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Star Trek: Discovery – The Vulcan Hello (Review)

What does Star Trek look like in 2017?

Star Trek: Discovery was always going to have to reinvent the franchise. It exists twelve years removed from the end of Star Trek: Enterprise. That is a lifetime in pop culture; it is worth noting that Star Trek: The Next Generation was thirteen years removed from the end of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Resurrecting the franchise was always going to require innovation and reconceptualisation, and it is clear that any new interpretation of Star Trek would look as different from the Berman era as the Berman era did from the original series.

Navigating by the stars.

Still, that does not answer the question of what Star Trek looks like in 2017. In many ways, Discovery is an effort equivalent to The Next Generation, an attempt to return the franchise to television after some time as a relaunched movie franchise. The parallels all but suggest themselves; the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the distinctly British character actor playing a senior officer with a much more continental surname, the use of the Star Trek brand to embrace a relatively unconventional distribution model.

Given all of this uncertainty, the vocal objections of a certain strain of fandom are almost reassuring, striking a consistent note at this most inconsistent of times. Star Trek fandom has always responded with trepidation to anything new or challenging, anything the pushes beyond the boundaries of expectations of what Star Trek can be. Fandom strenuously objected to the very concept of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fandom dismissed The Next Generation. Fandom argued that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was an affront to the very idea of the franchise.

Time is the fire in which we burn.

However, while all of this provides a framework through which Discovery might be understood, it comes no closer to answering that core question. What does Star Trek look like in 2017? Even the question itself comes loaded with all manner of ambiguities and uncertainties. Is the question being asked in terms of television production? Is the challenge being made in terms of political and social values? Is the inquiry posed in terms of continuity and legacy?

Discovery does not have the answer, at least not in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, but it is certainly asking the right questions.

The next phase.

In terms of visuals, Star Trek in 2017 looks a lot like the film franchise launched by JJ Abrams; Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond. From the outset, Discovery inherits a lot from the reboot franchise. This is obvious in terms of production design and even filming technique. The Vulcan Hello features quite a lot of lens flare, to the point where it feels like writers Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman are in on the joke; there is a beautiful moment midway through the episode where the characters are literally blinded by a flare through a lens.

The production design on Discovery obviously owes a lot to the reboot franchise; the interior design of the corridors, the heads-up display functionality in the primary viewscreen, and even the close-cropped ship-to-ship communication that very consciously evokes a weird twenty-third century facetime. The production team have gone out of their way to insist that the series is set within the primary timeline, but none of that really matters. To a casual observer, Discovery is quite consciously of a piece with the JJ Abrams reboots. And this is not a bad thing.

Peace in a Vulcan learning pod.

Star Trek fandom has reacted somewhat… strongly to the Abrams reboots. Most pointedly, fandom went out of its way to vote Into Darkness as the worst film in the franchise shortly after it was released, a wonderfully passive aggressive act that relied on collective amnesia about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis at the very least. This visceral rejection of the Abrams films by established fandom, codified through obligatory potshots in every retrospective piece, is at odds with both the critical and popular receptions of the films.

(Some of this more passive-aggressive fandom outlook can be seen in the internet’s response to Discovery. In particular, there is a sizable and vocal minority of fans choosing to embrace The Orville as the spiritual successor to “real” Star Trek, in spite of its actively hostile critical response. Once again, there is a sense that Star Trek fandom is reflexively hostile to anything that does not fit its conventional expectations of what Star Trek should be.)

New lifeforms.

Still, it makes sense for Discovery to borrow a lot of the look and feel of the JJ Abrams and Justin Lin films. After all, these three films effectively are Star Trek for an entire generation of viewers. There will be audience members watching The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars with their parents, who were not alive during the Berman era. As much as certain generations of fans might object to this stylistic sensibility, even the most cynical Vulcan would concede that it is only logical.

There is certainly precedent for Discovery hewing so close to Star Trek, Into Darkness and Beyond. Once again, The Next Generation seems to provide a template. The look and feel of The Next Generation was a lot closer to the film franchise that began with Star Trek: The Motion Picture than to the original televised series. After all, The Motion Picture represented as a radical a departure from the original Star Trek as anything that followed; Klingon foreheads, proper sets, fabulous model work. The franchise’s most radical leap came thirteen years after it began.

Just deserts.

Watching The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, the audience can feel the gravity of the Abrams reboots. What is this introductory two-parter but an extended riff on the attack on the Kelvin at the very start of Star Trek? It is a dramatic demonstration of the stakes, killing off a prominent character, and documenting a tragedy that will come to define the protagonist of the story being told. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars simply extend a five-minute scene to a ninety-minute premiere.

However, there are other similar nodes in the storytelling. The teaser to The Vulcan Hello makes a point to revisit the teaser from Into Darkness, with Burnham and Georgiou saving a native population from natural disaster in a firm rejection of the hand-wringing Berman era interpretation of the Prime Directive that informed episodes like Pen Pals or Homeward or Dear Doctor. Burnham reflects of the indigenous population, “If we don’t do something now, they won’t survive another thousand hours.”

Comparisons ring holo.

This compassion is very much in keeping with more liberal interpretations of the Prime Directive, approaches to non-interference that understand that the Prime Directive is not an excuse to stand idly by and watch catastrophes unfold with a sense of moral superiority. (Deep Space Nine understood this, with Sisko rejecting the Prime Directive in Battle Lines.) Burnham makes fleeting reference to the idea that they aren’t violating “General Order Number One” if they aren’t seen, but the sequence makes a point to feature an alien that does see them.

This not the only story element inherited from the Abrams films. The use of childhood flashbacks to parallel Burnham and T’Kuvma mirrors the use of flashbacks to twin Kirk and Spock in Star Trek. The Vulcan learning pods from Star Trek make a reappearance. The Klingons look a lot like they did in Into Darkness, the production design emphasising their exoticism in a slightly uncomfortable manner. Burnham’s mutiny in The Vulcan Hello is right from Kirk’s playbook in Star Trek, along with a race from sickbay to the bridge with vital information.

Klinging to Previous Kharacterisation.

Battle at the Binary Stars continues this trail of references and homages. When Burnham finds herself sent to the brig, the framing and composition evokes Khan’s capture in Into Darkness. When Burnham and Georgiou board the Klingon ship in the hopes of capturing T’Kuvma, the action sequence set across multiple levels recalls Kirk and Spock’s journey to the Romulan mining ship at the climax of Star Trek. The death of Burnham’s mentor figure as part of a march towards war with the Klingon Empire is a plot point lifted wholesale from Into Darkness.

