Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery and CBS All Access

The preface is complete, time to start chapter one. I’m hoping it’s a good one.

Now that I’ve let the first two episodes of ST:DIS bounce around in my head overnight, and have seen a few reviews and bits of commentary, it’s time to toss my two cents in.

I’ll start with non- or less-spoilery stuff, getting more spoilery as things go along, so those who haven’t seen the premiere episodes can bail out before bigger spoilers pop up.

And, of course, these are merely my thoughts and opinions on all of this. YMMV.

CBS All Access

Yes, Discovery is CBS All Access only (aside from the initial broadcast of the first of the two episodes released on Sunday). Yes, a lot of people are upset about this, for varying degrees of “upset”.

For me, it’s not a big deal, for a few reasons.

$6/$10 a month for one show is a rip-off!

Put that way, that could be true — but then, just how true it is depends on all sorts of factors. I’m of the opinion that it’s a badly stated argument, though, because it’s not $6 or $10 a month for a single show, it’s for access to everything CBS offers under All Access. As it stands right now, that includes every Star Trek episode produced to date (TOS, TAS, TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT, and DIS), along with a number of other shows.

It may well be true that there are people out there who are only interested in DIS; for those people, the fee may seem high. But even if they’re only interested in one show, it’s still true that they’re getting access to a lot more than that, even if they choose to never take advantage of that. In my particular situation, while I already have TOS, TAS, TNG, and DS9 in my own collection at home, All Access is also giving me easy access to VOY and ENT (only one of which actually interests me, admittedly, as I’ve just finished off VOY and didn’t think much of it) in addition to DIS and the After Trek post-show show (which I haven’t sampled yet). Outside of the Trek universe, there are a number of other shows that my wife and/or I have enjoyed in the past and might want to continue watching or revisit (The Amazing Race, Cheers, Frasier, Madam Secretary, The Twilight Zone), that are related to shows we’ve enjoyed in the past (NCIS precursor JAG), or that we haven’t tried yet but might want to give a shot (Elementary, The Good Wife).

So for us, $6 a month (or even $10 a month, if we choose to move up to that tier) doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable. But that’s just us. If the only thing CBS has available on All Access that interests you is Star Trek, and if you’ve already watched (or already own) everything other than DIS, then sure, this might not be a good value.

But you still get commercials!

Yes, and this is one area where I definitely wish All Access was better. I’d absolutely be happier if there was a single no-commercials option, rather than the current $6 “limited commercials” or $10 “no commercials unless we feel like it” option.

At the same time, I realize that TV is expensive — particularly TV like DIS, which is reportedly one of the most expensive series in TV history, on the order of $8 million per episode. And while cynical, it’s not entirely untrue to see the shows we watch as nothing but filler designed to keep our butts in the seats in between the advertisements that provide the majority of the income for the studios. Like it or not, advertising is the bottom line that allows us to enjoy much of the media we consume, and while I prefer not having to sit through advertisements (strongly enough that I stopped watching TV for close to a decade in the late ’90s and early ’00s, as there wasn’t enough content I was interested in to make sitting through the commercials worthwhile), I also recognize that without advertising dollars underwriting things, we’d have a lot less media to choose from.

What bothered me the most last night as I watched DIS was not that there were commercials (particularly as I wasn’t paying for the higher-priced “commercial free” tier), but that the same commercials were repeated over and over, and that they were so loud compared to the show. I found the “happy drivers” commercial with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” amusing the first time, increasingly annoying each additional time; the same was true for the rest. And though the FCC claims that commercials have been required to be the same average volume as the programming since 2012, that sure doesn’t seem to be the case in practice.

So for me, commercials are an annoyance that I’d rather not have, but I’ll cope with gritting my teeth and dealing with the inanity and having to keep the volume control nearby if it means we get a better show in the end.

Of course, if you have the magical solution that allows CBS to produce big-budget TV without either running commercials or asking us to pay for it, I’m sure they’d be happy to know.

Design, Technology, and Timelines

(As a side note, if I had the time and expertise, I would love to host a podcast focusing on the technology of DIS and comparing/contrasting/retconning it with the rest of the Trek universe. Said podcast, would, of course, be named “DISCOtech”, and the intro music would be edits of Meco’s “Star Trek Medley”. Since I don’t have the time or expertise to do this, if someone sees this and decides to run with the idea, you’re free to do so; I’d just appreciate a call-out.)

So, I’ve seen many people up in arms about the design and the technology of DIS, particularly noting that though placed a decade before TOS and in the original timeline (and yes, it is in the original/”prime” timeline, not the Abrams-verse Kelvin timeline), it looks far more like the Abrams-verse films than the classic TOS episodes.

To which I say, well, yeah, no kidding. TOS was produced in the 60s, with the tech and budgets they had available then. DIS is being produced now, with the tech and budgets we have now. We in the present-day real world already enjoy technology that is in many ways advanced over much of what we saw as “futuristic” in TOS. To expect a modern show to try limit its production design to that of the 1960s is silly at best, and likely a sure-fire recipe for a failure of a show.

