Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1 Episode 1
“The Vulcan Hello”
After a 12 year hiatus from television; Star Trek returns to TV with an updated look and a new crew in Star Trek: Discovery.
Those who read the site frequently or listen to the podcasts will know that I love Star Trek; many of the contributors to this site do and I have a profound personal connection to the franchise. I acknowledge the lows, can poke fun at its frequent dalliances with the ridiculous but also hold the franchise in very high regard. At its best it was able to explore complex moral questions or simply dazzle the audience with a fascinating idea. Star Trek has brought me a bit of everything over the years so I’m delighted that it’s back with a new series.
A bit of background before I begin talking about this particular episode. Star Trek: Discovery isn’t strictly on television though the first episode aired on CBS in the US. This new iteration of the franchise will appear weakly on streaming platforms. American viewers can get it on CBS’ new platform CBS All Access and the rest of the world will find it on Netflix. I won’t pretend to know the financial detail behind this decision but my understanding is that this allows for the budget to be a lot higher than it would be if it aired on network TV as Star Trek has done in the past.
This new series takes place in the year 2256 which places it 10 years before the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew in Star Trek: The Original Series and it supposedly returns to the original timeline rather than taking place in the alternate timeline created by the JJ Abrams Star Trek movie released in 2009. I say supposedly as there is nothing in this episode to suggest either way. Some fans may be angered by the following statement but I personally don’t care what timeline the show is set in; all I’m concerned with is whether I enjoy it and if it’s a worthy addition to the Star Trek canon.
I’m glad to announce that so far the show is delivering on both counts. Two episodes are currently available for viewing but I’ll refrain from watching the second until I’ve completed this review as always as I don’t like my opinion clouded by future knowledge.
The episode opens with a Klingon named T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) delivering an impassioned speech about restoring honour to the Klingon people and uniting the houses. Details are vague but there’s enough here to generate interest and it’s a very effective tease. The most striking thing is that the Klingons look a little different than fans will be familiar with. The difference isn’t significant enough to qualify as unfaithful but it is noticeable. Personally I like this updated Klingon design as it retains the spirit of the iconic look while updating it for the modern era and presenting something that looks legitimately alien.
Following the tease we are introduced to Starfleet Officers. Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her first officer, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) are on a mission to end a drought that could lead to the extinction of an entire species. The planet they are on is unforgiving and desolate but the two officers are clearly enthusiastic about having the opportunity to save an entire species. I couldn’t help but notice the situation is similar to the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk and his crew are working to stop a Volcano erupting. The mechanics of the situation are completely different but the broad strokes match up. Captain Georgiou talks about “General Order 1” also known as the Prime Directive though no context is given for what that actually is. It isn’t necessary for the purposes of this scene as it is more about the characters.
One thing that immediately stands out is the sense of camaraderie between them. It’s mentioned that they have served together for 7 years and the performances of the actors really sell that. There’s a familiarity in their relationship and a sense of mutual respect. Burnham clearly respects her Captain’s authority but also isn’t shy about expressing her opinion. It’s a very sophisticated scene that establishes their relationship clearly though the dialogue is somewhat on the nose at times; a problem that persists throughout the episode.
It isn’t long before they are returned to their ship; the USS Shenzhou and it looks amazing inside and out. I love the design of it as it sticks to the principles native to Star Trek but also feels unique. The bridge looks practical and functional as do the uniforms. It’s a very slick looking series in general while also remaining faithful to the franchise as a whole.
The bridge crew feel like a cohesive unit which makes sense since they have served together for a long time. Outside of Captain Georgiou and Commander Burnham, the majority of the crew aren’t given much in the way of development or screen time. I suspect that this is the case because the show won’t actually take place on this ship so most of the characters won’t be seen beyond this episode and the next. The exception is Lieutenant Commander Saru (Doug Jones); he’s a member of an alien race known as the Kelpiens and the most significant thing about him is that he sees the universe in black and white. From a cultural point of view that’s how his people view everything. It’s mentioned that as far as he’s concerned you’re either the predator or the prey which is a fairly simplistic way of looking at things though this is clearly deliberate as it inspires debate among the characters. I suspect that his arc will involve him coming to see the universe in more nuanced ways.