Even Burnham’s return to the ship at the end of Battle at the Binary Stars is a sequence that owes a conscious debt to Star Trek. Burnham lost Georgiou in the transport, much like Spock lost Amanda. In both cases, the transporter is very effectively uses as a metaphor to explain the sheer scale of loss through distance and time. The court martial scene at the end of Battle at the Binary Stars might be read as an acknowledgement of one of the most enduring criticisms of Star Trek and Into Darkness, that Kirk never faces the consequences of his actions.

Getting all fired up.

At the same time, as much as the style and feel of Discovery evoke the Abrams feature film, this is very much a reductive and superficial comparison. Of course the television series looks and feels like the contemporary popular interpretation of the franchise. It would be counter-intuitive for Discovery to reject the aesthetic of Star Trek or Into Darkness. At the same time, while the series consciously owes a stylistic debt to the most modern interpretation of the franchise, it is very clear that Bryan Fuller is writing classic television Star Trek.

Discovery has the texture of classic Star Trek. It is there in the background of every scene, with the use of ambient background noises from the original Star Trek and the klaxons from The Next Generation. Perhaps tellingly, several of the more overt homages in The Vulcan Hello are made to The Next Generation, acknowledging that the first live action spin-off has now ascended to iconic status, that it can quoted and referenced in the same way that the original Star Trek has been.

“Mister Saru, do we have any Ron Jones music in the databanks?”

The Klingon death roar in The Vulcan Hello is a direct nod to a similar sequence in Heart of Glory, even as Fuller and Goldman radically rework the dynamics of Klingon burial rites. When the Klingon ships appear, Georgiou instructs her senior staff, “Mr. Januzzi, contact Starfleet Command. Send an encoded message. Tell them we have engaged the Klingons.” The sequence consciously plays off one of the most striking moments in perhaps the iconic Next Generation episode, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I.

However, what is perhaps most interesting about Discovery is how it approaches the other three Star Trek series. While the look and the storytelling of Discovery might come from Star Trek and Into Darkness, and while certain iconography and texture might come from the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, a surprising amount of Discovery is effectively repurposed from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise.

“Somebody please turn down the lens flare!”

This is not a bad idea. After all, these three Star Trek series exist relatively under the radar. Casual audiences will recognise the imagery and iconography of the original Star Trek or The Next Generation, but the following three spin-offs were always a more niche offering. The franchise arguably hit the peak of its cultural cachet when the final season of The Next Generation earned an Outstanding Drama Series nomination at the Emmys, an acknowledgement of the show’s importance. In contrast, the franchise’s long and slow ratings decline began with Deep Space Nine.

It is worth noting that both Voyager and Enterprise were broadcast on UPN. UPN was a disaster of a network, before it was amalgamated into the CW. Viacom tried to break into the broadcast market, but failed spectacularly. Although The Next Generation had been successfully syndicated, Voyager and Enterprise were tied to a network that was not available in every television market. As a result, it would have been impossible for Voyager and Enterprise to saturate popular consciousness like Star Trek or The Next Generation, even without their own internal problems.

“Shenzhou, reporting we still haven’t picked up a good UPN connection.”

This is not to dismiss or belittle Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise. Very few television series have the same cultural cachet as the original Star Trek or The Next Generation. It has nothing to do with quality; Deep Space Nine is widely recognised as a show ahead of its time, and the final two seasons of Enterprise are sorely underrated by fandom. However, Fuller and Goldman seem to understand that Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise are not as useful as Star Trek, The Next Generation or the Abrams movies when it comes to iconography.

So, what use can Discovery make of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise? The manner in which Discovery approaches Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise recalls the manner in which big-budget comic book adaptations approach the source material; in both cases, production teams are hoping to repackage elements from a relatively niche entertainment as something with a much broader cultural impact. (The Vulcan Hello attracted almost ten million viewers; the television franchise has not hit those numbers since 1994, the year The Next Generation ended.)

“I’m not at all (Ben) Cross to see you.”

As such, Discovery feels more free to draw upon ideas and concepts suggested by Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, treating the final three series of the Rick Berman era as something approaching a four-hundred-and-fifty-episode research and development department. Although the series might look like the Abrams movies and might quote from the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, the engine driving it seems to have been reverse-engineered from Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.

The influence of Deep Space Nine is no surprise. Bryan Fuller has gone on record stating that Deep Space Nine is his favourite of the Berman era series:

The Star Trek universe is such a fertile place to tell stories. There were lots of new and innovative things going on during Deep Space Nine and that’s why it’s my favorite of the new series. It was much more character-based.

It should also be noted that Fuller’s first writing in television was for Deep Space Nine; the fifth season episodes The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars owe a lot to Deep Space Nine. Michael Burnham is obviously only the second African American Star Trek lead character, following in the footsteps of Benjamin Sisko. Like Sisko, Burnham is defined by tragedy and loss; Sisko is defined by the loss of his wife and ship at Wolf 359, while Burnham is defined by the loss of her family in a Klingon terrorist attack and by the loss of her ships at the eponymous binary stars. Notably, Sisko and Burnham are the only series protagonists with a lower rank than “captain.”

The Emotion Picture.

However, there is more to it than that. As much as The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars might be seen as an extension of the opening sequence from JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, they could also be seen as an extension of the opening scene from Emissary. In both cases, a young and promising officer becomes disillusioned with Starfleet following a catastrophic military engagement that will define the Federation for years that follow. There is a very clear and conscious parallel between the two arcs.

At the same time, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars are obviously influenced by some of the broader elements of Deep Space Nine. In many ways, Deep Space Nine represented the first attempt to tell a serialised narrative within the framework of a Star Trek series. The Dominion War raged over two full seasons of Deep Space Nine, much like the Klingon War will loom over the first full season of Discovery. In both cases, Deep Space Nine and Discovery are being provocative in defining what a Star Trek series can be.

Head’s up.

The emphasis on the Klingon perspective in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, with extended sequences playing out from T’Kuvma’s point of view, are also an example of Discovery incorporating (and extending upon) a key aspect of Deep Space Nine. In many ways, Deep Space Nine was the first truly multicultural Star Trek series, willing to examine the universe from perspectives outside of Starfleet. Tellingly, Deep Space Nine had the first collection of regulars who weren’t (and wouldn’t want to be) part of Starfleet.

