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Star Trek: Discovery – Battle at the Binary Stars (Review)

In some ways, Star Trek: Discovery will always be overshadowed by what might have been.

It is not the first Star Trek series to face this particular hurdle. Both Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise spent the majority of their runs in competition with phantom versions of themselves. Voyager was supposed to be a show about two rival crews, one a bunch of explorers and the other a group of terrorists, forced to work together when stranded alone on the other side of the galaxy. Enterprise was supposed to be a show about the building of the familiar Star Trek universe, a tale about how mankind got “from there to here”, to quote the theme music.

The great Star Trek Beyond.

Both series struggled to live up to that premise. Voyager abandoned any question of compromise and culture clash in Parallax, the very second episode of the series. For the rest of the show’s seven seasons, Captain Kathryn Janeway oversaw a fairly typical Starfleet crew on a fairly typical Star Trek mission, with rare nods to the original premise in episodes like Learning Curve, Alliances, Worst Case Scenario, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. Similarly, most of the first two seasons of Enterprise were stock Star Trek, even if the third and fourth seasons were a bit more ambitious.

In contrast, Discovery is competing against a slightly different shadow self. That shadow self appears in the opening credits of the show week after week, in the “created by” credit assigned to Bryan Fuller. Fuller departed early in the creative process of Discovery following disagreements with CBS, to the point that he identifies his most meaningful contributions to Discovery as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Commander Michael Burnham, one of whom is dead by the end of Battle at the Binary Stars.

No Khan do.

Indeed, Bryan Fuller’s contributions to Discovery really end with these two episodes. Fuller is credited on the script for The Vulcan Hello, along with producer Akiva Goldsman. Fuller is also credited with the story to Battle at the Binary Stars, even though the teleplay was written by replacement showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts. In some ways, then, it feels strangely appropriate that The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars serve as something of a self-contained prologue setting up the thirteen episodes that will follow.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars mark the end of Bryan Fuller’s short-lived Star Trek.

Empirical research.

Bryan Fuller is a unique television producer. Fuller is one of the television writers who began his career through Star Trek, in large part due to the open-doors policy that producer Michael Piller introduced during the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Inheriting a writers’ room in chaos, and desperate for scripts, Piller happened upon a young speculative writer named Ronald Moore. Moore sold the script that would become The Bonding. The episode turned out so well that after another sale (The Defector), Moore would be recruited to join the staff.

Thrilled at this discovery of an unsigned young writer, Piller took the radical step of opening up the franchise to unsolicited teleplays from outside writers. This approach paid dividends over the years, both to television in general and to the franchise in particular. Bryan Fuller was a relatively late beneficiary of this policy, pitching and selling two story ideas to the fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even as the work of a young writer filtered through a more experienced writing staff, The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor are recognisably Bryan Fuller stories.

Mutineers never prosper.

Following the departure of Robert Hewitt Wolfe at the end of the fifth season of Deep Space Nine, Fuller was considered for a position on the writing staff. While that position eventually went to Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, Fuller was recruited to work on Voyager. Although Fuller’s contributions to Voyager were a lot more generic than his later work, they were still broadly in keeping with his own interests and fascinations; the dreamscapes of The Raven and Retrospect, the morbid engagement with death in Mortal Coil and Course: Oblivion.

At the same time, there was a clear sense that Fuller was never going to be allowed to become a defining creative voice on Voyager, in the same way that Ronald Moore had been allowed to develop his own authorial voice on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Indeed, during his short tenure on Deep Space Nine, Ronald D. Moore noted that Fuller was among the junior staffers who were not treated with proper respect. “To be blunt, Bryan Fuller and Mike Taylor were treated very shabbily, and it pissed me off. They took a lot of crap.”

Anderson’s all she wrote.

Fuller worked on Voyager through to the end, but he did not migrate over to Enterprise with Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong. In The Fifty-Year Mission, Fuller explains that he was not invited to join the last spin-off of the Berman era in part because of tensions with final season showrunner Ken Biller:

I butted heads with Ken quite a bit, to the point where I wasn’t asked to join Enterprise because I was such a brat. Ken was not Brannon and he was not Ron and he was not Joe. He had a different type of showrunning style, which was “the trains run on time.” That’s where Ken excelled. He knew how to make the trains run on time. He knew how to keep production going, but I didn’t think the trains were necessarily going someplace interesting… and I behaved so badly. I would just sit there in story breaks and I would huff and puff, sigh, roll my eyes, and complain we had done this before and why are we doing it again. I was a huge thorn in Ken’s side because I felt like we needed to do better.

These observations are ironic, given both the repeated delays to Discovery under Fuller and Sarek’s insistence that Burnham must “do better.” Fuller would branch out on his own after Voyager, cultivating a brand for himself as the producer responsible for a number of hyper-stylised cult television series.

Childish wonder.

Although none of these shows became breakout critical or commercial hits in the manner of Battlestar Galactica for Ron Moore, they did attract considerable attention and allowed Fuller to hone his craft. Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies were all very short-lived series, but they were distinctive. Nothing on television looked or felt like the work of Bryan Fuller. Although Fuller never quite had the cultural cachet of contemporary television auteurs like David Simon or David Chase, he did have his own unique sensibility.

In fact, Fuller would gradually develop into a top tier television creator with the twin break-out hits of Hannibal and American Gods. In both cases, Fuller was tasked with reinventing an existing mythology for television. More than that, Fuller was assigned the difficult task of putting his own artistic stamp on the work of two authors with their own distinctive styles; Hannibal is undeniably the work of author Thomas Harris, while American Gods is perhaps Neil Gaiman’s most iconic work.

