“The Vulcan Goodbye” / “Battle at the Binary Stars”
Star Trek: Discovery – Episodes 1 & 2
Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek series since Enterprise was unceremoniously cancelled, represents the next evolution of the property. In the intervening 12 years (!) between the two shows, the landscape of not only the franchise but all of pop culture underwent a seismic shift. For one, the rise of streaming services has placed Star Trek outside the bounds of regular ol’ TV. A rebooted film series filled the gap and primed audiences for a new take on the very long-running franchise. And about a million other things happened in pop culture outside of Star Trek one could devote an in-depth essay to. Suffice it to say, the world is very different now than it was in 2005, and Discovery feels just as strange, new, and different.
The tonal and sytlistic whiplash one would experience going from Enterprise to Discovery is tremendous, but when taken in context with the “Kelvin-timeline” films it makes a lot more sense. Visually, Discovery apes the dynamic and at times frantic style of the newer films. The increased budget and leap forward in SFX are apparent, and it’s definitely the best (and most expensive) looking Trek series to date. I can’t say I’m a fan of this updated aesthetic – there’s a fine line between dynamism and clarity, and I think the movies and Discovery put too much stock in the former while sacrificing the latter. The swooping cinematography, quick cuts, and dramatic, shadowy lighting make for some interesting visuals but feel dialed up to 11 intensity and can be a little exhausting. Oh, and the lens flares. *rubs temples*
One stark difference that illustrates this aesthetic philosophy is a brief shot of the Shenzhou at warp. Streaks of light oscillate like bolts of lightning and the entire frame wobbles almost violently as the darkly-lit ship careens forward towards a blinding light. Compare this to the leisurely and serene streaks of light that lazily slipped by in the background that were familiar throughout the Next Generation to Enterprise era. I don’t think either approach is objectively better or more sensical – perhaps flying through space at many times the speed of light should look like a visually dynamic and even borderline frightening experience (it is called “warp,” after all, and Discovery does communicate that). I just thought it was an interesting contrast that speaks to the new approach of this series and which is carried throughout the episodes in all aspects. The Star Trek of the aughts is a more action-packed and energetic affair, a familiar sci-fi property mixed with a Mtn. Dew EXTREME sensibility. It’s definitely not your grandpa’s franchise (look at me, I’m your grandpa now).
What’s also interesting about “Hello” and “Battle” is how restrained and focused they are from a story perspective as compared to other Trek premieres. Up until now, every Trek premiere had been a two-hour episode/TV movie that laid out the premise with a painstakingly (and often awkward) introduction to all the main players. They each felt like large kickoff events, whereas Discovery’s premiere has a more compact and no-frills approach to its story and characters. Interestingly, it bucks the trend of introducing us to the senior Starfleet staff – outside of Commander Burnham, Captain Georgiou, and Science Officer Saru, none of the bridge crew are emphasized or named in any explicit way (not to mention that one of these main people is dead by the end of the second episode!). Not only that, but almost half of the run time is dedicated to the Klingon antagonists (most notably their leader T’Kuvma and an albino named Voq – and one of these dudes also ends up dead).
Again, it’s not better or worse, but it is different and definitely bucks the trend set forth by Trek premieres. Pilots can be a little interminable because of the necessary building blocks being stacked in front of us. Discovery‘s first two entries feel less like a pilot/instruction manual, which I appreciate. The newer trend of serialness in shows makes for a more decompressed style of storytelling. I’m sure at some point some of these players’ identities and backstories will be filled in (or not, who knows).
Michael Burnham feels more like the main character of the show than any other in a Trek series we’ve seen before. It’s a new approach and I’m curious to see how it shakes out as the series progresses. She’s a capable actor, but I don’t think the material serves her well. I can’t help but think of The Walking Dead, one of the last TV shows I kept up with before finally giving up – and not just because Martin-Greene she also featured in it. TWD was an adequately entertaining and well-produced show but was frequently frustrating and ultimately forgettable because of its complete lack of consistent characterization. It was all style with almost no substance, and barely-sketched characters came and went constantly (and often violently).
I bring this up because I sense some of the same tendencies in Discovery, and perhaps this is just the predominant style in shows now? Even at the end of the second episode, it feels like we barely know Burnham or her story. That goes double (or triple) for any other character. There’s a lot that’s intimated, but overall it seems pretty nebulous (heh). Bold spectacle and emotional performances don’t quite make up for a lack of material, and dramatic deaths do not suddenly give meaning to thin characters.
The dialogue is… not the greatest. It runs the gamut from OK to blandly cryptic to simply grating. The dynamic between Saru and Burnham that immediately gets hammered in is painfully overwrought in its sardonic antipathy. Perhaps it is an attempt to recreate the classic sniping between Spock and McCoy (not one of my favorite aspects of The Original Series, either), but is inelegant and grating as hell – I had to pause the episode at one point and take a deep breath. Like, could you two just chill? How long have you worked together? Are you at each others’ throats like this all the time, as if competing for the captain’s love? Oof.
