How you choose to budget your money for television viewing is an understandably personal choice. But listen up, “Star Trek” fans: sign up for your CBS All Access account now, because the most exciting and daring take on the franchise is happening there, and even if you don’t love it right out of the gate, it’s going to create conversations you won’t want to miss.
“Star Trek: Discovery,” the first new “Trek” series in 16 years, feels welcomely familiar and also surprisingly fresh, bringing together established iconography and new ideas for a series that, based on the first three episodes screened for critics, exists in a space where nothing, including the status quo, is safe. This is a story about exploration and adventure, but also a story in dialogue with the core values of this franchise, and what those values require of these characters.
“Discovery” is set 10 years before “Star Trek: The Original Series,” and, in case you didn’t know, takes place in the prime “Star Trek” universe, not the alternate universe (AKA the “Kelvin-verse”) created by the 2009 J.J. Abrams film. Rather than depict a peaceful era of Federation history, the series plunges viewers into a rising conflict with the Klingons (perhaps “Trek’s” most iconic alien baddies), showing what happens when a principled organization like Starfleet finds itself contending with the realities of war.
One of the show’s biggest choices is its most daring: While most “Trek” series have always ostensibly been ensemble series led by the captain of the crew, “Discovery” flips the script by focusing the action on a single protagonist — one who isn’t in charge of her ship. Instead, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) begins the series serving as first officer on the U.S.S. Shenzhou under Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and that’s only the beginning of her journey.
It’s one of the series’ boldest choices, one that would fall apart without the right star. But Martin-Green’s performance inspires the use of words like “revelation,” bringing grace and strength and joy and darkness to the role in a way that makes Burnham feel fully realized after only a few episodes.
By the end of the two-part series premiere, the Federation finds itself in a less-than-peaceful situation, a conflict resolved before James T. Kirk and the Enterprise began their five-year mission, but one that will undoubtedly drive much of the action as “Discovery” moves forward with a take on space exploration that’s relatively new to the “Trek” franchise.
A number of recent prestige films grounded in science, from “The Martian” to “Gravity” to “Interstellar,” have highlighted one common theme: Space is scary. Because, you know, it is! Doesn’t matter how good their tech is, doesn’t matter how much they train — launching human beings into the airless, heatless void between planets is fundamentally terrifying to some degree, given how much potential for death exists. Why would any sane person take that sort of chance?
The answer to that question, let’s be clear, is written at least once across Burnham’s face during these early episodes, as it would be on the face of any brave soul willing to dive into the unknown. Space might be scary, but there’s the potential for joy as well, because it’s the most beautiful of dreams, the idea of exploring a new frontier for the simple purpose of expanding our own knowledge. It’s something that “Discovery” celebrates more than once.
That said, this noble and high-minded attitude is more complicated here than it’s been in “Trek” series of the past. These shows have always showcased an underlying current of optimism, of faith in the ideal of unity triumphing over divisiveness in the name of greater knowledge — a faith essential to enabling these brave Starfleet ships to explore brave new worlds. While that optimism is actively present in “Discovery,” it’s also accompanied by a keen awareness that this optimism does not come easy. It has a price, at times a heavy one, and the characters here are at times in conflict about whether or not it’s worth paying.
Martin-Green, as mentioned, is indelible as the lead, but the supporting cast also features plenty of strong performances. In the first two episodes, Yeoh brings a quiet strength to the captain’s chair, James Frain, inheriting the role of Sarek from Mark Lenard, nails that essential Vulcan essence, and Doug Jones, playing second officer Saru, once again proves why he’s Guillermo del Toro’s go-to guy for finding the humanity within the most alien of creatures.
The third episode, meanwhile, will introduce a fair number of new cast members, with early standouts including Anthony Rapp as science officer Stamets and Mary Wiseman as a young cadet who offers the series some welcome comic relief. In addition, Jason Isaacs, as Captain Gabriel Lorca of the Discovery, isn’t afraid to let a little weirdness drift into his performance, which matches nicely with the fact that fundamentally, a spark of general oddness is embedded in the show.
Much has been made of the fact that CBS invested heavily in “Star Trek: Discovery” to make sure it looked good, and in fact its effects are undoubtedly top tier — the cinematography truly striking, especially when the camera takes in the view outside. There are details that make this show sing, such as the fact that space is treated as a 360 degree environment, meaning that ships don’t necessarily line up on a horizontal axis. Because after all, as Burnham says in the trailer released at Comic-Con, sometimes “down is up.”
“Discovery” is launching under the cloud of behind-the-scenes drama following the departure of initial showrunner Bryan Fuller, whose name still graces the credits of the show more than once but whom cut ties with the series nearly a year ago. Without knowing the troubled development history of this show, would we have picked up on some of the awkward script moments in the first two episodes, especially some flimsy plotting in the lead-up to the climax? Perhaps. But there are fewer issues than might have been anticipated, and even when the dialogue drifts into exposition territory, it’s the sort of Trekkian exposition that’s always been a staple of the franchise.
Every “Star Trek” series has introduced new species. Every “Star Trek” series, by and large, has introduced new ideas. This is what’s kept the franchise going for decades, and while “Discovery” is fundamentally quite different from much of the “Trek” that’s come before, its engagement with the franchise, and willingness to both celebrate and examine its core values, keep it true to that spirit. The road ahead might be uncertain, and darker than usual. But the stars still shine above.