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Star Trek: Discovery - "The Vulcan Hello" & "Battle at the Binary Stars" - Review: "Amazing."

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Star Trek: Discovery 1.01 - "The Vulcan Hello" Review:
Directed by David Semel, Story by Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman & Teleplay by Akiva Goldsman & Bryan Fuller

I'm going to start off this review by saying that unlike some, I haven't always been a huge Star Trek fan. In fact, until the 2009 film, I wasn't a Trek fan at all. But ever since I watched JJ Abrams' Trek I've slowly been becoming more and more obsessed with the Star Trek universe, having watched four or five of the original movies, the entirety of Deep Space Nine, which has turned into one of my favourite shows of all-time, and am now just making headway into the second season of The Next Generation. So I was looking forward to any new Star Trek that came on my screens, and thankfully, Star Trek: Discovery more than fit the bill for me, providing a new experience that brought the franchise onto television since the last time Star Trek: Enterprise wrapped up its final episode on May 13 2005. In other words, it's been a long time since we've last had a Star Trek show on television.

It was certainly a bold move for CBS to air the show behind a paywall on CBS All-Access, previously notable for its airing of The Good Fight, a spinoff of the popular drama The Good Wife. Understandably, Star Trek has a bigger target audience, drawing in around 10 million viewers for its first episode which was aired on CBS' mainstream channel. How many viewers will make the jump behind the paywall remains to be seen, especially when the show has a lot to do to convince audiences to stick around, and not much time to convince them, which is especially risky for Star Trek in particular, a franchise notoriously slow to get its series off the ground, with both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine having troublesome first episodes. However, if The Vulcan Hello is anything to go by, then we should be in for a real treat indeed.

The episode itself, as you'd expect, suffers from a lot of exposition, but then for a pilot, it kind of has to include that much, especially when you're trying to be introduced into a whole universe. It reminded me a lot of the Joss Whedon pilots for shows like Firefly and Agents of SHIELD (of which Whedon wrote the pilot episode), and played out pretty well as it managed to introduce the main cast, the stakes and the world. But here, the Enterprise hasn't quite played host to Kirk and Spock just yet, and this leads to a few problems presented by the prequel setting that Star Wars prequels audiences will be familiar with, in that superior technology and costumes have been around before the main series leading technology (and style) to regress rather than advance. Here, they feel much more in line with the Abrams movies than they do the original series costumes, but even different again from that, leading fans to theorize that the show actually takes place in a third timeline altogether. But then, that can easily be explained, they're just updating the costumes and effects for a modern generation. If The Original Series was made today it would probably look something like this, too. Minor differences like this don't bother me that much, even I can understand where some fans' grievances come from.

For the most part it remains accessible to fans and non-fans of the franchise alike, billed as an entry point into Trek's new frontier. I watched this show with my parents who have seen even less Trek than I have, barely more than the 2009 movie and Star Trek Beyond, and they seemed to enjoy it enough to want to watch more, which is a good sign as they're not sci-fi fans at all. The characters themselves are fun, dynamic and enjoyable, and whilst they aren't fleshed out completely in this episode, they are fleshed out enough so that we know who they are, a little bit about their backgrounds and what they're doing. Jason Isaacs' character is the exception, as he doesn't show up in this episode so we don't know too much about him yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing this show navigate its inter-crewmember conflicts in the future, especially as it's already been announced that the show is breaking one of creator Gene Roddenberry's chief rules. Understandably, this has caused a lot of backlash from purist fans of the original series, but so far, as someone who may not be as attached to the original as much as others are - it's a nice change that feels welcomed and helps to freshen up the dynamic. It's interesting to note that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also tackled this problem similarly, but got around it by having characters like Quark not join the ranks of Starfleet, opening up for potential conflict of interest whilst keeping them on the same vessel.

