‘Starfleet doesn’t fire first.’
That line, spoken by Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou in the Star Trek: Discovery trailer, really popped for us. The most obvious reason is the way the trailer seems to use it as a set up for the series’ first major conflict. Faced with seemingly impossible odds, Georgiou appears to ride the diplomatic solution all the way to the end of the line, perhaps at the expense of her life and ship. There’s been lots of speculation about whether the USS Shenzhou makes it out of the first episode intact and we’re honestly not sure.
But there’s a second conflict buried within that. We can’t tell if it’s a misleading cut or not but right after she says that line, Burnham, the show’s lead (who appears to be standing in front of Georgiou in shot, as seen above), says:
‘We HAVE to!’
It’s a fascinating clash; the older, veteran officer trying to find a non-violent solution even as her second in command prepares for war. It’s also where the show, for us, looks set to get to the core of one of the biggest concepts in all of Star Trek; Starfleet itself.
Let’s assume that those two lines follow one another for a moment. Right away you’ve got the two schools of thought that Starfleet embodies: the military and the diplomatic. Burnham represents the military. She’s focused, compassionate and absolutely dedicated to protecting her crewmates with every fibre of her being. She’d fit right in on Kirk’s Enterprise or Sisko’s Deep Space Nine. She’s not a sabre rattler by any means but she’s as prepared to close a fist as she is to raise a hand.
There may well be in-show reasons for that. Not the least of which is the rumour the Shenzhou is destroyed and, as one of the few survivors, Burnham is assigned to the Discovery to act as a consultant on their mission to deal with the Klingons. If that ‘We have to!’ is delivered to Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca then if anything it’s even more powerful. And echoes Kirk’s ‘Don’t trust them!’ log entry from The Undiscovered Country.
Regardless of what those reasons turn out to be, Burnham’s war-like aspect is a really brave, interesting place to take the character. Her journey out of that mirrors Starfleet’s itself, passing through the belligerent Kirk era and out into the complicated interstellar geopolitics of the later movies and eventual Next Generation period.
That ideological conflict also puts Georgiou in a really interesting position. She’s clearly an intellectual and a visionary, an officer Captain Jean-Luc Picard would no doubt view as an equal. However, both cuts of the trailer seem set up to imply her choices have dire consequences. If that’s the case then the very philosophy that defines Georgiou and her place in Starfleet will be responsible for getting her and a sizeable portion of her crew killed. That’s a bitter pill for any series to swallow but it’s also brilliant dramatic fuel. If the series opens with the loss of the Shenzhou and becomes about Burnham, and Starfleet’s journey back to Georgiou’s idealism, then its mining some of the best story material Star Trek has. It also perfectly explains why the franchise as a whole shifts into the militaristic tone of the original series and provides possible interesting context for the Klingon war. Of course, it also casts a multi-season downer on the entire show if events do play out that way, but we’re not quite there. Yet.
Because the other thing that Georgiou’s point of view embodies is hope, and hope is the central tenet of everything Star Trek – and more importantly Starfleet – does (as creator Gene Roddenberry would have wanted). As writer Greg Rucka has said, it makes perfect sense for Starfleet HQ to be in San Francisco because that’s as far west as you can get. After that, the waggon train has to go up and out.
But Starfleet embodies much more than that spirit of adventure. It’s the best of humanity pushing out past every comfort zone to see what there is. It’s an organisation driven by a sense of wonder and a desperate need to understand. ‘To boldly go’ means just that, to venture somewhere new with courage. Not anger. Not fear. Courage. And with it, hope.
That in turn ties back into the confrontation Burnham and Georgiou seem to be having. Because they both represent Starfleet. Georgiou is the exploratory and scientific Starfleet; curious and prepared to pay the price for that curiosity. Burnham is Starfleet as Navy; concerned for her crew before worrying about the final frontier. Neither’s wrong. Neither’s right enough. Both need the other.
Starfleet doesn’t fire first. Sometimes it should but it never does and it always pays the price for that. When Discovery arrives in Fall, we’ll see just how high that price is and which, if either, of the show’s two leading ladies are right. We can’t wait.
- Star Trek: Discovery air date: Monday 25 September on Netflix and CBS All Access
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- Star Trek: Discovery Welcomes Sonequa Martin-Green Aboard