“Why are we fighting? We’re Starfleet. We’re explorers, not soldiers.” -Ensign Connor
‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ picks up right where ‘The Vulcan Hello’ left off, with the Klingons surrounding a very lonely looking USS Shenzhou, while the crew is still reeling from Lt. Commander Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) shocking mutiny as she is confined to the brig. Barely pausing to remind of us of the precarious position our new crew is in, we then cut to a flashback of Sarek (James Frain) introducing Burnham to Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) seven years ago.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Trek race that I love more than Vulcans. I love everything! Their desert planet, their hilarious rituals with bells, the way they all seem to be able to throw mad amounts of shade with a single eyebrow. In fact, in light of the way the world is currently going, I’m really going to need First Contact with the Vulcans to happen as soon as possible, as humanity is clearly unequipped to survive without them. Both Sarek and Burnham are really rocking the uniquely Vulcan ‘polite confusion at the folly of human emotion’, though Sarek is definitely better at observing the human niceties.
Georgiou handles the culture clash with grace, and yet again we really get to see what a wonderful chemistry Burnham and Georgiou have. I especially love the moment where Georgiou looks Burnham in the eye and tells her she’s right to be confident in her skills. It is so rare that women, especially black women, are encouraged to be assertive. Of course, that only leaves us even more gut-punched when their relationship falls apart.
Back on the Klingon ship, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) is trying to wrangle the Klingons into acting like a unified empire, which is about as easy as herding Kzinti. Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) is especially unimpressed by T’Kuvma’s calls for unity, rolling his eyes and definitely surprised that some of the other Klingon leaders are buying what T’Kuvma is selling. The other Starfleet vessels drop out of warp, which at least makes the Shenzhou seem a wee bit less vulnerable. Georgiou takes a stab at diplomacy, and it’s not a bad attempt at all. Unfortunately for her, T’Kuvma has been set on his course from the beginning, and nothing she says at this point is going to make a dent in his plans.
I really like how Discovery took the famous phrase “we come in peace” and attempted to give it a new resonance by having the Klingons reject it as a lie to mask Starfleet’s imperialistic intentions. It worked really well in the opening speech of the pilot and even better here. This whole scene really adds dimension to the Klingon grievances, as well as giving some weight to Burnham’s previous decision to mutiny. Georgiou may have made the moral decision by refusing to fire first, but was it the right one? If she had followed the logic of the Vulcans, would it have undermined T’Kuvma’s ability to sway the Klingon Council? Really, I don’t know if we’ll ever know, which makes for good discussion. Maybe war could’ve been avoided, but it’s just as possible that it was inevitable.
The Klingons fire and an all out space battle ensues. The special effects are really quite impressive, and the battle is a joy to watch. More importantly, Discovery understands that we can’t really know the stakes until a console blows up in someone’s face. Captain Georgiou is unflappable in command, giving headings and directing battle without skipping a beat. It truly is lovely to watch her in action.
Burnham is in her cell, trying to get information on just what the hell is going on, when Ensign Connor (Sam Vartholomeos) stumbles in, visibly confused and obviously suffering from trauma. He wants to know why Burnham isn’t on the bridge where she belongs, and why are we fighting? What could’ve been just exposition turns into a poignant reminder that Starfleet is at its heart on a mission of exploration, not war. Unfortunately, when you’re wandering around in the Wild West of space, occasionally you’re going to have to unholster your gun. But it doesn’t make it any less difficult to confront.
Trek has explored the various roles of Starfleet on many of the shows, a mixture of discovery, diplomacy, and yes, sometimes conflict. In the first episode, Burnham reminded Georgiou that she was approaching the Klingons like a diplomat, and that perhaps she needed to be confronting them as a soldier. It’s a theme that Trek is destined to explore for as long as Trek exists. Unfortunately, the Shenzhou suffers a major hull breach and we lose Connor just as we started to get a sense of him. We hardly knew ye, Ensign.
Burnham is sitting in her cell, surrounded by destruction, staring off into space. To be fair, she’s had a really terrible day. Luckily, she’s got a direct line to Vulcan motivational speaker Sarek, who shows up to give her some tough love and remind her that she needs to get her shit together and help her crew. I really wish I had a Vulcan who would come and inspire me into living a better life when I am in despair. Maybe I’d finally get better at deep-cleaning my apartment on a regular basis.
Back on the bridge, Georgiou and Saru start falling into a star only to be saved last minute by Admiral Serpico and his handy tractor beam, truly the only useful thing he manages to do. He then lets the Klingons know that he’s totally ready to stop fighting, which is a really great way to show weakness to a warrior race. He immediately pays the price as T’Kuvma casually rams a ship into the Europa. Goodbye, Admiral Serpico. Your truly excellent advice and charming douchery shall surely be missed. At this point, Discovery has certainly shown it’s willingness to sacrifice characters to raise the stakes extremely high. Apparently, no one is safe in space.
