Trekking Discovery: A First Impression of Star Trek’s Newest Series
It’s been too long since Star Trek graced our televisions*. Let me get that right out there. It’s been too damn long.
Not that I was watching it with any regularity, but it pissed me off when Star Trek: Enterprise got canned. By then, I felt it was the birthright of a Star Trek series to get seven seasons (and a handful of movies), so when it ended abruptly in 2005 after only four (and zero movies, though several elements have leaked into the Abrams films), I was shocked. And, for the first time in my lifetime, there was no new Star Trek on television.
I started my Trek trek (…sorry) with Voyager. Granted, while Next Generation was technically the first series I saw episodes from, Janeway’s crew was the first one I really got to know. Even though it took me halfway through season 7 to realize I was watching them as they aired (UPN, in those days, played a Voyager episode every night in reruns, but I never caught on that the “second” episode they played one day out of the week was not a rerun, but in fact a new episode), and I watched the majority of it completely out of order, that was the ship and crew I fell in love with.
Of course, I’ve gone back and watched nearly everything (there’s still some DS9 episodes I’ve missed). I’ve marathoned the movies countless times. I’ve binged The Original Series and The Next Generation (and I keep Voyager reruns on retainer for whenever I need a quick Trek fix). I even finished Enterprise, years after it ended, and discovered it was probably one of my favorite (and one of the most underrated) shows in the franchise. And, before you ask, I love the J.J. Abrams (Kelvin timeline) films. They are amazing.
But enough about my love of Star Trek. I won’t get into the two models of phasers I have sitting on my movie shelf, or the plethora of Starfleet insignia badges littered in my desk drawers, or the TNG hoodie that I wore to work this week. We’re here to talk about Discovery.
I almost intentionally waited for the third episode before I wrote any sort of review. And even still, this isn’t going to be so much a review as a first impression; most crews we’ve gotten seven plus years with, but we are only beginning to get what this new show is going to be about. So I’m not going to truly grade it; I’ll write a separate review once the first season is over (and maybe an update at the winter break). But I’m glad I waited; two weeks ago, I almost wrote a piece titled “Is Star Trek: Discovery Going to Suck?” But I waited. I decided not to form opinions based on what I hadn’t yet seen. I wanted to wait to see it.
Well, I’ve seen it. And does it suck? (SPOILERS for the first three episodes may follow)
The Feel of Discovery:
Discovery has a look and feel that is totally unique to itself. At times, it is breathtaking to look at. At others, well, the CG shows. Not that Trekkies aren’t used to shoddy CG; none of the ships in any of the shows have ever looked photo-real; at least, not as real the Enterprise of the most recent movies. But the biggest takeaway is that it looks different. Some may say the visuals are “updated,” while others will miss the continuity of previous Trek shows. I’m somewhere in the middle; I miss the familiarity of the 24th century, how design elements between TNG, DS9, and Voyager are cohesive and build a recognizable Starfleet (and greater, shared universe) between them, but at the same time, I do love redesign. I mean, look at Abrams’ Enterprise:
And, frankly, it was that very redesign that, initially, had me believing that this show must take place in the Kelvin timeline, since elements of the ships we see in Discovery have a striking similarity to those in Abrams’ movies. The view screens, for one, being actual windows with computer displays built in, rather than being 95-inch flat screen televisions (or the 24th century equivalent). But this show is set in the Prime timeline, and these similarities, and the overall refit, is just an aesthetic, and one, honestly, I’ll have to get used to. I like it, for the most part, but I’ll have to get used to it, and a small part of me will always lament that Discovery doesn’t quite feel like the rest of Star Trek.
And this not-quite-Trek feeling is something that I’m probably going to carry into the rest of this first impression.
The Characters of Discovery:
The characters are definitely intriguing to watch. Starting with the crew of the Shenzhou, the first prominent (but non-titular) starship we are greeted to, feels familiar territory for Star Trek. Captain Georgiou is definitely a captain worthy of the chair, and the crew serving with her have a comfortable relationship with each other. Of course, as fate would have it, the Shenzhou, and Georgiou, were to be short-lived, almost as if showing the viewer that the Star Trek we know isn’t going to be the one we see in Discovery.
But the mainstays introduced on the bridge of the Shenzhou include the towering Saru and our protagonist, Michael Burnham. The former is definitely going to be one of my favorite characters, while the latter I think will be a wonderful character to follow throughout the course of this series, which, for me, is a sigh of relief, because I never really liked Sonequa Martin-Green’s character on The Walking Dead. She’s truly fantastic, and I’m looking forward to watching her character develop. Doug Jones, on the other hand, has always been a favorite character actor of mine, and so I look forward to seeing him bring Saru to life, as he definitely fits in with the likes of Data, Spock, and other memorable non-human characters from the franchise.
