Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, as well as for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Picard.
There aren’t many episodes of Star Trek that I’ve only seen once. As a big fan of the franchise, I love going back and watching my favourite stories over and over again. Even though there are many episodes and films I haven’t seen in years, I’ve almost certainly seen them all twice – or much more than twice, in many cases. But Star Trek: Discovery’s opening two-parter was poor, and as a result I haven’t been interested in revisiting it in the three years since it was first broadcast. Until now, that is!
Star Trek series have typically not started particularly strongly, or at least their premieres would go on to be surpassed by later stories. Deep Space Nine’s Emissary and Star Trek: Picard’s Remembrance buck that particular trend – as I noted when I reviewed the latter episode in January. While other premieres for Star Trek series – Where No Man Has Gone Before, Encounter at Farpoint, Caretaker, and Broken Bow – were all episodes I’d personally consider average compared to the rest of their respective shows, and are all stories that I’m content to revisit, Discovery’s premiere was out-and-out bad. I’d been absolutely thrilled to hear of Star Trek’s return to the small screen after a twelve-year hiatus, and while I wouldn’t say I was distraught by The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, I was certainly underwhelmed.
We’ll get into specifics later, but my main feeling after my first viewing was that Michael Burnham was just an incredibly unlikeable protagonist, and someone whose motivations I couldn’t understand. After finishing the first part and before hitting “play” on the second (the episodes were released simultaneously, at least here in the UK) I honestly thought that the producers might have been trying to pull off a genuinely unexpected twist by making Burnham – who had been the main focus of the show’s marketing in 2017 – an antagonist. It wasn’t the case, of course, and over the remainder of a somewhat rocky first season, she did grow on me.
Aside from wanting to spend some more time in the Star Trek universe, and revisit Discovery before its third season debuts later this year, I wanted to re-watch these two episodes to see if my opinion has changed now that we’ve had two full seasons to get to know Burnham and the crew. Will revisiting the story having seen Burnham’s character development across Seasons 1 and 2 make the experience better – or even any different?
The opening sequences of The Vulcan Hello look at the Klingons, who are rallying around a leadership figure, and Captain Georgiou and Burnham on the surface of a desert planet. It’s worth talking about the Klingon redesign, because a lot of fans weren’t happy with the aesthetic chosen for the Discovery-era Klingons. Out of all of the races in Star Trek, none have been so thoroughly explored over the franchise’s history as the Klingons. Worf was a main character for all of The Next Generation, four films, and the back half of Deep Space Nine, and B’Elanna Torres was a main character for all of Voyager’s run. These two characters in particular taught us a lot about Klingon culture in the 24th Century. Deep Space Nine brought the Klingons into the show in a huge way, exploring various aspects of their culture. Aside from Worf and B’Elanna, there was General Martok, who was a recurring character in Deep Space Nine, as well as General Chang, Chancellor Gowron, the Duras family, and many other secondary characters who all added to our understanding of the Klingons. Enterprise even told a three-part story to explain the reason why Klingons look different in different eras. While that story in particular was not my favourite, it’s fair to say that we’ve spent a lot of time with the Klingons before Discovery’s debut, and for many fans the changes were extreme to say the least.
The redesign is mostly an aesthetic thing, swapping the long hair and familiar prosthetics of 1990s Star Trek for an appearance closer to the Klingons of the Kelvin-timeline films. There was also a lot of what I considered to be an ancient Egyptian influence in the Klingons – particularly their costumes and architecture. Combined with speaking in the Klingon language as opposed to English, the Klingons of Discovery’s premiere have a much more “alien” feel than their earlier counterparts.
It’s an issue I’m split on, personally. While I liked the ancient Egyptian influence, and I can even excuse the baldness as hair styles and fashion varies wildly from era to era in our own history, the prosthetic makeup used for the Klingons’ heads and faces felt a long way removed from what had been established not only in the 24th Century but, thanks to Enterprise, the 22nd Century too. It is of course true that this isn’t the first Klingon redesign – that came in The Motion Picture when Klingons were changed from basically looking like dark-skinned humans to the familiar ridged-forehead appearance, but that was a change to overcome the limitations of The Original Series’ 1960s makeup – and lower budget. Messing too much with the established canon of any fictional world can be a problem, and while many elements of the new design were great, the faces were definitely a weak spot.
Burnham and Georgiou’s mission to the desert planet was jam-packed with exposition, and several of these lines felt rather clumsy. It can be difficult to establish to the audience who characters are and what their relationships are quickly, but Discovery took a sequence that lasted almost five full minutes, and there was scope in that time to set up the relationship between these two characters (one of whom isn’t going to survive the premiere anyway) in a way that felt more natural. Skipping the away mission – which was really only in the episode for the visual effect of the Starfleet emblem drawn in the sand – and having Burnham and co. on the bridge would have been my first choice for setting this up. However, I did like seeing the USS Shenzhou descending through the sandstorm – and the classic Star Trek music sting that accompanied it. Moments like that go a long way to making a story “feel like Star Trek”. I always put that expression in quotation marks because it’s a feeling that can be very hard to pin down and explain in words.
