‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 1 REVIEW: The Best Trek Chapter in 12 Years

Photo Cr: James Dimmock © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

After an incident aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou results in the United Federation of Planets entering into a war with the mysterious and vicious Klingon Empire, disgraced former First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finds herself amongst the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery. The Discovery is a prototype ship, a one-of-a-kind, because it hosts an experimental spore drive (derived from fungus). Under the guidance of Chief Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), this spore drive allows Discovery to use an intricate mycelial network (similar to the roots of a plant) to transport itself, undetected, to almost anywhere in the universe – instantaneously.

Beginning life on Discovery as a pariah, Burnham strives to regain the trust of her new crewmembers and former shipmates. Under the command of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), and with the friendship of Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham begins her path to redemption, as the Federation battles for survival.

In the twelve years since the last Star Trek TV series, Enterprise, aired its final episode, a lot has changed for the iconic science fiction franchise. The cinematic reboot, although well received generally, polarised the fans. Many loved the aggressive, new action-orientated direction. Yet many others (this reviewer included) felt J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman vandalised the canon, taking far too many liberties with the established Star Trek universe in their 2009 movie.

So we re-join Star Trek at a very strange time, unsure of itself and of which path to take forward, Discovery returns Trek to its TV roots where it belongs. The trouble Discovery encounters right off the bat is that it doesn’t feel like Star Trek. It’s not Discovery’s fault per se, but it is symptomatic of the larger problems resulting from Star Trek’s fractured identity crisis. In 2018, what is Star Trek? Is it the action movie blitzkrieg of the recent movies? Is it the adventuring spirit of The Original Series (T.O.S.)? Or is it the thoughtful social conscience of The Next Generation (T.N.G.)? Or is it something else entirely?

Photo Cr: Jan Thijs © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

This issue presents itself early in episode one, when Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) asks Burnham how she feels about an issue “as a soldier”. And in this simple exchange, they hit the nail squarely on the head, because Starfleet, at least in Gene Roddenberry’s vision – the only one that counts – was never a military force. They’re not soldiers. They are explorers.

While the blame for this recent militarised Star Trek falls largely at Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman’s door (and incidentally Kurtzman returns here as a writer on Discovery), it must be noted that the seeds were sown for Starfleet as a military force way back in 1982, in Nicholas Meyer’s Wrath of Khan. Khan was chock full of nautical reference as Meyer intentionally positioned Starfleet as the Space Navy, much to Gene Roddenberry’s chagrin. Wrath of Khan is undisputedly one of Star Trek’s greatest achievements, but it is interesting that these challenges to Roddenberry’s vision were occurring even during Trek’s hey-day. As if to finish this thought, Meyer also returns to Star Trek as a writer on Discovery.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve already had Star Trek at war. Deep Space Nine’s ongoing story arc, which pitted Starfleet against nefarious Gamma Quadrant overlords the Dominion, remains the definitive Star Trek war story. Therefore, it would be nicer to have Discovery get back to basics and concern itself with exploration, because Star Trek is always at its best when contrasting action with quiet contemplation and introspective pondering. It’s this thoughtfulness in a genre that thrives on bombast, that sets Star Trek apart.

However, acknowledging the ideological problems, let’s take a step back: Discovery does have enough merit to stand its own. Once it starts to find its feet, it becomes a very solid and enjoyable piece of sci-fi that makes itself worthy of your attention.

Photo Cr: Jan Thijs © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Some problems arise early, because Discovery does need a couple of episodes to find its feet. The opening two episodes fall very flat and with the wealth of quality TV currently available, one might be tempted to swear off Discovery. Just like with a novel, the story needs to grab you from the beginning otherwise it risks losing the audience. But an early dismissal here would be a mistake as Discovery kicks it up into high gear from episode three. Once Burnham finds her way to the Discovery itself, the series really starts to settle and we begin to get sense of who these characters are and their place in the universe.

In terms of the tech available, the spore drive is wild. It is great, imaginative stuff, even if it is supremely complicated, at times overly so. Discovery at least gives the impression that the technology is well thought out and the science comes across as believable. It does struggle to impart this knowledge to the viewer at times – the complex theoretical physics and biology mean the layperson has to take Discovery at its word on more than one occasion. But it largely strikes the right balance between technology exploration and entertainment.

