July 15, 2020

005: DIS: The Vulcan Hello/Battle at the Binary Stars

I can't wait to see what else comes from these great leaders......oops....

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Discovery, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Georgiou and T'Kuvma.

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Welcome, everyone! Thank you for joining me today! Today, we are examining the premiere of Discovery, The Vulcan Hello.

We start off with Klingons and what would appear to be a powerful leader proclaiming the time has come for them to “Remain Klingon!” He goes on to say the Federation’s greeting is fatal to Klingons and their culture - “We Come in Peace.” Two, well, three, interesting things in this scene. First, these are not my mother’s Klingons! An updated look, not too dissimilar from the revamp in The Motion Picture. They are speaking in Klingon; certainly the first Star Trek series to open with subtitles. Finally, this guy has quite the following. As he’s speaking and the camera pans around, there is a large group of very attentive Klingons hanging on his every word. We can make the assumption that this Klingon is leading from a place of fear-mongering and charisma. He’s well spoken, looks good and people want to listen to him. He’s also conveying a unifying message that their race is under attack by others that are “not as they are.” While this can be a frighteningly effective leadership style, if your goal is simply for people to follow you, it is not sustainable and tends to create a dangerous cult of personality. He has a vision. He is effective in delivering that vision, but what happens when he’s no longer a part of the equation? More on that, I’m sure.

Quick changeover as we meet our protagonist. Michael Burnham walking through the desert with her commanding officer, Phillipa Georgiou. They are in desert gear - not quite to fremen standards, but it’ll do - which covers Burnham’s ears. She is giving every behavioral indication that she’s Vulcan; she’s not, but she certainly behaves and communicates as we have come to expect from one. This scene, visually, is kind of ridiculous. Long story short, they walk around in the desert creating the Start Trek delta shield in the sand so their ship, the Shenzou, can find them…..um, sure, yeah. But this silly dance is irrelevant and really just an excuse for an incredible conversation! Georgiou, the commanding officer is conducting a nearly flawless one-on-one with her subordinate. First, it’s a walking meeting. From a wellness standpoint this is a great way to hold meetings instead of just sitting in a chair across from each other, but it also helps break down interpersonal barriers. It breaks apart the inherent power dynamic of 2 chairs and a desk; you’re just two people going for a walk. Then Georgiou moves straight into career development, “I think it’s time we talk about you having your own command.” Burnham has served under Georgiou for 7 years and she feels it’s time for Burnham’s next step in her career. Georgiou masterfully switches the conversation between development and the current situation, but she always keeps the focus on Burnham to demonstrate how her skills and experiences have prepared her for a change. In this short scene, Georgiou establishes herself as a leader that is laser focused on her staff and crew. She knows them well and knows how to motivate them. It is also clear that she has tremendous experience and readily shares it. Burnham is also established as a scientist. This is demonstrated both in what she says and in the questions she asks. As a scientist she is seeking to understand; that is a quality that will serve any leader well. She actively listens to what Georgiou asks, really asks, and then asks her own questions based on that to not only learn, but also to communicate her understanding to Georgiou.

What a great open to the episode and the series! Maybe not necessarily from a “television” standpoint, but we’ve just gotten through the open and have identified 2 leaders. In just 2 scenes, we understand, at a high level, their styles and their goals. From a “leadership” standpoint, this is great!

We’re on the Shenzou. May 11, 2256, a Sunday. This places us two years after the events of the original Star Trek pilot, The Cage, and about 9 or 10 years before the time Kirk took command of the Enterprise. They’re studying some damage to interstellar relays. We see the Shenzou’s bridge is on the underside of the ship’s saucer, pretty cool. The relays are in a system with binary stars, a rarity in the universe. We meet some of the crew, including the chief science officer, Lt. Saru, a Kelpian. The working theory is that the damage was intentional, but it is unknown who caused it and why. There is some interplay between Burnham and Saru that demonstrates underlying conflict. This suggests it’s mostly playful, but it’s hard to tell at this point. They agree with each other on the damaged relay which leads to a great line from Georgiou, “Mark the calendar…” This is another great note in the symphony of Georgiou’s leadership - she is aware of the tension between the two and uses humor, gently, to both acknowledge their work and to diffuse the situation. They find an object they believe may have damaged the relay. There’s more back-and-forth between Burnham and Saru. Saru really shows his aversion to anything even perceived as a danger. Burnham convinces Georgiou to allow her to get into a thruster suit and check it out in-person despite tremendous personal risk. 

