Created by Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman
Based on ‘Star Trek’ by Gene Roddenberry
Original Air Date: November 12th 2017 – February 11th 2018
CBS All Access / Paramount+
In an era of shared universes spread across television and film, it seems only apt that Star Trek would make a comeback. A massive staple of both screens big and small during the 80s through to the mid-2000s, the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, part of the launch of what was then CBS All Access (now Paramount+), arrived under the gaze of publicity and hype that one would expect from a new iteration of Gene Roddenberry’s iconic universe, but it also did so under the auspices of what appeared to be pre-production troubles.
Bryan Fuller’s name is all over the series as co-creator and executive producer, and he is one of the credited writers of the first two episodes, but creative disagreements with CBS/Paramount saw the exit of the Hannibal showrunner just before the cameras rolled, eventually being replaced by Pushing Daisies writers Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts and Alias writer and Fringe co-creator Alex Kurtzman who had previously worked on the screenplays for the 2009’s big-screen relaunch and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, both of which had been directed by JJ Abrams.
There is a stylistic spectre hovering from the Abrams films as Discovery begins. The series has a similar visual style, with scenes on the Discovery bridge frequently having lens flares deployed over the image to dramatic effect, while the scale and scope of the production are quite considerable.
Trek has always had a sense of cinematic gravitas, even on television. While The Original Series was very much a product of its time, the eventual big-screen spin-offs and follow-up series such as The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise always impressed with their production values and visual effects.
In bringing the series into a streaming world and television landscape where HBO and Netflix are spending considerable large budgets on genre series such as Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, and where genre television itself is on an even keel in terms of production value with the biggest feature films, Discovery makes an instant impression with impressive use of Jordan doubling as a desert planet in the opening scenes, before being centred on a prolonged stand-off with the Klingons which dominates the first two episodes, eventually leading to a third chapter that in some respects feels more of a pilot for the series that is to follow than the Michelle Yeoh-starring space battle extravaganza that kicks things off.
Bringing a property like Star Trek to the screen today and being the first Trek series produced for television in twelve years is simultaneously a no-brainer but also fraught with risk in a day and age of social media-dominated conversations where every nook and cranny of an IP as big as this can be dissected and analysed to within an inch of its life. Trek fans are amongst the most passionate fanbase, but like any fanbase, if you put a foot wrong the outcry is louder than William Shatner screaming Khan’s name into the heavens.
There is both a feeling of lovingly embracing Trek lore but also showing a commitment to subverting that very lore. The future Roddenberry envisioned was a hopeful one made up of diversity and a deep-rooted love of exploration, but when the series made the move to the big screen, it took the influence of Nicholas Meyer (credited as a consulting producer here) to turn it into a viable movie series following the mixed reaction afforded to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
If not for The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek may very well have just remained a three-season television series and a feature film or two. Meyer frequently showed fearlessness in exploring the darker edges of the series, fully exploring the admiralty and naval factors of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets as well as the risk and possibilities of death that came with it.
While there has always been a good-natured vibe to the core dynamics of the character dynamics in this world, and we get a sense of it between Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) here, it soon gives way to a tense militaristic stand-off, complex decisions and betrayal.
When Discovery eventually settles in its third episode to Burnham being recruited to the USS Discovery, it portrays something less fanciful in comparison to the good natured vibe of the previous crews and stories; Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) has a hawkish sentimentality and a fearlessness when it comes to the possibilities of violent confrontation; Burnham’s standing as a mutineer and her prison time means the rest of the crew of the ship are frequently, if quietly, hostile; the main story arc of the first half of the season involves Starfleet’s war with the Klingons who are given ample screentime and some, such as L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) and Voq (Shazad Latif), are portrayed in very complex ways, while the second half is devoted to the ship becoming lost in the famed Mirror Universe and with it revelations regarding Lorca that make the first half of the season play differently in retrospect and which finds a way to bring Yeoh back to the series, this time playing a version of Georgiou that is the complete opposite to the charming optimist of episodes one and two.
As Star Trek’s first series within the realm of the streaming sphere, it works like gangbusters and is a well-calibrated season of blockbuster television. Like The Force Awakens returning Star Wars to the screens after a decade away, you get the sense that everyone involved in Discovery wants it to be a prime slice of Star Trek lore but also to have it appeal to a potential new fanbase and audience. Where the Abrams films did respectable business at the box office, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they didn’t quite reignite the series as a blockbuster franchise in the way Paramount possibly wanted.
Like the Abrams films, the production of Discovery is slick but never too glossy, lived in but fanciful and instead of episodic adventures of the week which were the hallmark of The Original Series, Discovery is structured into two story arcs that somewhat converge on to each other come the final two hours. The final batch of episodes lay on a lot of action and incident in a manner that feels more akin to either Star Wars or even Stargate, and once again you get the sense that some purists may scoff at the war-flavoured story.
There are still moments where the optimism of old shows up and it’s terrific. The use of spores as a primary story arc concern may not sound engrossing, but it surprisingly is, while characters like Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Dr Stamets (Anthony Rapp) give the science angles of the stories a level of charm and enthusiasm that still has a foot in Trek of the past. There are nods to the history of the franchise as a whole; Spock’s father Sarek (James Frain) recurs throughout the series, while Rainn Wilson makes for an enjoyably humorous and vindictive new iteration of iconic villain Harry Mudd, the second of his two episodes utilising the trope of a time loop to gloriously entertaining effect.
What really makes the series soar is Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, who is one of the most fascinating protagonists of any sci-fi series in recent memory. A human but one raised by Vulcans, the character is one raised by a childhood and life rooted by violent loss but also logic, but who finds herself falling out of favour due to her perceived mutiny in the first two episodes. The loss of her captain, something that comes about after what is viewed as a betrayal of their friendship and the Starfleet ideals is a million miles away from the charming heroics of Kirk and Picard, but one that is still rooted in emotional intelligence and some incredibly complex writing and acting decisions from Martin-Green.
Her character’s outsider status as someone who went against the ideals of Starfleet, and eventually becomes part of a crew headed by a captain who is also a different breed of Captain compared to the idealism of previously portrayed leaders, gives the first season of Discovery a palpable and sharp charge that it retains throughout much of the first season, at least until its shifts its paradigm again in the final two episodes.
It’s a version of the Star Trek world that is on the cusp of grasping the optimism that populated Kirk and Picard’s Enterprise but is consumed by war and the possibilities of hatred still in the air. As someone whose viewing of Star Trek ended after The Next Generation came to its conclusion, I’ve never had the chance to partake in Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise. DS9 is by all accounts the best of the television spin-offs because it wanted to get knee-deep into the murkier territory of Roddenberry’s world, and throughout season one Discovery feels like it has similar intentions.
It ends on a hopeful note, not to mention a cameo from a pre-Kirk Enterprise, that suggests that season two will lean more towards the optimistic leanings of Roddenberry than Meyer’s interpretation of this world, and while it is a welcome prospect, this first season of Discovery would suggest that when the franchise is plunging itself into the murk that comes with its so-called optimistic world, it finds some of its most thoughtful and insightful stories.