It did not win me over in the pilot, two-part episode, sadly. It was definitely Star Trek, and there was a lot I liked, but overall I felt disappointed. I will try to capture both the positive and negative thoughts about the show shortly. But I do intend to keep watching, remembering the pain that was the first episode of nearly every Trek show to date. Can you imagine judging all of The Next Generation simply from "Encounter at Far Point"?
So, on to the review... Oh, be warned, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!
There Be Klingons!
I'm okay with the visual redesign of the Klingons. Every generation puts their own spin on the venerable enemy, and this new version isn't any better or worse than previous ones. (And let me go on record to say I disliked Enterprise's attempt to reconcile the visual differences between the different generations of Klingons. I was perfectly fine with Gene's explanation that the Klingons from The Motion Picture, which were modernized into the Klingons of TNG and DS9 shows, were what the Klingons from TOS were always supposed to look like.)
I do kind of like the thought of a rogue member of a disgraced house being the one to try and unite the Great Houses with his crew of outcasts. The guy with nothing to lose is, thematically, the best person to kick off such a conflagration. And if he feels that the Klingons have lost their edge and stopped being a warrior race, what better way to hone the species than a major war with a neighboring power? My big gripe is that they seemed as fervent as a group of radical, fundamentalist religious members. But I recognize that's more my problem with fundamentalists of any stripe than a story problem.
But I found myself drifting way during the ponderous scenes involving the Klingons. The decision to make all of those scenes with Klingon language dialog, paced slowly to make sure that the viewers could read the caption, just did not work for me. It made the scenes slow, and I kept tuning out, then having to re-focus my attention on reading the text if I wanted to know what was happening. Marc Okrand, the inventor of the language, claims that it should be spoken rapid-fire, as if giving commands on the bridge of a Klingon ship in the heat of battle. This was anything but rapid-fire. I wish they had found some way, as they did in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, to have them speaking in Klingon but us hearing it as English. It would have made those scenes more bearable.
And speaking of things slow and ponderous, it seemed to me that the costumes the Klingons were wearing, the highly filagreed armor, was perhaps too bulky. They all moved slowly, as if highly encumbered. For a warrior race that should value being able to move quickly and freely, that armor seemed all wrong. It didn't help that it was easily penetrated by their own weapons and the weapons that our heroes brought. If we are to see more Klingons, I hope the ditch the highly encumbering and apparently useless armor for something more practical.
Oh, and somehow only T'Kuvma has a cloaking device. Where did he get it from? No idea. I don't think he developed it on his own, and I doubt that he made personal inquiries to the Romulans to obtain the technology. As with many things in the show, it seemed a technology far too advanced for the era depicted.
The USS Shenzhou
Overall, I liked the ship. Sadly, we probably won't see it again.
I liked the "lateral vector transporters" and that it was considered antiquated. Though I do wonder how they went from the transporters they showed in Enterprise (the more familiar vertical format) to the lateral kind and then back by the time of TOS.
I liked that the bridge was on the bottom of the saucer section, though I did wonder if there was a particular reason for it other than it seemed cool at the time.
I did not like that the technology seemed considerably far ahead of what we would see in TOS, which is supposed to happen ten years after the events shown in Discovery (I think ten years is too short, if Kirk is reading about the Klingon-Federation war as a past subject in Star Fleet Academy a decade or more before he took command of the Enterprise). Emergency force fields protecting the bridge? Free-standing forcefields around the cells of the brig? In the TOS era, force fields were reserved for doorways and similar easily constrained areas. That Shenzhou can have arbitrarily shaped force fields, and ones that can open holes in the field, seems far too advanced for the era.
I also found many of the inhabitants of the bridge to be anomalous. We had a guy with some kind of wrap-around metal and plastic prosthetic, we had what appeared to be a robot with several small displays for a face, we had some person with wires extending from wrist to fingertips, and some kind of alien with asymmetric patterns on its skin. What was that wraparound prosthetic? Was he like Lobot from The Empire Strikes Back? Was the robot looking thing an alien with an encounter suit? Or was it actually a robot? If a robot, was it sentient, like Data? (That would violate canon, since Data was supposed to be the first artificial life form serving on a Federation ship.) What was the purpose of those wires on that persons fingers? We also seemed to have a lot of nameless crewmen and -women. I guess that's expected since the ship doesn't make it past the pilot, but still it felt strange.
Also, holographic communications? I don't recall the Federation ships having such technology in TOS days.
But as I said, overall, I like the look of the ship. I'm slightly disappointed that we probably won't be seeing it again.
Captain Philippa Georgiou
I liked her as a captain. A temperament equally balanced between boldness and caution, willing to listen to her officers, but willing to make hard calls. I also quite enjoyed what seemed to be a wry sense of humor. And she seemed very dedicated to her crew. Her death seemed to be such a waste. We never really got to know her well, which is a pity. Maybe some day we can see the earlier adventures of Georgiou and her ship.
