All the Things I Loved About Star Trek: Discovery, Despite One Huge Disappointment
Here's the truly disappointing thing.
Last night was the night that Trekkies all over the world were waiting for! Star Trek: Discovery had its two-hour premiere! Two hours, you ask? Yes indeedly. If you were only watching the CBS broadcast, you only saw what ended up being the first half of the pilot. Hour Two was uploaded exclusively to CBS All Access, and it was well worth taking in on the new platform.
While I came to enjoy Enterprise for what it was, the first episode of that show didn’t exactly inspire squeals of delight. The first two hours of this show—“The Vulcan Hello,” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”—did for several reasons. Beware! There will be spoilers below.
MICHAEL BURNHAM IS A NUANCED PROTAGONIST
Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is, to use a favorite word of Spock’s, fascinating. Raised as Sarek’s ward (Spock’s dad! Played by James Frain) after her parents were killed in a Klingon attack when she was a child, Burnham brings the quintessential balance between vulcan logic and human emotion in a way we haven’t seen before.
Rather than Discovery having a half-human/half-Vulcan character on the ship like Spock, or a full Vulcan character like Tuvok or T’Pol constantly butting up against humanness, we now have a human character who was highly influenced by Vulcan culture, bringing that into her approach. Like Seven of Nine, there’s humanity there, but because she’s spent most of her life living with another species, there’s a lot of learned behavior that needs sorting through in order to access her innate humanity and balance the good aspects of each culture within herself.
This mix makes for a not-so-easy-to-deal-with human, and this is clear in her interactions with the crew, particularly with the ship’s science officer, Saru (played by Doug Jones). She’s prickly, and often thinks she’s the smartest person in the room. She often is. However, as is evidenced by what happens in the first hour of Discovery, she can just as easily make bad decisions. But I love that our protagonist is someone who is so very flawed.
I also love that she is so full of wonder. At the top of the first hour, we hear some of Burnham’s log as she talks about exploring a binary star system, and being reminded that beauty and life often come from chaos. She fights harder than the ship’s science officer to explore an unknown object in space, volunteering to fly over to it in a spacesuit and basically going Wheeeeee! as the suit shuttles her toward it. Her love of exploration is palpable. It also gets her into trouble. I love that we get both. Because exploration sometimes means that you discover something or someone that doesn’t want to be found.
Having the show’s protagonist not be a captain opens up the story in ways that become apparent very quickly in the premiere, as well as in ways yet to be defined. I love that sense of limitless possibility.
Captains, by the very nature of their job, are limited. Before making any decision, they have to consider the entire ship, or station, and even when you have a “renegade” captain who doesn’t follow the rules, because they’re sure that their idea is “the right thing to do,” even their maverick impulses are tempered by the fact that they are ultimately responsible for the entire crew.
Make the POV character a First Officer, however, and suddenly there are a lot more options through which that character can exercise their approaches to upholding the ideals of Starfleet. A captain is the top of the food chain on a ship. A First Officer still has to consider the crew, but there’s also a captain above them with whom there can be conflict. To be the closest to the highest power on the ship without actually having it is a very interesting position to be in.
FEMALE COMMANDERS WITH AN AMAZING RAPPORT
When we first see Burnham and the captain of the USS Shenzhou, Phillippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), they are on a desert attempting to free up an alien civilization’s trapped water supply before an oncoming storm. I was impressed that, within a few lines of dialogue, I fell right into their relationship. They kidded with each other, challenged each other, trusted each other. It was similar to other Captain/First Officer relationships in Star Trek, except that this one was between two women.
The fact that they were two women of color wasn’t lost on me. The fact that these first two episodes effortlessly passed the Bechdel-Wallace test was also not lost on me.
I love that they were each very principled women who were not afraid to stand up for their beliefs and ethics, even if that meant going up against the person they cared for and respected the most. Burnham committed mutiny, felling Georgiou with a Vulcan neck pinch and giving orders to the crew to shoot at the Klingon ship facing-off against them, because she believed that doing what the Vulcans did in order to achieve peace with the Klingons (“The Vulcan hello” which was basically the Vulcans “speaking” to the Klingons in a language they understand—violence—to earn their respect and get them talking) was the best path forward to avoid a larger war.
Meanwhile, Georgiou believes very strongly in Starfleet, and refused to shoot first. Once Burnham takes this drastic action, Georgiou doesn’t hesitate in holding her at phaser-point and having her put in the brig, despite the fact that it clearly pains her to do so.
These women had each other’s backs and care about each other, but also respect each other enough to be absolutely up-front about their principles, even if it means putting the other out of commission. It was a fascinating relationship.
By the way, the “was” aspect is the thing I have the biggest problem with. I’ll talk about that below.
THIS SHOW FEELS GROUNDED AND LIVED-IN WHILE STILL BEING STAR TREK
Something I noticed right away was the way everyone speaks to each other on this show. They sound like…people. Not like The Humanity of the Future. Not like Starfleet Officers, but like regular people that you or I would recognize. There was a relaxed warmth and a familiarity between the crew members right away that I found refreshing. Even in moments of conflict, like those between Saru and Burnham who spent most of the episode disagreeing, there was authentic banter instead of stilted, slightly stylized future-speak. Everyone’s performances felt really lived-in and grounded.
The natural, grounded performances weren’t limited to the Starfleet officers on the Shenzhou. The actors playing the Klingons have a difficult job in that they are speaking a harsh, fake language most of the time. That, plus the new elements of their culture that we’re seeing, would make it really easy to deliver entirely stylized performances. However there were moments of emotion that shone through all of that: Voq asking to light the torch to call the Klingon Empire together despite not coming from a Great House and having T’Kuvma see something in him and letting him do it, T’Kuvma passionately making his case that the Klingons have to come together against the greater danger of the Federation, etc.