I don’t want to talk too much about Star Trek: Picard, but the character introductions in that series were conducted in a much better and more natural way. Each character who joins the mission to Freecloud and the Artifact feels like they’re there for a valid reason, and for us as the audience, meeting them felt like it happened at the right moment. There was little by way of ham-fisted exposition in Picard, and that’s partly thanks to the slower and more methodical approach it took to introducing its characters.
I liked Burnahm’s log, and the visual effect of the Shenzhou at warp. Log entries have been how Star Trek has always handled the framing of stories, and the setup for the episode is contained here.
Saru is the next character to be properly introduced, and he and Burnham apparently share a rivalry that I’d forgotten all about. Their bickering straddled a line between mildly humorous and mildly annoying, as they push each other out of the way of Saru’s bridge station trying to determine what, if anything, damaged a communications relay – which is the reason the Shenzhou had been called to that region of space. Establishing early on, as Burnham does, that there is a protocol in place which requires sending a ship to investigate a damaged relay felt similar to Kirk’s revelation in Star Trek Into Darkness that the attack on the Starfleet archive would lead to a meeting of senior officers. I like this kind of storyline, and in both cases it was done well, clearly setting up tension and the expectation that this seemingly-innocuous event – which in Discovery’s case the characters treat almost with whimsy – is actually the precursor to something far more serious.
As Burnham steps onto the hull, the star system she’s looking at is stunningly beautiful. Just as she is awed by it, so are we as the audience. Previous Star Trek shows often depicted planets and space sequences that were flat, or where only one object was in focus. The star system here is on full display, and it really is majestic. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I felt there may have been some influence from the film Interstellar – released about three years before Discovery premiered – in the depiction of this binary star system.
Burnham takes a thruster pack (a nice little callback to The Motion Picture) and travels to an object in the debris field that is implied to be responsible for damaging the subspace relay. The voyage through the asteroids was tense, but Burnham is able to steer around all the obstacles to arrive at the object. I liked that the story cut her off from communicating with the ship, as this ramped up the tension.
After a brief survey, she lands on the hull of the object – described as a sculpture but which must evidently be a spacecraft of some kind. A Klingon emerges onto the hull, armed with a batleth. I would have liked to see more of this fight, as well as the sequence as a whole pushing Burnham herself closer to her 19-minute time limit. As it is, the last time we see Burnham she’s got a clear ten minutes – more than half of her time remaining – and then after the brief fight the action cuts back to the bridge of the Shenzhou, where Burnham now has mere seconds to get back aboard.
The fight could have been so much more than it was. With Burnham and the Klingon making exactly one move each it’s hardly fair to even call it a fight. I did appreciate the use of the thruster pack on Burnham’s part; it makes more sense for her to use her technology to defeat the Klingon than for the story to have tried to match them in terms of physical strength. But the Klingon’s spacesuit was unnecessarily ornate. I mentioned earlier that some of the ancient Egyptian influence in the way the Klingons appear was something I liked. And generally that is true, but this particular costume overwhelmed the Klingon warrior, and as it was seen so briefly there wasn’t really time to appreciate it or take it in. Given that the episode had already established that the Klingons are in play, and given that Burnham’s computer easily identified the assailant as a Klingon, skipping the overly-ornate suit and having the Klingon in something simpler would have been my preference. There was no reason to cover him up, after all. I did like, however, that the Klingon’s blood was purple – a callback to The Undiscovered Country.
The next Klingon scene – in which the killed spacesuit warrior is laid to rest – was kind of a miss for me. And the Klingons’ motivation conflicts with what we already know about them. Klingons have always been presented as aggressive and expansionist. They’re warriors who fight and conquer because it’s in their nature – they don’t need to feel that Starfleet’s expansion is a threat in order to seek war. The two sequences we’ve had in the episode so far establish that this is the reason the Klingons have unified behind this new leader, but I just don’t feel that they needed this reason in order to be antagonists. While “evil for the sake of it” can be an unsatisfactory explanation, in the case of the Klingons it makes sense, and it could easily have been framed as a continuation of the Klingon Empire’s expansion instead of something altogether new.
This plotline wanted to say something like this: “you might think you’re just engaging in peaceful exploration, but other people don’t see it that way. They don’t want your culture exported to their world, they want to remain pure.” It’s a heavy-handed metaphorical critique of isolationism and nationalism as concepts – and that isn’t just me saying so; around the time Discovery premiered, co-producer and showrunner Aaron Harberts went on record saying that the Klingons were supposed to critique Donald Trump and his supporters, with their rallying cry to “Remain Klingon” mimicking Trump’s “Make America Great Again”.
