The word “wow” pops out of characters’ mouths more than once in the premiere episodes of the new series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, and it’s exactly the right word to invoke both the awe felt by First Officer Michael Burnham while gazing unto an asteroid field in space, and the giddy thrill this audience member enjoyed from taking in a new Star Trek episodic that unexpectedly seems to strike just the right mix of escapist spectacle and social idealism. The first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” put together a feature-length introduction that respects its loyal core audience while offering welcome Star Tweaks to a familiar universe.
Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh are the binary stars of the series premiere, playing Lt. Commander Burnham and her captain, Philippa Georgiou, advancing the progressive tradition of Trek’s race-conscious casting. Martin-Green is magnetic as Michael (even her atypical name choice conveys a cool forward-looking perspective), confident and conflicted, shouldered with the Human heart vs. Vulcan rationale that makes for one of Starfleet’s favorite character paradoxes. In the scenes where Burnham’s enclosed in a spacesuit and hurtling through the marvelous vacuum of space, I can’t help but see a subtle callback to Martin-Green’s last appearance in THE WALKING DEAD, that is, the hopeful version of Sasha’s final solitary trip. And without giving anything away, Michelle Yeoh gets to do all the classy Michelle Yeoh stuff as Captain Georgiou, leading by graceful example, proposing heroic missions, going toe to toe with Klingon warriors. She doesn’t actually get to somersault out of the way of laser fire I don’t think, but one can’t have everything.
Although DISCOVERY takes place in the Star Trek “Prime” timeline and not the rebooted film alternate universe, the look and design of the show take more after the recent Trek movies, which I’m cool with but some purists may find objectionable. (I’m into the gleaming metal aesthetic, TNG has its great points, but personally was never a fan of that beige bridge.) There is a bit which can accurately be described as Super Lens Flare. There is a militaristic bent to these two episodes which some may feel goes against the comforting core aesthetic of Trek, a vibe which I (as a casual fan) would call something like “thinky campiness.” Time will tell, but I believe the classic soul of Star Trek is in this show, augmented with homages/lifts from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and comic books and BLADE RUNNER, etc. (Hello, extremely extreme closeups of eyes!)
It shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that in the episode titled, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” there is a REALLY HUGE SPACE BATTLE. I dunno if the series intends to keep up this level of expensive carnage, but I appreciate that the sequence showed us some variations on the tactical uses of cloaking devices, transporters and tractor beams which were frankly more dramatic than dudes shouting about attack patterns and evasive maneuvers with names that sound like fussy library codes. And hey, how rad is it that Michelle Yeoh commands the Federation ship with the Chinese name, the U.S.S. Shenzhou? (“Shenzhou” is the name of a spacecraft program in actual China, btw, which would translate something like “Divine Spirit Vessel.”)
Most importantly, I’m looking forward to knowing these characters, including the crew members introduced only in shorthand in the first episodes. There’s a Science Officer whose whole species suffers from a form of Victimization Complex. There’s a bridge officer who seems to have a smartphone for a head. There’s the helmswoman whom I swear I’ve seen in the Hall H line at Comic-Con. There are a whole bunch of slow-talking Klingons, who I’m only a bit worried will adhere to the evil-aliens-as-religious-extremists trope that has occupied a lot of good and bad science fiction lately. There are certainly flawed moments which could undo DISCOVERY, mainly in the category of Burnham taking ostentatious actions which don’t seem to make any frakking sense. But the trouble spots are offset by cleverly-written scenes like the one wherein she out-logics the Ship Computer on the ethics of imprisonment, which show off the potential and maybe even the necessity of a Trek show that speaks to, uh, whatever age we’re living in.
Also, the warpdrive effect which opens the series, from the perspective of the Shenzhou while travelling, is just way prettier than previous visualizations of warpspeed. An ideal STAR TREK ought to feel like that, lingering on the beauty of exploration, the epiphanies of technology, the sense of wow.