Looking for a review from the perspective of a Star Trek fan? Check out our review for experts here!
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first TWO episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. If you've only seen the first episode on CBS, you can sign up for CBS All Access here.]
Star Trek: Discovery is the first new Star Trek series in more than a decade. For many younger television viewers, it will serve as their introduction to the wildly popular sci-fi franchise, but being unfamiliar with the original series or any of the films or TV spin-offs that followed it should not preclude one's enjoyment of the newest iteration.
Until last week, my own knowledge of Star Trek was largely limited to what one needs to know to be successful at bar trivia; I could identify members of the original cast like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, understood Patrick Stewart led one of the successful spin-offs, and knew that the second-best Chris, Chris Hemsworth, played the father of the third-best Chris, Chris Pine, in the lens flare-happy J.J. Abrams films. It admittedly wasn't much for someone 30 years old who also considers herself to be a sci-fi fan.
But none of that mattered when I sat down to watch the show's two-part premiere, because Star Trek: Discovery doesn't require viewers to have prior knowledge of the extensive franchise. The series, which debuted Sunday on CBS before moving exclusively to the subscription streaming service CBS All Access with the second hour of the series, is set approximately 10 years before the events of the original series and chronicles the inciting incident of a human/Klingon war.
Now, is starting with Discovery analogous to watching The Phantom Menace and its two sequels before watching the far superior original Star Wars trilogy? (This is wrong. Do not do this. In fact, don't watch Episodes 1-3 at all unless someone is forcing you.) Or is this more similar to watching something like Rogue One, which is an incredible prequel that even non-Star Wars fans can enjoy? I honestly have no idea — I'm certain Star Trek fans will tell me soon enough — but as it stands currently, there was very little in Star Trek: Discovery that left a sour taste in my mouth.
Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman (Fuller has since stepped down as showrunner to focus on Starz's American Gods but remains an executive producer), Discovery stars Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) as Michael Burnham, a human raised on Vulcan by Sarek (James Frain), the father of the iconic character Spock. At the start of the series, Burnham is the promising first officer of the USS Shenzhou working under Michelle Yeoh's Captain Philippa Georgiou. Over the course of the first two episodes, the series depicts Burnham's sudden fall from grace during an event that eventually leads to a war with the Klingons, a race Starfleet hasn't encountered for more than 100 years.
Things start to break down for Burnham when her Vulcan upbringing (and the reveal that her parents were killed by Klingons) leads her to suggest Starfleet fire upon a Klingon ship first — a tactic the Vulcans adopted after losing one of their own ships and everyone aboard during an encounter with the Klingons. It's apparent that Michael's dual identity will be a constant struggle for her as she, a human in the employment of Starfleet, attempts to reconcile her desire to rule by logic and reason, like the Vulcans, with her own humanity and inherent emotionality. It's a thread the series will pull on regularly as the story progresses, and we get to know more about her character in the coming weeks, which should make for good character moments.
But when Burnham's violent suggestion of attack is unsurprisingly met with resistance, she takes matters into her own hands, resulting in mutiny and a major battle in the series' second episode that leaves 8,186 dead. Afterward — and after Georgiou's death at the hands of the Klingons — Burnham is stripped of her rank and sentenced to life in prison for her crimes. It's a shocking twist that reveals the third episode will chart a course that's rather unexpected, though perhaps not unwelcome.
If there's one moment in the two episodes that gives me pause, it's the death of Yeoh's character near the end of "The Battle of the Binary Stars." It's a development that's obviously telegraphed from light years away, but one that is still problematic for a couple of reasons. First, killing one's mentor to drive the story of a lead character is a trope that pop culture would be wise to drop altogether. But in this case, it's also poor optics to kill off an Asian actress portraying a high-profile character within the first two hours of the series.
According to the most recent Boxed In study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, Asian women made up just 6 percent of all female speaking roles across all platforms in 2016-2017. Now, Star Trek has a history of inclusivity, with the original series featuring a black woman and an Asian man in prominent roles that existed outside the stereotypes of the era, but if this is the last we see of Yeoh, a talented and accomplished actress admired for her work across the globe, it will be a low moment for a franchise that otherwise prides itself on being inclusive. There is every chance, though, that we'll see more of her as the series progresses; the premiere was rather reliant on flashbacks, so it's entirely possible this isn't the end of Captain Philippa Georgiou.
Regardless of what may — or may not — be a misstep, though, the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are a satisfying introduction to a new chapter in the Star Trek franchise. They successfully capture viewers' attention with impressive special effects — maybe it's because I watched the premiere on a movie screen, but the battle in the second episode appeared to rival some of the action sequences I've seen in actual feature films — and they show real narrative promise as we head into a war between the Federation and the Klingons in the episodes that follow. The questions of morality raised within the premiere are pulled from a familiar well that's infinitely deep, and with Burnham headed to prison for her actions, will likely continue to be raised and explored again and again.
Of course, all that being said, it's entirely possible your mileage may vary depending on your pre-existing interests in sci-fi; despite my lack of familiarity with Star Trek, there were more than a few instances that I found myself reminded of other great sci-fi programs I've loved and lost, including Syfy's late reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, which no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the series. So it's possible my interest in Star Trek: Discovery was always in the cards. But even if it wasn't, the series has a strong backbone in Martin-Green, and so far, promises to be an enjoyable way to pass the time as pop culture returns to the final frontier.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS.)