Spoilers are coming toward you at warp speed, so you’d better have deflectors on full
Cast: Shonequa Martin-Green (Lt. Commander Michael Burnham); Doug Jones (Lt. Saru), Shazad Latif (Lt. Ash Tyler), Anthony Rapp (Lt. Stamets), Mary Wiseman (Cadet Sylvia Tilly), Jason Isaacs (Captain Gabriel Lorca), Terry Serpico (Anderson), Maulik Pancholy (Nambue), Sam Vartholmeos (Danby Connor), James Frain (Sarek); Teleplay by Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman, Story by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman; Directed by David Semel
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way, beginning with the fact that we’re not concerned about the technology on this series — which is set 10 years before Kirk and Spock’s Enterprise — being more advanced than what we were introduced to back in 1966. Nor the fact that more time and money is being spent on the design of the Klingons as a culture, making them look far different than they have in any previous incarnation, taking on a more primitive, tribal countenance though no less driven by bloodlust and a penchant for war.
What we are concerned with is that this take on Trek ushers the concept further into the 21st Century, embracing the tenets of the Roddenberry philosophy coupled with modern day storytelling. At this point, looking at the premiere episode, we’re just not sure. In some ways, this feels like it could have been yet another extension of the various series produced by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga back in TV Trek’s heyday, while there is the promise that fresh blood will bring with it fresh ideas and concepts.
As things open, we get an inside look at the Klingon Empire, with Chris Obi’s T’Kuvma holding a meeting amongst the different houses in the hopes of uniting them. It’s a fairly effective glimpse into their world, spoken completely in their language (accompanied by English subtitles), except for one phrase used mockingly regarding their enemies: “We come in peace” (obviously there’s no Klingon translation for this phrase).
Shifting to an alien world, we meet Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, AKA Number One, the first officer of the USS Shenzhou; and “guest star” Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou. They’re on this planet — speaking expositionally to fill the audience in on things that they obviously both would already be aware of — to use a device to stop this world from falling into a deadly state of dehydration (think of it as a variation of the Star Trek Into Darkness opening sequence where Spock used a piece of equipment to freeze a planet’s core to stop its destruction from internal volcanic eruptions). They do so, and beam back aboard the Shenzhou.
Shortly thereafter, they discover…something in a field the ship can’t enter. Burnham, using a jet pack, investigates, finding a strange alien vessel of some sort (which turns out to be a Klingon floating cemetery). Landing on its hull, she is confronted by a Klingon, who briefly engages her in battle, though in her attempt to escape, she ends up killing him, setting the stage for what could be perceived as an act of war.
Burnham returns to the ship, injured, and then sets about warning everyone about the danger of the Klingons, though no one believes her at first — not her captain, fellow crewmembers or especially the Starfleet admiral who chastises her holographically for what she’s done. Certain the Klingons will attack, Burnham tries to convince Georgiou of how dangerous the situation is, telling the captain to ignore the diplomat within her and embrace the soldier.
Getting permission to leave the bridge, Burnham contacts Spock’s father, Sarek (who, it turns out, raised her after her parents were killed by Klingons), for advice, as the Vulcans had managed to force the Klingons to retreat when they confronted each other by behaving aggressively with them. With this information, she actually demands that the captain follow her suggestions to open fire on a Klingon ship that has arrived. When she’s refused, she meets privately, renders the captain unconscious with a Vulcan nerve pinch, and heads back to the bridge where, having more or less mutinied, she prepares to attack them….until Georgiou, awakened, comes back to the bridge, phaser in hand. Their pending confrontation is interrupted by the arrival of numerous Klingon Birds of Prey. To be continued.
It needs to be said that from the outset, Sonequa Martin-Green segues nicely from her previous role in The Walking Dead into the Starfleet uniform of Burnham. Early on, she conveys the character’s sense of wonder and, by volunteering to investigate the floating object (despite high radiation readings) embraces Kirk’s philosophy that risk is their business. Where things go wrong is by having her have such a deep resentment of the Klingons (not entirely unjustified) so quickly out of the gate — to the point where it drives her to mutiny.
This instantly strips away not only her Starfleet training, but the enlightened philosophy that is supposed to be at the core of every member of that organisation. If Discovery was set nearly a century before the original series, as Enterprise had been, this might be acceptable, but being posited a mere decade earlier it’s practically inexcusable. Nobody is expected or wants perfection, but this is a massive screw-up for a character that we’ve just met and someone who, about forty minutes earlier, was being talked to by her captain about a command of her own.
In the trailers leading up to the show’s premiere, Michelle Yeoh seemed really stilted speaking her dialogue, but thankfully that wasn’t the case in the finished episode. She’s certainly effective enough in the role, though we don’t really get much of a sense of who Georgiou is as a person beyond the fact that she believes in her oath, noting that Starfleet doesn’t shoot first. It’s interesting to watch that sense of warmth she conveys regarding Burnham turn to disbelief and outrage.
The only other character we get any true sense of is Doug Jones as Saru, the ship’s science officer, who obviously competes with Burnham for his captain’s favour. The character makes no secret of the fact that he’s pretty much afraid of everything, but that becomes interesting when you learn that he was part of a species that was hunted as prey on his home planet and, as such, has developed the ability to sense when death is coming. Hopefully this will be put to better use than Deanna Troi’s empathic abilities on The Next Generation when she would proclaim, “I sense anger, captain,” when they were talking to someone who was clearly angry.
Visually, the first episode is exemplary. The effects work feels cinematic, as does the cinematography. The production design of the ship seems more influenced by the JJ Abrams films than the original series, but that’s certainly no bad thing. The theme song by Jeff Russo is, frankly, uninspiring.
Minor quip: The episode is a little over 43 minutes in length. C’mon, guys, this is streaming. Don’t limit yourself to the confines of network television running time.
A solid start to the series, but it needs to distinguish itself if it hopes to grow an audience beyond the faithful.