All hands on deck for Star Trek: Discovery

It doesn't take long for Star Trek: Discovery to make it's most important declaration: this ain't your daddy's Star Trek.

This is darker, richer, and far more complex.

Set just a decade (or so) before starship decor goes 1960s in an explosion of primary colour, Star Trek: Discovery feels a universe away from The Original Series, shaped using harsher lines, with a heavy, imposing set design and a perhaps more sinister idea of what lies in wait when you go "boldly where no man has gone before."

The opening snapshot: Michelle Yeoh's Captain Phillipa Georgiou commands the USS Shenzhou, but the spotlight is firmly on her first officer - or "number one" - Commander Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green.

With the ship sent to the fringes of Federation space, both Burnham and science officer Saru (Doug Jones) sense danger - Starfleet's "tech hygiene" reputation, Burnham says, almost guarantees a starship will be sent in response to a damaged communications relay station.

Lying in wait: the Klingons. "Always with the Klingons!" (Joke credit: The Simpsons.)

But Burnham and Saru offer opposing plans of action: she favours confrontation, he favours retreat. That, at least, is an anchoring moment, and a reminder of Captain Kirk's two senior officers, the analytical Mr Spock and the emotional Dr McCoy, who frequently clashed while offering their commanding officer different courses of action.

The first two episodes are set on the Shenzhou, so what comes in the third hour is something of a reset, when the action shifts to the USS Discovery, the ship which takes the mantle of the show's title.

These opening episodes are dense, and for the first hour at least, thick with Klingon dialogue (with English subtitles) and while this inevitably gives way to a little more breathing space in the storytelling as the series enters its third hour and beyond, it loses none of its complexity and uncertainty.

This is perhaps where that oft-used phrase long-form storytelling comes into play.

Star Trek: Discovery delivers on that, perhaps even to its own detriment. There is a structure to the episodes but they don't commence with that classic shot of the Enterprise gliding into orbit around the M-class planet of the week.

The casting is nothing short of stunning.

Much of the initial action is driven by Yeoh's Georgiou, Martin-Green's Commander Burnham and Chris Obi as the self-styled Klingon saviour T'Kuvma, who hopes to unite the Empire's 24 warring houses. Notable guest appearance: James Frain as Spock's father (and Michael's adopted father) Sarek.

And Star Trek is nothing if not derivative. The confrontation-at-the-edge-of-the-Federation which leads into the second hour, titled Battle at the Binary Star, echoes loudly of the dramatic debut of the Romulans at the end of The Next Generation's first season.

And the adopted-father/not-quite-Vulcan daughter dynamic of Sarek and Michael echoes of Spock's own protege in the 1980s-era Star Trek movies, Saavik, played brilliantly by Kirstie Alley, who was a Romulan/Vulcan child survivor of a destroyed Vulcan colony, taken to Vulcan and raised by Spock.

But there is also something fresh here.

While each successive Star Trek television iteration has delighted the fandom, they have also seemed to weaken, as though each photocopy saps the lion's share of the remaining toner and each series is left to feel paler, and more derivative.

No fear of that here. Star Trek: Discovery is startlingly unpredictable. It's first hours pack a wallop. And its third doesn't just reset the narrative it also turns in a couple of unexpected directions and what should be sudden certainty turns into even more uncertainty.

Historically it was films such as The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country which represented the strongest in Star Trek storytelling, exploring complex human stories with phaser guns, warp drives and transporters for stage dressing, while television, constrained by budgets and lesser effects, did what they could.

The reverse is almost true here: for the first time a Star Trek television series is offering something far more complex and compelling in terms of story than anything in a Star Trek feature film. In fact, the J.J. Abrams-led reboot of Star Trek in the cinemas is almost built on a popcorn, anyone-can-watch approach to blockbuster movie-making that is strangely unappealing to fans and quality TV boffins.

There is also here, for the first time in a Star Trek series, an attempt to anchor the narrative in the familiar: Commander Burnham's first recorded log is given a "stardate" of 1207.3, but that is followed up with an Earth date of May 11, 2256, "a Sunday," she adds. (Do you get double time and a half in space?)

Meaning no disrespect to the past crews (and casts) of the USS's Enterprise and Voyager and space station Deep Space 9, Star Trek: Discovery unlocks the rigid framework which has to some extent held Star Treks of old both standing in place, and an echo of one another.

Of those shows, it was only Deep Space Nine - notably anchored not on a gleaming new starship, but a battered, war-torn space station - that indulged in both darker, wartime storytelling, and a more serialised structure for some of its later season episode sequences.

Yeoh inhabits Captain Georgiou with an elegant, understated strength. And Jason Isaacs's Captain Lorca, who seems at first a villain, then a good-guy, then a villain again, will make you abandon all hope of second-guessing the stunning writing.

So let's talk about the writing.

Bryan Fuller created the series, Alex Kurtzman now (more or less) runs it, with Heather Kadin, Aaron Harberts, Gretchen J. Berg and Akiva Goldsman all turning up in the media noise machine ahead of the show's US launch. The 1980s-era Star Trek film's best director Nicholas Meyer is a consultant. As is original Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's son, Rod.

Too many cooks should spoil the broth - common sense, and the collected histories of television between the 1960s and the 1990s tells you that - and yet somehow here the sum does not undermine the whole. Instead, Star Trek: Discovery has been made stronger by it.

But there are imperfections.

The Klingons here are not such a dramatic departure of the Klingons of old, though the attempt to give their faith more depth - notably the echo of Kahless, a phophet-like figure in Klingon history, first introduced in The Original Series - actually slows down the storytelling. As does long tranches of subtitled Klingon dialogue.

But when the action kicks up a gear, boy does it kick up. Meyer was a notably great writer of starship battle sequences - think of the Klingons versus the USS Enterprise and USS Excelsior at Khitomer in The Undiscovered Country - and there are his fingerprints everywhere.

And the first two hours end with enough of a bombshell that fans will be scratching their heads. This is, unlike Star Trek of old, a universe where nobody is safe, not even the people in the opening title sequence. (Which, by the way, is brilliant. If it doesn't win an Emmy, it's a crime.)

The inevitable question for both programmer, viewer and fan alike is, where does this fit, either in the larger Star Trek narrative, or my busy week?

It should appeal to Trekkers, in particular the fans who indulge in immersive computer gaming, or the older demographic who played Star Trek role-playing games on tabletops with dice and pencils. The longform storytelling pitches straight to that audience, who home-brewed an aspect of the show that wasn't constrained by structure or network commercial breaks.

But the series should also pitch broadly, borrowing as much (if not more) from the science fiction storytelling of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Alien than the vast classic Star Trek canon which comes before it.

Whoever* said in space no one can year you scream had plainly never met the Klingons.

*it was Ridley Scott.

Star Trek: Discovery is streaming in the US on CBS All Access and in Australia on Netflix; new episodes will be released weekly on Monday, Australian time.

The story All hands on deck for Star Trek: Discovery first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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