More than that, Deep Space Nine would often take time out from its primary cast to tell stories focusing on particular cultures from the point of view of that culture. The most obvious (and divisive) examples are Ferengi-centric episodes like The Nagus, Rules of Acquisition, Family Business, Bar Association, Body Parts, Ferengi Love Songs, Profit and Lace and The Dogs of War. However, the thread most relevant to Discovery is the Klingon-centric episodes of Deep Space Nine focusing on Martok and his crew; Soldiers of the Empire, Sons and Daughters, Once More Unto the Breach.

A final reflection.

In fact, T’Kuvma’s criticisms of the Federation also mirror those made in Deep Space Nine, particularly those suggested in episodes like The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II. T’Kuvma’s big monologue at the start of The Vulcan Hello very clearly riffs on Eddington’s big speech to Sisko at the end of For the Cause, arguing that the Federation is even “worse than the Borg.” In Battle at the Binary Stars, T’Kuvma argues, “They come to destroy our individuality.” It seems like the Federation cannot escape the Borg as their shadow selves, even hundreds of years earlier.

(The use of holographic communications technology in Discovery has upset some Star Trek fans, many seeing it as an homage to the Star Wars franchise, where the Empire and the Rebellion would frequently communicate using such technology. This is fair, and perhaps an acknowledgement of how director JJ Abrams fused some elements of the two franchises in Star Trek and Into Darkness. However, the holotechnology may also be another nod to the cynicism of Michael Eddington; Eddington used similar technology in For the Uniform.)

We won’t always have Paris.

However, while a lot of the underlying principles driving Discovery are ported over wholesale from Deep Space Nine, there are also a lot of elements blended in from Voyager and Enterprise. In terms of Voyager‘s influence on the narrative, it should be noted that Caretaker was the only pilot to be both told from the perspective of a non-command officer and the only pilot to kill off a significant portion of the ship’s senior staff halfway through the narrative. As a result, there is a lot to be said for The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars riffing on Caretaker.

Michael Burnham’s attempted mutiny in The Vulcan Hello has been quite controversial among Star Trek purists, but it is certainly not atypical for Star Trek characters. Indeed, Burnham’s arc across the first season of Discovery seems designed to emulate that of Tom Paris in Caretaker. In Caretaker, Tom Paris is introduced as a disgraced former officer responsible for the deaths of several colleagues. He is recruited from prison by Captain Janeway to serve as an advisor on a vitally important mission. In many ways, Burnham has inherited a very similar character arc.

This is how we learn.

Of course, it goes without saying that Voyager completely botched the arc of Thomas Eugene Paris, who served as the viewpoint character for most of Caretaker. Producer Michael Piller wanted to paint Tom Paris as a rogue, demonstrated by episodes like The Cloud and Ex Post Facto. However, producer Jeri Taylor and actor Robert Duncan McNeill both resisted this characterisation, leading to Paris becoming a milquetoast character on a ship populated by milquetoast characters.

In some respects, Michael Burnham’s arc could be seen as an attempt to “do Tom Paris right.” In particular, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars never shy away from Burnham’s mistakes in the way that Voyager glossed over the fact that Paris was guilty of at least second-degree murder and terrorism. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars serve as a ninety minute exploration of “what Burnham did”, which provides a base for a proper character arc going forward.

“And he brought his friends.”

More than that, there are shades of Voyager baked into the premise of Discovery. In particular, the production team have noted that Burnham will be recruited out of prison for a special mission by Captain Gabriel Lorca on board the eponymous space craft. According to producer Aaron Harberts, Lorca “represents the situational ethics that come into play during times of desperation and war.” Coupled with the casting of character actor Jason Isaacs, it seems highly likely that Captain Lorca will be a very compromised individual.

The choice to describe Lorca’s ethics as “situational” is interesting. The description clearly applies to Sisko’s compromises in episodes like In the Pale Moonlight or Tacking Into the Wind. However, it also recalls Bryan Fuller’s take on Brannon Braga’s original plans for Voyager in The Fifty-Year Mission:

In season four, the entire season was going to be Voyager getting its ass kicked and the show was really going to go to a gritty and rich place of “we are out of our element and we are in danger and all we have is ourselves”, Janeway being this situational, ethical leader who was willing to do whatever it took for her people to survive in these circumstances. And it was so much bolder than what you saw. That’s not to say that there weren’t some great episodes in that season. You had the Year of Hell, but Brannon had so many bold visions that were brushed aside by Rick just not seeing it and not wanting Voyager to be as gritty and bold as Deep Space Nine.

In some ways, then, it feels like Discovery might be building on some of the bolder ideas nestled within Voyager, concepts that were never properly developed or expanded. (To be fair, there are traces of Janeway’s situational ethics in episodes like Nothing Human or Latent Image.)

And then there is Enterprise. In many ways, the relationship between Discovery and Enterprise is equivalent to the relationship between The Next Generation and Star Trek. There is a similar time jump of roughly a century between the two series in order to allow the production team more room to breath. However, there is also a similar sense of plotting continuity between the two series. Both Star Trek and The Next Generation were shows about ships named “Enterprise” exploring the boundaries of Federation space. Both Discovery and Enterprise are about disastrous first contact with the Klingons.

Into the unknown.
That will be known soon.
But, still.

Much like Michael Burnham’s arc could be described as “Tom Paris done right”, then the basic plot of the two parter might be described as “Enterprise done right.” In First Contact, Picard muses that, “Centuries ago, a disastrous contact with the Klingon Empire led to decades of war.” In theory, this would serve as the one-line plot summary of Broken Bow, the two-hour pilot to Enterprise that documents first contact between humanity and the Klingons. However, Broken Bow rather spectacularly botched that seemingly straightforward premise.

In many ways, Picard’s line in First Contact feels much more in line with The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, even if the continuity would have to be fudged quite a bit. (This would not be the first time that Star Trek mangled its own timeline; consider the fuzziness around the Eugenics Wars in episodes like Doctor Bashir, I Presume.) Of course, while it is very difficult to precisely massage the continuity of First Contact with the events of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, these two episodes seem like a more compelling execution of the core concept.

Second contact.

It is also worth noting that both Discovery and Enterprise are technically prequels to the rest of the Star Trek canon, even if it is probably more constructive to think of them as sequels to Star Trek: First Contact. In many ways, the decision to do another prequel to Star Trek is deeply disappointing, even if it feels very much in keeping with the times. In recent years, as nostalgia consumes popular culture, and as people seem less willing to believe that the future can be better, it is easier to retreat into the past of an older future than to push boldly into a new optimistic future.

