As the legendary Mr Spock is fond of saying, I like to think that there always are… possibilities. ‘Discovery’ is offering us many possibilities, but I want to look at just two for now:
The first is that Burnham’s journey will bring her into conflict with her new captain, who is revealed to be a war criminal conducting illegal, or at least immoral research. She will confront him, he will give some speech about “making hard decisions” because “we’re at war” and “if somebody doesn’t do the bad stuff, there won’t be anyone left to do the good stuff.” Burnham will refute this, and attempt to incite another mutiny, this time succeeding, and redeeming herself following her actions at the Binary Star System.
The second option is that Captain Lorca’s apparent immorality is a double-bluff – that he really is an ethical and conscientious commander in the best traditions of Starfleet officers, and that the air of malevolence about him is due to Burnham’s negative view of the world following her failures. Burnham’s journey will bring her into conflict with her own preconceptions, and she will finally come to the realisation that she needs to trust others around her – not just their character, but their judgement.
If we pretend, for the moment, that ‘Discovery’ is a live show, entirely improvised, that it has not already been filmed and that either of these options remain viable at this point in time, then we currently sit at a potential split in reality. Down one path lies Burnham’s redemption, and down another, her enlightenment. Either is equally possible, if not equally probable, and as such we can consider that there are two (or more) futures which are yet to manifest.
With that metaphysical wankery established in the most pretentious way possible, let’s explore those futures.
Burnham’s redemption is the journey that best fits what we have explicitly seen so far, based on the behaviour of the show’s new authority figure, Gabriel Lorca, captain of the Discovery. Straight off the bat, he’s presented with shady vibes; literally, his very first appearance he’s cast as a silhouette in a darkened room. He explains that this is due to some war injury to his eyes, making him sensitive to sudden changes in light. Which is a trait which is immediately forgotten within this very episode, when we later see him beaming from one room to a more brightly lit one without discomfort, and pressing his face up to a forcefield which glows sky blue on contact with his hand.
I mean, Trek is defined by its lack of technological discontinuities between episodes, but to screw up character traits within thirty minutes of their introduction is a new low. Unless Lorca was lying to Burnham, in which case he intentionally made such a sinister introduction just to fuck with her, I guess.
Dramatic lighting aside, Lorca also seems to fall well into the ‘Trashy Evil’ D&D character alignment, given his role as, apparently, leader of all Forbidden Science in Starfleet. His character traits include:
- Pointlessly mysterious.
- Dismissive of socialism.
- Likes fortune cookies.
- Outwardly dishonest.
- Literally owns a literal secret creepy laboratory literally full of literal skulls and literal alien skeletons and a literal enclosure for a literal alien monster.
By his side is his security chief, That-One-From-Battlestar, or “Landry” as she likes to be known. Landry (played by Rekha Sharma) has a similarly diverse array of qualities, such as:
- Has hair.
- Wears clothes.
Together, they conduct sinister experiments with some kind of space fungus which may be the origin of all life in the universe and which is definitely a rip-off of the protomolecule from ‘The Expanse’. If you’ve read my previous article, you may have picked up on that point. And in fact, this episode marks itself as being entirely derivative of multiple different films and series – none of them Star Trek.
Now, this is a tricky subject. On the one hand, I don’t want to get a series that is constantly winking and nodding towards previous installments in the franchise just to please nostalgia junkies. On the other hand, just taking elements from other franchises isn’t any more preferable, especially when those franchises did it better originally.
So when Burnham, Landry and her new room-mate, Cadet “Happy-Go-Ginger” Tilly, go on an away mission to the Discovery‘s mysteriously crippled sister ship, the Glenn, I wasn’t too fussed about us suddenly getting a xenomorph chase through jeffries tubes. It’s not the first time Trek has “drawn inspiration” (putting it charitably) from other sources, but this is the third episode of a new series, and is really a second pilot, given that it’s introducing a new ship and crew. I would hope that this would be too soon for a brand new series to have run out of original ideas.
