When last Star Trek was on television, Barack Obama had yet to become President, a Labour government was in power in the UK, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. 2005 was the year Star Trek: Enterprise bowed out, ironically in perhaps its strongest year, sunk by plummeting viewing figures and a changing television landscape the executives of Gene Roddenberry’s franchise just could not seemingly adapt to. With a whimper, barely on the radar outside of the dedicated fandom, Star Trek died a death on the small screen. Many feared, especially with the rise of the divisive JJ Abrams-led cinematic revival of the original 1960’s series crew, the franchise would never boldly go on television again.
Star Trek: Discovery, therefore, is manna from heaven, or perhaps more appropriately, the cosmos.
Set ten years before The Original Series, where Captain Kirk, Spock and the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise undertook their five year mission, Discovery doesn’t mess about in first episode ‘The Vulcan Hello’ when it comes to establishing the setup. I avoided the use of ‘pilot episode’ as a descriptor there simply because Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman’s series doesn’t follow the same conventional formula as previous Trek series; indeed, appropriately, it throws you into proceedings, assuming a level of pre-existing knowledge, in a manner we haven’t seen since the 1960’s show. The script isn’t concerned with explaining the Star Trek concept – it says hello, and off we go.
Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green (best known thus far for The Walking Dead), immediately stands out as our most interesting protagonist since the widowed, conflicted Commander Ben Sisko in Deep Space Nine. Not because coincidentally she happens to be black, rather due to her other mixed heritage – she’s a human born woman raised as a Vulcan, and she imbues that same level of restraint we’ve come to see in other Vulcans, principally Spock of course.
Indeed Burnham isn’t just a contemporary of the most famous Vulcan in history but most likely considers Spock family, given she was the ward for many years of Spock’s father Sarek (here played by James Frain). The difference is that Burnham shows fire, grit and plenty of emotion when faced with difficult odds, not to mention a surprising lack of moral compunction when the chips are down.
Fuller & Kurtzman instantly construct the series around Burnham’s dynamic with her Captain, Philip Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). If Sarek saved her as a young girl, following a Klingon terrorist attack that killed her family, then Georgiou is the woman who helped shape her into the Starfleet officer she is today, a woman Georgiou believes is ready to command a starship of her own.
The opener makes it very clear Burnham is far from ready, as her actions on the USS Shenzhou (our immediate ship of choice) display, and therein we have what could well be the central arc of the season: a woman of two cultures, fire and ice essentially, learning to become the kind of measured leader we’ve seen in Archer, in Kirk, or Picard, or Janeway. Discovery isn’t just about a ship of that name, or exploring the galaxy – it’s about Burnham discovering who she really is.
If Burnham feels very much like a Star Trek character, with those same human conditions to explore, Discovery immediately stands out as a modern version of multiple shows we’ve seen before, a show made by fans. Not just creatives but true Trek geeks. Fuller & Kurtzman bring an attention to detail in the script and their production design, be it references to Kahless or the visual aesthetics of the Shenzhou which blends the tight, metallic submarine design of the NX-01 Enterprise with a dash of Abrams’ modern sheen. Nick Meyer, arguably one of Trek’s creative gods as writer/director of two of its best original films, adds certain production details which recall The Wrath of Khan visually, not to mention interplay which has a distinctly modern, human feel. It’s a concoction of all of these elements.
What’s going to annoy Trek purists the most? Firstly, the Klingons. They’re back with a vengeance here as the antagonists (which they haven’t really been since The Original Series, not properly) and here they’re reconceptualised as a rogue state of fundamentalists, encapsulated through T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), a zealot who believes uniting the fractured Klingon Empire will help them defeat the Federation, who they consider almost to be a ‘holy’ enemy.
The parallels of the American ‘Great Satan’, ISIS and modern terrorism are pretty clear but you’d expect nothing less from true Trek – holding up a mirror to the anxieties of the modern age. Fans are going to lose their minds over the Klingon redesign (they look far more animalistic and visually monstrous than usual), but they need to get over themselves, frankly.
A more valid concern is how we have little true semblance of a crew at this stage. Beyond Burnham & Georgiou, the only Starfleet character who makes any impact is Doug Jones’ Lieutenant Saru, of a new species called the Kelpians who can biologically sense death; he comes off well as a fusion of Bones’ doom-laden melancholy and the scientific, expository wit of a Jadzia Dax, and could develop into something of a fan favourite.
Given we haven’t encountered the Discovery ship or that crew, this can be forgiven. The difference with Discovery as a show, which is extremely apparent in this opener, is that the series is about Michael Burnham in a way no Trek series has been about its lead before. This is her story, at least at the beginning.
It’s also a damn fine opening, filled with visual nods and winks to Trek of old, updated with modern texture and shot through with an understanding of the new television landscape. Discovery isn’t iconic Star Trek yet but they never are straight away. On the strength of ‘The Vulcan Hello’, this is the strongest pilot episode since DS9’s ‘Emissary’, and one heck of a mission statement. We hoped it would be good. It turned out to be better.
Star Trek: Discovery is now streaming on Netflix, with new episodes every Monday. Did you enjoy the first episode? Let us know!