Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Premiere Reignites A Franchise With A Pilot That’s Not A Pilot

REVIEW: “Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Episodes 1&2 – Debuted Sunday Sept. 24
Pt 1 written by Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman, story by Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman
Pt 1 directed by David Semel
Pt 2 written by Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, with story by Bryan Fuller
Pt 2 directed by Adam Kane

After a long, twelve-year absence, Star Trek has finally returned to its natural home on television. And true to its nature, the return is spearheading new technology by anchoring the CBS All Access streaming service. The two-part premiere of Star Trek: Discovery delivered on its promise to bring the franchise up to date with a cinematic look while still (for the most part) fitting into the known (Prime) Star Trek universe. Though not without some missteps and a few debatable canon conflicts, the premiere provided enough action, drama and fun to pique fans interest for more.

[SPOILERS BELOW]

Captain Philippa Georgiou and First Officer Michael Burnham visit an alien planet

USS Exposition

The opening teaser and first acts of the “Vulcan Hello” packs a lot in in rapid fire, sometimes resulting in some stilted dialog. We learn there are some Klingons being whipped into a frenzy by a charismatic, and certainly anti-Federation leader, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi). Then there is the Federation starship USS Shenzhou lead by a surprisingly sarcastic, yet clearly commanding Capt. Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) out to help some strange new aliens, with just a little light Prime Directive violating. Georgiou is ably assisted by her compassionate first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) who spouts off statistics and estimations like a Vulcan, which we learn later is for good reason.

This opening sequence on location in Jordan was gorgeous and not the kind of thing you are used to for television shows not called Game of Thrones. Combined with the visual and creature effects, you truly bought into the alien, drought-stricken world. The reveal of the USS Shenzhou with the sting of classic Trek music was surely exhilarating for even the most jaded fan. Which is why the gag with Georgiou creating a Starfleet delta in the sand seemed gratuitous, and really didn’t make any sense once you think about it. You had us with the ship coming through the clouds, the delta was one bit of fan service too much.

Once on board we meet science officer Saru (Doug Jones) who is clearly not shy of both openly competing with Burnham for his captain’s attention and advocating for the safest course possible at all times. Jones’ performance was a standout with the bridge banter surprisingly fun for a show presented as something dark and serious. As we move the action to the edge of Federation space to inspect a damaged subspace relay only to find it may have been the victim of foul play, we learn Saru’s flight instinct is inherent to his race of Kelpians, a prey species that apparently live life as if they may end up on the menu at any moment.

This bridge crew has a lot more fun than this publicity image lead us to believe

Say hello to the Klingons (if you can speak Klingon)

Things get more serious when Burnham heads out to inspect an unknown object only to find what we learn is the Klingon Torchbearer. Here again we are presented with visual effects more akin to what we are used to with feature films and you have to agree with Burnham as she exclaims “cool” while on her recon mission. Unfortunately it ends badly, beginning a series of events leading to inevitable war that will apparently last another 13 episodes.

And we learn that the Klingon ship is literally covered in coffins, which is seriously creepy and a nice new element to add to Klingon lore. It is also revealed that Klingon sightings are extremely rare with almost no contact in the previous century, which is probably one of those areas where they are pushing on the edges of canon. However, much about the encounter with the Klingons echoed nicely with the classic episode “Balance of Terror,” which sets up these Klingons to be more mysterious and alien, like that episode’s Romulans. They even borrowed the element of submarine style-battles with cloaking devices from that episode, giving them to T’Kuvma who uses them to great effect against the Federation and to gain power among the Klingon houses. This too will certainly spark a debate over whether any Klingons should have cloaking technology 10 years before the original Star Trek, but we saw cloaking technology on Enterprise which was set a century before Discovery so there is probably wiggle room.

T’Kuvma has got a plan, and a cloaking device

We also again return to the action on the Klingon sarcophagus ship. Actually action isn’t the right word because there seems to be a lot of talking and speechifying with these Klingons. While much has been noted about the new look, the biggest change with the Discovery Klingons seems to be the tedium. Restaging political rallies on a Klingon warship was about as exciting as watching the Galactic Senate debate trade policy in the Star Wars prequels.

The concept of having the Klingons speak in Klingon sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t seem to work, at least for now. Using a foreign language can be an effective way to add authenticity, like it does for the Netflix series Narcos. However, these actors are working though heavy prosthetics and false teeth speaking at length phonetically in a language they mostly don’t understand, and it shows. The design of the Klingons is alien enough to evoke without the added subtitles.

But long story short, T’Kuvma picks the outcast albino Voq to be a new Torchbearer, he lights the beacon, and the road towards war continues.

These are not the Klingons we are used to

That escalated quickly

Well it’s all fun and games until Michael Burnham gives her adoptive Vulcan father Sarek (James Frain) a call on the holophone. After informing her that the way to deal with Klingons is to shoot first (the eponymous “Vulcan Hello”), Burnham gives her captain a Vulcan nerve pinch after failing to convince her to use Sarek’s ‘first day in prison’ tactic.