Discovery’s greatest strength is most definitely on the acting front. The excellent cast make sure it remains watchable even in the episodes that frustrate. Martin-Green is fantastic as Burnham. If there’s one thing about Discovery that truly feels like classic Trek, it’s Burnham. A flawed, yet deeply sympathetic character, Burnham balances vulnerability and strength perfectly. It would be very easy to imagine her becoming revered as a classic Star Trek captain in a few years’ time.

Discovery is further enhanced by Doug Jones’ crotchety stringbean, Saru, and Mary Wiseman as wild eyed idealist Silvia Tilly. Anthony Rapp is also very good as chief engineer Paul Stamets, creator of the spore drive, and besotted with his own creation.

Photo Cr: Jan Thijs © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

We also get a selection of excellent recurring characters and guest stars. Chief among them are Michelle Yeoh’s commanding turn as Philippa Georgiou and Rainn Wilson, who is absolutely perfect as the nefarious, serpentine Harcourt Fenton Mudd.

Discovery’s Captain, Lorca (Jason Isaacs), is interesting because he is the antithesis of the traditional Star Trek captain. In previous iterations the captain is the rock; reliable, trustworthy, dedicated. The wellbeing and safety of the crew is the principal concern. No so for Lorca. He is conflicted, dark and above all, he wants to win the war. If that means sacrificing the few, for the needs of the many, then so be it. The ultimate goal of defeating the Klingons motivates Lorca above all other things.

It is also nice that Discovery retains some classic Star Trek elements. Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Chief Engineer Stamets’ relationship is quintessential Star Trek. A same-sex relationship on screen is nothing new in 2018 of course, but Star Trek’s role in using science fiction to show us how ludicrous modern societal prejudice is has always been its great strength. From Kirk and Uhura’s kiss, to Frank Gorshin’s black and white alien, Star Trek’s diversity and barrier smashing never turns things into issues or preaches at you. Rather, it normalises “difference”. Star Trek tells us that, ultimately, our humanity transcends it all, and it is that which should be celebrated. It shows us how to move beyond ugly bigotry by believing the best about us. Even in times of war, the Federation is a utopia compared to the modern day, and who wouldn’t want to live like that?

On the downside, the Klingons remain thoroughly ill conceived. Their makeover is drastic, and not a successful one. The costume design and general aesthetic is all sharp spikes and golden accessories, and they stomp about looking like angry sea anemones. Facially, they take a big departure from the classic ridged forehead look, with the design landing on an appearance that resembles a smoothed out Jem’Hadar from DS9. There’s not much to redeem the Klingons at this stage unfortunately, beyond hoping Discovery might hark back to a more familiar look in future series.

Photo Cr: Jan Thijs © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

After the mid-season break, occurring after episode nine, the second half of Discovery picks things up in exciting fashion, as the seeds of a plot sewn in part one start to come to fruition. The resuming episode, Despite Yourself, directed by T.N.G. legend Jonathan Frakes, delivers the most thoroughly enjoyable hour of Star Trek in a very long time, as we get Discovery’s interpretation of a beloved Trek plot staple. It is bettered only by the following episode, The Wolf Inside, which ups the ante on an increasingly enjoyable plotline.

By the time we near the end of the series, we’ve been given a tonne of great dialogue and a plot covering everything from climate change metaphors to an updated Kobayashi Maru (no win) scenario, allowing Discovery to tip its hat to classic Trek while making a point about modern issues. In fact, as the series progresses, it feels like Discovery is not only more confident in its own skin, but also more respectful of its history. The super nerds among you will enjoy Clint Howard’s cameo – he first appeared as a child in the excellent T.O.S. episode The Corbomite Maneuver, in addition to later career appearances in both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. And it’s possible our eyes were playing tricks on us, but it certainly looked like a couple of Ceti eels (the grim, ear-invading larvae from Wrath of Khan) sizzling in an alien frying pan in the series finale.

It is somewhat of a relief, after a rocky beginning, to say that Discovery has largely succeeded. Although not without its faults, taken on its own Discovery is simply enjoyable, entertaining and highly watchable. Discovery is comfortably the best Star Trek of the last twelve years and it will be truly interesting to see if all this potential can be fulfilled and set Star Trek back on an even keel again.

THE REEL SCORE: 8/10