“First officer’s log, stardate 1207.3. On Earth, it’s May 11, 2256, a Sunday. The crew of the USS Shenzhou has been called to the edge of Federation space to investigate damage done to one of our interstellar relays. Blast burns around the hole are inconclusive. Were they caused by an asteroid, or was it deliberately destroyed to limit Starfleet communications? And if so, by whom? Despite the mystery, I feel at ease. It’s hard not to in the face of such beauty – in this case, a binary star system. Around these two suns, ice, dust, and gasses collide to form planets future generations will call home. A humbling reminder that all life is born from chaos and destruction.”
“None forthcoming, Commander.” Saru taps away at his console. “There is no chemical residue, no ionic scoring indicative of a particle weapon, and the damage is too limited for any kind of explosive weapon.”
Michael Burnham stands at the front of the bridge, gazing into the image on the viewscreen as a worker bee clamps hold of the relay buoy and turns back for the Shenshou‘s shuttle bay.
Behind her, Captain Phillipa Georgiou enters, a beacon of calm confidence. “Status, Number One.”
Burnham turns to her captain. “Nothing yet to report, Captain. We found the buoy, and it has a large hole in it. Saru is struggling to produce an answer.”
“I am not struggling, Captain,” Saru protests. “I merely lack the data required for a satisfactory conclusion. As a trained scientist, I might have expected our First Officer to appreciate the value of an empirical approach.”
Burnham raises an eyebrow. The other bridge officers exchange glances. Georgiou raises a quieting hand. “Alright, you two, we all know you’re both smart. How about you put those brains to work and take a guess?”
Burnham gestures to Saru, inviting him to go first. He shakes his head. “Please, as our executive officer, Commander Burnham, your analysis must take precedence.”
Burnham nods curtly. “The buoy is of limited strategic value. It forms part of a relay network with layered redundancies, and the nullification of this unit has resulted in no detriment to our frontier monitoring capabilities. In short, Captain, if this is an act of sabotage, it was carried out by someone who had no strategic goal in mind. My deduction: this was a freak accident, a stray rock flung out from the stellar disc at an unfortunate trajectory.”
Georgiou considers this analysis. “Officer thinking, Commander. Always concerned with the bigger picture. Lieutenant Commander?” she asks, turning to Saru.
The Kelpien nods in acknowledgement. “Commander Burnham offers a succinct analysis, but one based on supposition and circumstance. The damage to the relay is comprehensive and precise, leaving no functionality whatsoever. To put it bluntly, you could not switched the relay off more permanently if you were trying, and space rocks are rarely so determined. This must have been a deliberate act.”
Georgiou now considers Saru’s analysis. “Two capable Starfleet officers, reaching opposite conclusions, based off the same data.” She strokes her chin, imitating a wizened, bearded old sage. “Lieutenant Detmer, what would you do in my situation? Who would you bet on?”
Detmer, sat at the helm station, smiles. “My dad always taught me never to bet against Vulcan logic, Captain. But he also told me that when there’s trouble, follow the Kelpien, ’cause they know their way to safety. So, I don’t know. I’m sorry, Captain.”
“Don’t apologise, Lieutenant,” Georgiou insists, “your dad sounds like a smart man. Alright, let’s get to the bottom of this. Saru, run a tachyon sweep at low-band frequency, see if we can pick up any warp trails that have been masked by those stars.”
“Aye, Captain,” Saru answers. “Running sweep. Any warp trails will have to be recent, even just a few hours is enough time to…” He trails off. “Captain, I, there’s something out there. In the debris field.”
Burnham hurries over to Saru’s science station as Georgiou inquires further. “What’s out there, Saru? A ship?”
“Difficult to say, Captain, it’s-” Burnham cuts him off, shunting him out of the way and taking over the console. “It’s some kind of artificial construct, Captain,” she explains. “Roughly a hundred-and-twenty-thousand kilometres from our position. Symmetrical in shape, it seems to be around three hundred metres in size.”
Saru rolls his eyes. “I, too, can read data from a console,” he says, shunting Burnham away from the console, “and I can also deduce that the reason for First Officer Burnham’s ambiguity is the result of some kind of scattering field around the object. Whatever it is, Captain, it’s hiding from us.”
Georgiou’s eyes narrow. “Alright, both of you, my ready room, now.” She stands up and straightens her uniform. “Detmer, you have the conn.”
The beautiful brass telescope in the Captain’s ready room provides a better view of the object, but it remains obscured by asteroids. Whatever it is, it’s rendered in bronze, and is elegant, almost organic, in shape. Burnham squints through the eyepiece in frustration.
“I still can’t figure it out, Captain,” she says, adjusting the focus. She abandons the old astronomical device and stands straight. “Captain, Phillipa, what are we doing out here?”
Saru bristles at the familiarity, but Georgiou smiles. “Something bugging you, Michael?”
“Why are we here, investigating a broken antenna? And then we find this? It has to be more than coincidence.”
Georgiou’s smile widens. “So you think a little maintenance work is beneath us?”
Burnham remains severe. “Captain, this is a Walker-class exploratory vessel. Our long-standing mission is searching for imminent supernovas. Fixing busted satellites is…” She searches for the right words. “Is a waste of material.”
Georgiou moves to behind her desk and takes a seat. On shelves behind her is a collection of old navigation equipment – sextants, calipers, compasses, even one of the first subspace orientation devices from before the days of Starfleet. Georgiou leans back in her chair. “We are barely ten light-years from Klingon territory. This system is the last piece of Federation real estate before you hit neutral space.”
Saru nods. “This is one of the farthest reaches of the outer frontiers. Captain, are you saying that you suspect Klingon activity in this system?” His ganglia twitch, extruding slightly in alarm before retreating again.
“No,” Georgiou says, “not yet. Starfleet hasn’t recorded an encounter with a Klingon ship in twenty years. By all counts, the Empire is in disarray, focused on internal squabbles. But,” she says, cautiously, “there have been reports. Missing ships near the border. Sensor whispers all along the frontier. I recently spoke to Captain Nicholls – she was investigating a burst of neutron radiation near Betazed three weeks ago, and she swears she saw the stars dancing – dancing – in front of her eyes. She says the stars were dancing in the shape of an eagle, or a falcon, or some other bird of prey.”
Burnham’s mouth hangs open, and Saru’s ganglia stretch out behind his head. Georgiou stares out the window at the two suns, tearing at each other in a tug of war.
Burnham breaks the silence. “Captain, as your First Officer I should have been made aware that we would be heading into battle.”
Georgiou looks towards her. “Battle? We’re not going into battle. And I didn’t tell you about Starfleet’s suspicions precisely because of your history with the Klingons.” Georgiou leans forwards. “Michael, this isn’t a warzone, this is Federation space. You’re right, we’re not here to fix a satellite, but we’re not here to start a fight, either. Starfleet just wants to cover all its bases.” She stands, and moves over to the window. “Whatever’s out there, whatever broke our satellite, it wasn’t random. It’s sat out there, watching us, hiding in plain sight, fogging our sensors but holding our attention.”
“Captain Georgiou, this is clearly a dangerous situation and we must immediately call for backup,” Saru says frantically. “We are alone out here, and completely exposed. If there are Klingons in this system, we are entirely at their mercy.”
“I must concur with Science Officer Saru,” Burnham says. “At least send word to Starfleet. This is clearly a trap.”
Georgiou smiles again. “Have we fallen through a wormhole into a parallel universe? My first mate and my science officer, agreeing with one another?” She laughed. “When a troubled Kelpien and Vulcan logic align, who am I to argue?” She moves back to her desk and activated the comm-link. “Lieutenant McFadden, send word to Starfleet Sector Command, advise them of the situation and the unknown object, and request any available ships to rendezvous with Shenzhou at system JWST-86690.”
