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Star Trek: Discovery, explained

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Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham
Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

After more than a decade, Star Trek is returning to the format of serialized television — and it’s been a long wait. Star Trek: Discovery was announced a full two years ago, in late 2015, and has suffered through showrunner splits and multiple delays since.

And as the series heads into its premiere this weekend, it stands to do some things that Star Trek has never done before — even as it tries to win over one of the oldest modern fandoms. So here’s everything you need to know about this Sunday’s piece of television history.

Where to watch Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery will premiere on CBS on Sept. 24 at 8:30pm EST. But watching it isn’t as easy as tuning in for its predecessors. Instead of airing the series on television, CBS is using it to draw viewers to CBS All Access.

CBS All Access is CBS’s subscription-based streaming service. Only the first episode of ST:D will air on broadcast CBS. As far as we know, the rest of the 15-episode series will only be available on All Access. The first two episodes will go live on Sept. 24 to coincide with the premiere.

How to get CBS All Access

CBSAA has two different plans, each of which come in a monthly or yearly subscription. The app, available on a number of devices, offers access to “9000 plus” episodes of television from CBS’ library, live streaming of your local CBS affiliate and access to All Access original programming, like Star Trek: Discovery.

The Limited Commercials plan has “reduced commercial interruptions.” The Commercial Free plan has “no commercial interruptions,” except for when watching live TV ... and also when some shows just have “promotional interruptions.”

Here’s what it costs

Plan Type Montly Yearly
Plan Type Montly Yearly
Limited Commercials $5.99 plus tax $59.99 (with a 7-day Free Trial)
Commercial Free $9.99 plus tax $99.99 (with a 2-day Free Trial)
Yearly plans are about 16 percent cheaper than 12 months of a monthly plan. Information from CBS All Access FAQ, Sept. 15, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery’s 15 episodes will air in two blocks, with the first eight finishing in November 2017 and the final seven starting up in January 2018. So, if you want to catch the whole series in a legal way, you’re probably going to be paying for at least five months of CBS All Access.

Where is Star Trek: Discovery on the timeline? What is it about?

Alright, let’s get back to space. Star Trek: Discovery will follow the adventures of the crew of the USS Discovery. Set ten years before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series, it will heavily involve the Klingon Empire, as a leader called T’Kuvma seeks to unite the fractious Klingon houses by provoking war with the United Federation of Planets.

<br><br>Bryan Fuller in the Enterprise’s captain’s chair, from the Star Trek franchise
Bryan Fuller at the Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage 50th Anniversary Tour.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Unlike most Star Trek series before it, Discovery eschews the episodic format to tell a single story. “The relationships [between characters] get richer and deeper; there are surprises, there are turns, there are secret agendas and reveals,” Jason Isaacs explained at San Diego Comic-Con.

Ex-showrunner Bryan Fuller’s initial idea for the series was an anthology — successive seasons would have jumped forward in time through the major eras of Star Trek, and told a different story about a different crew each time.

“The original pitch was to do for science fiction what ‘American Horror Story’ had done for horror,” Fuller told Entertainment Weekly.

It seems like ideas for further seasons split the difference — the theme of the season will be very different, but it won’t have an entirely new cast of characters. But whether the show gets a second season at all depends, first, on the success of its first.

Who is the cast of Star Trek: Discovery?

Our main character is first officer Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green (her character follows a long line of Bryan Fuller protagonists who are women with traditionally male names). Unusually, for a human, she was raised on Vulcan — by none other than Sarek, the father of Spock. At San Diego Comic-Con, executive producer Alex Kurtzman said that this potential discrepancy — Why didn’t Spock ever mention that he had a human foster sister? — will be explained in the series.

Her character is often referred to as “Number One,” in tribute to Majel Barrett’s character of the same name from the pilot of Star Trek: The Original Series. At the start of Discovery, at least, Burnham serves under Michele Yeoh’s captain Philippa Georgiou on the USS Shenzhou, with whom she shares a strong connection of mentorship.

But it’s clear that at some point Michael finds herself aboard the USS Discovery, captained by Gabriel Lorca, who is played by Jason Isaacs. Isaacs describes his character as “probably more fucked up than any [previous Star Trek captain].” Other crewmembers of the Discovery include Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a Science Officer specializing in fungi and Star Trek’s first openly gay character; Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a former prisoner of war still recovering from trauma as he resumes his service; and Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones), the first Kelpien to join Starfleet.

Doug Jones as Saru, in Star Trek: Discovery
Lieutenant Saru, a Kelpien.
Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive

Every Star Trek series worth its salt has a character who struggles with what it means to be fundamentally different from their crewmates, and it seems that Saru may be that character for Discovery. Kelpiens evolved as a prey species, and have an uncanny ability to “sense the coming of death.” Jones has said producers told him Saru is “the Spock of the series, he’s the Data of the series.”

But let’s talk about the other side of Discovery’s core conflict: the Klingons. Chris Obi’s T’Kuvma serves as the central antagonist, a Klingon leader whose people deliberately live according to an ancient, more restrictive code than their peers. T’Kuvma calls himself the second coming of Khaless, the first emperor of the Klingon Empire and founder of the codes of honor, law and tradition that bind modern Klingon culture.

T’Kuvma’s second command is Kol, of the house of Kor. At a Star Trek Las Vegas actors panel, Kenneth Mitchell, who plays Kol, told audiences that the Klingon characters of Discovery are at least partially defined by the conflicts — and differences — between the 24 Klingon houses.

