Star Trek: Discovery - Pilot

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Pilot Recap: “Starfleet Doesn’t Fire First”

Like a drug pusher offering customers a first taste for free, CBS premiered its new ‘Star Trek’ series on regular broadcast this week, but you’ll need to pay a subscription fee for the CBS All Access streaming platform to see more. Is the show worth getting hooked on?

‘Star Trek’ has been absent from television screens since ‘Enterprise’ went off the air in 2005. For reasons I can only speculate about, the powers-that-be behind this franchise remain intent on going backwards in time with yet another prequel, rather than shooting forward another century or so past the events of ‘The Next Generation’, which would seem like a more logical direction to me. The new spinoff, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, is supposed to take place about ten years before the events of Captain Kirk’s adventures during ‘The Original Series’. Much like the J.J. Abrams prequel movies and to some extent ‘Enterprise’, however, the tech on display seems to be at least as advanced (often more so) than anything we’ve ever seen in any other ‘Trek’ TV show or feature film. That’s a bit of cognitive dissonance that ‘Trek’ fans just have to accept and get used to.

The show’s title refers to the starship U.S.S. Discovery, but you won’t see any such thing in the pilot episode. Instead, the first adventure takes place aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou, commanded by Capt. Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Yeoh is listed in the opening credits as a Special Guest Star, which, combined with the title, suggests that her character won’t be around for long. (Great job spoiling your own show, writers!) The majority of story focus is on Georgiou’s first officer, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green from ‘The Walking Dead’). Although human, we learn over the course of the first hour that she was raised by Vulcans (by Spock’s father Sarek – here played by James Frain – no less!) after her parents were murdered by Klingons. She’s not terribly good at repressing her emotions in the Vulcan style, and holds a serious grudge against the Klingon race.

When the Shenzhou is sent on a routine mission to repair a communications satellite, the crew discovers that it appears to have been damaged intentionally, perhaps even to lure a Federation starship to the middle of nowhere. This then leads to the detection of a mysterious unscannable object lurking in a nearby asteroid field. Against the objections of nervous science officer Lt. Saru (Doug Jones under heavy alien makeup), Burnham volunteers to go check it out in a spacesuit EVA. She has a very limited window to accomplish this before radiation from the system’s binary stars “unspools” her DNA, which sounds unpleasant whatever it is.

As Burnham gets closer, she finds that the object is an ancient device or vessel, but not exactly a starship. Landing on it triggers it to activate some sort of alarm or defense system, and a spacesuited Klingon warrior appears from out of nowhere to attack her. Burnham fights back and kills the Klingon, but her suit is damaged and she goes tumbling uncontrollably out into space. Fortunately, the Shenzhou is able to get a transporter lock on her just in the nick of time. She wakes up a few hours later in Sick Bay suffering radiation burns, but refuses treatment and rushes to the bridge to warn the captain of imminent Klingon attack.

At first, Georgiou and Saru are skeptical, assuming that Burnhman is disoriented or hallucinated the whole thing due to the effects of radiation sickness. The Federation and the Klingons have been in a state of détente for over a century, and the computer in her suit didn’t record the attack. Nevertheless, Georgiou trusts her first officer and raises a red alert. Within moments, a massive Klingon ship decloaks on top of the Shenzhou. Attempts to hail it fail. Burnham insists that this is an act of war, but Georgiou prefers to keep a level head and wants to avoid provoking a conflict.

Aboard the Klingon ship, we’re introduced to a new style of Klingons somehow even uglier than any seen before. Their appearance (as well as variances between ‘The Original Series’ and ‘The Next Generation’ and the Abrams movies) is explained by the revelation that the Klingon Empire is comprised of 24 different races that have been warring amongst each other for centuries. The leader of this group, a nasty guy named T’Kuvma, seeks to unite the various houses by instigating war with a common enemy – the Federation. The object that Burnham landed on is a sacred beacon that, once lit, will draw all of the tribes toward it.

That beacon erupts in a blinding light as bright as a star. After finishing her radiation treatments, Burnham contacts Sarek to ask how the Vulcans forged peace with the Klingons. He explains that the only language the Klingons recognize is aggression. Therefore, the Vulcans adopted a policy of immediately destroying any Klingon ship they encountered, whether hostile or not. This made the Klingons respect the Vulcans, and a truce was eventually hammered out.

Burnham races back to the bridge with this info, urging Georgiou to pre-emptively open fire on the Klingon ship. She sounds kind of racist and doesn’t seem to be thinking clearly, and openly argues with her captain in front of the crew. Georgiou pulls her aside into her Ready Room to give her a lecture, but Burnham knocks her out with a Vulcan neck pinch and returns to the bridge. She lies about Georgiou changing her mind and orders the crew to lock weapons on the enemy ship. Saru doesn’t believe her for a second and accuses her of mutiny. Burnham’s neck pinch technique apparently needs some work, because Georgiou wakes up and runs out with a phaser rifle, ordering that Burnham be taken into custody.