Burnham remains composed, but her eyes betray her anxiety. “What do we do until they arrive? The nearest ships will be hours away.”
“Well, Number One, when was the last time you piloted a shuttle?
As part of my analysis and break-down of ‘Discovery’, I feel it’s not enough to merely point out the problems – I ought to be offering solutions. As a result, this is the first installment of a personal project to re-write the series from the bottom up.
I’ve set myself a few rules – first, that most of the premises set up by the show are maintained. Specifically:
Burnham is a disgraced officer who threw away her career with some really poor judgement, precipitating a war with the Klingons.
The Discovery is a ship with an experimental spore drive.
Lorca is a mirror-universe impostor with a hidden, wicked agenda.
Ash Tyler is a sleeper agent, with Voq’s memories and personality suppressed.
I will also be keeping almost all of the same characters and settings, where possible, and will do my best to hit the same plot milestones as the show.
This is entirely self-indulgent, and I make no apologies. I certainly have no shame.
This first installment is to set the scene – to establish the same setting and the same characters as we meet in the show. I wanted to capture Georgiou’s same easy confidence and cool charisma, and the playful rivalry between Burnham and Saru. We’ll see how it all plays out.
The latest episode of ‘Star Trek Discovery’ is called “The War Without, The War Within”. I can only presume that title is missing the words “Consequences” and “All Expectations”, because nothing that happens seems to affect any of our characters, and nothing that happens seems in any way surprising.
Take the beautiful way the show handles the fate of two interesting, unseen characters: Mirror Tilly, and Non-Mirror Lorca.
Expecting that the Mirror Universe I.S.S. Discovery presumably arrived in the Prime Universe and started wrecking face, we instead find out that she got immediately annihilated by Klingons, along with Cadet Tilly’s more successful counterpart, Captain Killy. That was fun! A load of buildup for a character who lives and dies off screen.
We establish the status of Prime Lorca, the presumably non-evil version of the Lorca with which we’re familiar, with Admiral Cornwell stating of her former friend and lover: “There’s no way he survived over there, so I guess he’s dead.” And that’s it. That is literally all she spoke. It’s like a line out of ‘Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place’, I’m not even kidding:
Dagless: I just can’t believe the Temp is dead. Reed: It’s alright Rick, we’ll get another one.
(Except that the Temp in the ‘Dark Place’ actually got more character progression and a more emotional death scene than anyone in ‘Discovery’. I even learned the difference between a principality and a dependent territory.)
Before I dig in, here are a few other stray observations:
Lots more women talk to other women this episode, which is good. I haven’t had chance to catalogue it yet, but I know we get Owosekun-Georgiou, Burnham-Georgiou, Burnham-Tilly, Burnham-Cornwell, Cornwell-Georgiou and Cornwell-L’Rell. Just in general women are talking and doing more this episode, and the men take much more of a backseat.
I love that the first priority on returning to the Prime Universe, now overrun with Klingons, is to change the “I” back to a “U” on the ship’s nameplate. Wouldn’t want anyone getting confused, would we?
Yet another Federation ship approaches Discovery without being seen. Does anyone else remember the days of neat little establishing shots of Excelsior-class ships cruising alongside the Enterprise-D? Now it all just happens off-screen. Which makes me wonder what happened to that massive budget the writers keep talking about.
Saru’s Ganglia shoot off when the ship is about to arrive at a ruined Starbase and not be attacked, but don’t even twitch when a bunch of armed aliens beam aboard the ship right in front of him and shove phasers in his face. Making them actually pointless. They really are good for nothing but eating.
Saru decides not to throw Tyler in the brig. Because Tyler might be capable of redemption. Which I really like. Except, he’s also definitely still not right, and also definitely admitted to killing Doctor Culber whilst not in control of his actions. So, I dunno, Saru, do you maybe want to keep the potentially murderous enemy sleeper agent locked up for a bit until after you’ve saved the Federation? I mean, I’m not saying he deserves punishment, but if he does go all Smeagol again there’s a good chance that billions of Federation citizens might die, so you might want to take that into consideration.
On the subject of Ash’Voq the Hugon, it turns out that he’s a next-level dickhead. He insists that Burnham forgive him and accept him back so that he can “heal”, making no allowances for how she might feel about having unknowingly had sex with a Klingon agent, and then being strangled by that same agent. I was actually really, really glad when she decided to walk away – if she’d taken him back, I would have shat myself with rage.
What’s worse is Tilly, Burnham’s “best friend”, pressuring Burnham to talk to Ash’Voq in the first place. Yeah, Tilly, I’m sure he’s hurting too, but Burnham also just came back from a week-long stint of murdering people, being betrayed repeatedly and eating Kelpien, so maybe give her more than an hour to pull herself together, yeah? Or just fuck off?
Ash gets a big bunch of people standing around him and validating his existence. I guess nobody but Stamets had any kind of connection with Culber, whom Tyler murdered just over a week ago. I mean, Christ, if this was regular Trek I might buy into it, but this is the same crew that ostracised Burnham for a war that she didn’t start – and that, by all counts, is still ostracising her.
Jesus Fucking Christ, I’m actually feeling sorry for Burnham.
Burnham once again confirms that She Started The War. Like, that seems to be canon within the show. Except that SHE GOT ARRESTED BEFORE SHE COULD FUCKING DO ANYTHING. Why does everyone keep banging on about her starting this war? Even people who were there keep blaming her for it, even SHE keeps blaming herself for it, and yet she ultimately DID NOTHING. Did the writers not watch their own fucking show? Are they just those assholes who drop a nauseating fart at the exact moment they step off a crowded lift, spewing noxious filth that they know they won’t have to endure themselves? JESUS, GET YOUR FUCKING STORIES STRAIGHT.
Burnham observes of the Klingon war efforts, “There’s no pattern to these attacks, no logical progression to their targets.” Oh, sorry, Ms. Xeno-Anthropologist whose parents were killed in a “Terror Raid”, did you expect that a culture of warriors who steal all their clothes from Lordi and cover their ships in coffins would prosecute a logical, well-thought-out military campaign? Did you think the Klingons had, like, a Group Strategy Meeting at the beginning of the war, where they put a Powerpoint together highlighting the various pros and cons of igniting a planet’s atmosphere?
“Well, on the downside we’d lose the ability to use the planet as a base of our own, but on the plus-side, that’s a lot of pre-cooked meat, which is really going to reduce our charcoal costs for this quarter.”
Okay, here’s the doozy. Distances. Actually, no, fuck it, this gets its own fucking section:
HOW NOT TO WRITE TECHNICAL DIALOGUE
I’m confident that ‘Discovery’s writers are now trying to troll me. Genuinely. There’s no other way to explain this next bit beyond them hating me personally, figuring out the one thing that would flip all of my nerd-rage switches, and then intentionally getting all the cast back together and re-shooting the briefing room scene just so I’d spend the entire rest of the week angry.
Okay, listen up, here’s the thing. If you don’t understand what you’re talking about, YOU SHOULDN’T FUCKING TALK ABOUT IT.
Rich coming from me, I know, but it should be obvious to anyone with a fraction of a cerebral cortex left in their skull that as soon as you start making shit up, you massively amplify the exposure of your own incompetence. For reference, see literally anything I’ve ever written.
What this means is that when Stamets starts talking about the distance between objects in space, it is PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE for him to say:
“Starbase I is a long way from Earth, and it is an even longer way from our current position.”
That’s your first level of detail. Literally nobody has a map of Starfleet installations relative to Earth, so you can say whatever the fuck you like and nobody will give a shit.
The next level of charlatanism is to make shit up in a very non-specific way. So, if Stamets had said:
“Starbase I is dozens of light-years from Earth, and hundreds of light-years away from our current position.”
