It was 51 years ago that the original Star Trek series premiered on TV. Since then we have had 4 other TV versions of Star Trek and over a dozen movies. So one has to ask do we really need another TV series in this franchise. After seeing the first two episodes of the new Star Trek: Discovery, I think the answer is a definitive yes. Well… Maybe it’s not so much that we need it but we can definitively say that it now that it is here, it is a very welcome and worthy addition to the long-running franchise.
Although it is a bit early to tell, it appears that for the first time the central character of a Star Trek series is not going to be the captain. Our central figure is Cmdr. Michael Burnham, an African-American female human played by Sonequa Martin-Green whose previous credits include 8 episodes of The Good Wife, 7 episodes of Once Upon A Time and most notably 69 episodes of The Walking Dead. In the opening scenes one might guess that she was a Vulcan. She’s wearing a hooded costume on a desert planet so you can’t see her ears. She is speaking in very logical, precise, Vulcan-like manner. Throughout the opening episodes however we find out that Burnham is a human whose parents were killed in a Klingon attack. She was raised on Vulcan as the ward of none other than Sarek who is, as all Star Trek fans know, the father of Spock. In this version Sarek wonderfully played by James Frain.
Not only is Sarek her adoptive father and adult mentor, they also share a long-distance telepathic link courtesy of a special mind meld during a near-death experience when she was a child. Throughout the opening episodes she communicates with him either by subspace radio or by this telepathic link wherein he advises her on her current situations.
We also have flashbacks that show her first days in Starfleet wherein she appears to be even more Vulcan-like then she is in the current time period. Speaking of time period, this series takes place just 10 years prior to the events of the original Kirk/Spock/McCoy original series.
During the first two episodes Cmdr. Burnham is assigned as first officer of the USS Shenzhou which is captained by Capt. Georgirou portrayed by guest star Michelle Yeoh. The fact that she is listed in the opening credits as a special guest star is your first clue that she isn’t going to be around for very long. We will try to avoid too many spoilers and not tell you exactly what happens.
The only other major character we get to know in the first two episodes is Saru played by Doug Jones who is accustomed to playing aliens in fullface makeup. He was recently seen as Cochise in the alien invasion series Falling Skies. Jones by the way grew up in Indianapolis, attended Bishop Chartard High School and Ball State University. In this show he is the science officer and is constantly cautioning the captain to play it safe. At first he comes across as cowardly but later we learn why his background makes him so overly cautious. He explains that humans live on a planet that has a food chain with humans at the top but on his planet everything is either exclusively predator or prey. His species was always the prey. They were essentially bred to be eaten. Their entire life was based on the idea that they were destined to die. However in the second episode when the only option available was to fight, he is not hesitant to help the crew plan the attack on the Klingons. Essentially his character is constantly in a fight or flight situation and while he often chooses flight over fight, when all else fails he is definitely up to the task of fighting.
Given the unique background of Cmdr. Burnham being a Vulcan-raised human and the unusual back story of science officer Saur there appear to be rich opportunities for great storytelling in future episodes.
Again trying not to provide too many spoilers, Cmdr. Burnham will not be serving on the USS Shenzhou in future episodes. She will be transferred to the USS Discovery under the command of Capt. Gabriel Lorca played by Jason Isaacs. He did not appear in the first two episodes. You may recall seeing him in the one season USA Network series Dig.
Essentially the show is going to do a bit of a reboot after these first two episodes so it’s a little bit difficult to know what the actual series is going to be like.
The storytelling is definitely up to excellent Star Trek standards and is a worthy successor to previous versions of the franchise.
The set design, props, and most of all CGI special effects are way beyond what we would come to expect from a Star Trek TV series or any TV series for that matter. The opening scene on an alien planet is so far beyond the kind of alien planet environments that we saw in the original series 50 years ago that it makes the old show looked totally ridiculous. One of the criticisms of this new show is that the sets are so detailed and technical that they seem out of place in the canon of Star Trek stories as a prequel to the original series. The critics accuse Star Trek Discovery of being noncanonical as if it is using technology that didn’t exist in the original series. I don’t find a problem with that. In the first two episodes I didn’t see any real technology that seemed out of place in a ten-year prequel. Just because they spent more money designing the sets and props and the CGI is so far superior to anything that we were capable of creating with practical models 50 years ago doesn’t mean that we violated any continuity. At least that’s my opinion.
