Star Trek is back! Star Trek: Discovery is the franchise’s first television series in over a decade. Set ten years before The Original Series adventures of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, Discovery begins with an intense two-part episode that feels more like a prequel movie than a television pilot. The production value lives up to the hype; these are the most beautifully filmed and produced Star Trek episodes I have ever seen.
Discovery is written in a serialized format, resulting in an engaging story that leaves the viewer wanting more at the end of each episode. Star Trek episodes have traditionally stood alone rather than carried a story arc across multiple episodes or whole seasons (the last half of Deep Space Nine is the biggest exception to this). It is already becoming evident how Discovery is embracing this serialized approach to develop characters more quickly and deeply than has ever been done before on Star Trek.
In the first two episodes of Discovery we are introduced to the protagonist, Commander Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green). Burnham’s parents were killed in a Klingon attack when she was a child. After that she was raised and mentored by the Vulcan Ambassador Sarek as an emotional human child amidst a very emotionless and logical Vulcan society. This makes her something of a step-sibling to Sarek’s estranged son Spock, an implied connection that longtime fans should appreciate. Oh yeah, and she also knows the infamous Vulcan nerve pinch, which should serve her well in the future.
Commander Burnham’s unique upbringing has made her confident yet competent, logical yet emotional. However, her brash confidence is shattered during the pivotal scene which bridges the two episodes. Burnham and the crew of the USS Shenzhou find themselves facing off against a newly unified and malicious Klingon battle fleet. During a moment of extreme tension, Burnham ignores the chain of command and attempts to take over the bridge, convinced that the best way to deal with the aggressive Klingons is to fire first. Burnham’s actions are the spark that ignites a full scale war between the Federation and the Klingons.
The bridge of a starship is an almost sacred space in Star Trek. Commander Burnham’s attempted coup there threatens the stability of that space and nearly throws it into chaos. Burnham isn’t the first character in Star Trek to break the rules on the bridge; breaking rules was one of Captain Kirk’s signature moves. But Burnham is a much different person than Kirk, and the outcome of her actions leaves the Federation in disarray and her career in ruins. By the start of episode three (which the showrunners have said serves as a second pilot), Burnham will have lost much of what was dear to her. How she handles the next phase of her life remains to be seen.
Discovery also goes where no Star Trek series has gone before by spending a significant portion of time focusing on the Klingons and their warrior culture. In fact, Discovery is the first Star Trek pilot to open with a scene inside a Klingon ship. Discovery pays equal attention to both sides of the Federation-Klingon conflict rather than focus primarily on a Federation-centric view of the universe.
The charismatic leader T’Kuvma is at the center of the Klingon story in the first two episodes. T’Kuvma attempts to gain political power by uniting the 24 houses of the Klingon empire through promoting ideologies of racial purity and self-preservation. He invokes the name of Kahless, the last great Klingon to unite their empire, which causes his followers to venerate him just like Kahless. He even has a slogan for his followers to rally behind: “Remain Klingon.”
If any of that sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. The showrunners have stated that they were deeply influenced by the events leading up to and following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It was in the forefront of their minds while they were writing the first season of Discovery, encouraging them to address themes such as isolationism, racial purity, and passionate disagreement. They said that they wanted the Klingons to function not as “the enemy” but as a means to explore and understand how people even within a nation can have completely different views from each other. Star Trek has often served as a powerful social commentary on current events. There is a chance here for Discovery to do the same, but it needs to continue providing an equal amount of focus on the motivations of both sides. The opening episodes’ spotlight on T’Kuvma’s unification of the Klingon empire satisfies that need.
T’Kuvma’s influence on the Klingons is wisely assessed by Sarek when giving advice to Burnham: “When a civilization acts in opposition to its instincts, it may be under the influence of something or someone new. Great unifiers are few and far between, but they do come. Often such leaders will need a profound cause for their followers to rally around,” to which Burnham knowingly replies, “A war.”
The Federation is committed to peace if at all possible. Captain Georgiou states, “Battle…is blood, and screams, and funerals.” It is an outcome they would very much like to avoid. An injured crew member remarks sorrowfully during the height of battle, “Why are we fighting? We’re Starfleet. We’re explorers, not soldiers.” Although Starfleet has the means to defend themselves if attacked, as a rule they never fire first. Conversely, the Klingons believe that peace is a lie and that honor can be gained only through victorious battle. T’Kuvma is disgusted by the multi-racial equality promoted by the Federation and profoundly denounces their oft-repeated greeting: “We come in peace.”
At the height of the story, both cultures find themselves literally on the brink of war because their two ideologies are diametrically opposed and neither side is willing to alter their position. It seems that if just one person were to say or do the wrong thing, the tenuous peace would shatter, and this is exactly what happens thanks to Commander Burnham.
Now that war has broken out between the Klingons and the Federation, how can it be stopped? And even if it is stopped, how will it change the lives of everyone affected by it? What hope can be found in the face of such a seemingly bleak future? I look forward to the answers to these questions throughout the rest of season one of Star Trek: Discovery.