The dramatic hour long television show has changed radically since Star Trek was last a regular fixture in the schedules and longer still since it was relevant, the show which defined the science fiction genre and pushed boundaries in effects and subject matter rather than a relic which kept rolling on down the hill in a predictable fashion because of gravity rather than enthusiasm.
In its traditional format Star Trek offers equal measures of challenge and comfort, but evolution is driven by external pressures forcing an organism to adapt and if it does not keep pace, does not overtake and reclaim its apex position in a world which has seen Battlestar Galactica, the linked series of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration and the epic reach of Game of Thrones, it runs the danger of being seen as archaic and disregarded.
Ironically, the driving force behind Battlestar Galactica was in fact a reaction to how stale Star Trek had become when bound by rules which were no longer relevant, with showrunner Ronald D Moore having wished for Deep Space Nine to be a far more radical and challenging show than Paramount would permit for fear of alienating the fan base when in fact the greater danger was that the audience would drift through ennui, the endless repetition and platitudes demanded by the “no conflict in Star Trek” rule no longer engaging them.
Launched globally via the streaming platforms CBS All Access and Netflix, a bold new direction in itself which signals an eye on the future of the format, Star Trek Discovery is designed to explore new territory, the key mission of Star Trek before it became trapped in the loop of adhering to its high-sounding principles without considering the circumstances or repercussions of such.
James T Kirk knew the rules and regulations inside out and when to break them; Kathryn Janeway knew sometimes you just have to punch through. Like science, science fiction – and all dramatic art – is a process, not a destination, and while the form of, for example, a haiku or a sonnet is a specific art, its wider function is limited and non-applicable: “Change is the essential process of all existence,” as a wise Vulcan once said.
The two longest running and most successful science fiction franchises of all time, Doctor Who and Star Trek, have both recognised that survival requires adaptation, and sometimes that adaptation can be seen as radical by those who don’t understand or can’t accept the underlying causes and reconcile themselves to the urgent need.
Relaunched for the cinema in 2009 by director J J Abrams, his take on Star Trek was a reimagining which was bold, radical and energetic, yet many traditionalists rejected it for eschewing some of the core values and philosophies which had come to define the multiple television series, ignoring that the majority of the original sequence of ten films had often done just the same, aiming for a very different audience in the multiplexes than in the home.
Opening in the year 2256, approximately ten years before the five year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise under James T Kirk, a period when Christopher Pike commanded that ship, Star Trek Discovery opens in a time of change and upheaval as T’Kuvma (American Gods‘ Chris Obi) attempts to unite the twenty four warring houses of the Klingon Empire.
Aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Babylon A.D.‘s Michelle Yeoh), her first officer Commander Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green) and her Kelpien science officer Lieutenant Commander Saru (The Shape of Water‘s Doug Jones) discuss an anomaly they have encountered in the accretion disc of a highly radioactive binary star system.
Having just completed a successful mercy mission, their precisely timed and calculated efforts guided by science, Burnham pushes forward on a solo excursion in an EVA suit despite Saru’s calls for caution; out of contact she is injured and almost lost, and recovering in sickbay her insistence that she encountered a Klingon, a species barely encountered for almost a century, is not backed up by evidence until a ship decloaks almost on top of the Shenzhou.
The opening two episodes released back to back, The Vulcan Hello written by Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman from a story by Fuller and Alex Kurtzman and directed by David Semel and Battle at the Binary Stars written by Gretchen J Berg and Aaron Harberts from a story by Fuller and directed by Adam Kane, the most astonishing thing is that despite the design and stylistic cues lifted wholesale from Abrams’ alternative “Kelvin” universe, how unapologetically traditional Star Trek Discovery is in structure and its optimism.
This is not to say that the show is caught in the past despite the fact that it will most likely serve as a prequel to the original episodes of the late sixties, and with humans, aliens, cyborgs, men, women, white, black and Asian characters aboard the Shenzhou and a gay couple promised as the show progresses it is easily the most diverse crew ever seen, yet the two episodes do little to establish any characters beyond the central trio and Sarek (True Blood‘s James Frain) who raised Burnham when she was orphaned in a Klingon raid, a huge influence on her worldview and approach.
Instead focusing on an already known quantity, the escalating conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, a race of high technology, ritual, mysticism and prophecy, this may lay the groundwork for the forthcoming season but so far does not break new ground, and despite the fancy new clothes Star Trek Discovery is walking a path already well-trodden albeit it with production values equal to a major feature film and far beyond any previous televised iteration of Star Trek.
Crucially, despite the promotion of these two episodes to launch the show it is apparent that they are in fact more of a prologue to the season proper with neither the titular ship nor its captain, Jason Isaacs’ Gabriel Lorca, due to be introduced until Context is for Kings, and it is upon them that the promise of Discovery will depend, as it will be necessary for it to demonstrate considerably more verve and originality if it is to serve as the flagship worthy to carry forward the legacy which has lasted over half a century.