Star Trek: Discovery’s first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” are better understood as a two-part movie introducing the new series. Together, these episodes work well as a prologue both to Commander Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) story and to the story of war with the Klingons that will consume much of the rest of the season, and without living down to any of the direst predictions and worries that fans had about the show during its long and troubled production. It’s a satisfying and encouraging start to the first new Star Trek television series in over a decade, but it’s not without some problems and one possible misstep (and it’s a doozy) that could alienate some of the viewers who ought to be the show’s core target audience.
First off, let’s get out of the way that the show’s production values are top notch. Everything is well-made, from the sets to the costumes to the special effects. The Starfleet uniforms are quite different from any of the others that have appeared in previous Treks, but the details that display officers’ ranks and departments (perhaps the strongest identifiers of Starfleet uniforms) are still in evidence, even if they are a change from what we’ve seen before. The uniforms are a little too dark in color perhaps, especially for easy visibility on the rather dark bridge of the Shenzhou, where most of the action takes place in these first couple episodes. However, it looks like future episodes will be a bit more brightly lit, which should take care of the problem. Plus, the sort of grimdark prestige television aesthetic of the premiere is appropriate to the tone and mood of the material in these episodes, which are more hopeful than they look, but still dark, especially for Trek. Visually, however, the real showpiece is the redesign of the Klingons; it’s a big change, but the gorgeously baroque sensibility works. The Klingons have always prided themselves when it came to their art and culture—at heart they’re every bit as much poet as they are warriors—and the antique ship used by T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) in this episode is a fantastically beautiful backdrop for his brand of religious fervor.
From a story standpoint, the show isn’t necessarily reinventing any wheels, but there’s a strong plot in the premiere and the set-up for an interesting and unique-for-Trek story. Previous Trek shows have all been focused on the adventures of large ensemble casts with their captains as the lynchpin; Discovery centers on Commander Michael Burnham, and by the end of “Battle of the Binary Stars” she’s been stripped of her rank and imprisoned for mutiny. Presumably, the rest of the series, at least in this first season, will deal with her reinstatement, in some capacity, in Starfleet and her subsequent path to some kind of redemption, which is a weird premise for Star Trek. That said, it also seems likely that the show won’t be one hundred percent the Michael Burnham show. A couple of other important characters have also been introduced, most significantly Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones), who seems likely to be a strong foil for Burnham, and Burnham’s guardian, Sarek (James Frain).
Aside from Burnham, however, the most important character in these first two episodes is Burnham’s mentor, Captain Philippa Georgiou, played by the luminously brilliant Michelle Yeoh with grace and dignity and strength and an unmistakable sense of humor. Sonequa Martin-Green imbues Burnham with an infectious joy and curiosity—perhaps the best scene of the first episode was Burnham strapping into a space suit to go investigate a strange object outside the Shenzhou—with bright confidence as well as the stubborn rigidity and self-righteousness that is ultimately her undoing. It’s easy to see both the potential Georgiou sees in Burnham and the qualities that Burnham admires about her captain, and the two women have an easy, natural chemistry that makes their seven-year-long acquaintance feel real and lived in. It’s great to see this sort of mentor-mentee relationship play out between women, which is still uncommon in popular media, and it’s especially refreshing to see it between two women of color, which is even rarer.
Sadly, this brings us to the show’s biggest problem: Georgiou dies, tragically and while executing a plan that was Burnham’s idea, at the end of “Battle of the Binary Stars.”
On paper, this is great drama. It gives Burnham an additional level of pathos, in addition to her sad orphan back story and difficult childhood (her parents were killed by Klingons, and she ended up being one of the only humans raised on Vulcan), that is to some degree self-inflicted and definitely related to her own actions, though I wouldn’t go so far as to term her an anti-hero as some reviewers have. She’s more just a young person who made some mistakes that inadvertently torpedoed her life, putting her in a position where she can learn from the experience, heal and grow as a person over the course of the rest of the season. However, Yeoh and Martin-Green together are so engaging and their characters so compelling, both together and apart, that killing of Georgiou right away feels almost like a betrayal of the audience’s expectations. Certainly, it’s a much darker turn than has usually been seen in Trek; even Ben Sisko’s fridged wife died mostly off-screen, and we certainly didn’t have an hour and a half of getting a good feel for how great she was before it happened. A lot of viewers, at least in feminist/progressive circles (and especially black and Asian women, at least anecdotally) were hyped about this show based on the prospect of Georgiou and Burnham together, having that mentor-mentee relationship/friendship, and it’s a shame to break them up so tragically and abruptly only to segue into an entirely different sort of show in episode three with a new (white, male) captain on a new ship.
And listen. This wasn’t an entirely unexpected turn of events. The show isn’t titled after the Shenzhou, after all, and the previews made it clear that there was going to be a space battle where things looked pretty serious. Michelle Yeoh was even credited in these episodes as a “Special Guest Star,” which is practically a spoiler all on its own. Still, it’s disappointing, and I’m frankly not entirely sold on the direction the show is taking. Georgiou and Burnham’s previous seven years of service together is a compelling and much-needed story and more in the tradition of previous Treks, while the war-story-with-a-redemption-arc it looks like we’re going to get is more akin to J.J. Abrams’ rebooted movies, which have focused on an awful lot of the wrong things while moving Trek closer to more ordinary space opera. Diversity and progressivism are in Star Trek’s DNA, and this two-hour season premiere, while entertaining and well-written, has some red flags for having missed at least part of the point.
All that said, Michelle Yeoh is credited with fifteen episodes on IMDb, so I’m still holding out hope that we’ll get the story I want to see in flashbacks throughout the season. That approach presents its own set of potential pitfalls, but I figure we can worry about it if it actually happens. We’ll see, but in the meantime, I’m still cautiously optimistic about this show.
- I love the subtitled Klingon and appreciate that the show trusts its audience to “get” it, but these Klingons are so heavily made up and covered in prostheses that it’s almost dehumanizing. You just lose an awful lot of facial expression that way, and the Klingon costumes, while fabulous, have a tendency to draw the eye away from faces, especially combined with subtitles that have to be read across the bottom of the screen.
- Interesting choice to have a light-skinned Klingon facing discrimination and marginalization from his own people. I will be watching to see how that plays out over the rest of the season. Seems like the kind of thing a white (or mostly white) writers’ room could fuck up pretty easily.
- Seems like the only reason to have Sarek be Burnham’s guardian is pure fan service, which makes the world of Trek feel very small. James Frain is fine in the role, but the character could have had literally any name and worked just as well, if not better.
- As much as I loved every interaction between Burnham and Georgiou, I have to admit that there was some especially clunky exposition early in “The Vulcan Hello” while they were on the drought planet.
- Burnham out-logicking the computer was great.
- Burnham’s obvious joy and enthusiasm for her job when she was going out to look at the weird object was delightful.
- The opening credits sequence is excellent.