The USS Shenzhou not the USS Discovery, is where we first meet our characters, almost immediately suggesting that something bad is going to happen to the Shenzhou right from the get go, creating that feeling of nagging suspense right the way through the pilot, and rather than follow a Captain in charge of the ship, the show instead, in a franchise first (Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway & Archer have all been Captains in the past), we follow the First Officer, Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green - who genre fans will already recognise from her stint as Sasha Williams on The Walking Dead, as well as her turn as Tamara in Once Upon a Time. But it is Star Trek: Discovery that plays host to her best work as she puts in a career best performance as Burnham, a woman who was the first human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center and Science Academy, where we got to see flashbacks to her time there as we were introduced to Sarek as well as her past history with the Klingons. The decision to put her as a First Officer opens up new potential for a way to explore a role that grants us a different perspective of life on a starship, and so far, there are clear differences between her and her captain, Michelle Yeoh's Georgiou Georgiou. Georgiou is a character who is a more traditional follower of the Starfleet rules and regulations than Burnham, and as a result, this leads the two of them to butt heads when a conflict ignites.

The series opening hits the ground running. Burnham and Georgiou are stranded on a planet where they walk around in circles, needing to be rescued before a storm shuts them off from the outside world for over 80 years - and due to Starfleet regulations, Georgiou cannot interact with the indigenous population, but Burnham can. Thankfully it doesn't come to that however as it's revealed that rather than walking in circles they're actually making a symbol, a symbol that brings in the USS Shenzhou to their aid, using an inspiring soundtrack choice. It's a fun way to get things going, and a personal scene of the week, which is immediately followed up by the show then continues its form by having the Shenzhou investigate a satellite in a binary star on the edge of Federation Space, only to find an object obscured from their sensors.

This object turns out to be a Klingon ship hiding under a cloaking device, which is found by Burnham who investigates the ship despite the heavy radiation risks. Burnham herself is then thrust into immediate contact with a Klingon, which of course, represents personal problems for her as she has a history with the proud warrior race. They understand conflict and are proud of it, and whilst the Vulcans have been able to maintain an uneasy treaty with the Klingons after they took diplomacy to the Klingons the only way they knew how, violence. Every time Klingons attacked a Vulcan ship, the Vulcans would respond in kind. However, the same is not going to be the case for Starfleet if Georgiou has her way, she's very much determined not to fire first and maintain a peaceful approach. It's the conflict between Georgiou and Burnham that drives the last quarter of the pilot once the ship is discovered, to the point where Burnham, fresh from several radiation wounds, even goes as far to stun Georgiou in the process, temporarily knocking her out. Burnham does her best to control the situation and fire on the Klingons before they view Starfleet as being weak and attack, but before she can pull off her mutiny and launch the attack, Georgiou recovers and storms onto the bridge. Burnham's in trouble, very big trouble - assuming of course, the USS Shenzhou can escape a much bigger problem that it has just found itself facing, in the form of multiple Klingon ships, that have arrived out of nowhere, beating the ships of Starfleet which have been alerted and are on their way.

It's certainly a great cliffhanger to end the episode on but is it enough to convince audiences to subscribe to the paywall behind CBS All-Access? It'll certainly be fascinating to see what happens with the show's ratings, but international sales to Netflix outside the US and Canada helps a lot to increase audience viewership, especially as it's aired the next day there. There were several bold choices that a lot of the fans of the original series may take issue with, particularly with Michael's un-Starfleet like approach to a first contact-equivalent meeting with the Klingons in over a hundred years, but that can be explained away by her personal vendetta with them. She has an attitude and an history with them that will no doubt come into play in the rest of the season, giving her that bit extra momentum to drive her character.

Michael and Philippa were not the only characters that we met in this episode however, as we got to spend time with a wealthy supporting cast that the show manages to balance successfully. Whilst a lot don't actually appear in The Vulcan Hello, we do meet Doug Jones' Saru, who is the first of a new species created specifically for Star Trek Discovery. Saru is the first Kelpien to enter Starfleet, a Science Officer working as a Lieutenant Commander. Their species has a reputation of being cowards and the first to run from any battle, always advising caution where possible. But at the same time, despite Saru's constant warnings of danger prior to the arrival of the Klingon reinforcements, when he does claim that death is coming, you can be sure he means it. It's certainly an ill omen for the characters, and given what happens next, it makes everything all the more suspenseful.

