Star Trek: Discovery’s journey to the small screen was, at times, a turbulent one. Originally scheduled to premiere in January of this year, the show’s arrival was pushed back multiple times and for a variety of reasons, whether it was to accommodate star Sonequa Martin-Green’s role on The Walking Dead or to regroup after the departure of co-creator Bryan Fuller. Fans had to contend with yet another delay on Sunday night, as Discovery’s premiere on CBS was pushed back yet again, at least on the East Coast—though this time, the culprit was not a ballooning budget or creative differences, but Sunday-afternoon football.
After more than a decade of anticipation for a new Star Trek series, 18 more minutes of waiting couldn’t make much difference, and Star Trek finally did make its return to TV with the debut of the first two episodes of Discovery: “The Vulcan Hello,” which aired on CBS, and its follow-up, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” which dropped simultaneously on CBS’s subscription-only streaming service, CBS All Access.
CBS is clearly betting on Discovery as a motivator for people to subscribe to All Access, since the network has chosen to limit future episodes of the series to the subscription service. That put a lot of pressure on “The Vulcan Hello” to sell viewers on the idea that the series as a whole is worth dropping $5.99 per month (or $9.99, if you want to avoid commercials for Young Sheldon) to keep watching. If they decide that it is, it will largely be thanks to Martin-Green, who carries the show and who is the first woman of color to ever lead a Star Trek series. In the first episode, we meet her character, Michael Burnham, a first officer on the starship Shenzhou under the command of her mentor and friend Philippa Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh as a captain of the Picardian variety, both steady and good-humored.
Burnham, a human raised on Vulcan after her parents were killed by Klingons, is more impetuous than her captain, despite her rational upbringing; she frequently debates the balance between emotion and logic with her foster father, Sarek (James Frain). That backstory leads Burnham into an intragalactic conflict when the Shenzhou runs into a Klingon ship on the outskirts of Federation territory, where T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) is trying to unite the 24 houses of the Klingon Empire. You’ll notice immediately that these Klingons look different from Klingons past, having been given a “sexy” redesign for the new series—“sexy” here apparently means hairless, with massive forehead ridges and purple-tinged skin that glows as though it’s been professionally buffed at some kind of Klingon spa.
Viewers who go in looking for an analogy to the current U.S. political climate—which they will, because Star Trek has a long history of social and political allegories, but also because that’s just how we watch TV now—will find it in T’Kuvma’s crusade. Aboard T’Kuvma’s ship, we’re subjected to long sequences in English-subtitled Klingon in which he persuades the other houses that they must “Remain Klingon,” a slogan that the series’ co-showrunner, Aaron Harberts, has acknowledged is a deliberate nod to “Make America Great Again.” In the case of the Klingons, “Remain Klingon” means rejecting the Federation’s overtures of peace and, in a new, strange twist, collecting and preserving their dead, who line the outside of T’Kuvma’s ship like bugs on a windshield.
Burnham’s accidental encounter with this group in the first episode leads to some pretty baffling, if dramatic, decision-making on her part as she insists that the Shenzhou fire on the Klingons first out of self-preservation, a suggestion that is overruled by Georgiou, who believes in Starfleet’s nonviolent principles. Thus, within the first hour of Discovery, the writers have completely tossed out the Roddenberry rule, the mandate imposed by Star Trek’s creator forbidding serious conflict within Starfleet’s supposedly utopian ranks. While that will likely rankle some Trekkies, it does admittedly make for juicier storytelling, and it’s shocking and even fun to see our protagonist blossom into a full-blown mutineer in the very first episode.
Less fun is that Burnham’s decision makes very little sense from what we know about her so far. “I believed saving you and the crew was more important than Starfleet’s principles,” she tells Georgiou. “Was it logical? Emotional? I don’t know.” I’m no Vulcan, but I’m going to ahead and suggest that it was neither: It was what the writers decided they needed to keep the story moving along. The same can be said of the flashbacks to Burnham’s past, which don’t really tell us anything about her motivations that we haven’t already learned through her interactions with Sarek and Georgiou in the present; with the exception of one, a touching encounter between Sarek and an injured Burnham as a child, they’re mostly just kind of there for the sake of it.
If there was any doubt that Discovery would be the darkest or most action-heavy Star Trek to date, “Battle at the Binary Stars” should put that to rest, following Burnham’s betrayal to its inevitable conclusion. Diehard fans may take issue with that development, or with the fact that the series “doesn’t look like Star Trek”: Not only are the ships and uniform designs new, but the series has also introduced some new technology, including the use of Star Wars–like holograms to communicate, and makes liberal use of lens flare (perhaps as a deliberate nod to the J.J. Abrams movies?). Those critics will probably prefer Seth MacFarlane’s more straightforward homage to ’90s Trek, The Orville, instead.
I prefer to think that there’s room for many versions of Star Trek and that a gritty war story like Discovery (or Deep Space Nine, its closest spiritual predecessor) is just as valid as a fish-out-of-water environmentalist comedy. The real problem with Discovery is not its tone or visuals, but that it still needs to earn its place among the rest of the franchise. Everything we’ve seen so far feels more like a prequel to the real series—we still haven’t even seen the titular starship, the USS Discovery, nor properly met its captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who we know eventually recruits the now-disgraced Burnham and who promises to be yet another morally complicated Starfleet officer. Yes, the first two chapters of Discovery were uneven, but so, frankly, were the first two chapters of The Next Generation, which grew into one of the franchise’s most beloved installments. The difference is that Discovery isn’t just asking fans to stick with it—it’s asking them to pay for the privilege.