After a 12-year break from the small screen and three blockbuster films, Star Trek returns to TV with big ambitions.
The series is entering the age of “peak TV” where the expectations are for it to match the quality of what has become the norm in the industry.
It is no longer one of the dominant forces in pop culture. Shows like Game of Thrones have been enthralling audiences in Star Trek’s absence and amassing an army of fans in the process.
For 50 years we’ve lived with the peaceful credo of the utopian science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry. But what we’ve seen in each version of the series across television and film had to be earned at some point. Star Trek Discovery seeks to answer the questions of the past.
“Why are we fighting? We’re Starfleet. We’re explorers, not soldiers,” says one of the crew of the starship Shenzhou during a battle in Star Trek Discovery. The sentiment echoes the crisis Star Trek has wrestled with over the past decade.
From the opening two episodes, which debuted on Netflix in Australia on Monday, Star Trek: Discovery is questioning the nature of its own existence.
But it’s a relief to hear the crew asking the right kind of questions again, the true sign that Star Trek is back.
A new adventure
The series known for picking diplomacy over battles has recently morphed into juggernaut action films with a science fiction wrapping thanks to filmmakers JJ Abrams (Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness) and Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond).
And brawn over brains seemed like a viable option after Star Trek’s most recent television incarnation, Enterprise, sent people into hyper-sleep.
In terms of timeline, Discovery is wedged between the maligned Enterprise and the beloved Star Trek: The Original Series.
It is set roughly 10 years before Kirk and Spock board the Enterprise to tell the story of First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who is involved in an incident with the Klingons that incites a cold war between the alien race and the United Federation of Planets.
The opening two episodes of Discovery function like a grand prologue, although a little stretched beyond its worth. The starship the show is named after and its crew don’t show up: it’s a sophisticated bait and hook floating in space, you could even call it a ruse.
The focus is on establishing Burnham, a human raised as a Vulcan by Sarek, played by James Frain. Sarek is also the father of Spock, one of the Star Trek’s most famous characters.
The tough but fallible Burnham is caught in the great tug-of-war between the head and the heart, one of the classic themes of Star Trek.
Her mistakes, fuelled by trauma only hinted at in the debut episodes, put the entire Federation in danger at the hands of the Klingons, who unite themselves in a holy war against anyone who comes in peace.
Aside from the Burnham-central story in the opening episodes, the best parts of Discovery are when it takes a moment to ponder the differences between race and culture or diplomacy versus war.
Changing with the times
So much has changed in television in less than a decade and it’s fascinating to see Star Trek try to keep up.
Star Trek has always excelled at asking questions first and shooting later, but the lines get blurred a bit in Discovery, especially toward its action-heavy finale.
Allowances are required though, as the show is happening earlier in the timeline — it’s far from the meditative peacekeeping of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
With immaculate costume design and attention to detail on creatures and consoles, Discovery looks amazing. It is a slick production but it definitely borrows its look from the Abrams’ aesthetic — it’s hard not to shake the memories of the modern films.
Still, there’s no doubt the budget is dedicated to ensuring Discovery can match other high-profile television shows, which now boast movie stars and high-profile directors.
With Discovery, Star Trek has returned a little bolder, and a little shinier, but some of its old heart and soul — and its depth and compassion — has survived, too.
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