One thing I did not like about her, though, was her decision to use the Klingon dead as a means to deliver a photon torpedo warhead onto the nameless Klingon ship. That did not seem to be the principled actions of a Star Fleet captain, especially one trying to avoid an all-out war.
Commander Michael Burnham
I wanted to like Commander, the focus of the series. But she failed to win me over. Her actions continually seemed at odds with her history and stated intentions.
We didn't get enough information about her background and what led her to be Sarek's ward. Something about a Human/Vulcan science outpost, attacked by Klingons (whom we haven't seen in a hundred years, but who we know attacked the outpost), with Michael winding up being an orphan. And then, somehow, illogically, Sarek takes Michael into his household to mentor and mold? Why? Wouldn't have been better for Michael to send her to family elsewhere in the Federation? Why impose Vulcan training on an ill-prepared human child? She obviously failed to live up to Sarek's expectations of her.
And why did he bring her aboard the Shenzhou and then leave her in the care of Captain Georgiou? As far as I can tell, Michael did not attend Star Fleet Academy, and did not seem to come aboard the ship as a member of Star Fleet. And yet she rose to the rank of Commander and the position of First Officer? In seven years? I'm a bit incredulous.
And while I did enjoy the depiction of her friendship and interactions with Captain Georgiou, it turns out that when a crisis arose, the Captain learns the hard way that she never really knew her protege. That was jarring.
Actually, Burnham herself was jarring. For someone apparently raised in the Vulcan way, she seemed impetuous, thoughtless, rash, and prone to emotional outbursts. She took every opportunity to be insubordinate. Starting with her promise to only conduct a "fly by" scan of the anomalous object (the beacon), which she violated by choosing to land on it, to her eventual mutiny, she failed to follow orders and respect the chain of command. This is highly illogical, and decidedly anti-Vulcan. She was smart and resourceful, but rash, and untrue to her stated background. She even admits it:
I suppose this is the foundation for the rest of the series, a redemption story of a person who took rash actions that resulted in a war, and how she atones for it. You need a flawed character for that story to work well. But why burden her with this whole "grew up on Vulcan" backstory if at every step along the way she goes against her teaching?
I hope she grows on me.
So, those are my thoughts on the show. There's promise, and perhaps it's just a "slow out of the gate" kind of thing, but overall I disliked it. The pacing was slow throughout most of the show, the technology seemed out of whack for the era in which it is placed, and the main character is not really very likable.
I will continue watching for at least a few more episodes. It's pretty clear that the pilot was mostly prologue for the real story, so I want to get a taste of that before making final decision. But at this point, it's not compelling.
There was thread over at Metafilter this week talking about book sales and author earnings, including a link to a study that purported to chart author earnings, based on sales at Amazon. I have to admit I had a bit of a giggle over it. Not because it was attempting to guess author incomes, which is fine, but because the methodology for estimating those earnings came almost entirely from trying to estimate sales of the authors’ books on Amazon, and extrapolating income from there.
Here’s the thing: For non-self-published authors, the correlation between annual book sales and annual “earnings” as a writer can be fairly low. As in, sometimes there is no correlation at all.
Confusing? Think how we feel!
But let me explain.
So, I’m a writer who works primarily with a “Big Five” publisher (Tor Books, which is part of Macmillan). For each of my books, I’m given an advance, which in my case is paid in four separate installments — when I sign the contract, when I turn in the manuscript and it’s accepted, when the book is published in hardcover and when the book is published in paperback. This is fairly typical for most writers working with a “traditional” publisher.
Once the advance is disbursed, my publisher owes me nothing until and unless my book “earns out” — which is to say, the amount I nominally earn for the sale of each unit (usually between 10% and 15% of each hardcover, and 25% of the net for eBook) exceeds cumulatively the amount I was offered for the advance. Once that happens, my publisher owes me for each book sold, and that amount is then usually disbursed semiannually…
… usually. There could be other complicating factors, such as if the royalties of the books are “basketed” (meaning the contract was for two or more books, and the royalties are not disbursed until the advance amount for every book in the “basket” is earned out), or if some percentage of the royalties are held back as a “reserve against returns” (meaning that some books listed as sold/distributed are actually returned, so the publisher holds back royalties for a payment period to compensate).
Bear in mind that most publishers try to offer as an advance a sum of money they think the book will earn, either over the first year in hardcover, or across the entire sales run of the work. Which means that if the publisher has guessed correctly, it will never have to shell out royalties. Sometimes they guess poorly, which means either they paid too much for an advance or not enough; in the latter case, that’s when the royalty checks come (please note that even if a publisher pays “too much” and the advance isn’t earned out, it doesn’t mean the book wasn’t profitable for the publisher — their bottom line is not necessarily heavily correlated to the author’s advance — nor does the author have to pay it back).