Indeed, there is a sense that many of fandom’s pet peeves with Discovery might be excused by choosing to set it one hundred years after Star Trek: Nemesis rather than one hundred years after Enterprise. That would allow audiences to more readily accept the lack of the already-outdated futuristic plywood technology of the original Star Trek, to embrace the redesign and reconceptualisation of the Klingons, to not sweat the proverbial details. However, Discovery is a prequel series, and these frustrations are baked into it.

A familiar re-Frain.

To be fair, there is no shortage of pandering within Discovery. The decision to make Michael Burnham the adopted ward of Sarek of Vulcan is a decision that feels very much like “small universe syndrome”, even if it makes a reasonable amount of sense that a man who married a human woman would be tasked with caring for a lost human child. Similarly, the emphasis placed by the marketting on Rainn Wilson as the character of Harry Mudd feels far too winking, leaning too heavily on the idea that familiarity is equivalent to quality.

On the other hand, there are any number of valid reasons to make a prequel, to tell this story in this way. After all, there is nothing inherently wrong with prequels. There are any number of valid and compelling prequel narratives. It could be argued that Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War of the Planet of the Apes represent the best genre film franchise of the past half-decade. There are valid stories to be told that happen to take place before other known and beloved stories. It can just be difficult to identify them.

The Klingon Hello.

In some respects, Discovery could be read as more than just a “do over” of Broken Bow, but instead as a broader “do over” of Enterprise itself. After all one of the central appeals of Enterprise was in seeing the building the franchise’s utopian future, of watching humanity pull themselves out of the gutter and out into the stars. However, so much of that was squandered from the outset. Enterprise began in a place where so many of the big issues facing humanity had already been resolved that it never felt especially removed from the franchise’s utopian future.

“How about war, disease, hunger?” Trip asks T’Pol early in Broken Bow. “Pretty much wiped ’em out in less than two generations. I wouldn’t call that small potatoes.” In many ways, Trip is describing the show that Enterprise should have been; a story about how mankind actually built the utopian paradise that later Star Trek shows take for granted. Discovery seems to be calling a mulligan on Enterprise. It is beginning from a place not too far removed from the modern world, and mapping a path towards a more idealistic future. Building from war to something better.

The death knell of the Klingon Empire.

One of the more interesting aspects of Discovery is how the series’ dramatic and thematic arc is enriched by the knowledge of what follows. Most obviously, T’Kuvma becomes a much more compelling character because the franchise’s future history. In some ways, T’Kuvma’s fears about the corrupting influence of the Federation are borne out by what the audience has seen in the other Star Trek series. In Heart of Glory, it is suggested that the Klingon Empire is dying as a result of peace with the Federation. The Way of the Warrior suggests that the Empire cannot withstand sustained peace.

Of course, it should be noted that the decline and decay of the Klingon Empire is not inherently a bad thing. The Klingon Empire is an imperial power, a political entity dedicated to expansion and conquest. They are not good neighbours. This has always been an interesting tension within the Star Trek universe, with the franchise at once enticed by the prospect of peaceful coexistence with the Klingons and horrified by the brutality of the Empire. The franchise has never explicitly grappled with this Gordian Knot.

Warped priorities.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine came closest. The series repeatedly made the case that the Empire was not a pleasant place, and that its values were often openly hostile to the liberalism of the Federation; the misogyny in their inheritance rules in The House of Quark, the reflection that “we don’t embrace other cultures, we conquer them” in You Are Cordially Invited…, the celebration of mass murder in What You Leave Behind. Peace was preferable to war, for obvious reasons, but the slow peaceful erosion of the Klingon Empire might not be a tragedy in the long term.

More than that, the fact that Discovery exists as a prequel serves to insulate the series from a lot of the stock knee-jerk “dark and gritty” criticisms that tend to emanate from fandom when trying to do something a little outside the template with the Star Trek franchise. The audience understands that all of the brutality and violence in Discovery is meaningless. Discovery is not embracing or endorsing war with the Klingons, because it is quite clear to the audience that the inevitable outcome of any conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire will eventually be peace.

Wandering in the desert of the real.

Indeed, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars make a point to consciously mirror Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, suggesting a conscious and poetic symmetry between the story of how decades of war began and how those conflicts were eventually resolved. This is reflected in any number of ways, from the signing of Nicholas Meyer as executive producer through to the subtle echoing of Cliff Eidelman’s Holst-inspired score during the scenes set with T’Kuvma on the Klingon ship.

However, even the basic structure of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars recalls (or foreshadows) the structure of The Undiscovered Country. Once again, the Klingon Empire faces disaster and turns to a man of vision to unite and stabilise the government. T’Kuvma hopes to secure the future of the Empire through war with the Federation, while Gorkin hopes that the Empire might be secured through peace with the Federation. Both T’Kuvma and Gorkin are martyred for their causes, murdered when two Starfleet officers beam aboard their disabled flagships.

Speaking their language.

Indeed, the closing scene of Battle at the Binary Stars inverts one of the most iconic sequences from The Undiscovered Country. Burnham’s court martial looks nothing like the Starfleet courtroom sequences established in episodes like Court Martial or The Measure of a Man or Author, Author. Instead, the court martial scene looks and feels like the Klingon trial in The Undiscovered Country; the judges cloaked in shadow, the raspy voice sentencing the protagonist to life imprisonment.

All of this serves to answer one facet of the question of what Star Trek looks like in the context of 2017, positioning it in the context of the existing franchise and as a furthering of the same shared universe. Discovery is undeniably Star Trek in terms of look and feel, and in terms of storytelling. Indeed, it could be argued that Discovery is almost too faithfully Star Trek in certain respects, with the series embraced certain stylistic choices that feel outdated and outmoded in the era of prestige television.

Butting a cap on years of faithful service.

Most obviously, the direction in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is surprisingly flat, given the top-notch attention paid to the rest of the production. Television direction in 2017 is radically different than it was in the nineties. Shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have redefined the scale of storytelling on television thanks to directors like Alan Taylor, David Slade and Neil Marshall. (To be fair, a lot of this evolution in television direction is rooted in directors who came of age during the nineties on shows like The X-Files; Kim Manners, David Nutter, Michelle MacLaren.)

