Star Trek: Discovery Episode 1 and 2 — “Battle of the Binary Stars”

The Jokerside.com review

There’s the wagon train to the stars… (Credit: CBS)

Star Trek returns to its natural habitat, with designs on cutting edge soap opera, character-led conflict and reclaiming its small screen crown. It’s splitting the crowd, and the whole, fundamental, and compelling point of this laudable upgrade. *Spoiler alert*

Episode log: Star Trek: Discovery 1.1: The Vulcan Hello & Star Trek: Discovery 1.2: Battle of the Binary Stars | Series: 1 | Episodes: 1 & 2 | Duration: 86 minutes | Ship: USS Shenzhou | Teleplay: Bryan Fuller & Avika Goldsman / Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts| Director: David Semel & Adam Kane

“I can’t remember who said sculptures are crystallised spirituality… But I see what they meant”

So says Commander Michael Burnham as she nears the catalyst of Discovery’s opening plot, a beacon MacGuffin, apparently needlessly visible, and sat on the perilous edge of Federation space. That said, it’s defying ship inspection and it’s got lurking Klingon all over it. Although, only we know that…

That quote - notably on that that Burnham can’t quite place with its author, Louisa May Alcott - is the crux at the heart of Star Trek as an ongoing concern. Not least in its latest stab for life in its natural habitat - for all the streaming and subscription access release of this incarnation, this is television, and this is where Star Trek belongs.

But Star Trek is a franchise caught in a continuity forged by its own success, increasingly having to tiptoe around its missteps. Excluding the films, there are over 600 hours of Star Trek available to watch right now, reaching back to 1966. By the time its real golden age ended, which stretched continuously from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (TNG) premiere in 1987 to Enterprise’s inelegant fall in 2005, the show had been badly tarnished by familiarity. Even the brightest episodes and concepts of those later years were dulled by space fatigue. Not one could hope to earn the mocking affection bestowed on Original Series (TOS) whipping boys like Spock’s Brain. And yet, we all want Star Trek to be familiar. We need it. It’s a conflicted and contrary franchise, from the clash of the militaristic Wrath of Khan to the optimistic, if fisty, Original Series. From the the popular recognition afforded certain bits of the franchise, and the need for it to be as warm and nostalgic as ready-made to reflect contemporary events and attitudes. But if you’re looking for an immediate reflection of the current world in this split pilot, you have to search for specifics. Discovery is stretching a broader social and political canvas than any one contemporary issue. In the same way, if you’re expecting a flood of optimism to provide space-shaped escapism in your life, Discovery isn’t eager to please.

Star Trek is a huge, sprawling body of work that’s struggled for many years to keep itself in check with ship-drilled professionalism. As much as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) departed from the the essence of Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 creation, its quality ingrained itself in the fabric of continuity that any incarnation is compelled to honour, while it strives to warp off in a new and fresh direction of its own. If only the 51 year old franchise was crystallised spirituality. It’s a crystallised nightmare. An irresistible one.

And that’s why the nominal names covering teleplay and directing above have six telling names. Star Trek attracts quality, and it attracts publicity, and CBS was happier than ever to court it when developing Discovery. Despite the behind-the-scenes delays, shake-ups and reported quarrels, the finished article finds that quality shining through in a very Star Trek way: intent.

We’ll come on to the Klingon redesign and the sterling work of every cast member, the new bridge dynamics, and apparent breaks with continuity in reviews to come, if the story lets us. Along with - no doubt - lens flare and inconsistent characterisation. But what shines brighter than the lens flare of the binary stars in this opening salvo is of this bristling relaunch is that intent.

Sarek. Should be more careful with his Vulcan hellos (Credit: CBS)

Simplicity

Discovery’s great trick is to keep things simple. Very simple.