Getting back to the point at hand, if Lorca, Landry and their research efforts are as sinister as they seem – if we are to take them at face value – then the narrative will inevitably go down the path of Burnham discovering Lorca’s crimes, inciting mutiny, the crew picking sides, a lot of tension, shouting, speech-giving and appeals to varying shades of morality, followed by some climactic confrontation and resolution. Basically, most episodes of ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
I can probably even write the speech that Lorca will give. Hmm, let’s see…
“I thought you understood, Burnham, I thought you were capable of seeing the bigger picture. Don’t you get it? If we lose this war, if the Klingons beat us, we lose everything, every code, every law, every bit of good that Starfleet has ever done will get wiped clean. If someone doesn’t make the hard choices, if people like you and me weren’t willing to do what no one else wanted to get their hands dirty doing, then we’d have already lost, and all those things you think the Federation stands for would be ashes.
“Do I you think I like this? Do you think I enjoy getting my hands dirty? Do you think anyone wants to betray their ethics like this? It’s not about doing what’s right, Burnham, it’s about doing what’s necessary, for those people out there, for Starfleet, for the Federation. We all wish we could win this war the clean way, the nice way, the honourable way, but sooner or later somebody has to open their eyes and see the reality of the situation. I thought you were smart, I thought you could do that – see the context, and do what needs to be done.”
“You’re a monster, Lorca,” Burnham says, “I learned the hard way what happens when you break your oaths, and I lost everything. But I’m not going to let it happen again.”
“Then you must have worse eyes than I do. Landry, take her to the brig.”
Landry draws her phaser on Burnham, prompting Saru to draw his own weapon nervously, his frills extending in anxiety. Across the bridge crew members stand, weapons in hands, eyes darting across the room. In the background Bear McCreary conducts an array of non-diegetic djembe in an escalating rhythm, whilst a Jedi uses her lightsaber-armed mechsuit to fend off a glowing blue xenomorph. Admiral Dutch (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) swaggers onto the bridge and commands everyone to “Git to da shuttles!” whilst a black-suited Will Smith cracks wise whilst neuralysing a Klingon spy and a brown-coated Nathan Fillion punches Klaatu in the face. Off-camera, I vomit myself to death, and my parents later find my body and conclude that, of all the possibilities, this was the most probable and the most fitting way I could have gone.
My primary concern with Burnham’s redemption arc is that it means that Lorca, Landry, any of their supporters and whoever in Starfleet signed off on their mission are all villains. And if there are groups of immoral people in Starfleet, that means the future isn’t really much brighter than the present. The whole point of Star Trek was to portray a vision of humanity united by its principles.
Now I may be a hypocrite – okay, I’m absolutely a hypocrite – but Deep Space Nine also toyed with this idea with its introduction of “Section 31”, a shadow agency within Starfleet, bent on subterfuge and incredibly unethical activities in the name of defending the Federation. And that never bothered me as much. Maybe it was because it was well handled, maybe it was because it wasn’t the focus of the entire show, just three episodes.
Or maybe it was because Section 31’s presence in DS9 seems more fitting with the Federation engaged in a deadly war with The Dominion. As the series wound on, the war became more and more desperate, with entire episodes devoted to just how badly Starfleet was getting its arse roundly kicked by the Jem’Hadar over the course of four years.
Of course, Starfleet is also at war in ‘Discovery’, but the difference here is that we are provided no insight into the state of the conflict. There isn’t a single line in the third episode to indicate how the war might be progressing, six months after it began. A cadet talks about her career aspirations without any apparent anxiety over her survival. Burnham is accused of starting the conflict, but only blamed for the lives lost in the opening battle. The war itself is only mentioned a handful of times, and never with any context to inform the danger it poses.
And that’s a problem, because if the war is going terribly, why aren’t we feeling that tension? And if the war is going well, why is it necessary to start conducting shady research? Lorca mentions – literally mentions, off-hand – that hunger, need and want are returning to the Federation, and yet we see first hand that they possess technology that can synthesise food and clothing – and it’s implied that the same synthesising technology exists in prisons.