By the standards of 2017, the direction of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is relatively bland and uninspired. The Vulcan Hello is directed by David Semel, who is best known for his work on network procedurals like Madam Secretary and Code Black. There are a few stylistic touches, like the use of lens flares or dutch angels, but no sense of momentum or movement. Although the production value is top notch, The Vulcan Hello is directed like an episode of the Berman era, with an emphasis on clarity and stasis over dynamism and pace.

An early season dust-up.

The direction on Battle at the Binary Stars is stronger. A lot of this is down to the ambitious special effects and set pieces, more consciously cinematic than anything in The Vulcan Hello or any previous Star Trek series. Part of this is down to the decision to hire director Adam Kane, who has a long-standing association with Bryan Fuller, having worked on Pushing Daisies, Heroes, Hannibal and American Gods. Fuller has a tendency to push his directors to bring a unique stylistic sensibility to their television work. (He reportedly wanted Edgar Wright to direct Discovery.)

There is an argument to be made that The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars might have worked better if assigned to a feature film director. After all many modern television pilots are directed by film directors; David Slade directed the first episode of Hannibal, Marc Webb directed the first episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Martin Scorsese directed the first episode of Boardwalk Empire. After all, directing the first episode of a television series is largely about setting a visual aesthetic and tone for what will follow. A strong voice is always welcome.

The best is yet T’Kuvma.

In fact, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars arguably serve as something of a prequel movie to the rest of the season, and so might actually have benefited from a feature film aesthetic. After all, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars exist at a remove from the episodes that will follow. Series regulars Jason Isaacs and Anthony Rapp are both entirely absent from the two-part pilot, while Michelle Yeoh is killed off at the end of Battle at the Binary Stars. The Shenzhou is introduced and destroyed in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, while the Discovery does not even appear.

However, this somewhat flat direction is arguably in keeping with the aesthetic of televisual Star Trek. In keeping with the production realities of the era, there were very few directors working on Star Trek with a very strong and distinctive style. Indeed, the franchise had only a handful of directors who could handle properly large-scale action; David Livingston, Winrich Kolbe, Allan Kroeker, David Carson. This was not an issue in the nineties, but it does mean that Discovery seems a bit static and procedural when weighed against contemporary prestige television.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars contain other classic Star Trek markers. In particular, Discovery has inherited the franchise’s preference for corny banter and awkward exposition. Star Trek dialogue sounds like no other writing on television, and there is something very reassuring in hearing characters clumsily converse with one another in what seems to pass for futuristic banter. While there are large portions of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars in Klingon, these sequences almost seem more naturalistic than watching the scenes in English.

This is most striking in the way that The Vulcan Hello tries to establish the casual banter between the bridge crew on the Shenzou. When Burnham and Saru agree, Georgiou is so surprised that she makes a point to express that surprise in the most awkward manner possible. “Ensign Connor, agreement between my senior officers,” she reflects. “Note the date and time.” Burnham counters, “Is this amount of sarcasm always necessary?” Georgiou smiles impishly to herself, “Necessary? No. But I do like it.”

No two human beings have ever talked to one another like that in the entire history of civilisation. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars are overloaded with exposition, to the point that Burnham makes a point to react to sudden movement by stating, “My presence has triggered some sort of motion response.” Both Georgiou and Burnham repeatedly state that they have been together for seven years, the kind of detail that neither should need to remind the other about after spending seven years together. It is clunky, stilted, corny.

However, it is undeniably Star Trek. Amid all the chaos and carnage, there is something reassuring in the fact that the characters on Discovery sound like Star Trek dialogue, with the awkward canned patter and the more theatrical rhythm. There is comfort in this unusual and unnatural speech pattern. Star Trek has never been a franchise about naturalism and verisimilitude, even when Deep Space Nine tried to ground its characters in something more realistic than the idealised Roddenberry utopia. Star Trek still sounds like Star Trek.

Of course, there are elements of Discovery that have been ported over from prestige television, in keeping with changes made to the medium in the twelve years since Enterprise went off the air. Discovery owes a great deal to Game of Thrones, its influence obvious right down to the opening credits. The opening credits of Game of Thrones whirl across a clockwork model of the board, allowing the audience to see the game being literally constructed; the opening credits of Discovery feature the future being drawn from blueprints. It is a nice motif.

However, there are other aspects of Game of Thrones ported over to Discovery: the willingness to set large portions of the pilot episode in a fictional language of a warrior culture, forcing the audience to read subtitles; the willingness to split story time across several locations and to explore events from several perspectives; the willingness to kill off seemingly major characters and blow up established narrative conventions early in the narrative game. In form, Discovery is very much a product of the prestige television era.

Of course, shows like Oz killed off their decoy protagonists before Game of Thrones, but it is very hard to believe that Battle at the Binary Stars would have killed off both Georgiou and T’Kuvma in an era before Ned Stark. Of course, Discovery doesn’t necessarily execute the twist with a lot of finesse; the show tips its hand just a little bit with the fact that the series is called “Discovery” and not “Shenzou”, the fact that Jason Isaacs is playing another captain, and the fact that Michell Yeoh is a “special guest star.” (The death of T’Kuvma works a little better, though.)

These are not fatal flaws with Discovery. Instead, they demonstrate that there are still some teething problems with the concept of “Star Trek… but for the prestige era.” The Star Trek franchise is in a process of transition, moving from “television produced in the nineties” to “television produced in the tens.” There will undoubtedly be speed bumps along the way. With The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, at least Discovery seems more in tune with the notion of “contemporary television storytelling” than The Next Generation did with Encounter at Farpoint.

So, these are two facets of how Discovery wrestles with the question of what it means to be Star Trek in 2017, in terms of franchise history and in terms of the broader television landscape. However, what about the hardest test of all? What about the question of what it means to be Star Trek, in that ineffable and hard-to-define way? What about the question of presenting an optimistic version of the future in 2017? What about the core qualities of the Star Trek mythos, the dream “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Discovery seems to be cognisant of the difficulties in adapting the franchise’s optimism and utopianism for the twenty-first century. The characters seem to feel the weight of fifty years of expectations pressing down upon them. In the teaser, Georgiou and Burnham are introduced walking through a gigantic desert. “I trust you with my life, Commander Burnham, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re lost,” Georgiou states. “Very lost.” In some ways, Georgiou might be speaking on behalf of the resurrected franchise, acknowledging that at some point Star Trek slipped from the national consciousness.

