Sam and Diane…will they or won’t they?” tease. These are two mature individuals from very different cultures who are gingerly reaching out and gently connecting with a world of possibilities that is opening up in front of them. But, like with any new relationship, accepting those potential comes with dangers as well as opportunities. I’m excited to see how this narrative line develops since the two performers are doing an excellent job in their parts.
AND DID YOU HEAR THE MUSIC… OR DON’T YOU HAVE ANY?
It’s quite OK to acknowledge that you missed the music in this episode. In fact, it’s probably for the best that you didn’t! That suggests the composer (as well as the director) done an excellent job!
I used to get annoyed with Discovery’s never-ending background music theme. I wrote a blog post last season kvetching about how much background music there is in a normal Discovery program. Watching an episode with too much background music may be emotionally and physically tiring.
The background music has been steadily decreasing in volume throughout the course of this fourth season’s seven episodes. Oh, it’s still there in spades during the action parts, which is to be expected. However, the music has gotten more delicate in the calmer sequences, often consisting of a scarcely discernible single note or imperceptibly slow percussion. And, increasingly, there is no music playing at all! This is a huge step forward for Discovery, demonstrating the producers’ increasing faith in the show’s inherent power and influence. More music, camera rotations, lens flares, and other gimmicks are all just gimmicks. Removing the music from a scene allows the scene’s naked essence to shine through, implying that the creative team trusts that basic essence to carry the moment.
Indeed, with little or no music, a rhythmic wave effect of impact may be achieved. Watch this episode again, paying great attention to where the music is and isn’t if you want to see, or rather hear, what I’m talking about. These two sorts of scenes (music-assisted and music-less) work together to attract attention to certain occasions. A succession of scenes with no music might enable our viewers’ minds to “phase out” a little while the action unfolds on autopilot. Then we hear quick violins or harder percussion, and we “wake up,” knowing that something significant and deserving of our attention is now taking place. That type of powerful shift would not have been possible with a steady stream of background music.
A similar transition may also be made in the other direction. A abrupt “pause” when we change into a silent scene may also capture our attention and attune our senses for a significant moment while the music intensifies. Indeed, it is precisely that shift from something to nothing that forces our ears to pay attention to the words being said (since there is noting else). Granted, the impact isn’t as long-lasting, and too much time spent without music causes our thoughts to drift back into a state of passive observing. But then we’re jolted awake by a fresh musical cue.
That’s why it’s referred to as a wave effect. It’s a perpetual cycle of intensity followed by quiet followed by intensity as the ocean rises and falls, much like surfing (if one surfs). In some ways, one’s senses are continuously engaged, yet they take cyclic rests and respites before returning to full concentration. This episode has the potential to be either overpowering (too much music) or dull (too much dialogue) (too little). The back-and-forth/on-again/off-again dynamic, on the other hand, made a boring show much more dynamic.
EPISODE OF A “THINKING FAN”
The Zora B-story (although both tales in this episode, in my opinion, deserved to be A-stories) has been compared—and rightfully so!—to two Next Gen fan favorites: “The Measure of a Man” and “I, Borg.” Picard’s meetings with old love Captain Phillipa Louvois, Data’s dealings with Commander Bruce Maddox, Picard’s relationships with Data, and, of course, Riker’s issues with having to do his best to establish what he himself did not believe in: that Data was not a sentient creature.)
Furthermore, the two fan-favorite TNG episodes were mostly comprised of individuals conversing with one another, with little (nearly no) “action.” So, how did they all come together (with “…But To Connect”)? We cared for Data in “The Measure of a Man,” and we were rooting against Maddox and Riker. Fans of “I, Borg,” on the other hand, had a longer journey ahead of them. Of course, we would have all returned the “rescued” Borg back to the collective with a concealed, devastating computer virus at the start of the show. Without a doubt! But, over time, thanks to a well-crafted tale, we started to sympathize with “Hugh” and even enjoy him. We observed as Guinan, whose race was on the verge of extinction due to the Borg, transitioned from hatred to pity. Picard eventually arrived at the same location, and Hugh was returned to the Collective without the deadly infection. That show took viewers on an enlightening trip with which not everyone would agree (since the Borg remain an existential threat to sentient life throughout the galaxy).
