Hardcore Star Trek fans have been frustrated for a year now waiting for the debut of Star Trek Discovery, the first new Star Trek TV series in 12 years. For a year fans have been teased by makeup prosthetics, set and prop designs that look confoundingly like something created in 2017 rather than 1966, leading some to loudly proclaim—repeatedly—that they won’t be watching this new show, because Star Trek is about the future. You know, the future as it was envisioned in 1966. Now, finally, the show’s two debut episodes are available on CBS All Access—and you just know all of those guys watched it, just so they can finally do some REAL complaining.
“The Vulcan Hello” establishes Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, first officer on the U.S.S. Shenzou under the command of Captain Georgiou (a high-priced Michelle Yeoh). Investigating a damaged communications relay in deep space, the Shenzou comes face to face with the Klingons, and only Burnham seems to know exactly how to handle this mysterious and hostile warrior race.
Since I’ve been hearing words like “unwatchable” tossed at this show for the past few months lets at least get this out of the way: Star Trek Discovery is watchable. Visually it goes beyond any previous Star Trek series, definitely leaning on the vivid, inky black-and-gold space tableaus of the J.J. Abrams movies if not quite unleashing the same amount of lens flares that seemed to be poisonous to a legion of Abrams-hating fans. This is a show at least attempting to operate on the level of a modern, Game of Thrones-type genre drama, and if it doesn’t hit that level all the time, it’s at least refreshingly cinematic and immersive compared to the relatively staid visual palette Trek fans have been used to in their TV shows.
When this show was announced a year ago, I joked on Facebook that I’d like to see a Star Trek show without a bunch of scenes with Klingons talking about honor. I’m afraid show creator Bryan Fuller didn’t listen to me on that score as it appears that at least the first season of Discovery is going to be all about the Klingons, and as a lot of outraged fans have noticed, these Klingons look different than the Fu Manchu villains of 1966 and the redesigned, bony-forehead aliens that debuted in 1979’s Star Trek – The Motion Picture. Their prosthetics are more elaborate and they’re hairless, but otherwise, I found them quite recognizable as Klingons, although their habit of speaking Klingon with subtitled English seemed to eat up maybe just a little bit too much screen time.
As far as the English-speaking characters go, this first episode focuses on four: Burnham, Georgiou, Shenzou science officer Saru (ubiquitous under-prosthetics actor Doug Jones) and Burnham’s mentor, no less than Sarek of Vulcan (James Frain). Burnham, as fleshed out by Fuller (with a rewrite from Oscar-winning, Batman & Robin-writing Akiva Goldsman), is an interesting character with the classic, built-in duality of Trek’s best: emotionally scarred by a Klingon attack that rendered her an orphan when she was a child, she’s raised on Vulcan by Sarek (presumably alongside Spock), and it appears that after seven years of serving on the Shenzou she has managed to shake off her Vulcan stoicism to the point where maybe she’s a bit TOO passionate. Knowing exactly how the Vulcans successfully handled the Klingons during their first encounter with the warrior race, Burnham is determined to convince her captain to take the same approach and give the Klingons “The Vulcan Hello”—and when Georgiou refuses, insisting that, “Starfleet doesn’t fire first,” Burnham takes matters into her own hands.
Sonequa Martin-Green has a talent for indicating emotion boiling under the surface, and she impresses instantly as Burnham—she’s got this. And while Michelle Yeoh came off a bit stiff in the snippets of footage leaked out weeks before the debut of the show, she makes for a fine starship captain, with an easy hint of humor and a steely way of delivering an order and in facing down Burnham. Fuller and Goldsman position Burnham as an officer trapped between two mentors: Sarek, who has indoctrinated her in the Vulcan way, and Georgiou, who has eased her into the world of Starfleet, where her humanity is maybe a bit more valued than her Vulcan side.
As Saru, Doug Jones also manages a touch of fussy humor and a kind of soulfulness that makes the alien character immediately appealing. James Frain’s Sarek is a tougher sell—ostensibly this is a younger Sarek, although since Vulcans live so long 10 years (the time frame Discovery occupies before the original Star Trek’s time) shouldn’t really make a huge difference in appearance and behavior. Physically Frain is believable as a younger Mark Lenard, but Frain is very much in the contemporary, almost casual-seeming mode of performance that to me makes almost every post-Mark-Lenard Vulcan seem boring. Sadly, I just dig that half-a-century-old, Larry Olivier style of Star Trek Shakespearean delivery that I guess we just can’t get any more. All that said, Frain too has his moments, particularly as—spoiler alert—he delivers a pivotal mind meld to the young Michael Burnham in the aftermath of the death of her parents that renders Sarek as a kind of mind meld Obi-Wan Kenobi for the adult Burnham.
“The Vulcan Hello” ends on a cliffhanger with the Klingon and Federation fleet about to come to blows after Burnham – in a powerhouse, early-episode action/effects sequence – takes a thruster suit to investigate what turns out to be a Klingon “sarcophagus ship” and inadvertently kills a Klingon “torchbearer.” In “Battle at the Binary Stars,” the fleets engage in a bloody battle and Burnham is confined to the brig as a mutineer. By the end of the episode she’s in a very different place, physically and as regards to her rank, then she was at the beginning.
This all adds up to 90 minutes of backstory for what rumor has it is a very different show starting with episode three. But I found what was essentially a two-hour pilot engaging enough, particularly with a season preview (available with the second episode on CBS All Access) that promises that the show will be more than just finding out what the Klingon houses are up to. I’m particularly eager to see what Jason Isaac, as Discovery Captain Gabriel Lorca, is going to bring to the show and how Martin-Green plays off him.
Two quibbles: I loved the sequence of the Klingons unleashing their blood-curdling war cry—for the first time I felt like I was watching an alien tribe rather than a bunch of actors in wigs and prosthetics hamming it up. But the heavy prosthetics and subtitled Klingon dialogue is definitely distancing and I wonder if in the long run, it might undermine the ability for the Starfleet characters to relate to the Klingons as people and dramatic adversaries. Quibble two: Michael Burnham’s court-martial, the dramatic climax of episode two, fell flat to me. Given the fireworks between her and Michelle Yeoh’s captain at the midway point of this two-parter, I didn’t quite get the impact I wanted from Burnham’s send-off. But given the year-long predictions of doom for this show, I’d say that Discovery has gotten off to a promising start, particularly compared to the opening episodes of shows like TNG and Enterprise. It took The Next Generation more than two seasons to hit its stride so I’m happy to give Discovery at least one.
GEEK Grade: B-
The Vulcan Hello
Written by Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman
Directed by David Semel
Battle at the Binary Stars
Written by Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts
Directed by Adam Kane