Review: Star Trek: Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”

Well, it’s here. The first new Star Trek TV series in more than ten years. I’ve had pretty significant reservations about Discovery from the outset, due to my complicated relationship with the Star Trek franchise, but as I’ve said many times, I have far too much franchise loyalty for my own good, so of course I’m giving it a shot.

The starship Shenzhou in Star Trek: DiscoveryI actually did something a bit different for the premiere. Instead of watching at home on my own, I went to a meet-up at a local sci-fi gaming establishment. Before the show, we played a sort of video game/simulation where we played as bridge officers on a starship. I was at tactical, and my team won, so I feel pretty good about myself.

But I digress. Enough about my lackluster attempts at a social life. Let’s discuss Discovery, shall we?

Since the first two episodes — “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” — were shown back to back and form a continuous story, I’ll just review them together.

There are two ways one can judge Discovery. One is as the heir to the grand ideals and great potential of Star Trek as thought-provoking science fiction. The other is as just an entertaining TV show.

It’s succeeded at one of those.

Discovery takes the odd route of not introducing us to the titular ship out of the gate. Instead, the story focuses on the Federation starship Shenzhou (which is gorgeous, by the way), and especially its first officer, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green).

The bridge crew of the Shenzhou in Star Trek: DiscoveryThe Shenzhou is on a routine mission to investigate a communications relay that’s gone offline, but a run-in with a faction of fanatical Klingons soon sees them at the flashpoint of a potential interstellar war.

It’s very fast-paced, maybe a little too much so. It feels rather rushed at times, and there isn’t a lot of opportunity to explore the characters. There’s also a few things that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but it all went by so fast I can’t recall a lot of specific examples.

There are two issues that are really bothering me about Discovery right now.

Number one is, well, Number One. I have rapidly developed a strong dislike for Commander Burnham. She’s exactly the sort of undisciplined hothead that I never liked to begin with and have only become more resentful of due to the archetype’s over-use. How do loose cannons like this keep getting put in positions of power in Starfleet, anyway?

The other is the portrayal of the Klingons.

I had my reservations going in based on the radical redesign of their appearance. I know it may seem a petty thing, but given that Klingons already had a well-known and iconic appearance, and given that their look has already been retconned once, and given that a lot of effort was put towards explaining the previous retcon, it’s just change for the sake of change. I have a high tolerance for retcons, but even I can’t defend something so unnecessary.

The Klingon T'Kuvma in Star Trek: DiscoveryAnd no, there’s no explanation given for why they look so different. A wizard did it, I guess.

Their culture has also changed quite a lot — again, no explanation as to why. In Discovery, the Klingons are religious fanatics obsessed with racial purity. They come across as some weird hybrid of Al Qaeda and the KKK.

The end result is that they have once again been reduced to one-dimensional villains. There is no sympathetic angle to Discovery’s Klingons, no nuance. They’re just evil.

The Klingons deserve better. Star Trek deserves better.

Based on the trailers, I had the impression that Discovery might be bringing back the cerebral, thought-provoking style of story-telling that put Star Trek on the map. Based on the first two episodes, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I actually have a theory to explain all these inconsistencies, but it’s a little spoilery and gets far into the weeds of nerdery, so I’ll save it for the end of the post.

It also doesn’t help that Michelle Yeoh was merely a guest star. I was really enjoying her character. I would have preferred to see her as the show’s focus.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander Michael Burnham in Star Trek: DiscoveryThat’s a lot of criticism, but I don’t want to send the impression that I hate Discovery so far. I don’t.

I think a lot of the problem is the weight of expectation from the Star Trek name. If not for that, I’d probably enjoy Discovery more. It may not be all I want Trek to be, but it’s not without its charms.

For one thing, it’s a very nice looking show. The special effects are cinema-quality, and the art design is brilliant. I love how the technology and uniforms feel like a very natural evolution from Enterprise.

It’s also very exciting. The space battles are great, and it does a good job of keeping you on the edge of your seat.

My gripes about Burnham aside, the cast shows some promise, too. I already quite like Doug Jones’ Saru, an alien with a heightened sense of self-preservation. His species seems like an interesting new addition, and I look forward to learning more about their culture.

There it is! Death!So Discovery doesn’t entirely work as a Star Trek show, but as just another sci-fi action-adventure, it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad.

I’ll keep watching. It’s good enough. And lots of sci-fi shows — and Trek shows — have rocky starts, so maybe it will improve. Maybe the Klingons will get some depth, and maybe Burnham will grow on me.

Maybe.

Overall rating: 6.9/10

Okay, so here’s my headcanon for the retcons right now:

I know it’s been said this is the prime timeline, but I don’t think it is. I think this is an alternate timeline spawned by the Temporal Cold War.

In Enterprise’s premiere, the Cabal are trying to start a civil war between the Klingon houses. In Discovery, the Klingon houses have been at war for a hundred years — roughly the length of time that’s elapsed since the events of Enterprise.

If this is a timeline where for some reason Captain Archer and his crew never thwarted the Cabal’s plans, that explains why the houses have been warring. And if the Klingons’ attention was turned inward, they would not have had the subsequent interactions with the NX-01. Phlox would never have helped cure the Augment virus, and flat foreheads would not have spread throughout the Klingon race.

A Klingon in Star Trek: DiscoveryThe other changes to Klingon appearance in Discovery could be explained by an alternate cure for the virus, or by some other biological modification resulting from the decades of war.

This almost certainly wasn’t what the writers intended, but it does a very good job of filling Discovery’s plot holes, doesn’t it?

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9 thoughts on “Review: Star Trek: Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”

  1. I’m probably showing my age here, but I was disappointed that only the first episode was on network TV. If you want to watch the rest, you have to stream it. I’m an old fart who still plans the evening around what is on regular TV. I don’t have any interest in on-demand streaming. Heck, I don’t even have DVR to record shows I might miss! I watch them when they’re on or I catch a rerun later on down the line. I know I’m old fashioned in this and behind the times but, I am how I am. I guess I’ll be watching The Orville instead.

    • Ha, I’m the total opposite. This was my first time watching broadcast TV in about five years. Gods, were commercials always that long?!?

      That said, you should come to Canada. You can still watch it on TV here. The Space channel is showing every episode.

    • What seemed more weird to me is only showing the first half of the pilot. Especially when the pilot doesn’t give you look at the captain, ship or general episode structure. Like at least give people a t.v movie to enjoy before they decide to sign up.

  2. Great review. I just wrote mine and will post it soon (maybe tonight). We agree on almost everything here, although I might like Michael a little more than you do! (I agree she’s a hothead though, which is not a character I typically like.)

    The biggest gripe for me is the one-note “evil villain” portrayal of the Klingons so far, as you also brought up. Both episodes just felt more like Battlestar Galactica (super fast paced, crazy action) and Star Wars (just in terms of a good vs evil vibe) to me. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it was definitely entertaining sci-fi.

  3. I fell asleep during ep1, but what I did see of it didn’t inspire me to want to go back and catch up what I missed. Haven’t seen ep2 yet, and given my reaction to ep1, I’m not sure if I actually will or not. Time will tell…

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