Jones is a good choice as Saru and his physicality brings a truly alien quality to Saru. Yeoh is good as Georgiou, but as said, it feels like we only get a hint of who she is as a character before her untimely end. The inclusion of Sarek is an interesting choice, as is his intertwined history with Burnham. The actor doesn’t have a modicum of the gravitas that Mark Lenard did, and his presence doesn’t really add anything here beyond a continuity callback. The other main characters are of course… the Klingons.
The Klingons. Hoo boy.
So despite not having watched Discovery until very recently, I had of course already seen the… wild creative liberties taken with this familiar Trek alien race. And although I’ve had years to digest it, I can’t say that anything about the depiction of the Klingons here sits right with me. Like with everything else in the episode, Discovery seems gleefully willing to reimagine foundational aspects of the Trek mythos for its own purposes. And I’m well aware of the irony of criticizing yet another retcon of the Klingons, who have been retconned so many times over the years already.
But holy shit, it’s just so weird here.
I’ll give begrudging respect to the effort expended to make the Klingons look suitably alien, even monstrous. You can draw an evolutionary line from the (unfortunately) bronzed and slightly hairy actors from The Original Series, to the upgraded Motion Picture versions, all the way to the fearsome orc-looking motherfuckers here. It all tracks, sure.
But they’re just so unpleasant to behold here, and (re-)introducing them as antagonists feels like a regressive, backwards step. It’s certainly consistent with the likes of TOS, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, in which Klingons were recurring foes. And I know that with the continuity of the series (slightly before The Original Series), the Klingons have to be enemies of the Federation.
(Which of course begs the question of whether Discovery needed to be another prequel series in the first place – given the rocky prospects of prequels (ahem, Star Wars), and especially after Trek’s previous prequel series hit the skids and pretty much tanked that entire era of the franchise.)
So it all makes sense on paper. But I just have absolutely no enthusiasm about getting to know the Klingons of another era yet again and seeing our heroes struggle against this foe once more. I feel like emphasizing their monstrousness runs counter to what Star Trek is all about, and their depiction here makes them about as inhuman and unsympathetic as possible. Aside from a few lines, they speak in stilted Klingonese the entire damn time (the most I’ve ever heard in a Trek entry), and the actors seem to audibly struggle with not only the language but the misshapen snaggly prosthetic teeth that fill their mouths. The makeup is generally hideous and barely consistent with what we’ve seen before (what happened to their haaaaiiiiirrrrr?). The costuming and sets are colossally ornate, but to an insane and ridiculously distracting degree. Their garb and ship interior almost hurt my eyes to behold – and the actors seem similarly stiff and uncomfortable. Which may or may not be the intention, so bonus points I guess.
So overall, ugh. The Big Bad Klingons was the last thing I wanted to see, but here we are. And like the Starfleet characters, despite the amount of time we spend with T’Kuvma and Voq, we barely get a sense of their personalities or motivations. T’Kuvma clearly has a stick up his ass where humanity is concerned and is trying to unite his people against what he sees as a huge threat (as told by a prophecy?) while trying to fulfill some birthright thingie related to his father. And Voq is an albino outcast (because of course he is) who is out to prove… something. But beyond these very rough character sketches, there is no further insight or appeal. And T’Kuvma is dead by the second episode, so barring any flashbacks, that’s it for him! It seems like an odd choice to kill him off, given that this campaign he’s kicked off will no doubt be an ongoing storyline. If he’s not around to care about it, why should we?
The questionable story choices don’t end there, and the conflict with the Klingons sets into motion a bizarre and shocking turn of events surrounding Burnham. Her family having apparently been killed by Klingons, she understandably has a fear and mistrust of them (plus one attacks her and she accidentally kills him while she’s exploring a mysterious object in space). In an unintentionally funny scene she contacts Sarek right in the middle of an emergency situation (he just happens to immediately pick up the call and proceeds to sit and have a leisurely chat with her like there’s not a war about to break out at any second, it’s so jarring and ridiculous).
ANYWAY, he explains that the Vulcans’ technique for dealing with Klingons is always to attack first (the titular “Vulcan Hello”), as anything less than a full assault is a sign of weakness and will not engender any respect from these fuckos (I appreciate the elasticity of the Vulcans’ logic on this, and it makes them seem actually smart and adaptable). Burnham brings this suggestion to Georgiou, who of course immediately rejects it as it goes against everything Starfleet stands for. It’s a decent story choice, because we can appreciate how offensive a notion this would be for a Starfleet officer.
How it proceeds from there is absolutely fucking nuts, though. After displaying insubordination in front of the crew, Georgiou hauls Burnham into private to discipline her, only for Burnham to attack her to incapacitate her, stroll onto the bridge to take command and lie about what just happened to a suspicious Saru, only to be stopped by an apparently not incapacitated Georgiou holding a phaser on her.
