The star of Discovery is Sonequa Martin-Green, best known for playing Sasha Williams on The Walking Dead. She’s Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham, the second-in-command on the USS Shenzhou and a loyal deputy to its captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). The show’s opening two hours (the first of which aired on CBS, with the second debuting immediately after on CBS All Access) see the Shenzhou stumbling into a Klingon trap designed to provoke warfare between the bellicose alien species and the peaceful Federation. Trek fans would quickly realize from the year provided (2256) that Discovery is set 10 years before the original series, a time when the Klingons were still regarded as mostly mysterious aggressors, stock villains for Captain Kirk to lock horns with from time to time.
It’s an age of greater conflict, which makes sense for the show Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman have created. Discovery is action-packed, has its main narrative set around a Federation-Klingon war, and heavily borrows from the visual style of J.J. Abrams’s rebooted Trek films, replete with lens flares and metallic set dressings, far from the day-glo delights of the original show. The first episode ended with a big cliffhanger, as Klingon warships bore down on the Shenzhou. And viewers were only able to watch the epic conclusion if they signed up for CBS All Access (which is $5.99 per month with ads, or $9.99 per month without).
The tactic appears to have worked—the CBS broadcast, along with the show’s long-established fanbase, has driven All Access subscriptions to unspecified record highs. At a time when brand recognition is key and shows that might have been once dismissed as cult favorites (like Gilmore Girls or Arrested Development) are now highly sought-after, Star Trek is the best imaginable property to launch a streaming service with. But CBS’s ultimate calculation was an interesting one: It’s looking to attract hardcore fans to build up All Access, of course, but it wants Discovery to be conventionally thrilling enough to draw a wider audience, too.
That’s probably why Michael Burnham is the franchise’s first leading character who isn’t a commanding officer—because the pilot episode’s big story twist revolves around her attempt at mutiny. Faced with the Klingon threat, Burnham advises Georgiou to attack their ships preemptively, explaining that Klingon culture respects battle and considers it a form of diplomacy. She’s drawing on her peculiar heritage as a human raised by Vulcans, after her family was killed in a Klingon raid. But when Georgiou ignores her (saying that the Federation doesn’t fire first), Burnham subdues her with a Vulcan neck pinch and tries to launch the weapons herself.
It is the most implausible moment in the otherwise sterling opening episodes of Discovery. Burnham’s respect and love for Georgiou, whom she has served under for seven years, has already been well-established by that point, and her reasons for wanting to open fire on the Klingons are a little too vague. That she’d suddenly turn on her boss, violating a sacred Federation rule, is tough to believe, and Burnham’s move feels like a story decision designed more for shock value than anything else. The Federation and Klingon ships quickly engage in open warfare anyway, and Georgiou and Burnham soon reconcile and go on a recon mission on board a Klingon vessel (where Georgiou is killed in action).