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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Star Trek: Discovery 1-02: Battle at the Binary Stars (Quick Review)

Episode:2|Writer:Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts|Air Date:24-Sep-2017

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, you're getting a second Discovery quick review! Because they split the pilot into two separate episodes and then released them back to back to give me more work.

This half of the story is by a different pair of writers, as Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts have taken over from Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman. They also took over the series from Fuller as they're the current showrunners, so hopefully this episode will show that they know what they're doing.

It seems like they got a little mixed up when they were coming up with the title, as Battle at the Binary Stars sounds like it belongs to an old-school Battlestar Galactica story. I'm not complaining though. In fact, coming after Charlie X, YesteryearThe Naked Now, Past Prologue, Parallax and Fight or Flight, it might be the best second episode title Star Trek's ever had! Kind of gives away what happens though.

This is going to be shorter and scruffier than my usual reviews, with no screencaps or recap, but there'll still be plenty of SPOILERS for these first two episodes. In fact, I might spoil a little of earlier Trek as well, especially Star Trek: Nemesis and J.J Abrams' Star Trek movie from 2009, but nothing that comes after. Because for the first time in this site's long 18 month history there is no next time yet for me to spoil!

Last time I mentioned that I could pretty much predict the events of the first episode from the trailer, and that's kind of true for Battle at the Binary Stars as well... up until the point where things took a swerve. All the other Trek pilots spent their time establishing a status quo for the series and bringing all the players together, but this one blows the status quo apart, kills half the characters and leaves you without any clue of what the series is actually going to be! Turns out that it was secretly a prologue the whole time, setting up Burnham's epic fall from grace, and that's an interesting choice I reckon.

I had a feeling that guest star Michelle Yeoh wouldn't be a recurring presence in the series from the moment it was announced that Shenzhou characters would be joining Captain Lorca on the Discovery, but T'Kuvma's death took me completely by surprise. Especially as he was murdered by the lead character! Who then got given life imprisonment from the needlessly sinister shadowy court martial! I doubt she'll be going to that cushy New Zealand Penal Settlement either; she'll likely end up having neural neutraliser sessions at Tantalus the way her luck's been going. It's the most miserable ending to a Star Trek pilot since that one where Kirk got a dozen crewmembers killed and dropped a rock on his best friend! Though at least this timeline's Admiral Marcus will be happy I guess, as he got that war he always wanted.

Star Trek has gone dark plenty of times, with both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise featuring long serialised arcs about war and terrorism, and how Starfleet folks are supposed to be explorers instead of soldiers. Even Next Gen had a disgraced officer join the crew in Ensign Ro and gave us a glimpse at a Klingon war in Yesterday's Enterprise. But this is promising a whole season of Yesterday's Enterprise and that's cool for season 4 or whatever, but it's not exactly the most fun and optimistic way to kick things off. I'm sure that Discovery will stay true to Trek 's philosophy and end with good folks on both sides coming to an understanding, but this arc doesn't fill me with hope for lighter stories about exploring strange new worlds in the second season. You can turn Star Trek into 24 for a bit, but you can't turn 24 into Star Trek.

Though it occurred to me while I was watching that this story is very much a mirror for Kirk's arc in the bright and fun Star Trek '09, except with everything going very badly for the protagonist:

Star Trek

Kirk loses family in a Romulan attack and as a result grows up to be cocky and aimless. Burnham loses family in a Klingon attack and as a result grows up to be logical and focused.
Kirk meets a Starfleet captain who puts him on the right path and becomes his mentor. Burnham meets a Starfleet captain who puts her on the right path and becomes her mentor.
Kirk becomes first officer on the Enterprise, the new flagship, after being smuggled aboard and involving himself in a crisis. Burnham becomes first officer on the Shenzhou, an old starship, after years of hard work and an impressive record.
Kirk feels that the captain is making a terrible mistake and mutinies, but is taken down with a nerve pinch. Burnham feels that the captain is making a terrible mistake and mutinies, taking her down with a neck pinch.
Kirk is thrown off the ship, where he has an adventure, mind melds with a Vulcan, and then returns thanks to his new allies. Burnham is thrown into a cell, where she watches a friend get blown into space, mind melds with a Vulcan, and then escapes thanks to her logic.
Kirk rejoins the crew, who carry out a sneaky plan, and then beams over to the Romulan super-ship with Spock and no backup. Burnham rejoins the crew, who carry out a sneaky plan, and then beams over to the Klingon super-ship with Georgiou and no backup.
Kirk rescues his captain/mentor, offers the enemy commander a chance to surrender, and saves Earth. Burnham loses her captain/mentor, murders the enemy commander in her grief, and starts a war.
Kirk gets given a medal and the best ship in Starfleet to command. Burnham loses her job and is sentenced to life imprisonment.