We see okudagrams with meaningless territory maps, so the war is definitely occurring. And we get told that over eight thousand people died during the battle at the Binary Stars – but, as in the first two episodes, we have no concept of how significant a loss that is in the greater Starfleet. Is that half the fleet? Or a hundredth?
Now bear in mind, the fucking title of the episode is ‘Context is for Kings’, and the one thing the episode offers us none of is, very specifically, Context. Without it, it’s impossible to get a bead on the severity of the war, and hence the justification of Lorca’s actions.
And that might be the point: this could all be to highlight Burnham’s disconnection from the outside world, her own ignorance of what’s going on due to her imprisonment. But even still, we don’t get any hint of how things are going from her interactions with the crew. She even bumps into Saru, who is now the first officer of the Discovery, and even though the ship is stationed “far from the front lines”, his entire character is based around him being afraid of everything, even just the sound of a shuttle taking off. And yet he casually strolls the corridors, eating synthetic blueberries and chatting shit.
In any case, if Lorca is just another morally dubious villain who believes too much in the ends justifying the means, that’s actually a fairly dull story. It’s been done. Repeatedly. On just about every single sci-fi show since the 1930’s. There’s very little tread left on that tyre, and if that’s all we get out of the whole narrative, I’ll be disappointed.
If revisiting old ideas is a necessity to make up for a creative scarcity, then why not reach a little further? What about focusing on the Klingon war, but ‘Darmoking’ it, making it an issue of communication? Where there are certain concepts that just don’t translate via language, and Burnham has to use her skills as a xeno-anthropologist to find commonality between these two cultures?
Or maybe run with the theme and rip off ‘Redemption’? Have the mission be to infiltrate the Klingon homeworld to find Klingon dissenters who are against the war, and try to work with them to forge a peace effort? Or follow ‘In The Pale Moonlight’s example, send the Discovery on a diplomatic mission to find other races who might ally with the Federation – again, we get to use Burnham’s background (which has already been forgotten, it seems) and we get to explore new worlds and new civilisations. Each new race would present a different challenge, have different demands, different principles.
There’s lots of possibilities, and it galls me that the show seems to have committed to the worn-out “do the ends justify the means?” schtick, especially given that we already know that in the world of Star Trek, they never should.
Of course, the redemption path is just one possibility. The path of enlightenment remains open, and this is arguably the more interest direction the show could take.
As I discussed at some length above, this episode is entirely and ironically devoid of context, which acts against it if the presumed redemption are is to be followed. But that same lack of context means that I may be jumping to conclusions regarding Lorca. As pointed out to me by others, we haven’t strictly seen Lorca do anything clearly villainous yet – he simply acts in a really shady manner. And whilst Security Chief Landry is clearly a sack of arse, even she is yet to get her hands dirty.
With the exception of beaming aboard the xenomorph at the end of the episode, and keeping it in a confined cell in Lorca’s creepy evil laboratory full of fucking ALIEN SKELETONS. Hey, do you think he might be the baddies? He’s got skulls in his cabinet, is he the baddies?
But morbid interior decoration aside (who knows, maybe his background-Trek-hobby is Phrenology?), Lorca’s yet to cross any lines in the sand as far as ethics go. Which means all of the sinister presentation may be a function of Burnham’s distrust of him, and her own self-doubt over what the right thing even is anymore.
And this is the more interesting path to follow, I believe. Having Burnham coming to terms with her actions, and hence being able to put into context Lorca’s, could be a fascinating character arc. Her constantly perceiving villainy and having to reshape her preconceptions, challenging herself to see the actual truth of the matter, could be really rewarding.
Indeed, Burnham learning to put faith in other people again would be a redemption in its own right – and in so doing, learning to put faith in herself. This would be the ‘Trekkiest’ journey for her to take (which sadly also kills off any probability of it manifesting given recent Trek trends).
