TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ – Season One

How was Star Trek’s long awaited return to television?

ST Disc 01 - Title

‘Star Trek’ goes boldly once more in CBS series ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Warning!  Contains major spoilers for season one of Star Trek: Discovery

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh.

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

As war rages between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, disgraced officer Michael Burnham is assigned to the U.S.S. Discovery, enlisted by her Captain to aid him in ending the conflict by all means…

In review

Launched last September, Star Trek: Discovery saw Gene Roddenberry’s beloved science fiction franchise return to television screens for the first time since the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005.  Received with trepidation from some fans but generating a generally positive critical response, season one of Star Trek: Discovery is arguably the strongest debut of a Star Trek series since 1966.

Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman (both of whom have previous history with the franchise) Star Trek: Discovery takes place in the 2250’s – ten years prior to the adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock et al and the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series (and a century after previous prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise).  Given the advancement in real world technology, special effects in television and film and the tastes and preferences of audiences in 2017 there is naturally a certain degree of reimagining and modernisation in the look and feel of the series that, aided by a lavish budget afforded by it being produced for U.S. streaming service CBS All Access (and rolled out internationally via Netflix) provide Discovery with a feature film quality from the exemplary set, costume and make-up design to its stunning visual effects and beautiful cinematography this is a Star Trek series that truly blurs the line between television and film.

ST Disc 02 - Crew

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ boasts another solid ‘Star Trek’ cast.

Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation was a Star Trek for the 80’s and 90’s, Discovery is a Star Trek for the 2010’s where television dramas have become more complex and viewers more demanding.  Taking a long-form approach now common place for a TV series, the fifteen episode first season of Star Trek: Discovery forms one continuous story arc, commencing with the two-part premiere “The Vulcan Hello”/”Battle at the Binary Stars” which introduces Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), First Officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou, under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and whose crewmates include the Kelpien Science Officer Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones).  In a refreshing departure from previous Trek series this premiere serves as a prologue to Discovery, the majority of its recurring cast and the titular U.S.S. Discovery herself not making their debut until the show’s third episode, in which Burnham commits mutiny, that despite believing she is acting in the interests of Starfleet and the principles of the Federation, leads to war with classic Trek adversaries the Klingons (sporting a radical and controversial new look that takes some adjustment to but ultimately gives the race a more elaborately alien appearance).

ST Disc 03 - Klingons

A controversial new look for the Klingons.

Thus, the main narrative core of this first season becomes one about redemption as Burnham (who we learn was orphaned in a Klingon attack and subsequently raised by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek – played by Gotham’s James Frain) re-examines her values and strives to regain hope and her place in the universe.  This marks another departure from the other iterations of Star Trek in that the series is focused mainly on a character other than a Starfleet captain.

The premiere concludes with Burnham being stripped of her commission and sentenced to prison for her actions but in episode three (“Context is for Kings”) finds herself assigned as a ‘specialist’ to the U.S.S. Discovery, Starfleet’s most advanced vessel incorporating an experimental star-drive that allows the ship to tap into a universe-spanning, interdimensional ‘mycelial’ spore network and jump instantaneously to any given point in space.  The ship is captained by the mysterious Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), an uncompromising commander prepared to do all that is necessary to win the war, with Lt. Saru serving as his first officer and a crew including Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who becomes the spore-drive’s ‘navigator/operator’ and is also Star Trek’s first openly gay regular character, his partner Doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), an awkward but optimistic Starfleet cadet whose burgeoning friendship with Burnham helps to define both characters.

What’s immediately clear is that Discovery is a somewhat darker take on Gene Roddenberry’s baby, but in a manner that simply allows the writers, in true Roddenberry fashion, to examine the human condition and discuss the social and political issues of the day, coupling it with compelling character drama…those optimistic ideals of Star Trek are still there and peppered throughout the series as it becomes more and more ‘Trek-like’.  There may be aspects that some fans will nitpick about, but Discovery has to be approached with an open mind and it’s commendable that the writers have managed to strike a decent balance between catering to hardcore Trekkies and engaging new viewers who may never have seen Star Trek before.

Star Trek: Discovery boasts a superb cast with well-defined characters who grow and develop in leaps and bounds during the course of the season.  Sonequa Martin-Green is the reliable lead and Burnham’s journey is an interesting one, a human raised as a Vulcan who we see slowly regain her human heritage and deal with the mistakes she has made.  Doug Jones is a huge highlight as Saru, proving once again how adept he is at conveying raw emotion through heavy prosthetics, Jason Isaacs is gripping as the devious, sometimes brutal Lorca, Anthony Rapp infuses Lt. Stamets with a pleasing dose of Bones-esque irascibility and Mary Wiseman projects Tilly with the right mix of nervous energy and general likeability.  Joining the crew in “Choose Your Pain“ is Security Chief Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) which is also one of two episodes to feature another original Star Trek character: intergalactic conman Harry Mudd, played with verve by The Office’s Rainn Wilson who returns in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad“, a rather excellent time-loop romp in the vein of TNG classic “Cause and Effect”.  Much like Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, there’s an initial element of conflict between the various characters but as the series begins to take shape the relationships gradually start to settle and by the season finale there’s that definite sense of family we’ve had with other Star Trek crews beginning to blossom.

