The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green stars as Michael Burnham who, I have to say, is the most surprising part of the series premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, in the best possible way.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the plot, but in discussing the most interesting elements of the new show there’s no way to avoid revealing some aspects.
Just in case I have to say it: SPOILER ALERT!
Michael has clearly been set up to be the show’s protagonist. Even if you weren’t aware of that from the trailer and promo material released, the two-part pilot makes it obvious.
And yet, she has some decidedly anti-heroic traits that immediately make me like her.
She’s rebellious and insubordinate yet at the same time dedicated, both to the captain and crew, and the pursuit of discovery. She’s highly logical, as a result of an essentially Vulcan upbringing (more on that in a minute), yet also highly emotional.
She calculated, yet reckless. Moral, yet as we see in this outing, fully capable of throwing out the rule book in the pursuit of whatever she judges to be the right course of action.
That makes her undeniably arrogant, yet she is also humble.
I’m actually quite astounded they’ve managed to cram so much characterisation for her into a single two-parter. Not since we were introduced to Benjamin ‘Don’t **** With The’ Sisko in the Deep Space Nine opener has a series lead had so much individual attention.
It worked very well for Sisko and I expect it to play out just as well for Burnham.
Sisko has always been my favourite because he was a bit of a rebel. He led with his fists as often as with his head, and his heart as often as his intellect. He possessed brains and brawn in equal measure and wasn’t afraid of either. Burnham has a similar mix, and the potential for a lot more in terms of grit to boot.
All of this in the context of an extremely fine two-parter that is, quite possibly, the strongest of any of the Trek series openers so far.
The Next Generation had an intriguing but flawed opening, Voyager and Enterprise both had unmitigated disasters, and The Original Series’ was greeted with such outrage it was scrapped and redone.
I believe the reason for this strength comes from two core elements: the extremely strong character of Burnham, and the willingness to take risks.
Why Is Risky So Sexy?
During the course of the opener (and this is where the spoilers really start!) Michael disobeys her captain and subdues her with a Vulcan neck pinch, commits mutiny, and attempts to fire first at a ship with unknown intentions. Although her assessment of the situation and suggested response were likely right, there’s no getting around the fact she disobeys orders and takes over the ship.
It would have been very easy for the show to backtrack on this and show that all is forgiven at the end of the episode because, despite her roguish, headstrong behaviour, and the fact she broke numerous laws, she was correct and her heart was in the right place.
How many times did Kirk and to a lesser extent Sisko get away with shit for exactly that reason?
How many times did Janeway get away with it because there was nobody on board with balls big enough to contradict her?
I must admit I was expecting a similar outcome here.
Instead, Michael is sentenced to life in prison and there is no disputing it: she broke bad.
Whatever may happen in future episodes, there’s no way to argue around the fact she seriously screwed up, and did something no Starfleet officer ever should.
The pilot ends with this message: here is your protagonist, she’s seriously screwed up.
And it wasn’t the only one they took…
Let’s Talk Klingons
The Klingons of Discovery are an interesting take on a beloved race. You kind of have to unhook your brain and forget everything you know about what Klingons are supposed to look like and believe, but that’s no different to what we were expected to do when they first appeared on TNG.
Far from the long flowing hair we came to know and love about Klingons previously, these chaps are bald of head. They’re also either far more androgynous than later incarnations, or else at this time women didn’t venture away from the homeland. Given the conspicuous lack of Klingon females in TOS, this may actually make sense, although it’s in stark contrast to the strong presence of female characters among the Starfleet crew. When the Klingon house leaders appear one appears to be female, but other than that we seem to have been left with a hoard of men.
Aside from the hair and gender differences, the Klingons are sporting far more prominent ridges that not only occupy their foreheads but noses, chins and cheeks (I’m not speculating as to the rest of their anatomy, thus far it has remained covered).
Oh, and they cry blood.
I found that oddly appropriate for them.
Skin tones are also very different, with individuals showing black, silver, and bronze shades that have an almost metallic sheen to them. They also have startling eyes that put me very much in mind of the White Walkers from Game of Thrones.
We already know the extreme change in appearance between TOS and Next Gen. was retconned away with the explanation that something happened to change them. It’s not specified what, exactly, though Worf refers to it as a ‘long story’ in Trials and Tribble-ations (Deep Space Nine Season 5.06), but it’s never fully explained.
Well, not unless you actually acknowledge the existence of Enterprise and accept the explanation offered in Affliction and Divergence, which explained it as a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong. (I prefer to ignore the existence of Enterprise as far as canon is concerned because it’s a) utter crap, and b) confusing and inexplicable half the time).
