Thoughts on the premiere of Star Trek Discovery

[DSC] Season 1, Episode 1 & 2: The Vulcan Hello & Battle at the Binary Stars

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The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars center around the mentor/mentee relationship between Michael Burnham and her captain, Philippe Georgiou, and the tensions placed on that relationship by a threat to their ship, and potentially all of starfleet. Their relationship is established in the otherwise unrelated opening sequence, in a kind of clunky way, but from then on the deep connection the two characters share is effectively and emotionally portrayed, adding a fantastic gravity to their disagreements later in the episodes.

The other mentor in Michael Burnham’s life is her ward, Sarek. This relationship also works pretty well, although the episodes have to go to sometimes strenuous lengths to get the two characters in touch with each other. Sarek is well portrayed, and gives us a window into the fascinating duality Michael Burnham struggles with. I’m excited to see how her character evolves and deepens as the show progresses.

Both the premier and the future of the series hinge on a critical decision Burnham makes in the two-parter. One of the strengths of these two episodes is that her decision is controversial (and probably upsetting) but also understandable. There is a classic question of whether or not Burnham has acted out emotionally or if she has reasonable justification for her drastic action. Fortunately, the answer to that question isn’t made totally clear, and in all likelihood both explanations are probably true. This level of nuance is one of the most promising components of the new show.

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The Klingon thread of the episodes is a bit of a mixed bag. The group we spend time with has a solid but familiar motivation, which, in the grand tradition of Star Trek, is pretty relevant to the current political and social climate. Because of this familiarity, however, we as an audience don’t need much to understand what’s going on. Too much time is spent ineffectively “fleshing out” the Klingon group – there is some backstory for the Klingon leader which (at least so far) doesn’t seem very illuminating, for instance. It’s not a huge problem, but it causes some drag in the overall pace of the premier. On the positive side, I personally think the design of these new Klingons is pretty impressive. The cathedral-like interiors and baroque armor visually reinforce ideas of honor, strength and tradition being raised to supernaturally important values for the Klingons. The Klingons feel freshly intimidating and alien here, so even if it doesn’t fit neatly into cannon, I think the change is a welcome one.

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Overall the episodes work well, adding a new flavor to Star Trek while holding true to the values of the original series. I still wish the design of the starfleet ships (interiors and exteriors) were more dynamic. They feel both cold and generic, as does the theme music, trying to ape the feel of other bland television sci-fi. There is also a lot of pacing issues, some truly clunky dialogue, and sometimes poorly executed sequences, but those all feel like the usual wobbles of a new show taking its first step rather than an indication of what the series will grow to be. Plus, for every one of those lapses we are given charming character interactions, (Lt. Saru and Burnham’s headbutts are a highpoint of the first two episodes) complex motivations, hints at bigger science fiction ideas, and some nice moments of suspense and excitement. I was actually pleasantly surprised that there isn’t much action, and when there is, the sequence is exciting more because of where Burnham and Georgiou are in the arc of their relationship than what the outcome of the action will be. The other most exciting chunk of the two parts comes near the beginning, when the crew of the Shenzhou has found something mysterious in space. The suspense is tangible as the crew weigh their options, and methodically work together to solve a mystery. It feels like a great, classic Star Trek moment, and I suspect Discovery has a lot more of those moments in store.