After a 12-year absence from television, Star Trek returns, but does it remain Starfleet?
The first episode of Star Trek: Discovery opens on space, the final frontier. As the camera pulls out from the infinite cosmos and through the burning eye of T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), we hear his Klingon words of war, “They are coming…they will coil around us…together under one creed, remain Klingon.” In its very first moments, this new vision of Star Trek springboards from the threat of violence. A great battle is approaching. Starfleet vs. Klingons. It’s war. Starfleet, gather your Starship Troopers. Is this what Gene Roddenberry offered us? Is this what Bryan Fuller promised? Both men are long gone. Social Science Fiction is all well and good, but is that what CBS needs to launch its All Access streaming channel? Well, as President Trump attempts to tweet us into the apocalypse, Star Trek: Discovery might be the Star Trek we both need and deserve.
I’ve got good news. Current showrunners Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts throw everything recognizably Star Trek into Discovery. We’ve got chimes of Alexander Courage’s original series score, we’ve got questioning science officers, cloaking devices, spacewalks, Starfleet regulations, LLAP, nerve pinches, mind melds, and more. Somehow, it doesn’t all feel like a nostalgia grab. They manage to deliver on the thrilling action while still holding true to the spirit of the franchise. And they do appear to be crafting a moral play into the story. Make America Klingon Again.
We meet Sonequa Martin-Green’s Commander Michael Burnham tagging along on an away mission with her mentor/captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). They’re promising peace and water to an alien race traced from the designs of District 9. As they attempt to navigate “general order one” (that pesky prime directive), Georgiou encourages her Number One to take command of her own starship. Lost in a dust storm, the two work buddies walk a delta shield in the dirt as a means of communicating an SOS to their ship, the U.S.S. Shenzhou. As their ship appears out of the clouds, we get our first familiar sounds of the original series’ theme music. An easy button to press, but one that gave me goosebumps. Composer Jeff Russo walks in Michael Giacchino’s homage-happy footsteps.
After seven years of service to Starfleet, Commander Burnham is no Will Riker. She wants her Captain’s Chair. Over the course of the first two episodes of Discovery, we get a little background to Burnham, but the mystery of how she got to where she is looks to be withheld for a season-wide arc. Burnham has good portions of Kirk and Spock inside her. Raised on Vulcan as the ward of Sarek (does that make her an adopted sister to Spock?), Burnham is the first human to graduate from the Vulcan Learning Center. We see flashbacks to a tragedy that separated her from her blood family, and we can discern that Klingons had a hand in their murders. This gives Burnham the deep-seated hatred of their race in a similar fashion to Captain Kirk’s rationalized racism. It also establishes the inner conflict of logic vs. emotion that often gave Leonard Nimoy plenty to chew on.
Setting the series 100 years after the previous Enterprise, but about 10 years before the original 1966 show, Star Trek: Discovery looks to mine new story from an era rarely explored by the series. The U.S.S. Shenzhou is an old vessel that looks unfamiliar to audiences used to the spick and span corridors of the Enterprise. It provides a lot of color as well as shadow and director of photography Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown, Pan’s Labyrinth) shoots the hell out of the ship. Yes, Discovery does borrow a lot of the visual language we saw in J.J.’s Star Trek and we’ve got plenty of lens flares, dutch angles, screens, screens, and more screens to alienate Trekkies still frustrated by the shoot ‘em up action of the recent sequel/reboot.
As usual, on the edge of Federation space, Starfleet gets itself into trouble, but this trouble has been lurking to get some attention. A communication satellite has been damaged and the Shenzhou is the only starship within range to investigate. Ah, she’s got the luck of the Enterprise. Floating nearby they discover an ancient object bearing Klingon markings. Burnham doesn’t so much spacewalk into the unknown as jettison’s herself through rushing space, a move that Chris Pine does implore multiple times in his own Trek. Here we get to see the Kirk in Burnham unleashed. Martin-Green thrills at adventure, unable to stuff a great big smile as she encounters the unknown and declares with wonder, “the only word to effectively describe it is ‘WOW!’”
Aboard the Klingon vessel, she encounters a previously unseen iteration of Klingon war culture, the Torchbearer. This warrior carries the flame of Kahless, his mission being an assault to unite the Twenty-Four houses. T’Kuvma has been tired of lurking in the fringes of space and is ready to halt the virus that is the Federation, bring back honor to his house and his people. Unfortunately, the Torchbearer doesn’t fare so well against Commander Burnham and a replacement will be needed asap. After a 100-year absence, the Klingons are itching for war and T’Kuvma will use the fable of Kahless to inflame his people into conflict, and there are plenty of suicide soldiers ready to accept their destiny.
Aboard the Shenzhou conflict among the crew is brewing. This is not the Starfleet that Gene Roddenberry was so determined to portray in The Next Generation. While Commander Burnham has great respect for her Captain, she believes that a first strike against the Klingons will earn their respect and give them pause. Captain Georgiou, on the other hand, is all Picard about it, taking the high road in the face of imminent doom. Mild confrontations between Mister Saru (Doug Jones) and Burnham ratchet into near-yelling matches on the bridge, and before I can plead against Discovery, we witness one of the first mutinies on Star Trek. Burnham attempts to take command of the ship and Georgiou is forced to turn her phaser against her Number One.
However, Star Trek has a steady tradition of balancing the soldier vs. diplomat, and Captain Kirk was always ready to ignore the orders of Starfleet when his conscience steered him to do so. The Klingon armada arrives and makes the bridge conflict a moot point. While the Shenzhou and the rest of the fleet are being torn apart in a full-scale battle, Commander Burnham must Kirk the Computer to free herself from the brig. Possibly my favorite moment of the show is listening to Burnham fight the ethical protocols of the ship’s computer to her favor. That’s OG TOS.
The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery end in fisticuffs a la the Abrams Treks…well, half the cinematic outings conclude with Kirk jumping atop some baddie while the environment erupting around him. I won’t say who, but I was deeply disappointed and not at all surprised by the character that loses his or her life during the climax. This series places its lead in a very peculiar position for a Star Trek show, but one that walks a muddy morality we’ve experienced before in the dark Trek of Deep Space Nine. Martin-Green proves in these episodes that she can inhabit the familiar heroism of Spock and Kirk, but I’m confident that the series will reveal her to be an entirely unique creation worthy of the brand.
War. Division. Anger. Hatred. These are words we’re consumed by these days. If you can look past the light show, Star Trek: Discovery has an opportunity to give our current dump of a planet a good lashing. Will it be a beacon of light to guide us by, or a shameful mirror to disgust us? Whichever, the very conversation is Star Trek.