Jan 24, 2019
Star Trek: Discovery "The Vulcan Hello"
Here we are at last: the first new Star Trek TV series in 12 years. The pilot episode, titled “The Vulcan Hello” (which sounds like something Star Trek characters would travel to Risa to have performed upon them) aired last Sunday on CBS, and I have to say it’s… well, it’s got potential, at least.
While the premiere episode cleared the low, low bar of surpassing anything that aired on the previous Star Trek show’s first season, and it certainly has a more interesting visual aesthetic than the other spin-offs, I can’t say anything terribly exciting or unexpected happened over the course of the hour. I suspect it may be slowly building to a surprising event that’ll change the dynamic of the show, but I don’t really look at spoilers, so this is mostly just speculation on my part.
Going solely by the pilot episode, Star Trek: Discovery feels too reverential to what came before. The only twist on the whole “crew of explorers on a spaceship” concept seems to be that this time around, the main character is the ship’s first officer instead of the captain. It’s a different take on things, but I can’t tell if there’s any actual reason we’re focusing on the XO other than the creators wanting to do something “different”. I have to think that if they had really wanted to take a risk, they would have made their main character someone of an even lower rank, or maybe even—gasp—someone who’s not part of the ship’s senior staff. But other than the minor shift in focus, Discovery is pretty much exactly what you expect to see on Star Trek, and I don’t know if “exactly what you expect” is going to motivate that many people to sign up for CBS’s All Access streaming platform just to watch this show.
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We open on a shot of space that morphs into the eye of Klingon. Well, a very strange looking Klingon who doesn’t really resemble any previous Klingon we’ve ever seen, with nearly jet black skin, and bumps and ridges all over his face. He’s giving a subtitled speech to a group of his fellow Klingons, warning of an oncoming threat and how they need to reunite their “24 warring houses” to face it, and he mentions the last person who was able to reunite their tribes: Kahless, the ancient warrior who founded the Klingon Empire.
He says they will “light a beacon” today to unite their people in opposition to those who say (and he switches to English here), “We come in peace.”
Naturally, the next line is “We come in peace”, which is awkwardly crowbarred into dialogue between our ostensible protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) as they walk across a desert planet.
They’re here to help out a species of District 9 prawn-like aliens who are about to experience a terrible drought which could possibly bring about their extinction. Burnham mentions not violating “General Order One”, AKA the Prime Directive, which is of course why they’re just walking across the desert out in the open and allowing the aliens to spy on them. She also mentions a “drilling accident” which drained the water table here. So I’ll assume this “accident” is something the Federation caused and Starfleet isn’t just rescuing random alien races from droughts on a whim, but the way it’s explained is all a bit confusing.
Captain Georgiou uses a phaser rifle to shoot into a well and “break through the bedrock”, which eventually causes water to come gushing up. So I guess all you need to do to solve an extinction-level drought is open up one well? Unfortunately, a bad storm is rolling in and they’re unable to contact their ship, the USS Shenzhou. So Georgiou says, “Let’s take a walk,” and the two go for a stroll while continuing to be observed by the aliens.
We learn that Burnham has served under Georgiou for seven years, and the captain mentions that it’s time for Burnham to think about going for her own command. As they talk, they eventually come upon their own footprints, and Burnham is horrified thinking her captain has walked them in a circle, but in fact, she’s walked them all around the desert specifically so that their footprints could create the familiar arrow symbol we know and love from Starfleet badges. The Shenzhou comes roaring down through the clouds and gets a lock on them, and beams them up.
The Shenzhou cruises off, leaving the giant arrow logo behind. So let’s see, they allowed their ship to be seen by a (presumably) pre-Warp civilization, and even left behind a giant Starfleet symbol in the sand. So much for General Order One, I guess. I see this show is wasting no time in getting to the inevitable moment where the captain completely disregards the Prime Directive. And frankly, this whole opening scene is a bit too reminiscent of the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness for comfort, but luckily, things pick up from here.
And I suppose I should comment on the design of the ship, which seems like a hodgepodge of traits plucked from the Enterprise-E, the NX-01, and the unused Ralph McQuarrie design for The Motion Picture (which was seen in the initial teaser for this show). But I’m not going to get too hung up on the look of this particular ship, because I’m getting the distinct impression (again, this is just speculation, not a spoiler) that the Shenzhou will be destroyed pretty soon, and our main character will then move over to the titular Discovery.
The opening credits are… different. Instead of shots of the ship cruising through space, we get conceptual artistic sketches of things like the ship and phasers and communicators. It’s not bad. But after “Where My Heart Will Take Me”, I have to admit my standards have dropped a bit. And the theme song, while mostly unmemorable, contains a few nice nods to the original series theme.
According to Burnham’s personal log, the Stardate is 1207.3 and the calendar date is May 11, 2256. The Shenzhou is now investigating damage to some of Starfleet’s interstellar relays, and they don’t know if the destruction was the result of a deliberate attack. We get a spinning shot of the ship that eventually zooms in on Burnham standing on the bridge. She describes how the ship is currently near a binary star surrounded by a massive field of debris.
