Wonderstruck, overstuffed, corny, and stirring, Star Trek: Discovery stands tall alongside the best-regarded incarnations of the Trek franchise even as it raids elements from all of them (including the recent J.J. Abrams film series, which Paramount says is set in an alternate timeline that has nothing to do with this one). Though handsomely produced, the show’s imagination seems to have been slightly reined in by commercial mandates — namely, reinvigorating Trek as a TV property and serving as a marquee title that would lure customers to CBS All Access, the network’s subscription-only service. There were reports that series co-creator Bryan Fuller, who ultimately left the project over creative disagreements as well as scheduling conflicts with his Starz series American Gods, wanted Discovery to be darker, more openly political, and more aggressively serialized than the version that debuted tonight with back-to-back episodes. (Fuller also pushed Paramount to make it an anthology series, essentially a Trekker’s answer to Fargo — the mind reels.)
But what remains bears unmistakable traces of Fuller’s creative DNA, especially when it deals with political and cultural conditioning, spiritual yearning, and the rending and burning of flesh (preoccupations on all his series, Hannibal especially). And no matter what compromises and negotiations were required to get the show on its feet, and despite its many instances of “because we said so” plotting, Discovery doesn’t feel compromised. This is an audacious work for obvious demographic reasons: It’s the first Trek to debut with two women commanding a Federation starship, one black (Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green as soon-to-be-disgraced first mate Michael Burnham), the other Chinese-Malaysian (Hong Kong film star Michelle Yeoh as USS Shenzhou Captain Philippa Georgiou).
But it’s also notable as a rare work of true science fiction in a medium that too often settles for science-fiction-flavored action, science-fiction-flavored horror, and so on, amping up superficial thrills while neglecting the attention of ideas that distinguish the genre at its best. Splitting the difference between commercial slickness and graphic-novel solemnity, this Trek offers PG-13 violence, audience-pandering exposition dumps, cliffhanger endings, Game of Thrones–style pomp, and a touch of Lost’s mystery-box plotting, but also poker-faced musings on quantum science, moral relativism, logic vs. instinct, race vs. culture, and the military’s tendency to corrupt science in service of war. (That last bit, which gets examined at length in episode three, feels self-reflexive: one of the persistent gripes against Abrams’s Trek was that it replaced Trek founder Gene Roddenberry’s sense of wonder with Star Wars–style militarism.)
Alex Kurtzman, a veteran of the Abrams series and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, took over Discovery after Fuller left, with an assist from longtime screenwriter and producer Akiva Goldsman, whose inconsistent résumé runs the gamut from Cinderella Man and TV’s Fringe to Batman and Robin and the film version of Lost in Space. Despite the plethora of cooks in the kitchen, the result has a distinctive identity, and delights in contradicting your preconceived notions about what kind of show it is. The opening few minutes promise an adventure of pure, well, discovery, along the lines of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Michael’s rocket suit is modeled on the one that Spock donned while exploring V’Ger); then it shifts into Star Trek II or III or VI mode, threatening the galaxy with an outbreak of Federation-Klingon war that confronts Captain Georgiou with the sorts of conundrums that Kirk and Picard used to grapple with; then it becomes a drama of military protocol in the vein of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (or the classic two-parter The Cage). Episode three, which I’ll very vaguely tease you with, draws on several classic science-fiction films, including Solaris, Event Horizon, and the original Alien, while allowing Martin-Green to shift into a different register: less-earnest Tom Cruise and more strong-silent Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen.
Viewers will surely quibble over all the contrivances that the writers believed were necessary to maneuver its characters into dramatically expedient positions, but even when the plotting is a hunk of Swiss cheese, their psychologies are rock-solid. Even actions that seem dumb and unmotivated make sense when you consider them in context of a character’s life story — most notably when Michael becomes a mutineer: a textbook example of traumatic childhood memories overwhelming rational thought. Race and culture keep inflecting scenes that might otherwise be tediously preoccupied with dominance. The subtitled Klingon scenes give us a fascinating (though too briefly featured) bad guy: a racial-purity-driven revolutionary who is intoxicated by dreams of reawakening a long-gone empire and armors his vessel with an exoskeleton made from dead warriors’ coffins. He seems to want to be a bony-foreheaded mix of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Osama bin Laden at the same time. We understand him so well, right down to his agonized desire for proof of a higher power, that when he dies we are strangely moved by his suffering.
Most important, Discovery presents viewers with an almost entirely new slate of characters, save for James Frain as Sarek, Spock’s father and the adoptive parent (along with as-yet-unseen wife Amanda) of our heroine; writes them as fully rounded personages; and casts them with actors you can’t help but like even when they’re getting on your last nerve. After a wobbly start that’s not uncommon in pilots, we quickly get used to all of them, and accept them not just as variations on cherished Star Trek types (in particular the alienated “half-breed” or cultural-biological outsider), but as fully formed personalities who have solid, if often tangled, reasons for doing whatever they do. Lt. Saru (Doug Jones), the first Kelpien character in Star Trek, is a creation as vivid as Spock, Data, or Worf, though more particular in his neuroses. His biologically incubated sensitivity to the approach of death makes him the closest thing Discovery has to a poster child, or poster creature. This is light years removed from being a perfect TV show, but it already shows signs of being a great one.