Burnham frantically argues that she’s trying to save the ship, but she’s too late in any case. The beacon goes out and dozens of Klingon warships warp in to their location.

The first episode ends abruptly on this as a cliffhanger. The second episode is available now, but only on CBS All Access in the United States. Reportedly, both episodes were broadcast on the Space Channel in Canada. The show will be carried by Netflix in other countries.

Episode Verdict / Grade: B

A number of longtime ‘Trek’ fans have already begun griping about timeline continuity errors between this show and the rest of the franchise. This is certainly not the first time that ‘Star Trek’ has fudged or blatantly ret-conned its canon, though I will admit that ‘Discovery’ seems tonally off for something intended to take place so close to ‘The Original Series’. It’s very dark and brooding in the modern style, with very little sense of lighthearted fun or adventure. For a show called ‘Discovery’, it (at least so far) completely ignores the scientific exploration angle that would seem to be built into its premise. Instead, a great deal of emphasis is placed on impending war with the Klingons, which seems a little fruitless given that we already know how that will all work out. That’s the type of failing common to many prequels, of course, but it leaves me wondering what the point is of making this a prequel at all.

Although the show was co-created by Bryan Fuller of ‘Hannibal’ and ‘American Gods’ (who started his career writing for ‘Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Voyager’), CBS ousted Fuller before production due to creative differences. The current list of producers has some names that attentive fans may consider problematic, including Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman. What seems to be left of Fuller’s influence is mainly felt in the striking visual design of the series, which is very ornate and elaborate from its sets to photography and visual effects. How many of Fuller’s story ideas were retained, or where he wanted this to go, are open questions.

It’s nice to see a ‘Star Trek’ series with women of color in command, and the headstrong but potentially misguided Burnham character is a compelling, complex lead. Sonequa Martin-Green is very good in the role. In terms of story, I think this is a solid premiere and I was into it while watching, but it doesn’t reinvent the warp drive, and it kind of needed to in order to pull subscribers into the CBS All Access program. At the moment, I’m left unsure whether I feel it’s worth subscribing just for this one show. I may wait until more episodes are available before making that decision.

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  1. William Henley

    I didn’t care for the first episode, but this may be due to the fact that I just watched Prelude to Axanar a few days previously, and it was a much better story than this was, which covers roughly the same events (which is most likely the reason that CBS decided to pick on Axanar).

    What is worse is that the first 20 minutes got delayed by some Oprah interview, so my DVR only only got 2/3rds of the show.

    Quite frankly, while the show may turn out to be fine once it gets going, the first episode did not wet my appetite enough to subscribe to CBS All Access.

  2. Elizabeth

    I enjoyed the first two episodes that form the prelude pilot of the show. I subscribed to CBS All Access so I could watch it. I figure for $5.99 why not; I spend then more than that on dessert at Disney World. The Klingons look different, but they’ve looked different in practically every rendition so whatever. I thought the interplay between the bridge and am kind of upset that the relationship between Burnham and Georgiou probably won’t get explored further. The alien, Saru, also seems like an interesting addition both as a character and as an alien race.

    Were there problems? Sure. Were they as big as the problems in Encounter at Farpoint, the episode that kicked off TNG? Absolutely not. And in the end these episodes are really just an extended prelude to the next episode where the real adventures of the Discovery begin. I’m glad for Trek to be back in a serial format where we can watch characters and their relationships grow. And this show seems dedicated to that so events won’t be reset at the end of an episode.

    If I must point out an issue, it feels like perhaps they too closely mimic the Battlestar Gallactica reboot. I hope amongst the Klingon conflict, we get to see some episodes of just pure space exploration, without even some sort of conflict or problem to solve. Pure exploration and wonder for an episode or two to remind a generation that hasn’t got to enjoy the wonders of frequent shuttle launches that space is vast and filled with mysteries and wonders.

  3. KW

    Ridiculous plot combined with the worst acting I have seen in years. The characters are neither interesting nor engaging. I gave it 30 minutes….but couldn’t stomach any more. Nauseatingly bad.

  4. EM

    While any episode of a series is conceivably some viewer’s first, a premiere episode is especially charged with the task of selling the series as a whole—and the broadcast/subscription plan followed here really intensifies the pressure.

    In my opinion, “The Vulcan Hello” (the premiere episode) fails utterly in that task. A viewer should come away with a strong idea of what the series is to be like. If the series is named for a vessel which is not shown or even mentioned in the premiere, that’s not an encouraging sign. I’m not sure whether the “The Vulcan Hello” is poorly representative of the series or it’s highly representative of a poorly focused series; either way, it doesn’t sell the series to me. That’s true even if I ignore the name and what I know of the traditional Star Trek format. While I wouldn’t say the premiere was devoid of positives, frankly I find the generally dark and dull tone a turnoff. I’ve got better things to do with my time and my money (including, of course, rewatching much better Star Trek).