Despite all of this I have no issue with the notion that whatever caused the shift in appearance (in canon, I mean…in real life it was drastic improvements in makeup), happened in stages. The impression given by Discovery is that the initial change was drastic in the extreme, causing the Klingons to change (by the time of TOS) from a very alien-looking race to a race very similar to humans, with slightly more hair and bumpy foreheads. The implication given by Discovery is that this happens somewhere in between the time of the new show and TOS, and is extreme, but by the time of Next Gen., DS9 and Voyager (all of which are very close together chronologically), they were perhaps starting to revert to their original form, with far more pronounced forehead ridges and teeth, while still possessing hair and more humanesque skin tones.
Yes, I’m dwelling a lot on what they look like, but really, when it’s such a huge and cool change, it’s difficult not to.
But more than that, physical appearance isn’t the only thing that’s changed.
Apparently they now have elaborate death rituals and great reverence for the physical body. So much so that they go to great length to retrieve their dead, ultimately leading to their defeat (for now at least). This is in direct opposition to established religious beliefs and their previous total dismissal of corporeal remains. The only thing remaining the same about their death rites is the roar (which really wasn’t that impressive this time, I have to say).
The one change I genuinely welcomed was allowing them to speak in their own language when talking to each other. Given that the show has a highly developed language for them it makes no sense that they would speak English when talking to each other.
It never made sense.
It made even less sense to dismiss it as their language being translated by the universal translator, except when the characters felt like cursing or randomly speaking Klingon to each other, in which case it mysteriously failed to translate.
I far prefer the notion that they all speak Klingon to each other and the ones who know they’re going to be dealing with the Federation have taken the time to learn English, because that is the language used by the universal translator. (While we’re on the subject of language I feel compelled to point out you can watch Discovery on Netflix with Klingon subtitles for all the English dialogue!)
Discovery could have stuck with the appearance and cultural details used in all modern Trek. Or they could have reverted to the look seen in TOS. Instead, they went for a balls on the table epic new look that’s very clearly saying (in my opinion at least) ‘We’re not playing it safe’.
Which is awesome.
Voyager played everything safe and was an unmitigated disaster as a result. DS9 took risk after risk and was (IMO) the best of all the series. It was darker, grittier and pulled off some amazing storylines as a result of the willingness to take risks.
If Discovery is going to be similarly jeopardous it bodes very well for the new series.
Casting James Frain as Sarek is a stroke of genius. I wasn’t at all sure about making Michael Sarek’s adopted daughter (and thus Spock’s sister) when I first heard about it (which was a while ago now), however I felt it worked very well in the end.
There are echoes of the strained relationship between Sarek and Spock as a result of Spock’s human side, but with the opposite reaction on the part of Michael: she’s rejected Sarek’s teachings when it comes to emotion and fully embraced her humanity. Spock, on the other hand, rejected his human half as much as possible and sought to be more fully Vulcan much of the time.
Frain was the perfect choice for this incarnation of Sarek, which has an edge of emotion to it despite the character, and a vaguely creepy vibe that I actually love. I always found the character very bland, aside from the brief stint during which he was losing his mind in Unification.
This version is far more interesting and dynamic, and if not entirely true to the original concept of the character certainly a welcome diversion. This is especially true given the prominent roles he’s set to play in the series.
Unlike a lot of fans I wasn’t at all put out at the notion of retconning in a sibling we knew nothing about for a beloved character – after all, Spock had a brother nobody knew about until their paths collided and he felt telling them was relevant. There’s little reason to suppose he felt any different about an adopted sister, especially if she and Sarek were (as indicated in this opening episode) estranged.
We’ve yet to see any indication that Michael and Spock had much engagement with each other. Spock would have been grown and away from home by the time Michael was living with Sarek, it’s conceivable they aren’t close at all.
My concern was that they were trying to make a female, human version of Spock. Michael is as far from this as possible, although flashbacks in Battle Of The Binary Stars indicates that her time on Vulcan did effectively turn her into this.
It is her time on Discovery that has allowed her to accept and fully embrace her human side.
The science officer, Lt. Saru, seems to fill the role of mandatory Hate Sink: he disagrees with and undermines Michael at every opportunity, dismissing her out of hand, belittling her assertions, instincts, and observations, and often contradicting things he himself said earlier, in order to continue disagreeing with her.
