‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is Doing Something Cool With Its Captains

Chris Tilly
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Warning – SPOILERS for Star Trek: Discovery Follow…

We’re now four episodes into Star Trek: Discovery, and thus far it’s boldly going where no Star Trek series has gone before. In terms of structure, story and characterisation this is uncharted territory. Especially in terms of what the show is doing with multiple captains and a very unusual protagonist. So read on as FANDOM endeavours to unpack the unique and wholly original way in which Star Trek: Discovery has kicked off.

The Structure of Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery begins in unusual fashion; with a pair of episodes that serve as a prologue rather than the start of the series proper. Proceedings commence on the USS Shenzhou, with Philippa Georgiou — played by Michelle Yeoh — the Commanding Officer, and Michael Burnham — played by Sonequa Martin-Green — her First Officer.

It’s the first time two women from diverse backgrounds have been in charge of a Starfleet ship, but aside from that, their relationship is pretty straightforward. They’ve worked together for seven years and there’s something of a mother-daughter dynamic between the pair. Yet while they have huge respect for each other, Burnham frequently second-guesses and challenges Georgiou’s authority, injecting tension into the relationship.

But this is all misdirection, lulling us into a false sense of security regarding where the show is heading. Because at the end of the second episode, Burnham’s actions result in the death of her mentor at the hands of the Klingons. “That’s sort of the engine for the series,” executive producer Akiva Goldsman told Variety. “In One and Two we’re sort of launching the show; then the show lands, really begins its journey, in Three. And you can see that everything really is a result of Burnham’s decision at the end of Two to do what she does.”

The Death of Captain Georgiou

Captain Phillipa Georgiou, moments before disaster strikes.

Georgiou’s surprise death is the inciting incident that informs everything that follows in Star Trek: Discovery. In terms of story, it results in Michael Burnham being arrested, charged with mutiny, and pretty much blamed for starting the war with the Klingons. Six months into her sentence, an emergency during her prison transfer results in Burnham being rescued by the USS Discovery, and beamed into a wholly different situation.

It’s a classic bait-and-switch, which at times feels somewhat contrived. But the shift in focus also allows the show to explore the psychological impact of Georgiou’s death on Burnham, and turns Discovery into a story of atonement and redemption.

“We’re not doing this as a gimmick,” Goldsman told Deadline. “The fundamental question that Burnham will be asking is: ‘If I behaved differently, would my best friend and surrogate mother still be alive and would this war with the Klingons be happening or not?’ Now we’ll never answer those questions, but the series will be about Burnham understanding the consequences of her actions.”

Viewing Events Through Michael Burnham’s Eyes

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham.

In all previous Star Trek shows, the Captain has been the central character. But in Discovery, it’s Michael Burnham, a complicated character whose parents were killed by the Klingons, and who was brought up by Vulcans.

Georgiou tells Burnham she’ll get her own command at the start of the first episode. But that doesn’t come to pass. And so our lead is suddenly a deeply troubled officer, with no rank, who is desperate to end the war that she helped start.

Martin-Green believes that is what will set Discovery apart from previous shows. “It is quite a journey,” she told StarTrek.com. “And I think part of what is going to allow for more engagement than shows in the past is that you are entering this world through the eyes of a first officer who has this aspiration to be greater, and to be more, and to be captain, of course.

“And so, you get to see me on that journey, but you get to see all of the pitfalls, and you get to see the turmoil, and you get to see the failures. You get to see the mistakes. You get to see the triumphs. I think that it is an incredible journey, and I think the writing is truly courageous in that way.”

Which makes the new Star Trek less about discovering new aliens and planets, and more about Michael Burnham discovering exactly who she is.

Introducing Captain Gabriel Lorca

When we reach the USS Discovery, Star Trek throws a new Commanding Officer into the mix in the shape of Gabriel Lorca. As played by Jason Isaacs — he of Harry Potter fame — Lorca is quite unlike any captain in Star Trek history.

For a start, he doesn’t sit in his captain’s chair. A man of action, he paces the bridge of his science vessel, desperate for battle. “I’ve seen too many scenes with people sitting in the chair and we’re at war and there are missiles being fired,” Isaacs told E News. “I went right down to the front by the screen and I looked up at it, and I engaged with it like the missiles were instruments in my orchestra. I stood and I conducted the war. That became a template for me for a number of episodes because I felt like he’s a very active guy. This guy doesn’t like to stand still, he likes to be doing stuff, he’d like to be fighting hand-to-hand.”

He’s also a man of mystery, with secret rooms, hidden agendas, and ulterior motives. Add to that the fact that he’s a master manipulator, and it’s hard to get a handle on where Lorca is coming from. Particularly when it comes to Michael Burnham.

When asked why Lorca recruits Burnham, Isaac told ET: “This is an unbelievably able woman who, at the right moment, saw what war required. She might have been punished for it, she might have been a mutineer, there might have been tears and the war was started, but she made a really smart and sound decision. She understood the enemy and she knew what needed to be done and, in fact, she’s prepared to break all the rules and do it.

“If I’m getting ready to get this thing done, if I’m in any way going to give ourselves the competitive advantage in this war and try to kill our enemies before they kill us, I need people around me who are likely to be able to make those kinds of decisions and who will be loyal to me, more than the Federation, should it ever come to it. She’s a good call on my part, I need to recruit someone like her and more people like her. The only thing is, once I meet her, she’s so obviously crippled with guilt with what she’s done with the loss of her original captain, it’s going to take a lot of work to get her back to the formidable, ruthless fighting force that she was some time ago.”

So that’s where we are at the end of Episode 4. We’ve got one dead captain. A protagonist — without rank — who is wracked with guilt and shame. And a new captain that it’s hard to trust. Which kicks off new Star Trek in thrilling fashion. And sets up a fascinating dynamic that we can’t wait to see further explored as Discovery continues.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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