We also spent some time with the Klingons in this episode. Here's a fun fact - if you live in a country where Netflix streams Star Trek: Discovery, you can watch the series with subtitles in the Klingon language, which was a very neat addition that fans will no doubt appreciate. Whilst understandably they weren't the main focus of this episode they do represent a different type of threat compared to what the movies have dealt with in recent years, as whilst we've seen Nero, Khan and Krall all tackled with mixed success, we haven't seen the franchise tackle the Klingons for a while. So it's almost refreshing to have the mainstay villains of the Star Trek franchise back, at least for now. I would like to see more races explored in the future, so let's hope that they don't just restrict things to focusing on the Klingons. Our resident Klingon in this case is T'Kuvma, played by Chris Obi, who looks suitably menacing. He presents himself as the leader of an ancient Klingon house who is looking to unite the houses, and doesn't have the best of attitudes towards the Federation and Starfleet. His goal is to unite the houses under his leadership as the self-appointed Messiah, following in Kahless's path and fulfill an ancient prophecy in the process, and it sets the ground running for his character who gets an solid story-arc over the two episodes.

I want to take a minute here to praise Star Trek: Discovery's impressive special effects and CGI. It looks absolutely amazing, and provides a visual treat - the show instantly emerges as a contender for one of the best looking series of 2017, standing right up there with the likes of Top of the Lake and Sense8 in terms of how well it's shot. David Semel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, & the Heroes pilot, among several others) certainly did a good job directing the episode, and it's great to see that so far, there hasn't really been any incident of cheesy special effects that look out of place. The story too, by Bryan Fuller, Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman is impressive, but it's also important to note that Fuller, showrunner of brilliant series like Hannibal and American Gods, is no longer part of the show, having left the series after creative differences. It isn't quite clear as to how much of the series is still Fuller's and what has been changed by Kurtzman and Goldsman, no strangers to the Star Trek universe themselves, but despite whatever creative differences have emerged in the show's troublesome path to its eventual release, things are shaping up to place Star Trek: Discovery as an early contender for one of the best pilots of fall season so far, despite its mainly exposition-related flaws.

Star Trek: Discovery 1.02 "Battle at the Binary Stars" - Review:
Directed by Adam Kane, Story by Bryan Fuller & Teleplay by Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts

Now that the character introductions are out of the way, Battle at the Binary Stars picked things up in the second episode, hitting the ground running with the first to air behind the CBS All Access Paywall. And for the most part it succeeds, delivering a spectacular battle sequence as the war against the Klingons kicks off. It turns out that twenty four Klingon ships have answered the call of T'Kuvma, who has the ability and power to make Starfleet and the Federation look like fools. His motivations are fleshed out a bit in this episode through a flashbacks as well as through the present as we learn that he's fighting against the Federation because he believes that they're a threat to the Klingon way of life, and integration would lose touch with what makes them who they are. He plans to use an aggressive display of force to shatter the Federation and their fleet, and in doing so, show the universe that the Federation are weak and cannot pose a threat.

Starfleet's forces are able to arrive in time to support the USS Shenzou, even the aid of the reinforcements does not bode well for them. They're quickly ripped apart by the superior Klingon forces and to make matters worse, Burnham has just been arrested for her mutiny at the end of the previous episode. She's trapped in a cell by the time the attack delivers lethal damage to the ship, killing crewmembers, but also puts her in a rather unfortunate situation of being trapped in the cell surrounded by nothing but the emptiness of space. Shields are failing, but Starfleet ethical protocols allow her to escape even though she is only a prisoner if she can prove that she would die if left unattended, after being on the receiving end of a pep talk from Sarek via telepathic connection. Michael uses this to successfully escape, and in the end, Georgiou comes to the conclusion that she is far more valuable to the team outside of prison, especially when there's no prison left to hold her anymore. It doesn't look like Michael will have much of a chance to prove herself though as the USS Shenzhou is on the verge of destruction, until at last, Admiral Anderson arrives to the rescue, a bit late to the conflict than planned. He rescues the Shenzhou and her crew, proposing to talk peace to the Klingons again, but ultimately, this too comes to no avail and his ship is destroyed, ripped apart in front of the Shenzhou by cloaked Klingon vessels, leaving the ship outnumbered, and outgunned, with little survival prospects.

