ALMOST ZERO SPOILERS!
The fourth season of the wild ‘n’ wacky STAR TREK: DISCOVERY just premiered…at least in the U.S. and Canada. The rest of the planet will need to wait until an undefined date in “early 2022” (according to CBS) to view the new season because, um, reasons.
Up until this past week, viewers around the world (outside of the U.S. and Canada) got to watch Discovery on Netflix. This was because the infrastructure —both technical and red tape—to set up CBS All Access, which is now Paramount+, was not yet properly in place in other countries. In other words, without a service like Netflix—or in the case of PICARD and LOWER DECKS, Amazon Prime—there would be no way for international Star Trek fans to watch the various new series. So CBS offered non-U.S. and Canada streaming licenses to those two services.
But now, with Paramount+ now available in about 20 foreign countries (and another 25 set to add the service within the next year), the equation had changed entirely. CBS began unwinding its streaming agreements with Netflix earlier this year when TOS, Voyager, and Enterprise were all permanently removed from Netflix back in September. Obviously, CBS (now ViacomCBS) wants as many subscribers to Paramount+ as possible, and having their content simultaneously available on Netflix doesn’t exactly encourage folks in places like Europe, Asia, and Australia to sign up for an extra paid streaming service.
Indeed, reports are saying that VCBS had been working an agreement to buy out all of Netflix’s financial interest in Star Trek: Discovery, a show they had co-produced with CBS back in 2017. Unfortunately for fans in countries that do NOT contain the Rocky Mountains or share a coastline with the Great Lakes, that deal was finally inked this past week, and the announcement that Discovery would NOT be debuting internationally on Netflix on Thursday, November 18 came on November 16…just two days before hundreds of thousands of fans outside of North America were looking forward to the big premiere.
CBS tried to put some lipstick on this pig…
…but in the end, few besides the suits at VCBS were particularly happy about the last minute “news.” This included the Discovery cast and production crew, many of whom tweeted their own frustration with the timing of the announcement and the fact that they weren’t informed.
I’m not going to lambast VCBS for their decision(s) in this matter. I totally understand wanting to consolidate Trekkies to Paramount+ as it debuts worldwide, rather than having them giving their fan bucks to Netflix instead. And I assume that, in a perfect world, infrastructure would probably have already been in place to premiere Discovery internationally on the same date that season four premiered in North America. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. And I suspect that negotiations with Netflix were precarious enough that sharing the news early with the cast and production crew (and likely having it leak) would have done way more harm than good.
That said, there is an obvious risk for VCBS in this…
Since the premiere of Discovery in 2017, illegal piracy of all forms of media has increased dramatically, making a huge 33% jump during the height of the pandemic lockdown and never really looking back. And about half of the pirated content that is downloaded is TV shows (49.4%) versus movies (17.1%), music (16.0%), published books (11.2%), and software (6.2%). In fact, the #5 most pirated show in 2020 was Star Trek: Picard (The Mandalorian was #1, and no, Discovery didn’t make a the top 10). And while the United States represents about 1 in 8 visits to piracy sites, that leaves the vast majority as those countries whose citizens are the ones most likely to want to pirate Discovery because they don’t want to wait 2-3 months to see it after fans in the U.S. and Canada do.
However, the real risk for VCBS isn’t simply that potential subscribers to Paramount+ will download Discovery season 4 but rather that this behavior will become the norm. While I don’t pirate Discovery myself (I renewed my subscription to Paramount+ when Lower Decks season two premiered in August), I know people who have chosen the pirate’s life, and they tell me that it’s actually super-easy. They use VPN (virtual private network) software to mask their Internet trail, and then there are a whole bunch of websites where you just type “Star Trek Discovery” into the search bar, and voila: the latest episode downloads in minutes (or hours…I don’t have any idea how long it usually takes).
Once Europeans or Australians or South Americans or Africans discover how easy video piracy is, and how there are simple ways to avoid being caught for doing it, it might become much more of a challenge for VCBS to convince these folks to subscribe to Paramount+ rather than just continue going the “free” route. Sure, some (many?) of these people might have ended up choosing a pirate’s life anyway, but I suspect that this incident with the last minute pull of Discovery from Netflix along with the delay launching Paramount+ in a large number of countries will hasten that choice for a large number of potential Paramount+ subscribers.
So what did I think of the premiere episode, you ask? After all, I promised you all a review. Well, in deference to my international readers who have decided not to go over to the dark side just yet, I will keep this mostly spoiler-free and (at least for me) relatively short.
One spoiler I will share, though: the nacelles are still detached.
Yep, the writers seem to have gone all-in on that, so just get used to more “space magic” from our favorite/least favorite show ’cause it’s here to stay. I’ve decided to let go of my anger and let the Force flow through me, and this is the last you’ll hear me harping on the detachable nacelles…maybe.
Anyway, this episode was titled “Kobayashi Maru,” which kinda gave things away a little too much in my opinion (no, that doesn’t count as a spoiler). But I think instead that I would have titled the episode “Ticking Off the Boxes,” which is a line from the episode. I say that because the episode had certain things it needed to do, and it did them:
- Establish the “new normal” (check). It’s been five months since the end of season three, Burnham is still captain, Saru is still on Kaminar, and the Federation is getting back on its feet as Discovery is delivering dilithium like a UPS driver. (Again, not spoilers, since this is where we left off at the end of last season.) And while the teaser felt a bit like the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness, the writers did establish the “rules” of season four before starting to break them.