Star Trek has never shied away from wading into politics, and I think if it had been left alone as a depiction that people could interpret however they chose, perhaps that would have been that. But in such a polarised political climate, the comments from Harberts and others were deeply unpopular with some fans – and at the end of the day, when Donald Trump won basically half of the vote in the previous year’s election, it’s not hard to see why such rhetoric would be divisive. Star Trek shows of the past tackled contentious social issues too, and although some of those episodes – like In the Hands of the Prophets from Deep Space Nine’s first season – hit very sensitive and polarising topics, I don’t think any Star Trek show before Discovery had been so open in their decision to attack a contemporary political figure, political party, and political movement. The key difference between what had come before and what Harberts was saying is this: previous Star Trek shows looked at and criticised issues: racism, nuclear proliferation, the spread of communism, terrorism as a political tool, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and many more besides; Discovery was singling out an individual politician – and by extension his supporters. However one may feel about Donald Trump, that is definitely a change and I can understand why, after hearing such comments, some fans who had supported or voted for Trump would have felt upset. As an aside, I’m not an American so I’m not interested in taking sides in an American political argument, but I don’t believe anyone should be a gatekeeper when it comes to Star Trek – the franchise has room for fans of different political leanings.
Burnham, having been saved by the crew of the Shenzhou off-screen, is recovering in a medical bay. She has a flashback to her time on Vulcan, and it’s here we’re reintroduced to Sarek. I was vaguely familiar with James Frain from his role in Gotham, but his character’s introduction seemed to mark an unrelated decline in that show’s quality and I honestly can’t remember what became of his character. He played a villain very well, though, and for that reason may not have been my first choice to play Sarek. However, I have to admit he put in creditable performances across Discovery’s first and second seasons, including in the flashback depicted here. Perhaps we will see him back for Strange New Worlds, as Spock is set to be a main character.
The flashback hints at the attack on Doctori Alpha – which of course we’ve now seen in full in Season 2. It also establishes that the Klingons were responsible. I liked Sarek’s line that it’s Burnham’s “human heart” that was a problem – this does set up early on in Discovery that she’s conflicted between her emotional human side and her logical Vulcan upbringing. Establishing this conflict is a key part of her character, but across both parts of the premiere this setup was rushed and badly done. I’ve never felt that the two aspects of Burnham’s background helped me understand her or sympathise with her as a character anyway, especially not in the premiere where she makes incomprehensible decisions.
Burnham flees the medical bay, despite the objections of the Dr Nambue (played by Maulik Pancholy, who starred in Phineas and Ferb, a favourite cartoon series of mine) and rushes to the bridge. Captain Georgiou and the others are seemingly unaware of any Klingons in the area, presumably having not recovered the data from Burnham’s suit. The editing of these two sequences was not great – the Klingons appear to have had enough time to recover their soldier, learn what happened to him, embalm him, write a speech around his death, and send him into space in the three hours Burnham was unconscious. Three hours should have been plenty of time for the Shenzhou’s crew to pull something from Burnham’s sensor data. Her suit wasn’t particularly badly damaged, yet they all seem to just be sitting around waiting for her to wake up – and I put this down to poor editing.
Having deliberately sent Burnham on a recon mission to the unidentified object – which is jamming their scans – there is no reason for Saru and especially Georgiou to disbelieve Burnham when she reports that she encountered a Klingon, yet the scene on the bridge shows them doing exactly that. She was sent out to gather information and came back wounded – yet for some reason they initially dismiss what she has to tell them. It felt like this was done purely to create an artificially-inflated sense of tension, particularly between Saru and Burnham, but also driving Burnham apart from Georgiou in anticipation of her mutiny later on. Those crucial moments of hesitation and doubt are meant to establish that Burnham feels she can’t fully trust her commanding officer – but this doesn’t work and is unearned. If Burnham, in her wounded state, had been blabbering incoherently, perhaps muttering the word “Klingon” in amongst calling Sarek’s name and other nonsense, perhaps the idea that Saru and Georgiou would treat her as delusional and concussed would have worked better. As it is, she arrives on the bridge wounded but determined to make her point, speaking clearly and explaining what she saw – albeit in a bit of a rush. It just didn’t work for me as a story point.
I loved the different visuals of the Shenzhou jumping to red alert; the panels switching immediately from blue to red, the Wrath of Khan-era “Alert” displayed on one character’s helmet, and the bridge being illuminated in red mood lighting all felt perfectly Star Trek-y. The crew jumping to battle stations had a very military feel; no more joking or slouching, everyone in an instant is fully focused on their jobs.
Saru improves a lot over Discovery’s first two seasons, and especially after the incredibly dramatic change to his character in Season 2 he becomes much bolder. But in the premiere his cowardice – it’s hard to find another word for it – feels out of place on the bridge of a starship. He isn’t urging caution when he wants to withdraw; his terror and fear seem to legitimately hamper his ability to think straight and do his job. While I did not like the way his transformation was handled in Season 2 – I felt it was clumsily done and purely a reaction to criticism – in The Vulcan Hello he’s way too cowardly to reasonably be a Starfleet bridge officer of such high rank.
