❉ We get to explore more strange new worlds and new civilisations…
No Spoilers Review
With episode one airing on American network TV and episode two being made available online immediately afterwards, it’s a very odd way to launch a new series: the two episodes are clearly individual parts of one story, and although the rest of the season looks set to continue where they left off, the first two episodes are very much a single story, and would have had far more of an impact if shown as one, particularly as the second half of the story is stronger than the first (by necessity; much of the first episode is set-up, and the pay-off comes at the story’s conclusion).
So, is it worth watching, particularly when new kid on the block, The Orville, seems determined to offer a series even more in the vein of Star Trek than Star Trek itself (and, after a tonally bizarre first episode, has definitely started to find its feet by episode three)? In a word: yes. This may not be the Star Trek you know (the technology has moved on and there are things happening on-screen that previous production teams could only have dreamed of), but the story seems set to do something new with the franchise while still being set in the Star Trek universe that you grew up with. Yes, these Klingons may look a little different (the reasoning being that this is only one branch of the species), but they’re still Klingons and the crew of the USS Shenzhou behave exactly as you’d expect Starfleet officers to behave.
If you’re worried about the continuity inherent in a franchise which has seen six TV series (yes, I do count TAS) and three different film franchises, with multiple instalments of each, then don’t; there’s nothing here that a newcomer couldn’t pick up on quite quickly, whilst for long-time fans there’s nothing here to contradict what you already know. In short, this is set around ten years before the original series, and in the same continuity, as opposed to the new continuity of the JJ Abrams films.
For reasons I can’t spoil, it’s difficult to say what the rest of the series is going to be like (this is very much a prologue to the season), but give it a chance; this looks like it might turn out to be very interesting indeed.
Very spoilery review
For a time there it looked as though the 2010s were going to be the first decade since the 1950s to not offer us a new season of Star Trek. The rights to Star Trek are owned by CBS, but back in 2006 the company split in two with CBS retaining the TV rights and Viacom owning the film rights. With the JJ Abrams relaunched Star Trek film series about to enter production, an agreement was reached between the two that CBS couldn’t launch a new TV series until six months after the release of the third film in the new series. Star Trek Beyond was released in summer 2016, which is why Discovery was originally supposed to arrive in January 2017 – CBS were eager to begin as soon as possible. As pleased as I am by the new films, I still see them very much as an alternative to “real” Star Trek; that is, stories set in the prime universe in the timeframe we now know so well…perhaps too well, because when word started to leak out that the new series would be set post-Enterprise but pre-TOS, fans were concerned that it would either ignore continuity or embrace continuity too much. Why not just do what TNG did and pop a hundred years into the future, that way you can re-discover the universe again. (I tended to find this approach the most likely to launch a successful series – you could use as much of the original continuity as you wanted, and if you disliked the, say, Ferengi, could just have someone say “Oh, remember when the Ferengi were wiped out by those new people from the Epsilon Quadrant?” It would have been a fresh start. Looking at Discovery, I admit I was wrong – there are still new stories to tell in an era we almost know, and the gaps seem particularly interesting.
So, there’s this bunch of religious Klingons on a ridiculously old spaceship, ready to draw the disparate, warring houses of the empire back together again and take on the Federation whose territory has been growing substantially. As opening stories go, this one’s pretty full on, yet I was impressed by how little any prior knowledge of the series mattered – the Klingons are obviously a warrior race, and they don’t like the good guys. That’s what new viewers would have taken from this, and they wouldn’t have been confused by much of it – it’s a quite masterful use of continuity which (redesign of the Klingons aside) is going to keep everyone happy – and you need to keep everyone happy because long-term Star Trek fans are a pretty vocal bunch if they think something’s wrong, and no one wants them putting off the new viewers, who are potentially coming to this with no real knowledge of Star Trek at all (because it’s been off air for twelve years, and that’s almost two generations of TV viewers).
How we view this story is through Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her first officer Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green), as well as in the company of the bridge officers of their ship the USS Shenzhou, which has been (I really did warn you about the spoilers) blown up by the end of the second episode, and the Captain’s been killed by the Klingons. Burnham herself is disgraced for her act of mutiny when she tried to force the Captain into attacking the Kingons first, and she’s just been sentenced to imprisonment by Starfleet. We’ve had some excitement, some intrigued, and then a bloody massive space battle which looked both expensive and gorgeous on TV.
I have no idea where the series is going. I like this. I like this a lot, because even though we’ve now seen a trailer for what’s coming up, I don’t really have any idea what’s coming up. This is new territory, yet the backstory between Starfleet and the Klingons is one well worth exploring, and I think the season will do that as a season arc whilst we still get to explore some strange new worlds and new civilisations.
Burnham’s a human, but was raised a Vulcan on the Vulcan homeworld, by Sarek himself, no less (Sarek appears and although he’s going to age quite badly over the next ten years to make his Journey to Babel, he looked Sarek-like enough that I wasn’t taken out of the story) and the series is going to have her as its main protagonist. How she’s going to end up becoming Jason Isaacs’s first officer is beyond me, but I’m more than willing to wait and see. I’m also hoping that some of the people we saw in the first story are going to be joining her (the ones who weren’t killed in the massive space-fight with the Klingons which was one of the high points of the second episode), particularly the likeable Saru, played by Doug Jones.
As a type this, I realise that I was really starting to get into it: I wanted to watch the next episode already because I wanted to know what was going to happen to Burnham. Waiting weekly is going to be a bind (although now that Twin Peaks has finished I need a new ongoing series to watch), but I think Star Trek: Discovery is setting out to do exactly what it wanted to do from the first: to pay tribute to existing continuity, but still find a way to tell fresh and new stories in the existing timelines, and to carry the Star Trek baton on into the twenty first century, back on television where it belongs.
I’ll certainly be tuning in next week.
❉ Star Trek: Discovery is an American television series created for CBS All Access