A friend I was watching this with pointed something else out, too. There was technobabble going on in the background of scenes, but it never became real dialogue, so we still get the sound of the future without forcing the main characters to do a lot of tech-sounding exposition. This, too, goes a long way in grounding the show in authentic humanity.
OK, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE KLINGONS
I’m just going to go ahead and say it. I love the new Klingons. I’m not sorry to say goodbye to the Refugees-From-An-Outer-Space-Death-Metal-Band look. I’m not sorry that those mullets are gone forever. Purely from a design perspective, I think that these Klingons look much more badass and reflect a culture beyond war. War is still, of course, at the forefront of anything they do, but this look and these uniforms speak to something even more primal than violence. It speaks to something deep in the Klingon soul.
But it’s not just the design that fascinates me. What truly fascinates me is that we’re seeing some diversity amongst the Klingons. There is a white-skinned Klingon who is shamed for being that way. The group of Klingons led by T’Kuvma seem more spiritually-focused, preparing the bodies of their dead in a way that isn’t common among Klingons, and are more concerned with Klingon unity and preserving Klingon culture, using war as a means to that end, rather than for glory’s own sake.
T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) is another fascinating character. He is very much against “federations” in general, people of different species working together and forming organizations that risk diluting individual cultures for the sake of the whole. However, he is also against culture-based divisions within the Klingon Empire itself. He stands up for Voq against Klingon racists, and talks about the fact that his ship and his house are open to all Klingons.
The Klingons are either an allegory for oppressed people fighting against colonialism, racist terrorists down with segregation (what’s with the filthy Andorrian comment, dude?), religious fanatics, or something in between. What they are not is one-note or boring.
Lastly, re: these Klingons looking “different” than Klingons-past. Why is it that sci-fi shows (and their fans) generally expect alien species to look exactly identical? Human beings have different shapes, facial features, body types, colors, etc. People in different parts of the world have different bone structures and are built differently than each other. Why do we expect all alien races to look exactly identical to each other, unless there’s a “story reason?” I’m totally down with these simply being Klingons we haven’t seen before. We’re getting to know Klingons from different Houses; houses that have been warring each other and not having much contact otherwise. They’re going to be different.
ETHICS = STRENGTH
Despite the violence of the episode, the overarching lesson of the first two hours of Star Trek: Discovery is that it is ideas, not brute strength that will ultimately save the day. Both Starfleet and the Klingons are testing the strength of their ideas, ideals, and ethics, and the most important fighting of the episode happens around those things.
First, there are the ethics of “the Vulcan hello,” and whether or not there are any circumstances in which Starfleet can and should shoot first, say, in the name of diplomacy. What takes priority for a Starfleet officer? The imperative not to shoot first, or the imperative to create lasting peace?
Meanwhile, the Klingons are wrestling with their own identity. The Klingon Empire has been fractured for a long time, and T’Kuvma believes that Klingons joining in a Federation of multiple races will be harmful to their culture, whereas the viewer is obviously much more indoctrinated into the idea that joining forces Federation-style is the best thing for everyone concerned. But, is it? What does a people lose when they join a collective? How much assimilation is too much assimilation? Is there a Borg in the house?
Hell, when Burnham is put in the brig, and there ends up being a hull breach leaving her with nothing but the brig’s force-field keeping her from the vacuum of space, she has to argue ethics with the computer in order to save herself. We get to watch a woman with an agile mind out-ethics the computer in order to save herself. That’s kinda phenomenal.
My friends and I spent about an hour afterwards talking about the ethical ramifications of several aspects of the show. That, to me, is Star Trek. Star Trek is about wrestling with those larger ideas in order to become better humans. Already, the first two episodes have delivered post-show discussion fodder in spades.
OK, SO HERE’S MY ONE BIG PROBLEM WITH DISCOVERY AS OF RIGHT NOW
Here comes what is probably the biggest spoiler if you haven’t watched the first two episodes of the series already, so seriously, turn away now. Here’s a gif to give you plenty of time to do so:
OK, so those of you who are left either have watched both episodes, or don’t care about spoilers right? Good.
So, Georgiou is killed by T’Kuvma at the end of “Battle of the Binary Stars.” Suddenly, the beautiful relationship between her and Burnham I’d spent almost two hours getting invested in—this beautiful professional relationship between two women in space—came to an end, and now we know that Burnham is going to a new ship (the Discovery) and will serve under a male captain (Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs).
All of the advertising and preview material promised a show featuring two women of color at its head. The first episode delivered on that beautifully, and now that this relationship reeled us in, it’s being taken away. And rather than delivering Burnham to a new female captain, she’ll be serving alongside a male one, so we’ve now returned to a familiar Star Trek dynamic (women can only be included in mixed teams at the highest levels of command. We can have a male captain and a male first officer, or a female captain and a male first officer, but God forbid we have two women serving in those positions for any length of time! The horror!)
Now, I love Jason Isaacs to pieces, don’t get me wrong. However, Georgiou and Burnham were an amazing team, and it was such a refreshing dynamic because it was so rare! And while I love the story possibilities of Burnham now being a criminal at the end of Episode 2 and having a complicated relationship with Starfleet, I wish that Star Trek: Discovery had seen their choice to have two women in command through until the end. Now, it just feels like a stunt.
Still, I’m here for Burnham, I’m here for the Klingons, and I’m here for the inevitable ethical debates to come. Star Trek is back! It isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.
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