For instance, we see Lorca imprison the xenomorph at the end of the episode, which means Burnham will probably find out soon, as well. And at first, she will probably jump to the conclusion that Lorca’s doing it to figure out if it can be used as some kind of weapon – this was my conclusion, too.
But as was pointed out to me, he may have saved it so as not to condemn it to death aboard the Glenn. Maybe he recognised it was dangerous, but chose to bring it aboard to study it because it’s a new form of life they’ve never encountered before. Maybe he’s still cleaving to the Starfleet way, looking for new opportunities for discovery and exploration – hence the show’s title.
And Burnham would require some convincing. She would probably go to Saru, try to bring him on side, try to alert him to Lorca’s sinister activities – only to find that she once again jumped to the wrong conclusion, that she assumed the worst in people and assumed the worst-case scenario.
The problem with this potential story arc is that it lacks the hyper-dramatic, emotionally turbo-charged conflict that seems to be mandatory for Trek productions these days. By its nature, it’s a much more sedate, meditative journey, and whilst there’s room in there for a bit of shouting and speech-giving, this still makes it the least likely option, even if it is the most interesting one.
The other issue with it is that Lorca has already validated Burnham’s ludicrous actions in the first episode. He actually told her she was right when she tried to attack the Klingons first, and this is really problematic. Because if he’s lying, then it undermines the potential benevolence of his character and defines him as manipulative; and if he’s not lying, then it again comes around to the show supporting Burnham’s mutiny and her attempt at cold-blooded murder, and the idea that her inherent prejudices were correct.
(And whilst he wasn’t present himself, given he’s got Saru as his first officer and other members of the Shenzhou‘s crew aboard the Discovery, he’s not likely to be mistaken.)
So, if Lorca is the virtuous Starfleet captain then he’s also someone who, like Burnham, adheres to bigoted views. Or he’s one who lies to get what he wants and doesn’t hold people accountable. Either interpretation is problematic if he is ultimately presented as being a “good” person. If he’s not, then it looks like we’re back on the relatively dull “stop the war criminal” redemption path outlined previously.
This also doesn’t address Landry’s fairly awful behaviour throughout this episode. Lorca aside, Landry is definitely a nasty piece of work based on her bigotry towards Vulcans and prisoners alone. It was Dostoyevsky who said:
“The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
Which is basically another way of saying “nobody cares how fancy your clothes are or how high your skyscrapers soar, if you can’t even be bothered to treat the worst of your criminals with basic decency.”
So, I dunno. Burnham’s enlightenment is the path I’d like to see, but it’s already had a few holes poked in it, and it really doesn’t seem a probable candidate. Time will tell.
I feel like I’ve made enough predictions for now, so here are a few things that seem open-ended enough that I’ll enjoy just seeing them play out.
Saru seems mostly clued in about the “Black Alert” experiments (the fungal space-jumping), but it appears that Landry is Lorca’s de-facto second-in-command. Certainly, Saru’s involvement in the shady stuff has not yet been explored, and I’m happy to see where he fits into all this. Is he an ignorant patsy, happy to be stationed far away from the front lines? Or is he fully on-board with all of the dark science that’s going on right under his nose?
Saru also mentions that the Discovery can perform three hundred experiments at once. It would actually be fascinating to see what these might be, and I’m certainly hoping they aren’t just a precursor to the research of McCoy’s ‘Into Darkness’ brand of medical testing. “Hey, doctor, why does lab 206 require thirty gallons of ‘mixed variety’ blood?” “Oh, yeah, don’t worry about it, I’m just trying to breed space vampires, I think it’d be neat.”
Cadet Tilly is charmingly dense and has already been given the start of a strong character arc, and by definition as a cadet she has the most potential to grow and adapt her personality. That being said, if I was in Burnham’s position, I would probably have already smothered her to death in her sleep. I mean, I’m already serving a life sentence, why put up with some snoring, dribbling arsehole for a whole night?
