Risk is our business. That famous line from Captain Kirk lays out the essential ethos of Star Trek — that the wild and wooly galaxy that our heroes explore is full of pitfalls and dangers, but also of unfathomable possibilities, there to be discovered. As I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, the premiere of the aptly-titled Star Trek Discovery embraces that franchise philosophy, giving it form in the sort of distillation and debate and that once fueled its 1960s counterpart.
On one side of that debate is our protagonist, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who relishes exploration, enjoys taking chances, and is ready and willing to shoot first. On the other side is Lt. Saru (Doug Jones), who embodies the cautiousness of an alien species bred to be prey. And in the middle is Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) of the U.S.S. Shenzhou, who has to find the middle ground between the wants and worries of her two chief advisors.
It’s the type of dynamic The Original Series leaned on heavily, with Spock as the cold logician, Bones the hot-blooded humanist, and Kirk the leader of men who had to somehow split the difference. But Discovery’s three-man band differs from its predecessor’s in more ways than just its welcome lack of monochrome. While the 1960s series often focused on the amount of logic versus emotion that should go into decision-making, fifty years later, its successor seems more interested in the notion of how much risk we should take when our lives, and the lives of the people we care about, are on the line.
The touchstone for that point of contention, as it so often is in Star Trek, is some unknown object in space giving off funny readings. Naturally, Burnham wants to go check it out; Saru wants to leave it alone, and Georgiou comes up with a measured response that allows for some investigation with set limits meant to minimize the danger. Burnham seizes the opportunity to check out the unknown object that caught the sensors’ eye, and while walking along its surface, she encounters a space-suited Klingon, bat’leth in tow. That chance she took leads to combat, self-defense, and a desperate escape.
The Klingon she scraps with is a follower of T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), the leader of a ship full of hardcore zealots devoted to the “Light of Kahless.” He speaks of Klingon unity and aims to light a beacon fated to reunite the twenty-four Klingon houses in opposition to the perceived threat of the Federation. It’s his ship, covered with the coffins of his fallen countrymen, that emerges in the aftermath of Burnham’s skirmish, and poses the next major threat for Captain Georgiou.
After a daring escape and rescue, Burnham consults with her adoptive father, Sarek (James Frain, who plays the Vulcan ambassador as much snootier and less detached than Mark Leonard did), and concludes that the Shenzhou should fire on the Klingons first — claiming it’s the only language they’ll understand. Lt. Saru, naturally, advises caution and retreat, declaring that his meek species survived by sensing deadly situations, and that he senses one now. The Captain chooses to stick to Starfleet guidelines and not engage unless provoked.
But, in the end, Burnham defies the chain of command, going so far as to give her captain the Vulcan nerve pinch in order to try to assume command and fire on the enemy vessel. Captain Georgiou recovers in time to halt her second-in-command at the business end of a phaser, but by that point it doesn’t really matter. T’Kuvma lights the beacon, and a swarm of Klingon ships emerge, leaving the crew of the Shenzhou heavily outgunned until their backup arrives. Burnham was wrong about the risks posed by the object, but right about the threat posed by the enemy ship.
It’s a hell of an opening statement from Discovery, one that, on its surface, seems to fly in the face Star Trek’s exploratory, diplomatic philosophy. (And it’s also a somewhat cheesy enticement to convince people to purchase CBS’s new subscription streaming service to catch the end of the cliffhanger.) But it also suggests a show that’s poised to explore new wrinkles in Starfleet’s mission to patrol the galaxy and seek out new life and new civilizations.
In Star Trek, humanity’s journey through the stars is not a painless one, but rather one fraught with adversaries who may attack you on sight, who may not prove receptive to your message, and who may even disdain your very existence. There is a cost to roaming the frontier, a peril in the unknown, and Discovery’s first outing brings that peril to the forefront.
It’s the sort of danger that emerges from the clash of civilizations that appears to be another likely throughline for Discovery’s first season. The new series doesn’t open with a recitation of the usual hallowed word. Instead, it opens with a demagogue rallying his people around the notion that the Starfleet mantra of “We come in peace” is a false promise. To T’Kuvma, the Federation is not a herald of paradise; it’s a threat to Klingon purity, to the sanctity of their traditions and way of life, that must be fended off before it engulfs all that they believe in.
It’s a perspective that speaks to the march of multiculturalism, and the equal and opposite reaction to it from those who fear their personal cultures will be overwritten — a theme that’s all too relevant, as Star Trek should be, in light of current events. T’Kuvma isn’t afraid of Starfleet as a military threat; he’s afraid of it as a cultural one. Any confederation that would blend humans, Vulcans, Tellarites, and Andorians is anathema to the Klingon hardliners who worry that the same sort of melting pot will extinguish the unique Klingon identity.
