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Star Trek: Discovery - Season One
After the slow-burning fizzle of Enterprise during the early 2000s (no doubt a direct result of franchise over-saturation the previous decade), Star Trek smartly stayed off the small screen for a full twelve years. The overwhelming success of all three reboot films in 2009, 2013, and 2016 proved the franchise still had staying power, so it was only a matter of time before we'd see Trek on TV again. The first of (at least) two new series arrived last year with Discovery, but there was a catch: it was available exclusively on CBS' "All Access" video-on-demand service, whereas previous Trek shows could be seen by anyone flipping through basic cable and major networks. While Discovery's series premiere was seen by almost 10M viewers on CBS All Access, no doubt the number would've been substantially higher on...well, CBS.
Like many others, I waited for the reviews to roll in and, not surprisingly, they were fairly mixed. Trek shows rarely hit the ground running -- even now-classic iterations like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine started out painfully slow -- but some fans just took issue with Discovery's fixation on serialized storytelling: we were all used to "alien of the week" episodes and the occasional two-parter, but it was extremely rare for any Trek series to attempt a single, unbroken arc during an entire season. Discovery not only does that but employs an intensely linear format: one whose path relies on huge twists along the way that each trigger a dramatic course change. This might work in the short-term but it's a hard speed to maintain...and while I'll admit that one or two of these turning points turned out to be the high-water mark this season, as a whole there's room for improvement. Take that as you will: either the first season of Discovery struggles at times, or the creative team just needs to find better footing. Either way, I'm happy that Season 2's around the corner, because let's face it: the first year of TNG could have easily been its last, and look how that turned out.
For now, this marks the first steps of a series that will hopefully re-ignite Trek on the small screen once again. It certainly feels right at home in some respects: Discovery has an extremely diverse cast, clever concepts, familiar sights and sound effects, Klingons, Vulcans, techno-babble, transporters, and some of the most hyperbolic episode titles in franchise history. Speaking of which, CBS/Paramount's new DVD package (Blu-ray sold separately) serves up all 15 first-season episodes on four discs. A brief run-through follows after the jump, followed by a look at the A/V presentation and bonus features. Mild to moderate spoilers lie ahead...so if you want to skip those, hop right down to "Quality Control Department".
List of Episodes
Series premiere "The Vulcan Hello" puts us aboard the Starfleet ship Shenzhou, where captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), and their crew have discovered a mysterious object near the Klingon border. Burnham -- the main focus of Discovery thus far, a refreshing change -- personally investigates the object and is attacked by a Klingon soldier on its surface, who is killed in the struggle. The first officer, herself wounded in the attack, later argues with the captain about the possibility of war with the Klingons and is placed in the Brig for disobeying direct orders. As the first human to attend the Vulcan Science Academy, Burnham is quite obviously a gifted Starfleet officer...but her passion and temperament don't always sit well with the captain and other crew members, including officer Saru (Doug Jones, in fine form as usual), so she's stuck behind bars while all Hell breaks loose.
As for the huge twists and dramatic course changes alluded to earlier, I'm not kidding: this first season of Discovery quite literally feels like three (possibly four) vastly different story arcs jammed together into one long and winding path. Our first dramatic shift arrives no later than the end of second episode "Battle at the Binary Stars": a prominent crew member dies, Burnham is found guilty of mutiny, and she's sentenced to life in prison. Her first encounter with the starship Discovery -- and the true beginning of this first season, not to mention its best episode -- arrives with "Context is for Kings", where Burnham is plucked from a vessel en route to prison and given a second chance by captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). The ship itself is a sleek science vessel with a few familiar faces (officer Saru is now second-in-command) and a hidden secret: it's got the ability to jump through space via a "spore drive" that requires a living power source. Such technology will surely come in handy now that Starfleet is at war with the newly-reformed Klingon empire.
That's just the first of several drastic changes during this fifteen-episode season, but I can't say that Discovery offers a smooth ride from start to finish. It's overly dependent on all those plot twists to hold viewer interest and, on more than one occasion, resolves major events much too quickly. The Klingons are undoubtedly the main villains this season, but they're vastly over-used: more than two dozen factions represent the growing Empire, and their near-endless speeches about leadership and honor clog up valuable screen time. I wasn't crazy about the way Discovery handles some of the crew's supporting characters, either -- several faces on the bridge are rarely (if ever) mentioned by name, while others like socially awkward cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) never seem to go away. Still, there's a lot more good than bad here; even with a few speed bumps, Discovery has already taken steps to carve out its own footprint within the franchise. With the second season set to premiere in just over a month, it'll be interesting to see where we go next.
Presented in its original 2.0:1 aspect ratio, Star Trek Discovery looks decent enough on DVD with capable 480p transfers; it's also available on Blu-ray, but this is the version we got for review. Obviously, those who streamed this series in HD on CBS All Access may notice a slight decrease in overall quality or consider it a draw; despite DVD's obvious limitations, physical media almost always beats streaming for consistency, even when sacrificing resolution. Either way, what's here is a solid effort for 480p: well-lit interiors look great with noticeable textures and a pleasing smoothness that's not saturated with noise reduction, while darker moments typically hold up well with good shadow detail and contrast levels. Where Discovery's visuals get into trouble is during busier, fast-moving scenes where format limitations can be spotted much more easily: macroblocking, softness, and banding call all be spotted on occasion, with some shots looking a great deal "chunkier" than they ought to. While these issues and others are obviously due to the format and not the disc authoring, those who have watched nothing but 4K and 1080p material recently will find this to be an obvious step backwards. Still, for the most part it's watchable and shouldn't hinder your enjoyment of the series as a whole.
Discovery's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, also available in several different dubs, represents an effort that's likely not all that far off from a lossless counterpart: it's a series with great sound design that long-time Trek fans should have no problem feeling comfortable with. Dialogue is typically placed right up front and sounds terrific, especially the low and guttural Klingon speeches. Panning and rear channel effects are ample during action scenes and busy interiors, while low frequency is used to great effect as well. Not much else to say here: Discovery sounds right in line with most modern sci-fi and, unless you're limited to a two-channel setup, should provide a dynamic and enveloping audio experience. Subtitles are offered in English, French, and Spanish; oddly enough, incidental text ("six months later", etc.) and foreign dialogue is player-generated and can thus be turned off, but I wouldn't recommend that unless you're fluent in Klingon.
Discovery marked Star Trek's return to the small screen after a twelve-year absence...or at least it would have, had it not been limited to CBS All Access video-on-demand subscribers. I'm sure many Trek disciples were intrigued enough to sign up solely for that reason...but I wasn't, so home video served as my introduction to this series. Overall, I found the first season to be fairly satisfying with a few obvious problems, but Star Trek series rarely get things right from the beginning. Its almost completely serialized format doesn't always work to the show's advantage, but a handful of standout characters and concepts provide more than enough fuel to make Discovery worth seeking out. CBS/Paramount's DVD presentation obviously falls short of Blu-ray standards (available separately), although the A/V presentation and extras are good enough to get the job done. Obviously most fans will opt for the Blu-ray, but this one's still Recommended as-is.