Our thanks to Jasef Wisener for this review of the introductory episodes to Star Trek Discovery! Jasef is the Digital Media Specialist for Cullman Parks & Recreation, a contributor to TVOvermind.com, and an admin for TheSpeedGamers, a volunteer group that raises money for charity with video games. We might potentially keep this as a recurring series as the new show comes along, so stay tuned!
A lot has changed in the twelve years since Star Trek last aired on television, and the entertainment world is a very different place than it was in May of 2005 when Star Trek: Enterprise signed off for the final time.
Since then, we’ve seen a reinvention of the franchise with J.J. Abrams’ alternate-timeline reimagining of the adventures of Kirk and Spock, a resurgence of success for Star Trek’s perceived rival Star Wars after the acquisition of LucasFilm by Disney, and the rise of a new “Golden Age” of television led by Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, among others. With all of the changes in the landscape, it would be a fair assessment to think that there is no real need for new Star Trek on the small screen.
Even with everything else going on with the franchise and this potential lack of necessity, a contingent of fans (many of whom felt that the Abrams-guided films diverged too much from the adventurous optimism that they fell in love with) never gave up hope that the stories they wanted to see would eventually return. Rumors persisted over the years, but nothing tangible ever emerged. Nothing, that is, until CBS announced in November 2015 that, hot on the heels of the franchise’s 50th anniversary, a new Star Trek series would finally premiere.
Guided by Bryan Fuller, a writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager who later went on to create the critically acclaimed Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, the new series, later subtitled Discovery, would offer “new crews, new villains, new heroes, [and] new worlds” to audiences while being set in the original “Prime Timeline” (unrelated to the reboot films). Additionally, the series would more or less serve as a prequel to The Original Series, taking place chronologically ten years before the five-year mission that kicked off the franchise. After a few delays (the series was originally announced to premiere in January 2017) and behind-the-scenes changes (Fuller, after helping develop the show and penning the first episode, stepped down as showrunner to focus on American Gods for Starz), Star Trek: Discovery finally debuted on September 24, 2017.
[Spoilers for the first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” will follow.]
The two-episode premiere of Star Trek: Discovery essentially serves as a prologue for what is to come. In the beginning, we’re introduced to Michael Burnham (played by The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green), the first officer of the USS Shenzhou, and her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). During the course of their adventures on the Shenzhou, the crew discovers a group of Klingons on the edge of Federation space.
Burnham accidentally kills a Klingon while investigating an ancient vessel, and this sets into motion a chain of events that lead to a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. This chain of events is a direct result of Burnham, who we learn is a human that was raised as a Vulcan by Spock’s father Sarek, attempting to prevent war in the first place through mutiny, and it is an attempt that results in both the death of Captain Georgiou (Burnham’s longtime friend and mentor) and Burnham’s arrest and sentencing to life in prison.
From the outset, it’s clear why Star Trek: Discovery airs on a streaming service rather than on “traditional” television (after a special premiere on CBS, the remainder of the season airs exclusively on CBS: All Access). The production value of the series is incredible, and Discovery visually falls right in line with the recent films. In essence, Discovery serves as a nice blend between television and film, drawing from set franchise mythology and conventions while taking clear inspiration from Abrams’ more theatrical presentation. The budget for Discovery is much higher per episode than that of a typical network series, and that higher budget definitely shows.
Being a prologue, we don’t get to see many of the characters in the first two episodes that we’ll spend time with through the rest of the season, but Sonequa Martin-Green manages to deliver a powerful (and surprisingly emotional) performance as Michael Burnham. It’s incredibly important that any television series gives audiences a protagonist to connect with (but not necessarily to relate to), and the writers have absolutely done that with Burnham. We also get to see a bit of Doug Jones as Saru, the Shenzhou’s science officer who, in spite of the ship’s fate, will remain an important part of Discovery, and it’s easy to see why Jones was cast in the role. This is the exact type of performance that Doug Jones excels in, and it’s exciting to think about the future for his Spock/Data-esque role moving forward. It is a shame to see Michelle Yeoh leave so early, but, if her performance is any indication, Star Trek: Discovery will have no shortage of fantastic characters up its sleeves (and, with Jason Isaacs’ starring role as the captain of the USS Discovery coming up soon, there’s a lot to look forward to). The casting of both Martin-Green and Yeoh, too, is a great example of the series’ commitment to diversity (Martin-Green is the first woman of color to lead a Star Trek series, and Yeoh kept her Chinese Malaysian accent to help hammer in that point), and it’s going to be fun to see how much wider that net gets over time.
One thing that Star Trek: Discovery absolutely needs to capture the feel of the franchise is optimism, and that happens to be the one thing that the premiere lacked. Again, the two-episode debut was simply a prologue of what’s to come, but it’s going to be very important that the series finds its optimism sooner rather than later. The adventurous spirit of the franchise is already on perfect display (something that the serialized storytelling should also help keep up), and this final piece of the puzzle is all that Discovery is missing. Based on the premiere, Discovery is thematically consistent with the type of storytelling that Star Trek fans traditionally know and love, and the potential for growth is among the highest it’s ever been.
The biggest question that Star Trek: Discovery needed to answer was whether or not it’s necessary in today’s television environment, and “The Vulcan Hello”/”Battle at the Binary Stars” answered that question with a definitive “yes.” The series isn’t perfect, but it does capture (almost) everything that’s great about Star Trek. There’s a lot left to see over the course of the season (and, of course, the possibility of everything falling apart is always there), but Discovery immediately establishes itself as great sci-fi, something that television doesn’t see enough of in 2017. Star Trek has evolved a lot over its fifty year history, but at its core, it’s always been a franchise of adventure that looks toward the future to see what humanity, even with strife, can achieve.