"That's the beauty and legacy of Star Trek when coupled with its already available library. It exists in different tones and time frames, with different visions and creative goals, delivered by different casts and crews — all at once. Sooner, later, and previously, there is a Trek to fill every need."
I think a wise man once said that. He might be wise, or he might just be a tool. Only a tool would start a review by quoting himself.
Either way, after 12 years of being away from television, Star Trek has returned with Discovery, which — after its first two episodes, anyway — plays like the living embodiment of the above sentiment. This particular take is "Star Trek reinvented for a 21st-century audience." Does it work? Yes, albeit with the usual caveats. This is a solid start, but far from perfect.
There's stuff to talk about here with regard to the substance of it all (although the plot here is fairly straightforward), but perhaps the most notable and unavoidable things to talk about (which undergird that substance) are structural and production-related. "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars" reveal Star Trek for the binged-and-balkanized TV era. These first two episodes, which really should be viewed as a two-hour premiere, play like an extended prologue for whatever Discovery ultimately will become. The series' eponymous starship (and its crew) does not even make an appearance; this story takes place entirely on the USS Shenzhou. And the major developments at the end of the second hour pull the rug out from under us in a fairly unexpected way, suggesting that episode three will follow the consequences of these actions and essentially reboot the reboot.
Because this is promised as a sprawling, serialized show with a lot of dialogue and slow builds for characters and multiple viewpoints, it remains to be seen how easily these episodes can be viewed as individual episodes, rather than chapters. My hope is that the structure will allow for a somewhat episodic viewing (and thus reviewing) experience, but time will tell. I will say these first two episodes together, and even separately, have their own story beats that allow them to stand up as episodes even as storylines are being set up, continued, or left incomplete. (Probably the best comparison is Ron Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica, although based on two episodes it's really too early to say.)
Let's talk about the production values. In a word: Wow. Discovery feels truly cinematic and looks amazing. We can probably thank the ever-rising bar set by Game of Thrones for that. The level of detail in the CGI and sets is impressive for television; this is modern feature-film-quality visual razzle-dazzle. The overall visual template is clearly modeled on the J.J. Abrams movies (with considerably less lens flare, thankfully, though there is some) but the camera (and characters) spend enough time admiring the beauty and wonder of it all that it feels more like we're being guided through a discovery rather than rushed through a plot. (That is, of course, before the shooting inevitably starts.) Meanwhile, the sound design is an amalgam of familiar sounds from TOS, TNG, and the more recent films, which helps ground us in familiar Trekkian territory. And although they didn't blow me away, the score by Jeff Russo and the opening title sequence are appropriately evocative. This feels Trekkian and familiar, but also new.
Set 10 years before TOS, this series has chosen an era that puts it in that precarious "prequel" territory. While I do wonder if it might've been better for Discovery to simply go forward rather than backward, I'm agnostic about prequels and don't think they're good or bad simply because they're prequels. It all depends what the story and setting are trying to service. In looking at what happened before the Klingon Cold War of the TOS era (presumably this will all end with the formation of the neutral zone, as it does not exist here), can this be used to spin a Trekkian tale for our times?
Regarding continuity, I'm not much concerned about updates to the tech to make the show look more aesthetically modern (the same was the case with Enterprise), including the usage of, say, holograms in place of the viewscreen. As long as they aren't changing tech in ways that significantly alter the capability of the characters, I'm not likely to object.
The storyline continuity, however, is more important. I hope, for one, they explain the radically reimagined Klingons in some way that holds water, as well as why we've never heard of the main character who is essentially Spock's foster sister. Supposedly, the producers have a plan, but we'll see. (That plan could always turn out to be "just forget about it.") As with any Trek series, this show comes with built-in baggage and will have plenty of minefields to steer clear of as well as plenty of material to mine.
Primarily, these first two shows serve to establish (a few of) the main characters, the tone, and setting ... before then ripping up that playbook. I felt they did an effective and efficient job of doing so. The pre-title scene on the desert, while packed with exposition, shows us the close relationship between Shenzhou first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh, billed as a "special guest star" for reasons that become very clear by the end of the second episode). We get some rivalry/camaraderie on the bridge between the confident Burnham and the cautious science officer Lt. Saru (Doug Jones, in what already looks like a promising portrayal of a memorable alien character from a race of hunted prey called the Kelpiens), and this crew overall feels decidedly Starfleet.
The pacing is dead-on as pilots go. It allows us to get to know the characters and setting without rushing straight into action sequences. Instead, we get a slow build with a show-stopping, majestic EVA sequence where Burnham investigates a mysterious artifact that turns out to be Klingon in origin. Her unexpected encounter with a Klingon warrior (resulting in his death at her hands) is an incident whose magnitude you can only realize in retrospect; it is actually the first step leading toward open warfare.
The Klingons of this era are led by T'Kuvma (Chris Obi), who invokes the legacy of Kahless in long-winded speeches featuring much religious and cultural fanaticism that vies to unite the Klingon houses together against what he sees as the peace-claiming but actually aggressive Federation. His "Remain Klingon" mantra feels sort of like a take on "Make Kronos Great Again," but if anything, the Klingons here reminded me of the sort of overheated paranoia and rhetoric long associated with the North Korean regime; they exhibit a terminal distrust of the cross-cultural Federation, who, in their view, is conducting hostile business way too close to their borders. Hopefully Discovery will find interesting ways to explore current-day issues within this framework.