T’Kuvma gets a cool new nickname, ‘T’Kuvma the Unforgettable’ courtesy of his loyal hype man Voq and decides to try it out by getting on all the subspace channels and letting all the surviving Starfleet members know that they need only to give him Harry Potter, and he will leave Hogwarts untouched… wait no. He wants them to tell the galaxy that the Klingons are truly number one and he has no interest in making friendship bracelets with anyone. Alright, we got it man, maybe cool it with all the speeches.
Burnham shakes off her ennui and reminds the computer that no one out-logics a Vulcan, diving through space to escape the brig, heading to the bridge where Georgiou quotes Sun Tzu as she and Saru start getting sneaky and planning a way to fight back. One wishes that Starfleet taught more of “know thy enemy” because maybe if Admiral Serpico had bothered to listen to Burnham about Klingon culture, he wouldn’t be atoms right now, just saying.
Burnham and Georgiou yet again sock me in the feels, with a truly melancholy exchange. Georgiou is still hurt and confused that Burnham could betray her. Burnham is still trying to convince her that she did it to save everyone, but especially to save Georgiou. The emotion is sincere and heartbreaking. If Star Trek wants to make another series exploring the seven previous years of Georgiou and Burnham kicking ass across the galaxy I would crawl over broken glass to watch it. The two actresses both do tremendous work selling the hurt and love and disappointment their characters are feeling.
T’Kuvma starts collecting Klingon bodies from the vacuum of space, so he can add to his extremely emo dead body decorating scheme, and yet again, Georgiou proves that she has unparalleled out of the box thinking. Saru warps an explosive into a body being pulled into the Klingon ship, which knocks out their defenses. The dynamic duo of Georgiou and Burnham head to the Klingon ship, intent on capturing T’Kuvma and proving to the Klingons that he’s not actually that unforgettable.
This doesn’t go as well as we all wanted it to, though the hand to hand fighting is exciting. Burnham actually stabs Voq in the eye with her thumb, and Georgiou truly kicks ass with a bat’leth. Unfortunately, T’Kuvma gains the upper hand on Georgiou and stabs her fatally in the chest before Burnham shoots him.
I have extremely mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I am deeply disappointed that we won’t get to see more Captain Georgiou because in only two episodes she has become one of my favorite Trek characters. She mixed heart and intelligence and fierce loyalty all together and served it with grace. I can’t help but feel a bit betrayed that they gave us Michelle Yeoh and then took her away almost immediately. On the other hand, her character arc was compelling, and her complex mentor relationship with Burnham is definitely going to reverberate throughout the season. If they were going to kill her character off, at least the writers treated that character with respect instead of abruptly killing her off with a goo monster. *cough* Tasha Yar *cough*
Burnham barely has a moment to mourn before Saru warps her back to the Shenzhou, and T’Kuvma gives us one more final grim speech about Kahless before he heads to Sto-vo-kor to cause more ruckus in the Klingon afterlife. Maybe he can meet Kahless there and let him know how much he digs his vibe.
Burnham pleads her case eloquently to the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures. She wanted to save everyone. She thought she was doing the right thing. Now she’s lost her Captain, her crew, and her ship. It really is quite tragic and Sonequa Martin-Green is phenomenal at conveying just how much pain Burnham is in. The Secret Board of Shadowy Figures is not moved however, and they strip her of her rank and give her LIFE IMPRISONMENT which, wow. WOW. If you thought ‘The Vulcan Hello’ ended on a cliffhanger, this episode will leave you dangling by your fingernails.
So thus concludes the second part of our opening pair of episodes. Overall, I am pretty blown away and completely on board. My only reservation thus far is that the tone is a bit darker than we are used to on Star Trek, especially for the very beginning of a show. One of the reasons Star Trek is so beloved is because it channels an optimism for a better future that a lot of science fiction lacks.
That being said, we should all keep in mind that it is still early. A show’s pilot is not necessarily indicative of all that is capable of, something that TNG viewers know quite viscerally. Maybe someday, after seven years of Discovery we’ll look back on this pilot and be amazed at beardless Saru, or marvel at how Burnham has changed as a character.
Lastly, I think it’s important to remember that of course this is different than the Star Trek that has come before. If you were tuning in to re-watch TOS, you were bound to be disappointed. Each series has its own tone and theme, from TNG’s bright optimism to DS9’s brutal examination of war. Discovery is no different. The point of new Star Trek is not to take us to where we have already been, but to boldly go where no one gone before.