“The only word to effectively describe it is….wow.”
So speaks new Star Trek hero Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as she approached a mysterious object in an early scene of the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery, and while it isn’t quite the perfect summary of the series opener it’s a damn sight closer than anyone could have expected it to be.
You see, there’s been a lot of negative buzz around this new Star Trek TV series, the first depiction of the franchise on the small screen since 2005’s Enterprise. Lost showrunners. Frequent delays. Banned reviews. The fact that the whole thing seemed mostly aimed to sell series makers CBS’ knock-off Netflix service CBS All Access (which fans in America will have to pay to use for every episode bar the opener – the rest of the world is mostly getting it on Netflix).
No, the signs weren’t good. But happily for us all Discovery has confounded those expectations to create a rollicking piece of television, paying tribute to the legacy of the half-century-old franchise while taking it to pastures new. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun, and so it’s frankly a bit of a mystery to me why they kept reviews so heavily embargoed. There’s not THAT much in the way of plot twists to spoil, so it does seem like they’ve missed the opportunity for some nice buzz. Oh well.
The first couple of episodes focus on new lead character Michael Burnham, First Officer of the USS Shenzou (in a nice touch she’s nicknamed Number One like Jonathan Frakes’ Riker in The Next Generation and Majel Barrett’s original female First Officer in the later-recast 1960s series pilot) under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Notably, she’s the first non-captain lead character in Star Trek history (well, Sisko was a Captain later), which immediately leads to a slightly different feel.
Raised by Vulcans after her parents were killed (her backstory is drip fed throughout the two-part opener), Michael has found purpose in the work of the Federation – but when the Shenzou encounters Klingons on the edge of unified space she’s put into a difficult situation with some seriously dramatic aftereffects.
To describe too much more would give away some of the more exciting moments in the opening episodes, but suffice to say it’s a thornier plot than Star Trek pilots usually deliver, and definitely free of original series creator Gene Rodenderry’s infamous edict that fellow crew-members shouldn’t have serious longstanding conflicts with each other.
And the differences don’t stop there. Rather than introducing you to the crew and the ship at the start Discovery throws viewers in at the deep end, jumping straight into the action as Michael space-walks her way into a diplomatic incident and culminating in a tremendous space battle that has consequences stretching far beyond these opening episodes.
Discovery is longer-form, serialised storytelling, something a bit different to Trek’s traditionally episodic format in the MAJORITY of series (no, we’re still not ignoring Deep Space Nine) but laid out here with some considerable confidence. We don’t even meet the majority of the main cast in these first two episodes which is a brave move for a brand-new series, but the story is action-packed enough that you barely notice.
Of course, it’s not a perfect introduction by a long shot – a lot of the dialogue is overloaded with exposition at this early stage, the new Klingon makeup seems to suffocate the poor actors inside it, some of the performances are a bit wooden and one crucial plot point doesn’t QUITE make sense when you think about it for more than five seconds– but the two episodes released so far have been thoroughly entertaining TV that for me managed to hold onto Star Trek’s roots while having the nerve to slightly shift the format (though I’m sure some will have strong opinions disagreeing with me on that).
And if nothing else, episode one features what must be the most dramatically shocking, plot-essential and character-driven use of the Vulcan nerve pinch in Star Trek history. That’s at least worth a quick watch on its own.
Star Trek: Discovery is streaming on Netflix UK from Monday 25th September