Star Trek Discovery: A Vulcan Hello & Battle at the Binary Stars

For the first time in over twelve years, we have new Star Trek. And that means I get to do a blog about watching Star Trek, instead of rewatching it. Star Trek Discovery’s first two episodes hit Netflix UK on Monday 25th September, and my friends and I duly sat in front the TV drinking “it is green” beverages and eating Sisko family gumbo.

So, what was our verdict? My usual viewing companion loved it. My occasional viewing companion was less enthused. But today I’m mostly going to write about what I thought, and the things that stood out for me. And so far, my thoughts are along these lines: it’s not really Star Trek, but it is pretty good.

Despite the name of the show, Star Trek Discovery’s two-part opener does not actually feature either the starship Discovery, nor all of the main characters. Instead, this is a prequel of sorts, setting things up for the series to come.

At the heart of Discovery is our lead, Commander Michael Burnham, a human woman raised on Vulcan by none other than Spock’s father, Sarek. Burnham is first officer of the USS Shenzhou, captained by her mentor Philippa Georgiou. When the Shenzhou comes across Klingon activity on the edge of Federation space, Burnham decides that the logical thing to do is to attack the Klingons in a show of strength. Unfortunately, her actions not only start the very war she was trying to prevent, but they see her tossed in the brig for mutiny.

Look and feel

First, let’s talk about the look of the series. With a reported $8 million budget for each episode, it’s no wonder that Discovery looks luscious on screen. This is a series that it would be worth seeing in the cinema, to enjoy the spacious ships and sweeping vistas. For complicated intellectual property reasons, it can’t actually resemble classic Star Trek too closely, but there are certainly nods to the original. The starships have the same saucer and nacelle shape. The transporter still needs a series of (now touchscreen) sliders to be pushed to their max. The delta arrowhead insignia is very much present. Even some of the sound effects are pulled straight from TOS.

And yet, of course, some things are very different. There’s no attempt to recreate the buttons and sliders – everything is futuristic blue screens with touch interfaces. Starships aren’t cramped – they are amazingly spacious with almost confusing amounts of tech surrounding each humanoid character. Even the brig is a work of art.

Of course, there’s one thing that has really changed for Discovery – and that’s the Klingons. These new Klingons are more alien looking than ever before – their noses are wider, their hair is gone, and their ridges now go all the way down (probably). I have to admit that I have trouble reconciling these Klingons with the TNG era Klingons that I had grown to know and love. Yes, this design is apparently closer to Roddenberry’s original intention, and yes, this makes them scarier and more alien, but even so, change is difficult to accept. I would have preferred these aliens to be a completely new species – my occasional viewing companion suggests “Plingons”.

Whether they’re Klingons or Plingons, I hope that they are more physically active in future episodes; there was a bit too much standing around and posturing from them here. whilst I appreciate the decision to have them speak entirely in Klingon and hardly at all in English, I found their clipped and terse speech really difficult to listen to.

Characters

Like any Trekkie, I’m a little wary as to how Spock’s previously unmentioned adoptive sister is going to fit into the canon. I’m also acutely conscious of the fact that James Frain’s Sarek does not yet match Mark Lenard’s Sarek. All that being said, I already love Burnham. She’s essentially the person I used to want to be when I grew up – raised by Vulcans, logical, and serving in Starfleet. Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance is spot on in capturing the calm and logical Vulcan demeanour, whilst injecting an inner fire and an essential emotional naivete.

I also adore the diversity of Discovery. We have a black female lead whose mentor is an Asian woman, and that’s just normal and not exceptional for this universe. Michelle Yeoh is amazing as Georgiou, and I am genuinely sad that we’ve lost her character already. Elsewhere on the bridge of the Shenzhou, we see all kinds of aliens – this isn’t a ship of mostly humans or mostly men, it’s a proper Federation melting pot.

One thing these episodes do not do as well as the other Star Trek pilots is to establish the main ensemble. After Where No One Has Gone Before, Encounter at Farpoint, Emissary, Caretaker and Broken Bow, I had a clear idea of who the main characters were, and a basic grasp of their personalities. Here, aside from Burnham and the sadly deceased Georgiou, all I really know is that there is a meticulously careful science officer whom my viewing companion compares to C-3PO.

Extra observations

  • If there are no food chains on Saru’s planet, what do prey creatures feed on? Are he and his kind actually able to photosynthesise?
  • The Vulcan strategy of keeping the Klingons at bay with a superior show of force seems at odds with their generally pacifist philosophy. Then again, Tuvok was both a Vulcan and a phaser-wielding security officer.
  • Spock never mentioned his half-brother Sybok until the events of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, so maybe it’s not so unbelievable that he would never mention his adoptive sister. Although presumably there will be something that happens during the series to establish why no one must ever mention Burnham again.
  • Once again, the Klingons, mighty warriors bred for combat, are easily defeated by humans in combat.
  • Young Burnham’s classroom and learning pod is pretty much the same as we saw young Spock using in Star Trek (2009).

Franchise nods

One of the Starfleet ships is called the USS T’Plana-Hath. Not only was she a Vulcan philosopher first quoted in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but the Vulcan ship that made first contact with humanity was also named after her.

Summary – A Vulcan Hello & Battle at the Binary Stars: Discovery could actually be better than I expected, but it’s almost a shame it wasn’t allowed to flourish on its own outside of the Star Trek brand.

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