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Star Trek: Discovery nails the important stuff in a surprisingly terrific debut

It’s got all the strengths and flaws of classic Trek. Thank goodness.

Star Trek: Discovery
Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green star in Star Trek: Discovery.
CBS All Access
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After losing its original showrunner and after being delayed two times, after stories indicating a troubled production and after seeming to avoid showing itself to critics, after being questioned for airing exclusively on a proprietary streaming service owned by its parent network and after assembling an all-star cast and then largely keeping fans in the dark as to who they were playing, Star Trek: Discovery — the first new Star Trek series since Enterprise left the air in 2005 — is finally here.

And, maybe miraculously, it’s good.

Is it perfect? No. It has some of the problems Trek has always had — like clunky exposition that gums things up early in the premiere. (In general, when the characters are doing things, Discovery is strong. When they’re talking about doing things — often at length and in Klingon — it’s more hit or miss.) But as a Trek fan (though far from a die-hard), I reached the end of the two-episode premiere relieved. It was good, I thought. I didn’t hate it.

Of course, the bar the series has to clear in weeks to come will get higher and higher, but for now, based on the show’s first three hours (I’ve seen the third episode, which debuts on CBS All Access Sunday, October 1, and offers some surprises of its own), I’m giving this one a qualified thumbs up. I was gripped and engaged by the journey of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the new series’ lead character and only the second Star Trek lead who’s not a captain. (She is, instead, first officer.) I was excited to see what she did next. I found the story twists and turns exciting, even when I had already guessed they were coming.

Here are three reasons Discovery works, even despite the clunkiness. And if you haven’t scooted over to CBS All Access to watch the second episode, do that now. I’m going to spoil it, and you won’t want to miss it anyway.

Reason 1: Michael Burnham is a character who does stuff

Somewhere in its heart and soul, Star Trek has always been a series about careful study and observation.

This doesn’t mean any of the many different series, both good and bad, had nothing in the way of action or momentum. The series never met an alien race it couldn’t figure out a way to get into a fistfight with. But at the heart of the series’ famous Prime Directive — which urges members of the United Federation of Planets not to interfere with the development of civilizations beneath a certain level of technology — is the idea that it’s more important to let events run their course than to step in and alter them. (Of course, every Star Trek series featured the characters violating this directive all over the place.)

But that’s led to an unfortunate pigeonholing for Trek: Star Wars is where you go for action; Star Trek is where you go for thinking and pondering.

It’s not altogether untrue. Trek is brainier than most other sci-fi franchises. But it’s not like it’s boring. At its best, the franchise is about encountering new civilizations and solving knotty ethical problems and — sometimes, yes — punching aliens in the face. It’s a show about doing, even if it’s not about big battles.

Star Trek: Discovery
Michael Burnham is a character who can both think and fight her way out of sticky situations.
CBS All Access

And the best thing about Discovery is that Michael Burnham, played beautifully by Martin-Green, does stuff. She gets in trouble. She breaks rules. She violates Starfleet protocol. She has emotions that get the best of her, even as she knows they shouldn’t. She is, in other words, very human, even as she knows that her humanity can lead her to do reckless things.

I knew I was intrigued by Michael when she jetted off into an asteroid field, all on her own, to examine a strange object (which turned out to be a Klingon war vessel). I knew I was excited to see what else she would do when she gave her captain the Vulcan nerve pinch in order to commandeer the vessel and guide it into open battle with the Klingons. And I knew I wanted to watch several more episodes of her adventures when she actually suffered the consequences for that insubordination, ending up in prison.

The best thing any show can have is a protagonist who does interesting things, in a way that seems consistent with their psychology. Discovery spends too much time explaining why Michael does what she does (about which more in a second), but you can’t argue that her actions don’t make sense. She’s an instantly engaging protagonist, one who can think and fight her way out of danger.

Reason 2: the relationships Michael develops matter — even when they don’t have to

Let’s be honest: The worst thing about Discovery’s first two episodes is the flashbacks. They’re clunky, thuddingly obvious, and often downright boring. They’re just there to underline things we’re already getting from the actors. (My suspicion is that they will play better coming after commercial breaks, rather than sandwiched into the action as they were in my screening.)

