Let's get this cleared up right off the bat: Star Trek: Discovery is good. Above all other concerns and criticisms that fans had about the new show before it aired, the question of "what if it's bad?" hovered menacingly over Discovery's release date. And finally, we can put this worry to rest. Discovery is gorgeous, with breathtaking sets and stunning visual effects — which are albeit occasionally obscured by too many lens flares. The first two episodes are tightly plotted and compellingly written, introducing us to the characters before sweeping the rug from under both the audience, and the show's lead. This isn't your dad's #StarTrek, that's for certain, and so we move on to the second worry about Discovery: "what if it's too dark?"
'Star Trek: Discovery' Is Dark, But Has A Lot Of Heart
The first two episodes of Discovery set a distinctive tone for the series, one unmatched by anything that's gone before. Discovery is a Star Trek that feels real, with characters who disagree — sometimes fatally — as an uneasy balance between interstellar powers tips over the brink into all-out war.
The two-part premiere "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle At The Binary Stars" reveals the beginning of the Klingon-Federation (cold) war, an important but overlooked, part of Federation history. As you'd expect from a heavy premise, Discovery is not the upbeat, brightly-colored Star Trek that is currently being celebrated (and parodied) by The Orville. But Discovery does not break from Trek tradition in any way: There is a core theme of optimism and hope that drives the story, even as we see Starfleet in one of its darkest hours.
The heart of the show is, of course, Sonequa Martin-Green's Michael Burnham, a young woman caught between Vulcan logic and human emotion, as she struggles to overcome the trauma inflicted upon her at a young age by several Klingon attacks. She finds solace in her captain, the calm and kind Captain Philippa Georgiou, and the dynamic between the two women is an emotional thread so strong that the audience immediately invests in their relationship. And this makes the premiere's finale all the more heartbreaking.
Starfleet's best and brightest philosophies shine through Georgiou. The ill-fated captain is patient, measured, yet decisive in battle. If there's any one character who gifts the Discovery premiere with its crucial theme of hope, it's Georgiou, as the captain keeps her head and inspires faith in her crew, even as war breaks out before them.
In Burnham, Georgiou finds her foil, as the young woman questions then betrays her captain. This is perhaps the most interesting thing Star Trek has ever done, as we have never seen a true mutiny in all of the shows. And yet, the bond between Georgiou and Burnham is so strong that the two women reconcile for one final mission, giving the premiere the heart, and the emotional gut-punch, that it needs.
Going Where Other Treks Have Gone Before
Discovery is not afraid to delve into the traumatic moments in Federation history, examining the consequences of war even before the Klingon-Federation war has begun. This is very ambitious for a pilot episode, but the writers carry it off. Discovery's premiere is exciting and dramatic, with Starfleet officers demonstrating genius strategizing, vain attempts at diplomacy, and innovative solutions to difficult problems.
These are all staples of Trek storytelling, and so Discovery feels very much in keeping with the rest of the franchise, despite its advanced visual effects and challenging concept. The premiere also plants the seeds for plenty of social commentary later on, as the Klingons attack the Federation in a bid to retain their racial purity.
Despite how different Discovery looks, it is still very much Star Trek, even in its grittier tone. After all, Trek is not all fun away missions and seducing alien babes. The franchise is known for tackling heavy social themes, discussing everything from slavery to torture to eugenics. In fact, some of the most intense episodes (TOS' "Balance Of Terror", TNG's "Chain Of Command", DS9's "In The Pale Moonlight" to name a few) are critically lauded as some of the best. Trek is also no stranger to war, with Deep Space Nine building up to and fully exploring the most devastating conflict in Federation history
So yes, Discovery's premiere starts off with a tense situation and ends with not only Starfleet's defeat, but Burnham's demotion after her mutiny. Yet this bodes very, very well for the series. Starfleet's darkest hours highlight its strengths and core philosophies as much as its flaws. In these difficult times Starfleet officers are tested, and are called upon to uphold Federation values more than in times of peace.
And that's exactly the kind of show we need right now. There's a reason that even space opera scifi has taken a darker turn in recent years, and that's because the age we live in is fraught both politically and socially. Now more than ever, we need Star Trek. We need Trek's allegories and morals, we need Trek's vision of a future in which humanity has reached its full potential — but can still be better.
As much as I love to rewatch The Next Generation, and relax into its peaceful diplomacy, modern viewers need a setting they can identify with. Discovery establishes such a setting: A difficult time, in which our lead character is tested and found wanting. But just as Burnham overcomes her mistakes, we are invited to learn too, and with any luck Discovery's upcoming episodes will give us exactly what we desperately need right now — defiant hope in the face of adversity.
Tell us in the comments: What did you think of Star Trek: Discovery's premiere?