The long-awaited return of Star Trek to TV came and went Sunday night when CBS aired the first of fifteen new episodes for a new series called Star Trek: Discovery. The series is meant to launch a new era on TV for CBS by being the first exclusive show for CBS All Access. What is All Access? It’s like Netflix except exclusively for CBS content past, present, and future. However, to bridge traditional viewers over, CBS premiered Star Trek: Discovery on Sunday night. Was the first episode of a new science fiction series enough to get viewers interested? Only time will truly tell, but for now, we break down the premiere for viewers still on the fence about watching at all.
Star Trek: Discovery tells the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green of The Walking Dead) who is the first officer of a starship called the Shenzhou lead by Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou. Michael is on the verge of a promotion. But while investigating an object floating in space, Michael starts a confrontation between the United Federation of Planets and an enemy dormant for decades — the Klingons.
Full disclosure, I am a life-long fan of Star Trek. And while my geek sensibilities are usually in check, like a Vulcan holding back the tears, Star Trek is a weak spot. A sort of kryptonite. So, for the past year, while production hit delays, beloved Producers (Bryan Fuller I heart you) came and went, and leaked info left fans confused, I worried. Parts looked like the JJ Abrams remix which, was fine to a point (mostly just the first movie). However, details about the story taking place BEFORE the Original Series were disheartening. Star Trek should be about looking and moving forward yet here we are looking back to milk some juice out of the nostalgia cash cow, no doubt.
So, it should be taken as high praise when I say Star Trek Discovery was good. Not great. But good. Not sign up for CBS All Access good, but good enough to warrant watching the entire series sooner or later. My plan? Wait until it’s all out and binge-watching during a free trial period. As much as I love Star Trek, the idea of having my fandom extorted for $6 a month (with commercials!) doesn’t sit right with me. And there is zero CBS content I’m interested in revisiting.
If Star Trek Discovery were a phenomenal leap forward in the franchise, I might justify spending money on a monthly basis. But here’s where we get to my actual review, and my apologies for the long road here. Discovery isn’t that leap. It’s a healthy step in many respects and a side-step in others. It’s simultaneously an earnest creation and a shameless commercial.
As the story goes, it’s straightforward, but this is just the first episode. However, the first episode is two hours long, but CBS only gave viewers the first hour. Instead of this punch of a cliffhanger which the 90s Trek series were great at doing, Discovery feels like someone came and turned off the TV. Oh, and that person, CBS in this analogy, not only turned off the TV but they want to charge you to turn it back on. Viewers may want to continue watching, but not at a price, and maybe airing the two-hour pilot would’ve been a better move.
By the time the first half of the first episode of Star Trek Discovery ends there isn’t a lot to hold on to. Michael is a human raised by Vulcans (Spock’s Parents because … nostalgia!) who is logical but somewhat illogical too. She’s introduced as a good first officer who is getting a chance at her command but then defies orders several times. There’s an inconsistency in the character that some might take as mysterious, and others might feel is the result of poor writing and behind-the-scenes shenanigans. However off-putting, Sonequa Martin-Green gives a sense of depth to the character that might pan out as the series goes on.
Long-time creature actor Doug Jones plays Saru, an alien science officer who is a little Data and a little Spock. Jones is just a brilliant casting choice here and gets to shine even through the layers of latex. However strange the explanation of his Kelpien species is, Jones is great here, from his walk to his height which makes him feel even more alien next to the much shorter Michael. Michelle Yeoh is a no-nonsense leader. That’s about it. You don’t get much else from her.
On a visual level, Discovery is very pretty. It’s not bright like previous Trek shows (or homages like The Orville), but it’s not overly gritty either. They desaturated things a bit, gave it a Battlestar Galactica makeover of sorts. It mostly works. There’s a penchant for low, askew camera angles that look funky but don’t make much sense. Also, beware of the lens flare. They borrowed a little here and there from the Abrams-verse and lens flare is along for the ride. Also, CBS spared little expense as there is a ton of CG work.
Of stellar note are the opening credits and score, both of which add a rich layer to the product. The credits show blueprints as if Producers are reminding viewers that this is something new. The slick animated visuals move along to composer Jeff Russo’s score which is an excellent addition to the legacy of Trek music.
The Klingons, the iconic enemy from Star Trek lore, get a makeover here. Their sequences are presented only in Klingon with subtitles which makes Discovery feel a little more cinematic. Many fans objected to the redesign, and while I was not one of them, the makeup work seems excessive and leaves little room for the actors to express anything. However, the overall new look and approach to the Klingons, again, somewhere between something new and something Abrams, is fascinating.
As first episodes go in this modern age of television, Discovery was just okay. Again, showing half of the narrative hurts. And the first half isn’t compelling enough to warrant signing up for a new streaming service. Much like Star Trek: Enterprise was the flagship show for a new network that crashed and burned (eventually turning into the CW), the first episode of Discovery has that same weight to carry and only streaming viewers will help this show live long and prosper.