NOBODY can pick their way through that to find a fault. It’s still so generalised that it tells you nothing, but it adds a bit of space-flavour to this space-based show.
The next level is to add some actual numbers. This is tricky, but you can get around that by making the numbers BIG:
“Starbase I is forty-seven light-years from Earth, and six-hundred-and-twelve light-years away from our current position.”
Now, I’m a bit of a space nerd, but I have no idea of how I would start picking holes in that. Except, none of those versions of the line are used. Instead we get this:
“Well, [Starbase I] is, uh, 100 AUs from Earth, and over a light-year from our current position.”
D’you see that lush, terrestrial planet in the background? The one with clouds, and oceans, and continents? And see how it’s brightly illuminated by a nearby star?
Well, 100 AUs from Earth? That’s roughly three times the orbit of Pluto (or twice Pluto’s greatest distance from the Sun). On Pluto, the Sun is a dim star that nearly blends in with all the other stars in the sky. The next nearest star, Alpha Centauri? That’s more than 4 light-years away, or nearly 270,000 AUs.
All of which means that the writers of ‘Discovery’ created a new star with a new planet literally within the outer reaches of our solar system, just because they couldn’t be bothered spending one minute of their lives using Google.
Literally, one minute. Sixty seconds.
And I know that Trek is hardly ever scientifically accurate, but this is a rare example of Trek writers being MORE specific than they need to be just so’s they can shoot themselves in the foot.
It’s a bizarre display of dedicated self-destruction for absolutely no creative gain. Nothing, nothing, is added to the story of this episode by making up random numbers, and I’m baffled by their decision to do so. Just how little do you have to care about your work to not even put in a pedestrian level of research?
Han Solo. I’m captain of the Millennium Falcon. Chewie here tells me you’re looking for passage to the Alderaan system.
Yes, indeed. If it’s a fast ship.
Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?
Should I have?
It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs!
Ben reacts to Solo’s stupid attempt to impress them with obvious misinformation.
And if you think that’s been retconned in after the fact, here’s Obi Wan’s expression as he remains singularly unimpressed by Solo’s rampant bullshit:
So here’s the thing: everyone harps on about ‘Star Wars’ getting something this basic so wrong, when it’s actually one character lying to another.
Which means that unless Stamets was, for some reason, lying to everyone (which we know he wasn’t because they make the journey), Star Trek is now worse at doing sci-fi than Star Wars.
Especially when you take into account Saru’s magic Ganglia, Stamets’ magic spore drive, a Mirror Universe which makes no fucking sense, and an enemy sleeper agent plotline that relies on every single doctor on a futuristic space ship being drunk or incompetent.
So essentially, the next time you try to claim that Trek is somehow “more sci-fi” than Wars, just remember the moment that Trek writers cared so little for their craft that they couldn’t be bothered googling what a “light-year” was.
There are possibly as many as two thousand articles I could write about all the issues with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and as I slowly work my way up to that number, a new issue has arisen with the latest episode.
We discover that in the Mirror Universe, Cadet Tilly’s counterpart is captain of the Discovery, in a revelation that is painfully predictable based on previous lines of dialogue (predictable, but not in the sense of a story that follows a logical path but rather of a dangerously unimaginative narrative).
My worry is that the writers have mistaken this event in the story for character development for Tilly, when in actuality it is really just making fun of a social awkward young woman.
I always liked Tilly, because she felt like what Reg Barclay should have been – a more ordinary human being on a ship full of near-superhuman futuristic heroes. Sadly Reg Barclay ended up as a bit of a creepy neckbeard who seemed like a caricature of Trek’s own fandom. Tilly, on the other hand, felt to me like someone just entering adulthood and still figuring themselves out in a reasonably sympathetic manner.
There were specifically two elements of Tilly’s character that I really liked:
She is determined to be a captain one day.
She is theoretically the best engineer on the ship.
Nope, sorry, fucked that one up: she’s the best theoretical engineer on the ship.
Because of Tilly’s scientific ability, she was in fact fast-tracked through the Academy, to serve on the most advanced science and research vessel in Starfleet (an organisation made up almost exclusively of scientists and engineers); in short, on a vessel full of extremely clever people, she is the cleverest.
And so, what tasks are befitting the best theoretical physicist on the ship, and probably in the entirety of Starfleet?
Boarding a ransacked vessel to retrieve a few hard drives.
Moving canisters of sparkly goo from one hole to another hole.
Dropping Trek’s first ever strategic F-bomb.
Sending Thoughts and Prayers to a dying space teddy-bear.
Providing moral support for her roommate (not even kidding, that’s literally what they say in the show).
Moving more canisters around.
Scanning a large space whale with a tricorder.
Counting down from 133, whilst moving canisters from one hole to another hole.
Now, I’m not specifically saying that any of these physical tasks are beneath atheoretical physicist. What I am saying is that they’re probably beneath the best theoretical physicist on the ship, particularly when that ship is literally propelled by an engine whose mechanisms exceed humanity’s understanding of the universe.
What I honestly hoped for after Tilly told us her credentials was that cool scene where they encounter an entirely new scientific problem, and so turn to the genius cadet to see if her younger, more open mind can reach a solution that they’d never consider. Y’know, that combination of expertise with a fresh perspective.
But that never happens. We get a hint of it when Tilly, Stamets and Burnham try to figure out an alternative to using the tardigrade in Episode Five, but Tilly’s role in that conversation is to just repeat information that everybody already knows and then say “fuck”.
For example, in Episode Ten, when they all arrive in the mirror universe, in an environment where every particle of matter behaves slightly differently and things that were previously thought to be impossible are now seen to be possible, you might think that would be an incredible opportunity for a young scientist to weigh in intellectually and offer some insight, particularly given that she’s just spent years of her life living in what is essentially a space university for super-nerds (Starfleet Academy being the Federation’s primary academic centre).
Instead we get a picture of her in boob-armour with straightened hair, playing for laughs the idea that her mirror counterpart might be someone who wields any degree of power or ambition. We then get a reasonably painful sequence of “Force The Nerdy Girl To Be Confident”, followed later by “Now The Nerdy Girl Has Sexy Hair She Is Both Confident And Sexy”.
Now, way back in Episode Three, when Tilly announces her command ambitions, I honestly thought it was great, like, genuinely. And I was glad to see her and Burnham training for Tilly’s career in Episode Six, running around the ship looking like massive dorks in their DISCO t-shirts.
But we never saw anything else. We never saw Burnham trying to teach Tilly how to understand alien cultures (fittingly for a xenoanthropologist) or deal with difficult political and diplomatic situations, or even train in tactics and strategy, or any of the other things that a Starfleet Captain might be expected to understand. In fact, besides two scenes involving running, we never see any more of Tilly’s training.
Indeed, Tilly’s last major appearance in the first half of the season is in the 70s-themed DISCO party in Episode Seven. She staggers about drunkenly, gets hit on, tries to set her roommate up with a Kling 100% Human Being, and then scans a whale. In the final two episodes of the demi-season, she gets a total of about three scenes – one, talking to Stamets about his increasing reliance on hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a couple more scenes where she’s once again lugging canisters of galactic semen around a room.
But it’s not like Tilly is a minor character – Mary Wise is one-sixth of the main cast (plus Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp, Shazad Latif, Doug Jones and Jason Isaacs) and one half of the main female cast (the other being Martin-Green). She should be up there getting arcs of her own, particularly given that this is a serialised narrative – it’s not a huge stretch to get a enough scenes over eight episodes to give a main character at least a little depth.
Episode Ten shows us that there’s a little promise in Tilly’s future, that she may aspire to become more than just Burnham and Stamets’ dweeby sidekick. But I really, really hope she does that through positive character qualities, and not because she only just now discovered the existence of hair straighteners.
