TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery Boldly Goes with New Style, Old Trek Soul
It’s been a little over 12 years since Star Trek: Enterprise aired its final episode, which ended with a solemn farewell to all of the Trek that had come before it. After almost 20 continuous years of Star Trek on TV, it had overstayed its welcome until JJ Abram’s 2009 movie breathed new life into the franchise. Some Trekkies (Trekkers, or however you prefer) were quick to point out that “nuTrek” wasn’t their loved one – it merely stole its body. Many of these fears were repeated by fans before Star Trek: Discovery had even announced its cast. And it’s not unusual for a new Star Trek show to be met with weariness from the greater Trek fan base. Fortunately, these fears are unfounded and Star Trek: Discovery is drenched in Star Trek canon, opening up a whole galaxy of new possibilities for the franchise.
Star Trek: Discovery’s first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” quickly set the style and tone – a much more cinematic one than a Star Trek TV series has adopted before. The influence of JJ Abrams remains with the set design and the overabundance of lens flares, but the soul is decidedly Star Trek. Set 10 years before 1966’s Star Trek with Kirk and Spock it takes place in the “prime” universe – not the alternate timeline established by the JJ Abrams films. Lead Sonequa Martin-Green, known for her role in The Walking Dead, plays Commander Michael Burnham – a departure in a franchise that regularly focuses on the captain. Burnham has been raised as a Vulcan by Sarek, Spock’s father, played by James Frain. She has a little history with the Klingons, too, having survived an attack at an early age. When the U.S.S. Shenzhou, captained by Philippa Georgiou (played by Michelle Yeoh), discovers a faction of Klingons hell-bent on uniting the 24 Klingon houses against those saying they “come in peace,” Burnham’s past trauma rears its head and she goes from captain-prospect to mutineer within the first episode.
“The Battle of the Binary Stars” puts to screen one of the biggest and visually impressive Star Trek battles to date when several Starfleet and Klingon vessels fight it out. It doesn’t go well for Starfleet, with many characters succumbing to the same dreaded exploding consoles as with previous Treks. Discovery seems to have spared no expense, though, as hulls rip away and ships break apart in impressive splendor.
The Klingons themselves are impressive adversaries that have never seemed so alien before Star Trek: Discovery. They don’t speak English on screen unless they are addressing a member of Starfleet, often speaking Klingonese with only subtitles to aid the viewer. This can slow the pace down as the Klingons plod on about their destiny and honor, as they usually do, but it does establish their motivations. Despite early criticisms, they do not look very dissimilar to Klingons we have seen before – simply hairless, with larger nostrils.
The tone that first two episodes set is so intense, it worries me that there might not be room for light-heartedness. I’m not talking about Klingons dressed as Robin Hood’s Merry Men light-hearted, but whimsical Trek is sometimes when the franchise has been its most heartfelt and poignant. It looks like Discovery might be set on a hard story arc, which might not leave much room for deviation – but with the infamous character Harry Mudd slated to make an appearance, there could be a shift from death and honor. These first two seemed purposed to set up Michael Burnham as the flawed protagonist that she is. And that’s good – Star Trek has been at its best when some of the cracks of the Federation were showing, such as in Deep Space Nine with war dominating most of the show. But as that show was once criticized for straying too far from Roddenberry’s bright and shining future – Discovery seems stark black in comparison.
I was surprised at the quality of this two episode debut. I wanted Star Trek back on TV, and CBS All Access is close enough. Star Trek: Discovery has me excited for the possibilities of exploring strange new worlds, and I can’t wait until I can actually meet the U.S.S. Discovery and its crew – which doesn’t show up until the third episode, apparently. If the lens flares are any indication, Star Trek: Discovery’s future is bright.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery will be available on CBS All Access each Sunday.