At this stage of Star Trek’s just over 50 year old journey into the stars and the depths of humanity’s soul, you could be forgiven for wondering if there is anywhere left to boldly go where we haven’t already boldly gone before.
After all, from Captain Kirk to Archer, Picard to Sisko and Janeway, from the dawn of the warp age through to its conflict-ravaged depths, and from the glories of utopia, upon which Gene Roddenberry’s grand vision of the future was founded through to its corrupted reverse, there has been scarcely a moment left uncharted you might think.
But as is the way of endlessly expansive sci-fi for which there are no boundaries but those of an unadventurous imagination, and thank Sarek for that, Star Trek: Discovery, created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, would prove you wrong.
The much-anticipated return of Star Trek to the small screen it is the first TV series in the franchise since Enterprise finished its run in 2005, Discovery takes us as much back to the past as the future, slotting neatly between the Original Series and its immediate predecessor.
It could be argued that striking out into the technologically-advanced wilds of the centuries beyond Next Generation would be a far better, wholly undiscovered country to explore, but as you watch the protagonist of the latest Star Trek incarnation, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), raised a Vulcan by Spock’s esteemed father Sarek (James Frain) but wholly human inside despite all the applied logic, do her thing you realise the value there is in returning to the Federation’s earlier days.
This was a period when exploration was truly an endeavour of galactic bravery and curiosity, shiny, advanced spaceships notwithstanding; a time when, as this two-part prologues demonstrates, with a grittiness that belies its evocative, CGI-enhanced cinematic visuals, that you never really knew what you’d come across.
The capacity then to be surprised is infinitely greater as it most definitely is when Burnham, and her Captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh in a guest starring role), whom we first meet on the desert expanse of a strange planet on a humanitarian mission to bring water to an endangered pre-warp people, come across the first Klingons anyone has seen in over a hundred years.
Far from the days when a Klingon, admittedly a rarity, serves as an officer aboard’s Picard’s Enterprise, and the Empire is more a part of the galactic fabric if still a factious one, the encounter is one fuelled by xenophobia and revived nationalism as a revolutionary firebrand, a true believed in the Klingon messiah Kahless, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), is in the mostly successful process of reuniting the 24 grand houses, locked to this point in internecine disarray.
What should be a routine mission to fix a communications relay on the edge of Federation space suddenly becomes a pitched dramatic battle, the kind you’re more likely to see in one of J J Abram’s re-imagined Star Trek: The Original Series films than a small-screen journey into realms where no one has ever gone before.
Disinclined to democracy and possessing some formidable firepower and a now powerful motivator in Klingon racial purity – there is a significant sense of white supremacists standing up against a heterogenous interloper aka the Federation – Burnham and her colleagues, including Chief Science Officer Saru (Doug Jones), with whom she “enjoys” a contrary relationship, find themselves up against an enemy who believes less in diplomacy than sheer, brute force.
Not quite the grand visionary ideal of renewed first contact now is it?
Granted the good folks of the Federation such as one benighted Admiral named Anderson (Terry Serpico), all blustery arrogance and mansplain-ingness, do their best to employ the ideals upon which their multi-planetary idyll is based but it’s fruitless and results not only in the loss of a number of ships, but many crew members and Burnham’s belief that she can make a career in Starfleet work.
Told spectacularly, and yet with some immensely-gratifying moments of great intimacy such as that between Burnham and her mentor Georgiou, or Burnham and Sarek, Star Trek: Discovery is an impressive piece of storytelling by any estimation.
It’s not without its faults, of course, much like the Federation itself whose vibrant self-belief often verges on virulent manifest destiny of the worst kind, with say Burnham’s oft-referred to emotional aloofness more a creature of the script than evidenced in reality, and the Klingons drawn to fairly simplistic, warrior tub-thumping one-trick ponies (still time to grow I suppose into Worf given time), but for the most part it works and works well.
Much like the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica before it however, Discovery begins not as it really intends to go on; that is, you need to think of these two-part opener as a wholly distinct entity that ushers in the Federation of this era and time, and not as part of what comes after this.
While we are yet to see what follows the cataclysmic “Battle of the Binary Stars” which sees the crew of the USS Shenzhou almost literally scattered to the stars, it stands to reason in the face of a total rupturing of the reality we are first presented with that what follows will be a whole world, or galaxy, unto its own.
Burnham, the first #Number One” to be the focus of a Star Trek series – usually this protagonistic honour falls to the Captain of the ship in question – will, by sheer dint of narrative wallop alone, have to go onto a new ship, a new crew.
Indeed word is that only Saru will carry over to episode 3 and beyond, meaning that what we witnessed in the first two excellently-wrought episodes that bristle with visual splendour and narrative substance and nuance, is more prelude than something to be carried forward.
That’s not a bad thing necessarily, and you can hardly discount the first episodes as unnecessary though beautifully-delivered filler since they set up a story, one enticingly ill-defined and full of expansive possibility, and do in such a way that you want to see what kind of rabbit Burnham can pull out of her immensely-diminished hat.
Star Trek: Discovery gives every indication of being as much Deep Space Nine, the most critically-lauded of all the Trek shows, and a personal favourite, as TOS or Next Generation, a show that recognises, with all the dramatic allure that implies, that ideals are all well and good and one can only hope they prevail over blighted realpolitik in the future, but people will remain people and the lesser angels of everyone’s nature will inevitably play a role, no matter how visionary you might like things to be.
It seems to also acknowledge, as Deep Space Nine before it, that the Federation can be as high-minded and noble as it wants, but if the other warring races of the quadrant don’t want to play ball, there’s nothing that Starfleet can really do about it.
It even seems prepared to jettison the idea that the crews of spaceships and those higher up such as Admiral Anderson should always be in virtuous harmony; where’s the fun in that in the end since it stunts any kind of dramatic exploration worth its salt.
No, Star Trek: Discovery seems wholly prepared to be very much its own creature of the franchise – observing and upholding the ideals of inclusion, respect, diversity and open-mindedness and exploration while being narratively cognisant of the fact that the world out there is a wild and woolly one, especially in the mid-twenty third century, that won’t necessarily play nicely in the galactic sandbox.
Possessed of a grand and epic musical opening, a sensibility that is idealistic but pragmatic, lush cinematic visuals and characters that look like they’ll worth caring about (such as we’ve seen anyway; the bulk are yet to make our acquaintance) Star Trek: Discovery looks to be very much worth the price of admission and a welcome new addition to the august, compelling canon of this most venerable of sci-fi franchises.