(As a side note, the “featured image” for this article, appearing at the top of this page, is notable for showing Tilly without the mole on her forehead. It’s a shot from within the show, but has visibly been airbrushed to be used for promotional purposes. It was taken from the CBS website, which as you can see here, features another screen capture, once again with that mole removed.
A curious reminder of this show’s “positive attitude” towards women. Just remember girls, there’s a place in the stars for you too – so long as your skin remains featureless and womanly.)
(As a further side note, I called the reveal of evil Tilly “painfully predictable,” but as one commenter correctly pointed out, I made no such prediction on this website. I did, however, make it on a time-stamped Facebook post on my personal profile about twelve hours before seeing the episode, which I have screen-shotted below:)
The thing is, I used to hate it because it was alternately stupid and offensive. And so I used to be able to enjoy hating it for that reason.
Now it has returned after a festive hiatus and it does so with all the joy and wonder of a bloodshot-eyed office worker staggering to their desk on the Monday after New Year’s, hollow-eyed, stinking of cheap booze and regret, a single paper string from a party popper hanging limply from their unwashed hair.
To say that the show’s tenth episode, ‘Despite Yourself’, is lacklustre is as much of an understatement as the episode itself. It never picks up any momentum, and any that it accidentally accrues it quickly wastes.
Anyway, since I am about to go on for a bit, I’m going to list some random observations first, rather than last:
The men yet again get multiple conversational connections, between Lorca, Tyler, Culber, Stamets, Saru, Connor, the captain of the Cooper, random crew members…
I laughed sadistically and without restraint when Burnham and Ash Tyler the Human decided to fuck, knowing that Lorca was currently being tortured. The episode doesn’t even try to hide it, we literally cut from them wrapping their legs around each other to Lorca’s spleen wrapping itself around his lungs.
I wouldn’t have laughed if it had been anyone other than Lorca.
Jason Isaacs’ Scottish accent was beautiful, and beautifully fitting given that he was pretending to be the chief engineer at the time.
We don’t see any women brutally killed this episode, but in a single snap we do lose both half of the male non-white main cast and half of the gay main cast.
The other half of the gay main cast is currently alternating between catatonic and violently dissociative.
The other half of the male non-white main cast is currently suffering from violent PTSD.
Of the named characters who have died so far, four of them were played by non-white actors (Georgiou, T’Kuvma, Landry, now Culber) and two were white (Kol and Connor). One third of those deaths were women, which in fairness ties in with the proportion of talking roles women get in this series, too.
I like the fact that Tyler’s reveal isn’t even treated as a reveal, it just kind of happens. Presumably the writers realised that they would be surprising literally nobody who had actually followed the show on even a casual basis.
Shock and no Awe
I didn’t anticipate Culber getting offed, but I think that’s because the writers didn’t, either. I think they wrote themselves into a corner and pretty much had no choice but to kill off a familiar character to make it seem like that particular story was advancing.
First off, a question:
If “PTSD regs require full-duty quarantine until you can get treatment”… how was Tyler allowed to serve to begin with?
I don’t know for sure that seven months of abuse and torture would cause everybody psychological issues, but surely when Tyler returned from the prison ship, the first thing that would happen is that he would be sent to an actual medical facility?
What happened, exactly? Did a doctor interview Tyler, ask him “Do you think you have PTSD?”, let him answer “Probably fine,” and subsequently clear him to man the weapons systems?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to feed into the fiction that people with psychological issues are inherent liabilities. But the fact that they have regulations prohibiting military service for people with PTSD suggests that you would assume a person is vulnerable until proven other wise.
I mean, Christ, Culber even tells us that they scanned Tyler when he first came aboard and knew then that he was essentially one large piece of scar tissue. And yet they never seem to have considered that he might have needed the attention of a qualified mental health professional following such an ordeal. Was this negligence? Malice? Did Lorca override them? Would he even be able to do that?
The point is, Culber gets killed off without ceremony or even acknowledgement. A room full of medical scanners apparently can’t detect a murder, and neither can the ship’s general internal sensors, which you might think would be a useful feature. These ships aren’t exactly short on power, so you wouldn’t think that a periodic scan for corpses would be too difficult. Mind you, they probably switched it off after it kept getting set off by Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.
So, Culber dies without any immediate consequence, following in the path of Captain Georgiou, Commander Landry and T’Kuvma…
That’s now four named characters of colour, two of them women, one of them gay, who have been killed, incredibly violently. Meanwhile, the only other person to die this episode is a white man who we had already seen die. Hell, the only other people we see die the entire series are all nameless mooks, plus Kol (who is the mookiest of antagonists anyway). You could potentially include Admiral ThatBloke in the count, but he barely gets two scenes in the joint pilot episodes.
I mean, I’m not saying that this is evidence that the show is bigoted. It’s a hell of a lot more representational than previous Trek outings. Or at least, it probably would be, if it didn’t keep killing off all of its minority cast.
It’s just that the longest-running characters are now made up of Burnham, Lorca, Stamets, Tilly, Detmer, Ash the Human, L’Rell and Saru. Admittedly, half of them are women (although Detmer averages less than one line per episode), but six out of eight of them are played by white actors.
So here’s those statistics side by side:
Again, this doesn’t prove that the show is white supremacist propaganda, and those charts would likely be even worse for many other recent productions (particularly Star Wars, or even other Treks), but they’re hardly favourable for a show with a legacy of diversity.
(By the way, Ted, if you’re reading this, A) Why are you reading this? B) Can I call you Ted? C) Don’t take it personally, but please don’t pat yourself on the back too much either.)
Now, I will concede that this is likely not perfect data, as I put that above table together in a hurry and from memory. But what I want you to do is look at that table, and then look at the two network graphs above, and then do something a little weird:
Pretend Burnham’s a man.
If Burnham was a male character, here’s what would happen:
The number of women who are victims of horrible violence would reduce by 20%.
The number of female-female conversational connections would reduce by 73% (sixteen connections out of 22 would disappear).
That’s… that’s a subtle point to get your head around, so here’s another way to look at it:
Named male characters have a 92% chance of speaking to another named male character during the series, whilst non-Burnham named female characters have a 50% chance of speaking to another female character during the series.
Male named characters have a 12% chance of suffering gory violence, whilst female non-Burnham named characters have a 33% chance of suffering gory violence.
Women with names in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ have a one-in-three chance of being mauled, burned or eaten, and a one-in-two chance of talking to one another.
Just to reiterate, this isn’t proof of anything. It’s just worth taking in. Again, remember that these figures are probably a lot better than they would be for most other shows.
Now, those numbers have moved around a bit with Lorca and Connor getting a bit of punishment in Episode Ten, so I’m going to have to rerun everything. But seriously, take these figures with the stats about skin colour and… god damn.
The thing is, can a show be accused of tokenism when its main character is a black woman? I mean, tokenism is literally using limited representation to appear more diverse than reality. Does it apply here? If you can remove one character and suddenly end up with barely any female interaction with the narrative, can you really claim to be inclusive?
I don’t know where I was going with this, but I really, really hope this show gets itself onto a better track soon.
(Note: there will be numerous flaws with the above numerical analysis that I cannot be fucked to track down and correct. If you spot them, leave a note in the comments and I will adjust my figures as long as you’re not a total dick about it.)
This got me set onto a project made for my particularly niche combination of interests: could I quantify ‘Star Trek: Discovery’s gender balance?
Turns out the answer is “Yes! Badly.”
This will be a long-ish article filled with numbers, charts and clumsy attempts at numerical analysis of gender representation in a nine-episode TV show by someone woefully underqualified for any part of that task, but here goes:
First things first: what’s the initial, top-level finding? Well, see below.
