I’ve lost count of the number of times my fellow nerds have rolled their eyes at the ongoing delay and behind-the-scenes drama of Star Trek Discovery. The show’s launch date slipped by 9 months; showrunner Bryan Fuller departed under unusual circumstances; CBS decided to screen it only on its $6-a-month All Access streaming service, greatly limiting the potential audience.
I can’t speak to whether consumers will flock to All Access for this one show. But having seen the first three episodes, I can attest to the quality of the product in question.
This is science fiction TV of a caliber that I haven’t seen since the Battlestar Galactica reboot of the 2000s. And you don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy it.
This isn’t our official review of the show; you’ll have to check back Sunday night for that. CBS has strictly timed embargoes on each that bind reviewers from discussing any specifics of the episodes until after they’ve aired.
I get the need for secrecy to preserve the “wow” factor, but at a minimum the audience needs to understand going in that we’re on a very twisty journey here: you can’t really judge the show based on the first episode (which is the only one screening on CBS proper this Sunday night; All Access will add episode 2.) I didn’t fully get on board with the show until I saw episode 3.
Suffice to say that this is thinking person’s science fiction — a plot that’s going places on a slow burn, that won’t insult your intelligence and will take its time to settle into shape. It looks beautiful and boldly goes where no previous Star Trek has gone before.
As we already knew, Discovery tells a fully episodic story about a single character (First Officer Michael Burnham) and rations out the introduction of its secondary characters.
This is a Star Trek quietly confident in itself, flexing muscles it has gained from the pantheon of science fiction movies. I caught references to Contact, to Alien, even to Star Wars. There were moments when I caught an Indiana Jones vibe, a welcome Game of Thrones-esque feeling, and a dash of Shawshank Redemption mixed in for good measure.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that Discovery is a very serious show. There are precious few moments of comedy relief. But after all those forced jokes in the rebooted Star Trek movie series, perhaps it’s time the franchise boldly went in a more dramatic direction.
Plus the tone is appropriate for the lead character; Burnham is as intense as her Vulcan upbringing. Sonequa Martin-Green — you probably know her best from Walking Dead — spins this trait into one of the most compelling TV protagonists of the year. Ambitious, alive to the wonders and the dangers of the universe, yet still young and stubborn: she’s almost a young Kirk.
Meet Michael Burnham
No doubt part of her kinetic screen energy is due to the fact that Martin-Green is a recent convert to the Trek universe herself, and is keen to work hard and make a good impression. Despite being concerned at the extent of the show’s history — “the canon’s so massive” — the actor told me she has absorbed the details of this most complex fandom with a vengeance.
“I had four months after being hired and before shooting began,” Martin-Green says. “So I dove in, trying to have an osmotic experience” — starting with the original 1966-68 series.
Discovery is set a decade before the adventures of Kirk and Spock. Michael Burnham was raised by Sarek, Spock’s father, after her parents died in the vicinity of a Vulcan outpost.
“There has been a thorough indoctrination of Vulcan philosophies and behavior,” says Martin-Green of her character’s upbringing — though she’s also talking about her own immersion in the lifestyle of this most fascinating of species. “We respect canon,” she is quick to add, lest any fan fear otherwise.
Not Utopia Yet
One part of the late creator Gene Roddenberry’s canon that Star Trek writers have chafed against for decades: his idea that starship crews in the 23rd century will not have any arguments at all, because humanity will have outgrown all internal disputes.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Discovery respectfully rejects Roddenberry’s notion — much like Deep Space 9, the most critically acclaimed Trek series so far.
“We’ve found a really fragile space to operate in,” Martin-Green says. “You’re seeing the inner workings of utopia, the struggle that leads to it. There will always be interpersonal conflict. You’re seeing the issues that plagued our society dealt with, but you’re also seeing the issues that will always stand.”
One thing you’ll also see in the show — again, not a spoiler — is Michael Burnham standing in a most military fashion. Martin-Green says this is largely a function of the shiny new blue and gold two-piece Starfleet uniform she squeezed into. “It is a little tight,” she laughs.
“But it’s helpful — it certainly makes you stand up straight.”
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