‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Brings The Final Frontier Back To Life

“This isn’t about what happened, Sarek,” Star Trek: Discovery heroine Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) tells her adoptive father (James Frain) late in the series premiere. “It’s what’s happening now.”

Few franchises are as consumed with what already happened as Star Trek. The original series created modern sci-fi fan culture, spawned movies, books (both tie-in novels and supplementary texts, like starship blueprints or Klingon-English dictionaries), spinoffs, more spinoffs, and more movies, each new one carrying an ever-greater amount of weight from expectations based on previous installments. The best and most beloved of all the films (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is a direct sequel to an episode from the ’60s TV show. Mr. Spock and Scotty and Dr. McCoy all crossed paths with Captain Picard’s crew, the Deep Space Nine gang traveled back to the events of “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a mostly terrible(*) movie (Star Trek: Generations) was built around the idea of Kirk and Picard finally meeting, and even though the recent J.J. Abrams films take place in an alternate timeline, Leonard Nimoy still found his way into the first two to mentor Zachary Quinto’s new Spock.

(*) I could go on at length about the many failings of Generations, but we have a new show to talk about, so I’ll just hit two: 1) There is no way at all that James T. Kirk’s blissful fake afterlife wouldn’t involve him being perpetually young and in command of his own starship, and 2) James T. Kirk dies from falling down a hill. No. Just no.

If there’s a problem with this emphasis on tradition and history, it’s that there are almost as many opinions about what Star Trek really is as there are Star Trek fans, and different groups can get hung up on what matters and what doesn’t. Deep Space Nine is my favorite of the modern spinoffs (the best of Next Generation was stronger, but DS9 was more consistently excellent for much longer), yet I knew many Trekkies who wouldn’t give it the time of day because it had a stationary setting, the main character wasn’t a captain at first, and/or the tone was darker. (Conversely, I find Voyager a profoundly stupid and formulaic show that ignored the realities of its premise in order to offer watered-down Next Generation stories, where some fans enjoyed it because it scratched a Picard itch for them.) Some love the Abrams movies for capturing the swashbuckling feeling of the original series (and/or the best Kirk/Spock movies), while others resent a story of science and diplomacy being co-opted into another action tentpole movie.

Because Star Trek: Discovery involves several producers of the recent films (notably Alex Kurtzman, who shares co-creator credit with Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller) and has been touted as a more serialized and morally complex Trek to fit into the current TV landscape, I’ve even heard from Trekkies who have looked to The Orville — aka Seth MacFarlane’s very expensive and poorly-done Star Trek cosplay adventure — as a more faithful approximation of whichever version of Trek they grew up on.

This is a big burden for Discovery to shoulder, and that’s even before you get to Fuller’s departure early in development due to scheduling conflicts with American Gods (Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts replaced him as showrunner), not to mention CBS’ attempt to use Discovery as bait to get people to subscribe to their All Access subscription service. CBS kept the show under wraps for a long time, and even embargoed reviews like this one until after the first episode finished airing on the network itself(*). Were they trying to protect a lousy product? Avoid spoilers? Build anticipation for a show that, for the aforementioned reasons, many fans are nervous about at best?

(*) That is the only episode planned to air on CBS. If you are one of those people irate about being asked to pay for another subscription to watch a show you’re interested in, welcome to the future. Discovery exists entirely to prop up All Access; it will not be moving elsewhere, no matter how much you complain or hold your breath.

Having seen the premiere and the two episodes that follow it (the first two hours are on All Access now, additional episodes will be released weekly), I can (with no spoilers for the later episodes, and minimal ones for the premiere; a more detailed discussion will follow next week after all three have aired) offer both reassurance and caution:

Despite the concessions to modern TV storytelling and effects, Discovery feels like a Star Trek show — at times one with the potential to be quite good. But the story and premise go through so many twists and turns throughout the first three episodes, it’s hard to predict what exactly the series is, or how much of that potential it’s capable of realizing.

The series is set in the original timeline, about 10 years before the events of the ’60s show. (Never mind that all the equipment looks light-years fancier than what Chekhov and Uhura got to use; that’s just the way advances in special effects and prop-building work. See also the Scott Bakula-led Enterprise looking nicer than Kirk’s, even though that show took place a century earlier.) We’re introduced to Michael (Fuller loves giving his heroines masculine names) as the long-standing first officer of the Shenzhou under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), enjoying exploration in the midst of a period of relative peace and stability — a period that comes to an end by the conclusion of the Discovery premiere.

The Klingons have been quiet since the events of Enterprise, fighting amongst themselves and letting the Federation expand its borders, but a reactionary zealot named T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) has a diabolical plan to restore their glory by getting back to the thing they love most: going to war with other cultures. The Klingons have again been given a makeover, with a design that resembles Lt. Worf only as much as Worf resembled the forehead ridge-less Klingons from the first TV show (it is a long story), and a persona that’s a bit more ruthless and less samurai-like than was portrayed in Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Every Trek series has tackled contemporary sociological issues — Kirk both got involved in a thinly-disguised version of the Vietnam War, and battled racism among a group of black-and-white aliens — so the Make Klingons Great Again aspect of T’Kuvma’s many rants isn’t out of character for the franchise, even if the show lays it on pretty thick, and at great length through the first two episodes, given its aspirations towards subtlety elsewhere.

