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Star Trek: Discovery – series takes the human-Vulcan balance to a new level

Discovery takes place 10 years before the events of the original series, and includes a fully human orphan who was brought up by Vulcans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 10:02am

Star Trek: Discovery boldly goes where no Trek has gone before with two firsts for First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). She is the first lead character who is a black woman and the first lead who is not the captain of the ship.

The latest offering in the legendary franchise, streaming on Netflix in Hong Kong from September 25) – set 10 years before the events of the original series on the eve of war with the Klingons – also roots itself deeply in Trek history. Burnham grew up as the ward of Mr Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek (James Frain), who was introduced 50 years ago in the original NBC series.

“It is a big connection. Sarek and Spock are institutions in the Star Trek canon. And, so, I’ve been grafted into this family and story in such a courageous yet respectful, gentle way,” says Martin-Green, who anticipates some head-scratching from the fans. “The fact that you’ve never heard Sarek or Spock mention Michael Burnham is something we will be making sense of.”

The 15-episode Discovery, the sixth live-action Trek series and the first since Enterprise ended in 2005, is a splashy, pricey attempt to attract subscribers to CBS’s fledgling streaming service and international audiences seeking action-adventure fare. There’s no guarantee, as interest beyond the core fan base ebbs and flows, and 2016’s Star Trek Beyond had the lowest box office results of the three most-recent films.

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Discovery takes a new look at the mix of Vulcan and human identities. Spock is the child of Sarek and his human wife, Amanda, but Burnham is a nature/nurture mix, a human child raised on Vulcan after her parents were killed in a Klingon attack at a site under Vulcan protection.

Burnham has had academic success on Vulcan – she may know something about the famous neck pinch – and she rose in Starfleet to second-in-command on the USS Shenzhou. But the human tendency toward emotion and the legendary Vulcan self-discipline can be in conflict, says Martin-Green (The Walking Dead), whose favourite Star Trek episode is Sarek’s first, 1967’s Journey to Babel.

“The Vulcan way of life is strict. Being indoctrinated was difficult, more difficult for [Michael] than it was for Spock, because he is half-Vulcan,” she says. “Being a human, you can see these two species warring within me.”

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Sarek has special insight into the human child, seen in flashback, and the adult Starfleet officer, whom he advises, says executive producer Alex Kurtzman.

“As a Vulcan married to a human woman and an ambassador, he has a unique place in understanding the bridge between humanity and the aliens that very much plays a part in his relationship with Burnham,” he says.

Frain is “having fun shaping the early version of Sarek, trying to be consistent without doing an imitation” of Mark Lenard, who originally played the role.

He thinks viewers will relate to Discovery’s unusual father-daughter pairing. “He’s a loving and present figure, but he’s also distant and emotionally unavailable. That’s something that’s of our time, but he’s trying to teach her the value of that. He has a tremendous affection for her,” Frain says.

Nevertheless, he warns, the unusual family ties are “going to become a problem as we go on – the Spock relationship, the Michael relationship, the triangle of that – but we don’t really get into that yet.”

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More immediately, Burnham feels the pressure of having such an exacting parent, says executive producer Aaron Harberts. “Michael is Sarek’s greatest hope for the human race. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a human girl.”

Martin-Green sees the Sarek connection as one of many intriguing and sometimes conflicting ingredients that lead Burnham to her own trek of lower-case discovery.

“Being a fully human woman who is indoctrinated with the Vulcan philosophy and way of life and who now [is in] Starfleet ... there’s quite an identity crisis going on,” Martin-Green says. “Who am I going to be?”