Captain Kirk famously told his Starfleet crew that “risk is our business.” And the newest version of the franchise — Star Trek: Discovery — is taking that boast pretty seriously. Now that the first two episodes of the newest Trek have finally aired, it’s clear that the basic direction of this series is risky as hell.
Mild Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery: “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars.”
Not only has Star Trek assimilated into the new binge model of how TV is made and consumed, but Discovery is literally pressing the compulsive must-watch button into warp speed. If you’d never seen a single episode of any Star Trek before, you’d probably have a bit of a tough time understanding a few references, but you’d have no problem following the story: A lone spaceship on the edge of friendly space encounters a giant, old spaceship belonging to a long-forgotten race of hostile aliens. One woman — Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) — thinks she knows how to deal with it, but she’s wrong. Her actions inadvertently lead to the death of her captain (Michelle Yeoh) and create an all-out war with famously aggressive aliens, the Klingons.
And yet, the synopsis above is hardly a spoiler. If you haven’t seen Star Trek: Discovery yet, you might think you understand what this show will be like. But you’d be wrong. Many fans and writers predicted long ago that Burnham would start a war with the Klingons and that Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou would die. In fact, Discovery seems to give two shits if you’ve figured this out; Michelle Yeoh is listed as a “guest star” in the opening credits.
The point, then, of Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t seem to have anything to do with spoilers or filling in parts of cool Trek mythology. The what of this series matters way less than the how and the why. The final scene of “Battle at the Binary Stars” finds Burnham being sentenced to imprisonment for life. Obviously, a smart viewer will know that she’s going to get out of space jail and end up serving on a starship called the Discovery. So, the reason we want to watch the next episode is to figure out how all of that plays out. Will casual viewers keep watching? Depends on how mad they are about the death of Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou. It also depends on how much everyone can put up with nearly half of the show’s narrative being centered on the Klingons, who, despite looking totally badass, still retain an inherent goofiness from their complicated real-world origins.
Still, for both the faithful and the unsure, the first two episodes of Discovery really do feel like the first two chapters of an action-packed sci-fi novel. If you were to recommend Star Trek: Discovery to someone in some kind of alternate dimension where Star Trek didn’t exist, you’d be smart to seek out a fan of the reboot Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse. The aesthetics and character-driven drama of those political sci-fi shows are probably closer to the core of Discovery than any previous Star Trek show — which is what makes this feel so risky. It’s not Game of Thrones in space, but it might be Breaking Bad in space.
The aspects of Discovery that do feel like the previous iterations of Trek oddly come from two of its most famous alien races: the Vulcans and the Klingons. While the Vulcans are logical to a fault, the Klingons are emotional and aggressive to their detriment, too. Discovery isolates these two philosophies deftly, in a way that Star Trek has never quite modulated before.
When Sarek of Vulcan appears to Burnham via a long distance mind-meld, he almost feels like the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi advising Luke Skywalker. This isn’t to say that this version of Trek is more like Star Wars. It isn’t at all. It’s too dark and brooding and contemplative for Star Wars, despite the relentless action.
Instead, Sarek and Burnham’s Vulcan logic and the Klingons’ desire to start a war over “purity” puts everything about the philosophies of this series into the realm of extreme absolutes. But because this series is clearly about the characters more than anything else, it will be fascinating to see if these new, extreme Star Trek characters do something Trek characters of old rarely did: change.
Star Trek: Discovery airs on CBS All Access on Sundays.