There’s a dramatic ‘twist’ at the centre of concept. But that’s character driven, designed to expose and isolate the commanding officer who, for the first time, takes centre stage. It may seem a token change, while familiar character roles spin around her, but the strength is in the subtlety. Sonequa Martin-Green excels as that centre. The latest actor to take on the difficult role of conflicted logician. So easy to fall into the dull-drums, Discovery catches her at the end of the process with much of her inner struggles for the Commander and other characters to chew on.

Come the end of the two-part premiere, we’re little closer to knowing how that will play out for Burnham, Starfleet, or the series. But a simple and charged storyline delivers exactly what a pilot should: It lay out the potential. And the simplicity of that proposition is a dream. No Star Trek series since the TOS has hit the ground running (that itself a happy accident of network intervention), and Discovery hasn’t the luxury of finding its feet as slowly as its predecessors.

Discovery emerges into an environment radically changed since Star Trek ruled the television roost. The baton of Deep Space Nine wasn’t passed to Voyager, but through Trek alumni - and master Klingon-wrangler - Ronald D. Moore onto Battlestar Galactica, itself both a trigger and quality death knell for the demise of the star ship show. In that staple’s place came a slew of ground-breaking genre shows, tussling with dramas and comedies that have filled out a self-proclaimed golden age of television. While DS9, Enterprise and Voyager all had elements of an arc, it was inconceivable that Discovery wouldn’t spin around one continuous story line. Consequences are essential, but there also needs to be a strong thread of that good old essence that shone through the Original Series’ weekly reboot.

As if you haven’t heard it enough - get ready for the a lot of the word ‘simple’. Because the balance Discovery needed to achieve may be simple to describe, but not so much to confront. Fortunately, the show runners have taken it at face value. Consequence is at the centre of the show, and drives the character interaction that’s been essential since Kirk, Spock and McCoy chose each angle of their particular triangle. Two episodes in, we haven’t seen the fruition of that yet, we haven’t even seen the bridge that will take the centre of the show, but there are hints of something satisfactorily similar and crucially different from the bridges we’ve seen in the past.

We have a eminently approachable captain cut down (wonder if the brilliantly cast Michelle Yeoh will return?), a troubled, conflicted first officer as culpable as she is mitigated for her actions, and a wonderfully framed science officer. Oh, did those trailers sell Doug Jones’ Saru short. He is a wonder stroke, the kind of science officer we can all relate to. to paraphrase, “Captain, what are you talking about, I just can’t get a lock so what do you expect me to do?”. It’s fun it’s real, it’s the character antithesis of Scotty (or exactly what he mumbled under his breath). But mainly, it’s a freedom from the technobabble elitism of Voyager, a rot that originated in TNG and established a major strangle-hold in the 24th century of the franchise and beyond (well, back to Enterprise). That century’s the one where Starfleet Academy compiles geniuses who can invent themselves out of any situation. A natural temptation, but far removed from the grafting innovation of engineers and helmsmen on the original Enterprise. No doubt Scotty is grafting away in an engine room somewhere in this timeline, if not banished for threatening the ailing Adimiral Archer’s dog.

Klingon hugs not recommended (Credit: CBS)

Taking a cue from the big screen

Ah, yes, the film reboot, if it’s an elephant in the room it’s got a cloaking device.

Parallel to the film series, the aim of Discovery is clearly to modernise by taking a step back. It’s a simple reintroduction to the tenets of Star Trek, and that doesn’t amount to the endlessly repeated mantra of the Prime Directive — that doesn’t get an airing over these two hours.