She talks to the science officer, Mr. Saru (played by Doug Jones), a 7 foot tall guy with an amphibian-like face, and apparently his species is “Kelpien”. We also learn the helmsman is “Ensign Connor”, but don’t etch that name on your brain just yet because this guy has cannon fodder written all over him. The captain eventually comes to the bridge and has some lighthearted banter with Saru and Burnham (whom she calls “Number One” in a nod to TNG), though I’m mostly just distracted by how all the shots on the bridge are at canted angles. I hope this doesn’t become this show’s answer to JJ Abrams’s lens flares.
Saru then detects something unusual nearby. They zoom in on some kind of sparkly phenomenon and Saru calls it an “object of unknown origin”. They can’t get a fix on it due to a “scattering field”, which is “scrambling their optical processors”, and preventing them from getting a good look at it. So, they decide to go to the captain’s ready room and look at it through a telescope. Saru thinks the object is “lurking” and suggests leaving it alone, but Georgiou say they have no choice but to send someone over to investigate.
But they don’t have a shuttle that’s “maneuverable” enough to get through the debris field, so Burnham volunteers to go over in a thruster suit à la Spock in The Motion Picture. Saru warns she’ll only have 20 minutes before the radiation from the binary star starts to damage her DNA, but she says she’ll be back in 19. Saru thinks this is dangerous and a waste of resources, but Burnham says they’re out here to explore and she’s going to explore, dammit.
We get a sequence of Burnham in the thruster suit as a platform raises her up to the surface of the ship, and she steps off the hull and rockets over to the object.
She makes it through the debris and finds something that looks like a ship. She reports back to the Shenzhou, but the scattering field is cutting off communications. She gets closer and finds out it’s a centuries old object that looks like a carved sculpture made of stone and metal. “The only word to effectively describe it is… wow.” Very articulate.
She doesn’t know what it is, so she for some idiotic reason decides to land on it, and the stupidity of this action becomes evident when her intrusion immediately triggers parts of it to start moving. She gets a “proximity alert” and turns to see a scary looking guy with a blade facing her. The suit’s computer identifies the guy as Klingon and the blade he’s holding as a bat’leth, and before she has a chance to react, he attacks.
She triggers the thrusters on her suit, and in a confusing series of edits, she somehow causes the Klingon to stab himself with his own bat’leth, and now both of them are spinning off into space.
Back on the Shenzhou, they can’t get a transporter fix or a tractor beam lock on Burnham, and time is running out on her 20 minute radiation exposure countdown.
Eventually, we’re back with the Klingons, as they lay to rest the guy that just died in the fight with Burnham, who the head Klingon refers to as the “Torchbearer”. He gives a speech and then it turns out the dead guy is in a ridiculously ornate sarcophagus that hovers into the air as all the Klingons give the patented Klingon Death Howl. The coffin then heads into space and attaches itself to the surface of the ship, joining thousands of other coffins.
Cut to Burnham in a medical regeneration chamber, and she’s unconscious and flashing back to being a child on Vulcan, complete with the standard Vulcan haircut, and getting examined in one of those learning bowls we saw in the 2009 movie. A computer quizzes her about the Klingons, then asks about the “most recent Klingon terror raid” at Doctari Alpha, and Li’l Michael gets quiet, with the obvious implication that she has some sort of personal connection to that raid. The computer then starts showing her images of the destruction and she yells at it to stop.
Just then, a young Sarek walks up (played by James Frain), and he unloads a very Sarek-like spiel about how she must root herself in logic to deal with her emotions. Okay, so I’ll hazard a guess that Michael’s parents died in that Klingon attack, and she was adopted by Sarek for some reason that will be revealed over the course of the series.
Adult Michael wakes up all covered in radiation burns. She realizes nobody knows about her encounter with a Klingon, so she runs out of Sickbay before the treatment is complete and goes to the bridge. When she gets there, she finds Georgiou a little doubtful, because no one has encountered a Klingon in 100 years (…minus the terror raids, I guess?). She asks them to check her spacesuit’s cameras, but the video was corrupted. Everyone starts to think she’s a bit delusional, which is understandable given she ran onto the bridge in what’s basically a hospital gown, while covered in radiation burns, and of course, there’s also the fact that those Klingon bastards killed her family. But eventually, Georgiou believes her and orders the ship to red alert.
Saru wants to withdraw immediately, but Georgiou says that’s not an option, because of reasons. Burnham suggests locking weapons on the object, and as soon as they do that, a massive Klingon ship decloaks in front of them. It refuses to respond to hails and Georgiou quickly contacts Starfleet for backup.
