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[Retro Review] The Vulcan Hello/Battle of the Binary Stars

[Retro Review] The Vulcan Hello/Battle of the Binary Stars

Over the past few years through Comms, we’ve looked back at past iterations of Star Trek with rose coloured glasses and a bit of humour. This time round, we’re reaching back only seven years for the ‘youngest’ retro review to date. Since it’s debut in 2017, Discovery has launched a whole new world of Star Trek from animated comedies, to sombre reunions with past heroes. Ait all began with Discovery.

This year the flagship show of the modern era comes to a close as Michael Burnham leads her crew through a treasure hunt that began centuries before her time. With the end in sight for Discovery as a series, we’re looking right back to the beginning. The episode that, not only kicked off the show, but of the modern Star Trek era.

Acting as a prequel for the series, the two part episode brought a lot of new things for Star Trek. For a start, and the most obvious and hyped part of the show, it introduced a lead character who, for the first time, wasn’t the Captain. Instead the story was through the eyes of Michael Burnham, a bold first officer ready to step up to a command of her own thanks to her spirit of discovery and strict Vulcan training.

After opening with a mission introducing Burnham, Captain Georgiou and their ship, the USS Shenzhou, an ‘object of unknown origin’ on the edge of Federation space catches their attention. A cautious science officer Saru wants to leave it alone and stay out of danger. Burnham wants to go all in and have a peek at it despite it being a solo mission in a high radiation area that’ll turn her into ‘noodles’. And of course, this is Burnham’s story to Georgiou sides with her first officer and kicks off two hours of tension.

Starting with that rough round the edges sense of adventure, trying to plant itself between the spirit and language to fit as a bridge between Archer and Kirk’s reigns on their respective eras, the early scenes mirror both the spirit of discovery as well as what Janeway would describe the era as in Voyager. “Space must have seemed a whole lot bigger back then. It’s not surprising they had to bend the rules a little. They were a little slower to invoke the Prime Directive, and a little quicker to pull their phasers.”

Which kind of sums up the plot. As Burnham flies towards the object in harsh conditions, she lands on it only to come face to face with someone in some gloriously over bedazzled armour; a Klingon. And instantly she panics, kills the Klingon, and does a runner – giving the Klingons all the excuses they need to start a war while Burnham’s fear of the Klingons leads her to become Starfleets first mutineer.

At the time the two parter was all tension from start to finish. It’s pacing was brilliant to the point it felt over too soon. So it was hard to see the bigger picture at the time, but that deconstruction of a human who;s never had the chance to feel human is a nice story in itself. We see her as a child losing control after being quizzed on a test of the invasion that killed her parents. In the present we see her lose control through a mix of arrogance and fear; one a Vulcan quality, the other human. It’s a nice conflict and one that, unlike Spock and his inner turmoil, leads her to make the biggest mistake an officer can. Betraying her Captains wishes, she prepares for war and tries to strike forcer behind Georgiou’s back before she’s stopped and arrested; her logic being that Vulcans knew to shoot first as the Klingons respect war, not peace.

Georgiou’s attempt at peace, however noble, is till a little futile. Even calling for backup, led by Admiral Anderson, all they do is prove T’Kuvma right to the Klingons, show their weakness and find themselves in the middle of a firefight. All while Burnhams stuck in the brig of a burning ship, trying to out-logic the computer for her release.

There’s a lot packed in to the story, and in theory the weakest point follows Burnham’s escape from the brig as Georgiou – after being the first Starfleet Captain in history to face a mutiny – just lets her first officer swan in and take control. Sure, she’s in a tight spot when the fleet scarpers to safety leaving the Shenzhou adrift and in tatters and it does make for a great sequence as at this stage Burnhams proven right.

Looking back at this episode was a real treat. When I first watched it back in 2017 I was surprised by quickly they flowed. It takes around twenty minutes for the story to happen and it all just flies by seamlessly from a random mission introducing Burnham and Captain Georgiou, to teaming up with Burnhams rival Saru to discuss and debate what to do about a mysteriious object in a hazardous region of space. Throw in some cult like Klingons and it all leads to the moment Burnham and the Klingon Torchbearer come face to face.

There’s a lot of building going on. With the Klingons we have a more tribal version of them. We’ve seen all aspects of Klingon culture, but T’Kuvma represents the more religious zealot the Warrior caste of the Next Generation pretended to be to hide their feuds and political schemes. Even showing him as a misfit tot he great houses was a nice touch as he tried to unite them and go back to the old ways.

Meanwhile on Shenzhou, all the way through, the crew feel like a combination of all the best Trek. Well rehearsed clever language as Saru and Burnham spar, everyone eager to explore and offering options between taking a risk to playing it safe to let the Captain have all her options before making a decision. Even when they learn it’s the Klingons lurking in the shadows ready for war, Georgiou tries to maintain the starfleet values we’ve always hyped up over the decades; choosing peace and avoiding conflict whilst cautiously giving an Admiral a ring for a backup plan.