I’m very curious as to what people think DIS should have done — what would be the “right” way to present a show set two and a half centuries after where we are now, but a single decade before a show produced on a 1960s TV budget? Would we really expect the show to find some convoluted reason why over the next two hundred and fifty years, we suddenly decide to ditch touchscreens, adaptive UIs, and ultra-miniaturized electronics in favor of CRTs and physical toggle switches?

(Though, I’ll admit, it would have been interesting if the producers had come up with some heretofore unknown period of technological regression between ENT and DIS to explain why the entire DIS-era galaxy was using pseudo-60s-era technology and production design. Because nobody would have had any problems with shoehorning that into the canon!)

Real-world technology changes constantly and quickly, and to expect our futuristic media to slavishly abide by the restrictions that the real-world technology of the past imposed is just silly.

(And another aside. There’s a question that iO9 asked a few years ago that this silly debate keeps reminding me of: Why doesn’t anyone in Star Trek use social media/text messages? The real answer, of course, is that it’s a form of communication that rose to prominence after the show was aired, but viewed through the lens of today’s technology, it really does seem bizarre that by the time any version of Trek comes to pass, we will have entirely given up something as simple and useful as text messaging.)

For me, the most important thing about Trek is always the stories. The presentation is always a product of its time, for good and for ill: we enjoy the simplistic design of TOS Trek while also recognizing how well they did for their time, we recognize the areas where they broke new ground (diversity and inclusion, tackling real-world subjects through the lens of science fiction, and basically doing all the “social justice warrior” stuff that so many sad people — including, sadly, William Shatner himself — complain about) while also recognizing where they stumbled (including no few incidents of cringeworthy sexism, ranging from TOS to the Abramsverse films). But the stories, the optimism, and the hope for humanity and the future is always the heart of Star Trek.

So if DIS looks like a product of today than a product of the 1960s? I’m entirely okay with that, and welcome that. New viewers — who, make no mistake about it, are as much in CBS’s target as all of us “old school” fans — are going to be a lot more comfortable with that decision, too. As Kevin Church said:

As much as I love TOS and its design, you have to update it to meet modern audience expectations, especially if you’re trying to get a new audience, which is what CBS needs. They’ve gotten about as much revenue as they can from the previous series and a cash infusion is going to have to happen to keep the franchise afloat for them.

That said…

However — and I’ll admit right off the bat that this line is going to be a somewhat fuzzy one, open to interpretation and argument — I do have quibbles with some of the technology shown as being in use in DIS and how it fits in to the established Star Trek technological universe.

My rationalization for this boils down to the difference between the technology of the production of the show (the overall look and feel of the sets, props, effects, etc.) and the technology of the universe of the show (warp drive, transporters, subspace communication, etc.). Real world technology and methods that affect how the show looks in comparison to the other shows I’m fairly tolerant of; fictional world technology that doesn’t jibe with what’s been established in the other shows, I’m less tolerant of.

Y’know. Geeks. Pick your battles. (And as I’ve said frequently, part of what I love about being a SF geek, and a Trek geek in particular, is long-ranging, in-depth, passionate arguments about absolutely ridiculously inconsequential pieces of trivia. So there’s that, too.)

The big thing that stood out to me along these lines was the holographic communication used on the Shenzhou. This is a very different style of communication than we’ve seen in most Trek to date; I actually didn’t remember seeing holographic communication in the Trek universe, though Memory Alpha notes that it was seen a few times on DS9, which I’d simply forgotten about.

Amusingly, the article has already been updated to include its use in DIS, noting that the Shenzhou has “an early version of this type of device”. However, I’d argue that the technology shown in DIS can be seen as “early” only in that it has the same blue-tinged, see-through, “ghostly” presentation that we’re used to seeing in /ahem/ that other SF universe, rather than the realistic, solid-appearing holodeck-style holograms that appear to have been used on DS9 (judging by this screenshot, since my memory is faulty here). Otherwise, it seems more advanced in how the characters can interact with each other during holographic communication, even in ways that don’t really make sense, including Sarek walking around Burnham and sitting on the edge of a desk in the room — wouldn’t this require his having a room that just happened to have the right furniture (or something to sit on) in just the right spot?

So this is once instance where an in-universe discontinuity was far more jarring to me than the overall stylistic differences between TOS and DIS. (Riker seems to agree with me, even!)

And Then There’s the Klingons

As for the Klingons themselves: yes, they look different in both the physical makeup and the design of their ships. Yes, right now, that’s difficult to reconcile with established Klingon appearances. And for the moment, at least, I’m willing to let that slide.

Klingons have changed — repeatedly — over the course of Trek as it is. We all know that the only real reason the Klingons original changed appearance was because TMP had a bigger budget than TOS did, and the Klingons got upgraded along with everything else. For years, there were essentially two ways of looking at the change: either Klingons had always had the ridges, but 60s TV production didn’t have the budget to reflect this, or there was a physical change for some unknown reason. I was good with either; the latter was fun to speculate about (some earlier Trek literature posited that the intercepted transmission from the Klingons facing off with V’Ger was the first time that Starfleet saw the “true” appearance of Klingons). Yes, the Augment virus solved the Klingon forehead problem; I just kind of wish it hadn’t actually been solved.

