Star Trek: Discovery is boldly going where no Star Trek show has gone before: airing for the first time on streaming services.
CBS and Netflix released the first two episodes of Discovery together, and will be releasing one episode a week going forward. This mini-movie opener is a promising return for the franchise.
It’s been 12 years since we had a Star Trek television show on our screens, after UPN cancelled Enterprise in 2005 – although since 2009 we’ve had three of J.J. Abrams’ films. Discovery is setting itself up to be a blend of classic Trek elements drawn from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, as well as Abrams’ contribution to the canon.
Already the show is set to deal with philosophical questions around diplomacy, colonisation, isolationism and racism; and it seems to be establishing an overarching plot that will be the driving force throughout the first season. But there’s a little bit of Abrams here too, with expensive special effects, explosions, an excess of chrome detailing, and (you guessed it) lens flares.
The first two episodes act as an extended prologue to the show. In fact, the ship Discovery – from the title – doesn’t even make an appearance. Instead, we meet our protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) on board the Shenzhou.
Burnham isn’t a captain of her own ship, unlike Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer before her. She’s the First Officer serving under Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). They have worked together for seven years, ever since Burnham joined Starfleet after leaving Vulcan, where she was the first human child to be educated inside the highly logical and structured Vulcan Science Academy. Burnham and Georgiou have a close, natural friendship that the viewer believes, and becomes invested in, very quickly.
They are joined on the bridge by Lt. Saru (Doug Jones), a Kelpien alien whose risk-averse and cautious sensibility causes him to butt heads with Burnham, who is more likely to tend towards recklessness despite her Vulcan upbringing. You can see the Spock/Bones vibes already, right?
In the first episode, the Shenzhou discovers aKlingon trap, and Burnham makes a decision that could lead to outright war.
Discovery is set 10 years before The Original Series. That is, 10 years before Kirk liked to solve his problems in a very ‘hands on’ way, whether that meant punching rogue aliens or feeling up alluring alien women.
The timeframe is important, because the Federation is still making its way forward during a time of greater conflict in the universe, which presumably means we can expect to see more explosions. It’s also relevant because in the year 2256 (jeez, that’s getting close guys) in the franchise’s timeline, less was known about the war-like Klingon race, and they are shaping up to be the season’s major antagonists.
The Klingons have undergone a bit of a redesign since the Next Gen and DS9 days of Worf. The Klingons from those days have dated badly, being – in broad strokes – an otherised, darker-skinned, violent race of “savages”.
The Klingons from the new series… don’t actually differ much, unfortunately. Perhaps anticipating that this is now less likely to fly with audiences, the showrunners are trying for a different angle. That is, the anti-diversity rhetoric from the Klingons is supposed to position them as isolationist Trump supporters. Give ‘em a red cap and their rallying cry of “Remain Klingon” basically turns into “Make America Great Again”.
By the time you get to the end of the first two episodes, you know that the third episode is going to be something else entirely. Luckily, the strongest element of Discovery so far is the lead herself, Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, and she’s sticking around.
Martin-Green is a natural and charismatic screen presence; likeable even when she’s making illogical decisions, or otherwise lording logic over her crew-mates. And if that sounds hypocritical, it’s probably the point. Michael Burnham is a flawed character with a traumatic past, but that is what will make her interesting and human.
So far Discovery is a powerful, promising return to television for Star Trek.
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