- Have a self-contained episode (check) while also introducing the new “galactic threat of the season” (check). One of the biggest complaints Discovery got from fans over the course of the previous three seasons is how serialized it was. And indeed, CBS answered the criticism by promising that the soon-to-debut STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS will get back to Trek‘s episodic roots (one main story per episode). While this first episode of Discovery did, sadly, introduce a new galactic threat (gotta have one, I guess), it was a very minor aspect of an otherwise self-contained story that allowed lots of other good things to develop and pieces to be moved into their opening places on this season’s chess board. Future episodes this season might be more episodic, but it was sure nice getting an all-in-one episode for a change.
- Explain stuff (check). Because Discovery has been so serialized, there’s a lot to keep track of, both old and new: the time jump, the state of the Federation in the future, why Starfleet doesn’t take Discovery apart piece by piece and build a fleet of spore-drive starships, how far along Michael’s relationship with Book is, where Michael fits in now that she’s saved…well…everything (she’s kinda the Harry Potter of the 32nd century), why no one else can see that smiling Trill that hangs out with Adira, what Tilly’s rank is now, who runs the ship when Michael and Tilly aren’t on board, what’s going on with Saru and why the Kelpien who destroyed all the dilithium in the galaxy is being allowed to still exist, and what chips still remain on Michael’s shoulder. The episode provided all of that exposition in small bites so as not to overwhelm both clueless new viewers and old ones who just needed a refresher.
- Keep a little comedy amid all the gravitas (check). This show started off so dark and really didn’t get much lighter, despite some comedic moments…most of which were awkward one-liners from Tilly. Tilly still has some good lines, but she’s grown up a little (a lot?), gotten promoted, and is no longer “believable” by the audience as someone who was only a cadet a couple of years ago…even though she was and no one except Chris Pine’s Kirk rises that fast through the ranks! But since Tilly needs to be taken a little more seriously now by the audience, the “new Tilly” is now Adira. Let’s give them a hand.
- Introduce an interesting new recurring character (check). In season 3, Admiral Charles Vance proved to be a very popular new character. So if one is good, two must be better, right? While the jury is still out on the new face at Federation HQ (no spoilers), I’m intrigued enough by the character that I’d like to see more. So mission accomplished…again.
- Give the “minor” characters important stuff to do (check). For the first two seasons, the majority of the bridge crew barely got lines let alone opportunities to actually do anything. That began to change a bit in season three, and now in season four, they’re getting a lot more to do—like figure out sciency-wiency stuff, pilot the ship in challenging ways, beam over into danger, find a way to keep the shields up, and diffuse a tense situation so no one panics. In other words, keep Discovery from being “The Michael Burnham Show” week after week. That said…
- Have Michael Burnham save the day (check). Ah, it wouldn’t be an episode of Discovery if Michael didn’t risk her life and come out the hero for the umpteenth time. And this one didn’t disappoint. Michael got to play the hero and blow the half the season’s VFX budget in a big, exciting space sequence (again, that is way too vague to count as a spoiler).
So what did I think? Well, despite the episode being a little upside down in places, I suppose it could also have been titled, “First, Do No Harm.” That has nothing to do with the story but everything to do with the people who wrote the story. It’s a new season, so don’t screw anything up.
This episode told a good story in a good way, ticked the boxes I just listed, and even managed to grow Michael Burnham’s character just a little bit. We all know that Michael is arrogant and cocky, and this episode embraced that…almost to the point where I wanted to throw something at the screen. But this time, that cockiness became a baseline to start giving Michael what I hope will be a character arc. Where it will lead this season is anyone’s guess, and the writers could easily screw it up or else knock it out of the park. But either way, it looks like the writers plan to shake up Michael Burnham a bit (maybe a lot) in a way that hopefully allows her to grow out of the stubborn, petulant, moody, self-satisfied, smirking know-it-all who’s been grating on my nerves for three seasons now. Fingers crossed they get it right.
Okay, maybe this wasn’t that short of a review, but overall, I’m back on board for another season without dreading things too much going in. Discovery is still a particular kind of show: high-octane with grand plot lines and larger-than-life characters acting like they’ve either had too many triple espressos or else like they’ve just come down from having too many triple espressos. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as you know what to expect going in. There’s still Star Trek in this show—perhaps more this season than in previous seasons. Sure, some of it makes me cringe just a little, like the slight update to the sound of the spore jump to incorporate the start-up noise of the flying cars from The Jetsons (with a little hint of Curly from The Three Stooges thrown in)…
And don’t get me started on the tribble! But for the most part, it’s okay. I can live with the cringe. And since it’s 1,000 years in the future, the inconsistencies with established canon don’t bother me as much either. Maybe I’m just mellowing in my old age.
Anyway, for my friends on other continents, my sincere sympathies for the delay you will experience in seeing the new season. I really wanted to tell you that you weren’t missing much and that the show pretty much sucks now. But I can’t. It’s off to a decent start. Sorry that you’ll have to wait to find out (since I’m not suggesting that anyone pirate Discovery).
Let’s fly. (As catch phrases go, it could be worse.)