I’m going to start this article on a tangent.
There’s an episode of ‘The Next Generation’ called ‘Power Play’, about evil space ghosts possessing two mooks and the Hero of Starfleet (Troi, Data and Miles O’Brien, respectively).
These space ghosts take three people hostage to force Picard and the crew to help them. One of the people they take hostage is Worf, he who wears the Bandolier of Denial. When threatened with death, Worf responds thusly:
“To die defending one’s ship is the hope of every Klingon.”
That is one hell of a line. Why? Well, let’s pretend we’ve never seen, or even heard of, Klingons before. What does this line tell us?
First off, he’s speaking for “every Klingon”. Not literally true, perhaps, but this is clearly a statement about the Klingon mindset. And he’s talking about their hopes, their aspirations – this is a statement about the Klingon ideal, their model existence. And it’s a statement which includes death, but not just any death – a meaningful one, a sacrifice, in fact. And not even mere sacrifice. “Defending.” “Defending one’s ship.” The act of preserving, an act borne out of duty, maybe even loyalty. And this isn’t “protecting”, either – “defending” has a very martial connotation. This isn’t about dying in service to others, this is about dying honourably, gloriously.
Am I giving a lot of credit to a throw-away line? Probably. I mean, this is hardly the best episode of ‘The Next Generation’. It’s not even the best episode in this season of Next Gen. And the effectiveness of this line is most likely accidental.
So let’s look at a line that most likely wasn’t accidental in its effectiveness.
Spock points to a diagram of the ship, scattered with blinking lights. “They knew exactly where to hit us.”
This line alone is pretty powerful. It tells us everything we need to know about the situation, without the need for any specifics. No technobabble, no talk of shields failing, of crew casualties, or warp cores breaching. You don’t even need the rest of the scene to know that the Enterprise has been under attack; you don’t need to see the sparks flying or the smoke pluming or the lights flickering to know that they’ve been badly wounded. And whilst Nimoy is gesturing towards a prop of the damaged locations, that’s entirely auxiliary.
Oh, and in case you don’t recognise the line itself, it’s from ‘The Wrath of Khan’, about twenty seconds after the Enterprise gets her arse kicked by Reliant. If you still don’t know which bit I’m talking about, go and watch ‘The Wrath of Khan’, like, seriously, right now, go, go do it, go watch it, it’s amazing, watch it, do it now.
So, why am I talking about these two lines? Well, it’s simply to point out that it is entirely possible to convey meaningful information in a very short space of time. And the irony that it has taken me ten paragraphs to explain that is not lost on me, I assure you.
And the reason I’m making this point is as follows:
As of ‘Lethe’, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has given us four episodes based around a war with the Klingons, and not a single line explaining how that war is going.
Not. One. Line.
The fact is, I don’t give a shit about the actual war. We’ve been there and done that with the Dominion, back in the days when Trek still occasionally approached being a quality show. As I’ve stated elsewhere, what I care about is the universe that our characters inhabit, and how that affects them. And so far, it’s having no effect. This war is apparently raging across the known galaxy, and yet it’s having absolutely zero consequences for the entire cast.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Certainly, the fact that there is a war is leading to Things Happening. Lorca gets kidnapped, Sarek gets attacked, Cornwell gets captured. These things occur allegedly because there is a war, but there’s a problem.
During ‘Choose Your Pain’, before he’s kidnapped by the Klingons (Klingnapped?), Lorca is attending some sort of strategy meeting with a bunch of admirals. Here, he gets told that despite the fact that Discovery is apparently kicking all sorts of arse, they need to bring it off the front line until they can replicate it’s water-bear-operated mushroom drive.
During this meeting, Admiral Cornwell tells Lorca not to worry about being out of the fight, as “the rest of the fleet will pick up the slack.” Now, maybe she’s just trying to allay his anxieties, but everything about the exchange suggests that the war is going pretty well for Starfleet. The Discovery seems more like a novelty weapon, an experimental platform prior to implementation in the rest of the fleet. Lorca tells them “that’s a lot of slack,” but he’s an arrogant butthole so whatever, his words mean nothing to me. And besides, Cornwell tells him that they will “manage”.
What’s shockingly absent from this strategy briefing between four high-ranking military commanders, though, is any discussion of the war beyond three missions completed by Discovery. Taking a cue from the two examples I gave above, a single line could have provided so much context to the events of the episode, and the series to date. Here’s a few possibilities:
“Without Discovery, the fighting would’ve reached Vulcan by now.”
“Everybody’s tired, and everybody’s worried, but we need to keep it together.”
“The repair yards are already at capacity, soon we’ll be pulling antiques out of mothballs.”
“Lorca, you’re the most experienced captain we’ve got left.”
“If we get overconfident, we might find the ground falling out from underneath us.”
“We’re out of options.”
“They’re out of options.”
“They’re getting desperate.”
“Nobody expected this to be easy.”