We return to the Klingon ship as the head Klingon asks who will be their new Torchbearer. The previous guy’s brother steps forward, but it turns out he’s a Doubting Thomas who doesn’t think the beacon will unite their empire, so he gets passed over. Then another guy steps forward, and he’s an albino Klingon who identifies himself as “Voq, son of none.” The lead Klingon calls him unworthy, but to prove he’s got what it takes, Voq puts his hand in an open flame and holds it there while his skin burns. And so, the lead Klingon makes Voq the new Torchbearer and tells him to light the beacon. And I have to say, these scenes with the Klingons are a hundred times more boring than I’m making them out to be. Everyone speaks so slowly that the episode comes to a crashing halt every time we cut to this ship.
Back on the Shenzhou, Saru tells Burnham that the hull of the Klingon ship appears to be covered in coffins, with some of the bones dating back thousands of years. He finds this a bit unnerving, and then talks about how his “species map is binary”, in that they are either “predator or prey”. He says his people were “bred” and “farmed” like livestock. “We were biologically determined for one purpose and one purpose alone: To sense the coming of death.” I have no idea what this means—was his species genetically engineered to have some kind of psychic ability?—but he says he can sense death coming now.
Next, we find Captain Georgiou reporting to an admiral in a briefing room. And it would seem the guy is here via a holographic communicator, which as far as I know was a brand new invention when it was first shown on Deep Space Nine, which takes place 80 or 90 years later. Though I must admit it works a lot better here, because unlike on DS9, they’ve actually made him translucent to make it clear he’s a hologram. Georgiou tells him about the Klingon ship’s cloaking device and how they’ve never seen anything like it before, which mostly just calls attention to how this episode is also contradicting “Balance of Terror” where Spock talks about seeing a functioning cloaking device for the first time. But then again, Enterprise already stomped all over that bit of lore with the Suliban and their cloaking devices.
Burnham enters and the admiral (who, per Star Trek tradition when it comes to admirals, is a total ass) admonishes her for “disturbing the property of a warrior race”. She tries to tell him about the nature of the Klingon race but he totally mansplains the Klingons to her and turns his attention back to Georgiou. He tells her not to engage with the enemy until the other Starfleet ships arrive and blinks out.
Burnham tells the captain that Saru wants to get out of there, but Georgiou again says that’s not an option, for some reason. And then a bright light suddenly pours in through the windows. They head to the bridge and it turns out the Klingon ship is putting out a massive amount of light, i.e. “the beacon”, as well as an ear splitting signal.
They fear more Klingons are on the way, and in the midst of all this, Burnham suddenly asks for permission to leave the bridge. When the captain expresses her disbelief at this, Burnham replies, “It’s… relevant!” That’s a good one. I’ll have to try that the next time I don’t feel like going to the office. “I need to stay home and watch Netflix! It’s… relevant!”
She heads to her quarters and puts in a holographic call to none other than Sarek himself, who luckily happens to be just standing around somewhere with nothing to do. She explains the recent series of events to him, and how the Klingons seem to be unifying. He warns her not to be influenced by the fact that those Klingon bastards killed her family. Then she asks how the Vulcans were able to achieve peace with the Klingons.
We next see Burnham running to the bridge, saying they have to fire on the Klingons with everything they’ve got. She goes on to explain that 240 years ago, “near H’atoria” (a Klingon territory previously mentioned on TNG), the Klingons destroyed a Vulcan ship and the Vulcans never forgot that lesson, and so they always fired first on every Klingon ship they saw. She then explains the episode title with, “They said ‘hello’ in a language the Klingons understand.” She says the Shenzhou must now give these Klingons “a Vulcan hello”.
Georgiou says no way, because they’re outgunned, and they’re Starfleet and Starfleet doesn’t fire first. Burnham protests this order, so the captain ushers her into her ready room and berates her for challenging her in front of everyone.
There, she tells Burnham to “stand down”, and Burnham initially appears to take these words to heart. But then in the only truly surprising (and also hilarious) moment this pilot has to offer, Burnham delivers the Vulcan neck pinch to Georgiou and drops her on the spot.
She then goes to the bridge and orders them to lock weapons on the Klingon ship. Saru seems skeptical. But it’s all for naught, because the captain immediately wakes up and belays the order and points a phaser at Burnham while telling her again to stand down.
And then the light dies down and they detect a whole lot of ships incoming. Naturally, they’re all Klingon, and a dozen other Klingon ships pop into view. The end.
Like I said, this episode was mostly rote and predictable until that final moment when Burnham takes down her own captain. I’m pretty sure the fanbase will howl about this kind of heretofore unseen level of insubordination on Star Trek, but I sincerely hope the rest of this series delivers more hilariously unexpected moments in the same vein. Otherwise, I fear it may fall into the same Anomaly of the Week/Wrinkled Forehead of the Week formula that made Voyager and Enterprise such a chore to sit through. If CBS really wants people to pony up $5-$8 a month to watch this show, they better start taking some serious risks.
Well, as announced during the premiere, the second episode of Star Trek: Discovery is already available on CBS All Access. So I guess it’s time for me to pony up the cash to check it out, but believe me, I’m only doing it for the sake of this website, as I didn’t really see much in this pilot that would otherwise make me want to sign up. Look for my recap of episode 2 in the next few days.