It’s fair to say that Discovery’s Klingon arc isn’t always consistently prominent (although recurring guest star Mary Chieffo plays an important role as L’Rell) but the backdrop of war gives the writers the opportunity to tackle various moral and ethical issues and dropping more character-driven episodes into the mix – -including Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer’s superb Saru-centric episode “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum“ – helps the cast to really start hitting their groove.

ST Disc 04 - Saru

The incomparable Doug Jones as Lieutenant Saru.

Following a mid-season break, Star Trek: Discovery’s six-episode ‘second chapter’ saw the U.S.S. Discovery transported to Star Trek’s Mirror Universe (first featured in fan-favourite TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror”), ruled by the evil Terran Empire.  It’s an arc that sees the series kick things up a notch and numerous threads come together, culminating in revelations concerning two of Discovery’s crew – not only do we learn that Lorca is in fact his Mirror Universe counterpart but also that Tyler is actually Voq, the albino-skinned Klingon from the series premiere, a sleeper agent surgically altered and conditioned to appear human.  These twists, whilst more anticipated than unexpected (the seeds quite clearly planted) lead to dramatic consequences – not in the least for Burnham who had begun a romantic relationship with Tyler.  Shazad Latif handles the ensuing struggle between Tyler’s two identities with aplomb and the shifting dynamic between Burnham and Tyler is beautifully played.

Similarly, Jason Isaacs is able to let loose with uninhibited villainy as Mirror Lorca – right through to his blazing demise.  The same can be said of Empress Georgiou, with a returning Michelle Yeoh in delightfully devilish form, whose uneasy alliance with Burnham becomes a key aspect of the final episodes of the season.

Both the Mirror Universe and Klingon War arcs are wrapped up pretty quickly in the final two episodes of season one, not quite the intense earth-shattering finale some viewers may have anticipated but leaves the viewer with hope as Burnham, her status as a Starfleet officer restored, gives an emotional and poignant address about the true virtues of Starfleet and the Federation as entities of peace, understanding and exploration.  Saving its biggest punch for last, the finale (titled “Will You Take My Hand?”) closes as Discovery, en route to Vulcan to pick up her new captain, encounters another Starfleet vessel…the U.S.S. Enterprise!  This certainly opens up a galaxy of possibilities for season two of Star Trek: Discovery, a series that has shown good potential in its first season and can surely only get better? As Picard once said, “the sky’s the limit…”.

The bottom line:  A promising start to the newest Star Trek series, season one of Star Trek: Discovery boasts a solid cast and decent writing, that, coupled with strong production values has much to offer fans and new viewers alike.

All episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season one (as well as post-show companion series After Trek) are currently available to stream via Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

All images belong: CBS, used for illustrative purposes only.

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Film Review: ‘Black Panther’

Director Ryan Coogler transports audiences to the world of Wakanda in the most culturally important Marvel Studios release… 

Spoiler-free review

 

Black Panther

A king rises: Chadwick Boseman dons the identity of Wakanda’s protector in Marvel Studios release ‘Black Panther’.

Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis

Directed by:  Ryan Coogler / Written by:  Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Following the death of his father, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to be crowned king and continue to serve as the secretive nation’s legendary protector – the Black Panther, but soon faces a threat to his beloved society that could have dire consequences for the rest of the world…

In review

A triumph for representation and cultural celebration, Black Panther is the highly anticipated Marvel Studios release focusing on the titular Marvel Comics character who debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 published back in 1966.

After a memorable introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman reprises the role of T’Challa – heir to the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a place of true marvel and beauty that thrives on its proud traditions, spirituality and incredible technological advancements derived from their source of ‘vibranium’ – the strongest metal ever known to mankind, its potential for exploitation by the wrong people forcing the society to remain largely hidden and isolated from the rest of the world.  Boseman tackles his role with a quiet strength, deftly conveying key qualities of nobility and leadership with dignity and grace, embodying the spirit of the character created Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over fifty years ago.  What’s appealing about T’Challa and the Black Panther comics in general is the fact that he’s not just a “superhero” but also a leader and a diplomat and thankfully this film grabs firmly on to those elements, melding them with a story that mixes Bond-esque espionage and intrigue with a deeper focus on all too relevant social issues (and doesn’t shy away from them without being overly preachy) together with the action and spectacle that’s part and parcel of any comic book blockbuster.

Creed director Ryan Coogler (who also co-writes) presents a visually captivating film, whether it be the gleaming, computer generated towers of the Wakandan city or the magnificent, sumptuous African vistas that, with the command of an appreciably sized budget delivers it all on an epic scale.  Black Panther does at times find itself falling victim to the more rigid and predictable elements of the well-worn formula of a Marvel Studios production and its slightly overblown CGI soaked finale, though exciting enough, feels a little at odds with the deeper, more cerebral aspects of the film.  Luckily Black Panther takes itself more seriously than other recent Marvel efforts, that’s not to say it doesn’t take time to have fun with itself but at least the humour here is largely more restrained and natural than, bar one or two moments, forced and unnecessary.  It’s arguable that Black Panther would’ve benefitted from some tighter and more consistent pacing but it remains entertaining on the whole.

