Wednesday, 27 September 2017

And Introducing: S1 E1 The Vulcan Hello

As first episodes go, The Vulcan Hello is both brilliant and incredibly understated.

Star Trek Discovery has always promised to be different and it has fully delivered from the first scene, opening on the return of the 25th ‘lost’ Klingon house and by proxy setting up the whole season in about one minute.

This ain’t - and I coin the phrase - your dad’s Star Trek and the Kurtzman influence from the reboot movies is evidently stamped all over the look and feel of the show. It’s modern, it looks incredible from every angle and feels more akin to a movie than it does to a TV series. The mellow and warm feel you might have felt from seeing the bridge of the NCC-1710-D is starkly absent as is the sleek and refined feel to the universe. Yet while this hour is all about defining a story and setting out the scene it actually feels a bit underwhelming and almost way too relaxed to be a premiere episode of a highly anticipated franchise that’s been off TV for 12 years. 

Each frame oozes with detail and quality from the off whether you’re looking at the alien eggs on a drought-ridden world or the Easter Egg filled ready room of Captain Georgiou there’s always more you can go back to find. Those trinkets aren’t confined to one room of the Shenzhou either with sprinklings of references all the way through this first episode for fans to seek out. 

You can see where the extensive budget (read Netflix payment) has gone in every instant.  I hate to say it but you knew with the previous shows that they were sets but here there’s depth, realism and a deep investment from the cast which truly makes the viewer buy in. There may well have been extensive delays since it was first announced Star Trek was returning but the evidence for why it took so long is right there on the screen.

The Vulcan Hello is less than perfect and while the desert locations, sprawling Klingon sets and magical space walks set the show alight there are some stilted moments of dialogue. Most noticable is Yeoh’s already noted delivery of Georgiou’s lines. On the Crepusculan homeworld(?) at the beginning its most evident but as the episode progresses you tend to spot it less and less. Nice to see the nods to the Prime Directive in there and the plan to not interfere but still somehow save a world - didn't Kirk do that in Into Darkness and get a kicking?! Generally it does feel oddly plodding even for just 43 minutes and I do appreciate a good set up but even the big moments in The Vulcan Hello such as Burnham’s encounter with the Torchbearer or even her later attempted mutiny seem oddly lacking in tension. I can’t quite put my finger on it but something feels a bit flat.

Actually the relationship between Burnham and her commanding officer is at the core of the Starfleet half of the story. There's a great deal of respect in evidence between the two but their situation here really pushes that to the absolute limit and indeed, as we were prewarned - there's conflict on that there starship.

Burnham is clearly the centre of this part of the Star Trek universe with episode one also introducing us to James Frain’s Sarek albeit via hologram (controversial and my God did that get fans talking) as well as setting up a lot of her backstory. Frain remains stoic to the last although how they will link Spock, Sarek and Burnham all together is unknown. His take on Sarek truly reveals zero emotion and, as he is Burnham's choice for advice, could well be key to the development of the season. 

In fact you have to kind of take both this and the subsequent Battle at the Binary Stars as a prologue to the main series. This is all about set up, all about getting to know a few of the key characters before we get acquainted with the Discovery and its crew.

The bridge of the USS Shenzhou (pronounced Shen-Jo) is filled with diverse aliens; blue skinned, adapted and even one that looks like a cybernetic cast off from a Daft Punk video, probably making it the most galactic series to date. Most prominent is the Kelpien Lieutenant Commander Saru whom nobody quite knows what rank he is when referring to him. Doug Jones might add a slightly camp element to the character but Saru is pure Star Trek gold from his very first moments on the screen and is instantly watchable. His relationship with Burnham is ever so competitive and their early interactions before the first officer’s spacewalk are the only lighter moments of these first two hours.

Both Saru and the Klingons are makeup of cinematic quality. The vision of the Klingons themselves is impossibly vast and we learn quite a bit about them in these early hours. Just be aware that everything they say is in Klingon so you'll be checking subtitles throughout. Chris Obi owns every scene he steps into even if hes on a viewscreen and opening the episode with him places T’Kumva in an extremely high position of importance for the story. His delivery of the Klingon lines does seem very slow so you'll find you're waiting for him to catch up with your reading speed. This first hour mainly introduces the Klingons as a threat and on T’Kumva’s efforts to reunite the 24 Houses of the Empire against the Federation. 

As for their ships we get a great look at the carved and ornate Obelisk ship overseen by the Torchbearer although the standoff with Burnham we saw in that teaser clip doesn’t quite turn into the one on one conflict you might expect it to be. The Sarcophagus Ship is every bit as impressive as you would hope and the link between the Torchbearer, the funeral scene and the revelation of just what coats the hull of T'Kumva's flagship all tie neatly together.

The Vulcan Hello does make sense as a title when you get to a certain point of the story and it does in fact refer to a pivotal moment in the show as well as in the relationship between captain and first officer. The build up through the first 43 minutes of Discovery is steady. Having just one plot and avoiding having to introduce all the main cast in the first hour is actually a masterstroke. It feels more natural as cast will come and go but it allows us to get to know Burnham probably better than we’ve known any character by the end of the first episode. 

Discovery has managed to do something that previous Star Treks had considered but never managed - to build up into the story and the arrival of the title craft rather than jump starting it artificially and perhaps forcibly from the start. The Vulcan Hello sets up the background to the remaining episodes as well as letting us take in all the new tech, the feel and the experience of a Star Trek that is firmly planted in the realms of today's media.

What I did spot was that The Vulcan Hello avoided the super-being cliche which appeared in the pilots of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager nor did it try to over complicate itself with too much deep-and-meaningful. This was a precursor to war, plain and simple. No whistles or bells here just straight-forward storytelling that did feel it could have done with a little faster pacing at times just to ramp things up. 

Saying that though, this is going to be a continuation every week and while there's no To Be Continued legend as per previous shows (nor are there episode titles at the start) this is one story you will need to be following from day one. 

In conclusion, The Vulcan Hello is a solid if average start up for Discovery. While it says Star Trek on the tin you can feel in the air that it's different, that it's firmly targetting an audience that wants more realism in their TV and want to be entertained and surprised by what they see. It needed to capture the imagination of millions and while it is a slowburner of a 43 minute story, it ticks a lot more boxes than it crosses. 

Essential viewing? Yes. The best start possible? Probably not but stick around...

Now drop over to this post for our review of Battle at the Binary Stars!

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