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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Moves Forward While Remaining True to the Franchise’s Roots

The first ‘Star Trek’ show in more than 12 years is serialized and available only via streaming subscription—but at its core, it is a worthy descendant of the original series

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ CBS

“To serialize, or not to serialize—that is the dumb question.”

So said Ira Steven Behr, former showrunner of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on a recent episode of The Ringer MLB Show. Dumb as it was, Behr and his writers had to ask themselves—and, more importantly, Paramount and CBS executives—whether serialization made sense throughout the seven seasons of the third live-action Star Trek TV series, which ran from 1993 to 1999. Unlike previous and subsequent small-screen incarnations of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine took place primarily on a single space station, which lent itself to more extended story lines. Yet even though the show lacked the freedom to go gallivanting to a new planet each week, Star Trek’s corporate overlords resisted the idea of arcs that carried across several installments. By the time Deep Space Nine debuted, the title sequence of precursor series The Next Generation had declared that Star Trek was the story of a “continuing mission,” but that story had always unspooled almost exclusively via stand-alone episodes.

By the last season of Deep Space Nine, Behr told us, he and his writers “had taken over the asylum” and “were pretty much ignored by the powers that be.” There were, of course, a couple of exceptions: serialized episodes and sending the beneficent peacekeepers of Starfleet to war.I kept telling the staff, ‘Let’s just do whatever the hell we want to do,’” Behr says. “None of the suits are really paying that close attention, unless we start talking about serialization.” Behr had some success in pushing Star Trek toward a more serialized model, especially later on, but most of the series was still episodic by modern-drama standards. Compared with the tough sell of serialization—particularly a serialized story about the Dominion War, a bloody conflict involving the pacifistic Federation—seeming non sequiturs such as episodes about baseball and gambling were simple propositions.

Almost 20 years after Deep Space Nine ended, the suits’ resistance to serialization seems quaint (and futile). And on Sunday, even Star Trek, a series that traces its roots and traditions to TV’s bygone era, cast off its episodic origins with the premiere of the fully serialized Star Trek: Discovery.

“My hat’s off to Ira,” says Alex Kurtzman, an executive producer of Discovery, the first Star Trek TV show to launch since Enterprise went off the air in May 2005. “Obviously we stand on his shoulders in so many ways, and many of the showrunners, many of the iterations of Trek. But we never had to fight those battles.”

Discovery took its time getting here, suffering delays and the departure of cocreator and Trek vet Bryan Fuller amid murky circumstances involving missed deadlines, conflicting commitments, and creative differences. By the time Kurtzman and new showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts polished the show into the shape it took in its two-part premiere, which aired half on CBS and half on its permanent home, streaming service CBS All Access, they could put one war on screen without waging another behind the scenes. The industry had evolved to support the serialization that their Star Trek predecessors had struggled to get green-lit.

“We had streaming in our favor in that regard,” Kurtzman says. “Very rarely is streaming television about stand-alone television episodes. It's about long-term, serialized storytelling. So the question of doing it in that way was never an issue. That literally never came up. … And as far as the war goes, they never questioned that either.”

Star Trek: The Original Series changed TV forever on a few fronts, thanks to its scope, its special effects, and, of course, its interracial kiss, which helped pave a path for Discovery’s diverse cast. Now, though, TV has changed Star Trek. Discovery adopts a different format for the franchise, one tailored to the way we watch TV in 2017. But based on the first few episodes, the newest shape-shift for the 51-year-old series has the potential to work as well as the old.

Like Enterprise before it (both in our timeline and Trek’s), Discovery is a prequel. This series, set in 2256—10 years before the first five-year mission of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy—stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, Starfleet first officer and adopted first daughter of Sarek, Spock’s dad. The unprecedented decision to make the lead a non-commanding officer gives the show a conduit to the bridge’s big decisions while also allowing a little more leeway for organic interactions with the rest of the crew.

For the rest of this paragraph, set phasers to spoiler: In the first two episodes of Discovery, Burnham cheats death three times, witnesses the start of an interstellar war with the Klingons (who’ve mostly been minding their own business beyond the Federation’s borders) and their coffin-covered flagship, becomes Starfleet’s first mutineer, and is sentenced to life in prison. (As you could probably surmise, she doesn’t end up serving the full sentence.) Both Burnham’s captain and the Klingon leader, who unites the warring Klingon clans in opposition to Starfleet, are killed, despite getting enough screen time between them to establish them as major recurring characters in most shows.

Although Michael mutters one non-FCC-sanctioned swear word—the way that The Good Fight, also a CBS All Access show, gave us Diane Lockhart dropping F-bombs—Kurtzman says that the biggest benefit from the move to a streaming service is freedom from the network tradition of saving big moments for premieres, finales, and sweeps weeks only. The third episode, which airs next Sunday, keeps up the premiere’s pace, with another near-death experience, a new captain, Lorca (Jason Isaacs, almost precisely reprising his role in The OA aside from a snappy new uniform), and crew, and a few revelations that clarify how much more is at stake than survival.