On a sad, but expected note, we hear the ship’s computer and it isn’t Majel Barrett. 

Visually incredible sequence, especially for a TV show, as Burnham heads to the object. Once she gets there, she finds a large, ancient structure (looks very Ron D Moore Battlestar Galactica)…oh, and a Klingon in an EV suit! A minor scuffle, involving a new take on a bat’leth, ends with the Klingon dead and Burnham knocked out and free-floating back towards the Shenzou. Georgiou is worried, personally terrified, for her safety.

On a Klingon ship, we see the dead Klingon, wrapped and in a decorated coffin, prepped for burial. He’s identified as the Torchbearer. The Klingon leader from the beginning, T’Kuvma, sends the coffin out of the ship as they give the classic Klingon warning to Stovakohr that a warrior is coming. The coffin attaches itself to the outside of the ship along with hundreds of other coffins! T’Kuvma ends the funeral with his familiar rallying cry, “Remain Klingon!” 

Burnham makes it back to the Shenzou but is near death due to radiation poisoning. She has a flashback to her childhood, being raised on Vulcan. We see her as a young student in a learning pod studying the Klingons. The school computer asks about the most recent Klingon terror raid, and the young Burnham freezes, unable to respond. She begs for the program to stop as an adult Vulcan stands above her pod. It’s Sarek! Spock’s father! He chides her emotional response and encourages the use of logic to overcome the challenge of her human heart. 

She’s back in sickbay and learns she’s been back for 3 hours. Despite not completing her treatment she heads for the bridge. She blurts out that there are Klingons “out there.” Georgiou lets us know that no one has seen a Klingon in a hundred years. She insists that she encountered a Klingon. Georgiou shows unwavering trust in Burnham and calls for red alert. Saru immediately recommends retreating and Georgiou responds that that is not an option. Georgiou here, in addition to showing tremendous trust in Burnham also demonstrates a clear alignment with Federation goals and values. She’s putting on an absolute clinic on leadership in crisis! 

They run some scans and a MASSIVE Klingon ship decloaks in front of them. They inform Starfleet Command and start attempting to contact them, but with no response. On the ship, T’Kuvma is looking for a new Torchbearer. His followers begin to show doubt, they are not stepping forward to claim the title. Until one follower, Voq, son of none, an albino Klingon without a House steps forward. T’Kuvma’s followers immediately rip into him because he’s not of noble blood, he’s an outcast. But he claims his worth, not by blood, but by faith. He proceeds to preach his faith in Kahless and in T’Kuvma’s plan to follow his vision. T’Kuvma considers his words carefully. He then defies tradition but adheres directly to his vision of Kahless’ dream. He accepts Voq as the torchbearer and he does so despite the institutional biases within the Klingon culture and hierarchy. This is excellent leadership - promoting an individual not because of their unearned privilege, but for their dedication, loyalty and adherence to the mission and vision. T’Kuvma’s followers cheer the decision despite their earlier prejudice. Is this because T’Kuvma’s courage and leadership, or is it because he uses fear as a motivator and they are afraid to visibly disagree with his choice? Time will tell. 

Saru, on the Shenzou makes an alarming discovery. He finds the Klingon ship is entirely covered by coffins filled with dead Klingons dating back thousands of years all the way to the present. He then advocates for Burnham to recommend retreat again. We learn about his race, the kelpians. His race are prey. They are bred for the predator species on their planet. They have the ability to sense death. He says he senses it now. 

