If the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery has taught me anything, it’s that expectations do a lot more harm than good.
The new Star Trek series had its two-episode pilot (sort of a double feature) this past weekend, and I was dying to see it. I had high hopes that it would stay true to what I consider to be the spirit of the series, which dates back to the 1960’s and has been reinvented in half a dozen TV series since then. I love Star Trek. I haven’t watched every single iteration of it (my favorite is Deep Space Nine), but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen so far. I even like the new J.J. Abrams movies, which take place in an alternative timeline and, in contrast to the thoughtful television series, are very blockbuster action-y. Despite enjoying them as popcorn flicks, I went into Star Trek: Discovery hoping it would be more like the TV series than the new movies.
(Minor Discovery spoilers to follow!)
At first glance, I didn’t quite get what I wanted. That’s because Star Trek: Discovery plays with the same blockbuster tone of the recent films. In its first two episodes, it pulls out all the stops: space battles, fight scenes, tension, arguments, betrayal, and tons of CGI. Everything is so shiny, every scene so intense. And those aren’t bad things. Discovery feels like epic sci-fi to me, and hey, if modern tech can make more space battles happen, I’m all for that in my Star Trek. Watching the pilot, my eyes were definitely glued to the screen the whole time.
The storyline surprised me too — in good ways and meh ways. It revolves around the Federation starship Shenzhou discovering an unknown object in space and trying to decide how to approach it. That object turns out to be a Klingon warship — and the Klingons haven’t been seen in over a century.
On the one hand, I like the lead character, first officer Michael Burnham, who manages to be both fiery and vulnerable at the same time. She has strong opinions and ideas about how the crew of the Shenzhou should proceed, yet she second-guesses herself and has to talk with her mentor in private at one point. I can’t say I’m a fan of the agitator personality, but Sonequa Martin-Green brings enough gravity to the role that I still appreciated her.
Flashbacks also reveal parts of her past. The most intriguing aspect is that she was raised by the Vulcans, which brings a need for logic to her personality. We also learn that Klingons killed her parents. So when she suggests opening fire on the Klingons to win their respect — a tactic the Vulcans successfully employed with them in the past — her desire might be based on personal bias more than clever diplomacy. I really hope the show continues to explore this facet of her character, as it has the potential to open up themes about identity, culture, and intellect in a way that reflects Star Trek‘s core values of reasoning and understanding.
But that’s also the flip side to her character: Not to be too insensitive (I lost a parent when I was young too), but I feel that the dead parents backstory is very cliche at this point. I love it for Bruce Wayne because he’s been around for quite a while, but we don’t need every character we meet to have that sob story. A part of me wishes her personal history was more unique, less predictable. For instance, she could have had a parent who fought the Klingons to the point of brutality, and so she now tries to compensate with diplomacy. Her backstory feels a little too tidy in giving her a personal investment in the Klingons.
Moving back to what I liked about the show, there are plenty of Star Trek-y conversations about how to approach the unknown and, later, the Klingons themselves, who may or may not be hostile. I appreciated the discussions the characters had. Maybe not the full-blown arguments, or Michael Vulcan-pinching her commanding officer Philippa Georgiu (Michelle Yeoh) to take over — that just felt over-the-top. But if Star Trek is about exploration and diplomacy, these first two episodes definitely pitted them against suspicion and warfare in an effective way.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what to think about the portrayal of Klingons. They have a new appearance, which I don’t mind — this series is essentially a prequel to The Original Series, and I’m curious how everything develops. What I’m more unsure about is their portrayal as the “bad guys.” Star Trek has definitely had its fair share of villains, and the Klingons rank high on the list. The Federation and the Klingons have a long track record of hostilities and war. I just feel like a.) it’s been done already, and I’d rather have a new enemy, and b.) I am not a fan of such a sweeping portrayal of a race so early on.
Sure, the Klingons haven’t always been the most likable people in Star Trek — but then we get Worf. The Cardassians are another race that has a pretty awful past as of Deep Space Nine, yet individual Cardassians have ample opportunity to redeem themselves. In other words, I want to see everyone in Star Trek as real souls. I don’t quite want to use the word “humanity” for another race, but one thing I love about Star Trek is that the aliens they encounter all have that relatable core to them. So far, Discovery is not showing that enough with the Klingons.
There’s potential, though. They’re dealing with internal racism, the advent of religion, and the need to regroup as a people. That’s interesting, I just need to see the personal side of it all. Seeing their leader struggling inwardly with something or dealing with a personal crisis — that would help me sympathize on some level.
Instead, we get scenes that feel like our heroes on the Shenzhou are interrupted by scenes of our villains on their warship, having grim conversations against the Federation. It reminds me more of Star Wars‘ good and evil than Star Trek‘s culture clash. The atmosphere is very “evil villains in their lair,” which just rubbed me the wrong way.
So after watching these first two episodes, I’ll admit I was on the fence about the series. It didn’t quite feel like the Star Trek I know and love. It has too much fighting, too many generalizations, too many cliches, too much shininess.
And yet I enjoyed every minute of the show. It made me want to discuss it with everybody afterwards, to see what they thought of it and what would happen next. And maybe that’s the best part: These episodes were a prologue of sorts for the rest of the series. I won’t give away the end of the two-episode premiere, but things change drastically. Flashes of future episodes indicate that there’s a pretty epic storyline that’s about to take place. Maybe it will have a soulful arc like Deep Space Nine did. Or maybe not. Maybe it’ll be more dramatic and action-packed than that, and that could be just fine.
I wonder how much of it is Bryan Fuller’s vision. The original showrunner, he is a long-time Star Trek fan who also worked on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Though he left the show last year, I hope at least some of his complex ideas for the show push their way through to the future of the series.
Love it or hate it, Discovery is doing something fresh with Star Trek. It takes the old focus on diplomacy and exploration and gives it more flash and action than ever before. It might not be the Star Trek show I was hoping for, but I was certainly entertained. I can’t wait to see what the series does next. As long as I let go of my expectations of what Star Trek should be, I have to say I’m really enjoying the novelty.