The last Star Trek show went off the air 12 years ago, but the glory days were already long gone by then. Inspiration departed somewhere between the Borg’s arrival on Voyager and the end of Deep Space Nine. The rhythms of Trek TV became familiar, torpid. The franchise has lived recently on the big screen, but J.J. Abrams’ films already have a tortured history, so much kinetic promise sent running in place through rehashed story points three decades old. Could a new ongoing series revive this brand? Should any franchise last 51 years?
Star Trek: Discovery launches this week, a late step by CBS into the world of streaming. The release already feels a bit strange. The first hour aired on CBS this Sunday, with the second hour immediately available on CBS All Access. But they’re really one complete story – a secret Star Trek movie, I’d argue, better looking than any of the Next Generation films, more clever than Star Trek Beyond. The first two chapters are also essentially a prologue; next Sunday’s episode is the true pilot. You want to playfully jab our old pals at CBS – is this the programming strategy version of your parents asking how to get to Netflix from OnDemand? – but it’s worth remembering that Star Trek‘s release patterns have always been messy. The original series needed two pilots, too, and the first episode aired was the sixth filmed.
In the first two hours, there wasn’t a trek, disappointingly little discovery. But the star! Sonequa Martin-Green is Commander Michael Burnham, and she is a commanding presence, weary and excited, bemused and desperate, never less than fully engaged. There’s a deadpan requirement to playing a Starfleet officer, the fussy senior-officer banter-feuds, the formal familiarity of a work-family where everyone has a rank. In early scenes on the U.S.S. Shenzhou, she’s dismissive of fearful science officer Saru (Doug Jones), and she’s in awe of her dashing Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).
But when the Shenzhou finds a mysterious thing shrouded in mysterious space, Burnham’s quick to volunteer for a space walk, launching into the unknown. The outer-space effects are impressive – hot damn this thing looks expensive! – but what really sells the moment is Burnham’s enthusiasm. It’s infectious. Martin-Green laughs, dodges a few asteroids. Soon, she’s musing idly that “sculpture is crystallized spirituality,” the kind of fifty-dollar philosi-phrase William Shatner used to declaim weekly. And much later, when Burnham fights an albino Klingon mano-a-mano, there’s a moment when the alien warrior grabs her head, and the scream Martin-Green lets out is pure pain and primal rage, like Matthew Modine doing his war face in Full Metal Jacket.
There’s some hip androgyny in Burnham’s presentation here, the Ruby Rose haircut and the must-have-cool-parents first name. But Trek was doing fluidity and parity decades ago. Just as impressive, I think, is how Martin-Green latches onto some essential Trek protagonist ideal. Call it dutiful toughness. Blasted full of radiation, she strolls out of sick bay covered in burns. Held captive in her own ship’s brig, she argues ethics with a computer so she can jump through space without a spacesuit. With equivalent material, Chris Pine played his Kirk with physical comedy and flop-sweating tension. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer Burnham’s no-bull professionalism.
Martin-Green’s performance is great in another way: She’s covering up some very strange, rather hazy characterization. Burnham’s got a tragic past, see, which we learn about all the time. She’s also got a fan-service father: Ambassador Sarek, originally played by Mark Lenard, now by James Frain. There’s some vague notion put forward that she’s struggling with her human ancestry and her Vulcan upbringing. When she’s a kid, Sarek says her “human heart” is a problem. Later, in Part 2, Captain Georgiou says the Vulcans built a shell around her.
Maybe the point is to be confusing, but look, can we admit that we’ve maybe covered this whole “MY HUMAN SIDE IS STRUGGLING WITH MY VULCAN SIDE!” thing? And the Sarek stuff is the first sign that Discovery‘s got some kinks to work out. In the middle of a high-tension battle situation, with a Klingon ship on the Federation frontier threatening warfare, Burnham makes a bold choice…to run to her quarters and place a holographic FaceTime call to her emotionally distant father figure. Later, in the middle of an even more high-tension battle situation, Burnham receives a mindmeld Skype call from Sarek, who tells her to never give up, Master Bruce, we only fall to pick ourselves up again.
There’s a great foundational idea in Discovery‘s first two parts. After an ambling prologue set on a desert planet, we’re essentially watching one long space battle, a space-submarine duel between two forces who don’t quite have each other’s measure. We frequently leave the Shenzhou to hang out with T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), an upstart Klingon warlord who seeks to unite his race against Starfleet. He declares a passionate need for self-preservation, and runs his campaign under the banner to “Remain Klingon.” Oh yeah, he’s a nationalist, convincing his followers that they’ve been victimized by peaceniks, declaring a shared identity based on opposition to multiculturalism. If this sounds sane, you probably voted for the guy who lost the popular vote, but Discovery‘s treatment of T’Kuvma trends mythic. On this show, the Klingons wear Hellraiser costumes, and their spaceships look like Antoni Gaudí dreamscapes. T’Kuvma’s flagship is covered in coffins containing Klingon bodies, some of them thousands of years old.
This is one of the single most florid pieces of production design in Star Trek‘s long history. The show could use more stuff like that! The second hour opts for less clever decadence, sending the forces of Starfleet into a pitched battle with a Klingon fleet. There really are a lot of spaceships, but the strategy gets a bit hazy. There are odd decisions made by commanding officers who should know better: A ship left unprotected for collision, an explosive snuck onto another ship via corpse delivery. There are a lot of writing credits on these first two episodes, including Bryan Fuller, the gloriously strange TV creator behind Hannibal and American Gods. Fuller departed Discovery early in production, and I’m loathe to attribute any specific story points to him. But there are gloriously strange flourishes, and then there are bizarre narrative shorthands. We get tragic flashbacks for Burnham and for T’Kuvma, overly dramatic and inert. And at one point, Captain Georgiou casually mentions she’s lived a life of hardship but never lost hope, a line that sounds like a Wikipedia character summary.
Yeoh’s great, by the way, in a role that’s more stunt-casting than character-building. Discovery turns on a complicated decision Burnham makes – SPOILER ALERT – to stage a mutiny against her beloved Captain. She thinks she is doing the right thing, and you’d be more intrigued by her decision if it wasn’t based on information received via cross-galactic Stepdad exposition dump. And truthfully, I’m not quite sure this decision is quite as complicated as the show wants it to be. (We know the Klingons are up to no good; every time we see T’Kuvma, he’s giving a speech about launching all-out war.) Georgiou feels betrayed by Burnham, but she also goes into battle with her in the rushed climax. It’s a kick to see Yeoh and Martin-Green in action, but [puts on nerdlinger glasses] perhaps, when one is planning a bold mission to capture an enemy warrior whose imprisonment could stop intergalactic war, one maybe ought to bring a full squad of Starfleet officers, and not just the one person whose character arc will be most impacted by your tragic death.
But there’s an undeniable appeal to the table-flipping premise behind these first two hours: The introduction of a new ship, the revelation that we’re watching that ship’s final voyage, the cliffhanger possibility that our new hero is a fallen angel. I’ve seen the third episode, and it more clearly establishes the storytelling foundation for Discovery, suggesting that the remaining producers have clearly conceived how to take the basic Star Trek formula and complicate it. The third episode also introduces certain key members of the supporting cast, not to mention the titular ship. You respect the ambition of unspooling this story gradually, but the third episode also retroactively makes the two-part prologue feel even more overextended. This feels like a show struggling to find its heart. But at least Martin-Green gives it a pulse.
Two Hour Premiere: B
First Three Episodes: B+