This show goes down a bomb.

Working on Hannibal and American Gods would be a delicate balancing act, one requiring Fuller to straddle the line between authorship and adaptation, to make this material his own without stripping out what made the source material so unique. In some ways, this is what made Fuller so potentially interesting as the potential showrunner for a new Star Trek series, the capacity to balance beloved (and iconic) source material with the capacity for surprise and innovation. Fuller’s back catalogue made him the perfect candidate to oversee a new Star Trek show.

Fuller had been aggressively pursuing the position of showrunner for quite some time, repeatedly and consistently expressing his interest in overseeing the next iteration of the franchise. When JJ Abrams reinvigourated the franchise with the release of Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Fuller’s name repeatedly came up in fan discussions as a potential executive producer for a hypothetical television revival, in large part due to the fact that he bth had a history with the franchise and a thriving career outside it.

A new angle on a familiar story.

Fuller was outlining his vision for a potential Star Trek spin-off as early as 2012, and there are certainly some familiar elements to his early off-the-cuff pitch:

I think they are concentrating on the feature right now, but if a television franchise came to fruition, I’m sure J.J. would be involved in some capacity, and I’d love to be involved as well. It’s not like “Me! Me! I want to do my idea!” I’d love to do what Ron Moore did with Battlestar Galactica, which is redefine an existing franchise, knock down certain barriers of perception and make it accessible to a broader audience.

Do you have particular storylines you’d like to focus on?

Oh, yeah, I have a very specific take I’d like to do, but no official conversations have been had. I know CBS owns the rights to the television series. Everyone will probably want to see how the movie does, and I think it’s gonna be huge. I’m just lighting a little Star Trek candle in the window and hope it comes to pass one day.

You always have strong ideas about casting. Purely speculating, which actors are on your wish list for the leads?

I want Rosario Dawson. She would be an interesting lead that wouldn’t have to be a captain. I just find her infectiously charming.

How about for the Captain Kirk archetype?

I don’t know. The captains are always so tough in terms of who they would be. There’s ethnicity, gender and all these factors to consider. Angela Bassett as a captain would rock my boat, though.

Although Bryan Fuller would not get to cast Angela Bassett as his captain, there are a lot of ideas there that line up closely with what Discovery would become.

Vulcan or Vulcan’t.

Indeed, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars feature two women of colour as the de faco leads, even if Michelle Yeoh is technically a “special guest star.” In fact, asked to offer a retroactive assessment of Discovery, Bryan Fuller singled out these two characters as very important to him, “My reaction was that I was happy to see a black woman and an Asian woman in command of a starship.” Although Sonequa Martin-Green is not Rosario Dawson, Fuller also carried over the idea of a woman of colour as “an interesting lead that wouldn’t have to be a captain.”

There are other aspects of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars that clearly carry over from Fuller’s pet themes and interests. Most notably, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars meditate quite heavily on the idea of death. Death is obviously a key Fullerian theme, reflected in the core concepts of series like Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. In fact, one of Fuller’s key adaptational adjustments to American Gods was to focus more keenly on the theme of death within the story.

A Starfleeting moment of doubt.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is driven very much by the idea of death. In fact, the two-part introductory episode seems as dedicated to burying the last remnants of the Berman era as it does to launching this new epoch. By the end of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, the Shenzhou has been destroyed at the end of its seven year mission and Captain Philippa Georgiou is dead. Indeed, Michael Burnham has even gone through something approaching a spiritual death in preparation for her eventual rebirth.

A large part of the reinvention of Klingon culture in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars hinges on the idea of death, involving a fairly significant shift from the Klingon attitudes towards death suggested by Heart of Glory back towards the trappings suggested in The Final Reflection. In fact, T’Kuvma is introduced flying through space in a gigantic space ship covered in the bodies of dead Klingons. T’Kuvma literally carries the dead around with him, in what would seem to be a sharp thematic reversal of the idea that a dead Klingon body is “an empty shell.”

“This’ll be the death of him.”

“Their hull is covered in hollow, ornamental, metallic pods, thousands of them, tightly interlocked, forming a kind of armor,” Saru reports of the Klingon ship. “I suspect its purpose is more symbolic than practical. They contain Klingon biological material in various states of decay. Remote dating is wildly divergent. Some bones date back thousands of years, others only hours old.” The Klingons are presented almost as the literal embodiment of death, to the point that supplemental material identifies their ship as “the Sarcophagus ship.”

Fuller’s fascination with death provides a powerful emotional core to The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. Thematically, the story suggests that Burnahm carries her dead around with her, just in a less literal form than T’Kuvma. Burnham might not tie the bodies of her loved ones to the hull of her ship, but every decision she makes over these two episodes is shaped by the death of her parents. No matter how logical and rational Burnham might claim to be, their death represents an open wound.

Captain of her destiny.

Similarly, there is something very powerful in the suggestion at the end of Battle at the Binary Stars that Saru cannot lock on to the remains of Captain Georgiou because she is dead. “Burnham, I’ve lost the captain’s life sign,” Saru reports. “I can’t transport her without a life sign.” Even though Captain Georgiou is dead, Burnham cannot let go of her, just like she cannot let go of her deceased parents. “I’m not leaving without her body,” Burnham insists. However, the transporter forces the decision.