The bars on this chart show how many individuals spoke during the episode. Specifically, “speech” in this context means delivering meaningful information, i.e. more than an “Aye, captain,” or equivalent. For example, Keyla Detmer appears in every episode, and Rhys (listed as “Reese” in my data) appears in most, but they are infrequently included in these stats because they’re usually just acknowledging that they’ve been told to do something, saying no more than a handful of words.
[It’s worth pointing out here that for none of this analysis have I included disembodied entities with female voices, i.e. computers. There’s all sorts of issues around women being used to voice what are essentially autonomous servants, and it’s difficult to argue that the ship’s computer is even a character at all. As such, voices only get counted if they belong to some sort of physical being that has an outwardly visible gender identity.
I have also ignored group chants in unison, because fuck cataloguing something like that, I’m a blogger, not a voice-recognition algorithm.
Also, the fucking space whale absolutely does not get counted, for reasons that are pretty bloody simple.]
The line charts show, on the same y-axis, the number of connections in each episode between two people of the same gender. In plainer terms – I’ve counted a connection as being Woman A talking to Woman B. If Woman B responds to Woman A, then that’s a second connection. So, in episode 8, ‘Totally Not Errand Of Mercy’, Admiral Cornwell and L’Rell talk to one another – I’ve counted this as two “connections”. If it had just been L’Rell talking, but Cornwell not answering, then it would have been one.
Now, one thing I haven’t done is quantify conversations. In ‘Totally Not Errand Of Mercy’, L’Rell and Cornwell talk to each other on two occasions, but I’ve only counted each connection once. This is because of the complexity of things like split scenes, and noise coming through from, for instance, repeated conversations in ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’. Burnham and Georgiou spend the cold open of ‘The Vulcan Hello’ talking to one another, and that scores them the two connections for the rest of the episode, even though they talk to each other repeatedly throughout the next forty minutes.
A Lacklustre Approach
There are many caveats to this simplistic approach I’ve taken, which include but are not limited to:
No representation of the number of conversations.
No representation of the amount of time spent on each conversation.
No representation of the number of lines a character speaks.
No acknowledgement of important things like viewpoint, plot relevance, etc.
In short, I chose this particular method of quantification because it was much, much quicker for me to gather the data for it. As it happens, I have begun a mini-project to find out how much time is spent in each episode on women talking to women and men talking to men, which gives this interesting statistic for ‘The Vulcan Hello’:
In ‘The Vulcan Hello’, there is approximately eight minutes and twenty seconds of conversations exclusively between women, and two minutes and fifty-three seconds of conversations exclusively between men, out of a total of thirty-two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of conversation.
As you can see, this looks quite different, from a representational point of view, to the stats based on my “connections-only” model, which has ‘The Vulcan Hello’ as follows:
The thing is, it took me around two-and-a-half hours to log the conversations by “time taken” just for ‘The Vulcan Hello’, with another hour to put it into this spreadsheet. I’ve already recorded the conversation times for ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ on paper, but the sheer labour intensiveness of this project means it’s on the sloooww-burn.
The other, really important weakness of my “connections model” is that it is highly likely to be slightly inaccurate. I’m confident I’ve got everything down, but only about 90% confident, and I’m only 50% sure about that. As such, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something or someone, and I’m sure some smart alec out there will be happy to point out all the mistakes I’ve made.
It takes roughly an hour to note down all the connections and characters in a single episode, and I absolutely do not have the resources to multiply that time investment by closely checking my own work – at least, not without losing the job that puts vegan junk food on my table.
As such, if you want to check my data yourself, and if you can even make sense of it in its crude, poorly-planned layout, feel free. You will find it here.
Episode 1 – ‘The Vulcan Hello’
‘The Vulcan Hello’ is, for the first thirty-five minutes, a very strong episode of Star Trek, right up until Burnham dashes all of our hopes with some really shonky behaviour. My views on it have been recorded elsewhere, but we want to look at the stats.
As covered above, female-only conversations dominate this episode, and conversations that include women at all make up 91.1% of the episode’s dialogue by time.
In terms of connections, though, we have six, as follows:
Burnham has conversations with Georgiou (2) and a female doctor (2).
Georgiou also speaks with Detmer (2).
L’Rell gets a couple of lines in subtitled Klingonese, but no other speaking female Klingons appear.
A total of five women get lines in this episode. I think the box-headed woman on the Shenzhou mumbles something, but it falls into that “not meaningful information” category and it wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular.
The men’s connections are as follows:
T’Kuvma speaks to Voq and Or’Eq (2).
They each speak to T’Kuvma (2).
Connor and Gant both interact with one another (2).
Saru, Admiral Anderson, a male doctor, Sarek and Weeton all speak, but only to women – either Georgiou or Burnham, predominantly.
What’s interesting here is that there are ten men who talk throughout this episode, but they only have as many connections as the women, i.e. six. This falls in line with the time stats – with less than 9% of the episode’s conversation time being between exclusively male characters.
Episode Two – ‘The Battle at the Binary Stars’
Sadly, I have no more time stats for any episodes besides the first at present. Additionally, I was intending to do neat little network charts for each episode, by gender, but that proved waaaay too difficult to do – or at least, learning how to do it with a program like Gephi will take more time than I have spare. So for now, this will mostly be in bullet points and written word.
Episode Two is a continuation of Episode One, and as such most of the characters remain in play. Our women get the following connections:
Georgiou talks to Burnham and Detmer (2) who each respond to her. (2)
L’Rell speaks, as does Dennas, leader of the Klingon House of D’Ghor, each speak, but not to each other.
That’s five women again, with a total of four connections. What’s really peculiar is that in two episodes the Shenzhou‘s helm officer and first officer (disgraced) don’t interact at all. This isn’t so peculiar, I suppose, but they also happen to be two of the three female Starfleet officers who speak in both episodes.
Our men get the following connections:
T’Kuvma has a conversation with Admiral Anderson (2), and speaks to Voq and Kol (2).
Voq and Kol also interact with one another (2) as well as T’Kuvma (2).
Saru, Connor, Gant, Weeton, Sarek and the Starfleet Judge all speak, but only to women (Burnham and Georgiou again).
So we again get ten men speaking (twice the number of women), and this time we have twice as many male-to-male connections as we do female-to-female, at eight to four. It should be noted that in two episodes, Saru hasn’t once spoken to another male character, as all of his interactions have been with Burnham and Georgiou.
Now we reach the third episode, where we get a raft of new characters, as well as a few familiar ones. Detmer and Saru are both familiar, as is Burnham, but we also meet Lorca, Tilly, Stamets and Landry.
First off, the women:
Burnham gets conversations with Landry (2), Tilly (2), Psycho (2) and a female engineer (2).
Landry also converses with Tilly (2).
The pilot of the prison shuttle is female, and briefly speaks to an unseen male Starbase officer.
That’s a full ten connections, between six speaking female characters, which isn’t bad. I ought to make clear – there is a moment where Burnham comes face-to-face with the now-wounded Detmer and softly speaks her name. However, Detmer doesn’t respond. I’ve not included it in the analysis, as it’s really not a conversation, and I feel like if I were to include it, I’d also have to cover things like eye contact or handshakes for other characters, which I cannot be bothered doing.
I also omitted a possible connection between Landry and Psycho, when Landry addresses the prisoners as a group. I decided against including it as Landry doesn’t address Psycho directly, and Psycho certainly doesn’t respond, and again, it would set a precedent for tracking every time someone speaks to a room full of people. When Lorca gives his “motivational” speeches to the whole bridge, does that generate connections between him and the various men on the bridge? I decided no, it doesn’t.
For the men, we see the following:
Lorca speaks with Saru (2) and Stamets (2).
Stamets speaks with his counterpart on the Glenn, Straal (2).
Stone and Cold, the prisoners, talk to one another (2).
A shuttle pilot and a security officer, Kowski, each get brief lines, but only to women.
