‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Combines Classic Trek With a New Storytelling Engine
After 12 long years, practically a millennium in TV time, a new iteration of “Star Trek” has finally beamed its way onto TV screens. It’s not wise to get used to it, though, as the primetime debut of “Star Trek: Discovery“ on CBS was a one-time move aimed at baiting as many viewers into buying into the network’s fledgling streaming service. Did people take the cliffhanger bait? This reviewer did, hook, line and sinker.
One thing “Discovery” demonstrates is the franchises’s timelessness. “Enterprise” left the air in May 2005, and to call the shift in the television paradigm since then tumultuous would be the grossest of understatements. Not only has the medium of choice changed, but the way stories are told has changed, veering toward a more serialized, binge-friendly style. Not only does “Discovery” fit into this modern storytelling model, it actually appears to be flourishing. The show takes full advantage of its opening two-parter, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” to plant seeds for a season-long arc that will take “Trek” fans where most have never gone before.
Our so-called heroes traverse the universe aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou, the hierarchy of which is anchored by captain and First Officer Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the show’s lead. Burnham’s long and at times turbulent history plays out for viewers in a series of flashbacks that, although cumbersome beyond belief, actually turn out worthwhile by the two-parter’s concluding twist. A human whose parents were exterminated in a Klingon terrorist attack, Burnham was raised by Vulcan diplomat Sarek, adopting all the Vulcan traditions as she underwent her schooling. Unfortunately, one crucial aspect she failed to inherit is the cool, emotionlessness with which Vulcans like her foster brother Spock approached even the most hair-raising of situations, a fault that almost immediately lands her in trouble.
“Discovery” takes the time to unfurl its own geopolitical climate, especially a tense isolationism that the Klingons have been observing for the last century while their own 24 houses have been in conflict. It’s the arrival of the Federation vessel that starts fanning the flames of reunion for the empire, definitely bad news for the “federation outsiders,” as Klingon leader T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) calls them. That Klingon-federation tension escalates when Burnham, all suited up on an exploratory mission outside of the Shenzhou, encounters and kills Klingon warrior Rejac. We’re led to believe that his death was an act of self-defense, but a lot of Burnham’s flashback-powered backstory leaves a lot of room for suspicion.
Rejac’s demise is the inciting incident the Klingons need to get on the same page, though, which is even worse news for the peaceful federation explorers. A Klingon ship uncloaks, and the Federation is unable to make contact with them and have to choose whether to engage violence. Burnham insists the Shenzhou raise defenses, but Georgiou seems less than willing. It’s this standoff that leads to the show’s first and most crucial cliffhanger, with Burnham utilizing the Vulcan nerve pinch to incapacitate her First Officer and Captain and leading the anti-Klingon charge without her.
Sure, a human using the legendary Vulcan nerve pinch raises a ton of fanboy questions, but there’s no time for a Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” impression right now, because The Klingons most certainly aren’t coming in peace this time. Now unified, a small Klingon fleet pours in around the Shenzhou, prompting a freshly revived Georgiou to try and initiate a ceasefire with the Klingon leader. But the Federation explorers play right into fiendish Klingon hands, prompting a brutal face-off that ends up rocking the Shenzhou and killing both T’Kuvma and Georgiou. It’s a heart-wrenching scene made all the more powerful by the flashbacks that felt unwieldy at the time, but now feel totally worth it. There are tears. So many tears.
“The Battle at the Binary Stars” concludes with an unprecedented paradigm shift, with Burnham facing life in prison for mutiny and assaulting an officer. It’s yet another cliffhanger, one that anyone who signed up using the seven-day All Access free trial will have to pay to get past.