The emphasis on fighting with the Klingons also isn’t exactly inappropriate. The original series had plenty of action, and the last two seasons of Deep Space Nine — which, contrary to some of CBS’ marketing for Discovery, was the actual first time a Star Trek show told an intensely serialized story — were almost entirely about the war against the Dominion. But despite a ton of combat in the second episode, it feels at times like Discovery‘s heart isn’t really in this stuff. The visual effects put past shows to shame, but the combat scenes aren’t directed with as much flair as many of the other scenes, and one character gets to protest, “We’re Starfleet. We’re explorers, not soldiers!”

There are huge developments at the end of the second hour, and then the third is more or less the pilot for the show that Discovery is actually going to be, which at times feels extremely Trek-y and at times draws inspiration from elsewhere in the sci-fi canon (there’s a lengthy sequence modeled on the first Alien(*), for instance). That kind of long build-up is a bad habit of a lot of current dramas — think how many Netflix shows spend their first few hours on narrative throat-clearing before getting to what the story is — but the good news here is that Fuller and everyone who succeeded him seem to recognize that even serialized episodes need structure, and each hour feels like a unit unto itself, of a type of story you may have seen on a previous Trek series, even as it’s advancing the larger story of Michael Burnham and this new Klingon conflict.

(*) Some graphic gore in that sequence and Michael’s use of a Word You Can’t Say On Television — but can say on All Access — cleaves some distance from the all-ages approach the franchise has often taken. Other series (Deep Space Nine in particular) showed the franchise could be adult in less explicit ways, but apparently if Diane Lockhart can curse on The Good Fight, then so can a Starfleet officer.

It’s with Michael that Discovery is both most tied to franchise lore and trying hardest to push away. As an Earthling raised and educated on Vulcan, she’s not only an homage to the conflicts that rage within the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, she’s been retconned in as, essentially, his foster sister, taken in by Sarek and Amanda after her parents were murdered in a Klingon attack. Though Spock himself does not appear (yet), inserting a new family member into the backstory of the most revered Trek character of them all could risk fans dismissing her as an interloper, even if one flashback very carefully refers to her as Sarek’s “ward.” Fortunately, Martin-Green, late of The Walking Dead, has the innate charisma and warmth to pull off the role. Michael’s not biologically a hybrid of two species like Spock, but she was nurtured by both. She allows her emotions to dictate her actions far more than Spock did, but when she’s being a human calculator or breaking down the logic of a scenario, she’s believable, and especially good in the third episode, when events have made her quieter and more guarded. (The writers also shield her from the easiest Mary Sue accusations by giving her some deep and apparent flaws, rather than letting her be the perfect quasi-sibling of Spock we just never met before.) She’s also the first franchise main character of any series to not be in command of everyone else (Sisko didn’t make captain for several seasons, but he was in charge of Deep Space Nine), which pivots the focus away from some of the most familiar Trek tropes and leaves her in the dark about some of the bigger picture that a captain would be privy to.

The abrupt shifts in the story make some of the supporting players harder to know early on, though frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator Doug Jones makes a fine impression as science officer Saru, who comes from an alien livestock race bred by their masters for one reason only: “To sense the coming of death.” Some are given quirks that are still being refined (Mary Wiseman plays an anxious cadet who refers to having “special needs,” but in the early stages this just manifests as her snoring and having a few allergies), while others like Captain Georgiou and Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) — an officer who takes an interest in Michael’s skills — are asked to lean on the thankfully sturdy screen presence of the actors playing them.

There are many ways this could go wrong, especially the further away we get from the involvement of Fuller, whose ability to find new approaches to overpicked franchises was the biggest reason to be excited about Discovery in the first place. The Klingon scenes — subtitled, with most of the dialogue delivered in a guttural yell by actors buried under makeup that limits their expressiveness — can be a chore to get through, and the show isn’t always subtle with the Starfleet characters, either. Lorca has an eye injury (and a reluctance to have it fixed by modern medicine) that forces him to mostly sit in dim rooms, lest you miss the idea that Discovery takes place in a darker corner of the Star Trek mythos. And the third episode introduces a potential technological breakthrough that could be more narrative trouble than it’s worth, since it’s more advanced than anything Picard or Sisko or Janeway got to enjoy on shows set a century later.

But for all the complaints I’ve heard that this doesn’t look like the real Star Trek, or that it’s co-opting the brand name and Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the sake of catching the Peak TV wave, this feels to me like a show made by people who love the franchise and its universe. Star Trek can be many things (to many people), from the simple joy of Jim Kirk punching alien Nazis to the complex time-bending tragedy of Ben Sisko meeting his adult son in DS9‘s “The Visitor,” from Khan Noonian Singh quoting Moby Dick to Spock giving a punk rocker the Vulcan nerve pinch, from the grand theater of a tortured Jean-Luc Picard defiantly screaming “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!” to the silliness of Kathryn Janeway and Tom Paris devolving into salamanders.

Star Trek can be whatever it wants. Discovery is Star Trek. Maybe even, in time, a really good merging of past traditions and present television.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is out 10/10 and available for preoder now.