What the fuck?! Definitely not your grandpa’s Star Trek! To be fair, the episodes follow this mutinous behavior with an appropriate response – Burnham is locked up in the brig and eventually stripped of her rank and imprisoned. Her justification mostly seems to be that she was trying to protect Georgiou from getting killed. And to stop a war. But mostly the first thing? It’s an oddly emotional justification for someone who was raised and trained by Vulcans – when she first boards the Shenzhou seven years prior Burnham seems Very Vulcan (my favorite flavor of Trek-themed wine spritzer). To keep repeating myself, it just seems hard to get a bearing on her character. The act of mutiny is one of those things that Trek pulls out only when absolutely necessary, like when a butthead admiral is being a butthead, or the captain is an alien imposter acting like a butthead (say butthead one more time, butthead). So for Discovery to reach for that dramatic top shelf in its first outing with characters that have barely been established seems like a hasty and cheap choice.
It becomes mostly moot when the Klingons attack in full force and overwhelm Starfleet’s reinforcements. Like with the silly Sarek scene, the episodes have this weird pacing issue where the battles are really intense and fast-paced, but also there is time to have long conversations and hatch complicated plans as the plot requires? In “Battle,” the Starfleet and Klingon ships blast each other until they just… kinda stop. The other Klingon ships withdraw (for some reason), leaving only T’Kuvma’s who starts to vaccuum up all his fellow Klingon corpses to adorn his ship’s hull as is apparently their custom? (It’s such a ridiculously metal detail that I can’t fault it too much) During this apparent lull in the hostilities, the Shenzhou crew has time to prepare all these antimatter warheads and hide them among the bodies so that they blow up T’Kuvma’s ship real good. It’s clever, but it also unfolds in kind of a weird and inorganic way.
Anyway, there’s a boarding party (no hard feeling for Burnham, I guess), during which Georgiou and T’Kuvma both eat it. Happy trails, redshirts? After a conspicuous time jump, Burnham stands accused in front of Starfleet upon which she gets sent to jail for a million years. The End!
It’s certainly a daring way to begin the series. Star Trek has had its share of disgraced heroes – TNG’s Ro Laren being one of the first, notable ones. Chris Pine’s version of Kirk also started off in a similar-ish fashion (before inexplicably becoming captain at the end of the first film, oy). And who could forget the Maquis (aside from everyone who has tried to)? I know that Burnham will of course worm her way back into the ranks of Starfleet (and even captaincy eventually), so it remains to be seen how that will happen. Will that journey properly interrogate and deal with her sins here? We shall see, although I have my doubts.
Star Trek: Discovery certainly restarts Trek’s TV presence with a bang. For better and for worse, it is a Trek series for the modern age. Judging a series on its premiere is pretty pointless, as we’ve seen some very shaky starts to what would end up being stellar shows. Discovery’s was by far the most slick, visually impressive, and cinematic Trek premiere yet. What it’s trying to say about its characters or the classic themes of Trek aren’t quite clear yet, but I suppose that’s what discovery is all about.
- Any sort of visual consistency with the TOS era is virtually nonexistent, unlike what had been done in TNG and Enterprise’s awesome mirror universe two-parter. Look, I know that expecting a 2017 show to recreate the cheap-looking retro sets of a show from 50 years prior is huge, impossible ask. But I feel like there was some sort middle ground they could have struck between that and this. Aesthetically, Discovery looks mostly like the recent films with a little bit of Enterprise sprinkled in. The bridge and sets of the Shenzhou look more advanced and futuristic than the Enterprise-D or Voyager (and follow the films’ puzzling decision for the viewscreens to be big windows). The uniforms don’t conform to the existing design lineage at all. Not only that, but the traditional viewscreen communication is completely eschewed in favor of the kind of advanced holographic interfaces that would become a new-ish novelty by the time of Deep Space Nine (over a century later). Sigh.
Am I a joyless nerd for this bothering me? Probably. Is any of it that integral to the plot? Not really. Am I going to ask myself more questions and answer them? Perhaps. From what I know of the tech that is introduced in Discovery, there’s plenty more that will make the eyes of continuity sticklers like me twitch, and I guess I’ll see if it’s something I can set aside or not. A strong and entertaining enough story trumps any minor continuity violations, but there is a tipping point where ignoring the important worldbuilding details does detract from a show’s/film’s appeal.
- So… what was the Klingon object thingie? In all the hustle and bustle of the action, some of the specific plot points get lost. It seems another example of spectacle obscuring the clarity of the story.
- A lot of the visuals are cool, and I especially liked the evocative visual of T’Kuvma’s ship resting on the ground. The scenes of Burnham’s space walk are also thrilling and scary.