In theme this felt like a perfect TV movie for the Star Trek franchise of the era. The ship design and sets were cold and primitive, showing the middle ground between Enterprise and TOS, somewhat mirroring the Kelvin, and added a lot to the old Nick Meyer idea of making things more like a submarine movie. The conflict with the Klingons, as well as with Georgiou and Burnham, brought a lot of tension and as soon as the action started it was a perfect follow on from the Dominion War sequences in Deep Space Nine.

Despite everything going on, it is Burnhams story and the two parter gave some nice nods to her past and why she reacted so badly to the Klingons. Giving us a link to the original series, James Frain steps in nicely as a slightly younger Sarek. In flashbacks we see her taking on the orphaned Burnham following her parents death at the hands of Klingon invaders. It’s not just a link to the original series, or an obvious ploy to eventually bring Spock into the mix (which happened nicely in Season 2), but gives us a nice contrast to Spock. He was raised to be Vulcan and deny his human side. Burnham was as well, but she’s human. Her inner emotions may not be as strong or violent as a Vulcans, but neither is her natural discipline. So she snapped. She snapped as a child having to answer questions at school about the massacre where she witnessed her parents death, and she snapped again in fear and panic seeing a Klingon for the first time since.

Aside from racing through the story, the whole thing has a nice tension throughout. Even when Starfleet arrives, there’s a dark cloud over the story knowing there’s no good end for anyone here. Especially with Burnham going full rogue and trying to take over the ship right through tot he desperation of her working with Georgiou after her escape to find a way to win against the Klingons and avert war. Even before the Klingon reveal on Burnham’s side, there’s something really unsettling from the off seeing as it all began with T’Kuvma’s ‘Remain Klingon’ rally speech.

When it ends, and T’Kuvma is defeated, that feeling doesn’t go away. We’re used to the heroes saving the day and everything being alright. Discovery went another direction. Sure, the fight was won. But with sacrifice. Burnham’s spotless record and accelleration to Captaincy had all gone away. She struck first, albeit not knowing the big picture at the time. She let her emotions and arrogance control her, leading to a series of events that would get her captain killed. And by the end she’s charged with mutiny, thrown in prison while those serving with her all go their separate ways.

As a self contained story, it’s got a bit of everything. Action, adventure, emotional backstory and a genuine feeling of tension. We even get a whole load of Klingons in a way we’d never seen before thanks to the ancient sarcophagus and it’s ornate, stunning interior representing whats essentially a place of worship as well as the centre of battle. From beginning to end it tells a complete story; who Burhnam is, shy she is the way she is and the one event that broke her to the point of self sabotage on a monumental level. All the while, the war we’d heard about since the 60’s was given it’s starting point while drawing on all the history of the franchise so far.

As the beginning of a whole new story, it does something wonderful as we have genuinely no idea whats coming next. The lead characters in prison and everyone hates her. We haven’t even seen Discovery itself yet and aside form there being a war on, there’s no indication what the shows going to be about next.

Narratively it hinted at how the story would unfold. We’d get more discomfort in the mystery of Lorca and Discovery from the next episode when the titular ship would arrive. And we’d get more cliffhangers leaving us shouting at the screen trying to figure out what was going on. We’d also get more Klingons and follow the legacy of T’Kuvma and how that intertwined with Burnham’s redemption.

I’m a Deep Space Nine guy at heart and enjoy long-form storytelling. In a lot of ways sci fi itself is still being influenced by shows like Battlestar Galactica where imperfection and struggle pushes buttons that other stories can. First time round I felt like this is the Star Trek I was waiting for since Sisko and Dukat fell into the flames of the fires caves. It was exhilarating, exciting and most importantly left us all talking afterwards as we waited to see what came next.

Rewatching it years later, I still highly enjoyed the pacing and story in general. The only down side was that it reminded me that I missed that era of chaos, confusion and surprise that’s been lacking in the last two seasons of the show. I know the style isn’t for everyone – and it was at some point a status symbol to disavow the show for certain corners of the fandom – but even looking back on it I could still feel the excitement and anticipation knowing what was coming.

Discovery has went through it’s own period of transition since that episode. Hell, it went through enough transition in the first season! But while the fourth season wasn’t entirely my cup of raktajino in style, I’m keen to see how the show ends in it’s fifth and final season starting next month. Burnham has already went from mutineer to Captain with her crew growing and evolving over the years. It’ll be fascinating to see the contrast from then to what becomes of Michael Burnham and her crew in the series finale…

The Final Season of Star Trek Discovery launches on First Contact Day, April 4th exclusively on Paramount+. Paramount+ is available through direct subscription or as a channel add on through Amazon Prime Video.

Our latest issue of Comms takes a look at the last year of Star Trek, sci fi, superheropes and more!! With the usual features including What If, Fistful Of Data and more, the “All Good Things” issue of Comms is available as part of SFCQ2’s free membership! To find out more visit our Comms preview or Enlist Today!

ADM JT Marczynka, DoFA
Creator of things, writer of words, caffeine addict. Director of Communications for Starfleet Command Quadrant 2.

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