When Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled in 2005 for poor ratings and J. J. Abrams introduced his alternate “Kelvin timeline” for his reboot films four years later, seasoned Trek fans had cause to wonder whether they would ever again see a “canonical” television episode of their favorite fictional universe. Then, in 2015, came the announcement: CBS, which had acquired the rights to the Star Trek franchise, was creating a new series—one that would be set not in the Kelvin timeline, but in the original “Prime” universe.
Fan reaction predictably ran the gamut, from dismissive hostility to skepticism to cautious optimism. But two years later, after changes of theme and of producers, backstage dramas, and aggressive marketing, on Sunday, September 24, fans finally caught their first glimpse of Star Trek: Discovery.
Critical reviews overall have been mainly positive, and I am inclined to concur. In particular, as a Christian I am intrigued by the show’s desire to retain a form of Star Trek idealism while acknowledging the challenges posed by human frailty.
Premiering on the CBS network, but from now on airing only on their streaming site CBS All Access, Star Trek: Discovery is a prequel of sorts. It takes place ten years prior to The Original Series—a century or so before Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, but a century after Enterprise. The debt to Enterprise is evident, not only in direct allusions but in visual nods like uniforms, aliens, and ship designs, all apparently set to transition into a more Original Series look as the show progresses.
In the premiere, “The Vulcan Hello,” the USS Shenzhou encounters a seemingly isolated ship belonging to Star Trek’s favorite warrior race, the Klingons. The crew learns that the ship’s commander, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), plans to unite the warring Klingon houses in shared hostility toward the peace-loving Federation. Our protagonist, Shenzhou first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), has been burned by Klingons before and favors an aggressive approach, leading to a mutinous encounter with her previously supportive captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).
The second episode, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” aired only on CBS All Access immediately following the premiere. It picks up where the previous episode left off, presenting the ensuing combat between Klingon forces and ships from the Federation’s Starfleet.
Those who are aloof to internecine Trekkie debates would probably raise an eyebrow at the amount of lamenting and bickering and pontificating that has led up to this premiere. When Gene Roddenberry developed the first Star Trek series over 50 years ago, he created a fairly coherent “secondary world,” a future history with its own texture and rules. Four more “canonical” shows followed after, but with more than 700 episodes and 10 films, some inconsistencies were bound to emerge. Still, the faithful—and particularly some fans of the first two series—can bristle quickly at perceived continuity errors, and a sleek prequel that makes Captain Kirk’s original Enterprise look clunky was bound to draw some censure.
From the first show’s very inception, however, Roddenberry sought to pull off a tense balancing act. He wanted to write intelligent science fiction, but his first pilot was rejected as “too cerebral”; he wanted an idealistic vision of a conflict-free future, when conflict is the lifeblood of drama. The result is a curious, if often glorious, instability: a series that was often plenty exciting, but could take on heady philosophical and political themes. It launched a universe with a welcome emphasis on transcending difference that was nonetheless punctuated by occasional character disputes and— especially after the third series, Deep Space Nine—much darker overtones.