Discovery is very much caught up in a question of what Star Trek can and should be, particularly in the modern political climate. After all, the Federation and Starfleet have long represented an idealised expression of American self-image projected into the future. The Federation is an idealised futuristic America, inclusive and welcoming. Kennedy’s “new frontier” expanded out to a “final frontier.” As such, Star Trek tends to reflect contemporary America. The Next Generation carries from the peaceful eighties into the nineties, Enterprise captures the trauma of the Bush era.

However, the United Steas is caught in the middle of a political and social crisis. American politics are more polarised than ever. American institutions are consciously and aggressively reacting against decades of slow gains in terms of liberal and progressive policies. The current President of the United States has the lowest approval ratings of any President at this point in their tenure. There are Nazis marching in the streets, and a government that refuses to meaningfully condemn them. So what does Star Trek mean, in this topsy turvy era? How does Star Trek make sense of it?

This is a question that haunted Into Darkness, and a lot of the same anxieties bubble through Discovery. Once again, the characters wonder aloud what Star Trek is supposed to be. In The Vulcan Hello, Burnham suggests that Georgiou is trapped between two halves; the “diplomat” and the “soldier.” In Battle at the Binary Stars, a lost and confused young officer laments that his Star Trek experience is not what it is supposed to be. “Why are we fighting?” Connor laments, a concussion rattling his brain. “We’re Starfleet. We’re explorers, not soldiers.”

In some respects, it is telling that the iconic “outsider” character on this latest Star Trek spin-off is the character of Saru. Saru is a Kelpan, and he is very immediately and very effectively established by one central emotion: fear. Saru is a character who is defined by his skepticism about the unknown, a constant paranoia about what is lurking around the corner and what is waiting in the darkness. Saru is in many ways an expression of the fact that fear has become a one of the most powerful forces in contemporary politics.

“They’ll Sa-ru the day that they messed with me.”

By his very nature, Saru exists in conflict with the core ideals of the Federation. How could the Federation hope to seek out new lifeforms and new civilisations if it is afraid of the dangers of such contact? “You do understand that being afraid of everything means you learn nothing?” Burnham challenges Saru at one point. “There’s no opportunity to discover, to explore.” In this exchange, Discovery teases a new central dynamic for Star Trek; it is no longer logic-versus-emotion, but fear-versus-hope.

Indeed, as much as Burnham is set up as a potential logic-versus-emotion character, The Vulcan Hello seems to suggest that Burnham’s biggest internal conflict will be with her own fear and anger. Burnham makes several mistakes over the course of the The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, and the script leaves some ambiguity as the cause of these errors. Georgiou seems to believe that Burnham is too Vulcan, that her actions are a result of being too cold and too rational. However, Sarek seems to suggest the opposite, that Burnham is too human, too emotional.

It should be noted that Discovery has in some way inherited these questions from Enterprise. In the wake of 9/11 and during the War on Terror, Enterprise often found itself wrestling with fear and anxiety about the outside universe; Shadows of P’Jem, Minefield, Dawn. The third season of Enterprise externalised this identity crisis by arguing that Star Trek had to work through its PTSD and find a way back to utopianism. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars suggest that the big arc of this season will unfold in a similar manner. How does one find hope in such uncertain times?

This is a hard question to answer, but Discovery is at least willing to confront it head on. In particular, The Vulcan Hello seems to offer a twenty-third century meditation on the ethics of Nazi punching, the paradox of twenty-first liberalism that asks how best to respond when confronted with illiberalism? Should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? This is a question that previous Star Trek series skirted around, in large part because it wasn’t really an issue in the eighties and nineties.

“I sense great fear in you…”

No President of the United States during the eighties or nineties would have accepted the endorsement of the KKKNo President of the United States during the eighties or nineties threatened to use his powers of office to lock up opponents, nor offered to protect his supporters should they attack members of the opposition party. No President of the United States during the eighties and nineties ran on a campaign labelling foreigners terrorists and rapists. Media in the eighties and nineties was not saturated with pictures of public marches where white supremacists carried flaming torches.

As such, it is reassuring that The Vulcan Hello makes a point to confront this issue head-on. How can the Federation hope to make peace with the Klingon Empire, given that the Klingon Empire is devoted to the notion of racial purity and dedicated to warfare at any cost? It makes sense for the Federation to hope for a diplomatic outcome, but there must be limits. The Federation cannot possibly hope to accomodate the Klingons when the Klingons have aligned themselves in direct opposition to the core values of the Federation.

This comes up in the conversation between Burnham and Anderson. Admiral Brett Anderson is a senior Starfleet official, in command of the Europa. He remains hopeful of the possibility of entering negotiations with the Klingons, confident that they can be welcomed into the fold. “Our only choice now is to navigate this situation with as much finesse as possible,” Anderson insists. Burnham is less sure. “The ideal outcome for any Klingon interaction is battle. They’re relentlessly hostile, sir. It’s in their nature.”

Anderson adopts a decidedly condescending tone to Burnham, reiterating the utopian idealism of the Federation. Anderson is convinced that his tolerance and good faith will be enough to break through any diplomatic impasse. “The Federation and the Klingon Empire have always been on the cold side of war. We’ve had only fleeting run-ins with them for a century. And now you presume to know their motivation because it is ‘in their nature’? Considering your background, I would think you’re the last person to make assumptions based on race.”

Anderson is applying the stock idea of being “colour blind”, insisting that he does not “see” race or difference between individuals. His contention is that it is wrong (and hella racist) to suggest that Klingons are inherently warlike, just as it would be racist to make these sorts of fundamental assumptions about a person based on their skin colour. In theory, Anderson’s perspective is commendable. However, it is also overly simplistic, it does not allow for any nuance or ambiguity.

“With respect, it would be unwise to confuse race and culture,” Burnham responds simply, which is the correct response to these observations. After all, it would be wrong (and hella racist) to say that Klingons are evil, but it would not be incorrect to argue that the Klingon Empire is imperialist and aggressive. This inability to distinguish between essentialism and cultural critiques is a problem with modern liberalism; it leads to red herrings like the defensive “#notallmen” response to criticisms of rape culture or “#alllivesmatter” in response to “#blacklivesmatter.”

Indeed, Admiral Anderson’s dismissal of Burnham’s legitimate fears is a very pointed storytelling decision. In the context of the show, Anderson is referring to the fact that Burnham was a human who was raised as a Vulcan. As such, many assumptions made about humanity would be incorrect if applied to her. However, outside the context of the franchise’s utopian future, it is ultimately a condescending white man in a position of authority telling a woman of colour not to worry about a racially-motivated threat because tolerance of potentially hostile ideas is more important.

