Mark Watches ‘Discovery’: S01E01 – The Vulcan Hello

In the first episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, HELL YEAH, I LOVED THIS, LET’S FUCKING GOOOOOOO! Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start watching Star Trek again.

Trigger Warning: For talk of racism

HELLO EVERYONE! Thank you for your patience and understanding as I took a brief break from Mark Watches. I managed to get my deadlines down to two from… lord. Seven? It was a lot. I mean, it’s still a lot, but at now it’s a bit more manageable. Many fun things are in the pipeline and I can’t wait to tell you about them. 

But for now! I’m back! Star Trek is back!!!! I AM SO EXCITED. As is the case whenever I start a new show, I just want to put up a refresher about how Mark Watches works for any newbies who find these reviews.

1) Spoilers are not allowed in any form on Mark Watches. Please refrain from ever posting (in normal text) any sort of spoiler or reference to future storylines or developments while commenting on this site. This rule is probably a lot more strict than you’re used to, so if you’re warned about spoilers or if your comment is edited because of it, trust me. This is for a reason. Please visit the Spoiler Policy for guidance.

2) You may, however, post spoilers in rot13. You will inevitably see what looks like gibberish in the comments. We use rot13 to cipher all possible spoilers so that y’all can still have a conversation about each episode if you’ve seen the entire show. Please cipher all spoilers.

3) Please read the Site Rules before commenting. My group of moderators and I try to make Mark Watches an exception to the rule when it comes to online conversations. This means that moderation is more evident here than other places. Please review the rules, as this is your only warning.

4) Mark Watches videos are attached as a link at the end of the post. They are $0.99 each, and you can download each video 15 times, meaning you can send them to friends or anyone else for free. The system is built to handle free downloads, so download away. The lovely folks over at Mark Spoils run a place called the Black Market where you can find extra downloads of videos in case you cannot afford them or don’t want to pay for them. It’s totally sanctioned (and adored!) by me, so go ahead! Test them out. It’s basically me sitting and yelling at my TV, and I cry a lot because reasons.

I also like to talk about what little I might know about a show, and in this case, it was just casting. I knew Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Rapp, and Wilson Cruz were on the show, but that’s literally it. I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WHEN THIS TOOK PLACE. (I still don’t quite know for certain, but I think some elements—like the appearance of the Klingons and the presence of Sarek—place it before the events of the Original Series. Maybe?) God, this was so fun to experience, and I forgot how fun it was to know LITERALLY NOTHING. Well, I suppose that’s not quite true; I had the general knowledge of the Star Trek universe, which this show fits into while still being a very new thing.

And it’s so new!!! The special effects! The uniforms! The species! While there’s certainly value in discussing those new things (and I will), I just have to say that this pilot is the wildest, most chaotic pilot in Star Trek history, and I’m just so deeply here for it. I think that’s partially achieved with a passing familiarity with the universe, since “The Vulcan Hello” does a bold thing by not explaining… shit. Anything??? There’s almost none of that onboarding of Star Trek terms and worldbuilding I was sort of expecting here. The transporter is just there, as are the comms, as is the hierarchal structure of the crew onboard the Shenzhou. We’re just supposed to know these things, which allows the story to instead focus on building characters.

To me, that’s the most incredible thing about this pilot. I cannot believe how much character work was done here in forty minutes. IT WAS ASTOUNDING. That goes for the three main focuses: Saru, a Kelpien whose backstory is both emotionally crushing and profoundly fascinating to me; Captain Philippa Georgiou, who manages a mixture of humor and authority that reminded me of Sisko, though she has literally nothing else in common with that character; and Michael Burnham, WHO I AM READY TO WRITE ENTIRE NOVEL’S WORTH OF COMMENTARY ABOUT. Look, I am going to admit that there are some racial optics in this episode that made me very uncomfortable, not just in terms of human vs alien species, but the way in which metaphorical or literal examples of racism appear. 

I’ll get to that in a second, because first, I have to talk about Burnham. A HUMAN RAISED ON VULCAN AMONG VULCANS WHO IS TRYING TO EMULATE VULCAN CULTURE. I was already enamored with Burnham’s characterization before that twist because I found her dynamic with the captain utterly fascinating. Here was a First Officer who was incredibly certain of herself, who spoke in logical certainties, and she was paired with someone whose certainty came across completely differently. Like… Captain Georgiou is so FUNNY. Not that Burnham wasn’t! But I loved that contrast as the two of them worked together on that desert planet to help the… Creposculans? Crepusculan? I am not sure I have that right. The scene is meant to demonstrate the goodwill of the Federation, of course, as these two solve a problem due to an accident, helping the non-humanoid species so they can survive an imminent drought. It also gave us a proper introduction to the two main characters, all of which is then IMMEDIATELY SUBVERTED AND DISSECTED.

