The promising, optimistic future Star Trek foretells humanity is replaced with a dark and grimy vision as the honorable franchise comes back to the small screen. In Star Trek Discovery (Netflix) the tone is nearly as gloomy as the shadows pooled in the vast cracked foreheads of the re-designed Klingon baddies, their crenellated new appearance hinting at a party pack of Mars Bars squished into the ground and left to fester overnight.
Trek fans have experienced a rough several years, with JJ Abrams’s cocksure film adaptations basically betraying the franchise’s idealism and erudition. Star Trek Discovery, it is a sigh of relief to announce, isn’t quite a tragic disaster on the level of Abrams’s notorious Star Trek Into Darkness, in which the universe was threatened by Benedict Cumberbatch’s eyebrows.
Nevertheless, Star Trek Discovery series, featuring The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green as apathetic first officer Michael Burnham, is without apology gung-ho. How much of the view of original show-runner Bryan Fuller – left over creative differences with American network CBS – has trickled through is vague. But there is little of the giddy inventiveness of his Hannibal and American Gods installments.
Noticeably missing, too, is the vigorous intelligence of the best Star Trek. Star Trek Discovery first look is taken place 10 years before Captain Kirk and Mr Spock boldly went. But far from being fused by the original Trek’s joyful swagger, the first two episodes soon descend into an endless stand-off between Klingon warlord T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) and the USS Senzhou’s crew, firmly leaded by Michelle Yeoh’s Phillipa Georgiou.
Missiles are unleashed, shields shattered, b-list crew members sucked into the void. The heroes are almost as indistinguishable as the Klingons except for Lt Saru – a pockmarked extraterrestrial played with sorrowful wisdom by Doug Jones. Following the explosions, meanwhile, is dialogue so hammy it could be stored hanging from a hook at a delicatessen (“all life comes from chaos and destruction”, “when emotion gives us ghosts from the past only logic can take us back to the present”).
Netflix will release Star Trek Discovery weekly and it’s unclear how precisely these curtain-raising dispatches reflect what is to happen next. We haven’t yet been shown to the eponymous Starship Discovery, or its captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Issacs from Harry Potter). Instead, the first two installments (The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars) together contribute a self-contained TV film, in which the traitor T’Kuvma seeks to ensemble his people against the squeaky clean Federation by ambushing the Senzhou and driving her into conflict.
The face-off is carried out with flashbacks to Burnham’s origins as a human raised by the emotion-hostile Vulcans (she is the adopted sister of Spock, though he never thought to confirm the fact). But character development eventually takes a back-seat to make way for stunning action and Battle at the Binary Stars ends up with Captain Georgiou and Burnham embarking on a suicide mission to the Klingon flagship.
The captain has died, as is T’Kuvma. Burnham, however, makes it through and is brought back to Starfleet to stand trial for rebellion (she earlier tried to dispossess Georgiou and launch a preemptive strike on the Klingons). The assumedly forthcoming arrival of Captain Lorca and the Discovery may add the crucial element this introductory double-punch is still missing. For the moment, the new Star Trek Discovery seems less like a reboot than an attempt to turn sci-fi’s most precious property into a depressed Star Wars wannabe.