The new Star Trek: Discovery trailer has been with us for a few days now. We’ve already done our deep-dive analysis, a podcast, and reported on fan and media reactions, and we plan to do even more closer looks at different aspects of it in the future. But today I wanted to take step back from the trees and take a look at the forest. This trailer is a big moment as the first look at what is the return of Star Trek to its natural home on television. There are some big picture takeaways to be had, so here, in no specific order, are 10 that have struck me about Discovery.
1. This is definitely the Michael Burnham show
It’s long been known that Sonequa Martin-Green is the lead in the new series, playing first officer Michael Burnham. For all the talk about Klingons, uniforms and bridge consoles, this notion of having the someone besides the captain take center stage is really the biggest break in Star Trek tradition. Star Trek: Discovery actually has two captains: Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou and Jason Isaacs’ Captain Lorca, but this trailer really drove home the point that Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is the emotional heart of the show. The trailer began and ended with her, and made it clear that she’s the star.
This non-captain focus comes from executive producer Bryan Fuller, who was always interested in doing a “Lower Decks” take on Star Trek. Even though he stepped away from the show to focus on American Gods, this original vision remains; it’ll be interesting to see if it perseveres in his absence. As a big fan of The West Wing I remember how it was envisioned as a ‘lower decks’ take on the White House, where the character of the president was not the main focus. But over time, writers gravitated more and more to stories focused on the president, because of the draw of the office. Star Trek’s captain-centric tradition and the draw of the power of the captain’s chair may prove hard to resist to future Discovery writers, who, like us, were raised on very Captain-focused Trek.
Some are speculating that the best way to keep Martin-Green as the lead but also return to Trek tradition would be for her to assume command and get the chair for herself. The trailer even starts off with Georgiou telling Burnham that it’s time for her to get her own command, so perhaps her journey there is pre-destined. But I’m still rooting for Fuller’s ‘lower decks’ concept, and hope the show spends some time exploring Burnham as the first officer.
2. JJ Abrams has
nothing everything to do with Discovery
This new Star Trek show is being produced by CBS Studios in conjunction with Alex Kurtzman’s Secret Hideout Productions. J.J. Abrams, who produced the last three Star Trek films, has no involvement at all in this show, nor does Paramount Pictures or Abrams’ Bad Robot production company.
That said, Abrams’ shadow hovers over the trailer. Many observers have come away assuming that this new show is somehow related to the Kelvin universe movies. Why? Because not only does the trailer match the frenetic Abrams style – yes, including lens flares – but also the production design seems more Kelvin-verse than original Star Trek.
CBS is clear that this show is a prequel to the original Star Trek series (TOS), is set specifically in the ‘prime’ timeline, and has nothing to do with the Kelvin-verse. So in terms of continuity, we won’t be hearing about Nero and Ambassador Spock coming back in time, and the planet Vulcan is still in existence. However, CBS is clearly trying to leverage the success of the recent Star Trek films, which have sold tens of millions of tickets and in some ways made it possible for there to be a new series. The stylistic message here, as they reach out to new fans as well as old ones, seems to be “if you liked those movies, you are going to like this too.”
3. Not your father’s (or your grandmother’s) Klingons
When you first heard about how Klingons would feature prominently in the new show, maybe you said to yourself, “Again with the Klingons!” They’ve been the go-to aliens for Star Trek for decades and were shoehorned into almost all of the feature films. But watching the trailer made one thing clear: these Klingons are different.
There’s a lot of buzz about the look of new Klingons, and many fans are struggling to figure out how they fit in with others seen over the years, but let’s face it: Star Trek has a long history of making design changes to the Klingons, along with other races. In this trailer, the difference seems to be more than just cosmetic — it’s not always about the foreheads.
The Klingons on this ‘sarcophagus ship’ led by T’Kuvma seem less like bloodthirsty warriors and more like a religious cult. It has been speculated that they may not even be what we consider contemporary of that era, but some kind of ‘ancient Klingons.’ Star Trek has always reshaped the Klingons to reflect the times–the real times of production, not just the in-story timelines. In the 1960s, they were villainous stand-ins for the Soviet Cold War foes. When Star Trek: The Next Generation arrived in the era of Glasnost, they were transformed into allies, and later fleshed out to be a sort of cross between Vikings and Samurai. Honor and family were their highest values, and they had the ability to connect with other cultures.
So perhaps these Klingons, too, will reflect our current era. This time they will be morphed to fit with heightened international tensions, or could be there to reflect either the fight against fanatical ideologies or the determination of some to understand those who are so completely alien to us in their way of thinking. Are they enemies? Are they misunderstood? Will they understand our world? A new spin on Klingons for a new era may just work.