Burnham is physically separated from her mentor, as she has been emotionally separated. The transporter becames a metaphor for the trauma of separation at death, of being yanked away from a person suddenly and without warning, as if there are suddenly entire worlds between two people who had been standing right next to one another. It is a very clever and beautiful use of the transporter for emotional storytelling, fitting very comfortably with Fuller’s recurring fascination with the process of death and the transformation therein.

“We lost her.”

In Fuller’s storytelling, familiar Star Trek technologies are repurposed as expressions of this core fascination. Repeatedly in Battle at the Binary Stars, the tractor beam is treated as something almost spiritual; it is a visual evoking the light at the end of the tunnel, gathering up the dead. The Europa rescues the Shenzhou at the last minute, as it drifts idly into the gravity of the eponymous stellar twins. Later, the Klingons use the tractor beam to gather up their dead in a sequence that looks like something from a biblical story; light from above to take these lost souls home.

Fuller also seems to interpret Saru’s “prey” instincts as closely tied to the idea of “death.” Discussing the looming Klingon threat, Saru explains his unique sensibility to Burnham, “We were biologically determined for one purpose and one purpose alone: to sense the coming of death. I sense it coming now.” In fact, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars suggests that the start of the Klingon War is not the result of politics so much as two key deaths: the death of Captain Philippa Georgiou and the death of T’Kuvma.

A consistent theme in Fuller’s body of work.

This fascination with death explains the reconceptualisation of Klingon culture in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars away from Ronald D. Moore’s “samurai and Vikings” towards something more “Ancient Egypt meets Ancient Aliens.” After all, the popular perception of Ancient Egypt, reinforced by stories of tombs and curses and mummies, is that of a culture obsessed with death, as Egyptologist Robert Talbott acknowledges:

Egyptian emphasis on death and afterlife is so strong, in fact, that “the average person reading about Egypt comes to the conclusion that they were obsessed with the afterlife,” Talbott says. “Those who don’t, believe they were obsessed with this life and wanted it to continue.” Both notions are probably misperceptions, given that most of our information on Egyptian life comes from artistic depictions on tombs. Nonetheless, the prominence of death inspires people to think about their own mortality.

Mummies fascinate adults as well as children. It’s a different approach to burial — therefore curious, and a little creepy. Also, the unshakable belief in an afterlife interests those who are unsure of what might come next. “[Egyptians] believed that this life is like an overnight hotel,” says Talbott, “and the afterlife is just that much better. Unlike Christians,” he says laughing, “[the Egyptians] believed you could take [your riches] with you.”

It is worth noting that Fuller reinforces this thematic connection through more than just the production design. T’Kuvma believes that he is the reincarnated form of Kahless the Unforgettable. Notably, the character is played by performer Chris Obi under layers of makeup. Obi had previously collaborated with Fuller on American Gods playing Annubis, the Egyptian god of death.

Death becomes him.

Of course, the portrayal of the Klingons in Discovery is somewhat problematic. For all that the Klingons are an iconic part of the Star Trek mythos, they have always been something of an awkward alien species. Historically, the Klingons have stood in for a racialised “other.” This was obvious as early as Errand of Mercy, when they were introduced in brown-face with fu manchu goatees. There were still uncomfortable shades to the Klingons when they were reinvented in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a warrior race with dark skin.

As such, there has always been a danger of exoticising the Klingons, of transforming them into an unfortunate racial caricature. (Voyager did this with it own “dark-skinned, savage, violent” civilisation; the Kazon were basically a collection of racist stereotypes amalgamated into an alien culture.) Changes in production design intended to make the Klingons more “alien”, as in Into Darkness or Discovery run a very real risk of crossing this line and turning the Klingons into an exoticised racialised “other.”

“I have decided to speak to humanity in a language that you will understand: facetime.”

There are certainly some potentially problematic choices made with regards to the Klingons in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. In particular, the heavy North African and Middle Eastern adds some uncomfortable subtext to the religious undertones of T’Kuvma’s march to war. T’Kuvma’s quest is framed in explicitly spiritual terms. In Battle at the Binary Stars, Burnham speculates that T’Kuvma is positioning himself as “the next Klingon messiah” and “a martyr.” T’Kuvma himself warns, “You will know our great houses, standing as one under Kahless, reborn in me, T’Kuvma!”

In The Vulcan Hello, T’Kuvma rallies the Klingon Empire to their “crusade for self-preservation” by lighting their “sacred beacon.” His followers speak vaguely of “the prophecy” and T’Kuvma’s “teachings.” In Battle at the Binary Stars, Voq describes T’Kuvma’s ship as a “holy vessel.” This coding of religious fundamentalism coupled with the North African and Middle Eastern iconography has uncomfortable undertones, particularly when coupled with the Star Trek franchise’s historical tendency to treat the Federation as a stand-in for American values.

A golden opportunity.

There are moments in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars when the series seems to come close to reinventing the Klingons as racialised caricatures of Islamic extremism. The suggestion that T’Kuvma has built a death cult to unit all Klingons in common cause against an existential enemy could easily be read as a metaphor for the attempts by ISIS to build an Islamic caliphate in opposition to the United States. It is telling that The Vulcan Hello describes Klingon attacks as “terror raids”, and Battle at the Binary Stars features a suicide attack on the Europa.

This subtext is decidedly uncomfortable, particularly in an era where the White House has made such political capital out of the words “radical Islamic terrorism” and attempted to halt immigration into the United States through the creation of a “Muslim Ban.” In this context, reinventing the Klingons as a very broad (and monstrous) caricature of Islam would be a serious mistake, particularly from a franchise that has long prided itself on being open-minded and tolerant.

