*This post contains heavy spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, and mild spoilers for episode 1 of Enterprise*
Star Trek: Enterprise – “Broken Bow” (season 1, episode 1)
Written by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga; directed by James L. Conway; first aired in 2001
In the 22nd century, Captain Jonathan Archer takes command of the Enterprise NX-01, a prototype starship made possible by Zefram Cochrane’s invention of warp drive technology, and by the work of Archer’s own father. Believing that his father’s work was unfairly held back by the Vulcans, Archer convinces Starfleet Command to allow him to embark on a mission to return an injured Klingon from Earth to his home world, in spite of objections from the Vulcan High Command. But, since Enterprise wouldn’t actually be able to find the Klingon home world without the Vulcans’ star charts, Archer is forced to accept a Vulcan officer, Sub-commander T’Pol, as his second-in-command and science officer; awkwardness, hostility, and racism ensue. Once the full crew has been assembled, Enterprise sets off on its mission, only to be attacked by a cabal of genetically engineered Suliban, and pulled into the middle of a temporal cold war … whatever that is.
Star Trek: Discovery – “The Vulcan Hello” & “Battle at the Binary Stars” (season 1, episodes 1 & 2)
Teleplay for episode 1 by Bryan Fuller and Akiva Goldsman; story by Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman; directed by David Semel. Teleplay for episode 2 by Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts; story by Bryan Fuller; directed by Adam Kane. First aired in 2017.
In the 23rd century, Commander Michael Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans, has spent seven years on the starship Shenzhou as first officer to Captain Philippa Georgiou. They’re at the edge of Federation space, investigating a damaged communications array, when a rare encounter with a group of Klingons brings back traumatic memories for Burnham. The Klingons’ leader, T’Kuvma, wants to make the Empire great again by uniting its ruling houses against a common foe … and it’s Starfleet’s bad luck that he responds very, very poorly to the greeting, “We come in peace.” Knowing from past experience how badly an encounter with Klingons can go, Burnham takes matters into her own hands, risking her career, and her friendship with Captain Georgiou, in a desperate attempt to prevent all-out war with the Klingons.
Last time, we looked at the first episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space 9, both of which are set roughly a century after the events of the Original Series. This allowed both series to expand the Trek universe, introducing new technologies and alien races while further developing familiar themes, and addressing some new topics (like religion, for instance, which was rarely even mentioned in Trek until DS9 made Bajoran spirituality a central part of its ongoing storylines). It’s striking that the two most recent Star Trek series have chosen to go the other way. Both take place earlier than the Original Series: Discovery, a decade before TOS; Enterprise, roughly a century before that. Both feature technology (and from a production standpoint, costuming, makeup, and effects) that certainly doesn’t look less advanced than what we saw in TOS, but that doesn’t bother me, personally; if TOS showed us the 23rd century as imagined from the 1960s, then it’s reasonable to expect that Enterprise and Discovery would show us the 22nd and 23rd centuries as imagined from 2001 and 2017, respectively. But then, that raises the question: why set these series before TOS, whose vision of the future, iconic as it still is, was very much a product of an earlier time? I understand the business logic behind linking these series to the most widely recognized version of Trek, of course, and I also understand the geeky impulse to fill in the blank spaces in a fictional universe … but I also know that such business logic and geeky impulses are just as likely to taint a franchise as they are to give it new life (do I even need to mention Episodes 1 to 3 of Star Wars here?). For these series to be worth making, and watching, as prequels, they must have not just new information to give us about the history of Starfleet and the Federation, but new things to say about it — new ways of looking at Star Trek as a whole.
“Broken Bow” starts off showing us a different perspective on Trek in its very first scene, when we are introduced to Jonathon Archer as a child, putting together a model starship with his father, Henry. Young Jonathon wonders whether the actual starship Henry is designing will be bigger than “Ambassador Pointy’s” ship, referring to the Vulcan ambassador, Soval. Henry rebukes his son for the slur against Vulcans, and points out that Soval has been helping him with his work. But Jonathon continues to repeat rhetoric he’s been fed by a friend, about the Vulcans holding back human progress on warp speed travel. Henry insists the Vulcans have valid reasons for being cautious, even if he doesn’t fully understand those reasons. But when we meet his son as an adult, 30 years later, Captain Jonathon Archer’s view of Vulcans has only gotten worse. He still blames them for holding back humans in general, and his father in particular. In a meeting with members of Starfleet Command and the Vulcan High Command, he is outwardly hostile to the Vulcans present, telling T’Pol on their first meeting, “You have no idea how much I’m restraining myself from knocking you on your ass.” He even goes full Twitter troll on Soval, still an ambassador: after provoking Soval to the point of shouting, “Listen to me, you’re making a mistake,” Archer smugly responds, “When your logic doesn’t work, you raise your voice? You’ve been on Earth too long.” It’s so perfectly troll-ish, I almost expected his next line to be, “So much for the ‘tolerant’ left.”
