This episode’s title, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” puts me in mind of one of the greatest scenes from Party Down, wherein a group of cater-waiters puts on a spontaneous table reading of their co-worker’s sci-fi script at Steve Guttenberg’s house. The first draft of the script is all jargon and no character development, and one of the actors has to stumble through the line, “Thread a binary star, DuKlark? You’ll kill us all!” There are perhaps more moments that resemble that table read throughout Discovery’s second episode than are strictly optimal, although I remain optimistic that the rest of the season will move in a better direction. The first two episodes function as a prologue to the real action of the series, namely Burnham’s back-from-the-figuratively-dead arc after the loss of her rank and the death of her captain.
Yes, the fact that Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou is so swiftly dispatched (stabbed by T’Kuvma near the end of the episode) makes me anxious about how Discovery plans to handle Burnham’s development. I know that it’s fairly common for a show to kill off a big-name actor in a prominent role in the first few episodes to establish that Things Are Serious and Anyone Can Die. While there can certainly be a place for such a choice — it worked on Oz with Dino Ortolani back in 1997 — I’m genuinely bummed to have lost such a fantastic actor so soon, particularly when a significant part of Discovery’s initial marketing focused on having two incredibly talented women of color as the main leads.
On the positive side of the ledger, this episode gives us a moment of restrained Vulcan whimsy, which I am always extremely here for, when in a flashback to Burnham’s arrival on Shenzhou, a clearly amused Sarek flicks an eyebrow in the direction of his hairline and whispers a sly “behave” at her before transporting off-ship. In that moment I felt truly alive. Burnham immediately slams into the wall of Captain Georgiou’s unrestrained good cheer, and sets about reminding us that Vulcans are serious by going full Belay That Handshake, What Is This Earth Concept You Call Friendliness, I Came Here to Chew Gum and Identify Inefficiency and I’m All Out of Gum at her.
Back in the present, T’Kuvma, the leader of the most belligerent Klingon contingent, is attempting to convince the holographic representatives of the High Council to resurrect the Empire and engage in all-out war with Starfleet. T’Kuvma, like Nelson Muntz, is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an elaborate gold cloak: He’s hell-bent on restoring his family’s honor, but he’s also quick to accept nameless and honorless Klingons under his banner, and his extreme devotion to Kahless apparently leads him to flout traditional burial conventions. (Oh my God, Mallory, BE COOL, this show is not about the specifics of conventional Klingon death customs.) Also, Voq is there and his hand seems fine, which was a real relief to me, because I have decided to love him unrestrainedly and always will. Voq loves T’Kuvma and is here to defend him to the council; Voq loves T’Kuvma’s period-inappropriate cloaking device and his whole “the Federation’s existence is a threat to our unity and also I hate Andorians” vibe in general. The Klingons ultimately fire on the Shenzhou, and things almost immediately go pear-shaped for her crew, as well as the rest of the reinforcements from Starfleet.
The Shenzhou’s ship computer helpfully chirps out various percentage levels of damage at various intervals, while a concussed, confused Ensign Connor has a disorienting conversation with Burnham in the brig. “Why are we fighting?” he asks. “We’re explorers, not fighters.” That is a great question, Connor! I hope it encourages the writers to develop some non-martial plotlines and get to work on the Discovery equivalent of “Darmok.” I know Discovery is set in the Prime universe, rather than the alternate timeline of the new Trek movies, but I can’t help but feel like Star Trek Into Darkness quite recently explored the limits of Starfleet’s commitment to peaceful exploration in the wake of aggression.
That’s part of why I was so thrilled to see Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd — one of the most ridiculous, Falstafian (is that a word? IT IS NOW) figures from Star Trek: The Original Series — turn up in the preview of things to come at the episode’s end. Discovery is set ten years before the events of TOS, and as such is limited in the same manner of all prequels. There are certain plot points, certain developments, certain milestones that either have to be met or subverted in a way that remains canon-compliant, making it a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to TOS’s Hamlet. And Harry Mudd is exactly the sort of person who belongs in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He’s amoral, extremely skeptical of Starfleet and its aims, and quick to expose anything that smacks of hypocrisy or impracticality. That’s not to say that Discovery ought to become The Harry Mudd Criticizes Our Heroes Hour, of course, but I hope the show plans to do slightly more with this precursor to the Klingon Federation war than mere handwringing over, followed by full-throated support of, Starfleet’s militarism.
At any rate! Burnham’s fears were all extremely justified: Starfleet’s reinforcements are almost all completely wiped out, and even though Captain Georgiou manages to take out T’Kuvma before dying, it becomes apparent that his death will turn him into a martyr and a rallying point for other Klingon factions seeking war. Before he dies, he declares himself the reincarnation of Kahless, and Voq calls him T’Kuvma the Unforgettable, which I find adorable. Bless Voq. I, too, share his desire to completely subordinate myself to the unattainable dead.
Meanwhile, Burnham gets to have a charming little back-and-forth with the brig’s security computer after she fails to convince it that “hey, most of the spaceship around me is now missing” poses a serious enough threat to initiate ethical evacuation protocol. She finally debate-teams it into opening a small hole in the containment field and uses the resulting depressurization to “shoot her through to the blast door.” At this point I texted my little brother, who is a physics grad student, and asked, “Is that how depressurization works?” He’s taking his doctoral exams this week and didn’t answer, so I’m going with: Sure!
If you’re keeping track of Famous Quotes All Star Trek Shows Are Legally Obligated to Feature, this week we managed to knock Sun Tzu off the list. Keep your eyes peeled for something from Machiavelli and something a non-humanoid alien will cite as “from one of your Earth poets, I believe”; the non-humanoid alien will almost certainly be referring to Shakespeare, Browning, or MAYBE Dickens, although the unexpected Louisa May Alcott quote in the first episode (“sculpture is crystallized spirituality”) definitely knocked me back for a minute.
After the battle, Burnham is drawn up before a Starfleet tribunal and pleads guilty to charges of mutiny and assaulting a fellow officer, declares in a moment of open self-recrimination that she’s lost everything only to learn that “I am the enemy,” and receives a sentence of life imprisonment. Also of import: During a long-distance mind meld, Sarek casually reveals that part of his katra, or soul, has been lodged inside of Burnham’s consciousness for years, which is an enormous Vulcan deal and there is almost no reason I can think of that this would ever 1) happen, 2) happen without Sarek ever mentioning it or Burnham noticing it, and 3) WHAT. Are they t’hy’len? Does Sarek have to have a serious talk with Amanda Grayson? Are they going to have to do a partial fal-tor-pan from across the universe? The third Star Trek movie revolved entirely around the problem of shared katra, the psychic trauma and enormous difficulty of restoring one’s mind-consciousness-spirit to wholeness, but I guess Burnham just … has part of Sarek’s pure and utter being hanging out in her human brain and things will be fine? I guess? There is no one to text about this. My brother has not learned about the fal-tor-pan as part of his physics studies.
COMING NEXT: We meet Jason Isaacs’s Captain Gabriel Lorca, I continue to miss Michelle Yeoh, Burnham gets mysteriously loopholed out of her life imprisonment, and someone else’s eye turns into a galaxy again. If anyone wants to talk me down from my fal-tor-pan panic, my DMs are open.