Georgiou is speaking with Admiral Anthony Michael Hall and updating him on the situation. Seriously, I had to look the role up! Terry Serpico, of Donnie Brasco fame, plays Admiral Anderson, but wow…dude looks just like AMH! Anyway, they’re discussing the violent nature of the Klingons. Burnham steps into the conversation as the Admiral says to seek a peaceful resolution. Burnham talks about he Klingon desire for battle, that hostility is in their nature. Anderson chides her for making generalizations based on race to which she responds that it is unwise to confuse race and culture. Good stuff there, brief as it is. He ends the conversation commanding them to do nothing barring provocation. Then, BAM!! A blinding light comes on outside the ship. It’s so bright that even with filters at 100%, it’s nearly blinding on the bridge. There’s light and a signal pulse from the object Burnham encountered the torchbearer, Rejac, on. As they speculate what the purpose of the signal is, Burnham reaches out to Sarek who we learn was her step-father. 

We confirm here that Burnham’s parents were killed in the Klingon attack from the flashback earlier on. Sarek speculates about a new leader in the Klingon Empire and that new leadership can drive an organization to unexpected action. He tells of the Vulcan’s first contact with the Klingons 240 years ago, but also states this was a uniquely Vulcan response. Burnham shares what she learned with Georgiou on the bridge, in front of everyone. The Vulcans were immediately attacked and destroyed. From that point forward, every time the Vulcans encountered the klingons, they immediately opened fire. They said “hello” in a language the klingons understood. Burnham challenges Georgiou to attack immediately. Georgiou takes her back to her ready room and appropriately jumps down her throat for questioning and challenging her in front of the crew. 

Burnham screwed up here, big time. She let her passion override her training. Challenging her commanding officer publicly and aggressively put Georgiou in an unwinnable position. She was put on the defensive and no matter how she responded, other than how she did, she would have lost the respect of her crew. Burnham had credible and important information to share. Had she taken Georgiou into private, presented her plan, maybe things would have turned out differently. Maybe Georgiou would have heard what she had to say. Instead, Georgiou had to manage the incident and order Burnham to stand down. Again, Burnham’s mistake was letting her passion override her training and education. And that mistake, as we will see, may have cost countless lives.

In the ready room, as Georgiou orders Burnham to stand down, the shit hits the fan! Roddenberry’s vision of no conflict between Starfleet personnel is soundly put to rest as Burnham straight up Vulcan Nerve Pinches Georgiou!! No remorse, no repent. Boom, Georgiou goes down!

Burnham rushes to the bridge and starts issuing orders to prepare to fire on the Klingon ship. Saru stands up to her and refuses to listen. Others on the bridge aren’t as courageous and tactical targets the ship. Just as Burnham commands them to fire, Georgiou comes out, phaser in hand and, again, order her to stand down. Suddenly, the light shuts down and a horrifying number of Klingon ships drop out of warp. Cool visual as they are all staring down the tiny Shenzou.

At this point the episode ends but but the next episode continues the story, so we’ll follow it to the end. Here we start “Battle at the Binary Stars.”

We start with a flashback to 7 years prior when Michael came on board with Shenzou. We learn she is the only human to have attended the Vulcan Science Academy and that she has very much adapted to living, and behaving, as a Vulcan. Georgiou talks about the age of the Shenzou. Despite the cold approach of Burnham, leaning much more towards rude than unemotional and logical, Georgiou engages in uplifting conversation in an attempt to make her feel welcome on the ship. Burnham is not on a Starfleet ship by choice, she wanted to join a Vulcan science expedition. Continuing to flex those leadership muscles, though, Georgiou persists and wants nothing more than for Burnham to feel welcome and know that she is valued. This laid the foundation over which 7 years of partnership and service flourished between the two. Well…at least until Burnham dropped Georgiou and she had to pull a phaser out on her! 

Back to present times, Georgiou sends Burnham to the brig citing the danger she has put the ship and her shipmates in. Incredible decision by Georgiou here. She is putting the safety of her ship and Starfleet above personal attachment. This had to have been a difficult decision for her, but it was the right decision. There were numerous examples of Georgiou starting with trust with Burnham, in fact, I’d say that has clearly been her default approach. Burnham, though, despite her intentions, acted irrationally and deceptively. Given what is currently known by everyone, for Georgiou to do anything other than send her to the brig would have endangered the entire ship, and completely compromised her position as leader. 

