Star Trek history was made Sunday night, and not just because of Sonequa Martin-Green — who, as Michael Burnham, became the pioneering black female protagonist this franchise deserves. (Seriously, the camera can’t get enough of her, delivering epic hero shot after epic hero shot.)
It’s more than that. For the first time in the history of Star Trek, we’re not getting an introduction to the main location of a show in its first episode. The equivalent of the Enterprise, or the Voyager, or the space station known as DS9, doesn’t show up yet. Your cozy familiar template for a spacebound show that introduces all its characters at once is deader than Kirk’s hairpiece.
The two-part premiere is instead focused entirely on what other series might consider its main character’s backstory — the ship Michael Burnham served on before she even heard of the USS Discovery, and the story of how it (and she) began a fateful encounter with a sect of Klingons that started a war.
Once you see episode 3, you realize that this was a risky narrative move — that’s much more of a traditional getting-to-know-you episode. But its effects are heightened by getting the backstory in full first.
The show’s lovely, subtle credits sequence is all about blueprint sketches becoming real things, and what you’re getting here is a quick sketch of one kind of story Discovery will tell: a tale of war and politics.
So here we are with the Klingons going all Game of Thrones on us — watch enough of these subtitled scenes of Klingon conflict and you’d swear you’re in a high-tech Dothraki khalasar. The show is probably at its least successful or beginner-friendly in the Klingon scenes, but you certainly get a glimpse of complex politics simmering beneath the barbarous stereotype.
(The leader of the majority black Klingon sect learns to appreciate the weird pasty white guy in his midst; make of that what you will, 2017.)
Hey, at least the women are in charge this time
Nearby on the Federation side of space, First Officer Michael Burnham is chomping at the bit for a full command under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) on the Federation starship Shenzou. Georgiou is prepared to recommend the cooly logical Burnham, even though the ridiculously lanky alien science officer Saru (Doug Jones) keeps belittling Burnham by Saru-splaining to her.
Even here, on a Federation ship in the 23rd century, males of the species interrupting women is a thing. But hey, at least the women are in charge this time.
Some of these early scenes of Burnham, Georgiou and Saru are a little choppily edited, as if a CBS executive was eager to get to the action. Luckily this anxious editor didn’t do anything to interfere with Burnham’s solo journey through an asteroid field. Martin-Green is really hard not to like here; she is disciplined yet unable to suppress her glee, or her fear when she loses contact with the Shenzou and discovers an uncloaked corpse ship covered with dead Klingon bling.
This beautiful sequence — plus the fact that the entire episode opens by zooming out of an eye — reminded me a lot (in a good way) of the 1997 movie of the Carl Sagan novel, Contact. No expense has been spared to make this show look more cinematic than any previous TV Trek. If you can’t appreciate what these shots say about the grandeur of space and a protagonist who boldly goes, then a) you’re probably not going to like Star Trek Discovery as a whole and b) we can’t be friends.
Indeed, a lot of this episode revealed the show to be superior even to the J.J. Abrams version of the Star Trek movies. The bridge of the Shenzou is what Abrams would have given us if he weren’t quite so enamored with lens flare.
The away mission where we first meet Burnham and Georgiou reminded me a lot of the opening scene of Star Trek Into Darkness, only this slower-paced version didn’t entirely rely on CGI and seemed a lot easier to believe.
Clearly, Star Trek Discovery isn’t afraid to take risks to reinvent the franchise. And unlike some of its predecessors, it treats its audience intelligently; the show knows we can handle words such as “xenobiologist” without an explainer. And it throws in flashbacks to Burnham’s childhood schooling by Sarek (the father of Spock, played by James Frain) — in what appears to be a lonely futuristic version of Hogwarts — without fully answering the question of what happened to her.
Frain, one of my favorite actors, isn’t given much to work with yet: I grimaced when he was forced to say “your human tongue is not the problem. It is your human heart.” But such clunky lines, once endemic to science fiction on TV, are few and far between in Discovery.
If anything, the dialogue in the premiere is almost a little too subtle and serious. We could have used a few more one-liners as comic relief — and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the comedy cavalry is coming in episode 3.
This is mutiny, Ms. Burnham
This opener is all about the gravitas of a Klingon-Starfleet encounter, which we’re constantly reminded hasn’t happened in a hundred years (not since the Enterprise TV series of a decade ago, in fact). The tension is deftly ramped up throughout — and while many Trekkies will be able to identify this particular moment in Star Trek history (Discovery, after all, is something of a prequel to the original 1966-68 series), it doesn’t hurt if you can’t. (I couldn’t.)
In any case, most of the action is on the interpersonal level, not the interplanetary. Thanks to Sarek, Burnham discovers that the Vulcans know best how to handle the Klingons. A shot across their bows is considered a respectful “hello, I’m worthy of communicating with your species.” In retrospect, Starfleet should really have asked the Vulcans about this a long time ago.
But now Burnham has the knowledge, she’s going to save the situation as she sees best — up to and including knocking out her superior officer with a good old fashioned Vulcan Nerve Pinch.
That makes Burnham a mutineer in the space navy. And if you’ve only seen the opening episode on CBS (to get Episode 2 right now, you’ll have to sign up for CBS All Access) then rest assured: the show will be following the full implications of an act of mutiny in Starfleet rather than brushing it under the carpet.
Previous incarnations of Trek, needing to hit the reset button in order to start a new adventure next week, might have done that. But Discovery is a different animal altogether. In overall storytelling structure, it makes me think more of Game of Thrones: dumb decisions have consequences and no lead character feels safe.
This is a long, episodic, coherent science fiction story, and you’re still in the prologue stage. There is no reset button. Stick with this slow-burning show, and you’ll find new life for a franchise that hasn’t boldly gone like this in a long time, if ever.
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