Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Star Trek Discovery, Season One, Episodes One and Two: The Vulcan Hello/Battle at the Binary Stars

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Like every fan of Star Trek, I was anxious about the series premiere of Star Trek Discovery. Since Enterprise aired its last episode in 2005, there hasn't been another show in the Star Trek universe on television. Fans have had to content themselves with the rebooted movies.  Star Trek began by beaming itself into our home on a weekly basis and while television may not necessarily mean the same extensive special effects as the large screen, it encourages longer engagement with the universe and its characters.

I found myself surprised to discover that Star Discovery doesn't wrap itself around the captain of the vessel but around first officer Michael Burnham.  After watching Sonequa Martin-Green in action, I can almost forgive her for becoming zombie food on The Walking Dead. But how does Michael stand out as a human on a ship that has an inter stellar cast? It turns out that Michael was raised by Vulcans after being discovered in the wreckage of a Klingon attack.  Through flashback, we learn that she has never gotten over the trauma of this event and has struggled to maintain the false veneer of pure Vulcan logic, even as her human heart compels her to feel emotions she would much rather ignore; Michael cares despite herself.

Vulcans are meant to be emotionless - it is ingrained into their very nature and despite knowing this, fans always want some display of emotion be it love, anger or hate from a Vulcan.  It's why towards the end of The Original series, writers seemed to look for excuses for Spock to display emotions. Fans love their Vulcans but they also want them to step outside of the coldness of logic sometimes.  It's why having Michael be a human raised by Vulcans is something that fans are going to easily embrace.

Michael's past trauma becomes part of the plot when the USS Shenzhou, captained by Philippa Georgiou, are forced to confront the Klingons. It's worth noting that Start Trek Discovery takes place ten years before the original series and therefore, the Klingons are very much a threat.  Michael's sense of panic is so strong that she reaches out to her former Vulcan guardian Sarek, to learn how it is that the Vulcans and Klingons came to an agreement. Unlike the Federation, whose mission is "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before", the Vulcans already have a pretty good handle on space and by their nature, learn very quickly from each interaction. After being attacked by the Klingons, each interaction that Vulcans had with Klingons, they made sure to fire first.  It may seem counter intuitive to fire first if what you want is peace, but strength and aggression are what matter to Klingons.

After meeting with Sarek, Michael takes her suggestion to Georgiou, only to be shot down.  Georgiou refuses to break Confederation guidelines and be the aggressor. Michael makes the mistake of challenging Georgiou's decision in front of the crew and when that doesn't work, attempts to knock Georgiou unconscious using the Vulcan nerve pinch and order the crew to fire on the Klingon ship. Before a shot can be fired however, Georgiou stumbles onto the bridge holding a phaser and filled with rage. Georgiou's confrontation with Michael is cut short when the Klingons attack.  Even though Michael's experience would come in handy, attempting a mutiny is enough for Georgiou to order Michael sent to the brig.

As aforementioned, Star Trek Discovery takes place a decade before the Original Series and this means that not only has the Federation not made peace with the Klingons, the Klingons themselves are not exactly united either.  There's been much infighting among the Klingons and the ruling family's seem to have lost a communal identity, though they all believe in their superiority based in identity. T’Kuvma has a more inspired vision for the future of the Klingon race and believes that the path forward was set out by none other than Kahless, the first Klingon emperor, who created the codes of conduct and honour. We've seen Klingon death rituals before in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode Heart of Glory, in which Worf roars at the sky to let Sto-Vo-Kor know that a warrior is coming.  What is interesting about Star Trek Discovery, is that Klingons heavily honour their dead and even collect them after the battle.  T’Kuvma's ship even has caskets filled with rotting Klingons attached to his ship.

Fans of the Klingon language are surely thrilled by how much actual Klingon is spoken in the first two episodes. It's also exciting to see the beginning of how the different family's finally align.  It's not at all surprising that the Klingons find the Federation's standard message of coming in peace to be duplicitous and a call to arms. Klingons may not be able to agree with each other about a lot but they can however agree that battle is glorious and that anyone who isn't like them needs to be conquered. The USS Shenzhou presents the perfect target for T'kuvma to use to start a war.

Throughout the battle, Martin is locked up in the brig but Sarek manages to reach out to her again.  Sarek makes it clear that this is costing him greatly and that he is not doing it to make an emotional goodbye but to encourage Martin to be of use.  Sarek's visit is all the inspiration that Martin needs to make her way back to the bridge.  Unfortunately, when Martin arrives at the bridge, she finds that the battle is over and that The USS Shenzhou has been all but destroyed.  Georgiou begins to think about what to do next and actually quotes Sun Tzu, which btw had me rolling my eyes. For the record, The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise and Georgiou is Malaysian.  Michael is quick to advise against killing T'Kuvma because that would not only make him a martyr but something for the Klingons to rally around.  Georgious instead orders Saru to beam a bomb onto one of the dead Klingon's bodies.  Everything goes to plan and the bomb disables the ship and all that is left is for Michael and Georgiou to board the Klingon vessel and capture T'Kuvma.

