September 24th, 25th if you live outside of North America, showed anxious Trekkies a glimpse of what Star Trek: Discovery’s creative team has up its sleeve. Viewers met a few members of the U.S.S. Shenzhou, including Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Although there appeared to be several other unnamed characters on the bridge, the only other crew member we met was the Shenzhou’s science officer, Lt. Saru (Doug Jones).
Although the premiere included two episodes, if you were lucky enough to figure out how to watch them, viewers still haven’t seen either the U.S.S. Discovery, which the show is named after, or her crew. Presumably, viewers will meet the Discovery’s captain and crew in next week’s episode with the two-part premiere acting as a kind of prologue. This prologue gave viewers a sense of Cmdr. Burnham’s motivations and personal history.
It’s always a good idea for any show to flesh out their lead role early on and allow the audience time to develop a connection with him or her. But rather than getting me to like Cmdr. Burnham, this two-part premiere had me wondering how this impulsive and, frankly, racist officer ever made it out of Starfleet Academy. I’m not going to recap these two episodes. Instead, I’ll just talk about my impressions of the show’s somewhat awkward start.
Discovery: Michael Burnham – The Vulcan Hello
The name of part one of Discovery’s premiere was entitled “The Vulcan Hello.” This title refers to a line of Cmdr. Burnham’s: after communicating with fan favourite Ambassador Sarek (James Frain), Burnham informs Captain Georgiou that the Vulcans used a particular method when opening relations with the Klingons. Rather than try to open up a dialogue with any given Klingon vessel, Burnham claims that the Vulcans would open fire on Klingon ships, showing force and preserving the lives of their own officers.
The ethical problems with this form of “diplomacy” notwithstanding, one wonders how any Vulcan would think these actions logical. As a bunch of logic nerds, the Vulcan High Command would be familiar with the problem of induction. Very briefly, inductive reasoning assumes that because something has happened a specific way in the past then it will happen the same way in the future. The problem of induction points out that this isn’t always the case.
Using inductive reasoning, if two Klingon ships in two different scenarios open fire on a non-Klingon ship, then we assume that a third Klingon ship will open fire on any other ship in any given scenario. The problem with inductive reasoning, though, is that the status quo often changes. Even the sun’s rising or the change of the seasons can be interrupted by some external cause — climate change or a reversal of the magnetic poles of the Earth, for instance.
Instead, what Burnham calls the “Vulcan Hello” indicates a formalized cultural bias based on emotional concerns, the desire to preserve the lives of Vulcan diplomats. One wonders how the eminently logical Vulcans could’ve missed such an obvious logical fallacy and based their diplomatic methods on problematic reasoning humans identified over 2,000 years ago.
Discovery: Michael Burnham – A Helluva Fly-by!
Now since I said I’d talk about why I dislike Cmdr. Burnham, I’ll skip the rest of the Intro to Philosophy refresher and get on with it. If you’ve watched other versions of Star Trek, you’re probably familiar with how Starfleet operates: commands of starships aren’t necessarily given to the officer with the most seniority or a spotless attendance record. Instead, Starfleet Command uses its best judgement, weighing several factors, to determine which officers should receive the privilege and responsibility that come with commanding a starship. Although this process isn’t perfect, and apparently causes captains to turn alien civilizations into ham-handed analogues for periods of Earth’s history, it does have its benefits.
Jim Kirk, for instance, becomes the youngest Starfleet officer to sit in the big chair after proving he’s a very capable person who changes the rules of any engagement if they don’t suit him. That he cheats and reprograms the Kobayashi Maru test shows his superiors that he thinks outside the box and will always reject a no-win scenario. That said, even the often impetuous Captain Kirk tends to respect the chain of command.
If the creative team was trying to show how much Michael Burnham has in common with Jim Kirk or Will Riker by having Burnham ignore the original parameters of the first mission we see her undertake — she was ordered to do a fly-by of the Klingon vessel, not land on it and engage a hostile force — then mutiny, and finally plant a warhead on a combatant’s corpse while her enemy retrieves their dead, then the creative team expects too much too fast. Instead, Burnham comes off as bloodthirsty, wildly impulsive, especially for someone who was raised by Vulcans, and as someone who has little respect for the chain of command or Starfleet’s tenets.
Discovery: Michael Burnham – Michael’s Journey
If this prologue is meant to give viewers a sense of Cmdr. Burnham’s past and act as a low point in her career, then it did its job well. Seeing Burnham convicted of her crimes and sentenced to life in prison seemed a fitting punishment for someone who knocked out her commanding officer and engaged in all-out hostilities with an alien culture’s funerary rights vessel. That said, the show will be pretty boring, and pretty un-Star Trek if the entire plot involves Cmdr. Burnham’s imprisonment. But, based on the fact that viewers still haven’t met the Discovery or her crew, I doubt that will be the case.
Instead, I hope that the rest of this season shows viewers Cmdr. Burnham’s journey from her starting point as an impulsive and culturally biased go-getter to becoming a reflective officer that uses her instincts and her reason to guide her. In other words, it’d be great to see her go from being a questionable first officer to being a great captain. That would be a journey worth watching and one worthy of Gene Roddenberry’s creative vision. An ongoing show about Burnham shooting first and asking questions later, based on bad logic from Sarek, wouldn’t be.