The other major deviation from previous incarnations of Star Trek is a complete redesign of the Klingon race. Click here for a video showing the differences. We’re told that the Klingon consist of various tribes or houses that have been split from one another and that part of the plot of the opening episodes is an attempt to reunite the Klingon race. Each of the various tribes seems to have a different facial structure. All of them have fullface head makeups not just the traditional Worf-like forehead piece or the even more minimal Klingon makeups from the original series. That lack of continuity doesn’t bother me but it may bother some people.
A quick browse through YouTube reviews have been mostly negative because people are saying “it betrays 50 years of Star Trek” but that so-called betrayal is only continuity issues such as the redesign Klingons. I’ve not seen any negative reviews that really answer the question is it contrary to the heart of Star Trek. I don’t think it is. So if you don’t like the continuity errors, don’t collect a prequel. Call it a re-imagination. The JJ Abrams Star Trek films get away with changing things because of a alternate timeline excuse. Even though this series doesn’t have that gimmick excuse, I still think people should judge it on its own merits as good sci-fi entertainment and if it has the same level of quality we expect from Star Trek. One negative review described it as “Game of Thrones” in outer space. Pardon me but I’ve got no problem with that.
Overall everything that we’ve seen the way of special effects over these opening episodes makes it look very much on par with a current theatrical movie and far beyond what we normally see on a weekly TV series. They are definitely putting in a lot of money into special-effects on this show. Now it may be that they blew their entire CGI budget on these opening episodes to get you hooked and the quality may deteriorate in future episodes. We will have to wait and see.
One of the disappointing parts of the show, this may seem trivial, was the opening title sequence. The new theme song seems Star Trek worthy with lots of audible references to previous themes and it even concludes with a few bars of the original Alexander Courage theme song. However the graphics are completely uninteresting. They are animated set of technical drawings and some other strange animation. I would’ve rather seen a traditional Star Trek opening sequence with the spaceship flying through space. See for yourself in this YouTube video.
I recommend you check out other videos from the Star Trek YouTube channel for more behind-the-scenes info about series.
The biggest problem with Star Trek Discovery is its availability. While the opening episode was broadcast on CBS network, it left you with a cliffhanger. Episode 2 and the remaining episodes which will appear weekly are only available using a subscription paid service called CBS All Access. Outside the US where CBS All Access is not available, the show is airing via Netflix. I don’t know if it’s possible to use a VPN to spoof Netflix into thinking you are outside the US. If it were available on Netflix everywhere then it would definitely be worth it to subscribe to Netflix because of all of the other things that you would get along with it.
The real question is if it is worth it to subscribe to CBS All Access just to get Star Trek Discovery. Of course after the airing of this first episode, subscriptions of the new service increased phenomenally as was expected. In some ways we have to presume the entire creation of this new series is just a gimmick to get people to sign up for the new subscription service. As of right now, the only other original programming available on CBS All Access is the reboot of “The Good Wife” as a show called “The Good Fight” staring all of the original cast and characters except for Julianna Margulies. The first season of “The Good Fight” already streamed late last year and was an excellent series especially if you are a fan of the original “The Good Wife”. Although there are new original series in the works for CBS All Access, currently these two shows are the only original programming and everything else is reruns at archives of CBS programming.
While I imagine diehard Star Trek fans will find it worth it to sign up for CBS All Access just to watch the new series, the irony is that the average Star Trek fan probably has the technical skills necessary to acquire the series from bootleg sources without having to pay for it. Until and unless something more compelling than Star Trek Discovery and The Good Fight are available on CBS All Access is available, I doubt that the average TV watcher will bother to subscribe.
Meanwhile Star Trek fans will definitely want to see this new series and they will watch it by whatever means available whether that is from legitimate subscriptions or other methods.
For now I’m rating it “I really like it”.
By the way it occurred to me that the initials of this series are “STD”. It took everything I had not too title this review “STD is infectious” 🙂