“Discovery” Takes Star Trek Franchise to New Frontiers

Sunday marked the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the first Star Trek television program since 2005 and one of the most anticipated shows of 2017. Speculation has abounded as to whether it would live up to the standards set by past series and high fan expectations; fortunately, Discovery delivers. Though the pilot episode eschews the earnest idealism of previous Trek installments in favor of the darker fare that’s more in line with the rebooted films and the sociopolitical situation America finds itself in today, the new series is enjoyable to watch for newcomers and returning fans alike.

The series was slated to debut in January 2017, but was delayed due to conflict between CBS and then-showrunner, co-creator Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, American Gods). Fuller initially wanted to make an anthology series, not a serial, and was spending about six million dollars per episode. Eventually, he was replaced with his writing partners, Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts (Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies). Fuller is known for his emphasis on lush visuals and a diverse cast, and the question remains as to whether these qualities will remain as the series moves forward without him.

The pilot episode begins with a clear and all-too-familiar message: a demagogue (Chris Obi) speaks to a group of fellow Klingons aboard an intricately decorated ship, preaching populism and anti-Starfleet rhetoric. His slogan is “Remain Klingon,” and he rages about the mingling of various “filthy” alien races. It’s fitting, then, that in true Star Trek form, the very next shot is of two women of color. These are our protagonists: Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). They’re officers on the USS Shenzhou, and both deliver excellent performances throughout the episode. The Shenzhou’s bridge crew is rounded out by Commander Saru (Doug Jones), Science Officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), and Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Neither the USS Discovery nor its captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) appear in the pilot, to the episode’s detriment. Though the episode has a strong sense of place, the ship and crew that we come to know are not the ones that we will be spending the rest of the season with.

Die-hard Trekkies have taken issue with some aspects of the show: redesigned Starfleet uniforms, phasers, and new looks for the Klingons. But it is likely for the best that Discovery’s creators have not entirely bowed to the will of nostalgic fans in their conception of the series. Starfleet uniforms have undergone multiple redesigns throughout Star Trek’s long television history, and character and species designs have also evolved; as Harberts noted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “the Klingons have never been completely consistent.”

A show like Discovery can go a long way by appealing to nostalgia, but at a certain point, fans who only tune in to see the show that they once knew and loved can limit the show’s present form. By freeing themselves from the restrictions of previous Star Trek shows, the creative team has given Discovery room to grow beyond its history. Hopefully, fans will soon make peace with Discovery going where no Trek show has gone before, and remember that change has always been at the heart of Star Trek.

More concerning than these aesthetic changes is a lack of character development over the course of the pilot episode and the cliffhanger plot twist at the end, which many fans felt strained credulity. However, this episode’s main issue was that it felt incomplete. This is partly because of the cliffhanger, as well as the generous helping of exposition but mostly because the premiere is a two-parter, and the second half of the story only aired on CBS All Access, CBS’ streaming service.

Future episodes of Discovery will also exclusively air on All Access, which is unfortunate because All Access is expensive for a single-channel streaming service, and many would have liked to watch the show live. It’s unfortunate for CBS as well, because Discovery’s premiere had 9.6 million viewers. Discovery is also currently in the top 20 pirated shows on the website The Pirate Bay. Given CBS’ bland lineup for fall 2017 — which includes a military drama; a crowdsourcing cop show, Wisdom of the Crown; and a Big Bang Theory spinoff — Discovery would have been a welcome addition to Sunday night programming.

Despite these drawbacks, whether you’re a hardcore Trekkie or this is your first exposure to the Star Trek universe, Star Trek: Discovery is well worth your time. The pilot episode signals a good start for a new chapter in the franchise, and Martin-Green’s perfect casting and stellar performance promises a solid first season. There is every reason to believe that this show will live long and prosper.