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.