Reel TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery

I would say I’m more of a casual fan of all things Star Trek. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of its lore and I’m not really offended when liberties are taken with its story (remember how upset some people were about certain aspects of Star Trek: Into Darkness)? When a new series was announced for the new streaming service being offered by CBS called CBS All Access, I was mostly intrigued to see if the show would be good enough to make me take the leap to purchasing the service to catch the remaining episodes (the premiere was broadcast on CBS but subsequent episodes are exclusively for streaming). To answer your question, it wouldn’t be worth it for me but the premiere is quite solid and I would put in the effort to watch the rest of the series if someone I knew happened to have CBS All Access.  From this viewer’s perspective, Star Trek: Discovery finds a proper balance between paying homage to the original series and also embracing the more blockbuster aesthetic that have made the rebooted films so so successful. This, along with an engaging cast led by Sonequa Martin-Green, could make the CBS All Access endeavor a solid investment for fans.

After all the behind the camera drama, delays, secrecy, and hype for the 2256 A.D.set15-episode first season of Discovery has finally taken off. A launch that Leslie Moonves, head of CBS, hopes will result in a sign-up windfall for CBS’ nearly three-year-old streaming service (as we reported here, they’re already stating first day sign-ups hit record numbers). After all, Discovery is the  first new small screen installment of the Gene Roddenberry-created franchise since Enterprise premiered in 2001.

It looks like Moonves could be right about the series and perhaps all the delays and secrecy have given the production a bit more heat. As if it has something it needs to prove. Launching a show on network TV is trying enough but using a show to expand a fairly new streaming service, has to be even more daunting. Discovery is conventional and solidly satisfying serialized TV that speaks to our times, as war drums beat culturally and perhaps internationally. Who would’ve thought that the show could be so topical but it would appear that the Trek franchise has always been a bit ahead of the curve as it relates to the times of the day.

Discovery is set 10 years before Star Trek: The Original Series and, in case you didn’t know, takes place in the prime Star Trek universe, not the alternate universe (created by the 2009 J.J. Abrams film. Rather than depict a peaceful era of Federation history, the series plunges viewers into a rising conflict with the Klingons (perhaps Trek’s most iconic alien baddies), showing what happens when a principled organization like Starfleet finds itself contending with the realities of war.

One of the show’s biggest choices is its most daring: While most Trek series have always ostensibly been ensemble series led by the captain of the crew, Discovery flips the script by focusing the action on a single protagonist — one who isn’t in charge of her ship. Instead, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) begins the series serving as first officer on the U.S.S. Shenzhou under Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and that’s only the beginning of her journey.

By the end of the two-part series premiere, the Federation finds itself in a less-than-peaceful situation, a conflict resolved before James T. Kirk and the Enterprise began their five-year mission, but one that will undoubtedly drive much of the action as Discovery moves forward with a take on space exploration that’s relatively new to the Trek franchise.

A number of recent science fiction films from The Martian to Gravity to Interstellar, have highlighted one common theme: Space is a very scary place. Doesn’t matter how good their tech is, doesn’t matter how much they train — launching human beings into the airless, heatless void between planets is fundamentally terrifying to some degree, given how much potential for death exists. Why would any sane person take that sort of chance?

The answer to the question is evident on some of the faces of the characters. Space might be scary, but there’s the potential for joy as well, because it’s the most beautiful of dreams, the idea of exploring a new frontier for the simple purpose of expanding our own knowledge. It’s something that Discovery celebrates more than once. Exploring these two tonal situations (the fear and beauty of space) proves to be where the show shines the most, at least during its premiere.

These shows have always showcased an underlying current of optimism, of faith in the ideal of unity triumphing over divisiveness in the name of greater knowledge — a faith essential to enabling these brave Starfleet ships to explore brave new worlds. While that optimism is actively present in Discovery, it’s also accompanied by a keen awareness that this optimism does not come easy. It has a price, at times a heavy one, and the characters here are at times in conflict about whether or not it’s worth paying.

As mentioned before, the cast is lead admirably by Sonequa Martin-Green. When I sat in on this panel at San Diego Comic-Con I found her to be an engaging personality and it’s something she brings to her role here. She embodies strength and integrity but also possesses the right amount of vulnerability to make her connect with the audience. Much was made of her casting back when it was announced (Twitter users, or should I say trolls, had much to say about them casting a woman and an African American woman at that, in the lead). Hopefully seeing her in action will quiet the naysayers because she is undoubtedly a reason to keep watching.

The supporting cast is also up to task. In the first two episodes, Yeoh brings a quiet strength to the captain’s chair, James Frain, inheriting the role of Sarek from Mark Lenard, nails that essential Vulcan essence, and Doug Jones, playing second officer Saru, once again proves why he’s Guillermo del Toro’s go-to guy for finding the humanity within the most alien of creatures. More characters are said to be introduced as the series progresses and other reviews suggest they are also engaging and round out a cast that truly shines.

Much has been made of the fact that CBS invested heavily in Star Trek: Discovery to make sure it looked good, and in fact its effects are undoubtedly top tier — the cinematography truly striking, especially when the camera takes in the view outside. There are details that make this show sing, such as the fact that space is treated as a 360 degree environment, meaning that ships don’t necessarily line up on a horizontal axis. The visual aspects is what keeps it in line with the recent blockbuster offerings from the franchise. The show is trying to attract viewers who may normally dismiss a sci-fi show and the visuals along with the action could ensure that it could pick up the unconverted,

Every Trek series has introduced new species and touched on new ideas and I have to give kudos to Discovery for continuing that trend. It’s conventional enough to please fans of the franchise but it also seems willing to explore a darker territory that other shows of the franchise has yet to explore. Even though I’m not quite willing to jump in the CBS All Access pool, I think fans would be happy taking a dip to see where this series goes and see if it continues to shine as brightly as the stars

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About Gaius Bolling 1030 Articles
At the age of five, I knew I wanted to write movies and about them. I've set out to make those dreams come true. As an alumni of the Los Angeles Film Academy, I participated in their Screenwriting program, while building up my expertise in film criticism. I write reviews that relate to the average moviegoer by educating my readers and keeping it fun. My job is to let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world of cinema, so you can have your best moviegoing experience. You can find more of my writing on Instagram @g_reelz.