But the scenes with the Klingons are perhaps the biggest problem of these first two episodes. While there are hints here that we will see this conflict play out long-term at least partially from the Klingon point of view (there are flashbacks here to T'Kuvma's childhood), the scenes here feel painfully repetitive, and the over-the-top way they've redesigned the Klingons to be so otherworldly — almost creature-like — makes them feel shallower rather than deeper. There's also the problem of the subtitles in every scene with the Klingons. I understand that, yeah, these guys have their own language, but between the heavy prosthetics, the subtitles, the cultural mumbo-jumbo, and the vocal bass-o-meter, all semblance of coherent performances beyond "GROWL!" are completely lost and make the Klingons into cardboard villains rather than interesting or complex adversaries. This needs work. (The production design of the Klingon sarcophagus vessel is amazingly full of impressive visual detail, but that's not enough to carry these scenes along.)
A standoff between the Shenzhou and the Klingons ensues, and we get some welcome, if familiar, Trekkian debate about peace, diplomacy, and strategy, with Burnham convinced the Klingons are here to start a war while Georgiou urges level-headed caution. Saru just wants to get outta Dodge. Burnham's "expertise" regarding the Klingons is informed by flashbacks to her youth and conversations with her stepfather, none other than Sarek (James Frain); she was raised from a child on Vulcan after her parents were killed in a Klingon attack. But I was less than convinced about the titular "Vulcan hello" that is central to Burnham's key decision to first urge Georgiou to preemptively attack the Klingons, and, when Georgiou refuses, to stage a mutiny to do it unilaterally.
You see, the tale of the "Vulcan hello" was a logically calculated always-fire-first tactic the Vulcans adopted against the Klingons once upon a time to gain their respect through displays of strength, which eventually led to the establishment of diplomatic relations. I have my doubts that this could make sense and not simply enrage the Klingons into starting a war, and I also have my doubts about Burnham thinking it's a sound strategy here — to the extent that she would betray her own captain/mentor, render her unconscious (via a Vulcan nerve pinch) and try to single-handedly cut the head off the Klingon threat herself. She fails, because Georgiou regains consciousness in time to stop her (right around the time all the Klingon reinforcements show up). It seems like an insane gamble based on faulty logic, but Burnham seems absolutely certain about it. I don't know; something is off here.
Most of both episodes are carried by Martin-Green's strong and calibrated performance, which tries to balance the cool Vulcan detachment with an undercurrent of volatile emotion. (Watch how personal she makes it about saving her mentor, her captain, even as she claims it's the logical right move detached from her personal history with the Klingons.) There is a conflict here. Granted, this is a conflict we saw before with another certain Vulcan who was also raised by Sarek (and who is not mentioned here), and it will be hard for Discovery to live up to that template. It will need to find its own unique way of doing so. We spend some helpful time in flashback exploring Burnham's arrival on the Shenzhou seven years ago at Sarek's recommendation, when she was much more Vulcan-like. Discovery suggests its character development will be an ongoing journey where we'll learn more over time.
"Battle at the Binary Stars" documents the shooting war that erupts (perhaps too hastily) between the Klingon fleet and Starfleet reinforcements, while Burnham herself sits most of the battle in the brig for her attempted mutiny. She has conversations with Sarek (via a mind-meld-enabled telepathic link across light-years of space, which, if real and not imagined, is really pushing it in terms of Vulcan mental abilities) and also the ship's computer (which she talks into ethically letting her out of the half-destroyed brig through unassailable logic). The battles feature the requisite sound and fury and VFX — well-rendered and acceptable but not especially original, and with some moments of questionable strategy/logic.
A plan is hatched late in the game to smuggle an explosive onto T'Kuvma's ship to disable it, which our heroes do with some clever trickery by putting the bomb in a Klingon corpse (which T'Kuvma is obsessed with collecting — a piece of business that runs counter to established Klingon lore and something I hope the writers eventually have an explanation for). Burnham and Georgiou then beam aboard the Klingon flagship in a plan that seems like it should've maybe involved more crew members.
In the course of this plan, Georgiou is killed as Burnham watches helplessly, which we probably should've seen coming. T'Kuvma is also killed, just when it looked like he was the show's Big Bad; we now see he was only a temporary placeholder pending what will essentially be a second pilot next week. The fact T'Kuvma is so easily replaced without us much caring is not a testament to this show's ability to create individually compelling Klingon characters. Hopefully time will improve this, as well as other rough edges on Discovery.
In the aftermath of the battle which marks the beginning of the war, Burnham faces a court-martial for mutiny and is handed a life sentence in prison. Clearly she'll be given some sort of reprieve, but this sets her up to have compromised integrity when she gets to her next assignment, however that will happen. Putting the protagonist at her nadir is an intriguing way to start a show.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the casting of Discovery given the current political climate, where there's almost an irrationally reflexive backlash to promoting or even acknowledging diversity in certain corners. Casting Martin-Green as the series lead (and Yeoh as co-lead, at least for two episodes) is in keeping with the long-standing tradition of Trek's embracing of diversity — and, of course, a complete non-issue within the story itself. It's a notable attribute that of course will not make or break this series.
Just what will Discovery become over the remaining 13 episodes of this season? Will there be episodes that aren't about the war with the Klingons? Will there be some exploration and discovery? Or will this show run its wartime setting through an unremitting singular focus like Galactica did? We shall see. The pilot does what it must do — moves Star Trek into the modern streaming age under new creative leadership, refreshing the franchise while also staying mostly true to its most precious rules and attitudes. (If you want a retro throwback that lives in the past, The Orville is airing on Fox.)
Considering we haven't even seen the USS Discovery yet, I have few predictions of where this might go. But I am very interested in finding out.
Note: Expect future reviews to be significantly shorter than this.
See also: Should you pay for CBS All Access?
Next episode: Context Is for Kings