That’s what was so, so thrilling about watching this unfold. This is a tense and taut thriller, y’all, and I commented multiple times on video that I loved the pacing of “The Vulcan Hello.” By establishing the personalities of the leads early on, this allowed the show to examine them further once the shit hit the fan, so to speak. That was achieved through what I am guessing is a very early version of the Klingons, which would place this pre-Original Series, yes? I also feel like maybe we’re about to finally delve into the initial conflict between the Federation and the Klingons that the other four series referenced but never quite explored??? It’s hard to tell quite yet, but I’m feeling close to the truth. In particular, it’s the repeated fact that the Klingons haven’t been seen in a century that makes me the most certain. Thus, that makes Burnham’s actions—which amount to a well-intentioned accident—the beginning of something horrific, right? 

There’s still a lot of guesswork on my part, since I don’t quite understand what that one specific Klingon is referring to. I know about Kahless, I know about the various houses in Klingon culture, but… what is this prophecy? What is the beacon? Why have the Klingons been in hiding for so long? Why do they cover the body of their ship with the coffins of their dead??? WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE? I’m comfortable not knowing, though, because it’s that ignorance that drives the suspense. The appearance of that strange thing in the debris field was already one of my favorite sci-fi tropes, one that Star Trek itself has used countless times and which generally results in a story that I end up loving. Then, of course, there were three varied reactions to it, each from Saru, Georgiou, and Burnham, representing three particular worldviews. AND THEN THERE’S THE TRUTH WHICH IS ACTUALLY HORRIFYING AND MESSED UP. I love this structure! I’m going to eat this up, y’all!

So, let’s delve into these three interpretations of the events of the “beacon,” as I think that’s where “The Vulcan Hello” shines best. And isn’t some of the best Star Trek happening at the intersection of science and humanity? This beacon—which no one knows is a beacon until it is too late—is a test of Federation principles for the captain. Georgiou sticks to those principles throughout the episode, committed to non-violence, respect, and fairness. In many ways, I found her to represent the ideals of the Federation to a T. (In some cases, I think Saru qualifies for that, too, since he is so insistent on following protocol when Burnham wants to flout it.) It’s clear that she is a mentor figure to Burnham, too, which makes the eventual insubordination sting all the more. 

Saru, however, doesn’t just represent playing it safe. There’s that moment where Burnham chides Saru for being so afraid, which was absolutely an interesting choice for a Science Officer on a starship. Why had they done that? AND THEN IT WAS ANSWERED IN THE MOST CHILLING WAY POSSIBLE. So, I know almost nothing about the Kelpien species except what Saru tells Burnham here: that his species has the ability to sense the coming of death. Thus, his fear is grounded in something completely different than what I expected. It’s such a fascinating choice that is utilized to drop the audience further into a pit of dread. 

But what does that mean for the show at large? I don’t know quite yet, and I’m absolutely interested in seeing an exploration of Saru’s characterization. Is he a refugee? How did he end up in Starfleet? What about other members of his race? 

I just adore that I feel this way about these characters so early, though. I want to know EVERYTHING humanly possible about them, and that includes my favorite character here: Michael Burnham. Again: A HUMAN WHOSE PARENTS WERE KILLED BY KLINGONS WHO WAS RAISED BY VULCANS. I??? Can’t??? Deal??? It’s done so well in what little we see here of her life on Vulcan and with Sarek. (Does that mean… we might see Spock? Because that’s his DAD.) The Vulcans prize themselves for their ability to suppress their emotions, so that reveal provides a new context for Burnham’s actions in the episode, especially her insistence that they need to deal with the re-appearance of the Klingons like the Vulcans did. (That being said… I still think it was really clumsy to have a white man criticize a Black woman for being potentially racist. Like… did no one think through the optics of that?) In Burnham, we have a classic Star Trek trope—that of a character caught between worlds—used in a refreshing, subversive way. In some sense, Saru fulfills that role, but so does Burnham, who is human on a ship of mostly humans, YET IS STILL AN OUTSIDER!!! It’s so fucking smart, y’all, and then there’s a second level to it. I see Burnham’s impulsive insubordination to be an expression of what Vulcan logic looks like in a non-Vulcan person. Because logically, her decisions might make sense if they were somehow ported over to a Vulcan, but I couldn’t ignore that as much as Burnham was trying to suppress her emotions, she was still failing to do so. Even when Georgiou was privately reprimanding her for subverting her authority on the bridge, we could all see that emotion playing out on Burnham’s face. (Gods, y’all, Sonequa Martin-Green is such a tremendous actress, and seeing her play against the queen that is Michelle Yeoh? HOW ARE WE SO BLESSED TO WITNESS THIS?) 

