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Star Trek: Discovery – The Vulcan Hello/Battle at the Binary Stars Review

"A shakey pilot gives way to a strong second chapter"

Star Trek: Discovery has had a difficult path to its premiere, from losing its highly-touted showrunner (Bryan Fuller, who had to step away after crafting these first two episodes to focus on his commitment to Starz’s equally ambitious American Gods series), to production delays, to a premiere that was pushed back months. So what was delivered to audiences on Sunday was the fruit of over a year of planning and filming. And, all-in-all, it was an intriguing start for the first Trek series in 12 years. Before diving into the spoiler portion of the episode review, I’ll cover some general thoughts on what worked, in terms of the characters and basic series story arc.

Much was made of Discovery having two women of color in central roles (with Sonequa Martin-Green also being the first woman of color to take the mantle of “main protagonist” on a Star Trek series), and the duo of Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh (as the USS Shenzhou‘s Captain Georgiou) were one of the highlights of these opening two episodes. The actresses quickly established the deep bond between the two characters, creating layers of familiarity that allowed the episodes’ dramatic beats to really hit hard (more on those in the spoiler section). Martin-Green was long a standout on AMC’s The Walking Dead, so it is little surprise that she can command the screen and carry the weight of the series on her shoulders. Once she is allowed better dialogue (exposition dumps like these two episodes are never easy to write, but I expected more from a writer like Fuller, and from the show’s current showrunning duo of Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts), I suspect Michael Burnham will quickly become one of the stronger characters in Trek history.

The episode’s other standout was Doug Jones, who in a mere two episodes has created a superb alien character. Considering Jones’ extensive work building characters from under layers of latex in his time with Guillermo del Toro, it’s hardly a surprise that he has made Saru into an emotional touchstone of the series. While the other crew members (few of whom will continue on with the series, with the action moving from the Shenzhou to the Discovery next week) faded into the background and were rather bland, Jones gave us subtle hints at who Saru is and what type of character he will be moving forward. I’m eager to see more of him, and to get a better understanding of the Kelpien race.

Having said all of that, let’s dive into the spoiler section . . .

So, after two episodes, do I think Star Trek: Discovery is worth watching? I honestly cannot say for certain, but there are enough elements that worked in these two episodes (which, considering that Burnham is in prison now, really only served as one long pilot, setting the stage for the future of the series) to keep me interested in what the series has to offer. Martin-Green is an engaging actor, and Burnham is a flawed protagonist who has the ability to spiral in several directions. Her Vulcan upbringing allows the show to delve into the role of emotions in command decision making in a way that is fresh (as for the retconning of her as Spock’s adopted sister, well, the jury’s still out on whether or not that plot point works).

She’s also a convicted mutineer, whose decision to take matters into her own hands resulted in a massacre of Starfleet officers and, ultimately, the death of her mentor. That’s a lot of baggage for one character to carry around- especially a character who will be in a position to make command decisions on a starship. Star Trek has never had a main character like that, and I’m intrigued to see if the series leans into the darkness and pain those actions have left within Burnham rather than opting for the traditional Star Trek path, where past issues are glossed over until they need to be brought up again to serve a single episode. The (highly touted) serialized nature of the storytelling likely means we’ll see Burnham grapple with her choices and their consequences throughout the season, but we’ll see.

I do have to say I am disappointed the show opted to kill off Georgiou. Sure, it was pretty clear that was where the story was going early on in the pilot, but it strikes me as a lazy choice, setting Burnham up for a clear hero’s arc. The death of a hero’s mentor is a tried and true means to jump start a tale of the broken hero rising above adversity to rebuild their life and self-worth, saving those they once betrayed and earning respect. Leaving Georgiou alive, but severing the deep bond of trust and love with Burnham, would have been a more interesting set-up, leaving Burnham on a separate ship and forcing her to work with old and new colleagues, knowing that her mentor is out there, unwilling to reconnect. As it is, I suspect Georgiou (and the excellent Michelle Yeoh) will appear in flashbacks or visions throughout the season, so I doubt we’ve seen the last of her. Still, I would have preferred to have Georgiou alive and well.

While I’ve been generally positive with the series, I do have one major issue: the Klingons. Now, I’m all for going back to the roots of the Klingon-Starfleet conflict and having them as the bad guys, but I just wish the reasoning behind the reunification of the Klingon Empire wasn’t a rogue Klingon’s desire to Make Qo’noS Great Again. I find it hard to believe that a single Klingon, with a special ship he rescued from the scrap heap and a god-complex, could unite the Houses enough to get their flagships to show up and attack Starfleet. Like, why was a single speech from Georgiou enough to set them off? It didn’t track with the history of Klingons, who, while quick to anger and violence, are not stupid. They aren’t about to go charging into battle without cause, and I didn’t see enough good cause. It’s a shakey premise to build a season arc on, and I sincerely hope there’s more to this particular arc that is revealed down the line.

So, I’m not sure the series is worth shelling out more money to buy CBS All Access (and no, CBS is never going to air additional episodes on the network, it’s either going to succeed on All Access or fail on All Access), but there’s enough here to potentially craft a solid Star Trek series.

Final Thoughts:

— Another quibble about the Klingons: The sound mix on their dialogue was pretty bad. It was hard to make out words (not that I speak Klingon, but still). Really, the sound mix has issues throughout, particularly with some really bad looped lines of dialogue. The series can throw up some really amazing special effects (those force fields were really awesome), but can’t get a line of dialogue to sound legitimate.

— James Frain made a good Sarek, although he had a touch too much emotional heft to some of his dialogue.

— Those uniforms were . . . not great. A step up from Enterprise and The Original Series, but I really couldn’t tell any rank outside of Captain.

— I’m going to keep reviewing the series on a weekly basis. New episodes will hit CBS All Access each Sunday, and I should have reviews up every Tuesday morning.

Rating
8.0
Pros
  • Interesting character in Michael Burnham
  • Good performance from Sonequa Martin-Green
  • Doug Jones is great
Cons
  • Death of Georgiou
  • Klingon justification for war

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About / Bio
TV critic based in Chicago. When not watching and writing about awesome television shows, I can be found lamenting over the latest disappointing performance by any of the various Chicago sports teams or my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Follow me @JeanHenegan on Twitter.

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