The heads of the Klingon Houses and ships that have arrived begin to assemble via holographic communication. T’Kuvma immediately begins chiding them for their selfish concerns. He speaks of duty and honor while the other speak of their personal priorities. The assembled leaders make up the Klingon Council, a group that T’Kuvma does not belong to. Much like Voq, his new Torchbearer, T’Kuvma is an outsider. His House had, in fact, fallen from grace under his father’s leadership and he T’Kuvma committed to restoring its honor after his death. He again speaks of unity, honor and duty in an attempt to unite the Houses. He states the single doctrine under which is House lives: Remain Klingon. Instead, they insult him. Voq passionately comes to T’Kuvma’s defense and ends up sharing that they have cloaking technology. Kol, one of the leaders, calls them fools and says he’s done listening, but the other leaders are interested and want to hear more. He uses the opportunity to build the Klingons as a pure people, not filthy and mixed like the various races and species that make up the Federation. He calls them to battle, calls for them to unite and crush the Federation! 

As a charismatic leader, he knows how to command an audience. He uses slogans that vilify the enemy and make his cause sounds superior. Again, he is inspiring people to follow him. This absolutely is an example of a leadership style. Possibly effective in the short-term, but it is not sustainable. His story, his leadership style, and the results he is achieving are a not too subtle comparison to another, very charismatic leader that used fear-mongering and slogans to unite a people against their diverse, perceived, enemies back in the 1930’s and 40’s….

Back to the action, Georgiou makes a last attempt to to communicate with the Klingons as more Starfleet ships arrive. She is firm yet diplomatic in asking them to leave Federation space. Unknowingly, she makes the biggest mistake possible, confirming everything T’Kuvma has said so far. She says, “We Come in Peace.” From here, it’s on!! The Klingons begin chanting, “Remain Klingon” as they open fire!

The Starfleet ships are completely outgunned and outclassed; they are being decimated. Georgiou keeps her cool through all of this, but it is clear things are not going well. Incredible visual displays this as we see the brig, or what’s left of it. Burnham is in her cell, held together by force fields that are exposed to open space. The Shenzou has nearly been destroyed. 

Somehow, Sarek is able to reach out to Burnham across the galaxy. He claims that their first mind-meld, when he helped to save her from an attack on the Vulcan Learning Center when she was a child (an attach from Logic Extremists as we’ll see at some point in Enterprise), placed part of his katra in her which allows this “unique form of connection.” He encourages her to “do better.” 

In the battle, there is a glimmer of hope! The USS Europa, the Admiral’s ship has arrived! He attempts to communicate with them and proposes a cease-fire. T’Kuvma accept the cease-fire so the Europa lowers their defenses. T’Kuvma’s cloaked ship uses the opportunity to ram into the Europa, splitting it in two. The Europa initiates a self-destruct to damage the Klingon ship. More Klingon ships show up and destroy most of the remaining Federation ships. T’Kuvma gloats to the assembled Klingon leaders and Voq calls them to follow him. They do, and they call him “T’Kuvma the Unforgettable.” The remaining Klingons warp out of the system, with the exception of the flagship.  It sends a communication  across all channels declaring Klingon supremacy, standing as one, under Kahless. 

The computer is warning that a containment field failure around the brig is imminent. After the “talk” with Sarek, she “Kirks” the computer into dropping the containment field so she can get back into the superstructure of the Shenzou. 

In the aftermath, the Klingon flagship is damaged from the Europa and begins tractor beaming their dead from open space to entomb them and attach them to the hull of the ship. In a display of visual leadership, T’Kuvma vows to entomb them all with his own hands. 

Saru comes up with a plan to deliver a photon torpedo to the neck of the flagship, disabling it. Georgiou approves his plan but volunteers to pilot the worker bee that will hold the torpedo. Burnham enters the bridge and warns that killing T’Kuvma will turn him into a martyr and will embolden the Klingons. She proposes capturing him instead to make him a symbol of defeat; taking him as a prisoner of war. This leads to a heartfelt discussion between Georgiou and Burnham. Georgiou has a great line here - “Despite living a life of loss, I chose hope.” She goes on to blame herself for Michael’s actions. Burnham tries to defend her voices and ultimately offers to deliver the torpedoes in place of Georgiou. Georgiou notices the Klingons being tractors back into the Klingon ship and changes plans. They beam an exposed warhead onto one of the dead bodies that is on its way back to the flagship. BOOM! It detonates and the neck of the flagship is broken!! It’s drifting with shields down. Burnham and Georgiou beam to the flagship to capture T’Kuvma.

