Spoiler Alert: The following discusses plot points from Sunday night's Star Trek: Discovery's two-hour premiere featuring episodes "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle of the Binary Stars."
In short: If you were looking for the exploration vibe of Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek, or even The Next Generation, you won't find that as the motivator for Star Trek: Discovery. There's certainly a taste of it in a space-walk sequence in the opening hour, but otherwise, this series as presented is all about capturing what the precipice of war feels like, and then the actual plunge into conflict. The visuals are big-budget and big-screen-worthy in every aspect, and that production value draws you into the tension and the peril right from the start. There are some solid performances, a fresh framing of the Klingons, and a cliffhanger that effectively demands you keep watching, which means springing for that damn CBS All Access subscription at least to see what happens next.
Good and Bad
From the get-go, Star Trek: Discovery lives up to the executive producer's promise that part of the delay for this show was to make sure it looked as good as audiences should expect from a 2017 Star Trek series. It is absolutely gorgeous. Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro has worked his visual magic on this series, making it look as good as, or better than, the Abrams-era Trek films. I watched the first two episodes on a movie screen and it belonged there, and added so much to my ability to just be transported into the universe once again.
But there is that niggling voice in my head that doesn't get how a prequel can plausibly look better, on all fronts, from tech to uniforms, than the series and films that come after it in the official Trek Prime timeline. Gratefully, that thought certainly appeared, but it didn't ruin my suspension of disbelief to just go with it, even when it really makes no sense. I'll take my Trek visual smorgasbord and shut up.
And what about ST:D essentially being a war series? The producers warned us, and while it's disappointing for those who really want Trek to go back to exploration and a lighter tone, this series works for what it is. Yes, it's befuddling and tiresome that some of the great creatives of our day can't, or won't be allowed to, embrace and write an unapologetically hopeful Star Trek series. It makes you wonder if the prolonged age of the TV antihero has ruined writers from being able to go full Roddenberry. Obviously The Orville is attempting to do that, but the frat-bro humor stitched into its DNA pulls a lot of the gravitas out of its sails. Maybe it will get there if Fox allows it to figure out what it is, but the official Trek series is not following that path. At least ST:D is very successful in laying out the conflict, the consequences, the potential repercussions on a universal scale, as well as the personal, for Burnham and the captain, in less than two hours.
How does Sonequa Martin-Green fare as the anchor of this series? The first episode gets off to a very clunky start with a personal pet peeve of mine: Two characters who obviously know each other well, telling each other things they would already know, just so we, the audience, can follow what's going on. Poor First Officer Burnham gets saddled with a lot of exposition in the first 20 minutes, with the writers obviously leaning on her Vulcan upbringing (she's the ward of Sarek, played by James Frain) as an excuse for her over-sharing specific details with everyone from her captain (Yeoh) to her bridge peers, including the alien, Lt. Saru (Doug Jones). It almost put me off embracing Burnham at all, but the writing and her exposition-rich dialogue gratefully chills out by the first half of Episode 1.
Aside from Doug Jones' Saru, the characters are all a little difficult to warm up to in the first hour. MIchelle Yeoh's Captain Georgiou doesn't look that comfortable in the U.S.S. Shenzhou as she's treated as more of a font of wisdom placed in the story to warmly test the brave Burnham. However, taking this back to the positive, in the second hour Yeoh really gets to show off her talents as the Klingons turn the screws on the Federation science ship and her crew. She's commanding, with that Trek wisdom we crave, as well as a compassionate reticence to de-escalate a situation that her First Officer has no compunction about escalating. The chemistry between Yeoh and Martin-Green finally fulfills its potential when they square off in regard to their mutual disappointment at one another's intransigence. Trek always sings when opposite points of view seem to have equal weight, and the conundrum at hand comes down to basic choices. "Battle of the Binary Stars" really gets that right, with clear stakes and emotional execution.
I also loved the reframing of the Klingons. The makeup by Glenn Hetrick's team, and their design by Neville Page, take the race of warriors in a more primal and religious space, which feels very fresh for the universe. The series uses subtitles to translate the Klingon conversations, and it's probably the most Klingon I've ever heard in a Trek film, or series. It helps immerse you in their culture, which is necessary to understand why T'Kuvma is hell-bent on his holy mission to unite the 24 warrior houses together against the Federation. Their nationalism is certainly resonant for our world today, and it makes the old-school Klingons feel important and vital as adversaries. I also love that Voq is a Klingon unlike any we've experienced before. An outsider among a tribal community that already portends a potentially interesting storytelling to come.
Things to Ponder ...
When it was announced that Jason Isaacs would be playing Captain Gabriel Lorca, I immediately had a bad feeling about how long Yeoh's captain would remain in the story. Not long is the answer, and that's a true disappointment. Yes, Burnham is clearly the center of the story, but it's another opportunity that won't get to be explored. Her sacrifice certainly will resonate for many hours to come, but I would have liked a Trek with Yeoh actually present for many more hours. Will that loss hurt the storytelling? We'll see, and I'm sure Isaacs will be wonderful in his role, but there's certainly a big "what if" now.
We're left with a huge cliffhanger for Burnham. Will that throw off traditional Trek fans who aren't disposed to watch serialized storytelling? It's been a while since DS9's serialized storytelling. I'm okay with it because I'm trained to watch modern, one-hour TV, but if the stories don't live up to their potential, it will hurt my urgency to continue.
Will we find out how Spock had a "sister" his whole life and she was never, ever mentioned? Can they possibly retcon that in a satisfying way?
What did you think of Star Trek: Discovery? Will you stick with it and why?