And I’d argue that if the Augment virus hadn’t been introduced, if ENT had just let the change in appearance stand (either by going with TOS-style Klingons (though, hopefully somewhat less racially problematic, if that could be done) or by just going with ridged Klingons and accepting that certain elements of fandom would have fits), we might have less grumbling about the new revisions to their appearance. I’m sure it wouldn’t be nonexistent, but at least we’d have established discontinuities to work with, rather than an established continuity that the present design doesn’t seem to be compatible with.

For myself, I’m willing to just go with “new show, new Klingons” for the moment, and shrug off the weirdness. No, it doesn’t make sense (and, heck, it could easily be argued that my acceptance of this doesn’t even fit with my above distinction between accepting real world production differences affecting tech presentation but grumbling about in-universe tech changes, since this is a real-world production change that drastically conflicts with established in-universe continuity). But for me, at least, it doesn’t make sense in a way that I’m willing to work with for now. For whatever sense that makes.

The Show Itself

(By the way, now we’re getting more into spoiler territory. Just so’s you know.)

For the moment, at least, I’m optimistic, though not without some reservations.

There was a lot of talk during the run-up to the show about how there were reasons why both the show and the ship are called “Discovery”, that the old goals of exploration, of “seeking out new life and new civilizations” was going to be a large part of the show, that the Discovery itself is an exploration vessel, that the hope and optimism of Trek were going to be part of the show. And I think we got at least some of that, particularly during the first of the two episodes. However, the second episode, and therefore the overall feel of the first two, was very battle-focused, and it’s also been made clear that war with the Klingons was going to be major ongoing plotline for this first season.

Now, I’m not entirely opposed to learning more about Starfleet’s history with the Klingons (let alone learning more about the DIS take on the Klingons). But at the same time…look, as much as I liked Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, that’s not what I want Star Trek to be. Yes, Trek has often had battles and militaristic plotlines, often used to very good effect, but they were always a part of the whole, and I’d be disappointed if DIS ended up shifting so far towards the conflict with the Klingons that it lost sight of what, for many of us, has made Trek such an enduring part of our lives.

As others have noted, I do think it might be worth considering these first two episodes not really to be the pilot episode(s) of DIS, but as a prequel of sorts; something of an “origin story” for Burnham and for the state of the Star Trek universe for DIS. There’s a lot that changes between the end of these two episodes and the beginning of next week’s episode; as it is, we have yet to be introduced to the Discovery itself, let alone its captain or the majority of its crew (we know Burnham and Saru will end up on the Discovery, and promo images make it appear that the red-headed helm/conn officer might as well). Several of the primary characters of the first two episodes are dead (one — Georgiou — I expected; one — T’Kuvma — I did not). Burnham has been sentenced to life imprisonment for her mutiny. Lots of shifts going on, enough that it can be argued that next week’s episode will be the true pilot.

The preface is complete, time to start chapter one.

I’m hoping it’s a good one.

First Full Star Trek: Discovery Trailer

First thoughts (copied from a Facebook post, with minor edits): I’m looking forward to seeing more!

First thoughts (copied from a Facebook post, with minor edits):

Definitely looks good visually. I do like the look of the ship in the few glimpses we get. Expecting some snarky comparisons to both the Abramsverse (lens flare!) and Star Wars (blue-tinged holograms).

Grinned at the triplicate chirp of the communicator. Interesting “grid” effect for the transporter (which also sounds right).

Looks like they’re adopting the clear “window” style front viewscreens from the Abramsverse. The bridge is dark…definitely closer to the submarine-style look of ST:ENT or the traditional battle bridges, but not as cramped. One of the bridge crew looks like a Trek version of Lobot from Star Wars (a character on Bespin with a tech gadget wrapped around the back of his head).

Uniforms look okay, definitely expect to see that cosplay popping up pretty quickly. Everyone has the delta shield insignia on their chest, but I’m seeing at least two different symbols within (the starburst and the spiral), so perhaps they’re going with using those to signify departments, rather than ships/posts (as originally used), since everyone seems to have the same blue jumpsuit uniform. The delta shields also appear to be either in gold or silver…rank?

Not sure what I think about the new look for the Klingons just yet…very spiky outfits (seems they took design cues from Dracula’s armor in the Gary Oldman/Winona Ryder film), and the face/head look also looks much more similar to the Abramsverse take.

In addition to Sarek (and it’s weird thinking of James Frain as Sarek; my primary association with him is from The Tudors), we may get a glimpse of a young Spock (but that doesn’t seem right; as this is only 10 years pre-TOS, Spock wouldn’t be that young)?

The corridors do look right (silly thing, sure, but they do!).

Looks like we may be getting a glimpse of a Klingon funeral, complete with “everyone scream at the sky to usher the deceased to Sto-vo-kor” death ritual.

Some interesting very brief glimpses at aliens (including, um, Daft Punk?).

And it ends with the classic fanfare.

I’m looking forward to seeing more!