The visual effect of the Sarcophagus ship decloaking was spectacular; one of the premiere’s single best CGI moments. Some fans have criticised Discovery for giving the Klingons a cloaking device more than a decade before Kirk’s first encounter with the technology in the episode Balance of Terror. However, I think this can be explained and I’ll briefly detail my thoughts on the subject. Technology evolves over time, and particularly in military technology, encryptions change rapidly. When one type of encryption is broken it becomes useless and obsolete, and I figure the same must be true of cloaking devices. When Starfleet learns how to penetrate one type of cloak, the Romulans and Klingons invent something new in an ever-evolving technological battle. We need only look at real-world history for parallels – in the Second World War, the Allies and Axis powers were constantly trying to stay one step ahead of each other with encrypting and cracking communications. The Romulans were seen to use cloaking devices in Enterprise, set a century earlier, so the technology has existed in some form for a long time. A cloaking device, despite how it’s usually shown on screen, doesn’t merely render a ship invisible. It also hides it from scans and actively presents the illusion that there’s empty space. To make a long story short, my personal head-canon explanation for Discovery-era cloaks compared to those seen later and regarded as “new” is simply that there are different kinds.
In the aftermath of the Klingons decloaking, I liked how the Shenzhou and the Klingon ship were not perfectly aligned on a flat plane. Something Star Trek hasn’t always represented well is the third dimension of space; ships had almost always been shown perfectly flat and parallel to each other, with tilted or sideways craft usually only shown when damaged or in distress. But there’s no real reason for this, and in that sense I would call this depiction more realistic of the way we might expect two different space vessels to encounter one another. I also liked Georgiou’s use of the phrase “we have engaged the Klingons”, as this definitely harkened back to past uses of “engaged” by Starfleet commanders to describe confrontations.
Voq’s introduction aboard the Klingon ship was interesting. His character is presented here as a zealot, someone who had been radicalised, for want of a better term, by the Klingon leader’s teachings. The Klingons treating Voq as a lower caste because of his lack of noble birth is one thing that’s definitely consistent with past iterations of the franchise; we saw General Martok talk about this in particular in Deep Space Nine.
The interaction between Burnham and Admiral Anderson was one of the premiere’s weakest moments. Clearly set up as a one-dimensional foil for Burnham, Anderson behaves with irrational hostility toward her, and his barbed comment about race was stupid and beneath what Star Trek should aim to be. While the defence of that line is that, in-universe, Anderson was referring to Burnham’s background with both the Klingons and Vulcans as well as her upbringing, to us as the audience it was a white man making a charged racial comment to a black woman. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a “white man bad” moment – that’s how it was written and clearly intended to come across.
We’ve all experienced, at some point in our lives, someone like Anderson – a manager, boss, teacher, etc. who would use their position of authority to be unkind or rude for the sake of it. If the scene had been written better, we could have empathised much more with Burnham. But Anderson’s characterisation here was just stupid and hollow, and the meaning behind his exchange with Burnham was incredibly transparent.
All three participants are right. Georgiou has to hold the line – the Shenzhou, as she says herself, is the only line of defence for other Federation outposts in the area. Burnham knows that the Klingons will attack, as Saru confirms. But Anderson is right too: Starfleet doesn’t go looking for a fight, and the Shenzhou’s job is to sit tight and wait for backup. Anderson believes he can defuse the situation, but even if he can’t he still needs to be there – an admiral has far more authority in these matters than the captain of an insignificant ship, and bringing backup is the only way the Shenzhou stands a chance of surviving a fight if one should break out. I don’t like defending him, because he is undeniably the kind of pushy, rude person that, in a better-written story, would have been an interesting, annoying antagonist and a character we could have recognised.
Withdrawing when threatened is not an option, especially in front of the Klingons. This shows weakness and would leave open this section of space to Klingon attacks or raids. But attacking is clearly the wrong move too – all the Shenzhou needs to do is await backup.
The visual effect of the Klingon beacon was interesting – even if all it really involved was turning the studio lights all the way up! But as something we hadn’t really seen before in Star Trek, I liked it. Klingons have often been shown as ritualistic, and the idea of lighting a beacon is something I find at least plausible. In-universe, I question whether a light-and-sound-based weapon should really effect the Shenzhou in the way it does – they should be able to close the shutters or something so that the entire bridge crew aren’t crippled by the light as if it were a flashbang grenade! And with shipboard computers, this should really happen automatically. Heck, we have comparable technology now for those purposes, let alone in the 23rd Century.
Burnham rushes off to talk to Sarek – and this seems like a great moment to talk about Discovery’s holo-communicators. Generally speaking, I’m okay with Star Trek (and other franchises) introducing new and different technologies and aesthetics with new iterations. But because of Discovery’s place in the timeline, holo-technology isn’t a good choice, and it makes tying the series to the wider canon more difficult than it already was. In the Deep Space Nine Season 5 episode For the Uniform, holo-communicators are presented as something brand-new, which they were in Star Trek at the time. With this episode taking place 120+ years after Discovery, the decision to have holo-communicators instead of, for example, expanding our understanding of how viewscreens work, added fuel to the arguments made by those who didn’t like the show. There was no real reason for it; none of the moments where characters use the holo-communicators would be substantially different if viewscreens had been used instead.
This prequel problem of having technology look better and more advanced than what supposedly comes later in the timeline inst’t unique to Discovery. Enterprise received similar criticism when it debuted, with many people noting that its technology and overall aesthetic looked way more advanced than anything seen in The Original Series.
