Saturday, May 20, 2017

Small Screen, Big Stage?

Adam Rogers, writing at Wired, suggests a good reason to look forward to the projected Star Trek: Discovery series due from CBS this fall.

Not the obligatory nod to the series' "wokeness" of having two women in the lead command positions -- that's neat but Voyager had a woman in command of the starship and it didn't make that series any better than meh most of the time. Kate Mulgrew is an excellent actress and the new show boasts Michelle Yeoh -- at least in the pilot -- but Kate couldn't save crap like these and if the same sort of stuff comes with the new show it might be best to leave it an undiscovered country.

Nor, judging from the trailer, is the key in the look of the show. It appears the showrunners like J. J. Abrams' lens flare schtick and we seem to be eyeing yet another redesign of the Klingons. Christopher Lloyd, Michael Dorn and Christopher Plummer weren't great Klingons because of makeup; they were great Klingons because they were good actors given good roles who ran with them (and in Plummer's case ate every bit of scenery set before him with relish and zest in the best Star Trek tradition). Michael Ansara, William Campbell and John Colicos were good with makeup and without, as were the stories that contained them. So again, we're back to waiting and seeing what we actually get for a show instead of marketing.

In my mind, the thing Rogers gets right is the greater viability of Star Trek as a television series rather than a movie franchise. While the first rebooted Trek movie was pretty good with a number of good moments, the sequels have offered literally no reason to watch them. The original Trek movies were hits because they featured our icons in new stories, up on the big screen with a big screen budget. Some of them were good as well as popular, with The Wrath of Khan standing out as a story worth the attention had there never been a Trek fandom or television series. The Next Generation movies highlighted the problem. Their finest hour, First Contact, was a solid story with fine acting, pacing and impact. Tweak it a little, swap the iconic Enterprise for another ship, switch the characters' names around and you could have just as good a movie as one with the NG cast.

Star Trek stories without the icons aren't "movie moments." And Rogers notes they're just big summer blockbusters with a couple of acts of tension-making before a big third-act FX splash. We don't know these versions of the characters the way we got to know them in three years of episodic television and so there's no real reason to care what they do unless the story provides one -- which the writers for those movies didn't do. Sure, we've had seven years of the new version, but only three "episodes" of their lives. Which puts us in the same place a 1966 audience was after "Where No Man Has Gone Before" aired on Sept. 22 of that year: With a lot of miles yet to be traveled.

Television, on the other hand, can offer extended time with characters so we can get to know them. Showrunners can build a world or, in this case, a new corner of a world we know. We can learn why we should care about Sonequa Martin-Green's Michael Burnham or Michelle Yeoh as Phillippa Georgiou.

So while I'll quibble with what I see as some of the sillier things Rogers says in his article, I'm in agreement that Discovery will put Star Trek back where it belongs and where the franchise as a whole has always fared best: On television.

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