After sitting with the premiere episodes of Star Trek: Discovery for nearly a week, I have to declare the show — even at this early time in its run — an unqualified success. With expectations from fans, media and stakeholders at immeasurable levels, the new series does not disappoint, delivering intricate, well-paced and cerebral science fiction, with elite-level visual effects and the massive action sequences you would expect in today’s marketplace.
“This isn’t about what happened, Sarek. It’s what’s happening now.” – Michael Burnham
What Star Trek: Discovery and their entire production team accomplish in the first two hours of their much-discussed foray into the modern television age of compact seasons and serialized storytelling, is nothing short of miraculous. And by that we mean specifically that they kept a really big secret and were able to unleash a really big surprise.
THE BELOW REVIEW REVEALS MAJOR STORY POINTS FROM
THE FIRST TWO EPISODES OF “STAR TREK: DISCOVERY.”
Through months of hype and promotion, we’ve known about a war with the Klingons. We’ve known about the migration of series lead Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham from the USS Shenzhou to the USS Discovery. We’ve guessed at a passage of time between the two ships and at the fate of Shenzhou captain Philippa Georgiou, portrayed by Michelle Yeoh.
What we didn’t know is what the show is really going to be about. And that’s where the success of “The Vulcan Hour” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” can truly be found. The last-second reveal at the conclusion of the show’s second hour is an all-time great Star Trek cliffhanger, and made even more impactful when you consider we’ve only known Michael Burnham for two hours.
The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery play as a prequel to the real story that’s about to unfold: Burnham’s journey from a disgraced, imprisoned mutineer to, well, that’s what we’re seemingly going to find out across 13 more episodes.
In these first two hours, the writer’s room has packed an impressive amount of definition and motivation into the initial unspooling of Burnham’s backstory.
The dynamic between Burnham and Doug Jones’ Saru, in addition to Georgiou, is explored in very interesting and detailed ways in the first hour. Their somewhat adversarial approach to decision-making was played to perfection, with intelligent and cogent writing that allows the viewer to easily support either officer’s position.
To think this dynamic has already been achieved in advance of Burnham’s betrayal makes their eventual reunion on the Discovery — as we’ve seen both characters on that ship in promotional photography — into one of the most anticipated story points of the upcoming season. Burnham and Saru are likely to be a core element to be explored throughout the season.
And about that betrayal… it’s hard to put into words how surprising and emotionally effective that Burnham’s Vulcan pinch, sucker punch to Georgiou truly was; it certainly sent a gasp of shock through the crowd at the Hollywood premiere screening! That defining moment of the series’ first two hours is contrasted against a number of powerful, moving scenes between Martin-Green and Yeoh, especially when Georgiou returns to the Shenzhou bridge and halts her first officer with the barrel of a phaser.
Although the opening vignette on a desert world is a slightly clunky introduction to the characters — with lots of somewhat dry (pardon the pun) exposition about their mission on the planet — it reveals Georgiou’s confidence in Burnham as she proclaims she is ready for command.
More importantly, it sets the scene for an excellent transporter room flashback to their introduction seven years prior. Introduced as Sarek’s (James Frain) ward, Burnham has been raised by Spock’s family on Vulcan after her parents were killed by Klingons. The strong scene provides instant character depth for the smooth, nonplussed Georgiou and the stuck-between-two-worlds Burnham.
In another establishing scene for Georgiou, Burnham and Saru, the captain sarcastically teases them when they are on the same page for once in terms of their next bridge action. The scene showcases Georgiou’s easy, but firm style, and how she is a mentor to her entire crew.
Those exchanges make Georgiou’s death all the more palpable for Burnham, who must not only face the psychological pain of her decisions (watching her mentor die in front of her), but the physical ramifications, as well: being imprisoned for life for mutiny as the credits role on “Battle at the Binary Stars.” It’s that cliffhanger that is achieved so magnificently that gives the Star Trek: Discovery debut episodes their significant heft.
Also of note is the death of young Ensign Danby Connor (Sam Vartholomeos), who has represented the show at both the Star Trek 2017 convention in Las Vegas, as well as at the Hollywood premiere last week. Will we see him again in future flashbacks? Unclear.