Were it not for the fact he was genetically bred to sense Death (said in a melodramatic growl) I’d hate him. But he’s like an alien banshee with C3PO’s attitude issues so I kind of love him.
It didn’t take me long to recognise the genius of Doug Jones (aka Abe from Hellboy, the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, and the creepiest of Buffy’s Gentleman) at work behind all that blue makeup and exceedingly eerie eyes.
This only made me more excited for the character and I predict his stint as the Hate Sink will be fleeting, or at least well-balanced with positive characteristics in due time.
Long distance communications are a rather awesome mix of the holographic comms briefly seen in DS9 and then immediately forgotten about (by all accounts because the effects guys despised them), and the ghosts from Supernatural. I am torn between finding this to be a confusing continuity error (given they had no hologram technology back then that we know of, and the tech was still in its infancy in Next Gen.) and astonishingly cool.
It makes for far more engaging television, so I’m inclined to forgive them.
Michael’s space flight in The Vulcan Hello is genius and offers up a lot of eye candy. The Klingon she encounters sports an even more epic space suit and what can only be described as an Uber Bat’leth.
The Klingon ships are far more impressive and decidedly more ornate than they ever were in all other incarnations. They seem to have a love of gold and engravings as well as elaborate, almost Egyptian ornamentation and elaborations.
I was very nostalgic when I realised the consoles on Discovery are still fully capable of exploding and killing everyone at the most inopportune moments.
Possibly the highlight of Battle of the Binary Stars is Michael, upon finding herself trapped in the brig and imminently about to die when the forcefield fails, logicing the computer into blowing her out into space and allowing the force of the decompression to shoot her into a safe part of the ship. This is an impressive display of her Vulcan education and a significant indication that the computer of the Discovery isn’t quite as rigid as other versions we’ve seen.
I was reminded of O’Brian arguing with the computer and snapping that he wasn’t asking for an opinion when he found himself repeatedly blocked by the assertion that, “This procedure is not recommended.”
The transporters have also had a very cool update, with the transporter room far more interesting than any previous version.
“We have engaged the Klingons” is a nice call back to The Best of Both Worlds, but completely lacks the gravitas and doom that accompanied Picard’s line, “We have engaged the Borg.”
I’m not sure it was sensible to draw the comparison as it made the moment seem pale and rather small. After the reveal of the Klingon ship, which was very impressive and done excellently, this is a shame.
The obsession with Klingon honor seems to have remained intact, despite the other massive changes to the race. I find this disappointing, since it was a horse beaten to death and beyond a long time ago. I can only hope it will occupy a very minor role in the reinvention of the new culture, rather than proving to be the answer and response to absolutely everything as it was (…or will be??) in Next Gen./DS9/Voyager times.
There is little confrontation with the Klingons in The Vulcan Hello, aside from Michael (arguably accidentally) killing the one she encounters.
Battle At The Binary Stars more than makes up for this with an epic space battle between an armada of Klingon ships and more Starfleet vessels than I thought they would readily have at their disposal at this time.
Both sides suffer heavy casualties, the Klingons ram the Europa, Admiral Anderson’s ship, and he responds by enacting the almighty Janeway Pie.
We’ve often seen captains prepare to blow their ships to smithereens when the going looks dire, but we haven’t seen it happen before now. It’s an astonishing, brave twist. Granted, given the damage, the ship would likely have exploded anyway, but it would have been very easy for them to let that happen (as they did with the Odyssey in The Jem’Hadar). Instead they finally pushed the button on Janeway Pie and those of us who like to see things go boom in a valiant act of self-sacrifice rejoiced.
I’m seriously excited for this new series. I was from the second I heard about it, and I still am now. The two part opening was very strong, with little to complain about beyond a couple of very minor logistical issues. The captain calling Michael number one was a nice touch, and the credits have a deliciously retro feel (not a cringe-worthy yet irritatingly earwormesque pop song in sight). The overall feel of Discovery is a slightly edgy atmosphere that’s a little dark yet simultaneously kind of sparkly.
It’s all kinds of awesome.
Whether you share that opinion will depend entirely on whether you’re capable of accepting that it’s another new incarnation of a beloved series, with modernised updates that are (whatever excuses the show comes up with to explain them) continuity errors, or whether you remain entrenched in the desire for more of the same show we always loved.
Enterprise was an unmitigated disaster from the pilot, only slightly remedied by the end of the series. By that time it was far too late.
From what I’ve seen of Discovery so far it’s a brave new outing, unafraid to be its own show while still remaining true to a everything that makes Trek epic.