This isn’t your grandma’s Star Trek fighting!! Exciting and violent fight scene as Burnham and Voq go at it and Georgiou pairs off with T’Kuvma. Michelle Yeoh is incredible! Any chance to see her in a fight scene is a don’t miss occasion! She looks great and makes T’Kuvma look like an absolute beast! Just as the Burnham gets the upper hand and grabs her phaser to take out T’Kuvma, he stabs, and kills Georgiou. Saru reads the loss of her lifesign, totally overreacts and beams Michael back to the Shenzou just as she shoots and kills T’Kuvma. 

On the Klingon ship, a bloodied Voq confirms Burnham’s fear as he declares T’Kuvma’s death will be a cause that will unite all Klingons. 

The episode comes to a close in a dark Federation courtroom as Burnham pleads guilty to charges of assaulting a fellow officer, mutiny and precipitating war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. She is stripped of all rank, honors and sentenced to a lifetime in prison. 

And that’s it; that’s Discovery!

So, I thought this one was going to be a challenge to look at through the lens of leadership development; and I couldn’t have been more wrong! Of course, the two incredible, and polar opposite examples of leadership die at the end, so, we’ll see what the rest of the season one has to offer. I won’t lie, I’m really looking forward to getting into some of the episodes in season 2! 

I’m recording this episode as we are awaiting a premier date for season 3 of Discovery, so, I’ll acknowledge, right up front, that this series is still really controversial among fans of Trek - do we still say Trekkie….is that still a thing? Anyway, despite the controversy, I love this series! I really enjoyed the series kickoff. A lot of departures from Trek of old, but that happened back when TNG debuted; and DS9…and Voyager…..you get the picture. By far, the best produced, most well thought out series premier so far. The effects were unreal and gorgeous. The characters were well thought out and the actors had a solid grasp on them. I understand this two-parter served as kind of a prologue to the rest of the series - that’s why I’m doing them together here - but it absolutely hooked me! 

<<Command Codes>>

So, this is weird one, right? I’m going to talk about T’Kuvma and Georgiou here, but, they’re dead. So, not a lot to look forward to as they develop…or don’t. Michael Burnham is clearly the protagonist in this series. Through the second season it has even been called Star Trek: Michael Burnham by some. But she is not the leader here. There are a handful of moments I’ll call out where she demonstrates leadership, but, especially as the series progresses - at least through season 2 - leadership isn’t a focus of hers. 

So, T’Kuvma. One of the cool things about new Star Trek is that they have coordinated all of their media. Comic books line up with novels that line up with what’s on TV. Before this, there were comics and novels of all the other series, but they stood on their own, totally separate from what we saw on TV and what is acknowledged as canon. Not Discovery! It all likes up, and they use the other media types to flesh out a lot of their stories. T’Kuvma’s background, a few second flashback here, is the subject of a 4-part comic book series called The Light of Kahless. Totally worth checking out! 

My read on T’Kuvma is that he sees himself as a visionary, a prophet. He seeks to unite his people around being Klingon, or, racial supremacy, and their belief in Kahless. He believed the Federation threatened everything about both of those things. He used fear and charismatic speeches to rally his followers. It’s hard to argue about the effectiveness of this leadership style, I mean, it works. It works really, really well, and then completely backfires. Human history is littered with leaders like this. They were all successful in leading and inspiring their followers, but never for long. Leading from fear simply is not sustainable. You are either in the inner-circle or you are not; and there is a big difference between those statuses. And the main difference between them is how sycophantically you parrot the leader’s message. People are not brought “in” or promoted based on the skills or abilities. Look at Voq. He moves from complete obscurity, with no House and no status, to T’Kuvma’s right-hand be showing unwavering loyalty and support to Kahless, to Klingons, and, above all else, T’Kuvma. 