It's been a long standing thing on Star Trek that on away missions someone non essential will either die or be captured.  I must admit to being very suspicious when both Georgiou and Michael ended up on the Klingon ship because both characters are women of colour.  Star Trek Discovery spent quite a bit of time establishing Georgiou and Michael's relationship and much of the promotional material before the show highlighted that Georgiou would not only be a captain but speak in her own accent. Two women of colour exploring the universe must have been two good to be true because Georgiou ends up in a fight with the taller, heavier and stronger T'kuvma and is killed. Martin reacts by shooting T'kuvma  dead with her phaser. Before Martin can reach Georgiou to ensure that her body is not left behind, Saru beams her back aboard the USS Shenzhou because he believes that with the captain dead, the situation is too dangerous for Martin to remain on the Klingon ship.  A broken Martin breaks down crying when she finds herself back on the USS Shenzhou without Georgiou.

As Martin predicted, T'kuvma's death is quickly celebrated because he died in battle, as all good warriors do.  These first two episodes mark the beginning of the Federation's war with the Klingons.

Georgiou may have forgiven Martin in time had she lived but there is no leniency from the Federation for what they perceive to be a mutiny.  Martin's logic for her actions are actually reasonable when you think it through and she didn't act because she wanted power but because she thought that firing on the Klingon ship just might be the only way to avert a terrible situation.  The Federation uses a single policy for how it interacts with different species and so it's hardly surprising that this tried and true tact backfired with the Klingons. There can be no one size fits all solutions in a universe that is this varied. Martin is promptly sentenced to life in prison.

I am really displeased with Georgiou death.  It feels like false advertising on the part of the writers, producers and advertisers.  Yes, I was suspicious at the news that there would be two captains but I didn't for one minute think that Georgiou would be killed off so quickly.  Two episodes. They gave Georgiou two episodes before replacing her with Captain Gabriel Lorca. Asians receive such little representation on television and yeah, I know that the original series had Sulu and Voyager had Harry Kim but what has Star Trek done for the inclusion of Asians recently?  Even if Martin ends up being the focal point of the story rather than Captain Gabriel Lorca, it doesn't take the sting out of Georgiou's death, especially given that she's only the second Asian captain.  It's particularly galling given that the Asian captains have had combined less screen time then any of the other captains individually, with the exception of George Kirk who became captain in the movie reboots. There's also the issue that there haven't really been a lot of Asian characters in this universe either.

What's a new Star Trek series without the introduction of a new alien? Star Trek Discovery used Saru, a member of the Kelpian species to fit the bill.  Throughout much of Star Trek Discovery, Saru came across as a coward, as a sort of foil to Michael's far more adventurous character. Kelpians don't take risks because on their home planet they were bred to be prey.  Kelpian breeding means that they can sense death coming.  This is why Saru can say with certainty when the USS Shenzhou first comes into contact with the Klingons that death is not far behind. Since Saru will be transferring to the Discovery, I hope to learn more about this species which I suspect will be played for comic relief.

As I mentioned when I started this recap/review my overriding thought when the opening episodes began was a wish for it to actually be good. So far, I'm very invested in Martin and so I can even forgive her sudden intrusion into Sarek's life. The problem with Star Trek is that it is notorious for playing with timelines in a way that don't always make the most sense.  Surely, Spock would have mentioned his father having a ward at some point in his career with Star Fleet.

I make no presumption about what's to come, other than the fact that this season is clearly going to deal with a war between Star Fleet and the Klingons. Thus far, I've really enjoyed the casting and really like James Frain as Sarek.  Frain, for me, is absolutely perfect casting. Sonequa Martin-Green is great as Martin, particularly when she struggles to make sense of her emotions when they clash with her desire to be as logical as the Vulcans who raised her The fact that Martin has PTSD adds depth to her character and makes her the first main character on Star Trek to have a mental illness. I hope that Martin's PTSD is not magically cured because not only do disabled people deserve to see ourselves represented, PTSD is not something that can be cured with a magic pill.

I enjoyed everything about Star Trek Discovery but the introduction sequence. Even though Discovery supposedly predates the Original Series, there's nothing in the opening which could be considered iconic or even representative of the series itself. IT's almost as though they decided to just save money on the opening and move onto something else.  I hope that as the series continue this will change and that we at least get a decent theme.