4. There is much yet to be Discovered
Even though a handful of episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have been shot, it is pretty clear that all the footage in the trailer comes from the pilot. It is understandable that many viewers, especially fans who haven’t been reading up on every development, think the ship featured in it was the U.S.S. Discovery (when it is actually the U.S.S. Shenzhou) and that the captain on the show will be played by Michelle Yeoh. CBS doesn’t seem to have a problem with creating this false impression for those who don’t dive into the details on sites like this one.
And CBS has made a conscious decision to hold back quite a bit, most notably not revealing the titular U.S.S. Discovery and much of its crew, including Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). It is quite possible the Discovery doesn’t feature prominently in the pilot, or maybe it’s not there at all.
After a drought of essentially nothing it seems like a lot was revealed, but really, this trailer is just the tip of the Discovery iceberg.
5. Burnham and Sarek have history
One of the ways the trailer indicated how much the focus is on Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham was by including two different exchanges she has with James Frain’s Sarek. It looks like Burnham and Sarek have a long relationship that goes back to her childhood.
Sarek is the only main character that provides continuity from past Star Treks. As an Ambassador, he is an important part of the Federation, and could have a key role in any Star Trek show based on that alone. However, this may go deeper, as Sarek seems to be a sort of mentor to Burnham and can apparently dispense advice via hologram wherever she goes.
The exact nature of their relationship still isn’t clear. Did she grow up on Vulcan? We don’t know yet, but as someone who has known Sarek for decades, it makes sense that she might also know Sarek’s son Spock. So don’t be surprised if you hear Spock’s name get dropped on the show, and maybe they know each other and he’ll send his friend a subspace message. If nothing else, Michael and Spock can commiserate about how Sarek is so darned hard to please.
6. They spent a lot of money on the pilot
Last week we told you that the head of CBS Interactive described Star Trek: Discovery as “cinematic.” He wasn’t kidding! The word “epic”was used by a number of media outlets to describe the trailer. That’s not a word often used when describing other CBS show trailers, or those from other broadcast or even cable networks, and the key to that comes from another word that the head of CBS Interactive used to talk about Discovery: “premium.”
Now spending a lot on a pilot is nothing new for Star Trek, especially due to the need to create so many new sets, costumes and props–essentially, a whole new universe. The budget for the Voyager pilot was the most expensive ever made at the time, a record held until J.J. Abrams beat it with the pilot for Lost a decade later. But it’s obvious that CBS doesn’t don’t want this show to look or feel like any other on CBS or the CW. They want it to seen as a premium show like you’d expect from their Showtime network (like Twin Peaks ), or something with the production values of HBO’s Westworld, which comes from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company.
The reason it has to feel like a “premium” show is because they want people to literally pay a premium to watch it on their All Access streaming service. CBS expects Star Trek: Discovery to double their subscriber base of people dropping six bucks a month (or a few bucks more for the commercial-free option) for the service. The pilot will air on the CBS broadcast network and will serve as an elaborate commercial for CBS All Access. They are making it look as good and ‘premium’ as possible, even dropping cash to shoot scenes in Jordan.
We also get a sense that like other premium shows, Star Trek: Discovery will be somewhat serialized. The title card in the trailer notes “there was a discovery,” apparently related to the Klingons and their sarcophagus. All indications are that this storyline will continue well past the pilot. Star Trek has dabbled with story arcs before, but it feels like this time they are really going for it.
So expect the pilot to look great. We can only hope they didn’t spend so much that they end up short-changing the rest of the season, which was just extended to 15 episodes.
7. Humor … it is a difficult concept
Star Trek: Discovery has been described as ‘grittier’ than traditional Star Trek, which was evidenced in the trailer: there wasn’t anything light or humorous to be seen. The message was clear that this Star Trek is deadly serious. We even learned that one character (Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru) is an alien designed for the sole purpose of sensing death. (I bet he’s a lot of fun at parties.)
But humor has always been a part of the franchise, from the original series through the movies and subsequent TV series. While Star Trek has always taken on issues and dealt with serious subjects, it has also tried to not take itself too seriously. Since this show seems to be targeting fans of the new movies, hopefully Discovery producers took note of how those films strove to find a balance between dramatic action and humor. Even a deadly serious show like Game of Thrones – something Discovery also aspires to – finds time to lighten the mood. There are ways to have a little fun without falling into Galaxy Quest parody, so hopefully Discovery doesn’t forget to lighten up once in a while.
But there needs to be some lightness that isn’t just about humor or gags. At its core, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek has always been about an optimistic future for humanity. This is part of the reason for Star Trek’s enduring success and appeal. This vision was part of the heart of the original Star Trek, and even in the darkest episodes of Deep Space Nine, there was still that core message of hope. We get a glimpse of that idealism in the trailer when Burnham reminds the captain, “We have come all this way, Captain, it would be irresponsible to leave whatever that is unknown.” Her zeal to explore is part of that optimistic vision. Let’s hope there is more where that came from.