It is very difficult to have a conversation about race in the United States, about difference and diversity, without causing a confrontation. Even President Barack Obama has talked about how his daughters noticed “a certain obliviousness of even their best friends on certain issues.” Enuma Okoro has talked about the moderation typically involved in being a black woman in white spaces:

I did not want the burden of the social translations that black people so often have to do automatically on so many internal levels while engaging in discourse with whites in this country. There are things we learn to do almost subconsciously in order to keep some whites comfortable enough around our blackness. Things like gauging their actual level of interest or understanding of black culture in order to know how far to take a particular conversation before things get awkward. Things like letting them know you hear them trying to say they do in fact see black people. Things like anticipating their questions and responses when they see you with a new hairstyle or come across some element of black culture in your life. Things like using your voice intonation, your word usage, and your bodily gestures to signify that you can hang with them without it being “obvious” that you are a black person in their white world.

These difficulties talking about race and perspective have been compounded in recent years. Ta-Nehisi Coates has explored the difficulty that white liberal America has grappling with the fact that Tump’s support is more firmly rooted in racial politics than politics of economics social class. When African Americans speak out about their anxieties, they are quickly silenced. Commentators wonder when it is appropriate for black people to voice their concerns.

Of course, it is important to believe that the utopian future of Star Trek has moved past such difficulties. It is heartening to believe that Michael Burnham has never had to face those everyday issues articulated by writers like Coates or Okoro, that her perspective is respected and appreciated by colleagues with their own distinct outlooks. At the same time, this desire to create a utopian future has to be balanced against the realities of the modern world. The audience might want to believe in an idealistic future, but this does not mean hiding from the problems in the present.

Admiral Brett “The-Soon-To-Be-Hit-By-A-Klingon-Ship-Man” Anderson.

Those concerns articulated by writers like Coates or Okoro are issues in the world where Discovery is being produced and broadcast. It is important that Star Trek never use its utopian setting to avoid talking about these concerns. In fact, one of the key appears of Star Trek is using this science-fiction framework in order to explore questions and issues that might otherwise be uncomfortable. Star Trek is (and always has been) as much social allegory as science-fiction. In that small exchange between Anderson and Burnham, The Vulcan Hello understands this.

(Deep Space Nine navigated this challenge especially well, dealing with issues of race in a utopian future. Benjamin Sisko existed in a world without racism, but he did so without ever compromising on his African American identity. Deep Space Nine repeatedly and consciously engaged with the racial politics of Sisko as an African American lead on a prime-time television series; his decorating choices in The Search, Part I, his trip to the fifties in Far Beyond the Stars, his criticism of white-washed history in Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang, his promise to return in What You Leave Behind.)

The end of the beginning of the beginning.

Discovery understands the importance of recognising that its twenty-third century utopia must be considered through the prism of the twenty-first century, that issues of identity and representation cannot be erased or dismissed with a blithe “… well, it’s not an issue any more.” Sometimes just acknowledging a different lived-in experience is enough. LGBTQ fans of Star Trek know what it is to live in a future without representation, barring a few small gestures in episodes like The Outcast, Rejoined and Chimera.

It is reassuring that Discovery understands the importance of representation in a utopian future. The show understands the importance of having a black female lead, even after Voyager had the franchise’s first female lead and Deep Space Nine had the franchise’s first black lead; while these gestures are important, they do not justify returning to the white male template as readily as Enterprise did. It is worth noting that Discovery will be the first Star Trek show to feature a gay couple in its primary cast, a gesture of inclusion that is long overdue.

It’s been a rocky road, getting from there to here…

There are points at which Discovery seems practically confrontational, when it seems to run against the core principles of the Star Trek franchise. In The Vulcan Hello, the primary character stages a mutiny against her commanding officer and advocates for firing on an enemy ship without provocation. At the climax of Battle at the Binary Stars, the main characters are implicated in what is very clearly a war crime. These are ideas that challenge many of the underlying assumptions of what Star Trek should be, even if there is precedent in the so-called canon.

To be fair, Discovery understands this. It understands that this will be the most difficult part of reinventing Star Trek for 2017. It understands that creation and reinvention are messy processes. Indeed, the theme of rebirth and reinvention runs through The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars; the Crepusculan egg sacks in the teasers that contain a whole new generation of the species, the twin suns around which “ice, dust and gasses collide to form the planets future generations will call home.”

At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

In her first log entry in The Vulcan Hello, Burnham reflects upon the difficulties of creation. Much like her closing monologue at the court martial in Battle at the Binary Stars, Burnham seems to be speaking directly to the audience on behalf of the writing staff. “Despite the risks of our mission, I remain optimistic,” she reflects, perhaps capturing the anxiety of those writers tasked with resurrecting Star Trek for television. “It’s hard not to be in the face of such beauty.” She describes it as “humbling reminder that all life is born from chaos and destruction.”

That sounds like a statement of purpose. Burnham suggests that the process of creation is inherently chaotic and destructive, that it is necessary to destroy the old in order to make way for something new. It is, after all, no coincidence that Burnham has served under Georgiou for “seven years”, the average length of any given Berman era series. In many ways, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars are largely about signalling the end of a certain type of Star Trek, literally blowing up the Shenzhou at the end of its seven-year mission.

The Vulcan Hello juxtaposes Burnham’s idea of chaotic and destructive creation with T’Kuvma’s more static idea of resurrection. T’Kuvma is motivated by a desire to restore the Klingon Empire, which has fallen into disarray since the end of Enterprise. However, T’Kuvma rejects the idea of chaos and destruction advocated by Burnham. T’Kuvma is not interested in reinventing or reconceptualising. T’Kuvma is primarily interested in ideas of purity and integrity. “Remain Klingon!” he chants repeatedly over the two episodes.

In some ways, T’Kuvma might represent a certain sort of Star Trek fan, one wary of change or evolution who insists that their version of the franchise be restored. T’Kuvma argues to tradition and integrity, refusing to allow for diversity or change. T’Kuvma would argue that things should remain as they have always been. He is perhaps the expression of the same sort of fandom conservatism that finds comfort in the faux Berman era trappings of The Orville over the major departures of Discovery.

