TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Series Premiere

The beloved science fiction franchise returns, boldly, to the small screen…

‘Star Trek’ makes a much awaited return to television in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Chris Obi, James Frain

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Bryan Fuller & Akiva Goldsman (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts (“Battle at the Binary Stars”) / Episodes directed by:  David Samel (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Adam Kane (“Battle at the Binary Stars”)

What’s it about?

Investigating an object of unknown origin, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham and the crew of the U.S.S. Shenzhou are thrown into a direct confrontation with old adversary, the Klingons.

Episodes review

51 years after the debut of its original series, Star Trek returns to the small screen after an absence of twelve years, following the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise – which left the air back in May 2005.  Produced by CBS for their All Access streaming service and rolled out worldwide courtesy of Netflix, Star Trek: Discovery is a lavish and promising addition to the Star Trek universe that feels fresh yet comfortingly familiar for long term fans of the franchise.  Created by Trek veterans Bryan Fuller (writer/co-producer on Star Trek: Voyager) and Alex Kurtzman (co-writer and co-producer of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), the series takes place ten years prior to the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.

Serving as a prologue to the rest of the show’s fifteen-episode first season (the majority of the principal cast and the U.S.S. Discovery herself being absent until episode three), the two-part premiere gets things off to an engaging and intriguing start as we’re introduced to Discovery’s lead character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as she serves as First Officer on board the U.S.S. Shenzhou, commanded by Captain Phillipa Georgiou (martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh) who quickly find themselves thrust into a tense confrontation with a rogue Klingon faction that places the Federation on the precipice of war.  Burnham’s back story is revealed via a series of flashbacks as we follow her from being orphaned as a child to being raised on Vulcan by ambassador-in-waiting and father of Spock, Sarek (Gotham’s James Frain) and her eventual assignment to the Shenzhou.

What’s clear from the outset is that the creators of Discovery have set about establishing something that manages to strike a delicate balance between producing a series that will not only appeal to fans but draw in a whole new generation of viewers.  After 51 years and some 700+ hours of television, engineering a fresh take on an old favourite is no easy task, yet Discovery achieves this quite successfully.  The first major departure is the decision to not have the series focus on the ship’s captain and proves a welcome one with Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) turning in a decent performance and demonstrating plenty of potential as a strong and capable lead.  There’s also the heavily serialised nature of the story, whilst a construct employed in previous spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Enterprise it’s utilised to a more intricate degree here in accordance with co-creator Bryan Fuller’s intentions for the storyline to unfold episode by episode like the chapters of a novel.

Sonequa Martin-Green makes for a promising lead in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Michelle Yeoh provides another strong female presence as Georgiou and there’s a wonderfully nuanced relationship between herself and Burnham (affectionately referred to as “Number One” in a nod to Majel Barrett’s character in original Trek pilot “The Cage”), the former bringing an almost maternal quality to her ‘role’ as mentor to the younger officer.  Martin-Green also has some great interplay with Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru, the Kelpien science officer who has a fun sibling-like rivalry with Burnham.  Much like he did in Hellboy and Falling Skies, Jones is once again a master at conveying subtle strokes of humanity through the prosthetics and alien characteristics.  James Frain evokes the requisite measure of wise intellect and cold logic in the role of Sarek (originally portrayed so unforgettably by the late Mark Lenard) and similarly to Yeoh, there’s a paternal element to his dynamic with Martin-Green’s character.

The Klingon threat is spearheaded by T’Kuvma, with Chris Obi infusing the part with the right amount of that familiar warrior instinct, although the redesign of the Klingons themselves is likely to be the most controversial aspect of Discovery.  They’re radically quite different and take some getting used to, yet the make-up and costume design is certainly impressive and gives the iconic race an appearance that’s more alien whilst retaining the overall Klingon ‘feel’ with an adherence to their principles of honour and glory in battle.  What’s interesting here is that the Klingon Empire has fractured into numerous disparate ‘houses’ which T’Kuvma seeks to unite and lead, fanatically, into war against the Federation in the name of Kahless – the forefather of Klingon society itself.  It’s handled in a manner that’s not quite as black-and-white as that sounds and there’s a definite sense that the writers are seeking to add dimension to the conflict by offering a deeper insight into the Klingon’s motivations.