So... where did Burnham go wrong? Accidentally killing a Klingon with his own ceremonial blade while trying to escape was definitely starting off on the wrong foot, but it didn't provoke them like you'd expect. Seems to me that turning on her captain was her first real mistake, but worse is that she did it to order a preemptive strike on a ship that was just sitting there with its weapons powered down. Star Trek stories generally don't like characters who betray their Starfleet principles, no matter how logical their reasoning is, and firing on a big-ass ship in the tiny Shenzhou likely wouldn't have solved anything anyway.

Her second big mistake was to flip that phaser from stun to kill and martyr T'Kumva while emotionally compromised. At first I figured that the gun's settings had been flipped when it hit the ground, but nope she deliberately kills him in anger, despite knowing the consequences. Kirk, on the other hand, was reckless and cocky throughout, but when push came to shove he confronted the man who killed his father and offered to save his life, which earned him major Star Trek points.

Burnham clearly understands that she screwed up by the end of the story, as she tells the unnecessarily creepy tribunal all about it, so the episode isn't backing her play. It seems pretty supportive of Georgiou though, who commits a war crime under the Geneva convention by booby-trapping a corpse! I'm sure that has to be breaking some kind of Starfleet regulation. Then again you can't really attack that ship at all without desecrating a few bodies.

Of course, the jerk Admiral followed Starfleet principles to the letter and got he his ship crippled by a giant space icebreaker in a very Star Trek: Nemesis moment because of it, so playing by the rules doesn't guarantee you a win. Though unlike Picard he at least managed to successfully blow up his damn ship afterwards. Hey, that movie had two people going over to the spiky super-ship on a raid as well now that I think about. This is why Trek needs its continuity: to increase the chances that the writers will stop doing the same thing over and over again.

This was pretty much a no-win scenario for all the Starfleet characters, as T'Kuvma had no intention of letting this end with diplomacy. He deliberately lured them over with the damaged relay and then summoned a scary fleet of ships into Federation space with his holy beacon to kick off a rumble because he needed to start a crusade to unify the houses. Or maybe he needed to unify the houses to start a crusade, I'm not entirely sure. To be honest I was struggling to pay attention to the Klingon scenes after a while. But what I'm getting at is that this situation tested all the characters and the only one to get out unscathed was Saru, the guy who stood against Burnham's mutiny and recommended getting the hell out of there. Risk is their business though, and they had colonies to protect, so even his choices weren't all that ideal.

Speaking of the Klingon scenes, I was a bit disappointed to see that the representatives of the other Klingon houses had the same makeup as T'Kuvma. I was hoping for more of an even split between entirely smooth-headed Klingons and Worf-looking Klingons to establish that T'Kuvma's guys are an isolationist offshoot. Then again maybe the familar Klingons do exist out there and just weren't invited to the 'Remain Klingon' party, I don't know.

The episode has more flashbacks than most, and it gives us a glimpse at both T'Kuvma and Burnham's pasts to show where they came from and how it's informing their current choices. T'Kumva's past seems to be that he was kicked by Klingons as a child and decided to end bullying by starting a crusade, or something. Didn't really get that. I was a bit confused by the timeline on young Burnham's two appearances in the Vulcan Learning Centre as well, and how she apparently joined Starfleet by just walking onto a ship. But seeing her go full Vulcan was interesting, and helps demonstrate the episode's message that race and culture are two different things. Turns out the smug emotionless attitude is due to nurture rather than nature, though that interstellar mind meld Sarek pulls is definitely not a trick that humans can do. Then again it's not a trick Vulcans should be able to do either, so I've no idea what that was about.