T’Kuvma’s story ends, but through the first season of Discovery we see what plays out from his vision and leadership. Spoiler alert! We will see immediately after this that the remaining Houses, united by T’Kuvma in this episode, have completely forgotten his message. All they care about is the cloaking technology the Sarcophagus Ship provided and the prospect of war with the Federation. In fact, the next episode of Discovery picks up 6 months after the end of this episode and T’Kuvma is little more than a whisper. With all of his vision, and all of his passion, his leadership approach reduced it all down to a simple opportunity to go to war with the Federation. 

Now, Captain Phillipa Georgiou. The first episode hadn’t even finished airing and she was already my vote for best Star Trek captain! In these first two-episodes, we see such a master-class on leadership from her that it breaks my heart she died. Now, what we got instead, closer to the end of this season, is also awesome and such a great opportunity to see Michelle Yeoh do what she does best, but, she really was shaping up to be the ideal captain. 

She is all Starfleet, all the time. She understands, deeply understands, the values and mission of Starfleet. She has aligned her actions and her behaviors with them. I once had a mentor that encouraged me to develop my personal mission statement - why am I on this planet, consuming precious resources. After much thought, and intense discussion with them, I determined my personal mission statement is to Improve the Lot of Others through my interactions with them. Sounds good, right? Well, it’s next part that is really cool. Now that I know my mission, why I exist, I can examine the missions of organizations to determine if I want to work with them or not. If an organization’s mission doesn’t align with my personal mission, there is no way I’ll be happy or feel accomplished working with them; and they won’t get the best of me; it’s lose-lose. Now I don’t know Georgiou’s personal mission statement, but we can draw some inferences. In her Ready Room we see many, classic looking books, what appear to be plaques or awards, and a telescope. Pursuit of knowledge, pride in accomplishment and exploration - all values that would build a mission statement that would likely align very well with Starfleet!

What else is there to say about her that we didn’t cover in the episode recap? She develops trusting relationships with those she works with. She encourages lively and sometimes contentious discussion among her crew; in fact, she feeds the contention between them. She actively capitalizes on their strengths and differences to help develop a better and more thought out final decision…one of the many benefits of diversity. She works to create inclusive and welcoming environments. She has difficult conversations with her crew to help them to develop and move onto the next step in their careers. 

Let’s dive in a little bit on the lively and contentious discussion among her crew. In the scene where Burnham and Saru are discussing the damaged probe. There is clear tension between these two. You get the sense that it goes beyond the professional, in fact, from these episodes we see they are very opposite people - Saru being extremely risk averse and Burnham actively seeks risk. Georgiou allows them to talk, unchecked, for a moment; while they are being contentious, they are being very productive in their talk and building ideas off of each other. Just as the tension gets to the point it could cross the line and become unprofessional and possibly hurtful, Georgiou steps in, uses some humor, and brings them back on point. This is a beautifully managed moment that works because of all the work she has done before this moment. She know both of them very well, she knows their strengths and understands their communication styles. Also, and possibly most importantly, she trusts them. She trusts they are approaching the problem with a solution mindset and that they are verbally sparring with the best of intent. Because of all this, she knows the precise second to interject and refocus them on the situation.

It’s a shame she’s gone. This is a captain I would want to serve under. Imagine having a manager, a boss, that is focused on you; that has your best interests in mind. That knows how to get the best out of you. That trusts you and that you can trust. More than that, one that is transparently dedicated to and personifies the values and mission of the organization you both work for. RIP Phillipa Georgiou. 

One thing we know for sure, moving forward into Discovery - it doesn’t fit any mold that Star Trek has laid out before it, and that’s not a bad thing! In fact, I think the first season of TNG suffered so much because they were trying to recreate the original series! We’ll have the chance to examine multiple captains and leaders. I’m looking forward to it!

What did you think of the start to Discovery? Am I alone in thinking Georgiou is the ideal Starfleet captain? And what about T’Kuvma? I’d love to talk about your impressions of him. I saw him as a Hitler while Chris Obi, the actor that portrayed him, saw him more as a Moses. What did YOU think?? You can catch me across social media @jefftakin. Hit me up!

Join me next time when we go back to the very beginning! Well, kind of the beginning, the beginning as far as what was seen on TV. We will meet Kirk, Spock and some of the rest when we check out “Where No Man Has Gone Before” from the original series!

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!