“…But To Connect” attempted to accomplish the same. All of the reasons were set out in front of us. There will be no ruses. There will be no manipulations. Zora isn’t Data (she’s more like Gomtuu from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Tin Man,” a sentient, living spaceship that looks after its pilot). Hugh isn’t Hugh, and Zora isn’t Hugh either. Zora is an entirely new character for fans to think about. So I can’t agree with anybody who deems the Zora character and narrative line “dumb,” “unoriginal,” or “derivative” of what’s gone before. This episode introduced Zora as a novel concept in Star Trek (apart from Gomtuu): a living, thinking, feeling spacecraft that is now, even more intriguingly, a crew member. And now she’ll be attending Starfleet Academy? I’m not sure how Tilly expects to educate her, but hey…a it’s brand-new Star Trek notion. And for a program that’s been chastised for drawing water from the same old wells—and failing to do it as successfully as the source material it’s “copying” from—having something completely fresh and new for viewers to appreciate is praiseworthy.
THE ONLY THING NOT DESERVING OF FAVOR
How can we handle a situation like the DMA and 10C, according to the other story? was not nearly as gripping and far more manufactured in my opinion. The storyline was clearly moving toward an eventual rupture between Michael and Book, which would lead to a much-anticipated showdown and betrayal, from the beginning. The entire thing with Ruon Tarka’s “forbidden” weapon to neutralize the anomaly was only a ruse to get Book and Michael to get up and give opposing statements to the crowds. Everything else was all for show.
Nonetheless, it made for fascinating window decorating on occasion. Seeing the delegate from Earth (and the Titan colony) play the aggressive member of the delegation, for example, was strangely entertaining. That stereotype is usually reserved for the Klingons or the Romulans. Of fact, the Romulans are no longer a part of Ni’Var and are no longer what they once were. And, given how the Klingons have been treated in the Discovery series so far, I’m pleased we haven’t yet seen them in the 32nd century.
Meanwhile, the “choice”—approach 10C in peace or come out guns blazing—has been made as clear as possible owing to a weapon that has the potential to ruin enormous swaths of the galaxy…a treatment that may be worse than the sickness itself. Michael’s path was, of course, the more moral Starfleet one, and it was, without a doubt, the one we were pulling for. But, as I said earlier, the arguments for both sides were presented in an intellectual manner, and this was undoubtedly a “thinking fan’s” episode. To perform two such talk-in-out moral problem scenarios in the same episode was simply a fascinating (and some could say daring, others may say foolish) decision. It worked for me, but not because of the compelling nature of the choice of how the united races should go, but rather because of the acting and direction (and cinematography, which I don’t have time to discuss).
AND NOW FOR MY GUESS ON WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT…
If you don’t want a possible proto-spoiler, skip this section. But, for me, the revelation that Tarka’s “lost love” (assuming it’s romantic; that wasn’t made explicit) is separated from him in a parallel world points in one clear way for the DMA mystery’s conclusion. While I take a one-paragraph break, see if you can figure it out…
Many fans were disappointed when it was revealed last season that “The Burn” was not some dark conspiracy, but rather the agonizing scream of a Kelpien toddler on a dilithium planet who had just lost his mother. Granted, following the absolute evil of Control in season two, a “kinder, gentler” danger could have been preferable.
But I’m afraid we’re in for a two-fer in that respect, since I believe the DMA is Tarka’s dimensionally displaced “love-of-his-life” attempting to pull his significant other over the barrier between realities into whatever parallel paradise existence he’s gone to. If that’s the case, we’ll almost certainly go to this parallel reality, and I’d love to see it be the “primary” universe…though it may be a little too much to hope for. In any case, if it turns out that Unknown Species 10C isn’t an extraterrestrial species at all, but just a crazy scientist attempting awkwardly to reconcile with his pal, I may be a little disappointed.
We’ll probably find out in February (or maybe March). Then I’ll see you…
Watch This Video-
The “star trek: discovery – rotten tomatoes” is a review of the show on the site. It is 90% just people standing around and talking.
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