Thus, her decision to use the nerve pinch on Georgiou is DISASTROUS, but made logical sense to her. It was also the most genuinely shocking twist here, of many shocking twists, because… well, shit. Stuff like this doesn’t happen in the first episode of Star Trek??? Again, this pilot is just chaos!!! (I LOVE CHAOS.)

I’m hooked, to be entirely honest. I don’t think this is perfect; I’m curious where some of the other characters are, since some of the cast wasn’t here? (There’s gotta be a reason for that.) That moment between the Admiral and Burnham was uncomfortable, as was the weird racial dynamics of the Klingons. Like… they are all dark-skinned creatures with features that feel exaggerated, and they’re an inherently violent and war-loving race? I know I have expressed reservations with the Klingons before, and I am still uncomfortable with how they’re portrayed at times. And then the whole light-skinned Klingon thing is just so… weird? Especially on a show produced and filmed in this country? What are they doing with that stuff? I don’t know yet, and while I’m still going to keep my critical lens on while I watch this, I also accept that this is the fault of the Mark Watches format: I don’t know ANYTHING about intent or the larger story, so I am willing to be patient to see how things unfold. 

It’s good to be back in the Star Trek universe, too, since there’s nothing on Mark Watches that I’ve dedicated more time, energy, or words to. I feel like that’s fitting in an unintended way, though, because I’m concluding this review with an announcement: Discovery is going to be the end. After I finish this show this summer, Mark Watches is gonna close up shop. 

It’s a decision that isn’t a long time coming, but is one that probably has been necessary for a while. The two-week break I just took was the last thing that confirmed it for me. I love this world that I’ve built online, and I am eternally grateful for the thousands upon thousands of you who’ve been following along with this project for what will be year TWELVE in August. At the same time, twelve years is a long time to devote to something, and I would like this to go out like Mark Reads did: on a high note, where this hobby never quite feels like a job, even if I’ve had to treat it that way. 

There are logistical reasons for this, of course. I don’t think it’s a surprise that my readership is very small these days, which is a natural thing after all this time. I think Mark Does Stuff appeared at a time where it was perfect to exist, but these days, it actually costs more to keep this running month-to-month than it brings in money-wise. After taxes and fees, Patreon only makes me enough money to pay my rent and that’s it. (And my Patreon isn’t going anywhere; as long as folks are interested, I’ll keep it running perpetually, including video commissions. I’ll just remove the advance review tier.) The video archive is so huge—which I’m proud of!!!—that it costs hundreds of hundreds of dollars just to store it each month, and that’s not even counting the bandwidth costs when videos are downloaded. (Which is very small these days; I think about 100 people are keeping it afloat, because the majority of videos downloaded are free ones, not paid ones.) It’ll stay up as long as is possible and as long as I still have a Patreon! 

That might be uninteresting to most of you, which I get. But the bigger reason is that I simply cannot keep up with being split between two lives, not at least without becoming so burnt out that Mark Watches is no longer fun. It’s a delight right now, but I also have not had a day off since my birthday. 

In October. 

Of last year. 

So, this is all me saying: I am honored and privileged to have done this for so long. It astounds me that I made it last nearly twelve years. But it’s time for me to (mostly) move on, and I’ll be committing my time to writing novels and doing Patreon month-to-month. (It certainly doesn’t help that I have three separate novels due this year. I’ve written one, I’m 75% done the second, and the third is due in May.) I am doing this to reclaim some of my time and to go out feeling nothing but joy about what I’ve done here.

Thanks, then, for joining me on this final journey. Let’s enjoy this together. 

The video for “The Vulcan Hello” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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