‘Star Trek: Discovery’ presents a murkier vision of the classic franchise

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Star Trek: Discovery has a lot riding on it, both for CBS executives (who are counting on the show to help them launch their paid streaming service, CBS All Access) and Star Trek fans (who’ve been waiting more than a decade for a new Trek series).

On the business side, last night’s premiere seems to have been a success, though it’s hard to say without real subscriber numbers. The first episode, “The Vulcan Hello,” aired on CBS, while the second, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” was available immediately afterwards on All Access — and CBS says Discovery drove record sign-ups for the streaming service.

On the creative side? Well, I wouldn’t say it was a great premiere (and I’ll have more thoughts to share on this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast), but it was effective at establishing how the show might break the franchise template without totally abandoning the elements that Star Trek fans love.

Discovery takes place about 10 years before the original series. It stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, a human who was raised by the Vulcan Sarek (for non-Trek fans: Sarek is also Spock’s dad) and now serves as first officer on the U.S.S. Shenzhou.

In the first episode (plotted by series creators Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, with a teleplay by Fuller and Akiva Goldsman), an investigation into a damaged “interstellar relay” quickly leads into a confrontation with the Klingon Empire — a confrontation that sets the stage for the rest of the season, and perhaps the rest of the series.

That setup already breaks with Trek tradition in a few key ways. For one thing, Trek has moved slowly and fitfully away from the default of white male leads, so it’s nice to see Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh (who plays the Shenzhou’s captain Philippa Georgiou) at the helm of a starship.

For another, you may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned the Discovery, the ship that gives the series its name. In fact, you don’t hear about the Discovery at all in those first two episodes, which function less like a traditional Trek pilot (which would focus on establishing the characters and status quo), and more like the opening chapter of an ongoing, serialized story. In other words, it’s more like the opening episode of a show on cable or Netflix.

And then there’s the lead character — not a captain, but a first officer, and one who may or may not make the right decisions when she’s repeatedly faced with tough choices. Trek has always had a core of optimism and politically progressive values, but like some of the best Trek series, it looks like Discovery will be willing to test those values, sending its characters into morally complex territory, then forcing them to deal with the consequences of their actions.

This might make Discovery sound like a dry talkfest — you know, the kind of thing casual viewers have in mind whenever they hear the words “Star Trek.”

In truth, however, the franchise has always worked to balance out its big speeches and technobabble with humor and action. So “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle of the Binary Stars” are interested in questions of war and ethics, but they center on a tense stand-off between starships, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away (it’s in the episode name, after all) by revealing that the stand-off eventually leads into a big battle that shows off Discovery‘s sizable special effects budget.

Not everything works. The dialogue can get pretty clunky, and the show seems determined to echo its moral murkiness with a drab color palette that looks particularly disappointing when you compare it to the bright uniforms and lens flares of the current Trek movies. The Klingon scenes are the worst, with dimly lit actors hidden beneath underwhelming makeup, who spend long minutes growling monotonously at each other.

Still, as maiden voyages go, this one was pretty promising. For all the new touches, it’s still very recognizable as Star Trek. And even if it’s behind a subscription paywall, it feels pretty darn good to see Trek back on TV.

Featured Image: CBS