Whenever a new Star Trek story comes to the big or small screen, viewers can expect certain things.
Intergalactic Social Justice Warriors will fly from planet to planet extending their own brand of peaceful imperialism. Everyone will wear little arrowhead badges. People will be beamed up. Someone will say “Live Long and Prosper”. Everyone will scratch their chins thoughtfully over the Prime Directive, and some poor actor will find themselves drowning in sweat under unforgiving prosthetics. It’s just tradition.
However, one classic inclusion stands out for very different reasons – the Vulcan nerve pinch, a battle technique for the species created by original series actor Leonard Nimoy as a way for Spock to take out his enemies without being overly violent (instead it just knocks people out via transfer of telepathic energy to the nerve points).
Over the years Spock and other characters have used the Vulcan nerve pinch for various effects, and it’s become a popular pop-culture reference in its own right – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used for such devastating dramatic effect as it was in the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery.
In the series premiere, USS Shenzou First Officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) encounters a secretive Klingon cell, accidentally bringing her ship into conflict with the warlike race. Complicating matters is the fact that her own family were killed by Klingons decades before, leaving her raised by Vulcans instead.
Unsure what to do about the stand-off, Burnham receives advice from her Vulcan foster father Sarek (James Frain) that a show of force is appropriate, and she demands that USS Shenzou Captain Georgiou fire pre-emptively on the Klingon vessel. Georgiou is unwilling to do so and, unhappy with Burnham undermining her in front of the crew, takes her to her quarters for a dressing down.
And that’s when it happens. Burnham seems to calm down, see Georgiou’s point about holding fire and prepare to return to her station – and then she grips Georgiou by the shoulder, nerve pinching her to the ground and running to the bridge to take control.
Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery
It’s a gut-wrenching moment, partly because of Burnham’s desperate actions – open mutiny is something little-seen in Star Trek protagonists – but also because of the familiarity of the action, her use of something so recognisable for such an unrecognisable act. It’s almost a perversion of the heroic use of the nerve pinch in Star Trek’s past, underlining Burnham’s transgression just when viewers should be feeling that warm sense of nostalgia for a classic Star Trek trope.
The fact that Georgiou quickly recovers from the attack makes the moment all the more bittersweet, hinting that Burnham didn’t perform it very successfully. This could be a reflection of her difficulty integrating into Vulcan society in flashbacks dotted throughout the episodes (the manoeuvre is also famously difficult for non-Vulcans).
All in all, then, it’s a brilliant, character-driven moment in Star Trek: Discovery that delivers something rare – the use of a hoary old series cliché in a way that not only propels the story forward, but actually lends the scene greater pathos and meaning than it could have achieved without the callback altogether.