Monday, September 25, 2017

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - The War Between Starfleet and the Klingons Begins in 'Battle at the Binary Stars'

CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 1.02 "Battle at the Binary Stars"

Face to face with Klingon vessels, the U.S.S. Shenzhou prepares for the possibility of war if negotiations fail. Amidst the turmoil, Michael looks back to her Vulcan upbringing for guidance.

The decision was made to release two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery tonight as a way to entice people to the CBS All Access service. The first episode debuted on CBS proper with the expectation that if people sign up for the streaming outlet, they will then be rewarded right away with the next episode. It's a solid strategy. It establishes a desire for more content and the opportunity to give the audience what they want. It's a business decision in order to help the new streaming service grow so that people will actually want to pay for it. Of course, that's still an uphill battle because there isn't enough content to truly justify the price point. But the creative of Star Trek: Discovery may be enough to entice some viewers. This scheduling decision also happens to be very beneficial for the actual content of these opening episodes. The first two episodes of the season play as their own mini-arc. This show has been billed as the most serialized Star Trek series yet. And yet, these opening two episodes exist as their own complete story. Yes, there's a jumping off point for a potential series that could be quite entertaining to watch. But it doesn't really do a great job setting up the episodic approach for this show. Instead, it tells an entertaining story to establish its lead character, Michael Burnham, and the types of moral quandaries she will face while serving as a member of Starfleet. The first episode featured a lot of exposition. But now, it is all seemingly paying off in a really rewarding but tragic and morally compromising way.

Michael is the lead character of this show despite not being the captain of the main ship. That's a key difference from all the previous iterations of Star Trek. It's a nice subversion of the story. There's no doubting her importance in this story while also being aware of the tragic circumstances that have led to this moment. In the series premiere, she betrayed her captain in order to do what she believed was right by engaging with the Klingons in battle immediately. It went against her natural Vulcan upbringing. She's still a human but she was raised to believe in the value of rational thought above silly emotions. "Battle at the Binary Stars" shows the audience her first day aboard the Shenzhou and working alongside Georgiou. She's very much a Vulcan in every manner. She's practical and believes respect needs to be earned and not just given. It shows how much she has grown aboard this ship. Georgiou brought out her humanity in a genuine way. She was willing to give her a command in Starfleet. And then, all of this chaos with the Klingons broke out. Michael made her decision to knock Georgiou out because she believed it was necessary to protect everyone on the ship. In the end, she was right. But her actions still have consequences to them. Those consequences are very damning and very compelling to watch right now.

Starfleet still ultimately engages the Klingons in battle. T'Kuvma has motivated his people to unite and fight together as one race once more. He believes himself to be the second coming of the messiah. He has a vision for his people and they are willing to support him in this endeavor against the oppressive Federation. They fire first in a show of force. The Shenzhou is no longer all alone in this battle. Reinforcements do arrive to assist in this battle - including a ship with the admiral aboard. But it's still ultimately for not. The Klingons have a sound strategy and the technology to surprise their enemies and quickly destroy them. It's a disorienting experience for all involved. Michael is locked away in the brig awaiting trial for her mutiny. Georgiou still engaged with the Klingons but this kind of insubordination cannot be tolerated. Michael has just thrown away her entire career for a bold and reckless decision. She believed it was necessary to do. And now, she's trapped in the brig as the ship is falling apart. She's running out of power to survive. She's going to be sucked into the vacuum of space and die. Of course, she survives by reasoning with the computer that it's the best possible outcome that is absolutely necessary. But there is still a cost to her actions.

