After a 12-year absence, Star Trek returned to its original medium Sunday night — well, for an episode, at least. CBS aired the series premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the sixth Star Trek television series, in a primetime slot, before posting it and the season’s second episode to its All Access streaming service, where all subsequent episodes will be exclusively available.
But while Discovery is boldly going where no Trek series has gone before in terms of medium, it’s also blazing new paths with its storytelling. In addition to being the first new Trek television episodes since Star Trek: Enterprise concluded in May 2005, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” mark the franchise’s first foray into a dramatically shifted television landscape where prestige and serialization now reign supreme. “There’s never been a Star Trek that’s operated in a post-Sopranos world,” longtime Trek producer and Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ron Moore told EW in a recent Discovery cover story. “It’s an exciting prospect to take the new way we make television and apply it to Trek. It will be a whole new way of looking at the series.”
With two episodes — and a substantial teaser trailer for the rest of the season — now available, Moore’s excitement seems validated. In “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” Discovery sets up an ambitious season-long arc focused on the reignition of tensions between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon empire after nearly a century of tense isolationism. De rigueur for contemporary shows, but novel considering the episodic adventures Kirk and Spock embarked on when the Trek universe debuted half a century ago.
Logically, Discovery set out to establish some broad themes in its premiere episodes — but it also moved the plot substantially. The series begins not with Starfleet, but with the Klingon leader T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), who warns his comrades of the lurking threat of Federation outsiders. In a fiery, subtitled speech, T’Kuvma urges his fellow Klingons to reconcile the differences between their 24 warring houses so they can respond to the outsiders who say — and for this, T’Kuvma switches to English — “We come in peace.” The opening scene provocatively flips the narrative of Starfleet as peaceful explorers on its head.
Enter series lead Commander Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green) and Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). The captain and first officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou first get screen time on a peaceful mission to help an alien civilization on the eve of an 89-year drought. The plot kicks up when they return to space: Lieutenant commander and chief science officer Saru (Doug Jones) has discovered suspiciously damaged Federation equipment; Burnham jets out in a gnarly space suit, only to discover a Klingon structure — with a warrior, Rejac, aboard. Burnham kills Rejac in self-defense before she’s retrieved by the Shenzhou.
But how sure can we be that Burnham’s actions were motivated solely by self-defense? Throughout “A Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” more of her backstory is revealed. The human-born Burnham was raised by Sarek — the Vulcan diplomat who is Spock’s father — after her parents died in a Klingon terrorist attack. Burnham was educated in Vulcan schools and adopted many of their customs, but “Battle at the Binary Stars” begins with a flashback to seven years earlier, when a far less emotional Burnham first set foot on the Shenzhou. Emotion and personal history pull influence her in narratively promising ways.
Burnham is put to the test shortly after killing Rejac. Against the wishes of Shenzhou medics, she returns to the ship’s bridge after her fateful encounter with the Klingon, urging Georgiou to raise defenses — just as T’Kuvma’s ship uncloaks. The Shenzhou can’t open a communication channel with the Klingons, and the Starfleet officers debate how best to respond to the situation. In one of the show’s first clear allusions to contemporary, real-life issues, Admiral Brett Anderson (Terry Serpico) beams in via hologram to warn Georgiou and Burnham against coming to assumptions about the Klingon race, which Burnham parries by telling him that it’s “unwise to confuse race and culture.” (Recap continues on page 2)
Burnham also holds court with Sarek, via hologram, in her private quarters. The Vulcan cautions that the Klingons could be looking for a unifying figure for their disparate houses and notes that such a figure’s mechanism for unification could be military aggression. Sarek advises Burnham that the Vulcans have for centuries fired first when confronted with the Klingons. When she relays the need to give T’Kuvma’s ship a “Vulcan hello” to Georgiou, the captain shoots down Burnham — who subsequently incapacitates the captain in her quarters and takes command of the bridge. Georgiou awakens and intervenes just before Burnham can initiate such a hello, just as more Klingon ships appear, and just as the episode ends and Discovery transitions fully to CBS All Access.
In “A Battle at the Binary Stars,” the conflict develops further. Upon receiving Rejac’s corpse, T’Kuvma had appointed Voq, a Klingon without a house, to the Torchbearer distinction the fallen Klingon had held. “Binary Stars” begins as T’Kuvma and Voq hold court with the Klingon leaders whose ships have just appeared. “There is no honor without unity,” T’Kuvma tells them. “There is no home for any of us unless it is shared by all.”
Additional Starfleet ships arrive, escalating tensions. Georgiou beams in via hologram to T’Kuvma’s ship promising peace — and the Klingons respond with a volley of fire. Admirial Brett Anderson then proposes a ceasefire, which T’Kuvma agrees to before subsequently decloaking an invisible vessel and cleaving the Admiral’s ship, the U.S.S. Europa, in half. A battle ensues, leaving significant casualties on both sides.
In the exchange of violence, the Shenzhou comes under fire and the brig — where Burnham is now detained — is damaged. Burnham uses ethical logic to convince the computer to propel her from her forcefield-protected cell, across an expanse of space, and onto another part of the ship, so that she can reunite with Georgiou — whose pacifistic approach has now been disproved — to devise a plan. Burnham dissuades the captain from trying to kill T’Kuvma, because such an action would make him a martyr; instead, she suggests taking him prisoner to shame him and give the Federation negotiating leverage.
Her plan backfires in about every way possible. To bring down the forcefields on T’Kuvma’s ship, the Shenzhou’s crew beams a detonator onto a Klingon corpse floating through the battle’s wreckage; when T’Kuvma brings the corpse aboard, it detonates and Georgiou and Burnham teleport onto the Klingon ship. But in a bloody faceoff, both T’Kuvma and Georgiou die. Saru teleports Burnham off the Klingon vessel, and she breaks down in tears.
The opening episodes conclude with a major paradigm shift: Burnham is sentenced to life imprisonment at a court martial for dereliction of duty, assaulting an officer, and mutiny. That’s perhaps the most fascinating part of Discovery‘s first two episodes. Major narrative capital is expended detailing the show’s geopolitical landscape and guiding ideological forces. T’Kuvma and Georgiou die, but the concepts of tribalism, martyrdom, and the pitfalls of peace live on.