To get back on track, the Sarek call was the second scene in the episode that I felt was especially weak. Heavy-handed exposition that felt unnatural, and especially the line that was clearly inserted to provide material for pre-release trailers (“what have you done out there on the edge of Federation space?”) contributed to a scene that didn’t work. Sarek essentially tells Burnham that killing the Klingon seems like fair revenge for the Klingons killing her parents, despite that being an absolutely stupid thing to say. No one, let alone a logical Vulcan and a diplomat like Sarek, should even suggest that an entire race be held responsible for the actions of certain individuals. “The Klingons” didn’t kill Burnham’s parents – specific individuals did. Even if the Klingon government as a whole can be deemed responsible for that act, how does killing one random Klingon who is almost certainly unrelated to that incident seem “only fair” to Sarek? I absolutely hated this characterisation when I first saw it – and I still dislike it today.
Sarek, in suitably vague terms, suggests to Burnham that the reason for the Klingons’ activity in this region of space could be indicative of the fact that they have a new, unifying leader. The Klingon Empire, despite being united when we last saw it in Enterprise and being united by the time of The Original Series, is depicted as being divided among bickering Great Houses in Discovery’s era. It did tie in well with the previous Klingon scenes, but given it is such a change in direction from where we might’ve expected the Klingons to be, I think this setup needed more explanation and to be seen overtly on screen. As it is, we had the Klingon leader (later revealed as T’Kuvma) telling us that the Great Houses are divided. And we have Sarek telling us that they’re divided too – I’d have preferred to have seen some examples of that division before we got to this moment.
This scene is where the episode turned from mediocre to bad. Sarek makes assumptions about the Klingons – a race he admits he has limited knowledge of – based on practically no information except the appearance of one ship and one dead warrior. Encountering the Klingons has been rare in the years before Discovery, yet Sarek pretends to know their motivations and makes the highly illogical leap – in light of the lack of information – that the Klingons must be preparing for war.
Burnham takes this talk with Sarek as gospel and runs with it, setting up what will come later in the premiere. But for a scene like this to have worked, we needed much more information. I mentioned we needed to see the Klingons bickering amongst themselves. We also needed far more from Sarek about how he was able to make these assumptions, how he claimed to know the Klingons’ motivations, what insider information he might’ve had, etc. And we needed this scene to be much longer, as it’s pivotal in the story of the premiere. There wasn’t enough time to communicate everything we needed to see, and as a result Burnham’s character turn from competent officer to mutineer does not work.
I’ve written on a number of occasions that I found Burnham’s motivations in the premiere impossible to understand, and this scene underpins why. This one conversation with Sarek is her entire motivation for the mutiny, yet it’s threadbare. Sarek talks in vague and caged terms for the most part, and while he is a father figure of sorts, and definitely fills the role of “mentor”, he’s cold, emotionless, and hard to relate to. As the audience, we’re looking in trying to understand what’s happening, and it just doesn’t make sense. What we’ve seen of Burnham so far tells us that, despite the trauma she went through in her childhood, she’s a capable officer. Even if she believed Sarek’s vague threat of war wholeheartedly, Starfleet has backup en route. Even if she’s upset that Captain Georgiou won’t take her stupid advice to fire the first shot, Admiral Anderson will be arriving in a matter of hours and she can try to give the advice to him.
Choosing to give Georgiou this advice based solely on her conversation with Sarek also makes no sense. The Vulcans’ method of firing first (the titular “Vulcan hello”) was used before Klingon-Vulcan contact had ever been established. Starfleet has already made first contact – and on several occasions have even worked with the Klingons, as depicted in Enterprise.
As things sit, the Shenzhou and Sarcophagus ship are in a stand-off. Firing the first shot is the worst possible thing to do. She should never have made the decision based on the conversation with Sarek. Sarek, knowing Burnham’s personality and limitations, should have been more careful what he said. And hanging the whole story off this one moment simply does not work.
Captain Georgiou is the voice of reason here, telling Burnham that firing first on a ship that plans to attack won’t dissuade them from attacking – all it will do is start the fight at that moment, instead of at an undetermined future moment, such as after the Shenzhou’s backup has arrived.
Burnham’s decision to mutiny, far from creating what the series’ producers hoped would be a satisfying season-long character arc, came very close to ruining her character and making her completely unlikeable and impossible to root for. Because, in a roundabout way, Burnham is right in that the Klingons did plan to go to war after unifying behind T’Kuvma, the story expects us to feel that she’s in the right and everyone else is being intransigent and failing to recognise her unique and individual brilliance. But because she has no basis for the course of action she wants to take other than a gut feeling, it does not work. The earlier Klingon scenes are meant to inform this decision, as is the Sarek conversation, but even taking the whole rest of the episode together, there is not enough background to what’s happening, nor enough information about the state of the Klingon Empire, Sarek’s knowledge of the topic, or anything else to make Burnham’s mutiny any more palatable.
We know that it isn’t fair to lay the blame for the war at her feet. The Klingons wanted war anyway. But she was still wrong to do what she did – and on top of that, firing first would have accomplished nothing anyway as the Klingons had already decided on war. If Burnham, along with the rest of the crew, had simply waited and the Klingons had instigated the war, the rest of Discovery’s first season could play out almost unaffected but with a much more likeable protagonist. There wouldn’t be the hurdle of the incomprehensible mutiny to overcome for Burnham in every subsequent episode because her character wouldn’t have been dragged down by this one stupid moment.
