Long before Captain Kirk, there was Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham. At least, that’s what we discover in the premiere of the newest Star Trek series, Discovery. Forget Spock (for now), Picard, and Janeway - this is a Federation which predates them all. Unfortunately, it might also be one which is completely unrecognisable to fans. CBS and Netflix UK premiered the first two episodes to mixed reactions, but while the trepidation of hardcore Trekkies is to be expected, there’s no denying the quality and promise of the premiere. Let’s boldly go into the first two episodes, and if you haven’t seen it yet, be warned, there are spoilers to follow.
Discovery starts not with Burnham but with a Klingon. It’s an interesting choice to introduce the show via a hostile speech made by an enemy about the lie of “we come in peace,” but it’s pleasantly freshening and sets up a conflict we already know is coming. Despite some fans’ displeasure with the new-look Klingons their introduction commands all the strength and power of the iconic Star Trek race and piques our interest perfectly before we turn our attention to the main character.
First contact with First Officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) comes on a desert-like planet, which she is exploring Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Those who feared Star Trek was trying to imitate the new Star Wars movies too much can rest easy (they don’t stay there for long), and it gives us a chance to learn a lot about these characters and their relationship. Back on the U.S.S Shenzhou we meet Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones) and the rest of the crew as they set out to investigate a damaged communications satellite.
The banter between the crew members is very informal which is pretty unusual for Star Trek, especially given the professional setting of the bridge and the fact that they’re mid-mission, but it does a good job of showing how familiar a crew which has worked and lived together for years would become - warmth which is arguably lacking from other Trek series. The conflict between Burnham and Saru is apparent early on, with their attempts to one-up each other laid on a little thick at times, but thankfully the mission quickly becomes more important and refocuses both their and our attention.
While the crew are discussing whether the satellite was intentionally damaged or not they discover an ‘object of unknown origin’ hidden in the meteor field nearby and Burnham is sent to investigate. It’s revealed to be an ancient structure but before she can explore further a Klingon warrior appears and Burnham unintentionally kills him while trying to escape. Any Star Trek fan worth their salt will understand the significance and potential danger in this, but Captain Georgiou and her superiors do not, given that no-one has has contact with the Klingons in about 100 years. They soon change their tune once a Klingon bird-of-Prey decloaks right in front of them and here’s where we find out a bit more about these new (or old given the timeline) world Klingons.
The Klingon ship is under the command of T'Kuvma (Chris Obi) who’s attempting to reunite the Klingon Empire. He plans to bring together the 24 great houses through a prophecy called the Light of Kahless - a plot point which has potential but will remain annoyingly vague should it never be mentioned again - and we discover that the unknown object in space is actually a beacon which will call all the great Klingon houses together. Once the beacon is lit and the leaders of the houses arrive we realise just how fractured the Klingon race is at this point and there’s a sense of watching Federation history in the making as they band together to face down the Shenzhou and the other Starfleet ships which have arrived to back them up. That said, it only really works if you already know Star Trek and if you’re new to the franchise it can feel a little underplayed.
We also waste no time delving into Burnham’s past. If you’ve been following the promotion of the show, you’ll already know that she was adopted by Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda, and raised on Vulcan. It’s revealed that her human parents were killed by Klingons which makes everyone understandably skeptical of her insistence that they need to fire on the Klingon ship first to show strength. However, she believes so completely that this is the best way to avoid a war that she actually attacks her Captain and tries to take over the bridge, and this is a massive problem. The idea that a Starfleet officer would not only disobey a direct order, but physically attack their superior and attempt munity is a hard one to swallow for those who know and love Star Trek. Add to this the fact that the First Officer in question is raised Vulcan and taught to suppress emotion and it becomes even more unbelievable. But that’s exactly what Burnham does and the first episode ends with Captain Georgiou pointing a phaser at Burnham and stopping her order to fire on the Klingon ship just in time.
The second episode picks up where the last one ends and Burnham is thrown into the brig allowing Georgiou to make contact with the original Klingon vessel. Her message of peace has the opposite effect and T'Kuvma convinces the other Klingon leaders to attack. What follows is a space battle full of all the action-packed sequences and fantastically explosions Hollywood has taught us to expect. It could be taken straight out of the rebooted Star Trek movies, but don’t let that put you off - it looks incredible, gives us some well-earned action, and is only different from past series because of technical limitations of the time.
This is where I’ll leave you in terms of story as we’ll start to stray into major spoiler territory soon, but suffice to say it’s clear why both episodes have been released at the same time. It’s really more of a two-part premiere rather than separate episodes 1 and 2 and there’s a finality to the concluding chapter which will leave you satisfied and curious about what’s to come. Where the show goes from this point is fairly obvious - Burnham will find herself on Discovery - but how she gets there is less clear given the events of this premiere. No matter how you feel about the show, you can safely say it leaves you wanting more.
As a whole the premiere is one of the best we’ve seen striking a good balance between exposition and action with only one real dud moment - Burnham’s unlikely mutiny - and while it might be a major plot point, the show can recover from it with more careful, subtle storytelling. Having said that, there’s no doubt that hardcore Star Trek fans will struggle with this new show. Any reboot, sequel, or reimagining has to deal with the expectations and criticisms of original fans and while Trekkies might be more used to adapting to new stories than most, it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll readily accept change. Each Star Trek series has to tread a fine line between honouring the original world and doing something new and different; right now Discovery has put just a little too much emphasis on the latter for any hardcore fan to love the premiere. The good news is that non or casual Star Trek fans are going to find loads to enjoy here, which means there’s likely a whole new group of people ready to boldly go where… erm, others have gone before.