It is no coincidence that T’Kuvma’s politics are explicitly reactionary and driven on the idea of racial purity. A vocal minority of the criticism around Discovery has been driven by a subset of fans offended by the idea of a Star Trek series featuring a diverse cast, to the point that even Sonequa Martin-Green has had to address these criticisms in interviews and supplemental material. This is somewhat disappointing, given the reputation that Star Trek has cultivated for itself as a utopian and progressive vision of the future, but it is not surprising in 2017.

In many ways, the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire could read as an existential conflict over the future of Star Trek, with the Federation standing on the side of chaos and innovation while the Klingons stand on the side of ritual and tradition. As The Vulcan Hello concedes with its repeated allusions to Heart of Glory, the audience already knows which side will win in the longer term.

10 Responses

  1. For the most part, I enjoyed the first episode of Discovery, but Michael Burnham’s mutiny – and Philippa pulling a phaser on her – was a bridge too far for me. My problem wasn’t that it’s “not Star Trek” or violates Roddenberry’s box. Rather, it doesn’t feel like an earned moment. The show up to that point hadn’t developed the characters well enough for me to buy that moment, much less care. I still don’t feel like I get Michael as a character. Is she a logical “Vulcan lite” or a kid traumatized by war? The show only tells – not shows – the close relationship between Michael and Burnham, so the attempted mutiny doesn’t have the gut punch of say Gaeta’s mutiny in season 4 of BSG. In retrospect, I wonder if something this consequential wouldn’t have worked better in the season finale rather than the intro.

    The Klingons are laughable one-dimensional stock villains. Again, the show does a lot of telling, not showing. What basis do the Klingons have to fear the Federation? Going off the show, we see Starfleet save a planet’s water supply. That seems pretty pretty innocuous. We don’t see any of the Federation’s missteps, the expulsion of the Maquis, or the tension between Bajoran religion and Federation science. Eddington’s speech works so well because over the course of DS9 we actually have some context to understand his concerns (even if, as Sisko points out, he primarily joined the Maquis to play at being the hero).

    Also, the dialogue. Ouch! I don’t remember Star Trek ever sounding so clunky, and I’ve rewatched episodes of DS9 and TNG within the past year.

    I’ll definitely continue to watch Discovery. It’s fun and I am interested to see where they go. But I think the writers need to get a better grasp on the characters and do a better job fleshing out their motivations. And, of course, show not tell.

    • Yeoh looks like she could not give a shit.

      Between this and Chow Yun Fat in Dragonball (ugh), I really feel nostalgic for the nineties.

    • I don’t know. I think T’Kuvma has a fairly good point about peace with the Federation being the death knell of the Klingon Empire, as “Heart of Glory” demonstrates. One of the luxuries and advantages of doing a prequel is you can get away with that level of narrative irony. (In that it’s the very broadest of strokes. I can’t even name the Klingons in the episode off-hand – was Korris one of them? – but I understand the arc being sketched.) I think these episodes would be much too bleak if they weren’t positioned as a prequel, if the audience didn’t know that there’s a fairly big happy ending lurking just over the horizon.

      • Perhaps, but that assumes quite a bit of knowledge of Trek lore, which seems odd for a show that is a quasi-reboot of the franchise. It’s one thing to assume that audiences know what a transporter is because that’s penetrated pop culture pretty deeply. But to know the details of the arc of the Klingon Empire? I doubt many casual Trek remember “Heart of Glory” that well, and I’m sure many people watching the show haven’t seen DS9.

        My hope is that Discovery will eventually flesh out the Klingons’ motivations, or perhaps show how Starfleet’s idealistic intentions can backfire. Had I been writing the script, I might have started out with a mission on a planet that was in the process of becoming a member of the Federation in order to attain the benefits of membership, like peace and economic security, but was also losing something of its culture or way of life. Basically, a planet like Bajor. Let audiences see and think about the tradeoffs of the Federation way of life before turning to the Klingons.

      • I don’t know. I think The Undiscovered Country and TNG are essential and iconic parts of Trek lore. It’s not like “the weeds”, which include (unfortunately) DS9 and (less unfortunately) Voyager and Enterprise.

  2. It’s rough. But then, most Star Trek pilots are bad. It’s tradition.

    • I didn’t think it was too rough. I mean, I didn’t think it was brilliant, but I thought it was well-made, gestured in the right direction, and did some reasonably interesting things while still feeling like Star Trek. (Indeed, even its clumsier formal failures were reassuring; a reminder that Star Trek isn’t quite “prestige” television, even as it borrows the trappings of it.)

      Of course best (or maybe second best) Star Trek pilot is a low bar to clear.

  3. It’s not violating the prime directive if you’re not seen? Oh. I think Spock had a similar line of logic in ‘into darkness’, in contrast to pike who had the more later approach. I enjoyed these episodes, but the fact that it didn’t seem to fit the star trek timeline was distracting (and consider that this may be ten years before the original series but only two years before most of the 2009 film which despite being an alternate timeline and being a modernisation was also clearly inspired by the original series.) I agree that the changes wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it was set in the future, not even how different the klingons look! Oh I recently compared them to the j.j. abrams klingons, and whereas there are similarities, the latter at the same time had a look that was reminisicent of earler (or later, earlier, arh!) klingons.

  4. “Anderson is applying the stock idea of being “colour blind”, insisting that he does not “see” race or difference between individuals. His contention is that it is wrong (and hella racist) to suggest that Klingons are inherently warlike, just as it would be racist to make these sorts of fundamental assumptions about a person based on their skin colour. In theory, Anderson’s perspective is commendable. However, it is also overly simplistic, it does not allow for any nuance or ambiguity.

    “With respect, it would be unwise to confuse race and culture,” Burnham responds simply, which is the correct response to these observations. After all, it would be wrong (and hella racist) to say that Klingons are evil, but it would not be incorrect to argue that the Klingon Empire is imperialist and aggressive. This inability to distinguish between essentialism and cultural critiques is a problem with modern liberalism; it leads to red herrings like the defensive “#notallmen” response to criticisms of rape culture or “#alllivesmatter” in response to “#blacklivesmatter.””

    Yeah… I’d be a lot less queasy about this if “it’s not about race, it’s about culture!” hadn’t been the go-to mantra, ever since literal racism became frowned upon, for every bigot rushing to assure us that of course the reason he’s generalizing about this group isn’t about *color* or anything so silly.

    • I don’t know, I think discussions of certain types of culture are legitimate. (“Southern culture”, “rape culture” to pick too unfortunately modern and relevant examples.) I think divorcing those from race is very important. And, to be honest, an important thing for Star Trek to do given its history of species essentialism.

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