Some level of tension between Vulcans and humans is nothing new to Trek, and neither is a smattering of intolerant remarks about ‘pointy ears’ and ‘repressed emotions’. What is mostly new here is outright, open conflict between the two species, and I’d say the level of intolerance that’s shown in this episode – not just by random humans, but by Starfleet officers on duty – is a far cry from what Spock had to put up with on TOS. The human-Vulcan conflict continues when T’Pol becomes a member of the Enterprise’s crew; there’s friction between her and the crew in general, but her most awkward moments are with Archer and the ship’s engineer, Trip Tucker. I’m assuming that the conversations between the three of them are meant, at least on some level, to pay homage to the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle on TOS, but that comparison only serves to amplify the awkwardness here. While Archer at least attempts to rein himself in at times and show T’Pol a level of civility he didn’t at Starfleet headquarters, Trip is, frankly, insufferable. At best, he’s like a bratty teenager around T’Pol, making little digs at her Vulcan customs and mannerisms that aren’t anywhere near as funny as he thinks they are; at worst, he’s an aggressive bully, yelling in her face and being openly insubordinate to her on the bridge (all of which makes the exploitative, laughably obvious, yelling-at-each-other-while-rubbing-miscellaneous-medical-gel-on-their-nearly-naked-bodies-to-create-the-illusion-of-sexual-tension scene between T’Pol and Trip pretty uncomfortable).
Since it’s probably obvious by this point that the human-Vulcan conflict in this episode doesn’t entirely work for me, I’d like to make something clear. I’m not opposed to the idea of a version of Trek where humans and Vulcans are in conflict; nor am I opposed to the idea of a Trek prequel in which humans haven’t reached the level of utopian enlightenment that they will in later centuries. I mean, I’m not necessarily convinced that version of Trek is necessary, but I’m not convinced it’s an inherently bad idea, either. My issue here is not with the underlying ideas, but with their execution. It would absolutely be possible to make a TV show about humans being intolerant toward other species without endorsing that kind of intolerance (again, I’m not sure if Trek is the best universe in which to tell that story … but I am a fan of the relatively dark DS9, so I’m not ruling it out). I just don’t think that’s what “Broken Bow” is actually doing.
I think the show thinks that Trip is a charming rascal, not the obnoxious, immature bully I think he is. I think the show sees Archer’s grudge against the Vulcans as understandable, if ultimately needing to be cast off so that he can move forward. I see it as entitled whining. Maybe I’m missing something here, but it hardly seems like the Vulcans were ‘holding back’ his father (or humankind in general) by not agreeing to share all of their knowledge and technology, just because the humans wanted it; I mean, why would they do that? Maybe it’s just me, but when I watch “Broken Bow”, I find myself thinking that the Vulcans, tactless as they are, probably have a point about humans not being as ready for space exploration as they think they are. And that would be fine, except that I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of what the show wants me to think, just as I don’t think it wants me to find T’Pol more sympathetic and relatable than most human members of the crew (with one notable exception being Mayweather, who, cheap jokes about three-boobed aliens aside, has an intriguing backstory as someone who literally grew up on starships, and is, unlike the other humans, actually more at home in space than on Earth).
The conflict between Vulcan and human (or at least Starfleet) philosophies plays an important role in “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”, as well, though Discovery gives that conflict more nuance than Enterprise does (in its first episode, at least). We learn that Commander Burnham, though biologically human, was raised, or at least mentored, by Spock’s father, Sarek. And we’re shown, in flashback, that Burnham’s mannerisms were quite stereotypically Vulcan when she first arrived on the Shenzhou. When we first meet her, seven years later, she displays an open enthusiasm for her work that most Vulcans would likely hold back: when scanners show that Burnham’s heart rate is elevated during her spacewalk to investigate an unknown artifact, Captain Georgiou smiles and remarks, “She’s having fun.” But her ‘Vulcan side’ is clearly still a part of her, as we see in her tendency to quote exact numbers rather than rough approximations, and, most notably, when she uses logical reasoning to debate the ship’s computer into releasing her from the brig. Her early arguments with Saru, the Shenzhou’s Kelpien science officer, seem to show her human and Vulcan ‘sides’ working together: her rebuke of (what she sees as) Saru’s tendency to be overcautious – “You do understand that being afraid of everything means you learn nothing” – could be taken either as stereotypical Starfleet enthusiasm for exploration, or as a stereotypical Vulcan argument against letting one’s emotions, such as fear, cloud one’s judgement.
