Star Trek: Discovery has launched to a breathtaking debut — and all signs are that it's been a huge success for CBS. The network's reported a record number for single-day sign-ups for CBS All Access, their digital streaming service. Looking beyond the numbers though, it's the strength of the show's character-work that's delighting fans and critics alike. These first two episodes were surprisingly effective, and we wound up caring a great deal for the central characters. Unfortunately, this is a series where even the leads aren't safe... Of course, heavy spoilers follow for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.
A Captain To Remember
There's always been a certain mystique about the position of Starfleet Captain. All previous Star Trek series have honed in on the captains, and we've come to value their strengths while recognizing their weaknesses. It's a truism in Trek that a good captain makes a good show, and in Michelle Yeoh's Captain Georgiou, we had one seriously good captain.
The first two episodes took time to give us a sense of Georgiou as a person without providing much of a backstory; all we were told was that she'd seen tragedy, and yet still had hope. But the backstory simply wasn't relevant, and the hope was on display for all to see. Time and time again Georgiou shone as a figure of wisdom and sound judgment, a believer in Starfleet's core principles, and an explorer who had nigh-on unshakable confidence in her crew. She ran the bridge like a family, with a sardonic wit that led her Number One to ask if all the sarcasm was really necessary. She clearly allowed her team to play off against one another, and audiences had the sense that she enjoyed the dynamic between Doug Jones's Saru and Sonequa Martin-Green's Michael Burnham.
Undoubtedly the strongest element was Georgiou's relationship with her Number One, Burnham. 'The Vulcan Hello' opened with a brilliant scene, in which the two worked together to save an alien race from extinction. Throughout, the episode gave the two characters a chance to bounce off one another, each testing the other's judgment, finding value and meaning in the other's respect. Perhaps the most delightful scene was during Burnham's exploratory jaunt in space; told that Burnham's life-signs were unusual, Georgiou grinned as she declared that her First Officer was enjoying herself. It was so effectively done, giving us a glimpse of the depth of Georgiou's love and affection for her Number One.
This made what followed all the more tragic.
Not Just A Needless Death
All franchises struggle to work out how to deal with death. On the one hand, you want your character to be loved so much that their death will mean something to the viewer. On the other hand though, do you really want to kill a character if they mean so much to the viewer?
When evaluating a major character death, there are really only two key tests to assess whether or not it was effective.
- Was it necessary? Death for shock value tends to be meaningless and wasteful, with key characters killed before their arcs are complete. The character death needs to be an essential ingredient of the plot, leaving an emotional and narrative impact on the franchise. The consequences have to be considered well before the death, ensuring the beloved character dies with meaning.
- Do we care? An effective character death is one that resonates with the viewers, revealing just how much their emotions have become invested in their ill-fated hero.
Captain Georgiou's death passes both tests. Yeoh's exceptional performance had sold us on the character, to the extent where her death had a true emotional impact on viewers. Meanwhile, it's clear that Georgiou's death is the main driving force of Burnham's personal narrative arc in Discovery.
As Executive Producer Akiva Goldman told Deadline:
"We’re not doing this as a gimmick. The fundamental question that Burnham will be asking is ‘If I behaved differently, would my best friend and surrogate mother still be alive and would this war with the Klingons be happening or not?’ Now, we’ll never answer those questions, but the series will be about Burnham understanding the consequences of her actions. It’s a complicated problem."
Discovery differs to every other Star Trek series in that it doesn't star a captain. Instead, Burnham is the starring character, and Georgiou's death will drive her story through the whole first season. Deadline report that it would be simply impossible to propel Burnham's arc forward without Georgiou's tragic end.
The relationship between Georgiou and Burnham was a highlight of the first two episodes, and it was deeply saddening to see that dynamic brought to an end. At the same time, though, this death can't really be called 'untimely.' It's clearly an essential part of the plot, and will have a profound impact on everything that follows.
Do you think 'Star Trek: Discovery' was right to kill off Captain Georgiou?