Back in 2005, Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air and ended Trek’s continuous run on television that started with Star Trek: The Next Generation back in 1987. But now, Star Trek returns to the small screen with Star Trek: Discovery, and, presumably, also returns to the “Prime Universe” that J.J. Abrams left behind in his 2009 film and its sequels.
The series is set 10 years before the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy, in what is now the third straight pre-TOS Star Trek instalment. Many fans have raised questions as to why a show that’s meant to explore humanity’s future keeps finding itself in the mid-23rd century rather than the unexplored 25th century, as it’s not like there aren’t Trek stories to tell in the post-Voyager galaxy. Yet, still 15 years after its release, with the majority of Enterprise’s run, the three alternative universe films, and now Discovery between it and the present, Star Trek: Nemesis remains the canonical story set furthest in the future. Maybe we’ll see 25th century Star Trek one day, but it may be the 25th century before that happens.
The look of Discovery is absolutely phenomenal. For the first time on television, the aliens of Star Trek actually look alien, as the obviously plastic ridges and masks that several races donned in the previous series are gone. The new Klingon design is far more intimidating than their look in previous Trek instalments, which fits well with their renewed role as the Federation’s primary antagonists (though it does raise continuity issues that thousands of Trekkies can be found complaining about endlessly). Similarly, Lt. Commander Saru, who is a member of the newly introduced species called the Kelpiens, becomes the first distinctly non-human looking main character for Star Trek (Tuvok’s ears, Worf’s ridges, and Data’s complexion don’t make those characters look drastically less human). Hopefully future episodes will include classic Trek species like the Andorians and Tellarites, and give them the visual update they deserve as well.
The Shenzhou itself is a beautiful ship, not too different from the vessels in the alternate universe films, though its evidently modern design raises in-universe questions as to why Starfleet decor regressed back about fifty years over the course of a decade. While it’s obvious from a production standpoint why the vessels in Discovery look more futuristic than those of the original series, it may be disconcerting for hardcore Trekkies that the show is unwilling to dial back it’s visual style to fit more in line with canon. Truthfully, the ships certainly seem like they would fit in better in the 25th century than the 23rd, a wasted opportunity on CBS’s part, but if Discovery can keep fans invested in its own story, then most fans will likely be willing to hand-wave the aesthetic differences away (who knows, maybe ship designers in the 2260s are real hipsters and like the old school look better?).
The first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” show us the first major conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, which is the starting point for the hostilities between the two that will last for almost half a century. For this conflict, we’re introduced to the U.S.S. Shenzhou and her senior staff: Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Lt. Commander Saru (Doug Jones). We also meet T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) a fanatical Klingon religious leader who is attempting to reunite the disorganized and warring Great Houses that make up the Empire.
Unfortunately for Discovery, both Yeoh and Martin-Green provide bland performances in the pilot, reading through awkward and stilted dialogue with a general sense of disinterest. In fairness, previous Trek pilots were also plagued with poor writing and awkward acting, which gradually improved as the show went on, so not all hope is lost. Both Obi and Jones provide good performances though, and T’Kuvma’s tirade against the Federation in the opening scenes really instills the threat the Klingons pose in this new series.
“The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” follow the same formula as Voyager’s pilot, as we’re introduced to the overarching conflict of the series quickly and we’re shown the events that will begin the development of the characters. But when Voyager introduced its characters, we were given a sense of who they were before they were whisked away to the Delta Quadrant to begin the long journey home. The major fault of Discovery’s pilot is that it doesn’t feel like a pilot. This may have been intentional as Aaron Harberts, one of the show’s executive producers, said that “[these episodes] form a two-part ‘prologue’ of sorts, with the third episode ‘Context is for Kings’ being the pilot,” but it’s a strange beginning regardless. When the U.S.S. Shenzhou was investigating a mysterious alien artifact, it felt quintessentially Trek, but after the Klingons appear and Burnham’s backstory is unceremoniously dumped on us, the story just becomes a series of events leading to the battle with no time to provide a deeper understanding of the characters. In many ways, it feels like the first episode should have ended after Burnham’s initial contact with the Klingons, which would have given more time to delve into the characters we’ll be following for the rest of the season. By the end of “Battle at the Binary Stars,” only Martin-Green’s character had been explored at any length, but was still generally unlikable (though she does seem better in the preview for the next episode).
Based off these first episodes, Star Trek: Discovery has a lot of potential, and it’ll be interesting to see the ramifications the battle will have for the Federation and for Commander Burnham. As pilots go, it may have been a shaky start, but after 12 years without Star Trek on TV, it’s still exciting to know that we’re off to the final frontier, to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before.
(Featured Image: Star Trek: Discovery, CBS)