Sunday night, Star Trek finally returned to television for the first time in more than a decade with the series premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, a much-touted return to the small screen for the series that will live out the rest of its first season on the CBS All Access streaming service.
The series premiere, of course, divided fans, which is nothing new for Star Trek. My father, for example, will preach the gospel of The Original Series to you all day, but refuses to watch even a frame of The Next Generation ("It's not the same without Kirk," he tells me). We will no doubt be debating the merits of this series for weeks to come, but one thing Discovery has established immediately is that it's not afraid to dig into the moral questions that characterize so many of Trek's finest moments. In a post-mortem interview about the first two episodes with Entertainment Weekly, executive producer Alex Kurtzman talked a little about why.
Discovery's first episode culminates in Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) committing what's been characterized as Starfleet's first act of mutiny, using the Vulcan nerve pinch on Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and assuming command of the Shenzhou with the intention of firing on the Klingon vessel they've encountered in an effort to stabilize their talks (her rationale being that the Klingons are a warring people and, therefore, more respectful of aggression than diplomacy). Georgiou ultimately prevents this, setting off a chain of events leading to Georgiou's death and culminating in Burnham's court martial, which seemingly dooms her to prison instead of service. It's a lot to take in over the course of just two hours, but Kurtzman says the show's writers wanted to create big moral questions right from the start.
"The chain of command exists for a reason, and once you break the chain of command you are jeopardizing the lives of your crew. It’s a tricky debate, and that’s part of what Star Trek is about — controversial debate and moral quandary," Kurtzman told EW. "The Original Series and best versions of Trek were always complicated morality plays. It felt like the right idea to launch a series."
The whole decision-making process and debate that goes on aboard the Shenzhou also raises another interesting question: If Burnham had gotten her way and fired on the Klingon vessel, would she have actually been able to defuse the situation? It's something the writers certainly considered as a key part of her character.
"One of the questions I think the audience will be asking, and Burnham is asking, is: 'Did I start this war or would this war had happened anyway? And what is the difference there? And would my friend and surrogate mother still be alive if I had acted differently?' That’s going to be a point of debate. I’ll spoil one thing: We’re never going to answer that question for you. The audience will have to decide."
Whether you enjoyed the launch of Discovery or not, it's clear that Kurtzman and company are trying to carve out a story that will ask the big questions so many Trek fans crave. As for what happens next, Kurtzman won't say much, but we will get to the crew of the titular starship very soon.
"There’s a time jump. It’s not a radical time jump. In many ways we designed episode 3 to almost be a new pilot," he tells EW. "The USS Discovery doesn’t show up until the third episode, along with its crew — which is our main cast. Burnham and the audience are going to have a reset. Burnham believes she’s headed to a prison colony and is met with an unexpected surprise that has to do with the Discovery and its captain."
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream now on CBS All Access.