MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A LOT SNARKY ANDORRANS AND ORIONS … AND POSSIBLE ICE CREAM CARGO
Good lord but isn’t it good to have Star Trek: Discovery back on our screens of choice?!
Much of that joy stems from the fact that we have waited 18 long months to get to this point, but it’s also because this show continues time and again to brilliantly push the boundaries of the type of storytelling that the much-loved franchise can deliver.
Star Trek has always been about big stories told with innate humanity and heart and while modern incarnations like Discovery are more gritty and real world that some fans are used to – though as Deep Space Nine and quite a few episodes of Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise showed to superlative effect, never entirely alien (ahem) in the context of Roddenberry’s hopefully idealistic view of the future – it has stuck close to telling stories that move you as much as they stun and amaze you.
Much of that impact from Discovery at least comes from the character of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the beating, moral heart of the show who excels in the opening episode of the third season, “That Hope is You, Pt. 1”, where, in a bid to thwart Control’s attempt to take over the universe for the coldblooded glory of all AI-life, she has travelled 930 years into the future to the messy environs of 3188.
That descriptor possibly needs some clarification.
One thing that isn’t messy are the nano-clean lines of modern internal architecture where furniture creates itself and dissolves itself depending on the need for its use at certain times of the day, and the spaceships which are as sleek and beautiful as you’d hope after almost 1000 years of technological progress.
What isn’t so neat and pretty is the universe itself, which, approximately 120 years after the Federation has become a dilithium-starved shadow of its former noble, glorious self, is basically a free-for-all for anyone looking to make a dishonest buck or seize a little, or a lot, power for themselves.
Burnham (“Science Officer, USS Discovery, serial number SC0064-0974SHN”; this rank, file and serial number mantra becomes vitally important in the episode’s final inspiring, heartfelt scene), as you might imagine, especially since she has no way back to her own time in the 23rd century (now safe for biological lifeforms of all kinds thanks to the sacrifice of Burnham and the crew of Discovery who have come with her to the future) is shocked that the future, the one she thought she saved, is looking a whole lot worse for wear.
You can tell on Martin-Green’s astonishingly evocative face, upon which are affectingly written emotions soul-wrenchingly large and heart-stoppingly small, that she is expecting a future in which the Federation is as robust as ever and in which the vision it stands for is stronger than ever.
Instead, she finds a place where the Federation, thanks to an event just over a century earlier which is described in the episode but whose revelatory qualities are best left to the watching, is down to a few ships, loyal adherents who are dismissed as sad “true believers” and a lingering though fading sense that we can be better.
When she first meets Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajaka), he appears to be everything wrong with the future she didn’t expect and initially most vociferously does not want.
But in ways that speak to her openness to change and her willingness to roll with whatever comes her way, Burnham soon changes her mind, finding out that the thief and rogue she first meets actually has more of the Federation and its lofty ideals in him than he is willing to admit.
He does, of course, try to double-cross her at the Mercantile in the city of Requiem on the planet she lands on – not the one, by the way, that she wants and not where she suspects Discovery may be, if in fact they are anywhere at all, time travel not being an exact science, and in post Temporal War 3188, am illegal one – since has tons of antique tech which worth a ton and he is, by how own admission, “space broke”, but they do eventually come together after Burnham is hilariously and intensely drugged during an interrogation, much laser gunfire happens and one of the best chase scenes every witnessed happens courtesy of personal transporters which are, as you might expect, pretty damn cool.
(How funny is the interrogation with Burnham high on truth serum? Pretty hilarious – check this out:
“You guys have a real problem if your couriers are stealing stuff and then colliding with thousand-year-old women in space!”
“What cargo was he hauling?” (Orion guard)
“I don’t know, but it was temperature-sensitive, and really valuable, so it’s probably ice cream.”
And the gloriously good part is how well Martin-Green delivers a performance that is comedically perfect and emotionally roiling in one.)
What makes “That Hope is You, Pt 1” such a powerful, funny, inspiring, disorienting, finely-tuned piece of brilliant TV, is the way it sets the scene so incredibly quickly and the inhabits it so fully and completely.
In no time flat, we understand how wondrous and awful the future is all at once, and how different to what Burnham was expecting – watching her struggle to adapt to a different place than she expected is intensely good to watch as is her ability to adapt when it becomes obvious it’s not going to get better quickly and Discovery is not going to come riding in to save her (not that she needs that but some help would be nice; that’s where “Book” proves invaluable … eventually) – how it all looks and works and the great leaps Burnham will have to make to operate there.
The one scene that really brings it all home though is at the end when Book takes her to meet Aditya Sahil (Adil Hussain), a heartwarmingly loyal “true believer” who, for 40 years, has stoically and with unstinting patience and inspiring loyalty kept vigil on an old Federation comms station, just as his father and grandfather did before him.
He admits that he is non-commissioned, meaning he can’t unfurl the flag that sits carefully folded in a box that appears before him, but as Burnham observes, he is every bit as much an officer as she is and as she commissions him, the bond between these two officers of the Federation is the stuff of which Star Trek is made of and for which it is so deeply beloved.
You would have to have a heart of concrete – although in this energy-starved future where the Gorn have somehow managed to lay waste to two light years of subspace, dilithium would be much better and far more useful – not to be deeply, intensely, beautifully moved by the sense of relief Burnham feels at finding the Federation has not been vanquished entirely and seeing Sahil’s quiet joy that his loyalty, his selfless years of service have been rewarded so fully and completely (“That hope is you, Commander Burnham … I don’t know how much of the Federation still exists. I simply do my part to keep it alive. Our numbers are few. Our spirit is undiminished.”).
It’s one of the standout scenes in any TV series ever, and quite apart from the sheer humanity of it all, it encapsulates what makes Star Trek as a whole, and Discovery in particular work so well, which is that while the world may go to hell and people may make fun of quaint idealism, there is nothing ridiculous about loyalty, truth and holding true and fast to what you believe in.
There is great power in that, no matter what the naysayers might say, and watching this be recognised and celebrated by Discovery in an episode where Burnham goes through a LOT, and finishes it still unsure where her crew is (both where, and crucially, when) makes you glad that the show is but also excited to see where 3188 Burnham may take us.
Odds are it will be somewhere amazing, personal transporters and all …
Coming up this season …