TV REVIEW: Star Trek: Discovery – S01E03

Another nigh-on flawless episode kicks us into the story proper with faces old and new, and a scary, scary monster.

After hitting the ground running with last week’s near-perfect two-parter, Star Trek: Discovery wastes no time in delivering the goods. Pre-credits, we’re told it’s six months after the Battle of the Binary Stars plunged the Federation into total war with the Klingon Empire and Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is on board a prison shuttle. One of her fellow cons says 8,000 people were killed at the battle. “Eight thousand and eighty-six,” corrects Michael, both with Vulcan pedantry and the very-human sorrow born of immense guilt. Again, we’re reminded, that Michael is a product of both races.

But Star Trek: Discovery isn’t all about feelings, it’s about exciting action. Cue an electricity-munching lifeform that kills the pilot and wrecks the shuttle’s nav system. They are, Michael coolly says, going to drift until either the air runs out or they freeze to death. While her fellow prisoners panic and struggle, Michael sits, calm and still – clearly death would be a sweet release. And then – we’re still not even at the credits, remember? – it happens. A starship glides into view, tractor-beam twinkling: the USS NCC103 Discovery.

The rest of the episode is, technically set-up for the rest of the series, though hidden inside a brilliantly structured and well-written story.  Deciding to open with last week’s backstory eps was a stroke of genius, as there’s so much mystery on board the Discovery that having to discover why the war had broken out, not to mention Michael’s childhood, would have been too much.

As it is, Michael is the audience’s eyes and ears as we’re taken into this new and sinister star ship; “Have you even seen a black Star Fleet badge?” asks one of the prisoners – this is clearly a Black site, Federation-style. We meet Head of Security Landry (Rekha Sharma) who snarls, “We’re unloading all kinds of garbage today – even Star Fleet’s  first mutineer.” Though she’s a brooding and largely silent presence for much of the rest of the ep, she establishes herself as a brilliant character and one we’re no doubt going to love butting heads with Michael.

There are familiar faces, too, including a fleeting glimpse of Keyla (Emily Coutts), now sporting a brain implant, and Saru (Doug Jones). Most definitely fulfilling the Spock/Data role on Discovery, he’s a wonderful creation; placid, polite but pathologically pessimistic, he’s like a lanky, alien-version Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh. His relationship with Michael is already complex. While he considers her “the smartest Star Fleet officer” he’s ever known, now that he’s Number 1, he intends “to do a better job of protecting my captain than you did yours.”

Three more new characters complete the roster of discovery’s central cast, and all are fantastic in very different ways. Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is Michael’s well-meaning but hyper-nervous cabin-mate,  while Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is an arrogant scientist who openly hates having to focus his talents on the war effort, and also quickly becomes jealous of Michael’s superior intellect. How he’ll feel that she’s joining the crew we are yet to see – but chances are he won’t exactly be breaking out the party poppers.

And last, but – oh, boy – not least, is Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). As different from Kirk, Picard, Janeway or the other guy, he’s the embodiment of his times: in six months Star Fleet has gone from “we never shoot first” to creating bio-weapons that, as Michael points out, are against the “Geneva Protocols of 1928 and 2155”. Lorca shrugs. This is war and he’s “been given the discretion to fight this war any way I see fit”. Which, of course, includes making Michael a member of his crew.

In amongst all this character-work, the writers also manage to fit in a brilliant thrill-ride as Michael joins the away team to board the stricken USS Glen. Yes, it’s reminiscent of Alien and, more recently, one of the major plotlines on The Expanse, but Discovery really owns it. It’s scary and, with the twisted and malformed bodies of the Glen’s crew, quite possibly the most horrific scenes Trek has ever seen. Have there been any complaints yet?

Michael’s recitation of Alice In Wonderland was a wonderful and surreal touch during her tense scramble through the ship’s conduits, given extra pathos by the revelation that her foster mother used to read it to her. That she was given a name – Amanda – surely means she’s going to play a part in future episodes.

So, another nigh-on flawless episode, and one which kicks us into the story proper. The new propulsion system is intriguing – if it can transport us in the blink of an eye to spy on distant worlds, can it also flash us back in time? Will Michael find herself face-to-face with her dead parents? Big, big questions that are somewhat put on the backburner by the fact that Captain Lorca has the hideous bio-weapon monster beamed on board his ship. That surely can’t end well. And Kirk thought he had trouble with tribbles…

This review was first published on the website Vodzilla in 2017. To read it there, together with many more of my reviews, click here