In a handy list:
- I am super, super uncool with Landry referring to the prisoners as “garbage” and “animals”. Even nowadays, there’s a growing awareness that rehabilitation rather than punishment is the best way to handle prisoners, and dehumanising them just feels gross for a setting that’s apparently so advanced the socio-economic causes behind most crimes have been eliminated over a century ago.
- Speaking of, why did the bald prisoner speak as though he was from a lower socio-economic status? How is socio-economic status a thing in a post-scarcity society? I’m conscious of the fact he was a murderer, but that doesn’t explain why he’d speak like he grew up on the rough streets of a 20th-century American city.
- And staying on this, why did the three prisoners just suddenly decide to shank Burnham? That literally came out of nowhere, went nowhere, and seemed to exist only to show off her “Vulcan martial arts” – and subsequently Landry’s racism towards Vulcans. How enlightened.
- And how did none of the Discovery‘s crew step in? Okay, they all hate Burnham, and okay, Landry held one of them back from intervening, but the rest? I mean, even nowadays, in a reality as shitty as ours, the military understands its duty of care to its prisoners. The only other time in Trek that we see prisoners being allowed to brawl is on Rura Penthe, the Klingon moon which the Klingons themselves describe as a “gulag”. Christ, I mean, I know there’s a war on, but how about some fucking standards, at least?
- And, just sticking with this, but in a post-scarcity society, which we know the Federation was at the time these people were incarcerated, how do you get criminals at all? There’s literally no necessity-born reason to turn to crime when everything is provided for free. Which means if these people were committing crimes, it was presumably due to some kind of mental or emotional stability. In which case, why weren’t they kept in pyschiatric care, being treated for whatever mental disorders caused them to go on murder sprees? Even if it’s only to study them to spot the signs in other potential offenders before they can harm anyone? Do the show’s creators really just see post-scarcity humanity as 21st-century United States but with spaceships instead of obesity?
- I don’t understand why the prison shuttle pilot’s tether broke and she floated off into space like, exactly 0.7 seconds before the autopilot randomly malfunctioned. That seems like peculiar bad luck.
- I’m find with characters having quirky character traits, but Burnham’s reciting of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ whilst fleeing the xenomorph was distracting. It’s one of those traits that only TV characters have, like calling siblings “brother” or “sis”, or of being intentionally cryptic when a simple explanation would literally solve the entire conflict of the episode. Like, I’ve never met a human raised by Vulcans after her parents were murdered by Klingons, so I dunno, maybe it’s more realistic than I realise, but it definitely shattered my immersion and was an instant reminder that I was watching a TV show.
- Okay, so, this show seems to be ripping off ‘The Expanse’, we all get it, but they even called the fucking fungus “prototaxites stellaviatori”. Jesus, don’t shows have teams dedicated to checking this shit these days? Why not just call it “protomoleculus rippofficus” and call it a day?
- They spent, like, a full minute running away from a xenomorph in darkened, strobe-lit corridors, with the outcome being a pseudo-redshirt getting eaten and them ending up in a room. It’s a good thing that was such a necessary part of the plot, as otherwise we might have wasted valuable seconds on pointless world-building and character development elsewhere in the episode.
In another handy list:
- The head scientist of the creepy fungus project wound me up to my tits with all of his fucking poetic pseudo-scientific horseshit, BUT I liked the fact that he cleaved to the traditional pacifistic aspects of the Federation, disgruntled over the use of his research in a military context.
- In general, the increased diversity of species aboard the Discovery was a good step forwards. In the words of Azetbur, the Federation has always been portrayed as a “homo-sapiens-only club”, and seeing multiple alien races was great.
- During Burnham’s little fungal projection, we see multiple scenes, one of which looked like the original artwork for the subterranean refinery from the Original Series episode ‘The Devil In The Dark’ (which is the one with the Horta). This is a neat little easter egg, even if it does fuel my fears of the show relying more and more on call-backs to previous works.
- The Klingon “shushing” Tilly and the resulting dialogue was a nice moment, I will admit.