For the first time in Discovery, I liked Saru in the scene immediately after Burnham incapacitates Captain Georgiou. He sees through her ruse immediately, and despite his earlier cowardice when confronting an enemy, has no qualms whatsoever about confronting a friend when she’s about to make a colossal mistake.
As the first part of the finale ends, the Klingon fleet emerges from warp. And I know I said I wouldn’t reference Star Trek: Picard too often, but here’s a rare example of Discovery doing something better! The Klingon fleet is composed of a number of different starship designs, making for a fleet that’s both impressive and interesting to look at. Contrast that to the Romulan and Federation fleets seen in Picard’s finale, where both fleets were comprised exclusively of one style of ship each (that had clearly been copied-and-pasted by the CGI animators). There’s no question that Discovery achieved a more impactful and dramatic visual effect.
This marked the end of The Vulcan Hello, and honestly, by the halfway point the story of the premiere had already gone off the rails.
Battle at the Binary Stars begins with a flashback to Burnham’s first meeting with Captain Georgiou. We get to see Burnham being much more stilted, playing a wannabe-Vulcan role alongside Sarek. Georgiou drops some exposition about Burnham’s background; she’d been the first human to ever attend the Vulcan Learning Center – presumably the school we saw her at in The Vulcan Hello. Just as an interesting note, the hallways of the Shenzhou in this sequence have the familiar angled design that we’re familiar with from practically all main Starfleet ships post-The Original Series. I like it when Discovery goes out of its way to tie itself into the franchise, and the corridors aboard the Shenzhou may be subtle, but the design was great nevertheless.
This flashback scene could – and perhaps should – have been the first scene in the previous episode. Seeing Burnham in her Vulcan mode poses a nice contrast to how she is in the present day, and it would have shown us how far she’d come, as well as showing – rather than telling through exposition – her Vulcan background. By this point, after everything we saw with Sarek and her attempted mutiny, Burnham is already completely impossible to root for. This scene, had it been the first one we saw, would have at least informed her background with Sarek, and gone some way to humanising her as it explains a lot about where she came from. It was a missed opportunity, and while moving one scene would not fix the premiere’s fundamental story problems, it would have been a step in the right direction.
Back in the present, Burnham tries to use the arrival of 24 Klingon vessels – one for each of the Great Houses – as a reason to keep arguing for shooting first. This just does not make sense. To explain why, we need to look at the situation from an in-universe perspective. The arrival of 24 ships could indicate that someone plans to unify the Klingons. Why would that be a bad thing? As Sarek suggested, a unified Empire may want to wage war. But even if that’s the case, and Burnham’s earlier assertion is correct, how does firing first accomplish anything? The Vulcans fired first before they’d made first contact as a warning not to attack – over 200 years ago. The Federation and Klingons have long ago made first contact, and all firing first in this situation will do is lead to the Shenzhou being obliterated in a hail of disruptor fire from 25 ships. It wouldn’t stop the battle or the war – it would just change who fired the first shot.
This is what I mean when I say I found Burnham impossible to root for as a protagonist. And I don’t understand why, given that the show wants us to support her, the writers and producers sent her down this route. She comes across as arrogant, closed-minded, insubordinate, and basically illogical to the point of being a moron. She fundamentally misunderstood what Sarek said, and at every opportunity the show has failed to go into sufficient detail in the scenes relevant to the story. More background, explanation, and screen time could have made her decision work, but in the moment it fell completely flat.
As a narrative choice, telling a story with a clear protagonist is fine. Making that character flawed and needing to make mistakes, learn from them, and grow is fantastic – it provides a satisfying character arc. But this isn’t what happened with Burnham in Discovery’s premiere. She was such a selfish, bad person that I honestly thought she was going to be a villain, and for any narrative to so deliberately ruin its main character minutes after she’s been introduced is just bad storytelling, plain and simple. It’s very difficult to recover from something like this, and while Discovery tries over the course of Season 1, Burnham remained one of the show’s weakest elements well into the second half of the season. It should have been possible to construct the mutiny storyline in a way that was sympathetic, and in a way that got us as the audience to empathise with Burnham; to see her as unequivocally right, and Geogriou, Saru, and Anderson as unequivocally wrong. This is what The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars absolutely needed to do. Burnham needed to be right, and how she got to that moment needed to be understandable. The story failed at both of these points and couldn’t recover.
Perhaps, in retrospect, we needed more time with Burnham – an episode or two, at least – before we got to this moment. Seeing more of her, spending more time with her, getting to know her and know her heart and motivations would have helped inform the key moment in this story. The premiere tried to give us this, but with the need to include Klingon scenes as well as everything else, there wasn’t time before her mutiny for Burnham to have been established as a protagonist. As it is, in the premiere (and for the next few episodes too) Burnham is the “protagonist” of Discovery not because she feels like it, but because the series beats us over the head with her and tells us she is. Remember what I said before about “show don’t tell”? We needed to be shown why Burnham should be our protagonist, not merely told that she is.
