Binge or Purge?: Star Trek Discovery
Star Trek Discovery doesn’t boldly go into undiscovered territory, but it isn’t completely deserving of a court-martial. Come for the Klingons; stay for the Klingons.
It’s hard to completely divorce any discussion of Star Trek Discovery from previous TV Treks. Everyone has their favorite series and that will bias expectations. Luckily, while I have my favorite series (TNG post beard; fight me), I’m not a giant Trek fan. I can remain… logical. So the task at hand is to separate what CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery does on its own from what it does for the Trek experience. I’ll briefly touch on the latter, but spend much of this maiden voyage on the former.
Star Trek Discovery (2017)
Star Trek Discovery is a chronicle of two events. The first is the war between the United Federation of Planets and the united Houses of the Klingons, set roughly ten years prior to the original Star Trek TV series. The second is the rise, fall, and redemption of starfleet officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). These two narratives weave in and out of each other, with the uniting factor being the USS Discovery, a ship on the cutting edge of Federation technology.
Season 1, Episode 1: The Vulcan Hello
We are introduced to Michael Burnham, second in command of the USS Shenzou. Her captain, Phillippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) is faced with an historic decision when a routine mission on the edge of Federation space results in contact with a cloaked Klingon war vessel. Meanwhile, the Klingons are on the cusp of history themselves: the charismatic fundamentalist leader T’Kuvma has a plan to use a war with the Federation to unite all the disparate Klingon houses.
This Pilot episode sets up a lot of the plot for the first season, and it also establishes a tone and ambience to this new Trek story. The design for the Klingons was controversial; while it is a departure in some aspects, it works well for the story. Bryan Fuller my have been ousted as showrunner, but Discovery still has his style.
I actually was more interested in the Klingon arc than the crew of the Shenzou. That’s not a giant knock on the actors, most of them are good to great (with Doug Jone’s Saru being my standout). They’re just kind of samey: a quirky crew, an outside the box thinking protagonist, and a lot of #1 to #2 “fireside chats”. The Federation seems like Trek homecooking, the Klingons are the nouvelle cuisine.
Season 1, Episode 2: Battle at the Binary Stars
Burnham’s gambit has failed to preempt an engagement with the Klingons, and the cost is great on both sides. Both sides regroup and lick their wounds, and the Federation is left to deal with both a new war and a rebellious second in command.
I always get a kick out of Trek space battles. Star Wars may have the name, but Trek has always been the place to go for wars amongst the stars. The action is strong, and the special effects are great… for TV fare. We lose two of the most intriguing characters in this episode, but Martin-Green’s Burnham and Javid Iqbal’s Voq step in to fill the void nicely.
The choice to frame Discovery from someone other than a Captain’s perspective falls a little flat, because Burnham behaves like a classic Trek Captain. She’s smart, resourceful, and is willing to skirt the rules if they interfere with her goals. Other Treks spent whole episodes on #2, so this doesn’t feel like some game changing narrative choice.
Season 1, Episode 3: Context is for Kings
Burnham begins life as a non-commissioned member of the USS Discovery. This involves reuniting with crew members from the Shenzou who witnessed her mutiny at the Battle of the Binary Stars. It also requires liasing with Gabriel Lorca, a Captain with a ruthless desire to see the Federation win this new war.
Once again, I have to give the edge to the Klingons. I’m much more invested in their power dynamics than that of the Discovery. The expansion of Klingon lore, the personal convictions and struggles of Voq, and the examination of the “human” side of fundamentalism is much more fascinating than Burnham’s guilt or Lorca’s scheming.
I also felt a little bait-and-switched with the plot of this episode. It felt like we were going to get a standalone episode, but then it’s grafted right onto the Klingon/Federation war. My favorite Treks were much like the X-files: character building individual adventures always piqued my interest over the world building meta episodes. I know it’s early into the season, but I am really hoping for some discovery out of Discovery.
Season 1, Episode 4: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry
Michael Burnham must navigate the ethical quandary of doing individual harm for the greater good when a newly discovered lifeform holds the key to saving a mining colony. Aboard the crippled Klingon warship, Voq must wrestle with betraying his ideals to save his crew.
Ok, I’m about ready to just call this Klingon Warship: Discovery. And that’s fine by me. Voq and L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) are eating up every scene they are in. Meanwhile the crew of the Discovery is starting to grate on me. I don’t care about Lorca one whit, Burnham is often too intense, and Officer Sylvia Tilly can find herself on the wrong side of an airlock any time now.
This episode is very talky, which isn’t damning for a Trek episode. It’s just that only half the conversations are interesting. You probably know which half I’m referring to.
Binge or Purge?
Go to Yellow Alert on this series. It has enough going for it to merit more watching, but it’s moving forward on impulse power. The visuals are decadent, the designs are strong, and the music is good. The acting is better than average, but the writing sometimes leads the Federation cast Into Darkness. I really like the Klingons, and if they tried to get some more charm into the Federation side I’d be a believer.
Open a channel on Star Trek: Discovery, but be ready to beam out on short notice.