The team behind Star Trek: Discovery could be forgiven for feeling under pressure. They had to deliver a show that satisfies one of the most rabidly pedantic fan bases out there, while still catering to normies only not really au fait with Trek beyond a few action movies about good-looking people having fights in space.
But, despite a reportedly troubled gestation, they’ve somehow managed to deliver, audaciously using their first two episodes to set up several seemingly key characters before wiping the slate clean in the closing moments. In truth, the first two episodes that arrive on Netflix today – ‘The Vulcan Hello’ and ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ – function more as a standalone TV movie, setting up the tone and feel of the show while leaving about as much wiggle room for the future as conceivably possible.
Uniquely for Trek (so far), the focus is on a single character. The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green acquits herself well as Michael Burnham, a human raised as a Vulcan after what’s hinted to be the death of her family. She’s been first officer on the USS Shenzhou for seven years, and over this time has built up a deep bond with Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou – indeed, the writers are so keen for us to understand this that their first scene has some classically clunky Trek writing.
This can be forgiven, however, as we’re being prepped to see their relationship tested during the stand-off with a Klingon battle fleet that dominates these two episodes. After a century of minimal contact with humans, the redesigned warrior race are being whipped into war by the demagogue T’Kuvma, whose message of racial purity and making the Klingon Empire great again is so Trumpian it goes full circle from awkwardly on-the-nose to a spot in the grand Trek tradition of heavy-handed allegory.
After Burnham accidentally kills a Klingon investigating a destroyed satellite, T’Kuvma has his Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Burnham argues that the Shenzhou should take pre-emptive action and end a war before it begins. Georgiou – once again in Trek tradition – counsels diplomacy, but in a break from the franchise’s usual peacenik ways is shown to be wrong. There’s no negotiating with T’Kuvma, and Burnham eventually resorts to a cack-handed mutiny which fails in getting her fellow crew-members to attack the Klingons, and succeeds in getting her thrown in the brig.
Before you know it, both sides have called in reinforcements, and the shooting begins. It’s all pretty gung-ho stuff for Trek, and unusually morally murky – oddly, for a show whose producers have explicitly said the Klingons are a critique of Trump and his pals, the pro-war voices on both sides are the ones that are correct. Trek thrives on these debates, but the new aggression does breathe some life into the show – it’s hard to imagine one of Picard’s Next Generation monologues on this ship.
Soon enough, Michael is redeeming herself by accompanying Georgiou on a suicide mission to capture T’Kuvma on the Klingon ship, ticking the Trek checklist box for senior management’s consistent failure to delegate the most dangerous missions.
In a huge break with tradition, however, Georgiou and T’Kuvma are both killed, wiping out in a matter of seconds two of the three characters we spend any time within these episodes. Michelle Yeoh doesn’t come cheap, and she doesn’t captain the ship that’s in the name of the programme, so her death isn’t a huge shock. T’Kuvma, on the other hand, has almost as much screen time as Burnham, is played with authority by British actor Chris Obi and leaves huge shoes for his successor as antagonist to fill, presumably the Klingon whose arms he dies in.
So, a desperate mission ends in death and failure, and the Shenzhou is ultimately destroyed. If that wasn’t bleak enough, the closing seconds of ‘The Battle of the Binary Stars’ see Burnham, our heroine, sentenced to life in prison for her attempted mutiny.
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She’ll get out, of course, unless this series is to be radically different to it predecessors – but it’s a final rug pull in a pair of episodes that felt fresher and bolder than any entertainment brand more than five decades old has any right to.
Where Discovery goes from here is anyone’s guess, but its first two episodes have set up a compelling central character, placed her in a world, and then completely wiped away that world. This new, harder-edged Trek feels of a post-Game of Thrones landscape, but it remains to be seen how much of the idealism can survive in 2017.
It gets enough things right that it’s hard not to see as a success, but it would be a tragedy if Star Trek forgot that it’s about explorers and not soldiers.
Oh, and if you’ll permit one nerdy quibble, how come they have holograms now? Do they get uninvented between this show and the others?
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