Star Trek

Dis­cov­ery far from a sure thing

Waterloo Region Record - - FRONT PAGE - Joel Ru­bi­noff

Never mind the hype, of which there is plenty.

What chance for suc­cess does a “Star Trek” TV se­ries in 2017 re­al­is­ti­cally have?

It’s not like the ’60s, when TV was still a new medium and the idea of tele­vised sci-fi with a pro­gres­sive, hu­man­i­tar­ian bent seemed fresh and orig­i­nal.

There have been a to­tal of seven Trek se­ries — in­clud­ing one an­i­mated — and 13 fea­ture films in the more than half cen­tury since, which is equal to roughly three times the life of my cat.

If you sat down to watch them back to back, it would take 549 hours or 23 days.

So, when “Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery” de­buted on the Space chan­nel last Sunday, you could for­give an au­di­ence sat­u­rated by decades not only of Trek, but its le­gion of wa­tered down fac­sim­i­les, for won­der­ing what more there was to say.

Keep in mind that the last small screen ven­ture, “En­ter­prise,” was can­celled three years early due to lack of in­ter­est, and that 2016’s “Star Trek Be­yond” — the third of the J.J. Abrams re­boot films — un­der­per­formed at the box of­fice.

The clock, it seems, had run out on a se­ries known for its op­ti­mistic view of the fu­ture and the col­le­gial ef­fi­ciency of its multi-eth­nic, in­ter­plan­e­tary crews spread across the 22nd to 24th cen­turies.

And now, from the de­tri­tus of a thou­sand failed re­vival plans, and lots of back­room bick­er­ing, we have “Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery.”

It’s a tough place to be, rein­vent­ing the wheel on an iconic se­ries, try­ing to make your mark.

And I’m not one of those peo­ple who longs for the past.

I loved the orig­i­nal se­ries when it spawned a cult in re­runs dur­ing the Water­gate era, but rec­og­nize that by to­day’s stan­dards, it reg­is­ters mostly as camp.

And while I found “Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion” ground­break­ing dur­ing its 1987-’94 run, re­cent at­tempts to restoke my af­fec­tion re­vealed a show creaky with signs of age.

I never had time for the con­vo­luted, murky “Deep Space Nine,” with its revolving door of squab­bling aliens, or the in­fan­tile, hec­tor­ing “Voy­ager,” with Cap­tain Janeway lec­tur­ing her crew like the crabby head chef she plays on “Or­ange is the New Black.”

“En­ter­prise” was the one that caught my at­ten­tion, a spo­rad­i­cally bril­liant as­sault on Trek legacy steeped in post 9/11 para­noia that’s all but for­got­ten a dozen years af­ter its un­timely can­cel­la­tion.

And here we are in 2017, when orig­i­nal­ity is con­sid­ered a curse by in­dus­try but­ton push­ers, and the word “fran­chise” is the key to sur­vival in a frac­tured marketplace with a thou­sand com­pet­ing en­ter­tain­ment op­tions.

This se­ries’ pro­duc­ers know this, which is why they took two years to tweak the for­mula and aired but a sin­gle episode on one­size-fits-all broad­cast TV, be­fore flip­ping it to the nerd-friendly (and cost-sav­ing) Space chan­nel.

Star Trek’s au­di­ence to­day is niche: Hil­lary Clin­ton sup­port­ers, left-wing pro­gres­sives, old farts who re­mem­ber the orig­i­nal and pine for a cameo by bloated, puffy faced William Shat­ner. Do young peo­ple like it? It’s not like I’m polling peo­ple in the street. But I have yet to hear any­one un­der 50 ex­press in­ter­est or aware­ness that this se­ries even ex­ists.

So, yes, skep­ti­cism is war­ranted.

And the dou­ble­header pre­mière that at­tempted to place the Trek uni­verse in a mod­ern con­text, while riv­et­ing in spots, didn’t com­pletely al­lay my fears.

Was it a strong open­ing? 74 per cent on the ag­gre­gate site Me­ta­critic. 10 mil­lion view­ers.

Not spec­tac­u­lar, but it held its own. Did it break new ground? Sure, in very spe­cific ways: First non-white fe­male lead.

First Trek se­ries not fo­cused on a cap­tain.

First Trek to por­tray two women com­mand­ing a star­ship.

Was it the same quan­tum leap for­ward as “Next Gen­er­a­tion” was from the ’66 orig­i­nal? Not even close. It’s not a fa­tal flaw, but it’s un­clear how many peo­ple will tune into a se­ries that re­lies heav­ily on the same “we come in peace” for­mula that ran out of juice around the time Shat­ner was given the green light to di­rect “Star Trek V: The Fi­nal Fron­tier,” the only out­right bomb in Trek his­tory.

For­tu­nately, like all good Trek se­ries, it has a se­cret weapon — Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the mer­cu­rial, com­mit­ted first of­fi­cer and lights up the screen ev­ery time she steps in front of the cam­era.

“We target its neck, cut off its head!” she shouts dur­ing a face­off with ad­ver­sar­ial Klin­gons that sees her in open con­flict with her cap­tain.

Ge­net­i­cally hu­man, but Vul­can bred, she’s the per­fect blend of gut­tural emo­tion and ruth­less logic, a char­ac­ter as gal­va­niz­ing in her way as Mr. Spock was on the orig­i­nal se­ries.

And credit the show’s cre­ators — vets like Ni­cholas Meyer, who helmed the best of the orig­i­nal films, 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” and Alex Kurtz­man, who wrote the best of the re­boot films, 2009’s “Star Trek” — with in­ter­sect­ing its fic­tional sto­ry­line, like all great sci-fi, with events in the real world.

“KLINGON SUPREMACY!” shouts one ag­gres­sive alien, de­ter­mined to start a holy war against lib­eral-minded hu­mans that is clearly an al­le­gory for the U.S. un­der Don­ald Trump.

But this is key: even with their bul­bous, lizard-like fore­heads, they’re not en­tirely un­sym­pa­thetic.

And it’s this at­tempt to find mid­dle ground, to ex­plore the nu­ances, that has al­ways de­fined the show at its best.

“Star Trek in its heart and soul is about an un­der­stand­ing of what we per­ceive as The Other,” cre­ator Kurtz­man told me­dia.

“If we’re go­ing to tell a story about war, we want to tell a story about both sides in a com­plex way.”

Not that it will make a dif­fer­ence.

In this case, the show’s suc­cess or fail­ure will likely de­pend less on qual­ity than op­tics.

Can CBS mar­ket­ing ex­ecs con­vince the fickle mil­len­ni­als cov­eted by ad­ver­tis­ers that this aged warhorse — with its em­pha­sis on phasers, trans­porter beams and lofty ideals about hu­man­ity — is a show for their time, their gen­er­a­tion?

Or like the ac­tion-packed big screen re­boots, will it pro­vide a mo­men­tary thrill, a pass­ing fancy, be­fore send­ing them scam­per­ing back to their smart­phones?

“What I want more than any­thing else is for the per­son who’s a diehard Trek fan to be stream­ing the show,” pro­ducer Aaron Har­berts told CBR.com.

“And the kid walks through in front of the TV, or the wife, or the boyfriend, or the girl­friend, and says ‘What are you watch­ing?’ and sud­denly gets en­grossed in the scenes enough to sit down.”

As the Beach Boys wailed in their plain­tive, bit­ter­sweet ode to adult­hood, wouldn’t it be nice.

JAN THIJS, BELL ME­DIA

“Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery,” star­ring Doug Jones, left, Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh was riv­et­ing in spots with some Star Trek firsts.

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