'Star Trek: Discovery': TV Review

Is a winning star enough to drive viewers to a new CBS platform?
9/24/2017

CBS All Access' long-anticipated new 'Star Trek' drama premieres with episodes that waver in selling the show but feature a convincing Sonequa Martin-Green.

The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered Sunday — the first on CBS before the launch of the second on CBS All Access — essentially established one thing for me: Sonequa Martin-Green is a star I'd gladly watch navigate from one end of the TV universe to the other.

That's a positive for Discovery, because it feels like a star vehicle to a degree well beyond the beloved franchise's normal ensemble trappings. And Martin-Green, who never really stood out for me during her long run on AMC's The Walking Dead, looks to have the intelligence, command and sheer presence a good Star Trek series needs at its heart.

Did Discovery need to establish more than that, though, in its first two episodes? This is a show that had more than usual riding on its broadcast and then streaming premiere. It had to calm Star Trek fans, still freaking out after Bryan Fuller's departure and months of delays. It had to woo the Star Trek ambivalent, since this is a franchise that perhaps can survive on die-hards alone, but probably prefers not to. And more than that, the opening hour had to hook audiences so completely that they'd be willing to follow the show to subscription VOD platform CBS All Access.

In this respect, the Discovery premiere feels like a failure to me, albeit an entertaining and occasionally epic and ambitious failure. There's room for pilots that don't immediately set out a template for the ongoing series, but I don't know that, with everything riding on it, this was the time for a "prequel" or "overture" pilot, one that doesn't introduce the show's title space vessel, most of its main characters or its core conflict other than "Klingons bad, everybody else good."

Fuller is still credited as co-writer (along with Akiva Goldsman and then Nicholas Meyer) on the two episodes, so we also probably don't immediately know what the post-Fuller series really feels like.

We begin on the USS Shenzhou, a vessel captained by Michelle Yeoh's Philippa Georgiou, soulful, patient mentor to Martin-Green's Michael Burnham. Scarred by personal tragedy, Burnham was brought up in Vulcan culture as the ward to a perfectly cast James Frain's Sarek, father of Spock (if such things matter to you, but utterly irrelevant to anything on the show thus far). Burnham has an interesting internal clash of nature and nurture, in that she's been raised to value and prioritize logic, but she's also a passionate explorer and a bit of an impetuous hot-head. The character is built in contrast to both Capt. Georgiou as well as ultra-cautious Kelpien science officer Saru (Doug Jones, whose voice and languid physicality are almost hypnotic on a Zen level).

After a beautifully shot opening on a desert planet, the pilot finds the Shenzhou responding to a confusing signal or beacon on the outer reaches of Federation space. It turns out to be tied to the Klingon and a plan by leader T'Kuvma (Chris Obi) to realign the 24 Klingon houses against the Federation. If you're the sort of person who likes sweaty close-ups of people barking threatening slogans in slow, over-enunciated Klingon, the pilot has you covered.

There are likely to be plenty of reviews from passionate Star Trek devotees capable of critiquing Klingon accents and able to get either passionately excited or angry about the meaning behind the varied Klingon makeup applications. I'm not able to nor interested in getting that deep. These are definitely not your father's Klingons, but I don't think my father really had Klingons, and neither do I. The show takes the pragmatic, not completely original, approach that Klingons are basically a foreign culture that the Federation is imposing its own cultural standards upon. This is also an argument that Seth MacFarlane made in an early episode of Fox's The Orville, but I was interested enough in the manner Discovery treats the Klingons as both primitive in their fierceness, but also spiritual and ordered in their own way. So it's not quite as simple as "Klingons bad, everybody else good."

What follows on the first two episodes is not, of course, irrelevant to the series that Discovery is likely to become, but it's primarily background and character-establishing mostly for Martin-Green's Michael (the masculine name a carryover of one of Fuller's favorite devices), rather than an introducing of events that will be immediately followed upon or a stylistic or structural approach going forward.

The first episode, directed by David Semel, has superb scope with both the desert planet and Burnham's solo space exploration. Seeing this episode at the premiere on a big screen was a pleasure. The second episode, helmed by Adam Kane, keeps most of that scale, but the "Battle at the Binary Stars" referred to in the title immediately shows the limitations of a TV budget and a key bit of more intimate fighting was choreographed and edited with something close to incoherence.

As big as the first two episodes are, though, I've seen the third episode as well and it isn't nearly that expansive or handsome. It's a somewhat claustrophobic, largely indoors ship-hopping adventure that's closer to an Alien-style haunted house in space than the room-to-breathe and, with Goldsman directing, it also suffers from murky, spacial geography-challenged action scenes when it isn't just characters hovering in rooms talking at each other, which is most of the time. The special effects in the first two episodes were worthy of praise; the effects in the third barely worthy of comment.

The third episode introduces the shiny-and-new USS Discovery, as well as Jason Isaacs' Capt. Lorca, a character introduced with enough uncertain motives and questionable intentions that I just took his soft-but-waving Southern accent as another thing that may or may not be a red herring or a bluff. Almost incapable of giving an uninteresting performance, Isaacs is playing another character whose basic instincts are different enough from what drives Burnham that the dynamic between them is another instant asset. With a less steady performance, Burnham's shifts between Vulcan logic and all-too-human rebelliousness might play as inconsistent, but Martin-Green nails the placid and the uneasy within the character at all times.

Anthony Rapp, as a science officer who initially distrusts Burnham, and Mary Wiseman, as a Starfleet newbie with high aspirations and questionable personal skills, get broad introductions on the third episode. They feel much more conventionally Star Trek-branded than anybody we meet on those first two episodes, as does the introduced main plotline, which is only somewhat exciting and which I won't spoil.

CBS All Access is counting on the Star Trek franchise being sufficient inducement to drive viewers to the new platform, but as someone whose dedication to the Star Trek isn't absolute, Discovery has to stand as Discovery, and this is a disorienting start. The first two episodes sell one show that doesn't feel like a regular series. The third episode sells a mostly different set of characters and a smaller and less impressive canvas, but it feels like a repeatable TV series. So that really puts everything on Martin-Green, at least for me, and even as great as she is, I'm not sure if she's enough.

Regular and guest cast: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Jason Isaacs, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Michelle Yeoh, Mary Wiseman, Chris Obi, Mary Chieffo, James Frain, Rainn Wilson
Creators: Alex Kurzman and Bryan Fuller
Episodes premiere Sundays (CBS All Access)

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