So what does this all mean? Well, it means that for a non-self-pubbed author, often none of their annual earnings from a book are directly related to how many of those books sell in a year (or any other specified time frame). In fact, depending on how the advance is paid out, three-quarters or more (even all!) of the author’s earnings from a book are disbursed before the book has sold a single unit.
Book is contracted: 40% of the advance (“signing installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0.
Book is turned in and accepted: 20% of the advance (“delivery and acceptance installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0
Book is published in hardcover: 20% of the advance (“hardcover installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0 (there may be pre-orders, but the sales don’t usually start being counted until this time).
Book is published in paperback: Final 20% of the advance goes to author. Books sold to date: Hopefully some! But even if the number is zero, the final installment gets paid out (if so few books are sold that the publisher foregoes the paperback release, there’s still usually the contractual obligation to pay out).
Note these advances can be paid out over more than one year — I once got a final installment for an advance roughly six years after I got the first installment (it was a complicated situation). Likewise, once the book starts selling, it can be years — if at all — before the author starts earning royalties, and even then, thanks to the reserve against returns, what the author gets in those semi-annual royalty checks is not 1:1 with sales for the period the check covers (note: this sometimes works to the benefit of the author). Also note: Those semi-annual checks? Often cover a period of time located in the previous fiscal or calendar year.
All of which is to say: For a “traditionally published” author, at almost no point do what an author’s yearly earnings for a book directly correspond to how the book is selling in that particular year.
(Is this bad? No, but it needs paying attention to. Authors tend to love advances because they’re not directly tied to sales — it’s money up front that doesn’t have to be immediately recouped and can help tide the author over during the writing and the wait for publication. But it also means, again, that it can be years — if at all — before money from royalties comes your way. Authors need to be aware of that.)
To move the discussion to me directly for a moment, if someone tried to guess my annual earnings based on my yearly unit sales on Amazon (or via Bookscan, or anywhere else for that matter), they would be likely be, well, wildly wrong. At any moment I have several books at various stages of advance disbursement — some contracted, some completed but not published, some published in hardcover and some published in paperback — a few all paid out in advances but not earned out, and several earned out and paying royalties.
Add to that audio sales (another set of advances and royalties) and foreign sales (yet another) and ancillary income like film/tv options (which are not tied to sales at all, but sales help get things optioned) and so on. Also note that not all my sales provide royalties at the same rate — a lot will depend on format and how many were previously sold (if they are in print or physical audio), unit price (if they are eBook or audio files), and on other various bits that are in contracts but not necessarily disclosed to the wide world. Oh, and don’t forget my short fiction and non-fiction!
Basically, my yearly earnings as an author are a delightful mess. I’m glad I have an accountant and an agent and a very smart life partner to help me stay on top of them. These earnings have almost nothing to do with unit sales in any calendar year, and more to the point, never have, even when I was a newbie book writer with a single book contract to my name. I signed my first book contract in 1999; since then I have yet to have a year when my earnings from being an author approach anything like a 1:1 parity with my book sales in that same year.
Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are, for example, trying to extrapolate what “traditionally published authors” make based on their annual sales, and are then comparing those “earnings” to the earnings of self-published authors. It’s ignoring that these are entirely different distribution systems which have implications for annual earnings. I don’t think one is particularly better than the other, but a direct comparison will give you poor results. Note also that’s true going the other way — applying “traditional publishing” income models to self-published authors will very likely tell you incorrect things about how they’re doing economically in any one year.
(And as a further note: Do likewise be aware of the caveats for anyone trying to extrapolate self-pub/indie annual author earnings from Amazon as well. It misses direct sales, which for authors who ply the convention circuits can be significant, and also may not fully incorporate how Amazon deals with payments in its subscription models, which are handled rather differently than actual sales, and which (unless it’s changed very recently) come from a pre-determined pot of payment rather than a straight percentage of sales. Hey, it’s complicated! Almost as complicated as the “traditional” model.)
Here’s one thing I suspect is true: It’s possible to make money (sometimes a lot of it) as a traditionally published author, or as an self-published/indie author — or as both, either in turn or simultaneously, since, as it happens, there’s no deep ideological chasm between the two, and generally speaking an author can do one or the other depending on their project needs, or their own (likewise, it’s possible to make almost no money either way, too. Alas). It’s not an either-or proposition.
But yes: Here is a grain of salt. Please apply it to anyone who tells you they know how much any author (traditional or self-pub/indie, but especially traditional) is earning in any year, based on Amazon sales, even if they’re limiting it to Amazon sales. They’re just guessing, and you have no idea how far off their guesses are. And neither, I strongly suspect, do they. Only the actual authors know, and most of the time, they’re not telling.