There’s never been a Star Trek show entirely like Star Trek: Discovery.
It’s been more than 10 years since Star Trek: Enterprise left the airwaves, and in that time, television as a medium has changed a lot. And for a Star Trek show to survive in today’s day and age of so called “peak TV,” Trek was going to have to change too.
Fortunately, it seems Discovery is up to the task, both as a successor to the Star Trek legacy and as a new TV show in its own right.
Spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery follow
First things first. At this early stage, at least, Discovery is surprisingly satisfying, to the point where it’s easy to forget the hubbub of chaos that surrounded the show’s development, including the release delays and loss of Brian Fuller. Television has always been the medium where Star Trek has thrived, and Discovery is already taking advantage of the format for the kind of thoughtful, long-term storytelling and character-building that the recent action-packed theatrical summer Star Trek blockbusters have sorely lacked.
CBS aired the first two episodes of Discovery on Sunday night — the first on traditional CBS television broadcasts, and the second on the network’s $5.99 per month CBS All Access subscription service, which will be the exclusive home to Discovery, at least in the U.S. and Canada. But the two episodes are more or less just an extended pilot that’s been cut in two. These two episodes serve as an introduction to the world of Discovery, and in particular, the protagonist, Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham.
Burnham isn’t like any protagonist we’ve seen in Star Trek so far, and not only because she doesn’t command a starship or space station. She’s a far more rounded, human character than any of the previous captains, with some serious trauma from a Klingon attack in her youth that’s left her predisposed to hate the warrior race. And while Star Trek has plumbed the “main character has demons” well in the past — most notably with Sisko in Deep Space Nine, and Picard in the later films, when it comes to the Borg — Burnham feels far more compelling for not being a flawless human being in other respects, as her series-protagonist predecessors were.
The supporting cast — at least, those who have shown up so far — are also enjoyable to watch. Frequent Guillermo del Toro monster-performer Doug Jones does excellent work as Saru, bringing a mix of Spock/Data-like calm combined with an almost neurotic fear of danger. And Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou is a steadying presence to rival even Jean-Luc Picard. Beyond that, though, the dialogue and banter between the crew is just genuinely entertaining. Viewers are told these people have been serving together for years, and it’s believable. Their interactions feel far more natural and realistic than the sometimes stilted, formal scripts of Trek series past.
As for the Klingons, they’ve received the biggest redesign of the series, both physically (the design falls somewhere between the ridged foreheads of Next Generation and subsequent shows, and the rebooted race from Star Trek Into Darkness) and aesthetically, with the Klingon outfits taking on an ornate, golden style that’s different from anything seen on Trek series before. Discovery’s Klingons are also fiercely religious, seeming to worship Kahless the Unforgettable, the first Klingon ruler to unite the species, and the founder of the Klingon Empire.
The new Klingons are also incredibly devoted to the idea of Klingon culture above all else — T’Kuvma, the Klingon leader, has a rallying cry of “Remain Klingon,” and while he is (relative to the other Klingon houses) open to accepting any Klingon, even those considered to be outcasts, he loathes the Federation ideals of equality, diversity, and peace. It’s easy to draw parallels to America’s current political atmosphere, where issues of isolationism and racial supremacy are sadly rearing their ugly heads again — which the showrunners absolutely intended, according to an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
By any previous Star Trek standard, Discovery is a competent successor to the series’ legacy. But the creators seem to be taking lessons from modern TV series too. The narrative so far doesn’t seem to be designed episodically, with an eye toward syndication, and there seem to be real consequences to the events in the first two episodes, instead of the often-mocked “Reset Button” of Next Generation. And CBS has clearly spared no budgetary expense, with the CGI miles ahead of the reused stock shots of earlier series.
The show certainly isn’t perfect. Discovery’s first episodes also feel a lot like an extended prologue, establishing Burnham’s personality and the overall premise of the Klingon conflict, but not much more than that. By the end of the first two episodes, there’s still no sign of the actual USS Discovery, where we’ll be probably be spending the bulk of the season. Burnham has landed in Starfleet prison, and T’Kuvma (initially, the series’ presumed antagonist) is dead. It’s hard to predict at this point what the rest of the show will actually look like.
And while Discovery is purportedly set in the original timeline of the original Star Trek shows — specifically in the gap between Enterprise and The Original Series — so far, there isn’t much connective tissue linking it to the existing Trek universe.
Aesthetically, Discovery’s modern designs bear a closer resemblance to the rebooted J.J. Abrams Trek film series, albeit with an occasionally overwhelming burnt-orange color palette. Discovery also plays fast and loose with existing Trek lore — for example, the use of a cloaking device by Klingons in an encounter with the Federation seems to contradict the 1960s series episode Balance of Terror, where Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are surprised by the existence of Romulans using that same technology. Similarly, it seems curious that Trek’s TV continuity has never mentioned Spock having an adopted sister until Michael is introduced, but so long as the story it tells is good, it can be forgiven for blazing its own trail in the canon, at least for now.
It’s too early to say whether Discovery will be able to keep this momentum going, or whether it’ll fall into the same traps as other Trek shows. And there’s still the unproven paid-distribution method of CBS All Access, which is guaranteed to dramatically cut down on potential viewers in the coming weeks, as compared with shows available via public broadcast.
But Discovery is off to a promising start, and with all the pressure weighing down on it going into this premiere, that may be enough of an accomplishment for the moment — and enough to start building the word of mouth CBS is going to need if its new distribution model is going to succeed.