Star Trek: Discovery
The relationship between Philippa and Michael drives some strong moments.
CBS All Access

But I was willing to forgive those flashbacks everything once they made a couple of moments late in the second episode play so beautifully. When Sarek (Spock’s father, who raised Michael as his ward, in a new bit of Trek retconning) shows up to aid Michael via the Vulcan mind meld, it’s surprisingly moving for a scene involving a character who keeps talking about the danger of human emotion, thanks to the way the flashbacks suggested Sarek’s bond with Michael had grown over the years. And when Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) dies near the end of episode two, it’s all the more of a gut punch because of how deeply the flashbacks have sold Michael’s connection to her.

Look, there were probably less clunky ways to do this than a bunch of dry flashbacks. But I’m not going to lie: When Michael reaches out to try to transport Captain Georgiou’s body with her from the Klingon ship where she died, only to fall just short as she is beamed back on board the USS Shenzhou, it hit me harder than I ever would have expected.

That “harder than expected” quality is especially true when you consider the fact that both Georgiou and Jason Isaacs’s (as-yet-unseen) character were announced as captains during the casting process. That made it seem pretty obvious one of them would die, and the safe money was always on Georgiou. Isaacs’s character captains the USS Discovery — which is right there in the title.

Reason 3: the new touches Discovery adds to the Trek world are compelling

Star Trek: Discovery
Doug Jones stars as Lt. Saru.
CBS All Access

There are a lot of things in Discovery that will take some getting used to. The state-of-the-art visual effects feel a little glossy for a show ostensibly set 10 years before the original Star Trek (in all its 1960s special effects glory). The direction of the first two episodes occupies an uneasy middle ground between epic spectacle and close-up intimacy that I rather wish had been more skillfully navigated. (There are times in the battle scenes, in particular, when it sort of feels like the directorial team just pointed its camera at the action at random.)

Above all else, though, is the thought that just about every character we’ve been introduced to, save for a couple, is no longer going to be part of the show, as Michael’s journey in the premiere takes her to a new ship entirely (where most of the aforementioned all-star cast will be working). Discovery builds a whole new world, and then tears it down, all in about 85 minutes. (Then episode three — without spoiling — does a solid job of building another new world.)

Somehow, it pulls this off. Indeed, some new additions instantly feel like they belong in the world of Star Trek. In particular, I’m speaking of Doug Jones’s character, Saru, who belongs to the Kelpian species, a new alien race developed just for Discovery. Bred as prey on their home world, the Kelpians are notoriously risk-averse and can sense death. Along with Michael, Saru is the first character who instantly makes sense, almost from his earliest moments onscreen. (And he’ll be transferring to the Discovery — good.)

But I also like the way the premiere uses much of the existing Trek mythos to highlight its core idea: What are higher principles worth, if all that happens is you get killed? Georgiou averts Michael’s planned assault on the Klingon warship but still ends up getting killed. Starfleet warps in to deal with the situation peacefully, and instead ends up in the middle of a war. The Klingons regard the Federation’s refrain of “We come in peace” as an absolute joke. Principles are all well and good, but death has a way of leveling the playing field.

The series isn’t cynical about that idea, however. You can sense that deep in its bones, it really does believe that higher ideals aren’t just important but necessary if you’re going to build a better world and separate yourself from those who consider ethics mere suggestions.

One of the things that makes Star Trek so good is that it really believes in peace and inclusion and all that good stuff. It really wants to create a world where these ideals have become the guiding principles of humanity and its many interplanetary allies. Star Trek is best when it’s hopeful, but hope shines brightest amid horror. On some level, Discovery knows both of those things, and that’s why it’s a show I’m eager to keep watching.

Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively on CBS All Access. If you’re thinking, “But I don’t want to buy a streaming subscription for one show!” you might also try out The Good Fight, another All Access exclusive that’s quite good.