This leaves us with an interesting episode, connections-wise, as we have twelve all-female connections and only eight male connections. Which seems fine – there may be slightly fewer women speaking, but they’re interacting more with one another, which is great. Sadly, this is the only time that an episode will have more all-female connections than all-male.
Episode Four, ‘The Butcher’s Hand Cares Not for the Knife That Cuts It’ or whatever
Georgiou speaks to Burnham (1), who can’t physically respond to the holographic recording.
Admiral Cornwell, L’Rell, Navigator Owosekun, Detmer and an unnamed girl on the mining colony (referred to as “Miner” in my spreadsheet) all speak, but only to men.
I should’ve called the girl “Minor Miner”. Shit.
This is where we see the real problems creep in in terms of ‘Discovery’s female connections. There are nine women here, but only three of them, plus one recording, speak to any other women. This may not seem like a huge issue, but let’s see the men:
Lorca converses with Stamets (2), Saru (2) and Doctor Culber (2).
Saru and Stamets also converse (2) as do Stamets and Culber (2).
Voq and Kol also speak to one another (2).
There’s a male adult Miner (a Major Miner) who speaks, but only as a broadcast.
Here we see the imbalance start to appear. There are seven men who speak in this episode, two fewer than women. But between them, they form twelve connections. We get, for instance, a scene between Lorca, Stamets and Culber, but we don’t get a single three-woman scene throughout the entire series.
Equally problematic, there’s a single man out of the seven who doesn’t speak to any other men. Meanwhile, there five women out of the nine who don’t speak to any other women – more than half of the female cast of this episode don’t interact with any other female cast members.
What will become apparent going forward, as well, as this episode is the last episode in which we will be introduced to any recurring female speaking characters. And we will only meet two more speaking women at all – Stella and Amanda. Note that although Commander Airiam, the… probable cyborg, won’t get her first line until a later episode, we first see her in Episode 3.
We will, however, meet a further three recurring male characters (Admiral Terral, Harry Mudd and, of course, resident human Ash Tyler), as well as numerous speaking one-off male characters.
This episode is also the last and indeed only time that the number of women who speak outnumbers the number of men who speak.
The trouble really is only starting.
Episode Five: ‘CHOOOOOSE YOOOUUUR PAAAAIIIIN’
God, I hate the title of this episode even more than I hate the title of the last one, simply because of how macho it’s trying to be.
Burnham and Tilly talk (2).
Cornwell, L’Rell and Owosekun speak, but only to men.
Five women. Only two of them interact. Versus:
Lorca speaks to Tyler, a male Klingon Guard, Harry Mudd, and Saru (4).
Saru speaks to Stamets, Culber, an Operations officer and a Tactical officer (5).
Stamets and Culber both talk to each other (2) and to Saru (2).
Tyler talks to Mudd, Lorca, and the male Klingon Guard (3).
The Klingon Guard talks to Lorca, Mudd and Tyler (3).
The Operations officer talks to Saru (1).
The Tactical officer talks to Saru and Lorca (2).
Mudd talks to Tyler, the Guard and Lorca (3).
This makes for nine men who speak, for a total of twenty-four (!) connections. This is the highest number of connections in the series. Compare that to the previous episode, where nine women made a total of five connections between them.
Further, we see here that there nine men, and not a single one goes without speaking to another man. Meanwhile, less than half of the five women in the episode talk to other women – specifically, two of those women speak to each other.
Also worth noting, there are three female bridge officers on the Discovery whilst Saru is in command, but only one of them, Owosekun, speaks more than an acknowledgement, and even then she speaks only to Saru. Airiam, who appears to be the third in command of the ship, i.e. acting-captain Saru’s first officer, doesn’t say a thing, and Detmer, who has been in every episode, barely gets an odd “Aye, sir” past her lips.
If you think that this seems improbable, then the best explanation is this: there are many scenes in this episode between multiple men. There are not so many between multiple women. Bear in mind, this analysis just checks that women are talking to each other – there can be men in the scene too, it’s just as long as the women speak to one another that we build connections. But we’re not even getting that.
Let’s move on.
Episode Six: ‘Lethe’
‘Lethe’ sees a slight bump in female connections, as follows:
Burnham has conversations with Tilly (2) and Amanda (2).
Cornwell and Dennas appear in the same scene together, but weirdly never actually address one another.
Five women, four connections. Now the men:
Lorca converses with Terral (2), Tyler (2), Stamets (2), Saru (2) and Culber (2).
Sarek speaks with a “Logic Extremist” (2) and the Vulcan Expeditionary Director (2).
Kol and some other Klingon Leader talk to one another (2).
Eleven men, sixteen connections, and again, no men who don’t talk to other men. Admittedly, most of them revolve around Lorca or Sarek, but that’s still quite a hefty network.
There isn’t much more I can say about ‘Lethe’ that I didn’t already say about ‘CHOO-CHOO-CHOO-CHOOOSE YOUR PAIN’, so we’ll wind on a bit.
Episode Seven: ‘Bullshit To Make The Sanest Mind Go Postal’
The return of Harry Mudd! The return that nobody asked for. And with it he brings another unwelcome guest: continuing imbalance in gendered interactions. As usual, women up first:
Burnham and Tilly talk to each other (2).
Stella appears, and Airiam finally gets a line in, but neither get even the chance to look another woman in the eye.
Four women, two connections. All the mens:
Tyler talks to Stamets, Mudd, Lorca and Barron (4).
Mudd talks to Lorca, Stamets, Tyler, Saru and a Communications officer (5).
Lorca talks to Saru, Mudd and Tyler (3).
Saru talks to Lorca and Mudd (2).
Doctor Culber talks to Stamets and Tyler (2).
Stamets talks to Culber, Tyler and Mudd (3).
The Communications officer talks to Lorca (1) but never to Mudd.
Barron, the arms dealer, talks to both Mudd and Tyler (2).
A male medical officer talks, but only to Burnham.
Nine men, twenty-two connections. Only a single man of the nine who doesn’t speak to other men, half of the four women who speak do so to one of the others. This makes Episode Seven extraordinarily similar, in terms of number of speakers and connections, to Episode Five. Which means neither is a one-off case.
Here’s a more sobering statistic: this is the first episode in a row of three in which no more than two women will interact with one another. Three episodes, in a nominally female-led series, in which a total of six all-female connections (three two-way connections) are formed. In those same three episodes, there will be a total of 52 all-male connections formed. In each episode, there will be nearly twice as many male speakers as there will be female speakers.
Episode Eight: ‘Si Ridiculum, Para Discovery’
L’Rell and Cornwell scream at each other for a bit.
Burnham, Tilly, Detmer and Owosekun all talk, not to each other, though.
Detmer speaks! As does Owosekun! After only, oh, two or three episodes I guess. They really don’t say much, though. And nothing to each other.
Lorca talks with Captain Kovil (2), Rhys (2), Admiral Terral (2) and Tyler (2).
Tyler also talks with Saru (2).
Comms officer Bryce talks to Lorca (1) after Lorca says his name (not counted).
Kol and a male Klingon comms officer have a brief conversation (2).
Culber talks to Burnham briefly, and Stamets talks with Tilly, but neither talk to each other. Weirdly, this is yet another episode in which the only established couple on the show don’t interact in a meaningful way.
Five women and eleven men speak in this episode. Three of those women only talk to men; two of those men only talk to women.
There are a total of two female-only connections in this episode. This is both L’Rell’s and Cornwell’s first dialogue with any other women. All of the regular male cast members have previously established connections with multiple other male cast members.
(Look, I know this is childish, but I’m actually struggling to cope with continually writing about “all-male connections” and “multiple other members”, it’s all getting a bit ‘Allo ‘Allo’ around here.)