Bringing out the dead.

However, the portrayal of the Klingons in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is more complicated than all of that. Most obviously, the Klingons in Discovery are not intended solely to stand-in for a foreign racialised other. As showrunner Aaron Harberts has conceded, the Klingons also work as a metaphor for another political force at work in the modern world:

“The allegory is that we really started working on the show in earnest around the time the election was happening,” showrunner Aaron Harberts says. “The Klingons are going to help us really look at certain sides of ourselves and our country. Isolationism is a big theme. Racial purity is a big theme. The Klingons are not the enemy, but they do have a different view on things. It raises big questions: Should we let people in? Do we want to change? There’s also the question of just because you reach your hand out to someone, do they have to take it? Sometimes, they don’t want to take it. It’s been interesting to see how the times have become more of a mirror than we even thought they were going to be.”

This is certainly an interesting shift. The Klingons have historically represented an external political force within the larger Star Trek mythos, most memorably Russia in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. There is something sly and subversive in the idea that the Klingons could instead serve as a metaphor for contemporary America.

White rage.

Of course, this idea is not as radical as it might seem. Enterprise often struggled in its portrayal of the Klingon Empire, treating them as generic heavies in early episodes like Broken Bow, Unexpected, Sleeping Dogs and Marauders. However, late in the second season, writer David A. Goodman hit upon an intriguing way to approach the Klingons for his script Judgment. As the United States marched towards the War in Iraq, Goodman wondered whether the Klingons might serve as a reflection of certain darker parts of the American psyche, in contrast with the idealised Federation.

This is not a radical notion. The Federation has been repeatedly confronted with mirrors and reflections over the course of the Star Trek franchise. On The Next Generation, the Borg embodied certain anxieties about the Federation’s political philosophy; tellingly T’Kuvma dreads assimilation by the Federation in the same way that the Federation fears assimilation by the Borg. On Deep Space Nine, the Dominion was an explicitly fascist counterpoint to the Federation with a more rigid hierarchy and a more militaristic policy.

Kol under pressure.

Discovery is largely an extension of this idea, using the Klingons as a twisted mirror of the Federation in a manner that recalls the use of the Terran Empire in episodes like Mirror, Mirror, In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I or In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II.  When Burnham first makes contact with the Klingons in The Vulcan Hello, she panics. She contacts Sarek, who poetically muses, “How rare to meet one’s own demons in the flesh.” He is directly referring to Burnham’s own history, having lost her family in “the last Klingon terror raid.” But he seems to hint at something more.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars suggest that the Klingon Empire might represent certain strands of contemporary political thought, the resurgent reactionary movement that led to the election of Donald Trump and passage of the Brexit referendum. T’Kuvma is devoted to an ideal of isolationism and racial purity that obviously mirrors several key values of the Trump administration, from Stephen Miller’s “ethno-nationalism” to Trump’s own “America First.” Indeed, T’Kuvma’s repeated appeal to “remain Klingon!” seems like a first draft campaign slogan.

“The Empire WILL strike back.”

The similarities between “remain Klingon!” and “make America great again!” are no mere coincidence, as Aaron Herberts concedes:

The Trump phenomenon was “front and center in our minds,” Harberts admits when talking about the post-Fuller production process. “We felt like it would be interesting to really look at what’s going on in the United States.” He mentions that among the show’s antagonists are an ultra-religious and violent Klingon faction whose rallying cry – “Remain Klingon” – is intentionally reminiscent of “Make America Great Again.”

“It’s a call to isolationism,” the showrunner says in reference to the slogan. “It’s about racial purity, and it’s about wanting to take care of yourself. And if anybody is reaching a hand out to help you, it’s about smacking it away . . . That was pretty provocative for us, and it wasn’t necessarily something that we wanted to completely lean into. But it was happening. We were hearing the stories.”

“We’re living in monstrous times, let’s not dance around it,” Jason Isaacs says, in a separate interview. “Hideous, divisive times, when all sorts of stuff we thought was long buried is coming to the surface, and being encouraged by the most powerful people on the planet. We’re living in disgusting times.”

It has been argued that it is impossible for any modern art to escape the gravity of Donald Trump. However, this is also something Star Trek needs to confront.

High Counselling Caution.

However, these similarities run deeper than broad ideology. Throughout The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, T’Kuvma is treated as a disruptive element by the Klingon establishment. He confronts the members of the High Council and is admonished as an outsider. In many ways, this is a reflection of the narrative that has cultivated around Trump, the notion that he exists outside the political system. This attitude informs a lot of Trump’s rhetoric, his promises to “drain the swamp” and to hold “the elites” to account.

T’Kuvma welcomes and embraces outcasts. “I recognise you as someone who has lived his life on the outside,” T’Kuvma tells Voq, the self-described “son of none” in The Vulcan Hello. In Battle at the Binary Stars, Kol accuses T’Kuvma of recruiting “outcasts and vermin.” This is not too far removed from Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” comment. T’Kuvma is not shamed by the accusation, but embraces it. “My house is open to all,” he warns the High Council. “Including those discarded by you, Kol.”

Lock her up.

Of course, there is something incredibly disingenuous about Trump positioning himself as an “outsider.” Similarly, there is a clear sense that T’Kuvma is not as much of an outsider as he likes to present himself. After all, he does travel through space inside a giant golden ship that he inherited from his father. T’Kuvma is not a commoner by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, his flashback sequences suggest that he is motivated by the elevation of his House, that he seeks to reassert an old political order and earn respect that he is due.

