Star Trek is back, you may have heard on your subspace communicator, in the shape of a television series for the first time since Enterprise completed its four-year mission in 2005. There have been movies since, running on their own timelines, with different people, but to my mind Star Trek requires the authority of a TV cast and crew. So welcome back to your home medium, Esteemed Franchise.
Star Trek: Discovery is the latest chapter of a tale whose telling began half a century ago; like the last few series, it is named for the starship it (eventually) takes place on. It premieres Sunday night on CBS before warping to a parallel universe called CBS All Access, where television comes to you as a stream and a subscription is required to watch it. It’s not expensive, taken on its own, but to every household its budget.
The new show arrives as cloaked in secrecy as a Klingon Bird-of-Prey, with publishing embargoes and agreements not to reveal anything that might infect fandom with fun-killing knowledge of the future. I do understand the concern — I have the same problem with movie trailers and book jackets — and will endeavour to choose my words as carefully as would a Vulcan ambassador.
People who care about these things already know that Bryan Fuller (of American Gods and Hannibal) was originally involved with the series and now is not. (Alex Kurtzman, who worked on the first two of the film reboots, remains.) And it will come as no surprise to them that the tone and matter of the first two episodes, a sort of season-opening double header, differ markedly from what follows, so much so that the third episode plays almost like a second season premiere, following a cliffhanger.
Some actors whose name figures prominently in the credits — including a wryly commanding Jason Isaacs as Gabriel Lorca, captain of the titular Discovery and Mary Wiseman as a chatterbox cadet — do not arrive until then. Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd — a space-travelling snake-oil salesman played by Roger C. Carmel in the original — will be along sometime even later.
Teasers for the show have highlighted the phrase “We come in peace,” a partial quote of the plaque astronauts left on the moon. (“For all mankind” completes the phrase.) In the series it is spoken (at least twice), by human and by Klingon, sincerely and ironically. Is it just Federation foolishness, this desire to get along, to mistake the barbarians at the gate for friends bringing the party mix, the mixers and the mixtape?
This is the conundrum faced by Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), first officer (when we meet her) of the USS Shenzhou, serving under Capt. Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and checking out some damaged fence posts out by the intergalactic North 40. Martin-Green seems stiff at first, until we learn that she was raised by Vulcans, in Vulcan ways — Sarek (James Frain), Spock’s dad, is in fact her guardian — which would make a little stiffness only natural.
I can tell you this much: Someone does something that leads to something happening, and then some more decisions are made, some good, some bad, involving a lot of well-executed special effects. (I saw the first two episodes in a movie theatre on a very big screen, and they did not suffer from the scale.) There is space action, and human interaction, and some attempt to represent the Klingon point of view with more than the usual nuance and sympathy — words not customarily associated with Klingons, whose very appearance, all bumpy brows and bad dentition, and guttural way of speech belie those notions.
With their talk of messiahs and their Lords and Houses and the filigreed interior design and costuming — as opposed to that clean Federation look — there is something undeniably foreign and Old World about the Klingons. At the same time, the anti-cosmopolitan outlook and obsession with racial purity made an issue here are not remote from ugly noises being made within our own borders and halls of power. (I would note that the Klingon commander speaks English, but that the English speakers do not apparently know Klingon — as on Earth, so in space.) Ultimately, of course, Star Trek has always been about the human condition and human events, more deliberately than most shows, perhaps, but also unavoidably. It is written by humans, who think human thoughts in a human world.
Certain senseless series traditions are happily observed. There is the trope of the most important officers on a ship going into a situation that is likely to kill them. There is the easy sacrifice of minor characters whose name you will have never learnt. There is a scene in which a human has to out-think a computer. There is the introduction of a new sort of alien — Doug Jones as science officer Saru, a fussbudgety “Kelpien” who carries the weight of the humour in the opening episodes.
Humour, of course, is key to the Star Trek ethos, going back to the takes and double takes and triple takes of Kirk and Spock and Bones and Scotty and that gang; if I had any criticism of what is after all a giant gift horse, it would be that a certain lightness is missing from the initial episodes. This is remedied in the third, even as things get weird and spooky, so I am good. Live long and prosper, Star Trek: Discovery.
Don’t miss it
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Netflix from September 25.