Michael Burnham- so named because the original creator Bryan Fuller always gives his leading women traditionally male names (George in Dead Like Me, Chuck in Pushing Daisies)- is an intriguing character. Not only was she raised on Vulcan, she was raised by Sarek and Amanda, alongside Spock. This may ruffle the feathers of some die-hard Trekkies- we’ve dealt with a surprise sibling of Spock’s before- but at the same time presents an intriguing character to explore. She was off to a bit of a rough start, though, in my opinion. Her mutiny against Captain Georgiou, while the backbone this series will be built upon, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a person who is A) raised by Vulcans, B) a Starfleet commander, and C) respected enough by said captain that she thinks Michael is ready for a command of her own. These actions feel a little more like Cadet Kirk’s in the 2009 Star Trek, not for someone who has been serving with Captain Georgiou for seven years, and for most of that as her second-in-command. Granted, she has a past with the Klingons, and I think it could have made sense with said past (a similar past fueled Captain Kirk through several movies), but I think it would have been nice to go further in depth with her past, so we could understand her fear/hatred of Klingons.
And speaking of the Klingons… The redesign of the Klingons is definitely interesting. And it definitely makes them feel more alien (read: Hirogen). They are bigger, and more menacing, if that was even possible. And I feel like they better explain why exactly we have Klingons that don’t look anything like the ones we will see ten years later with Kirk (you know, the ones without the ridges, which have already been canonically explained in Enterprise), or the ones that came before them (Enterprise) and after them (literally every series and movie after Kirk). I actually really like the formidable new look, but I do feel like it needs to be explained in-story since they’ve picked such a very specific era to set Discovery in.
The Story of Discovery:
And that era is extremely specific. I personally would love to see a series that takes place after the 24th century era of Picard and Janeway (and I’m still holding out hope), but with Discovery, we get to take another look into the Federation’s past, and, specifically, at an era bookended by Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: The Original Series. Discovery is closer to the latter, taking place only about ten years before Kirk’s 5-year mission; it is roughly 90 years after Captain Archer.
And while this particular era hasn’t been explicitly explored on screen, it is a well-enough known period of time. And elements of what we know are going to spill into the series (or should, at least). For example, we know the Federation and the Klingons were in conflict- a conflict that will be the main narrative thread through this first season. We know Spock is around, and probably at the Academy, if he isn’t already serving with Captain Pike on the Enterprise.
And this era of Trek history being somewhat well-known is in contrast to the amount of creative liberties the production crew has been allowed. The stark visual difference of the Klingons, for example, not only from the ones who will appear ten years later in The Original Series, but also to those who appear in literally every other Star Trek series or movie surrounding it.
The look and feel of different technologies, too, that seem almost too advanced to be set ten years prior to Kirk (especially in the case of the Shenzhou, which was described as being an old ship seven years before even the stardate of the first episode). In fact, the U.S.S. Shenzhou, while having some similarities to the NX-Class ships, looks closer in some ways to Voyager’s era than Kirk’s, as do many of the other ships we’ve seen so far. And, again in contrast, the Klingon ships look nothing like any Klingon ships we’ve ever seen.
But despite the era and the design of the show clashing together, the story it is following seems intriguing. Heads up, though- while the first two episodes are good, they are pretty much set up for the rest of the show; the first two hours introduce the main characters (at least, Michael and Saru) and start the Klingon confrontation (as well as land Michael in the brig and, subsequently, a court martial). From then thereon, the Shenzhou (and her Captain) are gone, and we are on the mysterious and titular Discovery, with the equally mysterious Captain Lorca (portrayed by Jason Isaacs… place your bets now on whether or not Lorca will be a villain). While the Klingon confrontation will definitely still be a major element of this preliminary season, I expect the primary focus to be Michael’s discovery (pardon the pun) of what, exactly, Lorca and his crew are up to.
This is going to be a very different Star Trek. Clearly, this is going to be a show where we can’t trust the crew we’ve been thrust into. In fact- and I may be very wrong- I currently trust Lorca about as much as I trusted Captain Ransom of the Equinox. And the parallel there isn’t unnoticed, at least to me; like Captain Ransom, Lorca is experimenting in a new type of warp-drive, and, like Ransom, he’s definitely not telling the whole truth.
So Does it Suck?
I’ve read a review somewhere that said something along the lines of this: Discovery was made not to be totally accurate to prior Trek, but instead to be a show that is more accessible to both fans and non-fans, much in the same way the Abrams movies are. In fact, I’d say that Discovery pulls more from J.J. Abrams movies than it does from the rest of Star Trek history, in that it takes liberties with a franchise that has, beforehand, been very consistent across all the movies and television shows. And that is something that lack of total adherence to canon (both visually and narratively) is, honestly, going to bother a lot of Star Trek fans, fans who have come to expect a certain level of consistency from the franchise. Double down with the fact that it is set only ten years before Kirk, and those liberties feel, at times, like a slap in the face.
Discovery is, without a doubt, an ambitious and entertaining show. And I can’t wait to see what happens next. I think it has the potential to be a great series. But I think, too, at this point, it should be viewed as more of an adaptation rather than a continuation. But there’s no doubt in my mind: Star Trek is back on television*, finally, and I’ll eagerly watch it every week, crossing my fingers that this crew gets what any Starfleet crew is owed- in my opinion, seven seasons and a movie.
*technically Discovery is not airing on television, but instead through the CBS streaming app. But I’ll take it where I can get it (even if I have to pay $5.99 a month).