The costumes are wrong. The bridge is too dark. And the tech, for a series set ten years before the original Star Trek, is far too advanced; everything’s touch screens and glass monitors and shinier than the inside of an Apple store. The Klingons are all wearing full-face prosthetics (they look a bit like fancy orcs), although the language is familiar enough. There is a lot to nitpick in Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek tv series since Enterprise ended in 2005. If you imagined the Mass Effect video game series cross-patched with the nu-Trek movies, you wouldn’t be far off.
And yet, it works. There are problems, and some clumsy writing (especially in the first half), and god only knows if they can sustain this momentum and sharpness, given the behind-the-scenes problems and the inherent difficulty of making anything that stays exciting and funny over 20+ hours. But after assuming for months that this would be a disaster, I’m relieved to report that it is not. Far from it. The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are thrilling, moving, and frequently unexpected. Just as importantly, for everything questionable about the design, it still feels like Trek.
That matters. After suffering through two dreadful (and one surprisingly fun) nu-Trek movies which mistook loud noises and shininess for depth, it’s a delight to watch a show that manages to be both exciting and smart. Questions are raised here that don’t have easy answers: questions about loyalty, about how to respond to the unknown, about what exploration can and can’t be. About war. And while the dialogue is occasionally heavy-handed, these questions come from character and situation rather than didactic moralizing.
So: First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, last seen being underserved on The Walking Dead) is a logical woman. As a human raised by Vulcans, she was brought up to believe that clear thinking and precise decision making is the correct approach to any crisis. Having served seven years aboard the Shenzhou under Captain Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), she’s had ample opportunity to prove her worth, and as “The Vulcan Hello” begins, her captain is talking about how it might be time to find Michael her own command. Then the Shenzhou, while examining a damaged satellite on the edge of Federation space, discovers a strange artifact in the middle of an asteroid field. Michael investigates. She meets a Klingon. Things go downhill from there.
Setting the new series as a prequel to the original is questionable for any number of reasons (although most of those questions just boil down to “Dear god, why?”), but Discovery wastes no time in explaining that decision. The new show opens with a Klingon leader (T’Kuvma, played by Chris Obi) speechifying about his hatred of the Federation and his desire to bring the Klingon race together to face the threat of encroachment and potential impurity. While it would’ve been possible to do a similar storyline in the post-Next Generation universe, where the Klingons had calmed down a bit but still got pissy on occasion, the context here establishes an immediate conflict between Starfleet’s efforts at exploration, and the Klingon’s desire to remain dominant and isolated. And while T’Kuvma is a villain, we spend just enough time inside his head (before his untimely demise) to get that he isn’t some sneering malevolent force. Everyone has their reasons.
Which brings us back to Michael. The biggest shock in “The Vulcan Hello” is when Michael does a Vulcan neck-pinch on her captain and briefly takes over the ship. It’s a bad plan that ends poorly; Michael, after failing to convince Georgiou to fire immediately on the Klingons (the “Vulcan ‘hello’” of the title), tries to take matters into her own hands. The Captain comes back to her senses before Michael is able to shoot, sending our protagonist into the brig where she spends a good chunk of time thinking over her mistakes as chaos reigns above (and below, and all around—look, space is tricky).
This is not something you expect to see from the main character of a Star Trek series. It doesn’t quite qualify as an anti-hero move—as Michael later explains (and as is pretty clear in the moment), she does what she does out of a desperate desire to protect her captain and the rest of the crew, a decision motivated at least in part by the fact that her parents were killed in a Klingon attack. The fact that the Klingons do end up attacking, and that Captain Georgiou does end up getting killed, suggests that Michael had a point, but it also doesn’t exonerate her. By taking bold action, she risked everything, and she lost.
Trek isn’t always about that sort of thing; it deals in debate and God Like Beings and a utopian vision of a cash-free society where individuals are allowed to pursue their dreams for personal fulfillment rather than monetary gain. But clashes between individuals driven by cultural, intellectual, and emotional needs has been a core part of the franchise from the beginning, and while “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle At The Binary Stars” don’t have a lot of time for establishing much beyond Michael’s woes and T’Kuvma’s ambitions, it still plays out with enough nuance to make me optimistic that the world-building will expand outward as the series continues.
Of course, part of the reason we don’t spend a lot of time getting to know the Shenzhou is that it gets destroyed in the second episode. Also, as mentioned, the captain dies. For anyone excited to watch a new sci-fi show with two women in positions of power at the center, this is probably going to sting a bit; and not having seen what happens next, I certainly can’t blame anyone for the disappointment. Michelle Yeoh is a strong actress, and sacrificing her this early on is risky as hell—as is pretty much burning through an entire established setting over the course of, what, 90 minutes? I can’t imagine anyone getting too emotionally attached to the Shenzhou before the evacuation, but given how much place has always been a key part of the franchise, it’s an unexpected creative decision that breaks precedent with everything that came before it. Trek shows have always been defined by their central hub, be that location a ship or a space station; part of the appeal of the franchise has always been having a place to call home in the middle of all that nothing.
By the end of “Battle At The Binary Stars,” Michael no longer has a home. T’Kuvma is dead, but his cause remains, waiting for someone (the Klingon cradling him as he dies, probably) to pick it up. The immediate threat has been resolved, but because this is a serialized show, there are consequences. Those consequences include Michael being stripped of her rank for her attempted mutiny and sentenced to life in prison. The uniforms aren’t the whole thing different around here, and that can be off-putting. It also means that Discovery, shunted off to a streaming service that few people seem to want, has a lot to prove.
But while the visuals don’t match up with what I see when I imagine Star Trek, the core is there. Martin-Green, who gets stuck with holding a lot of this together, gives a performance that delivers on the potential she showed back when she was stuck being grim and fighting zombies; her optimism in the opening scenes, her efforts to balance Vulcan logic with human feeling, her utter despair by the end, all mark her out as a character to watch. And there’s a strong core of narrative in these episodes that has me dangerously close to optimism. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out how the series gets its protagonist out of lock up and aboard the titular Discovery, but for the first time in ages, I’m looking forward to watching more new Star Trek. It’s a good feeling.
- Fingers crossed that CBS will make screeners available for future episodes; regardless, these reviews will continue to post on Sunday evenings just as soon as I can get them written.
- Doug Jones’s Saru is the only other character to make much of an impression. As the science officer on the Shenzhou, he’s both smart and almost hilariously nervous—apparently his species is capable of sensing death, which sounds awful. Hopefully they’ll find a way to bring him back in future episodes, because the dynamic of having an intelligent, well-meaning coward on board a ship full of gung-ho hero types is a good one.
- “Battle is not a simulation. It’s blood and screams and funerals.” -Captain Georgiou
- “You’re gifted. You’re brave. You must do better. Because you can.” -Sarek (I can’t help but think bringing Sarek into this was a slightly obvious attempt to win over the faithful with a nod to the past. Michael’s Vulcan upbringing is important to her character, but, at least so far, there’s no reason she absolutely had to be Sarek’s ward. It makes the Vulcan world seem small, and there’s also the danger that at some point we’ll be subjected to some kind of cringe-worthy “young Spock” cameo.)
- “Despite the risks of our mission, I remain optimistic.” -Michael