Star Trek: Discovery represents a lot of firsts for the 51-year-old science fiction franchise. It’s the first new Star Trek on television since the demise of Enterprise 12 years ago, the first produced after the J.J. Abrams films, the first that’s behind a paywall, the first centered around a character other than a Starfleet captain, and very notably, the first to star a woman of color in the lead role. But here’s one that’s just as important—Star Trek: Discovery is the first Star Trek spin-off that’s not produced by the same people who made the previous series.
Different is Good
From the launch of The Next Generation in 1987 to the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005, Star Trek was constantly in production, and while many storytellers would come and go, there was one hand on the steering wheel for all 18 years and 25 seasons across four series—that of producer Rick Berman. Even before creator Gene Roddenberry’s death, Berman, along with Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Ira Steven Behr, and Brannon Braga, guided the visual and narrative language of the franchise on television and on film throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, and as a result, very little changed. Even as the television landscape shifted, Berman resisted serialization, stymied diversity, and made little effort to meet an audience’s rising expectations as to how a television show should look. By the time the production had started to contemporize, it was too late.
Twelve years off of television has done Star Trek a world of good—Star Trek: Discovery as a production isn’t anything like the series that came before it. Its cinematography is based on the contemporary films, and its narrative structure is more akin to a Netflix or HBO drama than a CBS show. There’s little regard for the franchise’s 50-year continuity, at least when it comes to design and technology. The creatives behind Discovery (series creators Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman, showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, pilot director David Semel, to name a few) have made an obvious effort set their show apart. This is truly a new Star Trek.
Spoilers from here on out.
While Discovery takes after the Abrams films visually, it’s entirely its own animal in terms of story. The previous four Trek series each begin with a two-hour pilot movie that introduces the entire ensemble cast, establishes the particulars of this incarnation of the series, and sets a status quo for future episodes. By the time the second episode of Discovery closes, neither the titular ship nor half of the regular cast has appeared, one of the main characters is dead, and our heroine has pled guilty to charges of mutiny and been sentenced to life in prison.
On the (absolutely unwatchable) post-show After Trek, host Matt Mira describes the two-part premiere as “a two-hour cold open,” and that’s a fair description. And after all, if your goal was to convince viewers to invest $6 a month into watching the show on CBS All Access, ending the premiere on a surprising note without really having even established what the show is about is a creative way to go about it. Co-showrunner Aaron Harberts has referred to next week’s third chapter, “Context is King,” as the “real” pilot, with all that’s come before being more of a prologue. But for all that viewers don’t know yet about Star Trek: Discovery, the debut episodes “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” accomplish a great deal in establishing the tone and stakes of the show, and introducing our very complicated central character, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green).
We are the Outsider
More than any other Star Trek series, more even than The Original Series, Discovery seems to focus very deliberately on a single character rather than an ensemble. Every scene in the first two episodes is told either from Burnham’s perspective, or from that of the enemy Klingon leader T’Kuvma and his protege Voq. This decision pays off, because Michael Burnham is immediately the franchise’s most interesting lead since Benjamin Sisko. In a franchise where characters very frequently fit into neat archetypical roles, Burnham contains multitudes. She’s a Human raised by Vulcans (specifically by Sarek, whose more famous biological son’s name begins with “S” and ends with “pock”), and she is simultaneously a calculating logician and an impulsive explorer. She can be a real badass, but there’s also a vulnerability to her. “My emotions inform my logic,” she says, but when the two come at odds with each other at a crucial moment, something in her seems to panic, which lead to to making a terrible mistake that loses her everything.
Michael Burnham is Spock, plus McCoy, minus Kirk. And that’s just for starters.
Star Trek is stuffed to the gills with alien characters who struggle to find a balance between the culture of their ancestral home and that of the predominantly Human Starfleet. Spock, Worf, Odo, Torres, T’Pol—every series gets at least one, and they’re usually a foil for the Human characters. This time, not only is the “outsider” character a Human, but she’s the focus of the show. She’s not an alien raised by Humans, she’s a Human raised by aliens, and like Spock before her, both Human and Vulcan cultures are a part of her. By the time Discovery begins, she’s already worked out a delicate balance between the two, because unlike the characters in previous Trek ensembles, Michael Burnham does not start the show at the beginning of her character’s development—she’s already in the middle of it.