The Klingons are given a new look for this new iteration of the long-running franchise.

Visually, CBS have spurred no expense with feature film quality effects, make-up and set design fully on display.  Perhaps wisely, given the level of the production, the producers have leaned towards a look more reminiscent of the alternate universe established on the big screen by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.  As classic and iconic as the look of the original series is, a direct translation wouldn’t hold up to viewers in 2017 and it only increases the scope and cinematic quality of Discovery.

Star Trek is heralded for its ability to delve into the human condition and comment on the issues of the day and in this era of social and political concerns and the rising threat of terrorism and religious extremism, Discovery is no different and deftly weaves these themes throughout.  This is what Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the original Star Trek always intended, coupled with rich characters and a vision of a hopeful, inclusive future for humanity – even in times of conflict – and there’s great potential for Star Trek: Discovery to continue that tradition.

The bottom line:  Star Trek makes a confident return to television with a visually dazzling premiere, bolstered by a promising lead and the potential to explore real-world topics in an engaging and entertaining manner.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (as well as post-show discussion After Trek) can be seen weekly via subscription services Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

What did you think of the ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ premiere? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

TV Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ – “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Gary Lockwood, Sally Kellerman, James Doohan, George Takei, Paul Fix, Paul Carr

Series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

Written by:  Samuel A. Peeples / Episode directed by:  James Goldstone / 1966

What’s the episode about?

Attempting to cross an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy, the U.S.S. Enterprise is severely damaged and a strange phenomenon causes two crewmembers with high ESP ratings to develop god-like abilities…

Review/retrospective

In 1964, Gene Roddenberry produced a pilot for a science fiction series called Star Trek.  Titled “The Cage” and featuring Jeffrey Hunter in the lead role as Captain Christopher Pike, it was ultimately rejected by executives at television network NBC who felt it was ‘too cerebral’.  However, they saw potential in the premise of Star Trek and in an unprecedented move (and reportedly under the persuasion of Lucille Ball, star of I Love Lucy and co-owner of production studio, Desilu), commissioned a second pilot.

Written by Samuel A. Peeples, who had previously worked on series such as Wanted: Dead or Alive and Burke’s Law, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would take an imaginative science fiction concept, in this case extra sensory perception (ESP) and explore the moral consequences of individuals being imbued with god-like powers that, on the wrong side of human ego, could prove corruptive and dangerous.  Ironically, still a cerebral idea but one that would incorporate some measure of action and excitement to satisfy the demands of TV bosses, all too aware of the popularity of western and detective series where audiences had come to expect a bare knuckle fist fight or two.  Peeples’ script works extremely well and whilst later episodes of Star Trek are better examples of those morality plays that would become a significant part of the series’ DNA, it gives the audience a science fiction story that’s treated intelligently, laced with personal and ethical conflict as well as that aforementioned element of action and adventure.

The only surviving cast member from “The Cage” is Leonard Nimoy, who returns as a far less emotional and much more intellectual Mr. Spock.  At this point, the character is a work in progress as Nimoy seeks to find the right level of cold logic and define the subtle nuances of the Spock viewers would come to know.  No easy task given the changes in the character’s portrayal from the original pilot and a few quirks aside, Nimoy does a commendable job of laying the groundwork for the infamous Vulcan science officer.

Replacing Jeffrey Hunter is Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain James (no “T” just yet) Kirk and in contrast to Nimoy’s Spock, Shatner hits the ground running and is very much the familiar starship captain from the get-go with a passionate and driven performance as Kirk is torn between the responsibilities to ship and crew and his friendship with Gary Mitchell, who Spock warns is becoming an increasing danger as his latent powers grow.