For certain, the main strengths of Black Panther lay in its superb casting (coupled with well-drawn characters) and Ryan Coogler has assembled an impressive set of players.  Boseman is of course the commendable lead but is equally matched by those surrounding him, Letitia Wright is wonderfully energetic as T’Challa’s genius, playful sister Shuri, Danai Gurira is powerful and assured as General Okoye, leader of the Wakandan Royal Guard and Star Wars actress Lupita Nyong’o brings warmth and humanity to the role of Nakia.  There are smaller roles for Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett that may have warranted more attention but their parts are still relatively significant.  Also returning from Civil War is Martin Freeman, continuing in the role of CIA Agent Everett Ross and being the only real tie to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Standing out overall though is Coogler’s leading man from Creed, Michael B. Jordan as central antagonist – in cahoots with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (the always excellent Andy Serkis, last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron) – Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, an exiled terror-maker who proves to be one of the stronger, more dimensional Marvel villains thanks to some decent writing and a weighty, venomous performance from Jordan he’s a character we don’t want to side with but there are credible reasons we could sympathise with him.

So, despite some formulaic elements, through its casting, direction and overall design, Black Panther still has its own flavour and some unique qualities, opening up another corner of the MCU and setting the stage for its future as we move towards the release of Avengers: Infinity War.

The bottom line:  Aside from the occasional stumble, Black Panther is a beautifully designed, well-cast and enjoyable blockbuster with some depth and is another worthy addition to Marvel’s big screen pantheon.

Black Panther is in cinemas now.

TV Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ – series premiere

A Blade Runner for the smaller screen? 

Spoiler-free review

 

Altered Carbo 1-01

Joel Kinnaman stars in the dazzling and intriguing Netflix Original ‘Altered Carbon’.

Starring:  Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Kristin Lehman, Will Yun Lee, Chris Conner

Series created by:  Laeta Kalogridis (based on the novel by Richard Morgan)

Written by:  Laeta Kalogridis / Episode directed by:  Miguel Sapochnik

What’s it about?

250 years after his death, Takeshi Kovacs awakens in a new body to find he’s been enlisted to solve the murder of a wealthy industrialist…

Episode review

A Netflix Original, Altered Carbon is an intriguing and stylish piece of dystopic cyberpunk science fiction that takes themes of identity and society and infuses them into a futuristic murder mystery that, in its first episode – titled “Out of the Past” – gently absorbs the viewer into this rich and visually astonishing world.  It’d be fair to cite that for seasoned fans of classic SF, Altered Carbon doesn’t necessarily offer anything completely new and original – the lavish, expansive cityscapes, existential ponderings and societal examinations are well worn tropes that have been represented in various cinematic classics including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but it’s more a case of homage and acknowledged appreciation than outright uninventive riff.

Following a violent and bloody opening, we’re transported 250 years into the future as the ‘terrorist’ (as he’s perceived at this point at least) Takeshi Kovacs is ‘re-sleeved’ into a new body – introducing series lead Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, Suicide Squad) – thanks to bureaucrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) who wishes to enlist Kovacs to investigate his ‘murder’ 48 hours prior.  You see, in the world of Altered Carbon the human personality is digitally stored in a ‘cortical stack’ that can be transferred to a new body and Bancroft has survived thanks to a regular backup of his stack to an orbiting satellite…albeit any memory of his ‘death’ lost due to the murder being conveniently timed before the next backup.  This appears to form the central narrative of the series and “Out of the Past” plays out as more of a tease for what is to come, instead serving to establish the main players of Altered Carbon together with its visual aesthetics and the ideas it wishes to emulate, the notion of the human body as something that’s disposable, like an old mobile phone, proving the most evocative (and the re-sleeving of a seven year old girl into the body of a middle-aged woman the most alarming).

Initially, a little attention is required as Altered Carbon makes efforts to explain its future jargon with terminology akin to Ron Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica but it’s soon easy to grasp if one focuses on the more or less self-explanatory basics of ‘stacks’ and ‘sleeves’ and the concept of the ‘Protectorate’ as a state or ruling entity.

In terms of the cast, Joel Kinnaman is clearly the focal point and does a decent job of presenting a weary and brooding (yet darkly comic) persona uninterested in redemption and second chances, instead favouring a blast of excess before going back on ice for an indefinite period.  The supporting characters are a little sketchy to begin with, with a particular air of mystery and ambiguity surrounding James Purefoy’s Bancroft (together with his wife and son) who draws the suspicions of Police Lieutenant Ortega (Martha Higareda), whose presence facilitates some of the establishing exposition.  With this being merely the opening chapter, it’s surely a given that the series will delve more deeply into the characters as the story progresses across this ten episode first season.

The bottom line:  Slickly presented and with some substance to go with its style, Altered Carbon opens with an interesting and visually absorbing premiere.

All ten episodes of Altered Carbon season 1 are available to stream now on Netflix.