It turns out, though, that Saru wasn’t wrong; if the Shenzhou had played it safe and left the area without investigating the artifact, or had at least retreated after learning it belonged to the Klingons, the crew might have avoided disaster. Of course, we know that the Klingon T’Kuvma was determined to start a war with the Federation, one way or another; if the Shenzhou had withdrawn and saved itself, he likely would have found another way to do so, meaning that many lives would still have been lost, even if they weren’t the lives of the Shenzhou’s crew. But what might have truly prevented a war between the Klingons and the Federation was Burnham’s recommended course of action, based on the Vulcans’ approach to dealing with Klingons: to shoot first and ask questions later. We, the audience, know what Captain Georgiou, tragically, doesn’t – that the nationalistic rhetoric T’Kuvma is feeding his fellow Klingons hinges on his claim that Starfleet’s gestures toward peace mask their true, insidious intention to dilute and weaken Klingon identity. While it’s awfully convenient that he manages to predict her exact words, the fact remains that when Georgiou rejects Burnham’s recommendation to fire on T’Kuvma’s ship, and instead broadcasts the message, “We come in peace,” she is playing directly into his hands, in a way that both seems to prove his point and bolsters the image he has crafted for himself, as the prophetic reincarnation of the Klingons’ legendary hero, Kahless the Unforgettable. If the Shenzhou had fired first, his prediction would have been proven wrong, weakening his claims to be a prophet. Also, and maybe more importantly, a direct attack from the Shenzhou would have looked very different, to the leaders of the Klingon ruling houses, than the sneaky Starfleet tactics T’Kuvma warned them about … and maybe that would have been enough to stop them from joining his cause.
In “Broken Bow” (and, to be fair, in many episodes of Trek that came before it), Vulcan ‘logic’ is a weak strawman version of actual logic. It’s characterized as rigid and ideological, and T’Pol shows that she has the potential to fit in with the crew of the Enterprise only by changing her mind about things in the moment … by being ‘impulsive’, like a human. But, in reality, adjusting your approach to a situation as circumstances change is perfectly logical. In other words, the Vulcan logic that Burnham applies to the Klingon situation in “Hello/Battle” is true logic, not strawman logic: it shows that the Vulcans, generally known as pacifists, are willing to employ force against the Klingons because they’ve learned that such a show of force is likely to actually reduce the harm done (thereby living up to the spirit of their pacifist ideology, if not the law of it). Starfleet’s ideology, on the other hand, seems to have grown more rigid since Archer’s time, and it’s that rigid ideology that prevents them from adapting on the fly in their encounter with the Klingons. Georgiou rejects Burnham’s suggestion to fire on T’Kuvma’s ship because “Starfleet doesn’t fire first”, and even after the Klingons fire first, attacking the Federation in Federation space, the Starfleet admiral who arrives to coordinate the Federation forces is insistent on negotiating peacefully with the Klingons, badly misreading the situation: “If we’re fighting,” he tells T’Kuvma, after many Starfleet lives have already been lost, “we’re not talking.” And about thirty seconds later, his ship is horrifically impaled by a cloaked Klingon vessel.
To be clear, I’m not saying I disagree with the ideology of Starfleet as it exists in Burnham’s time, or that I think Georgiou was wrong to uphold that ideology and reject Burnham’s advice. Quite the opposite, in fact: I think Starfleet’s principles here are admirable, much closer to the “evolved” state of humanity Picard describes in the first episode of TNG. And I don’t think Georgiou made the wrong choice, exactly, no matter how bad the results – she doesn’t know everything the audience knows, after all, and it’s reasonable for her to think that the clearly traumatized Burnham may not be thinking straight when she advises attacking the Klingons. The fact that your principles leave you vulnerable doesn’t automatically mean you should reject those principles, and the impulse to do so is part of what drives people to follow someone like T’Kuvma.
What I am saying is that “Hello/Battle” allows its ideological conflicts, in general, to be ambiguous in a way I wish “Broken Bow” did … and in a way that really does seem to add something new to our understanding of Starfleet, and Star Trek in general. The contrast between the Vulcan and Starfleet approaches to dealing with the Klingons isn’t presented as a simple (and lopsided) dichotomy, like the contrast between Soval’s and Archer’s approaches to dealing with the injured Klingon. Where “Broken Bow” never seriously suggests that Archer might be wrong to deviate from his original mission parameters to pursue the Suliban, “Hello/Battle” leaves it entirely up to us, I think, to decide whether Burnham’s choice to mutiny against her captain – and her friend – was justified (something I still haven’t made up my own mind about). And where “Broken Bow” ends with the assumption that it’s unambiguously a good thing for Starfleet to finally be exploring the universe (despite the concerns of the Vulcan High Command), “Hello/Battle” leaves us with some real, complex dilemmas, which I hope Discovery will continue to explore as its first season continues. Should Starfleet stick to its principles, if those principles are exactly what allowed T’Kuvma to start his war? What should Burnham’s principles be, now that her own principled stand against Georgiou has left her a court-martialed outcast? And how can Starfleet continue to be an organization of “explorers, not soldiers,” while they’re at war with an empire led by fanatics who hear “We come in peace” as a threat?
Next time, for the first time, we’ll compare two episodes from the same series — sort of — when we look at not just one, but two pilot episodes for the Original Series: “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”!