Even in the mid-1960s Star Trek was always exploring uncharted frontiers, so it makes sense that in 2017 Star Trek: Discovery has an African-American female at the centre of its universe. In the form of Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham, the future is in good hands.
Martin-Green is the early standout in the much-delayed new series devised for streaming platform CBS All Access. Reports of co-creator Bryan Fuller jumping ship are hopefully the stuff of backstage dramas, although I can’t help but feel he might have made some changes to both story and production here.
In 2256 Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh in another nod to diverse casting) captains the USS Shenzhou which encounters an unknown ship, revealed to be Klingon, mortal enemy of all things Federation. But they haven’t been trouble for 100 years and Cpt. Georgiou is reticent to re-open old wounds.
Not so Michael Burnham who is convinced they not only defend themselves, but draw first blood. This puts her at odds with her Captain in a dilemma only a space opera could love.
Burnham is also a human daughter raised as Vulcan by Sarek (James Frain), father of Mr. Spock, and there are flashbacks that reveal her heart lets down her logic training. One day she hopes to captain her own fleet.
Over on the Klingon ship there is a battle for supremacy, with T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) seeking to unite Klingon houses, against the Federation. The timing of leaders just inches away from complete annihilation reminds us that science fiction still reflects more Earthly realities.
On the bridge is a collection of crew, including the prosthetically -enhanced Science Officer Saru (Doug Jones), Starfleet lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) and Science Officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), accompanied by those mandatory Star Trek doors and a parade of holograms. Sadly there are no actors being thrown across the bridge while the camera tilts…. or was that just Fast Forward?
What is lacking in the first episode is the traditional jeopardy and emotional heart brought to life so ably by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy & co. There’s considerable set-up here, hampered by scenes too long with subtitled Klingons, and I felt somewhat alienated (sorry) by the production barriers employed to realise them.
There is the odd clunky dialogue (“Not too shabby huh?” / “The only word to effectively describe it is ‘Wow.'”) and some CGI, especially exterior space shots, also looked like there may have been cost cuts in line with the show on streaming platforms. On Netflix, where it screens in Australia, the 44 minute running time is also distinguished by telltale fade-outs for commercial break inserts.
Despite such shortcomings there are signs this may yet live and prosper. Episode 2 is stronger than 1, including with genre action, while Sonequa Martin-Green’s charisma shines through the exposition and connects us with the underlying human emotions.
With a little more warp speed there is reason enough to believe this universe is worth saving, with or without Mr. Fuller along for the ride.
Star Trek: Discovery is now screening on Netflix.