I did like the outcome of it though, as Sarek gives Burnham the motivation to pick herself up and put her logic against the computer's to escape her cell. Talking a computer through an ethics problem seems about as Star Trek as you can get, and of course a Starfleet ship would prioritise a prisoner's life over their captivity. I also thought it was nice that they had that scene with her concussed friend beforehand to give her an easy out that she doesn't take. It shows that she's not a 'do whatever it takes' Jack Bauer renegade... until there's only 8 minutes of air left that is. That forcefield box she was trapped in seemed a bit Next Gen, but cells with forcefields were actually introduced in Kirk's very first episode so I can't complain there.

One thing I wasn't 100% keen on though is the epic battle at the binary stars itself. At times it looked amazing and I loved seeing ships get chunks taken out of them, but when they're shooting tiny phaser blasts with a wimpy 'squit squit squit' sound it doesn't have the same impact as the energy beams cutting ships up in earlier movies and episodes. The fight did introduce a lot of new Starfleet ship designs, which is awesome, but they're all very boxy, angular and awkward, with blotchy looking metallic hulls.

I think the USS Europa here was among the worst of them, as it looks like a low polygon Star Trek: Online USS Reliant variant. The visual effects are way above that Test Flight teaser they put out a year back, it's clear now that it wasn't representative of the look they were going for, but I can't really say this shot is as appealing to look at as something from the Kelvin movies or the Next Gen HD remaster. Also, where are the Kelvin-class ships at? You'd think they'd throw in at least one of those beautiful ageing one-engined scrapheaps to help anchor this into the continuity a little. Like when the Excelsior-class appeared in Next Gen's pilot!

Actually forget that, where's all the Klingon ships at? There wasn't a single familiar looking ship in their fleet, and we've seen what their vessels look like before and after this time period. And how do Trek villains keep ending up with giant super-ships anyway? The Scimitar, the Narada, the Vengeance, the sarcophagus ship, the icebreaker... it seems like the Federation just can't find a fair fight anymore.

Anyway, my thoughts on the episode are that it was very... short. Maybe the shortest episode of Star Trek since the cartoon. But it was good though, I liked it. A little less than the first episode perhaps, but that's mostly due to the lack of happy people making jokes. It was still engaging television and I'm keen to see what happens in the actual series and meet the real crew now that I'm done with the prologue.

Star Trek: Discovery may return to the site with Context is for Kings, depends how I feel about writing a couple thousand words at the time. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, the Star Trek continues with a generation's final journey, Star Trek: Nemesis!

You can tell me how hyped you are for a third Star Trek review in a row in the comments below. Or you could talk about the Discovery episode I just wrote all those words about I suppose. It's all good.


  1. I'm trying to figure out how the religious-extremist sort of stuff we're seeing here turns into the Cold War allegory we saw in TOS. Technology aside, that's one problem with making this a barely-prequel series in an established continuity. Enterprise was set too far in the past for my taste, given what we ended up seeing; but Discovery is shaping up to be set not far enough in the past, since it's hard to reconcile this pilot happening just a few years before "Errand of Mercy".

    1. Yeah, I think setting it 10 years before The Cage would've made more sense as it would've given them more space to do their own thing. Though it's not so bad if you think of it in TV time, as a lot of things can happen in 10 years of a TV series. Enterprise brought the Vulcans and Klingons back in line with TOS in just one season.

  2. I didn't love it -- aside from the computer logic scene, which I adored and as you say was about as pure Star Trek as you get -- but I am going to carry on watching and that's because it's refreshing to see a Star Trek protagonist who keeps getting things wrong.

    (I don't count Harry Kim.)

    A couple of the films are about Kirk doing something wrong in the past and having to deal with it, or getting over his quasi-racism about Klingons, or whatever, but even there he's still presented as competent. Burnham, on the other hand, starts fluffing things up early on, and it snowballs from there into mistake after mistake until everyone is dead and the Federation is at war. Oops.

    While a part of me feels that's going against the optimistic core of what Trek is about, it's still refreshing. I doubt they have the stomach to carry on with it -- and it will probably get a bit absurd if Burnham spends the next twelve episodes fluffing everything up, like a cosmic Frank Spencer -- but at the same time I hope they don't reverse it straight away, with Burnham leaving space prison a reformed, super-competent, character.

    Not fond of the Wrong Klingons though.