That’s a lot of material to cover in a couple of hours, especially by the standards of previous Star Trek TV premieres, most of which didn’t get out of the gate quite so quickly. “Given the fact that it’s been over 12 years since the last version of Trek and people had a lot of questions about what the modern take on the show would be, we knew we needed to come out of the cannon very, very strong,” Kurtzman says.

Discovery’s warp-something speed stems partly from the fact that the length of its season leaves its creators less time to tool around on impulse power. Unlike previous Star Trek series, whose seasons ran at least 22 episodes, Discovery adheres to the TV-wide trend toward shorter seasons with 15 episodes, up from the 13 that were originally commissioned. “Fifteen is more than enough,” Kurtzman says. “In fact, I’d be happy with less.”

Reduced time is only part of the new pressure with which Discovery is dealing. CBS’s decision to position Discovery—catnip for Star Trek’s big, built-in fan base—as a streaming-subscription incentive puts the show behind the paywall after its one-episode tease on broadcast TV. “That was above my pay grade, but what it did do, it put a fundamental pressure on justifying why people should pay the money,” Kurtzman says. “I don’t think this is a terrible thing, because it means that everybody had to rise to that challenge. And I’ve said a couple times that I never complain about paying for Game of Thrones, and so if we could deliver an experience of that scope and scale that is so specific to streaming, then people would hopefully understand why they had to pay for it.”

All of the ingredients of another long-running Star Trek series are present in Discovery’s debut, but so are the seeds of its potential undoing. As my colleague (and fellow fan of the franchise) Michael Baumann said to me when I shared my initial impressions, “I just wish it were on either TV or one of the approximately 15 streaming services I subscribe to already.” If that hesitation turns out to be typical of Trek fans, it won’t bode well for the series’ odds of converting casual viewers and justifying its big budget. All Access reportedly has about 2 million subscribers, a figure CBS is trying to double by 2020.

Discovery is competing with not only cinematic TV shows, but also the series’ own recent cinematic legacy. The streaming-oriented generations that have come of age since Star Trek’s TV heyday now know the series from the glossier and more action-oriented alternate-timeline reboot by J.J. Abrams, which Kurtzman (who cowrote both big-screen Abrams efforts) took into account. “The movies, in terms of scope and scale, have now defined the state of Star Trek,” Kurtzman says. “And we thought, well, yes, while the television version of Trek is about intimacy, people are still going to expect that kind of scale.”

Discovery has to balance both the big and small, remaining faithful to its TV forebears but not so faithful as to stray into retread territory, as 2013’s Into Darkness did. Some longtime Trek fans are naturally suspicious of shootouts and explosions encroaching on Star Trek’s contemplative side; go overboard on battles, the thinking goes, and, as Kurtzman says, “suddenly it’s Star Wars.” In the early going, Discovery does find a balance: Its costumes and set design are straight out of Abrams’s Star Trek, and its shipboard soundscapes, at times, seem to hail from its ancestor TV series, but the show has the heart of a hybrid. “The truth is that the action can be used in such a fundamental way to elucidate the big themes and the story you’re wanting to tell,” Kurtzman says.

Klingons in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ CBS

When the Klingon war gets going, Discovery might be the best-looking sci-fi show ever to grace the small screen, a product of a reported per-episode price tag between $8 million and $8.5 million—less than Thrones has cost in recent seasons, but not by much. Because he and creature designer Neville Page, among others, had worked on the films, Kurtzman says that “there was kind of an assumption that we were going to bring what we did in the movies to this show, and yet give it its own identity.” The series was shot on the massive Toronto soundstages that spawned Pacific Rim, giving the U.S.S. Shenzhou and, later, the Discovery, a more immersive feel than a standard-size set. If the history of Star Trek is any guide, Discovery’s CGI will look dated decades from now, but it’s dazzling to contemporary eyes. “The approach was very much about finding a real balance between the practical and CG,” Kurtzman says. “You build an environment so that you can put the camera anywhere you want in the environment and then pick your shot that way. And it takes a long, long time to do that, but I feel that the quality of the CG, definitely, I’d put it up against a movie any day.”

Although there’s no shortage of exterior set pieces, Discovery starts with a close-up on a Klingon iris and returns to eye imagery with Lost-like regularity, fitting for a show that’s big on both windows to the soul and eyes of the beholder. Like many of the franchise’s most memorable characters, Burnham is the product of a clash between cultures (but not, in her case, a blend between species). Raised on Vulcan after her parents were killed in an attack by the Klingons (whose latest cosmetic makeover is convincing, if a tad on the Uruk-hai side), she’s logical but less reminiscent of Spock than of The Original Series’ three central characters combined into one. Although she’s capable of both remarkable bravery and brilliant calculation, she’s also inclined to impetuous action. (At one point in the premiere, she announces, “I’m trying to save all of you,” which rarely ends well.)