It’s a joy to have Bryan Fuller, taking point on this opening story, on board to explore and expand the themes that need to sit at the core of modern Trek, as much as it still kicks that he’s left the series. His pilot’s simplicity doesn’t mean it skimps on fleshing out the issues. The plot leaves space for those themes as much as it touches on terrorism, culture clashes, populism, authority and hubris... Discovery picks up on Star Trek’s central roots, but it doesn’t simply hinge on the diversity and idealism that started to emerge 51 years ago. The qualities of light and dark, bandied about all too often in genre franchises, don’t get a look in. Instead, “We come in peace” is held up several times as a trap by the Klingons (the threat we meet first, always on their own ground, and seldom speaking Federation standard -a neat Netflix easter egg adds Klingon subtitles to English speech). But it’s also questioned by human characters, twice in gruelling sequences that follow serious trauma, radiation damage and head injury. These are two characters struggling with the strict theoretical lines of ingrained Federation values - but we can’t trust their sentiment in those conditions. Not much can be trusted.

New Torchbearer please (Credit: CBS)

The new balance

That’s balanced against a Starfleet that’s made hay while the Klingons hid in disarray, and the unhelpful dislocation of experience preached by the vulcans.

Despite the fractured family dynamic of the USS Shenzhou bridge - a narratively shortened clash - the upper echelons of Starfleet retreat to shadow. Come the end, Command is a faceless, back-lit committee, recalling the doomed ensign who stumbles towards an incarcerated Burnham while struggling to retain Starfleet’s dogma. Its in moments like that the influence of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan is strongest. It’s a scene that sticks, like flashes of that or The Motion Picture but it’s not just elementally iconic. It’s a far deeper layering than even Section 31 offered in DS9 or Into Darkness. No doubt there are flying red herrings in this mix, but it’s certain that Discovery wants, or needs, to confront the darkness of Dr McCoy’s space writ large. It’s greys and fatalities, and Discovery isn’t afraid to kill quickly and bluntly, just as pre-publicity promised.

Opposition

Much has been made on the need for conflict in the show, a necessity for the drama that apparently sits in natural opposition to the 1960s premise.

Discovery may have a precious lack demonstrable exploration — it’s kept to dialogue and a lone, fateful mission — but this timeline already has a clearly defined route to both more peace in the galaxy, and greater threats. Hundreds of hours of it, across all four quadrants of the galaxy.

Discovery is set 10 years before Kirk, because that’s where it needs to be. When’s better to to explore the essence of Starfleet? It’s a different, more metaphysical take, on the direct line to the birth of the Federation that Enterprise took. that road to wasn’t without its merits, although it fluffed its lines on Vulcan, Andorian and Tellarite shenaigans and never reached the end of the tarmac.

Head to the future and your dealing with a concept less entropied, but more set. That future requires extreme circumstances to break the mould — that’s what Deep Space Nine got uncomfortably right and Voyager interminably wrong — ignoring whether this has any place in the Roddenberry vision at all. By pushing up into the timeline from source, it stands a better chance of a exploring the creation of Star Trek, and solving the riddle at the heart of the franchise.

The awkward existence of a binary being (Credit: CBS)

Logic reapplied

It’s not just the core premise of the Federation, well-worn to parody as it is, that gets a reappraisal.

The “Vulcan Hello” isn’t just a neat name for the opener, but a crucial part of the first episode’s narrative. The justification for it has split fandom, but its the best short-hand for this new, bullish grip on 51 years of continuity. It’s reapplying the franchise’s own logic, knowingly to it’s most logical component. It’s refreshing and it stands up to scrutiny. Vulcan’s hold logic above pacifism by their very nature. It’s a realignment, filling species that have slipped into caricature or overuse with a new lease of life.

It’s an approach that permeates the show, though some aspects are still a little rough around the edges. This is a franchise renaissance just as the da Vinci-styled credits, beautiful if strangely pedestrian, underline. It’s also an emergence.

Star Trek doesn’t put a lot of stock in using its down time and off-air strife to underpin its television return, unlike other genre shows. As continuity complicating as it is, the 10 years before Kirk’s initial five year mission sets the necessary barriers to knock down that that the 24th century had varnished and replaced. Propulsion further forward in the chronology may have been easier, but quite possibly not as ground-breaking. This step back is the perfect place for reappraisal. And knowingly, Discovery makes an effort to side-step technological continuity headaches. The USS Shenzhou is old, using more dated tech than other ships currently flying around, including the USS Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike. Its diversity is part of that, thematically feeding into TOS rather than rushing into competition like some other Star Trek series.