The Shenzhou is still at the forefront of this battle. They don't carry the officer whom the Klingons respect the most. They aren't the target for their stealth attack. But they are the ship that is still there once many of the Klingons return to their homes and T'Kuvma's main ship beams up all the dead warriors lost in the battle. That provides the episode with its big stealth and emotional attack. Georgiou is willing to sacrifice herself in order to cripple this new threat to the Federation. She's willing to aim a weapon at the ship manually if it means eliminating T'Kuvma for good before his cause gets any more traction. Michael is right to point out that making him a martyr will only strengthen his cause. It's important for the two of them to do whatever it takes in order to capture him. That will send the message that Starfleet is strong. It's a thrilling moment because it's Michael and Georgiou working side by side once more. Their dynamic started off friendly but became very contentious. And now, Georgiou dies in the heat of battle. It's such a devastating moment. It carries an impact because of the stellar work Michelle Yeoh has done in these opening episodes. It's not completely surprising because Yeoh is billed as a special guest star. I even made a note of it in my review of "The Vulcan Hello." But even though it was the expected plot point, it still hit hard because the show put in the work to develop these characters and the relationship they had.

And so, the immediate threat from the Klingons has been dealt with. It's a conflict that ended in tragedy. T'Kuvma did ultimately die instead of getting captured. That's just bound to lead to the rise of someone new to take his place - most likely the Klingon by his side when he dies who is looked down upon by others in his race. That just seems like more expected storytelling. But it's more disruptive to see the destructive of the main ship at the close of this conflict. The evacuation of the Shenzhou is important for the main narrative. But it's also a break away from the tradition of the franchise. The ship has always been a symbol for hope and stability. It's a place for these characters to belong throughout the narrative. It's a location that means something to all of them. It survives even when characters die. It is able to endure even the harshest of conflicts. But here, the Shenzhou goes down. It's again another nice subversion of the expectation. It scatters the crew throughout the Federation. Sure, Saru is the only supporting character of merit from the crew. But it should be fascinating to see what happens to him. He's a nice presence to have in this world. Meanwhile, Michael faces official charges for the mutiny she carried out. She was there alongside Georgiou as they broke into the Klingon ship in search of T'Kuvma. Michael was there when her captain was cut down in front of her. That death hits her hard. She feels responsible for it happening. She tried to prevent it but it still occurred. That's devastating. And now, she has been stripped of her rank and sentenced to life in prison. It's a fate that won't last for a long time. But it's also a fascinating place to pick up the main story. Michael is an outsider in life once more. She has no place to call a home and no one willing to greet her there. She is adrift in this world. She carries the burden of all of this destruction. She fought bravely but wasn't rational in her handling of this conflict. She pushed hard to protect her ideals. And now, she's paying the price for it. It's a dark place to find the main character so quickly. But it's very enticing to see what will happen next and how she'll get out of this situation.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Battle at the Binary Stars" was directed by Adam Kane with story by Bryan Fuller and teleplay by Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts.
  • Sarek formed a mental connection with Michael when she was young. That's a bond that is still present between them. They can communicate through this connection. They don't need the technology aboard the ship in order to talk. It just has vague consequences for Sarek to do so. But he still feels the need to appear and tell her to use her intellect to get out of the precarious situation she is in.
  • Despite him being noted as a coward amongst a crew of hotheaded explorers, Saru is the one who comes up with the devious plan to attack the main Klingon ship when they are least expecting it. It shows that he is a sound strategist when the time comes for it. Again, he has a perspective that is really quite welcome in this show. It plays off of the other characters in an interesting way.
  • It's still a little too difficult to care about the Klingons and why they are doing what they are doing. They are hindered by the fact that the actors are covered in tons of prosthetic makeup which makes it difficult for them to actually emote. As such, everything is seemingly delivered in a very monotonous way that is always screamed at all times.
  • Well, it was nice to have two women of color leading a show for as long as we did. It would have been so fantastic to see that continue to be the case of this show moving forward. But instead, Michelle Yeoh serves her purpose and parts the cast to make way for the next stage of Michael's journey. It's understandable but really disappointing as well. Yeoh was excellent in these opening episodes.
  • So where does the show go from here? It still has a number of series regular characters it has yet to introduce - Anthony Rapp, Jason Isaacs, etc. That will surely be coming next. Plus, it has to introduce the actual title ship of the series. That will come soon as well. So, it still seems like a lot of tentative exposition in the immediate future. That's a little worrisome. But again, Sonequa Martin-Green's performance is tremendous. So as long as the focus remains on her, things should still largely work.