Disclosure: I rented the first season of Star Trek Discovery as a DVD set from my local public library. For the sake of this blog post, I’m reviewing the first two episodes.
I have to admit, I went into this expecting not to like Discovery. Even when CBS offered the option to watch the first four episodes free through their streaming service, I shunned it. I figured after the whole J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies mess, anything with the name “Star Trek” in the 21st century would be pretty bad and reflexively play to a certain social and political perspective with no thought given to quality stories.
Which is why I’m surprised that I like it.
First things first. The visuals, actually all of the production values, are through the roof. It is a first rate science fiction television series and the eye candy (space, spaceships, tech…I’m not talking about people in this case) is amazing.
Depending on who you talk to, the first two episodes could be considered a prelude to the main story told by the rest of the season or the actual pilot. We are introduced to the main character Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, who is serving as Commander and First Officer aboard the USS Shenzhou, under Captain Philippa Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh.
The relationship between the two is almost like mother and daughter, and at some points, was reminiscent of the interaction between Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) in Star Trek: Voyager. This is especially true in a flashback scene when Burnham first comes aboard the Shenzhou seven years prior. Although human, Burnham was raised on Vulcan by Sarek (James Frain) and attended the Vulcan Science Academy, so her presentation then was very “Vulcan-like” (no explanation at this point about how this happened or her relationship with Sarek’s son Spock).
In The Vulcan Hello, the pilot, we are introduced to Georgiou, Burnham, and the ship’s science officer Saru (Doug Jones) who is apparently from a race that was originally raised as food animals. This gives him a highly developed sense for danger, and Georgiou says all of his race perceives life as a threat. If someone made that statement about an ethnic or racial group in real life, it would probably be seen as racist, but I don’t think that’s what the show was going for here.
This introduced a bit of a problem for me. How would a prey species be raised for intelligence, enough to evolve into sapient beings? Why was there not a more complex food chain on this person’s planet? Inquiring minds want to know.
Anyway, the Shenzhou, while repairing a communications relay at the edge of Federation space, discover a Klingon artifact, what appears to be a large spaceship or station. As the story unfolds, the Klingons, with whom the Federation hasn’t had official contact with for a century, appear to be attempting to reunite the 24 houses of their empire so they can start a war with the Federation.
Burnham’s family had been killed by Klingon’s when she was a child, and she struggles between a lifetime of Vulcan training and her human anguish. Ironically, it’s her Vulcan logic that leads her to recommend to her Captain that they immediately attack the Klingons.
Then, the story gets wonky. Georgiou refuses saying that Star Fleet does not fire first (unlike Han). So Burnham knocks her out with a Vulcan neck pinch and takes command. Before she can give the order to fire, Georgiou pops out of her ready room, pointing a phaser at Burnham and has her arrested. Funny that Burnham couldn’t have found a better way to appeal to Georgiou after having been her First Officer and friend for seven years.
Then again, her behavior could be indicative of “survivor’s guilt,” because she kept repeating that what she did was to save Georgiou and everyone else on board the ship.
Each side calls for backup and the Klingons arrive first, 24 starships. The first episode ends on this cliffhanger.
The next episode Battle at the Binary Stars sees Federation ships arrive. Captain Georgiou makes the mistake of contacting the Klingons and saying “we come in peace,” which enrages them. They immediately attack.
I should say that the Klingons have been re-imaged to look more horrifying and inhuman than in any previous incarnation. Really, Worf looks warm and cuddly by comparison. They also speak exclusively in Klingon except when directly addressing the Star Fleet ships. In the pilot, subtitles appeared when the Klingons spoke, but in subsequent episodes, they didn’t. That may be an effect of the DVDs,but I had to guess what the Klingons were up to based on body language and voice tone alone.
Burnham, now in the brig, is almost killed when the Shenzhou takes heavy damage and has to “out-logic” the ethical subroutines of the ship’s computer to rescue herself. The fleet is pretty much wiped out by the Klingons, but Burnham comes up with a plan to capture their “Messiah,” which might force the Klingons to negotiate for peace or at least a cease fire. Georgiou goes along with it and (in my opinion) the two stupidly beam aboard the Klingon vessel. Really, one Klingon male is huge, violent, and armed to the teeth, and these two beam aboard alone with only hand phasers.
Hand-to-hand combat with someone twice your size and weight is foolish, no matter how well trained you are in the martial arts. Remember, Klingons are a warrior race, so it’s not like they don’t have skills as well as size and aggression.
Naturally, Captain Georgiou is killed, and before Burnham can get to her body, Saru beams her back to the ship, also without her prisoner who she is forced to kill. She dissolves into sobbing grief on the transporter pad, probably her most emotional scene thus far.
Cut to her court martial where she is stripped of rank and sentenced to life in prison. Pretty harsh sentence, and the tribunal is shadowed so you can’t see their faces, making Star Fleet seem like a sinister organization.
End of Prelude.
Question: Is it Star Trek?
Yes and no. At first, I was going for a total “no” because it can’t be. This story line is supposed to take place ten years before the Kirk/Spock Enterprise. Depending on which source you reference, it occurs either in the main Star Trek universe or in the Kelvin timeline (J.J. Abrams movies). I suggest this version is neither.
The technology is way too advanced for anything set around the original series or even the Abrams films. They have subspace hologram transmissions for one thing. Everything seems cleaner and slicker than even Voyager or Star Trek: The Next Generation which happens a century later.
I’ve always thought that there were plenty of fascinating stories that occurred in the Star Trek universe before the original series. Star Trek: Enterprise tried to exploit this, but they went back too far, before everything that makes Star Trek “Star Trek.” The tech was too primitive and the original canon kept them from fully exploiting the possibilities of such stories.
Discovery, in my opinion, is a total re-imaging of the Star Trek universe, but it doesn’t try to exactly fit in with that past, which is a good thing. It succeeds where the Abrams films fail. It’s not my Star Trek, not the Trek of old, not the classic space opera, but this is 2019, not 1966.
This Star Trek isn’t full of optimism and hope like Roddenberry’s original. In fact, it’s downright dark most of the time. However, it does tell an interesting story and I can’t wait to see more.
I’ve actually seen the first four episodes, but I can’t review everything in detail and keep this review at a reasonable length.