This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery: Episodes 1 & 2
Handsomely produced, fast-paced and thematically empty, Star Trek: Discovery marks the return of the landmark sci-fi franchise to the small screen for the first time since Star Trek: Enterprise ended its run 12 years ago. Like that show, which was canceled after four seasons due to waning viewer interest, Discovery is a prequel, making it two series in a row now in which the supposedly futuristic series is looking back into its own past. But unlike Enterprise, which was set 100 years before The Original Series, Discovery is set approximately 10 years earlier — not that you would know it either by the look of the new show or by the plot and themes introduced in the first two episodes.
Discovery is clearly, at least at the outset (just the first two episodes were screened for press at a premiere last week in Los Angeles), Star Trek “Dark”: whatever ideas original showrunner Bryan Fuller had before leaving the series over creative differences and time commitments, the tone of the show now is very much in the wheelhouse of Alex Kurtzman, also an executive producer on the show (one of nine) and one of the team members responsible for the first two movies of the rebooted Star Trek film series. A state of war and a fear of the unknown are immediately established in the first episode, “The Vulcan Hello,” the former due to the re-emergence of the Klingons and the latter embodied in Saru (Doug Jones), the Kelpien science officer who is more interested in cutting and running than exploring.
There’s very little exploration in the first two segments, which introduce us to main character Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green), first officer aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Burnham has served seven years under Georgiou after being trained at the Vulcan Science Academy by her surrogate father Sarek (James Frain), a character well-known to Trek fans. Burnham’s early life and education are glimpsed in flashbacks: her first meeting with Georgiou is a chilly one, to say the least, thanks in no small part to the logical and emotionless personality she has developed. But seven years on, the relationship between the two women has warmed considerably, although Burnham butts heads with the cowardly Saru (why you would appoint someone like that as science officer remains one of the show’s many inconsistencies).
After a brief prologue, “The Vulcan Hello” opens as the Shenzhou is investigating a distress call from a remote Federation outpost. That leads the aging ship into a direct confrontation with T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), leader of one of the Klingon Empire’s 24 houses and self-styled messiah of the Klingon race. Fashioning himself as the second coming of legendary Klingon leader Kahless, T’Kuvma seeks to unite the Klingon houses and begin a new and aggressive reign of conquest for his race — a plan that puts the Klingons on a direct collision course with Starfleet and the Federation.
That is not the only battle afoot, however: as the Shenzhou gets locked into a literal staring contest with T’Kuvma’s massive warship, Burnham recommends to Georgiou that she fire first — and when the captain refuses, Burnham mutinies, briefly incapacitating her commander and attempting to fire upon the Klingons in what she claims is a maneuver she learned from, of all people, the Vulcans. This might prove to be the single most controversial sequence in the show: not only does a Starfleet first officer commit an act of mutiny, but she does so in the service of deliberately inciting a war (a Federation no-no) and justifying it as a Vulcan concept, something that the vehemently anti-war Vulcans might like to have a word about.
Things end up not going well at all for Burnham, the Shenzhou and Starfleet, at least in this initial encounter, which could make for an argument that Burnham’s reasoning is being portrayed as wrong. But since we’re supposed to empathize with her as the lead character, the show tries to have it both ways — and when your lead character commits an act of mutiny not long after you’re introduced to her, it’s difficult to muster up any positive feelings toward her. In other words, Burnham comes off as kind of an asshole — which is well in the grand tradition of characters associated with Alex Kurtzman and fellow executive producer Akiva Goldsman, specifically Kurtzman’s take on Kirk.
With a first officer committing mutiny, and ideas like “war is the answer” and “shoot first, ask questions later” bandied about, the philosophy of Star Trek: Discovery is clearly a confused one that has little so far to do with the principles embodied by the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It seems like we’re getting just another grimdark war show, this one slapped with the Star Trek brand, but having little to do with that brand’s core ideas. It doesn’t help matters that the Shenzhou looks way more high-tech than anything on the original series or TNG, and that the Starfleet uniforms on the show barely resemble those of the era that it’s supposedly just 10 years behind. Visually, Discovery has much more in common with the two J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, right down to the backlit sets and the preponderance of lens flares employed by directors David Semel and Adam Kane.
Even with all that, Discovery is not a poorly executed show by any stretch. It moves fast and the story is gripping, and the visuals easily eclipse anything done by Star Trek on TV before. There is genuine excitement and suspense in the epic confrontation in Episode 2 between a fleet of Starfleet ships and a horde of Klingon craft. And there is a certain amount of daring in making the first two episodes essentially a prequel to the rest of the series, which will see Burnham somehow finding her way onto the title ship and into the good graces of the yet-to-be-introduced Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
Martin-Green and Yeoh are both experienced actors who do their best with what they have to work with here, including some of the stiffest dialogue we’ve heard in a while. But both women nevertheless bring intensity and strength to their roles (despite our reservations about Burnham overall), and it’s fantastic to see a Trek show with two women leading the way. Jones is less successful as Saru, coming across as whiny and spineless, and the rest of the crew get little to do initially except respond to the two leads’ orders. As T’Kuvma, Obi is fierce and warlike, while the Klingons themselves come across as more alien and fearsome than any previous iterations (we’re OK with the changes in their look because, let’s face it, previous Klingon appearances were limited by TV makeup budgets). We also hear more of the Klingon language in these first two episodes than in perhaps the rest of the Star Trek movies and TV shows combined.
Klingons, Sarek, the Federation, namechecks of Andorians and Tellarites…they’re all here, but try as the producers might, Star Trek: Discovery might be the least Trek-like show ever put on the air. It’s entertaining as far as it goes, but anyone looking for the optimism, sense of wonder, and interesting science fiction storytelling of earlier shows will probably be disappointed by the first two episodes of this show. Whether things take a different course over the next 13 episodes remains to be seen, although by all accounts the war with the Klingons will dominate this first season. We can only hope that somehow, with a title like Star Trek: Discovery, somebody gets to discover something eventually.
Star Trek: Discovery premiered on the CBS television network tonight (Sunday, September 24), but all subsequent episodes will be available weekly on the subscription streaming service CBS All Access.