In late 2018, Star Trek Discovery debuted on CBS All Access as a series of many firsts. The first Star Trek TV show in over 13 years, as Star Trek Enterprise concluded in the spring of 2005. The first major show on CBS All Access and the first Star Trek presented as a streaming-only show (with Netflix handling distribution outside the US). The first Star Trek aimed at adult audiences, including several instances of mature language.
From a cinematographic perspective, Discovery was the first Star Trek show presented natively in full HD 1080p and HDR, making it a bona fide visual showcase. While the series was received well by most, of course many Star Trek purists objected. That’s because Discovery made a lot of changes to the way the Star Trek franchise looks, reflecting more recent developments in technology and pop culture.
As fans of great visuals, we like the end result. From the very first scene, it’s obvious the diverse cast is complemented by diverse environments, moods, sets, and tonal shifts. Viewed on a good HDR-enabled screen, Discovery looks fantastic.
Unlike previous Star Trek shows, Discovery uses a lot of advanced graphics and art rather than outdoors sets. To some that gives the series a “fake” feel, but in our assessment Discovery hands down beats the older style of Star Trek shows. While great, Discovery’s predecessors usually limited themselves to indoor spaceship/space station sets and one or two external locales in the Los Angeles area that repeated so often they became somewhat of a joke.
Discovery showrunners Bryan Fuller and later Alex Kurtzman fully embraced the latest technology, incorporating elements from the J.J Abrams Star Trek movies as well as influences from other media types, most notably video games. So with Discovery we get lots of lens flare, which looks fantastic in HDR. And plenty of different biomes. No longer do all planets look like Laurel Canyon or somewhere outside Palm Springs. The galaxy of Discovery has plenty of color and diversity.
This extends to the cast, lead by Sonequa Martin-Green as Starfleet officer Michael Burnham. Burnham comes across as one of the most interesting main characters in Trek history, and has a fascinating backstory that lends itself well to experimental photography.
Martin-Green has heaps of talent and one of the most expressive faces in the industry. She plays Burnham with plentiful humor, emotion, and determination, and feels at ease with the high tech look of Discovery.
That technological advancement was one of the main things that rubbed many fans the wrong way. While Discovery is a prequel to the original Star Trek show from the 1960s, obviously it is being made in the 2010s and 2020s with vastly better tech. The show’s creators didn’t want a retro look, but a grittier, more lived in and believable visage for their version of the 23rd century. As a result, we behold actual spacesuits in space with amazing backdrops and effects.
Ditto for ship designs. Whereas previous Trek shows relied either on practical models or OK-ish graphics for later outings such as Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, Discovery pulls all the stops. We get to see the titular USS Discovery in glorious HDR and full HD in the most impressive show of Star Trek vibrance outside of the Abrams movies. Discovery adds more firsts to its list of innovations by going with a bold, sharp, and memorable look for its main star, the ship that gives the show its name.
We said the cast is very diverse, and joining Martin-Green are Michelle Yeoh as Burnham’s mentor and initial captain. We first meet the two on a mission in a desert environment that stands in clear contrast to later ship-board scenes. Discovery doesn’t wait very long to reveal and revel in its diversity. From yellowish deserts to lush green and almost sterile blue, we get the whole package in striking color accuracy, so better watch this on a good projector or monitor.
Another important cast member is Jason Isaacs, who plays the Discovery’s leader, Captain Gabriel Lorca. Interestingly enough, Lorca complains of sensitivity to light due to war injuries, but that doesn’t stop the show from throwing a lot of illumination his way. Still, with Discovery there’s rarely a dull moment nor more than ten minutes in the same color scheme.
J.J Abrams and his love of lens flare have also become a fairly dependable source of jokes, but let’s be honest. Lens flare looks good. Sure, one may overdo lens flare if tempted, but as an HDR demo Discovery shines thanks to taking many cues from the 2009-2016 cinematic Star Trek timeline. Which had lots of lens flare.
As does Discovery! And not only does it enhance the feel of the show, it simply works as a demo for HDR on streaming platforms like Netflix. Interestingly enough, Discovery seasons one and two run in very good quality full HD 1080p with HDR as opposed to highly compressed 4K with HDR. The show’s makers chose this path consciously to reduce compression, deciding on fewer but better pixels. In any case, the results look impressive. Watching Discovery on a non-HDR display misses the point like a photon torpedo with no guidance.
Here’s another topic of contention for Trek fans. Discovery’s writers decided from the get-go to devote a lot of time to non-human characters, most importantly Klingons. The reliable warrior civilization loved so much from decades of Star Trek got a complete makeover. The Klingons in Discovery look very different from any previous representation, with makeup and costumes loaded with so much detail you need a really quality display to take it all in.
Primary among the Klingon characters is L’Rell, a very conflicted individual played marvelously by Mary Chieffo. And while the Klingon visuals are top notch, equally impressive is Discovery’s insistence on fully developing the Klingon language – the show can even be watched with subtitles using Klingon text.
Turning to a much-loved part of Trek lore, Discovery goes to a lot of effort to recreate what fans know as the mirror universe. This parallel dimension is basically the same as the main Star Trek universe but darker and…more evil. We’ve seen the mirror universe in most Star Trek TV shows before, but never like this. While the primary universe has a lot of color and environmental diversity, this rendition of the mirror universe looks like it’s one big dimly-lit whiskey lounge. And we love it.
Everything has a decadent but somehow menacing golden tinge to it in Discovery’s mirror universe, helped once more by sublime acting from Martin-Green and Yeoh. Saying more than that would be venturing too far into spoiler land.
From the 1960s until the late 2010s we’ve had a lot of Star Trek, and thankfully so. Most of the content was great for science fiction lovers and space opera fans with a fondness for complex characters, wacky technology, and political commentary.
And sure, Discovery has all of that, but it’s definitely the first Trek TV show that can win over people with little interest in sci-fi but lots of love for beautiful cinematography. Discovery isn’t just a new Star Trek show, it’s the prettiest Star Trek show ever, and we can’t wait for season 3.