After Burnham is (quite rightly) dragged off to the brig, we get another scene with the Klingons. They have holo-communicators too. T’Kuvma, the Klingon aboard the Sarcophagus ship, is refusing to speak to the leaders of the Great Houses, who are getting annoyed. This scene went on too long and didn’t really do much of anything; we already knew that T’Kuvma plans to unite the Klingons, that he wants to fight the Federation, and that he feels the Federation encroaching on Klingon territory is a bad thing. A five-minute sequence was just unnecessary fluff.
The Federation fleet dropping out of warp looked great, and again having a mix of different starship designs will always look better than a large fleet consisting of ships that look identical. T’Kuvma uses Captain Georgiou’s line “we come in peace” as a rallying cry for his followers to “remain Klingon”, and attacks the Federation fleet.
The battle itself was actually one of the best moments in the episode. It was edge-of-your-seat excitement, and with the Klingons having the upper hand, suitably tense. The damage to the Shenzhou’s bridge was impressive, and I really liked the Shenzhou coming in to assist the USS T’Plana-Hath during the battle. Moments like that feel great when done well, and the titular Battle at the Binary Stars is up there with other great battle sequences in Star Trek, such as the fight against the Borg in First Contact, and several of the Dominion War battles in Deep Space Nine. Credit to the show’s animators, because the ships looked amazing, they moved beautifully, and the battle was truly exciting in the way I always want action sequences to be.
One of the bridge officers – Connor – stumbles into the brig where Burnham had been taken. Clearly concussed, he’s supposed to be on his way to sickbay. The scene where he’s killed and ejected into space was shocking, so in that sense it accomplished what it meant to and gave a little more depth to the battle. It would have been more meaningful if he’d had more than one line before dying, but as a basic premise I can’t really fault the idea of killing off a named character in a battle like this.
The visual effect of Burnham isolated in the damaged brig – which had been reduced to a little box that was mostly forcefields – was incredibly dramatic and again, shows just how exceptional the CGI animation was in Discovery’s first season.
In the context of a massive battle, and having seen the ship suffer major damage, I don’t think Captain Georgiou and Saru would have been as worried about Burnham in the brig as they seemed to be when they learned how badly damaged the ship was. Along with Connor, many others must surely have died; there isn’t time now to worry about that, they have to focus on their jobs on the bridge.
Burnham and Sarek evidently have the power to mind-meld over long distances. As a concept I don’t feel that this has to be a problem; we know Vulcans are telepathic and just because it’s something we hadn’t seen before doesn’t mean it can’t be possible. It could also be interpreted, if you really hate the idea of Skype-mind melding, as Burnham drawing on a memory or something within her own head. But the content of the scene between them was, once again, fluff. Sarek just straight-up announces that Burnham is gifted, smart, brave, and that Starfleet needs her so she can’t just give up and die. For the fourth or fifth time – we need to see those things, not just be told them by another character. Seeing Burnham be told that she’s brave and gifted and desperately needed means absolutely nothing if we don’t have anything to back it up. Sarek’s words were hollow, and the scene accomplished nothing.
The Shenzhou suffers further damage, including a visually-impressive hull breach on the bridge, but before the Klingons can destroy the disabled ship it ends up drifting closer and closer to the system’s stars. I liked that this story beat gave the Klingons a sensible reason for breaking off their attack, while still keeping the tension up. In a better episode, this would have made for a fascinating story in and of itself!
Anderson’s arrival grants the Shenzhou temporary reprieve, before his ship is rammed by a cloaked Klingon vessel and self-destructs. By taking the action away from Burnham, Battle at the Binary Stars told a creditable battle story that had been exciting and engaging. If Anderson had been better-written we could have perhaps even felt his ship being destroyed was his comeuppance; as it is it just fet like another moment in the battle and Anderson remains a fairly one-dimensional character.
T’Kuvma declares to the Great Houses that the battle is won, and proposes they fight under his banner and leadership as a united force. And I come back to what I said earlier: the Klingons didn’t need this motivation. We could have seen them already united, and the battle break out in any one of a number of different ways and nothing would change from a story perspective for the rest of the season. As it is, the Klingon scenes in general ended up mostly being irrelevant.
When the battle is over, the story returns to Burnham who must escape the damaged brig. I liked this sequence overall, though arguing with the computer was a bit silly and did detract from it. Firing herself through the damaged and depressurised wreck was a similar visual effect to one seen in Star Trek Into Darkness, and as a whole, Discovery’s premiere borrows a few different points from the Kelvin-timeline films.
Captain Georgiou and Saru make a plan to attack the Sarcophagus ship with torpedoes when Burnham interrupts. Georgiou gives her a dressing-down for her earlier actions, even telling her that she thought she had undone some of Burnham’s Vulcan upbringing; her humanity failed her in that moment. If the story wanted us on Burnham’s side in this conversation, it failed. Everything Georgiou says is spot on, and actually underlines how I was already feeling about Burnham.