One of the most intriguing and slyly subversive aspects of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is the way in which the episode is built around an inverted “Chosen One” narrative. Science-fiction and fantasy are very fond of these sorts of stories; Sisko and Archer both have variations of this character arc in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. It is a cornerstone of Star Wars. However, the “Chosen One” narrative tends to be constructed around a heroic character. The early trailers for Discovery were edited in such a way as to suggest Sarek saw such a narrative developing around Burnham.

What the Voq are you talking about?

One of the more interesting twists in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is the revelation that Burnham is not the “Chosen One” at the heart of this narrative. Instead, Sarek is describing T’Kuvma when he talks about natural leaders affecting great change, “When a civilization acts in opposition to its instincts, it may be under the influence of something, or someone, new. Great unifiers are few and far between, but they do come. Often, such leaders will need a profound cause for their followers to rally around.”

The “Chosen One” narrative is an awkward trope in large party due to its fascistic undertones. (Indeed, Norman Spinrad pointed out the uncomfortable underpinnings of so many of these fantasy tropes in The Iron Dream.) It is the cornerstone of the “cult of personality”, itself a foundation of fascism. It is the myth of the “great man”, the singular visionary with a unique ability to lead his (and it is almost always his) people to a better world. In keeping with the episode’s other parallels, Trump has shown signs of trying to build such a cult around himself.

Burnham is out.

In some respects, T’Kuvma’s attempts to cultivate a personal mythology around himself are contrasted with Burnham’s failed mutiny. In trying to take control of the Shenzhou, Burnham tries to cast herself as a singular hero. Burnham clearly believes herself to be the only person capable of bringing the Klingons to heel. “I’m trying to save you,” she pleaded at the climax of The Vulcan Hello. “I’m trying to save all of you.” In Battle at the Binary Stars, she elaborates, “You want to know how I turned on you? I believed saving you and the crew was more important than Starfleet’s principles.”

It goes almost without saying that Burnham was wrong. In fact, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars bend over backwards to demonstrate that Burnham was wrong. The scenes spent with T’Kuvma in The Vulcan Hello demonstrate that Burnham was wrong, that there was nothing she could have done to change the outcome of events. Her closing line at the end of Battle of the Binary Stars accepts that her actions were wrong and actually made the situation worse than it would otherwise have been.

This Klingon terror raid went down a bomb.

Burnham tries to be the sort of fascistic strong man archetype, the wolf protecting the sheep from other predators. However, she fails. In doing so, Discovery seems to be making an important thematic point about what kind of story this is. Discovery will not be a “Chosen One” narrative about a rogue individual who rejects the core values of her institution in order to protect it from itself. In many ways, this is a very important theme, one that connects Discovery back to the optimistic utopianism suggested in The Next Generation, a belief that unity is stronger than individual ambition.

However, Discovery is not a story that explicitly villifies the Klingon Empire. Indeed, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars are relatively respectful of T’Kuvma’s perspective, as unsettling as it might be. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars allow the Klingons room to breathe. Although the Klingon cast members are credited as guest stars, they are granted almost equal prominence with the Starfleet officers. In one of the pilot’s most ambitious creative decisions, extended sequences unfold in Klingonese, subtitled for the viewers at home.

“Hey, who would have thought a bit of continuity established by Enterprise would prove so useful? Next thing you know, they’ll be mentioning the Xindi in the feature film franchise!”

Indeed, long-term Star Trek fans will know where T’Kuvma is coming from. The Federation is a corrosive and insidious force, one dedicated to assimilating its political opponents. Michael Eddington made the critique in abstract terms in For the Cause, but Luther Sloan pointed out that the Federation would be the last Alpha Quadrant power left standing after the Dominion War in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. (To be fair, Sloan also suggested that the Romulans would be a political rival, but Star Trek: Nemesis puts paid to that concern.)

Over the course of the Star Trek franchise, it is repeatedly suggested that the Klingon Empire has been weakened by its association with the Federation. Korris lamented the decline of the Klingon Empire in Heart of Glory, suggesting that peace “is like a living death to warriors like us.” This theory was borne out over Deep Space Nine, with The Way of the Warrior suggesting that the Klingon Empire needed conquest and war to sustain itself. It should be noted that Klingon culture is inherently aggressive and expansionist; its decline is not a bad thing.

A slippery slope.

However, T’Kuvma is still correct in his prediction that “we come in peace” is the death knell of the Klingon Empire. The only way for the Federation to truly defeat the Klingon Empire is to make peace with them. Aggression and violence serve to galvinise the Klingon Empire, to provide opposition against which the imperial institutions might stand resolved. Burnham advocates for violence against the Klingons, and in doing so she gives them everything she wants. T’Kuvma’s world view is shown to be internally consistent, even if his values are horrifying.

More than that, the Klingon and the Federation characters are explicitly parallelled with with one another. Burnham’s traumatic childhood flashbacks are reflected in T’Kuvma’s memories of his own childhood on Qo’nos. Georgiou and Burnham share a mentor-mentee relationship that is paralleled in the dynamic between T’Kuvma and Voq. In particular, it seems like Discovery is setting up clear parallel arcs for Burnham and Voq across the rest of the season; Burnham as a disgraced mutineer seeking redemption and Voq as an outcast trying to fulfill his mentor’s dream.

