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Star Trek: Discovery Boldly Pays Tribute to the Franchise -- While Blasting It Into the Future

Discovery is everything you hoped it would be

Alexander Zalben

[The following contains mild 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.]

Before we get into this review of Star Trek: Discovery's highly anticipated premiere (TL;DR version: it's excellent), I wanted to clear a few things up about my Star Trek fandom. Not being born in the '60s when Star Trek: The Original Series debuted, I started on Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future a little late. I'm sorry! I tried to be born sooner. Next time, maybe.

But despite my parents' huge timing mistake, I've loved Star Trek pretty much my whole life, starting with the movies (I was obsessed with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in particular, renting that multiple times on VHS), leading into weekly viewings of The Next Generation, and continuing through Deep Space Nine, Voyager and far more episodes of Enterprise than humans should ever have to watch.

And yes, I've loved J.J. Abrams' reboot movies, which feel far more like Star Wars than Trek, but still helped pull the franchise into the modern era (by the way, hardcore Trekkers who ditched after that Into Darkness twist would do well to seek out Star Trek Beyond, which loops the movies neatly back to TOS, and feels like a lost episode).

But have I dressed in Star Trek cosplay? No. Have I attended dedicated conventions? I have not. Have I read the novels and played the games and speak fluent Klingon? Some of them, and jIQoS umqu' ghot. Was I corrected on Twitter the other night for incorrectly identifying "Man Trap" as Roddenberry's revised pilot after NBC passed on "The Cage," because that's the order they're in on Netflix? Yes. So many times, yes.

This is all a long way of saying that even if I once spent two hours walking the New York City streets, heartedly discussing the continuity of Tasha Yar's character arc with a friend, I'd far from characterize myself as an expert. Lifelong, ardent fan? Yes. I love what Star Trek stands for, with its powerfully clear vision of what humanity could come to be one day. I love space exploration, space battles, strong captains and strange alien races. There are few shows or franchises that I will just put everything down to watch and get sucked into. Star Trek -- any old Star Trek, really, even Enterprise -- is that franchise.

With that out of the way, what makes Discovery work so well, is how, despite being set 10(ish) years before Kirk and company launched their five-year mission in TOS, it pays loving tribute to every aspect of the franchise, from the shows to the movies, while decidedly pushing Star Trek firmly into the present of TV.

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It starts with the visuals, which use some of the language established by Abrams -- Dutch angles, lens flares -- but without the bright Apple Store-esque coloring of that Enterprise. Instead, they pull on the rich darkness of DS9, in particular.

And it continues with the plot: the pilot kicks off with the war-loving Klingons attempting to reform their Empire after hundreds of years, followed by a scene establishing Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her first officer Michael Burnham's (Sonequa Martin-Green) relationship (the former is the latter's mentor). But it truly begins with the crew of the USS Shenzhou exploring an anomaly, a Trek classic. From the original pilot "The Cage," to almost every subsequent kick-off of a Star Trek TV series, the plot has begun with a crew investigating a mysterious disturbance in space. This may seem pretty generic, but as one doomed crewman says late in the second episode, "We're explorers, we're not soldiers."

Trek is known for Kirk's shirtless fighting, space battles and dastardly, villainous aliens, but the core of all the series is the idea that space isn't terrifying, it's exciting. New worlds mean new possibilities, not new enemies. Discovery's first two episodes break all that down, literally, showing how the Federation entered a dark period that challenges the very basis of what they stand for. How do you fight pure unbridled rage, with logic?

That's another thing that Discovery does swimmingly... The show isn't just a prequel: given the timeline of the multiple TV series, it's a sequel to Enterprise, which did a fair amount of retconning itself. Discovery makes it work, though, particularly when it comes to Michael Burnham. She's a human whose parents were killed during a Klingon attack on a Vulcan/human science outpost, and was subsequently adopted by Spock's father Sarek (James Frain). So how does Spock have a sister we never heard about? That's TBD, but this detail isn't just there to tie Discovery into existing continuity, it's used to drive home the binary theme of the premiere.

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Everything in the brilliant first two episodes rests on the idea of dichotomy. The anomaly is near binary stars. The Klingon villains are one black, one white. And it all ties back to Burnham's warring nature. Where Spock struggled with his half-human emotional side, Burnham, raised by Vulcans, can't properly access her logic. Her inability to reconcile the coldness of her Vulcan upbringing with the human emotion inherent in her nature is what leads her to act out: trying to be Vulcan, as she was taught by Sarek, just doesn't work in the very human scenario of the Federation.

And what that leads into is something that makes Trek one of the most venerated franchises in fiction: moral, philosophical debates. When Roddenberry first showed NBC "The Cage" back in the '60s, the executives passed, but they noted they liked that the scuttled pilot had strong ideas in between all the incoherent nonsense about mating and weird, big-headed aliens. The Next Generation also kicked off not with an action spectacular, but with a 90-minute debate about whether humanity has truly changed at all in the hundreds of years since they first began exploring space.

Discovery has to please modern audiences, so the action is huge and thrilling, on par with any of the feature films (and surpassing several). There's even the requisite space jump, straight out of the the nü-Trek movies (credit co-writer Alex Kurtzman, who also helped craft the new movie franchise). But at the core of the first two episodes are ideas about what humanity means, and what we could become. Not just through the humans like Michael and Philippa, but through the Klingons as well. The philosophical discussions are woven seamlessly into the plot and action, and the show wears them on its sleeve. This is a series, after all, about how humanity made that next great leap from saying we're all joining together in harmony, to actually making it happen.

"They come to destroy our individuality," Klingon radical, and main antagonist T'Kuvma (Chris Obi) tells the Klingon council in the second episode, and the crazy thing is, at this time: he's kind of right. The Klingons join together because they want to live how they live -- their culture is based on violence and honor, and the Federation is looking to wipe that out. Though Georgiou drops some beautiful turns of phrase like, "I was a human who had seen a life of loss, and still chose hope," she neglects to understand that not everyone wants that. The Klingons certainly don't.

These sorts of hard choices have always permeated Star Trek, from Kirk's fisticuffs to the unenviable choices Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) made to help her crew escape the Delta Quadrant over the course of Voyager. We know, from the history of Trek, that Georgiou's philosophy prevails (after all, by the time Next Generation hits, they even have a Klingon on the bridge). But in the moment Discovery begins, it presents us with a fresh, new and much darker look at the future of humanity. Later seasons of DS9 delved into this, but taking place in a different time period, hundreds of years before that series allows Discovery an entirely different perspective.

Ultimately, though, it's from those low points, when we're most challenged, that we emerge the strongest. Discovery is Star Trek for the real next generation, something that embraces the fandom, and allows for a fresh story to be told about the most hopeful, inclusive franchise in entertainment.

And get ready, because it's about to create a whole new host of avid fans -- and maybe even a few experts.

Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays on CBS All Access.

(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS.)