Georgiou’s plan – beaming a torpedo warhead onto a Klingon corpse which will then be taken in by the Sarcophagus ship – is genius. This is the kind of cunning plan we could’ve expected someone like Data to dream up in past iterations of Star Trek, and I loved how well it worked.
However, the next phase of the plan was poorly-executed; designed in such a way as to be artificially limited. Why send only two officers – Burnham and Georgiou? Are there no soldiers, tactical, or security personnel? Why send Burnham, the mutineer? Does Georgiou trust her again now? And why only send two of them? This whole sequence was rushed, and with a little more time taken to explain what was happening perhaps it could have worked better. As it was, it was designed to get the story to a specific climax – the deaths of Georgiou and T’Kuvma – but it just did not feel like these events unfolded naturally. Burnham’s anguish at Georgiou’s death was beautifully performed – but felt unearned and cheap as a story point. Georgiou has been a good captain, and we should be mourning her, but the whole story across both parts of the premiere hadn’t done enough to give this moment the emotional weight it was aiming for.
T’Kuvma’s death scene was also a bag of nothing, and we see the Shenzhou evacuated and Burnham plead guilty at a court-martial to mutiny and myriad other charges. At her court-martial, when speaking in her defence, Burnham says how she always wanted to serve and hoped to have her own command. How is that relevant here? How could that possibly help us as the audience feel better about her or think more kindly of her? She’s been an awful person across both parts of the premiere, and when she has a chance to justify herself and mourn her captain, she first speaks about herself and her ambitions. She seems equally sad that she won’t get to have her own ship as she does for Georgiou’s death. She’s sad just as much that the “only home” she had, the Shenzhou, is lost as she is for the crewmates who died. And at every point in this statement, she talks from her own selfish point of view – “my ship”, “my captain”, “my friend”, etc. That’s the icing on the cake of a poorly-written protagonist who comes across as arrogant and self-centred. This scene was also poorly-lit. Putting Burnham in a spotlight and the judges in darkness was clearly supposed to look dramatic, but it just came across as looking fake.
So. A re-watch of Discovery’s premiere clearly hasn’t altered my thoughts too much. The story was poor. The only times it picked up were during the battle, after Burnham had been taken out of the picture. No story should begin with the character we’re supposed to be following set up in such a wholly negative way. The first chapter of Discovery left us with a protagonist whose motivations made no sense, who was arrogant, selfish, and who seems to have relished being told she was special and gifted. Someone like that is not a nice person. There’s no “heart of gold” hiding beneath Burnham’s exterior in these episodes. She thinks she knows better than everyone else, refuses to accept her position as first officer when contradicted by her captain, and the way it was supposed to be explained to us as the audience that Burnham was right – the Sarek scene in particular, and the Klingon scenes too – did not work and did not succeed in communicating that message.
Burnham did grow on me over the rest of the season and over the course of a much better Season 2. But this moment, when Star Trek returned to television for the first time in over a decade, was poor. It has to be the worst premiere of all of the Star Trek shows to date, and it took a lot of hard work for the season to recover from an incomprehensible start and a truly bad protagonist.
With some changes, the mutiny storyline could have worked. Seeing Burnham earlier in her life at the beginning of the story, to give us a frame of reference, would have helped. As would more time spent on the conversation with Sarek. The Klingon scenes added very little; their motivation was silly in the context of an aggressive warrior culture, and could have been cut. But even assuming they had the same motivation – unifying to confront the Federation who they see as a threat to Klingon culture and unity – we knew that after one scene, and the others were just fluff. If the story was to be all about Burnham, we needed more time with her to make her turnaround from competent officer to arrogant mutineer work properly. Discovery had some leeway with how many episodes were going to be made, and I would absolutely make the case for making some changes and adding a third part to this premiere to allow Burnham some more screen time prior to the mutiny, and a better-constructed setup to that moment to have played out.
When I set out to re-watch these episodes, I wondered if having spent more time with Burnham and the crew, I’d have a more enjoyable experience. I did not. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars do some things very well – the visual effect of the two fleets, for example, and the battle scenes themselves – but the main story, that of protagonist Michael Burnham, does not work.
I cannot imagine that making Burnham so unlikeable was a deliberate choice on the part of the producers and writers. If that was the case, however, it was a stupid idea. Giving her an arc is one thing, but starting her off as someone we don’t like and can’t relate to damages the overall story they were trying to tell. Storytelling simply doesn’t work that way, so for that reason I have to assume it was not their intention to set up Burnham as someone the audience should hate going into episode 3.
So that’s it. The show did improve over the next few episodes, and despite a weak start I do enjoy Discovery and consider it a worthy part of the Star Trek franchise.
Discovery is coming back with Season 3 literally any day now – I’m crossing my fingers waiting for a release date. If you missed it, you can check out my thoughts on the Season 3 trailer by clicking or tapping here. When the show is on the air, I plan to review each episode as they’re released, so please check back for that. This won’t be the only Star Trek re-watch that I write up, either. If you missed it, I have a similar article for The Next Generation Season 2 episode The Measure of a Man already live – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. I have no idea which episode will get a write-up next, though!
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Discovery – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.