The only transport in a storm.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars make a point to suggest that the Klingons and the Federation are not so different from one another. Although they are different from the Federation, the Klingons are not as alien as they might initially seem. What is Burnham’s attempted mutiny but a slight twist on the process of promotion on a Klingon ship discussed in episodes like A Matter of Honour or Soldiers of the Empire? T’Kuvma’s reflexive fear and hatred of the Federation is mirrored in Burnham’s reflexive fear and hatred of the Klingons.

For all that The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars suggest that the Klingon Empire is a terrorist organisation, Starfleet employs a number of terrorist tactics against their adversaries. When T’Kuvma rams the Europa, Admiral Anderson initiates “a voluntary antimatter containment breach.” It is effectively a suicide bombing. After T’Kuvma cripples the Federation fleet, Captain Philippa Georgiou commits a war crime. She booby traps the Klingon dead in order to stage a daring raid on T’Kuvma’s ship. Starfleet’s hands are not entirely clean in all this.

“We got our design ideas from The Undiscovered Country.”

To be clear, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is not embracing a grim and gritty moral relativism, suggesting a moral equivalence between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. One is a well-meaning peace-keeping organisation, while the other is an expansionist imperial power. Instead, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars suggest that Starfleet has a long way to go to live up to its utopian potential. In many ways, this is an important part of writing a Star Trek prequel, a reminder of how far our characters have left to travel to the franchise’s utopia.

After all, it should be noted that Burnham’s attempted mutiny in The Vulcan Hello is revealed to be completely pointless. The audience knows that T’Kuvma is luring Starfleet into an ambush in an attempt to start a war. T’Kuvma’s big plan is to unify the twenty-four great houses of the Klingon Empire against a common threat, and he has decided that the Federation will serve as that common threat. Even if Burnham had hijacked the ship, even if Burnham had convinced the crew to fire, it is very hard to believe that the outcome would have been any different.

Klingon House bands together.

To be fair, producer Alex Kurtzman suggests that the writers intended some ambiguity on this point, insisting the question must be left to each individual audience member:

One of the questions I think the audience will be asking, and Burnham is asking, is: Did I start this war or would this war had happened anyway? And what is the difference there? And would my friend and surrogate mother still be alive if I had acted differently? That’s going to be a point of debate. I’ll spoil one thing: We’re never going to answer that question for you. The audience will have to decide.

From a character perspective, it makes sense for Burnham to carry some sense of guilt for what happened. After all guilt (like fear and like anger) is not logical, and so it makes sense that this should be a core part of her character.

“Tomorrow never dies, but looking at the cast list, I probably do.”

However, the two episodes very heavily suggest that Burnham’s mutiny would have changed absolutely nothing, even if it had been successful. “If their intention is to attack, balling up our fists won’t dissuade them,” Captain Georgiou muses. Georgiou and Burnham have no way of knowing the intentions of the Klingon fleet, but the audience knows. Georgiou is entirely correct in her reading of the situation. All that Burnham’s mutiny accomplishes is to deny Georgiou her most trusted officer at the most important moments.

Indeed, there is something almost sadistic about the crisis presented in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. In many ways, the set-up feels like a riff upon the Kobyashi Maru from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the iconic “no-win scenario” in which the Federation finds itself drawn into conflict with the Klingons. (In The Vulcan Hello, a signal relay stands in for the lost and damaged freighter.) There is a sense that there is no right answer to the situation that unfolds, no magic resolution that will satisfy all parties.

We salute you.

Georgiou advocates diplomacy, which will not work. Burnham advocates a show of force, which would play into T’Kuvma’s hands. Saru advocates retreat, but that is not an option either. “If there are Klingons in this sector, we should withdraw immediately,” Saru suggests. Georgiou cannot conscience the decision. “This is Federation space. Retreat is not an option.” Later, she outlines the stake, “There is a space station at Eagle-Twelve, three light-years away. The Andorian colony at Gamma-Hydra is six. Shenzhou is their only line of defense if the Klingons attack.”

In some respects, this demonstrates the complexities of international relations. There are some cases in which a peaceful solution is simply not possible or justifiable. Deep Space Nine made a similar case in its fifth season, with the march towards an inevitable war between In Purgatory’s Shadow and Call to Arms. Those episodes made a very strong case that the Dominion was neither interested nor capable in making peace with the Federation, just as the Klingons are neither interested nor capable of making peace with the Federation.

Boxed in.

Of course, the concept of a “just war” is a complicated and controversial philosophical idea. There is considerable debate about whether such a war exists in human history. Wars are inevitably fought to serve the political agendas of major powers, but sometimes those political agendas are worth defending through military force. Although not motivated by the reports of the Holocaust or Nanking, the Second World War put an end to the genocidal and totalitarian regimes of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The American Civil War was a result of complicated political forces, but it put an end to slavery.

The idea that some conflicts are inevitable, and maybe even necessary, does not in any way diminish or belittle the tragedy and the folly of warfare. It is possible to regret the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan and to condemn the bombing of Dresden while acknowledging that the Second World War was an existential struggle. Indeed, Deep Space Nine makes the case that the Dominion War is a necessary and vital existential struggle for survival in the face of an overwhelming fascist opponent, while still lamenting the brutality and the horror of that conflict.

A spotlight episode.