This forces Georgiou and Burnham to come up with a desperate gambit if they want to to take out the Klingons. Burnham is smart enough to work out that killing T'Kuvma would give the Klingons exactly what Starfleet and the Federation don't want, a martyr for their cause. She believes that a capture would undermine T'Kuvma and push the Klingons to negotiate a surrender. However, ultimately this doesn't work out, and not only is T'Kuvma killed, but Georgiou, in one of the more controversial moments of the two hour premiere, is also slain in battle, which was, whilst a tad predictable given Michelle Yeoh's special guest star status, a real shame because her character was one of the more memorable and better ones introduced in these two episodes. At least she went out strongly, even if it did mean that Burnham killing T'Kuvma presented the Klingons with a martyr. And there's always the possibility of her appearing in flashbacks in the future too, given that we've seen plenty so far, a structure that hasn't often been used by the franchise in the past but does allow for the audiences to get inside the characters and see what makes them tick. We got flashbacks to both the early years of T'Kuvma and Burnham in this episode, as we got to see the fresh-faced Vulcan-taught human leave her ship to interact with her new captain, Georgiou. This moment was made all the more bittersweet by the death of Georgiou in this episode, cutting the friendship short before it could properly flourish.

One of the things I do like about Star Trek: Discovery is its serialized nature. This episode ends with Burnham being arrested for mutiny despite her earlier actions, sentenced to life in prison. It leaves options open for exploration of different areas of the Federation compared to what we may have seen before in the past, and especially given that we haven't quite reached the Utopia stage yet, it's going to be fun to see how we get there. Once again, it's also worth pointing out how great the CGI and action sequences were here. Star Trek may not be a franchise known for its action-heavy episodes, but this just shows that if the show does decide to go for the action-heavy approach, it's going to be a positive one. Hopefully this isn't the case of the show blowing all its budget on the first two episodes, and things can maintain a consistent look and feel over its first season.

Jason Isaacs is the big absentee from these first two episodes, as well as Anthony Rapp, who are both listed in the opening credits, and they will no doubt be introduced later down the line, maybe in the next episode. This is one of those moments where watching a serialized show can be more rewarding as you know that things will take its course and grow overtime, and often, the best Trek characters have showed up actually after the pilot episodes in the past, so it's not as if this is a new thing to the franchise even when it was episodic. With the characters that we have, the homage to Spock that we have from Burnham's character is done with enough tact to establish her has her own person, not as a cheap knock-off, and it's also interesting to note that her connections to Spock are more than just a similiar background, with the network listing her as being his adoptive sister. It's doubtful we'll actually see Spock in person, but this is a nice touch indeed, and even if this leads to problems in the future canon timeline-wise, it's not something that's unique to Star Trek prequels. Star Wars also suffered similiar problems with its prequels.

In the brief time we got to spend with T'Kuvma, he emerged as well developed and effective antagonist for the characters. His desire to fight the Federation to establish Klingon Pride in their own species was effective and it's almost a shame to loose him as quickly as we did Georgiou. I almost wonder what his reaction would be to learning of Worf's role on Picard's Enterprise. But regardless, it's going to be interesting where the show goes from here villains-wise, and how well they're developed. But at the moment the show has shown its strengths and what they can be, and I'm very impressed as a result. With everything taken into account, Star Trek: Discovery is top-notch entertainment. Just exactly like a Star Trek series should be. And with plenty of time time to develop further, the future remains bright and optimistic. Between Star Trek: Discovery and The Expanse right now, it's safe to say that this could well be the start of a golden era for space opera television.

What Did You Think of Star Trek: Discovery's "The Vulcan Hello" & "The Battle at the Binary Stars"? Is it enough to earn a subscription to CBS All Access? Or are you watching it elsewhere? Let me know in the comments below. I'd also like to know whether this is your first experience with Trek or not - if it was, how accessible was it for you? Or are you a veteran fan who has seen every episode and movie? Your thoughts are always welcome, and if I've made any errors, feel free to point them out below and I'll correct them ASAP. And don't forget to check out the next episode, "Context Is for Kings" - this Sunday on CBS All Access.

About the Author - Milo MJ
Milo is an Arsenal FC supporter and loves TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Justified, The Wire, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Person of Interest. He reviews Preacher, The Mist, Star Wars Rebels, Star Trek Discovery, Silicon Valley and Veep for Spoiler TV and will be covering Castle Rock, Counterpart, Krypton, Marvel's New Warriors, Rise, Marvel's Runaways, Succession and Trust. He also contributes to comic reviews on a weekly basis for All-Comic. He also regularly watches and reviews films on Letterboxd, and you can find his ever-changing list of 300 favourite movies here.
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