In the teaser of “The Vulcan Hello,” Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) tells us that Burnham has served under her aboard the USS Shenzhou for seven years—that’s exactly how long The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager each ran. There’s a whole imaginary series’ worth of Star Trek: Shenzhou that’s already happened when Discovery begins. Early on in “Battle at the Binary Stars,” we see a flashback to Georgiou and Burnham’s first meeting, and we get to see just how stiff and stereotypically Vulcan Burnham was before Georgiou was part of her life. It’s a glimpse at an entire show’s worth of character development, and we’ll continue to see flashbacks to their time together interspersed throughout the season.
At least, I hope so, because we almost certainly won’t see any more scenes between the pair in the present day—“Battle at the Binary Stars” ends with Captain Georgiou run through by T’Kuvma’s bat’leth. While Burnham is unable to recover her body, leaving the narrow possibility of a return later on, Shenzhou’s sensors read her as dead and it’s safe to assume that’s the case. Georgiou’s death is predictable as the sunrise, but the chemistry between Yeoh and Martin-Green is strong enough that even though you see it coming a mile away, the loss of the Captain still packs a punch.
The antagonists in the first two episodes of Discovery (and presumably, the entire season) are a newly unified Klingon Empire, who after a century of in-fighting have rallied behind the charismatic T’Kuvma (Chris Obi). T’Kuvma is a religious zealot who preaches a familiar message of xenophobia and racial superiority. His rhetoric depicts the Federation as deceitful colonialists who absorb and water down their individual member cultures in favor of a blended, weaker whole. To join them, to even coexist with them, would make them less Klingon, so instead, they declare war. T’Kuvma’s position as a foil to Star Trek’s famous philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” is familiar—we saw it most recently in Krall in last year’s Star Trek Beyond. And just like it did then, it draws some uncomfortable parallels to our modern political disaster, which is part of what Star Trek is for and why I’m so grateful to have it back on television.
It’ll be interesting to see how Discovery uses this example, particularly since T’Kuvma himself has already met his end, shot by a phaser set to kill by Michael Burnham. T’Kuvma is mourned by his follower and would-be protégé Voq, Son of None (Javid Iqbal), an albino Klingon whose skin color makes him a subject of ridicule in a movement motivated by racial purity. There’s potential for a lot of complexity here, and it seems that Discovery will continue to dedicate a good chunk of each episode to following the Klingons. It’s really too soon to predict where this part of the story is headed, but I’m interested in a Trek that spends as much time developing its villains as its heroes. (It certainly did wonders for late Deep Space Nine.)
An Ongoing Mission?
I’m sure you can tell that I’m rooting hard for this show. The truth is that it’s very easy for me to overlook Discovery‘s flaws—its stilted, stagey dialogue, the very rubbery Klingon makeup, the stupid and unnecessary stunt of making the lead character “Spock’s secret adoptive sister!” Not to mention the distribution method, which asks fans to subscribe to a new streaming service that offers basically nothing else. That’s a real hard sell for most people, even a lot of Star Trek fans, and I don’t blame them. But the truth is, for me, $5.99 a month is a small price to pay to have Star Trek back in my life, particularly if Discovery can deliver every week the way it did with its premiere.
I was ten years old when Deep Space Nine ended. The first Star Trek show I watched week-to-week as it was released was Enterprise, a show that, even as a teenager, I knew wasn’t very good. I watched it alone. This past Sunday, I invited six friends to my small New York apartment, poured some drinks, and spent two hours watching brand new Star Trek in a room full of hope and energy and excitement that only compounded as the night went on. We spent the commercial breaks unpacking what we’d just seen, talking about the characters, the visuals, the politics. We lost our shit when T’Kuvma’s ship decloaked and tore apart the USS Europa, and even though we all knew it was coming we cried out “nooo” when Captain Georgiou was killed. When our guests had left, my girlfriend and I talked about what we’d just watched for another hour. The gang is getting together again to do it next week.
I have never had this. I’ve watched a lot of old Star Trek with a lot of friends over the years, but I’ve never been able to share this thing that I love in this way before, where it’s new to all of us, where we get to look forward to the next installment coming not in three years, but in seven days. It feels fantastic, and I want that feeling to stick around and I want to share it with more people. I want a Star Trek show that’s challenging and complicated and exciting and doesn’t play it safe. And while it’s not all the way there yet, I believe that Discovery has the potential to be that show, one that has a place in this age of incredible television that we’re living in now, and I hope it gets the opportunity to fulfill that potential.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery premiere at Sundays at 8pm online at CBS All Access in the United States, on the Space Channel in Canada, and Mondays on Netflix everywhere else. You can find my Star Trek column, Infinite Diversity, here on Deadshirt.