As the hype in advance of the premiere seemed to indicate, the Kelpian Saru is seemingly destined to standout in the coming months as a revolutionary character. Jones, a master craftsman at acting through prosthetics, has imbued the character with a riveting sense of caution and reason in the face of calculated decision-making. It’s an important and subtle distinction for Jones to achieve in his portrayal, lest the character come off as cartoonish or cowardly. He succeeds wildly.
The deliberate, methodical pacing of “The Vulcan Hello” takes the time to weigh the tactical decisions facing the crew of the Shenzhou. Much the way Kirk and Spock once debated their next move against the crafty Romulan commander in “Balance of Terror,” “The Vulcan Hello” showcases a strong ability to slow down and let the story unfold.
Of course, slowing down and letting the story unfold does not come at the expense of some massive action sequences and impressive visual effects. From the impressive production design seen throughout the uniforms, props and on screen visual displays to the complicated space battles, the “Battle at the Binary Stars” has it all. The pièce de résistance comes with a fun reveal of a cloaked Klingon ship ramming and piercing the hull of the USS Europa, led by short-lived fleet Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico).
Another impressive special effect comes in a powerful scene for Burnham as she escapes the brig while the USS Shenzhou crumbles around her. In both her well-timed dive through the vacuum of space and her ethereal encounter and pep talk with Sarek via a subspace Katra call, the visual effects astound.
Although we have yet to see a number of main characters on screen yet (most notably Jason Isaacs’ Capt. Lorca and Anthony Rapp’s Lt. Stamets), the cast on display here is pitch perfect. Frain is especially impressive stepping into the iconic role of Sarek, hitting just the right notes of support and expectation in relation to his “ward.”
That bond is enhanced with a nifty trick not previously seen in Trek, in which he utilizes some sort of Katra transference to save her life as a child and establish an even stronger link between the two characters.
We see that link in a ‘Katra séance’ that is likely to be debated by fans in terms of its convenience for the story and its overall effectiveness, but it works as a subliminal kick in the pants for Burnham, while strengthening her bond and connection with Vulcan.
As for the ‘controversial’ portrayal of the Klingons in this new series, well, yeah, they don’t have hair, and the makeup is a bit different. Other than that, they basically look, talk and act just like every incarnation of Klingons you’ve seen through 51 years of televised Star Trek.
(Though we do agree with one criticism regarding the audio quality of the Klingon actors’ dialogue; while subtitles give us the meaning of their words, it’s difficult to tell if their voices are being digitally altered or they’re just having trouble enunciating through the makeup and false teeth.)
These Discovery-era Klingons are defined best by Chris Obi as T’Kuvma, a would-be uniter of the 24 Klingon houses, who he rallies together for a common goal: to push back against Starfleet and his disdain for their oft-repeated platitude, “We come in peace.”
In another surprise achievement unlocked by the Discovery production team, the hyped and promoted T’Kuvma does not survive “The Battle of Binary Stars,” dying at the hand of Michael Burnham after killing Captain Georgiou.
It remains to be seen if Obi’s T’Kuvma will be seen again in flashbacks, but what does seem clear is that brief appearances by the disgruntled Kenneth Mitchell as Kol and the imposing Mary Chieffo as L’Rell will be but the first of many.
Although we knew this was coming, and that most of the Klingon scenes would be staged in Klingonese with subtitles, it is surprising to see how that plays out on screen.
The scenes with T’Kuvma are incredibly dense and pack a significant amount of character motivations to navigate through. In fact, the series’ first scene, which will air over-the-air on CBS is T’Kuvma unveiling some of his aspirations for the first time in thick, heavy, perfectly enunciated Klingon.
In an era where CBS is pushing for subscriptions to CBS All Access, it’s hard to imagine the networks brass did not push for something a little more easily digestible in those Klingon scenes. And whether that happened or not, the end result is a gain for fans of the Klingon culture, and for fans of complex narrative that requires you to pay attention.
Because that is what we have in Star Trek: Discovery. A nuanced, well-paced, thoughtful examination of motivations and their consequences, being packaged as one mammoth 15-episode arc, with layered, Star Trek storytelling and images interwoven into its DNA.