    • William Henley

      I think you voiced much better my feelings than I did. The series may turn out to be fine. Encounter at FarPoint and Broken Arrow were both really weak. Caretaker and Emissary better reflected where the series was going, but both failed to interests me in the show. Most Star Trek series tend to really find their footing about midway through the first season (for TNG, it was the begining of the second season).

      The problem was that CBS needed a strong premiere episode to interests people in the franchise, and I feel that they failed to deliver.

      The premiere had 10 million viewers, and caused record number of subscriptions to CBS’s service, but many users have been complaining about reliability issues. On the flip side of this, as of yesterday, it was being reported that it was the 12th most pirated episode on the internet, with the top 11 being 11 episodes of Game of Thrones.

      Truthfully, though, with 10 million for a premiere episode, it may make CBS thank twice about broadcasting the show, and we may see it get picked up in a few months or possibly next year.

  5. Thulsadoom

    There should be an option for ‘Will be watching it because we live outside of the US and have Netflix’. 😉
    We enjoyed it, and it’s not like any of the Star Trek series are perfect and without their flaws. My major gripes were:

    A) Klingons AGAIN. They’re like Star Trek’s equivalent of the Daleks in Dr Who. The most over-used villains who, because of their over-use, have become meaningless threats. Sure, they’re trying to ‘re-invent’ them, but why? What’s the point? The Klingons have a distinctive culture, background and visual style that has been relatively consistent since their re-design for The Motion Picture, and is hugely popular with fans. Why re-invent them, instead of, wait for it, using a new species?!? Oh, but the producers wouldn’t expect that to tap into previously existing fandom… It’s just the current trend for playing it safe again, like the new Star Wars movies. Criticise Lucas all you want, he didn’t play it safe… But now we’ll never see another Star Wars movie with real imagination or a willingness to just tell a story that’s not guaranteed to appeal to nostalgia.

    B) The atmosphere. It’s all very dramatic. So far, there’s no sense of adventure or ‘discovery’ (for a show so named). Admittedly, we’re only two shows in, so it’s early days and we need to give it a chance. The Klingon war may simply turn out to be the over-riding plotline that’s in the background for most episodes. Ever since the awful new Galactica set the tone for ‘dark, gritty, miserable’ sci-fi series (ie, melodrama and soap opera in sci-fi clothing), everyone wants to mimic it, so they don’t appear to lack ‘edge’. They’re forgetting that the most successful series, both Star Trek and otherwise, have a balance. A great example is Stargate. Does anyone think that would’ve lasted as long as it did, if it didn’t also balance its action and drama with fun characters and occasionally light-hearted stories, based around adventure and discovery? And then lost its audience with Universe when it went full-new-Galactica?

    Like I said, it’s early days, and it remains to be seen how the rest of it will pan out, but if these two episodes have set the tone for the rest of the series, then it could get tiresome and boring really fast…

    I liked Michelle Yeoh as the captain, though. Such a shame that… well, I won’t spoil it for any who haven’t seen the second episode. I prefer her to Michael. Heck, despite the other flaws, even after two episodes I’d say she has/d the potential to be the best captain since Kirk and Picard.

    Like the new Galactica, though, the production is excellent. The series is clearly never going to look anything less than superb, and at least the title sequence didn’t go the ‘Enterprise’ route. Let’s face it, even previous Trek series have usually had pretty mediocre pilots, and this was actually pretty good in comparison. (Hell, remember encounter at Farpoint? Or Voyager’s start with the Caretaker?)

    As Josh said, it’s a solid ‘B’, but I have a suspicion it’s going to drop to Cs and Ds pretty quickly. I hope I’m wrong.

  6. I am one of those that will not pay for yet another streaming channel. So Blu Ray or bust is my path. It was very confusing to me because I thought this was a CBS Access show then I saw something about Netflix and now we’re back to CBS again! In the confusion I guess I messed the premiere – but knowing it was just a “free sample” I am glad I missed it.

  7. Michael


    we in Germany got the show on Netflix. Have binge-watched the first 3 Episodes and can´t wait till next week.
    Show is great, different but still has the Star Trek feel. I won´t spoil any storys, but there is more to come.
    I regret watching the first 3 Episodes. It would have been better to buy the BluRays in a year and watch the complete show.
    But then I would be waiting for the 2nd season. I´m just hoping that this distribution modell will be enough to keep the show going, because there is so much potential. I want more. Luckily there will be Episode 4 in 24 hours.

  8. cardpetree

    Have you been watching this series Josh? It’s not bad. I appreciate the production values and I’m able to get into the episodes. My only issue is how incompetent the Klingons are. It seems they are terrible at keeping captives and they screw up everything. Their ships must also be easy to fly. I’m not a huge Trekkie so I don’t really know how the Klingons were portrayed in earlier TV series.

    • Josh Zyber

      No, when I learned that the CBS All Access app only delivers the audio in basic stereo, that cemented my decision not to subscribe. I’ll catch the series when it’s available on Blu-ray or a better streaming platform.

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