Red alert! SPOILERS at maximum!
We’re going to have to adjust to a Star Trek series where every week we get a cliffhanger, quite possibly, with Star Trek: Discovery. The first episode may not in any sense of the world felt like the pilot episodes of Trek from the late 1980’s onwards, but ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ in all but name is ‘part two’ of the same story, picking up directly from the end of ‘The Vulcan Hello’ where a massive Klingon fleet showed up to trouble the USS Shenzhou, while aboard ship our protagonist Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham certainly went where no lead character had gone before and in the first episode committed nothing short of mutiny. Be honest, we didn’t expect that coming, did we?
It’s a bold move from writers Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts, working from a Bryan Fuller story before he left the series (he still retains a token Executive Producer credit, along with about five thousand other people), and sets the stall out for Discovery as a show willing to display a different side to its principal characters, and the Federation itself.
Honestly, there was a shade of Star Trek Into Darkness to this second episode, with the hawkish Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico) and Burnham’s ‘fire first’ ethics. Her clash with Captain Georgiou in microcosm represents old and new Trek in conflict; she feels more of a 24th century leader, pre-Dominion War, with the key Federation ideals humanity is still striving toward. Her fate here is fitting for such grave, reflective times – she was just too wise and ahead of her time to survive.
You realise just how much Fuller intended Discovery to reflect our age by the end of ‘Binary Stars’. This doesn’t seem like a Federation in a good place. They’re pushing the boundaries of exploration and running up against the Klingons, who now start backing the possessed T’Kuvma as a holy crusader uniting their species against the greater, all-encompassing enemy; the Klingons, much like many fringe terror groups today in our world, are fighting back against what they consider to be a potential erosion of culture. Fear drives their motivations, under the guise of a spiritual reading of Kahless the Unforgettable’s teachings. Ironically they’ve forgotten the true meaning of honour, much like Burnham forgets the meaning of her uniform, and her duty as a Starfleet officer to uphold the chain of command.
Burnham continues to fascinate (appropriately given her Vulcan background). Her motivations are complex. She claims not to be driven by emotion, but how else can her attempt to attack the Klingons be read? Granted, she believes the Vulcan ideology of understanding their enemy can save the Shenzhou (and she may well have been right) but has she learned nothing over the seven years we find she’s been on the ship, under Georgiou?
By the end, Burnham learns the cost of her actions in losing not just a mentor but a friend, but it’s a dark journey getting there. Flashbacks unobtrusively woven in show the trauma of a childhood marked by Klingon attack and Sarek’s almost paternal affection for her – did he want her to have a similar experience to Spock by putting her on the Shenzhou?
A couple of technical Trek geek points, briefly. Georgiou mentions how the Shenzhou is ‘old’ and one wonders if when we finally see the USS Discovery, she will be aesthetically more in line with the original, more colourful Enterprise 1960’s design interior; the Shenzhou feels like the natural evolution of the NX ship design – perhaps Starfleet was beginning to move past those aesthetics come the age of The Original Series?
Speaking of Sarek, and I am surely not the only one to pick this up, but his mention to Burnham during their katra connection (which raised an uncertain eyebrow from me, have to say) of such psychic conversation exacting a toll reminded me that Sarek ends up dying, long ahead in The Next Generation, from Bendii Syndrome, a neurological condition… could these psychic chats with Burnham be an early cause of his later disease? If that was in Fuller & Alex Kurtzman’s mind, bravo from a continuity point.
‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ thankfully maintains the quality of the opener, if perhaps it slightly lacks a certain level of depth and fizz in the writing. We are treated to a decent space battle, which feels more akin to the fleet skirmishes of Deep Space Nine than the whizz bang of the JJ Abrams movies, and a story which continues establishing Michael Burnham as a complex lead character, with more than a few twists, turns and surprising developments throughout.
Discovery also here spells out, in no uncertain terms: this is Star Trek like we haven’t quite seen before. May it live long and prosper.
Star Trek: Discovery is now streaming on Netflix, with new episodes every Monday. Did you enjoy the second episode? Let us know!