I should point out that L’Rell’s and Cornwell’s conversation, indeed, their entire arc this episode, feels rather like it was put in there so that the episode would pass the Bechdel Test. Certainly, no part of their arc seemed necessary for them to end up where they ended up: Cornwell could still have been paralysed due to the torture she went through before L’Rell appeared, and Kol could easily have locked L’Rell up just for her having betrayed him previously.
But that’s my cynical side coming out again. I’m sure there were strong creative and narrative reasons to put their little story in here, and I’ll trust the writers in that regard.
Episode Nine: ‘Into The Forest I Go’
Burnham and Cornwell talk to one another (2).
Tilly, L’Rell, Airiam, Detmer and Owosekun all get lines.
Seven women, two connections.
Lorca has discussions with Admiral Terral (2), Saru (2), Stamets (2), Tyler (2) and Culber (2).
Tyler and some human Operations officer also have an exchange (2).
Culber and Stamets also exchange words, as well as saliva (2). Oh, and it only took seven episodes for them to show any physical affection to one another. HOW PROGRESSIVE.
Rhys says something to Lorca at one point, without a response (1).
Kol and some Klingon Operations officer have an exchange (2).
Ten men, seventeen connections.
This is the third episode (the other two being five and six), where EVERY speaking man has spoken to another man, and where at least two fifths of the speaking women have not spoken to any other women. In those same three episodes, there are eight female-female connections formed, whilst there are FIFTY-SEVEN male-only connections in the same episodes.
There is no episode where every speaking woman speaks to at least one other woman. Episode Three came really close, but the pilot’s presence meant it just fell short.
Over the Series
With the whole of the first half of the series analysed, we can take a look at how many men and women get to speak, in total, to one another. I feel the network charts speak for themselves:
We can see here that the women all orbit around Burnham, which seems about right given she’s our main character. But there are a couple of points that are important to me.
Seventeen women get actual lines in the entire series so far. They form twenty-two all-female (one-way) connections when the series is viewed as a whole. Six of those seventeen never speak to another woman, two of whom appear in only one episode.
Detmer speaks only to Georgiou, and only in the first two episodes. After that, none of the female bridge officers get a word in to any other female member of Discovery‘s crew.
Tilly has a connection to Landry, from Episode 3, and it’s about seven words between them. After that, Tilly doesn’t get to speak to any women besides Burnham. Mary Wiseman, the actor who plays Tilly, is the only other woman besides Sonequa Martin-Green who is listed as a “main” cast member.
Now let’s look at the men’s graph:
First off – wow. It’s bigger, more complex, and harder to follow. So I’ll break it down for you.
There are thirty-seven men who speak throughout the series. That is more than double the number of women who speak. These men form seventy-five male-male (one-way) connections when the series is viewed as a whole, which is more than three times the number of connections that the women form.
Of those thirty-seven men, six fail to speak to any other men. That’s the same number of women who don’t speak to women. However, these men are such pivotal characters as “Judge”, “Miner” and “Pilot”, and none of these “men islands” appear in more than one episode.
A final piece of stark contrast, I feel, is the structure of these graphs. The men get the massive landmass of “Starfleetistan”, with Lorca in the middle but also with Tyler, Mudd, Saru and plenty of others as smaller hubs. Then the men also get “Klingonia”, a separate, smaller continent with plenty of its own connections, but no connector to Starfleetistan. Then there’s “Vulcanisberg”, which is a narrow little landmass with Sarek in the middle. And finally there’s two minor states, “Stone Cold” and “ConGantinia”, which float off doing their own thing.
Meanwhile, every female connection is either to Burnham, or is a single step away from Burnham. L’Rell has literally no other female Klingons to talk to besides Dennas (who gets two lines in the whole series), but there’s a little mini-continent of male Klingons tied together by Kol and T’Kuvma. And we see plenty of female Klingons in the background – they just don’t say or do anything (although I think one was trying to shoot Cornwell in the final episode). L’Rell even mentions her house’s “matriarchs” in one episode, and yet we never meet them.
I don’t think there’s much more I can add to this subject that hasn’t already been covered by the numbers. I just genuinely find it interesting and troubling in equal measure that a show that is meant to be female-led can have such a one-sided balance to its interactions.
The truth is, there’s nothing in the setup that’s keeping characters like Detmer and Tilly apart. It wouldn’t be a stretch to have a scene where Tilly asks Detmer about Burnham, given that Burnham’s just moved into Tilly’s room. There’s no reason you couldn’t have Detmer and Owosekun exchange navigational information during battle or training exercises. There’s nothing stopping a short scene where Tilly uses her expertise as “the top theoretical physicist in the academy” to explain spore drive navigation to Owosekun and Airiam.
It’s just odd to me that so many of these women never interact, and I wish I understood the creative decision behind it. Assuming there was one.
I think it’s also worth pointing out – if you were to carry out this same analysis for previous Star Trek shows, or movies, or heaven forbid the Star Wars franchise, or even the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, the results would be even more one-sided. But ‘The Last Jedi’ just days before I’m typing this, and that manages multiple connections between several female characters. And that’s Star Wars, the franchise that made three whole films with only three women and one black guy.
I will tie this article off for now, with a final point to make. I’ve shared links to my data below. It’s horribly laid out and not professionally done, but it’s there for anyone who would like to have a crack at producing some better analysis. I daresay it wouldn’t be difficult, most of what I’ve put above could be charitably described as “simplistic”.
For ages, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it was about ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ that threw me off. There’s some element to it, some quality, that makes it stand apart from other Trek shows, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what.
But I’ve finally done it. I’ve figured out what it’s all about.
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is a Star Trek fan fiction written by Lal, daughter of Data.
You may think I’m crazy, but Trek has pulled this shit before. There’s a precedent for “stories within stories” that backs me up. But that’s not all.
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s get the background out of the way:
Who Is Lal?
Lal is a robot. Well, an android. Specifically, a “Soong-type” android created by Data, who is also a “Soong-type” android. Data created Lal in order to simulate the human experience of procreation – of producing a child.
After Data activates Lal, she chooses her own gender and appearance and she begins learning about life. It’s a really charming little story and pretty classic Next Gen – Lal even joins the ranks of “Women Who Have Fallen for Riker Despite Being Better Than Him in Every Way“, which is a Trek staple.
Lal’s fate is a tragic one (I would post a “spoiler warning” but the episode’s twenty-seven years old). Data’s not as capable as his own creator when it comes to building androids, and Lal soon starts to malfunction, eventually shutting down altogether. She only lived for a few weeks, and… and then she…
I’m sorry, but just going back over this old episode has me close to actually in tears. Just, this is what good Sci Fi is about – using extreme settings to explore the human condition. And, I just… I… let’s move on.
The Fan Fiction Theory
Okay, so, when you at the cast of ‘Discovery’ you realise that, despite it being a long running narrative, everybody is a one-character. Cadet Tilly is ‘The Awkward Sidekick’, Landry is ‘The Mean One’, Lorca is ‘The Bad Captain’, Stamets is ‘The Weird Guy’, Saru is ‘Fucking Useless’ and Ash Tyler The Human is ‘The Hot One Who Is A Human’.
These are all really simplistic characters with really basic motivations. Burnham and Ash The Human are falling in love because they’re both attractive and he doesn’t hate her. Tilly wants to be a captain but is for now just along for the ride. Stamets wants to do science, so he does science. Lorca wants to Win The War. Saru is just glad to be part of things, also he’s scared all the time and he can totally run really really fast and he has these little frills that pop out when he’s really scared.
All of these characters match exactly how an intelligent yet juvenile mind would view the crew of a starship. Picard is a stern, duty-bound authority figure, so of course that’s exactly how Lal would describe all authority figures. When someone is mean to Lal, she hasn’t yet learned to appreciate that there may be a reason that they’re lashing out – and so we end up with Landry, a rampant force of anger and hate.