Mitchell is played by Gary Lockwood, star of Roddenberry’s short-lived military drama The Lieutenant (and would go on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey) who shares good chemistry with Shatner and fellow guest star Sally Kellerman (later earning an Oscar nomination for M*A*S*H), in the role of Dr. Elizabeth Dehner – another strong female character in the vein of Majel Barrett’s ‘Number One’ in “The Cage” – who’s high ESP rating would also lead to the awakening of omnipotence.  Whilst Mitchell reaches the ‘point of no return’ (Lockwood’s performance becoming more and more menacing), it’s Dehner who begins to question these new abilities and their corruptive influence over the more rational sides of human nature.

Missing from the familiar ensemble of Star Trek’s first season are Nichelle Nichols’ communications officer Lt. Uhura and DeForest Kelley’s chief medical officer, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (a role temporarily filled here by Paul Fix’s Dr. Piper) and whilst James Doohan is in place as chief engineer Scott, George Takei’s Sulu is absent from the Enterprise helm instead forming part of the ship’s scientific group.

Strangely, NBC decided to commence airing Star Trek with “The Man Trap” on 8th September 1966 with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” going out on 22nd September.  Given noticeable differences in casting and even some of the set design and costumes (with the slightly more drab crew uniforms being recycled from “The Cage”), this must have been jarring for even the least attentive of viewers at the time?  In the end, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” succeeds as a rough template for Star Trek, where it demonstrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit against the backdrop of an entertaining and imaginative SF story.

Geek fact!  Samuel A. Peeples would also pen the first episode of the Star Trek animated series, “Beyond the Farthest Star”.

Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempt to restrain and increasingly dangerous Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) in Star Trek's second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before".

Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempt to restrain an increasingly dangerous and exponentionally powerful Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) in Star Trek’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

Words truly escaped me when the news broke yesterday of the death of Leonard Nimoy, best known for his portrayal of the iconic character of Mr. Spock in the equally iconic science fiction television series, Star Trek.

Having been a Star Trek fan for the majority of my geeky existence (so far) I cannot express how saddened I felt upon hearing the news, it felt like losing a friend – not someone I knew personally or had even met, yet, someone who was always strangely part of my life.  Nimoy’s contribution to Star Trek (and film and television in general) cannot be understated, his nuanced and introspective portrayal of Spock always captivating and effective in conveying the character’s struggles to reconcile the emotional and logical parts of his half human/half Vulcan heritage.  Nimoy shared great onscreen chemistry with co-star William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, a friendship that would filter into their personal lives with the two becoming close friends during and beyond their Star Trek years.

Aside from his role as Spock in the original Star Trek series (as well as guest starring in the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Unification”), Nimoy would go on to direct big screen voyages Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as well as serve as an executive producer on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where he also worked with director Nicholas Meyer on the film’s story.

Outside of Star Trek, Nimoy appeared in numerous other films and television series including a two year stint as ‘Paris’, the enigmatic master of disguise and deception on Mission: Impossible, a memorable guest role as a murderous surgeon in Columbo, both the 1960s and 1990s versions of The Outer Limits and even parodied himself in The Simpsons.  He would also go on to direct the smash hit 1980s comedy Three Men and a Baby.  He was also a writer having penned memoirs I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock and a talented photographer – there was even a singing career, perhaps not his finest hour, yet he managed to release seven albums!  Nimoy’s final onscreen appearances as an actor were guest roles in Fringe and the 2009 big screen Star Trek reboot and its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness.

Although Star Trek brought Nimoy fame and fortune it did lead to some personal troubles with the actor enduring a struggle with alcohol which he sought as a release, allowing him to ‘break away’ from the often cold and emotionless Mr. Spock.  He also smoked heavily and despite quitting over twenty years ago Nimoy was last year diagnosed with obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition related to smoking and which ultimately lead to his death.

Leonard Nimoy died on Friday 27th February 2015, aged 83.  Those closing scenes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan have become all the more poignant and emotional and made a legendary screen actor truly unforgettable…

Leonard Nimoy found fame in the iconic role of Mr. Spock in 'Star Trek' - a character loved by millions all over the globe.

Leonard Nimoy found fame in the iconic role of Mr. Spock in ‘Star Trek’ – a character loved by millions all over the globe.