These are all hugely cliché, sure, but they’re simple and they convey at least a little meaning. And these are just off the top of my head.
It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t have to be accurate. The important thing here is the situation as it’s perceived by the characters. It may be that they’re well towards victory, but they all think they’re on the edge of Armageddon, and that’s fine so long as it informs the decisions that they make.
In the next episode, an in-universe week later, the same Admiral Cornwell is drilling Lorca a new arsehole (not literally, that occurs later in the episode) over his abject insubordination, during which time she describes Discovery as Starfleet’s “cornerstone of defence.” Again, this would be an ideal opportunity for a little added background, to put the Discovery‘s actions in the context of the larger war, and yet again that opportunity is ignored by the show’s writers.
Another instance in ‘Choose Your Pain’ is the introduction of a new character, Ash Tyler The Human. Ash Tyler The Human, from Humansville, on the Human Planet, is a Human Starfleet Human prisoner aboard the same Klingon vessel as Lorca following the former’s abduction. Given that he’s been imprisoned by
other Klingons since the start of the war, you might naturally expect him to enquire after the war, and use the opportunity to speak to a high-ranking Fellow Human to find out how all of the Other Humans are fairing.
And yet… nothing. No “How’s the war going?” No “Are we winning, cap’n?” No “Has my torment and suffering over the last seven months meant anything?” And it’s just so odd. I can’t get my head around why a show which otherwise has a worrying fixation on violence shies away so much from the bigger picture. I mean, we get to see necks being broken, throats being slit and human bodies twisted into fusilli, all in excruciating detail, but apparently the show’s creators are squeamish about portraying war as anything other than a vague background hum.
And that’s the crux of it. Things happen in this show allegedly because of The War – Lorca is abducted; the mining colony is attacked; Sarek is suicide-bombed; Lorca is an arsehole; Cornwell gets captured – it’s stated that these all occur because of The War, and yet these are all standard Trek plots – rogue alien species attack Federation outposts all the time, and there isn’t a single season of Next Gen that doesn’t feature at least one episode about the crew being abducted, or brainwashed, or possessed, or held to ransom. Again, look at ‘Power Play’, discussed above.
All of the plotlines of ‘Discovery’ so far could have easily occurred as one-off incidents, unrelated to any grander narrative. And yet The War is mentioned in every other conversation. And yet, nothing about the war is discussed. It’s mentioned, but it has no real impact on anything that happens. Even Ash Tyl- ah, sorry, even Voq The Klingon’s arc could function perfectly well without the war. A Klingon infiltrating Starfleet to win glory for the Empire is an old trope that plays just fine as general Klingon shenanigans.
Which then raises the point – why does the War even exist? What does it add to the narrative? To the story? What’s even more infuriating is that some of these plotlines would actually be better without the war. Leaving your primary source of fuel in such a remote, poorly defended position is understandable when you’re at peace and not expecting an attack. But during a full-on escalated conflict with an enemy race? It makes Starfleet look like amateurs.
In ‘Deep Space Nine’, there’s a really interesting arc when Ben Sisko finds out that his son, Jake, has stayed behind on the Starfleet station that the Dominion now occupy. This little side plot sees father and son separated for a good chunk of the season, and it adds an extra personal investment for Sisko. The point at which he realises his son is missing is painful, and the point at which they reunite is touching. And it uses the war to drive character motives – Sisko can’t simply return to an enemy-held station to rescue his son, and Jake has to learn to cope in a dangerous situation without his heroic father around to protect him.
Elsewhere, Dax and Worf, a newly-married couple, find themselves on separate assignments. This doesn’t necessarily affect their duties, but it does mean that when we finally see them reunite, we understand how emotional a moment it is for them. All throughout the War arc, we see characters torn apart, brought back together, and the emotional rollercoaster that they experience throughout it all.
And what we’re specifically not seeing is every battle that takes place. We don’t get periodic updates on front lines and casualties. But we do get them, and they invariably result in our characters making decisions around them. Someone loses an old friend during a distant, off-screen battle. We don’t ever meet that friend, but we do see the effect that the loss has on the characters we care about.
And that’s just absent from ‘Discovery’. The war is entirely abstract, entirely inconsequential to what occurs, excepting Engineer Stavros’ occasional line about “being a scientist and not a soldier.” And even that loses its impact, as we never see Stavros doing anything except what he’d normally do.
When the Dominion attacks Deep Space Nine, we see Bashir, the doctor, and Dax, the scientist, and O’Brien, the engineer, all take up arms to defend it. We see them outside their comfort zone, because that’s where the war has taken them. In ‘Discovery’, the crew carry on jogging around, chatting shit, eating burritos and torturing large-igrades. And that’s fine, we don’t need to see them fighting all the time. But maybe we could see them rushing medical aid to a frontier outpost? Maybe see Stavros having to help out his partner in triage, see Tilly develop her leadership skills as she co-ordinates paramedics.
As is the nature of ‘Discovery’, potential is wasted at every opportunity.