8. Infinitely diverse
While a lot of trailer talk has been about the show having an African-American woman in the lead role, a closer look reveals that there is a lot of diversity in Discovery‘s characters, whether it’s humans of different ethnicity or aliens from distant worlds. This is no accident. From the get-go, former showrunner Bryan Fuller made diversity a priority, and said in a recent interview, “We were very adamant early on about that cast, not just in terms of race but also in terms of gender.”
Diversity is not new to the franchise, and the original series, while looking very white male-centric by today’s standards, was actually revolutionary for its time, and put that “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” message front and center. That tradition continued with The Next Generation, and really amped up even more on Deep Space Nine and Voyager, where we got our first African-American and female leads, along with more inclusion across the board. Then Enterprise took a bit of a step back after that, with just two women in the cast and only one in a proper uniform.
In 2017, though, the stakes are even more elevated. From the choices made in terms of what went into the trailer, it’s clear that CBS is really leaning into this philosophy and is not concerned about the inevitable blowback from those who think that these choices are due to some sort of “political correctness” as opposed to genuine inclusivity. And it also looks like this show will break the cycle and not require any female cast members to wear skimpy mini-skirts or skin-tight catsuits.
9. Conflict is drama
Watch any modern TV series and you’ll see that the main characters don’t always get along. Conflict is always the source of drama. A frequent criticism of on Star Trek, particularly with The Next Generation, was that conflict always had to come from outside the main cast, with various guest star baddies going head-to-head with Picard or Riker–but god forbid Riker and Picard ever clash.
Avoiding this conflict within the crew was one of the tenets of the so-called “Roddenberry Box,” where Star Trek: The Next Generation creator Gene Roddenberry stipulated that there would be harmony within the Federation and especially within our characters. Roddenberry was a genius and his vision must remain part of Star Trek forever, but I am glad to see that this is one element of his will not be carried into Discovery. And of course it still works within canon as the conflict-free Federation was more of a 24th century idea … just ask a certain “pointed-eared hobgoblin” if he ever had conflicts on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and you’ll get a pointed earful.
Of course there is much more to drama than having your characters yell at each other, but I suspect the writer/producers for Discovery know that. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I sense a bit of Picard in Georgiou and Kirk in Burnham. You don’t need to to make one character weak or cartoonish to allow for conflict. In this short trailer we get the sense that while Burnham has the trust of her captain, they aren’t afraid to mix it up. And we also see that Bernham is a woman of action, willing to fight for her views, fight for her crew and possibly even take matters into her own hands.
10. Still no seatbelts
Much has been debated about the design of the bridge of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. Fair enough–the bridge is a key location for any Star Trek show. When I look at the bridge I see an oval shape, a captain’s chair, a couple of consoles behind and ahead of the captain, and a ring of duty stations with most of the crew facing a large viewscreen. To me, all the core elements of a quintessential Star Trek bridge are there, right down to the questionable Starfleet philosophy generally not requiring any seat restraints, even though the inertial dampeners are sure to act up at some point.
If you were to show any casual observer of pop culture scenes from this bridge, they would almost certainly immediately identify it as Star Trek, even if they had no idea that this was from a new TV show. They would also probably accept this as what a science fiction space ship could look like in the 23rd century. And as much as we all still love it, the same could not be said for the TOS bridge. For all the concern about how this “fits” and if they are “retconning” or “re-imagining,” we aren’t seeing something that would fit better with Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica or some other science fiction franchise. It may be a bit dark and the colors may be a bit more muted – certainly compared to other ships of this era – but are lighting levels and color palettes the true definition of Star Trek?
Perhaps some are using production design as a proxy for how the show will approach Star Trek history and continuity. And if the U.S.S. Discovery encounters the Borg, or travels through the Bajoran Wormhole, or even finds some Horta, I will join others with torches and pitchforks. But I just can’t get too worked up over aesthetics as long as they are ‘in the zone.’ I’m sure we can all come up with some ‘headcanon‘ explanation as to how this ship can sit in the same universe at the time with Captain Pike’s U.S.S. Enterprise. I am more looking to see if this show can deliver thoughtful allegorical sci-fi drama mixed with action and a bit of fun. I’m fine with dark ship sets as long as it feels like part of the hopeful future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. I may not be completely sold on the gold, silver and bronze details on the uniforms, but if the characters wearing them get developed and fleshed out over time I really won’t care.
So in this new trailer I see a new but familiar workspace that has been updated for our time. I see that they have set the stage so that once again a group of characters can band together to face new challenges and yes, to discover strange new worlds and new civilizations. It is yet to be known if they (and those on the U.S.S. Discovery) will be able to delight, inspire and entertain us as the crews of past Star Treks have, but I am looking forward to see where they go.
So after a long wait this trailer still has me excited about Star Trek: Discovery. The whole team at TrekMovie eagerly awaits bringing you every new update between now and launch in the fall, where we will again look at the forest, the trees, the leaves and even the forehead ridges.
A big thank you to Laurie Ulster for her assistance as my first officer for this editorial.