“Battle is not a simulation. It’s blood, and screams, and funerals.” -Captain Phillipa Georgiou
After spending a not insignificant amount of my Sunday night refreshing CBS All Access repeatedly while rocking in my seat and making impatient wailing noises, I’m happy to report that Star Trek: Discovery has finally arrived! We got jingoistic Klingons wanting to make Qo’noS great again, a steely-eyed Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) in command, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) causing all sorts of mutiny shenanigans, and Saru (Doug Jones) just reminding everyone that they should warp right the hell out of there.
Minus some portentious Klingon speechifying, the episode opens on an alien desert, where Georgiou and Burnham are trudging their way through a dust storm to save a species by shooting a well? Absolutely, I am IN. From her first moments with Captain Georgiou, the Discovery writers do an excellent job of establishing Burnham as a brilliant but stubborn and slightly rigid personality, unafraid of challenging authority and with a bold style. By contrast, Georgiou is calm, precise and creative in her problem solving. By the time we’re back on the bridge, the rapport between them is well-established, two competent women who care about and trust each other. This relationship grounds the entire episode, and I have to say, it is ludicrously refreshing to watch the complex connection between two Starfleet women feature front and center in the pilot. We get a Bechdel-Wallace pass before we even hit the three minute mark!
Back on the USS Shenzhou we meet Science Officer Saru, whose willowy frame and excellent makeup gives him a very welcome alien presence. He’s also immediately one of my favorite characters because he takes on the role that I always have from my couch, which is to screech at everyone on screen to RUN THE FUCK AWAY. Unidentified object that’s blocking the scanners? Yep, yep, run the fuck away. The Klingon ship is covered in ACTUAL COFFINS because apparently Klingons are the galaxy’s space goths? RUNNNNNNNN the fuck away. If it were up to Saru and me, Starfleet would spend all of our time in Earth’s orbit, twiddling our thumbs and leading long and boring lives that would not be fit for television.
Fortunately for the audience, Burnham is not about that running away life. Nope, she wants to put on a space suit and go take a gander at the mysterious object, through a bunch of space rocks while being slowly cooked with radiation. The audience is pretty sure this is Klingons, seeing as the episode opened with an ominous speech from the angriest Klingon alive, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) who apparently wants to get his death metal band back together and go tour the galaxy. Burnham discovers that the object is indeed a really dope Klingon ship and then she straight up headbutts a Klingon and manages to stab him with his own bat’leth and I didn’t know I needed that in my life? But I definitely did.
Shockingly, the Klingons are displeased that a puny Starfleet officer managed to headbutt their torchbearer into oblivion and they give him a nice space burial at sea and let the dead in Sto-vo-kor know that a warrior is on his way. Burnham spends some time drifting in space (personally, I think she totally deserved a nap), then flashing back to a Vulcan childhood. We get some implications that Michael might have been a survivor of a massacre of a Vulcan-Human science colony. We also briefly get a glimpse of Sarek (James Frain) reminding Burnham that she has “a human heart”. She wakes up in Sick Bay only to rush out, kick down the doors of the bridge and announce to everyone that there are KLINGONS OUT THERE, and the Shenzhou needed to be on red alert yesterday. Georgiou barely hesitates, putting the ship on red alert with a firm composure that made me swoon.
There has been a lot of discussion about the Discovery Klingons. Because not much had been released about their role in the plot, most of the criticism centered around their design. I get why people are wary, because these are definitely not familiar nineties-style Klingons. The make-up is quite good, but it also is very heavy and limits some of the facial expressions. Overall, the Discovery Klingons have quite a dour vibe, and have been stripped of a lot of their passion. That may change! But in this pilot episode at least, they spend a lot of their time making ponderous speeches on a ship that’s so ornate I would think it would’ve been designed by Marie Antoinette’s decorator. A Klingon named Voq decides to step up and be the next torchbearer, whatever that means, and then does his best G. Gordon Liddy impression and vows to serve Kahless. Also, apparently the Klingons have colorism? Which is very intriguing and not something I feel we have seen overtly before.
Admiral Terry Serpico holograms in to chew out Burnham for her awesome headbutting skills and tell Captain Georgiou to do… nothing, essentially. Great advice, Serpico. Georgiou is surely glad that she got your extremely helpful input. I’m sure we all heaved a sigh of relief that Discovery was going to continue the proud Trek tradition of having all of the admirals be assholes at best, and evil at worst. The Klingons then ratchet up the tension by flashing their high beams, presumably to call for additional Klingon aid. Burnham ducks out to consult the oracle Sarek, who is apparently on call? Bringing Sarek back was a risky move, considering how beloved he is, but I personally think James Frain was excellent and the addition of Sarek’s particular brand of snarky diplomacy adds a lot to the episode and its stakes.
On the bridge of the Shenzhou, Burnham is vibrating with tension. She tries to convince Captain Georgiou to speak in terms that Klingons will understand, namely violence, by initiating a first strike the way the Vulcans have been doing since their first encounter with the Klingons. Georgiou is having NONE OF IT, wanting to preserve Starfleet protocol and morality as well as her direct orders from Admiral Serpico. This scene is where the characterization work that was woven throughout the episode really pays off. The opening scene of Georgiou and Burnham clearly sets up their differing problem solving styles, as well as a long history of working together and that foundation was built on in every dialogue interaction they had after. Both of them have understandable and rational reasons for the course of action they think is right, and their clash is entirely believable and in fact, inevitable based on the situation and their personalities. And that is a hell of a writing trick, to give us characters that are so strongly constructed that it feels like a completely real conflict after only forty minutes.
The tension snaps when Burnham VULCAN NERVE PINCHES GEORGIOU AND TRIES TO TAKE OVER THE BRIDGE. That is such a drastic action to take, and we can add it to the numerous moral dilemmas Star Trek has given us in its fifty year history. I look forward to the impending heated discussions on whether Burnham was justified that shall surely consume the fandom. Burnham’s mutiny doesn’t make it far, however, and she is unable to fire on the Klingon ship before Georgiou staggers out to stop her, phaser drawn. And THEN, while we are all still reeling from the MUTINY, Klingon ships warp out of nowhere and the Shenzhou is left severely outgunned. Fade to black!
There’s a moment in the episode where Michael Burnham is hurtling through space to investigate an unidentified and possible threatening object. She’s alone, she’s in danger, and she’s laughing. That moment more than any other gave a clear sense of who this woman is: A woman who gains a fierce joy from exploring the unknown. Much of the episode is dedicated to Burnham, setting her up as a person as well as giving her a backstory and an understandable motivation for her (questionable) choices. It’s clear that Discovery is building around Burnham in a way we haven’t quite seen before in Star Trek, and I for one, am fascinated both by her and where her story will take her.
Pilot episodes bear a heavy burden in the world of television. They need to introduce you to new characters, build a world you’ll want to revisit, and give you a taste of the tone and message of the show all while being engaging and well-paced. I’m happy to say that the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery delivered on all of these areas with ease. The acting was great, the cinematography was gorgeous and cinematic, the tension and pacing were pretty pitch perfect. I loved our new characters, and I am dying to find out what happens next. It’s pretty hard to imagine a more successful opening for the series.