Burnham’s war-torn origins, attempts to synthesize her periodically conflicting cultures, and pursuit of both Sarek’s respect and Starfleet’s forgiveness provide plenty of fodder for more intimate arcs when the photon torpedoes aren’t flying. In her previous highest-profile role, as The Walking Dead’s Sasha, Martin-Green was usually playing too downtrodden to tap into her exuberant side. But when Burnham boldly goes on an untethered spacewalk to examine a cloaked object in the first few minutes of Discovery, Martin-Green makes the exhilaration of exploration palpable. Lorca is still a morally suspect cipher—a potentially intriguing change from many heroic and less complicated captains of Star Trek casts past—Doug Jones as death-sensing alien officer Lieutenant Saru, Anthony Rapp as sardonic scientist Lieutenant Stamets (the first openly gay character in Trek’s TV history), and Mary Wiseman as the self-effacing but determined Cadet Tilly form the basis of a strong ensemble.

Unlike Enterprise, which felt out of step with its era when it debuted two weeks after the September 11 attacks, Discovery confronts and interrogates modern-day divisions, as did Gene Roddenberry’s original. Echoing Lorca’s comment that the problems solved by the utopian Federation—hunger, want, need—are “making a comeback now,” Kurtzman says he decided to do the show because the optimistic vision bequeathed by Roddenberry “was becoming unfortunately more and more relevant every time I would read the news.” Although the Klingons’ rallying cry, “Remain Klingon,” is an intentional allusion to real-world isolationist slogans, Kurtzman bristles at the suggestion that the series is playing simplistic politics.

Executive producer Alex Kurtzman, James Frain, and Sonequa Martin-Green
Executive producer Alex Kurtzman, James Frain, and Sonequa Martin-Green

“I saw a headline on Drudge the other day, ‘Star Trek Producers Compare Klingons to Trump Supporters,’” he says. “That’s absolute bullshit. That is not the case at all. In fact, if we did something like that, I think we would be violating one of the fundamental aspects of Star Trek, which is that it attempts to understand everybody. And this is one of the great things about streaming, we can live in a gray area. One of the things that Bryan and I spoke about early on and was a major drive in knowing that we were going to do the war with the Klingons, is the Klingons are perceived as the other. And everybody’s scared of the other. But if you start telling the story from the other person’s point of view, they become very human. Now, we may not agree with them, but to speak to what you’re bringing up about modern parallels, we’re living in a very divided world right now, and everyone is so staunchly on their own side, but I think the message of Star Trek is to listen. To listen to each other, and to try and understand and work toward understanding and work toward peace.” The premiere takes this goal so literally that it opens on the Klingon commander, speaking in his native tongue.

Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ CBS

Although the second scene, in which Burnham helps bring water to a drought-racked planet, confirms that the Starfleet of Discovery still comes in peace and puts the Prime Directive over all, Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou, the character most committed to the idea that “Starfleet doesn’t fire first,” pays for that stance in the face of the Klingon offensive. Discovery isn’t all darkness or light; like the best Trek before it, the show ranges widely in tone, from an Alienesque horror sequence aboard an abandoned ship to a comedic flashback that shows us Burnham before she shed her Vulcan impassiveness. The script intersperses emotional showdowns with witty banter. (“She is the smartest Starfleet officer I have ever known,” Saru says to Stamets. “And he knows you,” Lorca adds.) And in classic Star Trek fashion, the citizens of Discovery’s hopeful future spread bread crumbs back to a world we know, dropping recognizable references from fortune cookies to the Beatles to Lewis Carroll.

As a prequel, Discovery comes, in some respects, pre-spoiled: Because the show is set in the same timeline as subsequent series and will largely respect established canon, we know that the Klingons won’t win the war. If Discovery does its job—both as a television show and as a hook for yet another streaming service—that won’t matter; we won’t be watching to see who wins, but how the crew comes together. “Ultimately I think the stakes of this season are very personal in terms of Burnham’s experience, but ... one of the larger things at stake is the identity of Starfleet, and how do you maintain those ideals in the face of war,” Kurtzman says. “And I think in a way that represents very much the spirit of what Trek is.”

In one of Discovery’s early scenes, Burnham stares out at the ongoing birth of a binary star and muses that its violence is “a humbling reminder that all life is born from chaos and destruction.” Before Discovery debuted, the chaos surrounding its creation overshadowed the show. Now it’s burning bright, unless and until it’s caught in the financial tractor beam that too often grounds good TV not long after liftoff.