Star Trek: Discovery Boldly Goes Into the Age of Streaming TV

The franchise’s first new series in 12 years is a radical departure, with an emphasis on heavy serialization and heated conflict.

Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green in 'Star Trek: Discovery'
Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery (CBS)

This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.

For more than 50 years, Star Trek has obeyed a particular formula when introducing its new shows. The first episode is double-sized, a mini-movie designed to introduce a new vessel (be it Enterprise, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager) and its crew. Our hero is the commanding officer, a steady hand atop a pyramid of Starfleet command (Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer). And if there’s conflict, it’s mostly external, as the Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry insisted that Starfleet officers don’t get in fights with each other, though that’s a rule that was made to be broken.

Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered on CBS Sunday night, is the first new Trek show in 12 years (the last, Enterprise, was canceled by UPN in 2005). It’s also the first to debut in the streaming era, which prioritizes serialized storytelling and values die-hard fans who will fork over subscription dollars. That’s why CBS is using Discovery as bait to draw people to its CBS All Access service, where future episodes of the show will air exclusively. And that’s also why Discovery’s action-packed opening episodes—which centered around a Starfleet mutiny and featured a very different kind of main character—felt so incongruous to Trek history. The show probably needed to make such a dramatic shift in order to return to the air, but it’s likely to distress some veteran fans, who have always been resistant to change.

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).

That leads to another cliffhanger: Burnham is convicted of mutiny and stripped of her rank. According to the teaser for next week’s episode (available online only, as all future episodes will be), this will lead to her being placed as a prisoner on the USS Discovery, the show’s titular ship, captained by Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and equipped for war with the Klingons. The ongoing storyline isn’t completely unexpected—every other Trek series had them too. But the earlier shows mostly relied on an episodic structure that sold self-contained tales from week to week and emphasized the utopian status quo of the Federation.

It’s hard to know if a series like that—particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation, which remains the gold standard for the franchise—could ever exist on television again. The Next Generation followed a crew whose members were deeply in sync, rarely got in arguments that lasted more than a minute, and all excelled at their jobs. It was, above all, a show about exploration, where the threats were often philosophical rather than physical, and where the rule upon encountering most new alien races was never to interfere with their cultures.

Discovery, like almost every new Trek show, will have growing pains, and may initially struggle to win over the franchise’s die-hard fans as it courts new ones. Its plotting exists on a knife-edge of tension, and characters now openly quarrel with each other. But after 50 years, it was long past time for the show to evolve, and for all CBS’s streaming gimmickry, it’s exciting to have the franchise back and finding new ways to tell stories. As the medium of television evolves, it’s comforting to know that Star Trek is there to evolve right along with it.