(Part of what makes the seventh season of Deep Space Nine so underrated compared to the highly praised sixth season is the way in which the season explores the folly of war. The seventh season of Deep Space Nine captures the sense of grind and futility of war, the perpetual trauma and suffering, in episodes like The Siege of AR-558 and It’s Only a Paper Moon. More than that, the seventh season makes a point to juxtapose the Klingon and Cardassian perspectives of the war in episodes like Strange Bedfellows and Tacking Into the Wind. Discovery looks to be doing something similar with the Klingons.)

Even if the conflict in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars is inevitable, that does not mean that the Klingon War is righteous or heroic. In fact, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars go out of their way to insist that the Federation and Starfleet must do better. Discovery is unambiguous in condemning Burnham’s failure. Sarek visits her in the brig, as she wallows in her failure. “You’re gifted. You are brave. You must do better. Because I know you can.” Again, Sarek is speaking as much to humanity as to the single human in front of him.

Beaming with stoicism.

Discovery makes it clear that Burnham does not redeem herself at the end of the two-parter. Burnham has not proven herself by the end of Battle at the Binary Stars. The final scene of the episode confirms as much, with Burnham acknowledging her guilt by entering a guilt plea in the court martial. “I wanted to protect them from war, from the enemy,” she offers by way of explanation. “And now we are at war and I am the enemy.” This is a fairly explicit rebuke of any criticism based on the assumption that Burnham is the hero of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars.

To be fair, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars does suggest that the crisis might have been deescalated after it began. It seems like the broad strokes of Georgiou and Burnham’s plan to abduct T’Kuvma might work, that capturing him as a prisoner of war might bring shame and humiliation upon him to stop his movement dead in its tracks. However, the plan quite crucially hinges on capturing T’Kuvma alive. While it relies on a little more violence than the perfect Star Trek resolution, it hinges (quite explicitly) on the fact that phasers have a “stun” setting.

“Okay, we can recover your father’s space ship, T’Kuvma. But if there are any strange alien eggs on board, I’m outta here.”

“If you kill him, you make him a martyr,” Burnham explains. “Someone they can fight for endlessly. That might even be what he wants. But if you capture him, you make him a symbol of defeat. Of shame. And if you take him as a prisoner of war, you give the Federation leverage to sue for peace.” Coupled with established Klingon honour dynamics, it seems likely that being taken as a prisoner of war would disgrace T’Kuvma in the eyes of the Klingon Empire and effectively dissolve his fragile coalition. It is the least violent outcome possible, and one that hinges on not killing T’Kuvma.

Once again, Discovery underscores that Burnham makes poor choices based more on emotions than on logic. After T’Kuvma kills Georgiou, Burnham has a clean shot. She could easily stun him and return to the Shenzhou, completing the mission. However, in a split second, Burnham makes the conscious choice to switch her weapon to “kill” and to murder an enemy head of state. In doing so, she makes the same mistake that she warned Georgiou against. She galvanises the Klingon Empire into a force to avenge the death of a visionary leader, and sets in motion war on a galactic scale.

A ridge too far.

To be fair, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars effectively represent a “prologue” to the season ahead; it is telling that the season order for fifteen episodes includes the two-part prologue and the standard prestige season order of fifteen episodes. In many respects, the audience is being allowed to witness Burnham’s fall from grace, rather than treating it as an informed attribute in later episodes. This is the equivalent of actually seeing what Paris did before Caretaker, or spending some time on the Saratoga before the teaser to Emissary.

As such, this seems like a nice place for Bryan Fuller to leave the series. His story credit on Battle at the Binary Stars represents his last direct involvement in the show, having co-written the teleplay for The Vulcan Hello. Given his passion for Star Trek, and his interest in this project in particular, his departure feels like a massive loss. Quite frankly, Bryan Fuller is one of the best showrunners working in modern television, and Discovery pulled a major coup in recruiting him to work on the show. After all, a high-profile respected auteur showrunner is the cornerstone of modern prestige television.

The First Officer’s Duty.

Reportedly, there were tensions between Fuller and CBS from the outset. In particular, Fuller’s original pitch for Discovery was much more ambitious than anything that CBS allowed to make to screen:

Fuller sat with CBS executives to deliver his pitch. It wasn’t just for a Trek series but for multiple serialized anthology shows that would begin with the Discovery prequel, journey through the eras of Captain James T. Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and then go beyond to a time in Trek that’s never been seen before. “The original pitch was to do for science fiction what American Horror Story had done for horror,” Fuller says. “It would platform a universe of Star Trek shows.”

CBS countered with the plan of creating a single serialized show and then seeing how it performed. It was a fair compromise, yet demonstrated the first conflict of vision between a powerful company and an inventive writer that would eventually lead to a dramatic falling-out.

There were any number of more minor conflicts between Fuller and CBS. Most notably, Fuller had originally wanted a director with a distinctive visual style to direct the pilot, while CBS wanted a more conventional television director. The Vulcan Hello might have been directed by Edgar Wright.

“It’s muti-me, not muti-you.”

CBS has always been very conservative when it comes to managing the Star Trek franchise, rarely willing to push the franchise in bold directions. Indeed, the production teams working on Deep Space Nine have conceded that they only got to push the envelope because they were the “bastard stepchild” of the franchise, with the studio’s attention focused on The Next Generation and Voyager. The production teams on Voyager and Enterprise constantly struggled against limitations imposed by expectations, rarely allowed to engage in ambitious storytelling.