That is what T’Kuvma is fighting for. That’s why he tries to unify the warring houses. That’s his angry response to a broadening world that’s encroaching on his space.
These are weighty, salient themes, and Discovery’s two part premiere — “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” — feels true to the franchise’s roots by wrapping its investigations of strange objects, space-battles, and hand-to-hand fights in those broader ideas. Despite that, the first episodes of Discovery often falter when it comes to capturing the “feel” of Star Trek for lack of a better term.
The new series says and does all the right things. It kicks off a compelling conflict, ably introduces its characters, and throws in a few classic sound effects to soothe the diehards. But it doesn’t seem like Discovery occupies the same space, literally or figuratively, of its predecessors.
Part of that impression comes from the series’ visuals. Make no mistake, this is the finest Star Trek has ever looked on the small screen. CBS and Paramount clearly spared no expense in terms of the production design, the special effects, and the kinetic action sequences that pop up throughout the series’ opening hours.
But that is, in a peculiar way, part of the problem. Despite officially existing as part of the “prime” Star Trek timeline, Discovery takes most of its visual cues from the J.J. Abrams reboot films. The Shenzhou is a dark-tinted cousin of Chris Pine’s Enterprise, with floor-to-ceiling viewscreens, holographic projections of superior officers, and fancy touchscreen interfaces all over the place. The episodes’ frames are filled with Dutch angles and those notorious lens flares. Even the series’ opening credits, which drip with gorgeous iconography, are a page out of the Marvel Netflix playbook rather than a point-of-view tour through space.
This is a slicker, darker, fancier version of Star Trek. On the one hand, that’s an exciting, arguably necessary direction in which to evolve the franchise. But on the other, it just doesn’t feel like home yet.
It doesn’t help (though maybe it should) that the dialogue and performances are uneven throughout Discovery’s two-part premiere. As all opening episodes must to some extent, the series’ debut features countless info dumps, “as you know”-style statements, and relationship-establishing scenes that are too obvious as de jure new show boilerplate.
Comments like “The only word to describe it is wow” would make the writers of Contact blush. On-the-nose statements about choosing hope sting the ears. And while the hard-edged lyricism (and subtitles) of Klingon boasting covers for some of these issues, there’s plenty of the faux-profundity and stilted character declarations that have infected much of “serious” sci-fi of late.
That’s why I’m inclined to give Sonequa Martin-Green, the show’s lead, a bit of a pass for her weaker moments in the premiere. In The Walking Dead, Martin-Green was often grouped with characters who used a certain kind of fanciful verbiage and cadence. That lent itself to a theatrical, mannered air in Martin-Green’s delivery, and she’s not quite rid of it despite making the leap from zombies to the Xindi. But when not spitting out the premiere’s rougher dialogue, she excels at selling confidence, desperation, and even the old Vulcan detachment creaking toward emotion to help carry the hour.
That’s helpful since her character’s personal journey makes up other main arc of the premiere, (and presumably the series). Raised by Vulcans, living with humans, and resentful of Klingons, Burnham exists at the inflection point between the three species at the center of the premiere. While the “they killed my parents” backstory is generic, and the connection to an established Star Trek family is strained, the notion of how Burnham balances her human heart with her Vulcan teachings and channels both toward a species that made her an orphan is fruitful territory for the new series to explore.
It also dovetails nicely with the attention Discovery pays to race, and the challenges of existing in multiple worlds but not finding full acceptance or understanding in any of them. Burnham’s presence on the Shenzhou is paralleled with Voq, an albino Klingon on T’Kuvma’s ship. He too is an orphan, one whose leader sees a unique value and potential in him, who faces challenges because of who he is and how he differs from the usual and expected. Both Burnham and Voq lose a great deal in the battle that ensues, one spurred, in part, by how their two cultures view one another, and themselves.
So much of Star Trek is about managing the risks of such encounters. The premiere of Discovery is good but not great, with questionable material in its visuals, performances, and writing. But the strength of the nascent show comes from its premise, its themes, and its willingness to confront the good and bad of that animating, exploratory philosophy at the heart of the franchise.
There’s a cost to charting the untamed wilds of the galaxy and trying to make first contact (or at least new contact) with alien species. More than a few folks in prior Star Trek incarnations have paid the price for it, but they were typically guest stars or redshirts whose demise made less of an impact. Discovery, by contrast, features Starfleet commanders following the underlying principles of the Federation and suffering major losses for it, while a relative outsider bristles at these tactics which, oddly enough, leave her sharing the philosophy of the Klingons whom she wishes to attack.
Risk is still Star Trek’s business, but it can be a harsh business, where who you are, what you stand for, and how you view the faces on the other side of the viewscreen can dictate whether you seek out new life, or seek to end it. Discovery’s promise lies in its exploration of the distance between those two choices, both for individuals and the cultures that help create them.