Sunday, September 24, 2017

Discovery 1x1 "The Vulcan Hello"

rating: ****

the story: Klingon radicals provoke Starfleet into a war.

what it's all about: The first new Star Trek TV show in more than a decade may seem to have reinvented the wheel, but its first episode immediately grounds the action in very familiar territory, the stuff we normally don't get to see, and that is as refreshing as new material can get.

Michael Burnham as a lead character is like the young William Riker (Next Generation) receiving his own series (or as the second episode, "Battle at the Binary Stars," will help make clear, perhaps Voyager's Tom Paris), an officer who jeopardizes their career believing they're doing the right thing.  When Riker did it, it sent a signal to his future commanding officer, Jean-Luc Picard, that he was a valuable asset as first officer.  Ironically, Burnham has that rank already when she does it.

The circumstances are actually, in this first episode, perhaps more fascinating, a return to the Klingons as the defining alien menace of the franchise.  The original series introduced them as a Cold War analogy; in Next Generation they took on new vitality as a rich and vibrant culture all their own, capable of considerable nuance and even greater fan appeal than they'd enjoyed previously.  Their appearances in the original six Kirk movies culminated in The Undiscovered Country, which built on the Next Generation appearances to not only conclude the Cold War analogy but settle once and for all whether or not they were mere enemies, or something greater.  But it was the culture more than anything that grew in that time.  In Discovery, it seems, this legacy continues to blossom.

The idea of Klingon houses is not a new one, but never before has it been featured so prominently and in such detail.  The use of the Klingon language itself, and how it sounds when employed at length, joins with the houses to create a new kind of analogy, one I would argue is more intriguing than the Cold War: these Klingons are Native Americans.  The name of the series itself calls to mind the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, which was one of the earliest sustained contacts between the emerging American nation and the tribes on whose land it was built upon.  While the story begun in "Vulcan Hello" is not about exploration, the spirit of contention that still exists today between Americans and Native American tribes, who like the Klingons here once sought to unite under common leaders, is indeed relevant.

Burnham herself is at odds with competing natures.  She is a Starfleet officer, and yet her loyalties lie with the Vulcans who adopted her, embodied by Sarek, one of the two most famous, and original, Vulcans in Star Trek lore.  It's familiar franchise territory for Vulcan logic to be at odds with Starfleet directives, surely, but this will also be one of the most direct representations of that trend outside of T'Pol joining Archer's formative crew in Enterprise

The feel of Discovery, at least in "Vulcan Hello," seems to call on The Animated Series, the last time the franchise was truly uninhibited in its visual vision.  Great strides in that regard can be found in the last two live action series, Voyager and Enterprise, and yet nothing in them can match the mere glimpse of a truly alien, and convincingly so, being we see early in the episode.  There also seems to be something of "Beyond the Farthest Star," the first episode of The Animated Series, to how the Klingon encounter begins, and perhaps more ironically still, a callback to The Motion Picture in how Burnham finds out what her crew has really come across.  The first Star Trek movie has been accused of a lot of sins, but it's also one of the most visually imaginative adventures in the whole franchise.

This is a bold beginning.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Callbacks to Star Trek lore can be found throughout.
  • series - It's the all-important first episode.
  • series - Establishes the lead character, Michael Burnham, quite well.
  • essential - Has the feel of showing something we've never quite gotten to see before.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

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