Chris Obi as T'Kuvma in Star Trek: Discovery
Chris Obi as the radical Klingon leader, T'Kuvma.
James Dimmock/CBS Interactive

“The images that you have seen so far are one house led by T’Kumva,” Mitchell explained. “Today you just saw the first image of [Kol]. So even in the wardrobe it is starting to venture to the more traditional Klingons. More leather and a different set of armor. And the series itself is going to explore 24 different houses and the leaders among them. And you will find different complexities and different ideologies amongst those houses.”

Kol is T’Kuvma’s protege and commanding officer, and his house, Kor, is one that will be familiar to long-time fans. Kor was the first Klingon character ever to appear in Star Trek, in the Original Series episode “Errand of Mercy.” L’Rell, played by Mary Chieffo, is commander of T’Kuvma’s battle deck, and Chieffo has said that she follows in the narrative footsteps of characters like Deep Space 9’s Grilka; a Klingon woman realizing her ambitions in a patriarchal society.

And last, but not least, Star Trek Discovery will feature Harry Mudd, as played by Rainn Wilson, one of Star Trek: The Original Series’ more infamous recurring characters. An interstellar con artist, the crew of the Enterprise encountered Mudd three times during the original series. Eventually, after he was found selling dubious love potions, he was sentenced to criminal rehabilitation. Wilson has said that this ten-years-younger Mudd is a bit more “dastardly” than we’ve seen, but that he’s being brought to life with “as much drama and comedy as possible.”

What’s up with Star Trek: Discovery’s Klingons? Why do they look different?

Mary Chieffo as L'Rell in Star Trek: Discovery
Mary Chieffo as the Klingon L'Rell.
James Dimmock/CBS Interactive

The look of Star Trek: Discovery’s Klingons is a combination of two factors — one, a longstanding part of Star Trek canon, the other, something original to the series.

“It’s a 200-year-old ship,” executive producer Ted Sullivan says of T’Kuvma’s vessel. “This is a group of Klingons who’ve gone back to a puritan way of life. They look very different: they wear armor that’s 200 years old and they don’t have any hair.”

But Star Trek has a long history of drastically changing the look of the Klingon race — and its own in-universe explanation for the realities of ever-evolving world of stage makeup and facial prosthetics. In the original series, Klingons were relatively similar in appearance to humans. They tended to wear more facial hair and have thicker hair overall, as well as darkened skin — but they were significantly redesigned for their small appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with distinctive armor, jagged teeth and their now characteristic cranial ridge.

Later films and shows continued this redesign, and even depicted ancient Klingons with forehead ridges as well. So what the heck happened to the Klingons of that Original Series era? “We do not discuss it with outsiders,” was Commander Worf’s infamous explanation in Deep Space 9’s time travel episode “Trials and Tribble-ations.”

The answer eventually came in the course of the prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise. What happened to Klingons in the era of the Original Series was the Klingon Augment virus, product of a genetic arms race between the Klingon Empire and Federation scientists that went horribly wrong. Klingon scientists accidentally created a strain of flu that altered Klingon DNA with human characteristics, smoothing forehead ridges and changing the basics of a victim’s personality before leading to neural death.

Unable to undo the effects of the virus, scientists were merely able to stabilize victims — preventing them from dying — and stabilize the virus — preventing it from becoming contagious. But before their measures could be implemented, millions of Klingons had been infected and altered. And since their very DNA had been changed, those millions of Klingons were capable of passing the smooth-headed trait to their offspring.

Despite facing prejudice related to their genetic and physical disfigurement, smooth-faced Klingons often rose to prominence in the Empire afterward — both their ambition and their philosophical divergence from the rest of the Klingon population was blamed, by some, on their genetic differences. And so, in the era of the Original Series, most Klingons the Enterprise encountered had smooth foreheads.

By the time of the 24th century, the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a cure for the effects of the Augment virus had been found, and the smooth-headed trait in Klingon society had been effectively wiped out.

And that’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about Klingons and Star Trek retcons.

How did Star Trek: Discovery get made?

Like all good generational multi-media franchises these days, the story of Star Trek: Discovery begins with a corporate restructuring. In 2005, Viacom made a series of decisions that all but reversed the company’s merger with CBS in 1999, creating two new companies: CBS Corporation, and Viacom. Viacom, as the owner of Paramount Pictures, owns the film licenses to Star Trek, and produces the Pine/Quinto-starring films. CBS Corporation’s CBS Television Studios has the rights to produce Star Trek television.

And, due to an agreement made with Viacom at the time of the split, January 2017 was the earliest that CBS would legally be able to air a new Star Trek television series. Star Trek: Discovery was announced in late 2015, and in January 2016, it was revealed that Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods, Pushing Daisies) was coming aboard to write and run the series.

Fuller cut his teeth as a television writer working on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Voyager, and this was generally regarded as good news among the fandom. Shortly after, more veterans of Star Trek productions joined the fold, including Nicholas Meyer and Rod Roddenberry, son of Gene Roddenberry. Fuller was publicly committed to pushing Star Trek’s history of groundbreaking achievements in diversity in television forward, confirming early that the show was seeking a female lead, and would include an openly gay character in a major role.

What followed that was delays and friction between Fuller and CBS executives, who were disappointed with the pace of production and the expense of the series and felt that that Fuller was spending too much time on American Gods, another new series he is currently showrunning for Starz. From January 2017, the premiere was pushed to May. Eventually, Fuller stepped away from the show entirely, though it’s difficult to know whether significant changes were made after his departure.

“So much of what’s there,” producer Alex Kurtzman maintains, “in terms of story and certainly in terms of set-up, character, big ideas, the big movement of the season, that’s all stuff that Bryan and I talked about.”

Is Star Trek: Discovery good?

Nobody knows yet. CBS has not released screeners to press. As soon as we know, we’ll be sure to let you know.