Still, Fuller’s ambitious vision of Discovery would have resolved a lot of potential problems baked into the premise. Most obviously, the anthology format would get around the issue of doing another prequel series, opening up the possibility of pushing through the various eras of the franchise and into a future beyond Nemesis. In many ways, Fuller’s original plan could have served as a grand unifying theory of contemporary Star Trek, providing a logical progression from the reboot movies and Enterprise forwards through the Berman era and into the future. Fuller might have reclaimed the future.

Of course, “might” is the operative word there. It is impossible to know what Fuller’s vision of Star Trek might have looked like had he been allowed to realise it. The possibilities for an anthology series set within the Star Trek universe are endless; fans might eventually get a season of the Captain Sulu show that they so wanted, or get a reimagined exploration of Wolf 359, or spend some more time on the Equinox, or explore the continuity lacuna between The Undiscovered Country and The Next Generation.

With such an ambitious pitch, Fuller inadvertantly created a hypothetical shadow self against which Discovery might be measured. It is a shadow that will loom large over the rest of the season, and probably beyond. Indeed, there may be some reflection of this shadow self in Alex Kurtzman’s insistance that the second season of Discovery will branch beyond the Klingon War, suggesting that the show will be something akin to a serialised anthology show that just happens to be anchored to one ship and one cast and one time period.

Of course, Fuller’s influence on Discovery will not be erased. The production team working on Discovery have made a point to a insist that Fuller’s vision will endure through the rest of the first season:

“We set about to protect and preserve as much of the vision that he had,” Kurtzman recently told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. “And Gretchen and Aaron, who have worked with Bryan for a long, long time, are here because we all respect Bryan’s vision and because we felt that it was the best way to preserve that. So we honor what he did, and we love so much of what’s there, and much of what’s there still came from his mind.”

This makes a certain amount of sense, given the serialised nature of the season as a whole. It would have been reckless for Fuller to plot The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars without some idea where he was going, and it would be foolish for his successors not to use those ideas when following his start.

It should be noted that the influence of departed executive producers can occasionally be felt on Star Trek series after their departure. Gene Roddenberry wrote and engaged with the original Star Trek even when he wasn’t serving as showrunner; he would provide feedback on scripts and pitches to Gene L. Coon, John Meredyth Lucas and Fred Freiberger. Michael Piller still provided feedback and memos for Deep Space Nine and Voyager after his ouster; he advocated against killing Bareil in Life Support and for killing Gowron in Tacking Into the Wind.

At the same time, it seems highly unlikely that Fuller will remain actively involved in the day-to-day running of Discovery. His creative influence with wain over the corse of the first season; the first two episodes follow his plotting, the next thirteen follow the broad strokes of his season arc, and then the creative team are largely on his own. Discovery will always be working from a template established by Fuller in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, but the structure of those two episodes as a prologue rather than a first chapter serves to further insulate his influence.

Fuller conceded as much in interviews around his departure, acknowledging his best wishes for the series while also minimising his own large-scale contributions:

“I’m not involved in production, or postproduction, so I can only give them the material I’ve given them and hope that it is helpful for them. I’m curious to see what they do with it,” he says.

He commented on a potential second season: “They have my number and if they need me I will absolutely be there for them.”

Fuller has been magnaminous in his departure, but it seems highly unlikely that CBS would ever try to bring him back. More than that, Fuller has a particularly full plate and seems unlikely to have the availability to take the show back on.

Although Fuller is not credited on the teleplay, his influence is keenly felt in the closing scene of Battle at the Binary Stars. Much like Burnham’s opening log entry in The Vulcan Hello seems to directly address the audience to provide a statement of purpose for the latest iteration of the franchise (“all life is born from chaos and destruction”), Burnham’s closing statement to the court martial plays almost as a commentary on Bryan Fuller’s strange relationship with Discovery and his short fleeting career as a Star Trek showrunner.

“From my youth on Vulcan, I was raised to believe that service was my purpose,” Burnham states. “And I carried that conviction to Starfleet. I dreamed of a day when I would command my own vessel and further the noble objectives of this great institution. That dream is over; the only ship I know in ruins; my crew gone.” Burnham is delivering a eulogy. It is not just a eulogy for the Shenzhou, it is a eulogy for a vision of the future. It is a reflection on a tragic waste of potential and the destruction of a dream. It is an appropriate end to Fuller’s direct involvement with Discovery.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars are a very unconventional Star Trek pilot. Then again, Discovery has been a very unconventional Star Trek production. The unique structure of the season, with these two episodes effectively a teaser for the season ahead, means that Fuller’s contributions feel strangely disconnected from the show that he helped create. There is something tragic and mournful in this, the feeling of lost potential reflected in the death of Captain Georgiou and the destruction of the Shenzhou.

Then again, perhaps that is the most Fullerian of themes. Discovery is dead. Long live Discovery.

One Response

  1. My main concern with Discovery is that it echoes Agents of SHIELD in all the worst ways. The stress here is on continuing and improving Abramsverse continuity, which to its credit it manages to do very well.

    >Burnham tries to be the sort of fascistic strong man archetype, the wolf protecting the sheep from other predators.

    This resonates with me because it’s a continuous problem here in the states. Problems like Iraq, or the recession, are so bogged down and intractable that at first, the big swinging dick seems like as good a strategy as any. it can’t get worse, can it?

    But it always gets worse, and, in Bush’s case, it got worse because he crawled so far up his own ass than he began to believe his mere presence could stand in place of actual policy. He was feared, then mocked, then ultimately removed. The bluster turned out to be all he had. In his place came another blowhard who is gonna fix everything.

    We have learned nothing from Bush, and I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, quick fall.

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