When I first heard the premise for Star Trek: Discovery I was disappointed. The show is set marginally before the original series relative to the broad continuity of the TV shows. As a decision, it implied the kind of navel-gazing or over-reverence to the original material that ends in both stagnation and a confused need for re-invention. It is the contradiction that leads to repetitive reboots of superhero origin stories but with odd new twists. I assume the thinking with Discovery was that they wanted to re-introduce viewers to the established Star Trek galaxy by having the protagonists encounter familiar elements while changing those elements so as not to be too predictable.
So you end up with a setting that is familiar but different but in a way that contains no real surprises and which makes the differences jarring. Why not just set the story AFTER the period of The Next Generation/DS9/Voyager shows? Create a sense of civilisation moved on? Perhaps here the baggage of all those shows felt too much – too many big bads (the Borg, the Dominion etc) too many alien antagonists (the Ferengi, the now unfortunately named Cardassians). The galactic quadrants had become too busy and too packed with rubber headed aliens. By setting the series back just before the original series the show could make the Klingons the bad guys again.
It’s not fair to compare this decision with the Doctor Who reboot because despite their similar age the shows don’t treat continuity in the same way. However, Russell T Davies made a smart move from which Discovery could have learnt. Set a new series in a time that follows a catastrophe that creates both a bridge to the previous series, and allows the viewers to re-encounter familiar protagonists in a new way. That doesn’t imply a new Star Trek would need to have a post-apocalyptic vibe, rather some sort of event that disrupted galactic civilisations sufficiently that the Federation is needing to rebuild (a gamma-ray burst, a contagion that spreads via transporter beams, a big-bad alien did more damage than usual).
Discovery hasn’t taken that option but the setting kind of looks like it did. The technology is both old and new, the spaceships look both updated and more grungy, some aliens are now more familiar and closer to humans (e.g. the Vulcans) while others have become even more alien and Star Fleet understands them less (the Klingons). The whole feel of the show implies a setting where change has occurred but which claims that it is about changes that will occur and I find that somewhat annoying.
Visually the show looks fantastic. The capacity to produce a SF TV show with stunning visuals has grown tremendously. An alien desert planet in episode 1 looks like more than just a sandy patch. An EVA to an alien artefact in the accretion disk of a binary star system consuming itself makes little astrophysical sense but again looks suitably spacey and has a nice echo with the first Star Trek film. [Minor spoiler] Episode 2 features a full-on multi-starship space battle and some very good action scenes. The new version of the Klingons are still rubber headed aliens but distinctly more alien looking.
Meanwhile, the phasers and the communicators are reverently remodelled versions of the ‘classic’ props. Which is fine but together it doesn’t make much sense. It feels like the story team (who want the setting to be distinctly just a few years before TOS) and the effects and design team (who want to show off all the new things that can be done) are at loggerheads. It works when what is showed is things that we didn’t see before but which have always been implied (e.g. episode 2 use the shields and force fields effectively as visuals and as part of the story on a damaged starship). It works less well when funky new things are added because they are cool (starship communications now included projecting hologram avatars right in front of you because that looks cool).
The Klingons speak Klingon and end up speaking a lot of Klingon – maybe a tad too much to be honest. Meanwhile, the Vulcans just look like Vulcans and the main protagonist Michael Burnham (more on the name below) is a human who was brought up as a Vulcan and looks a bit Vulcany. The unfortunate effect is that the nice aliens look more human than ever and the nasty aliens look even more alien than ever.
I don’t want to delve too much into the details of the story but I thought, despite all my griping above, that it was decent. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the first two episodes are about the federation re-encountering the Klingon Empire – the first episode’s cold open is a Klingon speech that reveals their anxiety about a growing menace and a “lie” that they see as an open threat: “We come in peace.” The story suffers a bit from wanting a sense of realism but then pitching events and circumstances that require a more generous suspension of disbelief.
Interspersed with the main story we also see more of the backstory of the central character. Michael Burnham is a human who has been raised by Vulcans – specifically Sarek, the guy who is Spock’s dad (although that connection is not mentioned in the show). Her name is giving the Scrappy-Doos conniptions because it is a boys name! (OMG! A girl with a boys name! I guess they’ve never met a Robin or a Cameron or an Ashley or a Meredith, heck isn’t the Gamergate mascot called Vivian?) Assuming that you can cope with the shocking news that there are women in the future called Michael, I really liked this character. She is a mess of contradictions and makes some very bad decisions and this aspect is where the show starts doing something genuinely different and interesting.
Now, it is only two episodes in but the approach here appears to be to follow a central character’s story through a set of events set in the Star Trek universe rather than to have a show that follows the standard Star Trek story structure. By the end of episode 2, the titular starship “Discovery” hasn’t appeared, nor has its captain and the central character is not in a good place. I think this is a smart decision. A planet/monster of the week show is something that other shows can do quite effectively (e.g. see Killjoys) on a smaller budget. More substantial story arcs make more sense for a pricey show on a streaming service (CBS’s own service in the US, Netflix for the rest of us – which is probably a better deal for the non-USAians). Showing us a character that fits with the Starfleet and Federation ethos but whose bad decisions drive the plot is a clever change.
Worth watching? If you already have a Netflix subscription, yes, definitely I’d say. Despite the annoying continuity/not-continuity element of the show, it looks good, it was nicely acted and the dialogue gets snappier (no laughs though). A strong attempt to do a serious space opera. For Americans, I don’t know what else the CBS streaming service has and I’m not sure I’d feel happy having paid for access JUST for this show. Your mileage may vary.