Boldly rebooted: the madness and genius of Star Trek: Discovery

From its first episode, it was plain that Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix, on demand) had no ambition to emulate the somewhat superficially Roger Ramjet-like adventures of previous chapters in television's most voluminous, and narratively dense, franchise.

This was a rich tapestry trying to bring to the screen a science-fiction war story with the same complexity and intensity of seemingly more ambitious projects like Band of Brothers or (the rebooted) Battlestar Galactica.

The result is a little less certain, though not an iota less impressive. Star Trek: Discovery is wilfully clever, though ponderous at times, and deliberately upends many of the traditions - such as captain as the centre of the narrative, and the bridge as the main stage of drama - set by previous Star Trek programs.

Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery.  Photo: Jan Thijs

Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. Photo: Jan Thijs

Discovery's Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is always on the move, rarely sitting in his chair. More of the action takes place below decks where the main character, the disgraced Starfleet officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) works, than on the main bridge.

The series is set a decade or so before the "original series", the retconned production moniker attached to the first Star Trek television program, filmed in the 1960s, and set on Captain Kirk's original USS Enterprise. That show, and its primary colour palette, seems an eternity behind Discovery, which is dark, messy and gorgeously crammed with detail.

And its narrative - a war with the Klingon Empire and an experimental Federation drive system that uses a network of fungus spores to travel anywhere in the universe - seems outlandishly absurd. But that's the magic: coupled with a dead serious delivery it's a brilliant set-up which teases ethical dilemmas which may ultimately undo the project.

The series also gave its audience a tantalising glimpse of one of Star Trek's signature tropes in a scene in which the mirror reflection of Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) seemed to act independently of the man standing before it. You don't need a PhD in warp physics to know what that means.Though it probably helps if you've watched a few classic episodes of Star Trek.

Star Trek: Discovery is a confounding beast. It's made-for-streaming so the whole notion of a storyline which has to survive either a network's taste test or the hyper-commercialised mechanism of drawing a large audience and converting them to network revenue is tossed outside the window.

In its place there is an indulgence in story that is wickedly good: not just bad Michael and Rapp's charismatic but mean Stamets, but also Isaacs' not-quite-good-guy Captain Lorca, Shazad Latif's prisoner of war Ash Tyler and Mary Wiseman's delightful cadet Tilly. Plus a business model that pivots not on how many people are watching, but on how many new subscribers it sends to its US plaform, CBS All Access.

Perhaps the greatest trick in the show's arsenal is its ability to surprise. It has taken a half-dozen episodes to properly get a sense of who the main characters are, as the opening episodes were filled with prequel-esque segues and diversions.

And the narrative, while built on a complex, based-partly-in-truth though not wholly sound piece of mushroom science, is creatively played out within the more familiar framework of the franchise's historic Federation vs Klingon Empire conflict, a mainstay of many previous iterations of Star Trek.

This isn't the Star Trek you know. It's something else entirely. It breaks a lot of rules, but what matters is that even after six decades it is still going boldly.

This story Boldly rebooted: the madness and genius of Star Trek: Discovery first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.