Star Trek's longtime NASA adviser grades the Discovery premiere

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Sep 25, 2017

After a 12-year absence from primetime TV, Star Trek is finally back on air. The long-awaited sci-fi series Star Trek: Discovery premiered its first two episodes last evening on CBS and CBS All-Access, in the midst of what (so far) have been largely positive reviews from both critics and long-time trekkers alike.

And for Andre Bormanis, former science adviser on series like The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, the arrival of the new show held a special significance — it was the first time in almost 25 years that the writer and astrophysics expert was able to watch an episode of Star Trek on TV without having fact-checked the ending.

“I tried to avoid really learning too much about it before going in to see it, because I like to be surprised,” Bormanis told SYFY WIRE last week, after attending a pre-release showing of Discovery’s pilot in Hollywood last Thursday. After promising him that we wouldn’t reveal his take on the new show until after CBS’s embargo was lifted, he told us: “It’s pretty different from what I expected.”

The former NASA researcher and author of Star Trek Science Logs also gave us his expert opinion on how the science and physics of Discovery compare to the long-time scientific legacy of its predecessors thus far.

“From a technical standpoint, I would give it an A-plus” says Bormanis — good news for a series that reportedly spent between $8 and $8.5 million per episode to take audiences into the outer-reaches of Federation space. The renowned Trek insider says he was particularly impressed with the show’s depiction of its central binary star system, which looks likely to play a big role in the upcoming series.

“It was beautifully rendered," he said. "They had an accretion disk, they used the right terminology, and I thought the dynamics of it were very believable. My guess is that the people who were in charge of the special effects worked closely with someone who knew the astronomy and physics.”

Bormanis (who is not with Star Trek anymore in an official capacity, but does write for The Orville) also gives Discovery’s take on Star Trek terminology and technology a passing grade. “They clearly have people who know what we lovingly call technobabble, people who know phase inducers and shield frequencies and all the rest of the terminology that was established specifically for the Star Trek Universe.” So even if you didn’t love the premise of Fuller and Kurtzman’s new take on the franchise, rest assured that so far, the show does pass the test of a renowned expert — someone who’s literal job it was for decades to track Trek’s scientific accuracy.

“I also love the design of the new phaser,” Bormanis told us. “It was sort of halfway between the phasers that Kirk and Spock used in The Original Series and the phasers they did in the first unsuccessful pilot, 'The Cage.'”

Star Trek Discovery

Looking at close-ups of the weapon, it’s clear that designers of the phaser’s new 3-barrel design wanted to make sure that fans could trace the weapon’s lineage as a predecessor to the TOS phaser’s classic nib design — an important technological detail for a prequel series set 10 years before the original Enterprise took action. “I thought it was a nice sort of nod to the fans and to the continuity of the original series.”

Discovery also features old-style com badges, some pretty nifty looking flip-open communicators and blue uniforms reminiscent of those featured on Enterprise, another prequel series that writers and designers of the show are clearly making sure doesn’t get lost in the canon.

From a scientific standpoint, Bormanis was also a big fan of the series’ new take on forcefield effects. Long gone are the invisible barriers and rudimentary zaps of the saga’s original forcefield design. Now, when someone gets sent to the brig, they apparently get to see their captivity clearly, through an interlocking wall of laser effects. “It has an almost crystalline quality that I thought was really unique and convincing,” Bormanis explained. We have to say, the effect was particularly cool when First Officer Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) breaks out of the enclosure, shattering a semi-invisible barrier between life and death.

Bormanis also called the new, retro-style yellow transporter effects “cool” (though as any quantum physicist will tell you, still a highly improbable technology), but had a few gripes about Discovery’s make-over of the transporter room, which definitely has a retro-vintage vibe. “You’re always looking for those continuity glitches,” Bormanis explained, “but who’s to say that they didn’t have other styles of transporters on other kinds of starships back then?”

Star Trek Discover

Like a lot of other long-time fans, the former Star Trek science advisor also had a lot to say about the Klingons’ new look, which aside from the improvements in special effects over the last two decades, is by far the show’s biggest change to the saga’s original concept.

“I completely respect their desire to re-imagine the Klingons — we’re so much better at makeup effects today than we were 50 years ago — but I have to say, I thought that the actors were kind of buried in the heavy prosthetics.”

According to interviews with show-runners prior to Discovery’s premiere, everyone, including the show’s creator Brian Fuller knew that shifting the Klingon’s look from the slightly-ridgy and endearingly hairy Worf to terrifying hairless, greasy aliens was going to be controversial. That said, from a scientific perspective, the re-design may be a little bit more accurate, apparently taking into account notes costume and make-up designers took from real-world biological anthropologists on how the skulls of “apex predators” of the galaxy would likely be shaped.

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