It needed to get the fundamentals right, and Discovery does that in a fundamental way. While the three recent films have opened with convoluted first contact set-pieces, distorting the timeline or subverting expectation, Discovery is textbook. A desert planet mission and a humanitarian(sic) mission solved by the expert application of some firepower, followed by an orienteering solution to beat ship to surface interference. It’s a joy of a set-up, even though it’s riddled with exposition. We can forgive that, because this is Star Trek, one of the key inventors of popular entertainment exposition. And some things shouldn’t have to change with the TV times.

For its pilot, Discovery chooses the path set, inadvertently by the Original Series, twice and TNG, once. A simple, light treatment of a hard sci-fi concept steeped in history. Not the Trojan Horse and exploitative captivity of TNG’s Encounter at Farpoint or The Cage’s and Where No Man has Gone Before’s ESP horror. Here it’s the clash of civilisations, the fear of elimination, the balancing of faith, extremism, and duty. It’s astonishing how simple it is, particularly the canon-baiting and crisply delivered final stroke. The Klingon sarcophagus ship that fuelled so much speculation is exactly that — a ship gilded in an armour of coffins. The Black Fleet. There’s no falling down the same temporal or reality changing rabbit holes that DS9, Voyager, Enterprise or recent films did. While details of Discovery were light before broadcast, the opening two episodes still offered few surprises. Of course, the joy lies in knowing practically nothing about the 13 episodes yet to come and seeing how this will all fit together. While Discovery isn’t perfect -how could it be? - that’s all any Star Trek fan should hope for. And for the expectant CBS, it should be well enough to line up a new generation of fans.

Getting Theoretical: What are the latest theories?

Prime? this is the Kelvin timeline through and through...

Fortunately for Discovery, many of the problems posed by modern Trek characterisation have been absorbed by the franchise’s recent ride on the big screen. The parallel timeline of the current film series, re-writing and rebooting the Original Series without pushing the original out of existence, had to finding its own unique but similar mix as a priority. And of course, it’s struggled.

At the release of the third rebooted film last summer, well-reviewed if financially denied as it was, Chris Pine pointed out that, “a brainy Star Trek film just couldn’t work” on the big screen. That’s an over simplification of its own, and doesn’t explain Into Darkness. But for all its on screen budget and action that isn’t a tack taken by Discovery. In fact, the show picks up very few cues from its big screen brother bar the conspicuous lens flare and Vulcan learning pods, that on their own have convinced many that it’s set in the alternate Kelvin universe.

Bloody hell. It isn’t.

Rating: B+

Discovery strives to set out both sides. And it wins the battle.

The ending’s even more rushed than the disintegration of unity on the USS Shenzhou bridge. But though we don’t see the consequences of big bad T’Kuvma’s mistake, hung on his devotion, the pinch that Burnham has inadvertently created a martyr of this Kahless reborn persists. We lose two compelling characters come the end, in a mess of a fall-out that submerges both sides into shadow and darkness. That’s how strong Discovery is, and the solid set of concepts that can drive missions in its web. We have a strong set of characters, fascinating dynamics and just enough sturdiness about the characters left behind to propel the series on, even if we have little idea how they’ll fit together in the series proper.

It’s bold, and its divisive. But Discovery’s talent prioritised the concept of the show as they saw it, acutely aware that it could never meet every expectations right out of space dock. Creating that potential on the back of so much continuity and such a long break is no mean feat.

CBS, have got a winner, one of the strongest Trek pilots in 51 years, and we haven’t even started the series properly yet. On the strength of this many more people will realise that come the series end.

For more of Jokerside, check out the fortnightly Jokershorts pop culture column.

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