For the first time in twelve years, Star Trek has returned to the small screen, and it does so with a darker, sleeker vibe than we’ve previously seen. My first impression is that Discovery is beautiful. Gone are the nearly claustrophobic bridge sets and replaced with the Shenzhou’s expansive bridge that is almost cinematic in scope. The series feels cinematic and borrows several camera angles and spirals from J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot. The Federation has shifted from the jumpsuits worn by Enterprise personnel to sleeker, blue uniforms that eschew the traditional three division colors. Rather, the uniforms feature gold for command, silver for the sciences/medical, and bronze for operations. Unlike the pips in Enterprise and the wrist braids in the Original Series, rank designations appear on the Starfleet insignia itself. The uniforms are also asymmetrical, recalling the bodysuits from The Next Generation. Thus, Discovery is clearly positioning itself within the universe but as something distinctly new.
The Klingons also get a re-design, with slightly smoother head-ridges, bald pates, and armor that feels more organic than the shoulder-pads and back plates from The Next Generation, which for me remains the best of the Klingon designs—the less said about their costumes in TOS, the better. Discovery’s Klingons sport claws and more pronounced fangs than their counterparts in the eighties and nineties. They speak nearly exclusively in Klingon, at least in the first episode, and it’s immediately obvious that a great deal of attention has been paid to the language, if not the aesthetic from earlier Star Trek canon. In fact, the ship on which we meet T’Kuvma, Klingon prophet of sorts, feels far more organic than the utilitarian Birds of Prey we’ve come to expect, and that organic feeling is partly literal, due to the fact that T’Kuvma’s vessel is literally shielded in the bodies of his ancestors, which is a marked departure from previously shown Klingon funerary practices. While they do keep the Klingon death scream, the rest of the ritual is radically different from what we saw in TNG’s “Heart of Glory”.
Beyond returning species, Discovery introduces the Kelpiens, a prey species with a highly developed danger sense that allows him to “sense death” and generally drives him to avoid conflict. His makeup is fantastically done, and the way Doug Jones moves in his apparatus gives Saru not only a physical presence but a sense of how alien he is that we see infrequently in Star Trek.
Now, that we’ve discussed how the new series looks, let’s talk a bit about how the first episode, “A Vulcan Hello” plays out. Michael Burnham, capably played by Sonequa Martin-Green, is the Shenzhou’s long time first officer, having served with Captain Philippa Georgiou (the ever-fantastic Michelle Yeoh) for seven years. From what we see in “A Vulcan Hello”, Burnham lived with Sarek (James Frain) on Vulcan after Klingons killed her parents, and Sarek raised her to be an Abrams-style Vulcan. The flashback sequence mirrors the education pods from Star Trek (2009). Her relationship with Georgiou is close, and while Burnham is portrayed as eminently capable, the episode opens with Georgiou demonstrating that Burnham still has a great deal to learn while simultaneously discussing the possibility of putting Burnham forward for her own command. What I love about the opening desert sequence is that not only do we see Georgiou’s affection for Burnham but also how gently she teaches by example. That set up makes what happens in the latter part of the episode all the more poignant. However, that closeness is not shared with other members of the senior staff. Burnham and Saru clearly dislike each other, obviously enough that Georgiou makes a sarcastic joke about it to the other members of the crew. Here again, Discovery sets itself apart, eschewing Roddenberry’s edict forbidding interpersonal conflict in the future. Burnham’s relationship with Sarek is equally fraught, with Frain’s Sarek coming across as supercilious and disapproving and Martin-Green’s Burnham’s refusal to tolerate that kind of treatment. To the actors’ credit, they do convey that this is an old argument between the two, despite this being Discovery’s first episode, but of the two, Frain’s is the weaker performance. He does not seem to have settled into the mantle left behind by Mark Lenard quite yet.
That said, “A Vulcan Hello” is somewhat uneven. There are clear moments when the characters are readily laying out the “Star Trek Credo” rather than relaying actual thoughts, and Burnham’s emotional fluctuations in the latter half of the episode make some sort of sense in light of her history. The level of desperation she evinces, however, seems out of place. Viewers already know that she’s correct because the opening sequence featured T’Kuvma explaining his gambit, but even with that reveal, Burnham’s desperation seems disproportionate to the events occurring around her, especially in light of the general confusion reigning on the bridge. Even when Burnham boils out of Georgiou’s ready room, the rest of the characters are more confused than alarmed by Burnham’s actions, and the sequence reminds me most strongly of the aftermath following Spock and Kirk’s fistfight on the bridge from the 2009 movie.
Above, I mentioned the new Klingon aesthetic, and while beautiful, the costumes appear to be physically challenging for the actors. Even the Klingon language sounds garbled, and T’Kuvma’s speeches are pained in their delivery. Not even Gowron was so difficult to understand. The heavy makeup prosthetics appear difficult to manipulate, and the armor seems to restrict physical movements, meaning that the warriors waddle with their strangely thin bat’leths. I sincerely hope that as the series progresses, everyone becomes more comfortable being Klingon. Similarly, I take issue with the decision to put the rank markers on the insignia; the pips are small and do not show up well either on my computer monitor or on the large-screen TV where I watched the episode first. That seems impractical in a military organization, but at least these uniforms appear to have pockets on the pants, which is an innovation that their 24th century posterity will lack.
The real elephant in the room with Discovery, of course, is that after this first episode, the show will air exclusively on CBS All Access, a paid streaming service, meaning that anyone who wants to see the further adventures of Burnham and the burgeoning Klingon-Federation War, will have to pay to view. It’s not an excessive amount of money—around $6 for commercial viewing and $10 for commercial-free viewing per month, but when so many of us are paying for more than one streaming service, there is push-back against subscribing to yet another, especially a service that may or may not offer genre fans other content. Plus, it seems a little calculating to end the broadcast episode in a cliffhanger to prompt subscriptions, a tactic that apparently worked. I personally am willing to pay for the service, but I’m a die hard fan. Other viewers might not be willing to sign up for another subscription service, especially with Fox’s The Orville providing broadcast competition, and I think that’s doing this project a disservice. That said, we do seem to be moving away from a free-broadcast model toward one in which content consumers are expected to subsidize content generation. The advent of Kickstarter and Gofundme campaigns to support DVD/Blu-Ray releases or even entirely new films and shows is proof enough of that. Hopefully, as Discovery’s fifteen episode run plays out, we’ll get a better sense of whether the show merits paying for the content.