Saru is a great character so far and Doug Jones plays him very well. His relationship with Burnham is slightly adversarial so I suspect much of their interactions will have them conflicting over various issues which should prove interesting if handled well.
Michael is the focus of this episode. The log entry comes from her and it’s very poetically worded suggesting that she doesn’t just see her career in Starfleet as a job that she has to do. The Shenzhou is on a mission to repair a damaged relay which is about as mundane as it gets for Starfleet though she approaches it with excitement and enthusiasm because it represents the desire to grow and learn. The plot kicks in when an unidentified object is detected in a nearby asteroid field and Michael strongly suggests that they investigate it. She fully subscribes to Starfleet’s founding principle being that of exploration and mentions that it would be irresponsible to not learn all there is to learn about the mysterious object. Naturally the Captain agrees and Michael investigates the object in a thruster suit.
Up until this point, Michael had been a largely sedate character betraying very little emotion but this changes once she leaves the ship and heads on her way to find out what the object is. She clearly finds the whole thing to be fun -as unnecessarily pointed out by dialogue- and sees things like this as the reason she joined Starfleet in the first place. The sense of exploration and the promise of discovery are heavily evident in this episode and it’s very much welcomed as this has always been a big part of what Star Trek is about for me.
The device turns out to be an ancient Klingon beacon which alerts the Shenzhou to the presence of Klingons in the area. Effectively they stumble onto T’Kuvma’s plan and have to react to it. The circumstances of Michael’s discovery meant that the data she collected was corrupted so Captain Georgio has to take her word on what was found. The moment where Georgio decides to trust her first officer was very well executed as the performances clearly show the trust built between them over the years. Captain Georgio trusts her first officer’s judgement and adopts a more cautious approach from then on.
Michael’s backstory comes into play at this point. Encountering Klingons is a personal problem for her as her family were killed by them so facing up against them compromises her emotionally. We see how reliving the event disrupted her ability to learn as a child and her interactions with Sarek (James Frain) establish that she tried to adopt a more Vulcan attitude to emotion though can’t quite get to grips with it. As such her attitude to the Klingons is seen to be more personal rather than practical despite her recommendations making logical sense. She evidences the fact that Vulcans always fired on Klingons first to build respect as they see honour in combat and she recommends that they do the same. Captain Georgio rejects this notion as Starfleet doesn’t fire first on principle and she doesn’t want to be responsible for starting a War. The Shenzhou is also massively outgunned so an armed conflict is something best avoided.
Unfortunately Michael doesn’t take no for an answer and mutinies against her Captain because she feels that it’s necessary to save the ship. The end result of this is unknown as that’s where the episode is but it’s a lot to pack into a first episode and it’s handled very well. I found the characters to be well established in a short time so Michael’s betrayal felt visceral. Her personal reaction to having to deal with Klingons felt very in character thanks to a well placed flashback.
The use of Sarek in this episode is interesting as it makes no mention of the fact that he is Spock’s father so from that point of view he could be any Vulcan. His brief interaction with Michael is all about their relationship and the episode does a really good job establishing that they are close despite the fact that Sarek betrays no emotion. The words are very well chosen and James Frain delivers them well so the relationship can be easily extrapolated. I suspect this will be deepened as the season progresses and the reason for using Sarek specifically will become clear.
So far the Klingons are used really well. They are enigmatic though a lot is made of their adherence to cultural conventions. Their ship looks great and I like the idea of the ceremonial placing of the coffins on the outside as a mark of respect for fallen Warriors. A lot is made from a little and it’s really compelling to see. The end of the episode sets the stage for what promises to be an excellent space battle between Starfleet and the Klingons so I look forward to the next one. Star Trek is back and I couldn’t be happier.
A worthy entry into the Star Trek canon and an excellent first outing for this series. The characters are well developed, the actors perform well, everything looks slick and modern while remaining faithful to the franchise roots and, most importantly the spirit of what I feel Star Trek is supposed to be is retained.
The plot of the episode is compelling as well as it remains focused on the characters while allowing the spectacle to inform that so the production team clearly understand why Star Trek is so beloved. On occasion the dialogue has a tendency to come across as on the nose but it’s far from a deal breaker.
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