It is not entirely clear that this act of mutiny was really worth the attempt as this is not a random encounter with the Klingons. T’Kuvma seems set to unite the battling Klingon houses together through war with the Federation, so taking a potshot at him probably wouldn’t make a difference. But it does supply us with the important “fall from grace” for Burnham and these scenes are played effectively by Yeoh and especially Martin-Green, who shows the kind of range seen in her impressive performances on The Walking Dead.

Georgiou and Burnham don’t agree on how to deal with the Klingons

Flashdance

Once things get exciting with a fleet of Klingon ships showing up we break to the next episode and flash back to seven years before. While it is interesting to learn about the relationship between Burnham, Georgoiou and Sarek, at least when watching the two-part premiere as a single event, this and other flashbacks, can feel a bit jarring.

Both T’Kuvma and Burnham get the full flashback treatment to flesh out their characters. The attempt to create sympathy and understanding for the Klingon leader mostly falls flat. And in the case of Burnham, the problems are more related to trying to cram too much backstory in too soon. Some of it may not be necessary and some could possibly wait for later in the season. These flashbacks along with other questionable editing choices throughout often result in a pacing problem in both parts of the pilot.

Sarek pops in to just drop off his ward

War, what is it good for?

As the fighting starts in “Battle at the Binary Stars” we see the Federation’s philosophy of peaceful coexistence  – exemplified by Captain Georgiou – get shattered by the Klingon thirst for battle. Anyone watching this Star Trek premiere who was growing attached to the USS Shenzhou or some of its crew like Ensign Connor was soon hit with how this show wants you to know actions have consequences and the stakes of jeopardy are real. Just ask Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico) and his USS Europa who came in for the rescue only to have their overtures of peace literally crushed by a huge Klingon ship in a tense and effective battle scene.

We find Michael Burnham in the brig surrounded by force fields with most of that section of the ship torn away and with life support failing, her despair reaches out across the light years to Sarek who pulls off an extreme long-range mind meld to give her a pep talk. Some fans may balk at this new ability given to Vulcans, but the creative team on this show must be allowed to expand the Star Trek canon and not just be relegated to painting by numbers and within the lines entirely. 

And the follow-up scene where Burnham has to convince the computer to let her out of the brig was classic Trek at its best. The same was true of Saru’s cunning plan, doing a bit of his own surgery on a photon torpedo leading to the the crippling of T’Kuvma’s ship. This opened the door to to the newly freed Burnham to show her smarts with a plan to end the conflict by capturing T’Kuvma and turning him into a hostage. The resulting boarding action gives both Yoeh and Martin-Green a chance to show their action capabilities with a well choreographed firefight and hand-to-hand combat sequence where we get to see some Klingons be Klingon.

All of this leads to saying goodbye to two more characters: Georgiou and T’Kuvma. After the Shenzhou is abandoned we end with an ominous court martial scene for Michael Burnham, where she sits facing judges who are oddly shrouded in the shadows. Burnham is stripped of rank and sentenced to a life of imprisonment. This is not exactly the uplifting ending one might expect for a Star Trek show, but it is effective in developing the arc of what is certainly a fascinating and nuanced character.  

Georgiou and Burnham visit the Klingons

A prequel not a pilot

That ending alone lets you know this is no ordinary pilot. In fact, it can be argued this is not a pilot at all. For many fans who have been keeping up on the news, they were probably prepared to see the destruction of the USS Shenzhou and the loss of many in the crew, most notably of Captain Georgiou. But, this may have come as a bit of a shock to more casual viewers who thought this was like another Star Trek pilot like “Encounter at Farpoint” or “Broken Bow.” The darker and less traditional approach is certainly by design, as the creative team want it clear, this is a new kind of Star Trek.

Your traditional pilot (for Star Trek or any show) introduces you to the main characters, setting, tone and premise of a series. While some of that is present, that isn’t really the point of this two-part premiere. The premiere of Discovery really is a sort of prequel movie to the actual series which will start next week. It is impossible to pass judgement on Star Trek: Discovery from the two-part premiere because what was shown tonight was essentially Michael Burnham’s origin story.  And for that, it was very effective.

And while this may not be a traditional Star Trek pilot, it was very much a Star Trek experience, and one leading me to want to see more.

This premiere was Michael Burnham’s origin story

Random thoughts

  • After spending all that time and money on the Klingon Torchbearer, is that all we will see?
  • Production design is top-notch and in the zone of Star Trek aesthetic, but to enjoy the show you just have to accept that it doesn’t perfectly fit and is too advanced to be 10 years before the The Original Series look.
  • The visual effects, music and sound design seem to borrow more from the J.J. Abrams films than they do from classic Star Trek
  • Doug Jones’ Saru may be a breakout character and seems destined to fit in well with ‘outsider’ characters like Spock, Data and Odo
  • How many executive producers can one show have?

 

More to come

All week long TrekMovie will be taking a closer look at the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. So stay tuned.

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