Lal never experienced a war, or a military conflict, and so when she writes about it, she does so in basic terms. War is bad. People get hurt in wars. Wars involve shooting and maps. We want to win wars, because losing a war is bad. The notion that a huge conflict will have severe cultural impacts and unexpected consequences is alien to Lal because she has no grasp of these more abstract terms yet. The crew of the Discovery are in a war, and they need to win it. That’s as far as Lal is capable of exploring the matter.
Let’s take a quick look at Michael Burnham. She’s a peculiar character, grounded firmly in machine-like logic yet struggling with emotions she can barely control. She hasn’t developed goals or objectives or her own, she just finds herself on Discovery and gets on with stuff. She struggles with intimacy. She has a renowned yet emotionally incapable father.
Remind you of anyone?
Burnham is Lal, writing herself into her own story. She even has the idealised best friend in Tilly, the idealised boyfriend in Ash the Human. She makes friends with a magical teddy bear.
Look at the people around her. Lal is surrounded by people who she doesn’t understand and who don’t understand her, who threaten her. But in her story, Burnham is surrounded by people who pose no threat to her. Any that do are quickly offed – the prisoners who try to fight her in the mess hall are never seen again. Her teddy bear gets rid of the nasty Landry lady. Saru doesn’t like her, but he’s also a scaredy cat, and he’s ultimately just jealous of her and how amazing she is.
Lorca might be scary, but he looks after Burnham, he protects her. Georgiou, the other authority figure in Burnham’s life, was also protective of her – she was kind, and she loved Burnham, and is in every way the perfect mother figure for her – the perfect mother that Lal never had. The fact that she gets eaten by aliens is… probably a sign that Lal has issues, but we knew that already.
A Child’s Point of View
Indeed, using pseudo-cannibalism as a throw-away plot point is exactly the sort of thing a juvenile would write in their first work of fiction, because they wouldn’t understand the implicit horror of what they were writing. Icky, scary monsters eat people all the time – and children can wrap themselves in horror because they don’t have the ability to put it into context.
Lal can write a story about the Brave Captain getting locked up and tortured and then freeing himself by Being Brave, because she isn’t programmed to process the broader themes of such a traumatising ordeal. Violence is scary to Lal, but she can write about torture without comprehending its abhorrence because, it’s just more violence, right?
How about the Large-igrade, Burnham’s magic teddy bear friend? Burnham and her made-to-order best friend say a prayer for the teddy and let it go free, and in so doing, they magically heal it. Because that’s how things work in a child’s world – intentions and wishes rule over consequences and causality.
And this is the secret genius of ‘Discovery’. It’s Star Trek, but through the lens of a child’s eye. The wider scope of the subject matter is never explored, because the writer can’t, and wouldn’t want to. When Lal is threatened with being separated from her father, she can barely handle the emotions that surge up within her over this complex and confusing situation.
Discovery is the natural reaction to that – it’s a series of simplistic stories and one-note characters, creating a world which can accept someone despite her intellectual and emotional separation from any of her peers. It’s Star Trek, but realised as the ideal playground for a scared child.
Which makes it weird that they keep saying “fuck” and everyone’s getting their throats slit. Maybe Lal’s just a hack.
I want to get one statement on the record: I didn’t despise ‘Lethe’. ‘Discovery’s latest episode did not offend me with every second of its screen time, and therefore races to the head of an incredibly lacklustre pack.
What I really want to talk about is the phrase that’s on everybody’s mind with this show, and that phrase is “missed potential”. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.
Punch Her Again, Sarek
In some magic space elf magic bullshit, Michael Burnham must enter a dying Sarek’s mind and help him fight his inner demons so that he can get up off his bleeding arse and press a button. Which, okay, fine, every appearance Sarek makes in any series serves as a reminder of how batshit and nonsensical Vulcan culture is, and this is all fine. Psychic psychic yadda yadda, something something my mind to your mind. Cool. As the obedient improviser I am, I accept that premise.
So Michael ventures into Sarek’s mind and immediately he twelve-metre-punches her back into reality. He’s an old man, and these kids need to get off his mind-lawn, god damn it.
So she approaches him again, and this time they fight. There’s some cleanly choreographed Vulcan martial arts on display, but he gets the upper hand and beats the metaphysic out of her.
So she tries a third time, and they fight again, and there’s more choreography, and more swipes and punches and kicks and I’m already bored.
Here’s my contention: the Vulcans are, to all intents and purposes, a race of great mental focus. No doubt their minds are particularly capable of the focus required to expertly punch someone – but they’re thinkers first and foremost. They’re students of the universe, philosophers of the ether, ninjas of the mind.
And I get that the fights we see between Sarek and Burnham are metaphorical, I understand that they represent a battle of wills. But given that this is literally occurring in Sarek’s barely-conscious mind, couldn’t we have seen something a little more… interesting?
What if, after getting her arse handed to her by Sarek’s neural karate, she re-focused, and the two combatants found themselves on opposite sides of a game of three-dimensional chess? Or maybe Kal-toh?
Or maybe they see each other as children, sharing a skill dome, competing to provide the most answers to the computer?
What if they were each on the bridge of a ship, trying to gain the upper hand in a space battle? Or maybe in a lab, trying to analyse some new form of star or weird molecule? Or behind easels, each trying to paint the most beautiful work of art? Or even just performing some kind of Vulcan yoga, each trying to hold a difficult pose for the longest?
Any of these would have been possible, and yet the creators decide that they have to fight. And fight. And fight some more. Punch and kick and beat and slap and nerve-pinch. Because apparently, the only metaphor for competition in this new Trek is violence, the supreme metaphor from which all other metaphors are derived. Or so it would seem.
This is a really quick article, because there’s plenty more to write about ‘Lethe’, and the series to date. But I just wanted to throw out this recurring issue of the show’s creators constantly turning to violence to tell their story. It would be nice, for once, if they could try something a little more original – but that’ll just get me pre-emptively ranting about another aspect of the series, so let’s leave it here for now.
So, I found out after watching this episode that it was written by Joe Menosky, the writer of one of my favourite pieces of science fiction ever, ‘Darmok’. Darmok was wonderful in many ways, which is why I was surprised he was behind ‘Lethe’ – as passable as ‘Lethe’ is, it barely rates alongside an average episode of Season 1 TNG. Hell, it could easily be a first-season episode of ‘Enterprise’.
Then I was reminded that Menosky also wrote ‘Masks’, and suddenly, well, yeah, I guess some things do make sense.
With the many issues that are emerging with the latest Star Trek series, I’ve decided to try shorter, single-topic articles rather than the romping, five-thousand-word anger fests that I usually produce.
First up, I want to talk about Violence.
Are We Watching A Sadist’s Vision Of The Future?
Trek has always been violent. Action has been at the heart of Star Trek since its very first episode. Even the mostly-peaceable ‘The Voyage Home’ managed to slot in some nightmarish images of whales getting harvested. And one of the most famous scenes from arguably the best entry into the franchise features a brutal ear-fucking by some space maggots. And let’s not even get started on The Next Generation’s ‘Conspiracy’.
What I’m really, really concerned about with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is the sadism of it all. Not the sadism of the characters, mind – Khan was a sadist through and through, and the violence he inflicted on others matched that.
I’m talking about the fact that the show itself – indeed, its creators – seems to revel in the suffering endured by its characters, even when it’s incidental.
Take a look at Landry, for instance. By all counts, I’m glad the show is rid of her – she was a horrid, prejudiced dolt who was entirely out of place in Trek’s moral palette. When she gets killed by the large-igrade, we see her thrown around the room like a ragdoll by the beast, and that’s relatively standard for Trek. What was less standard was the CSI-style, top-down close-up of her lacerated body that immediately followed.
For the purposes of the narrative, we knew she was dead. We even get the standard dialogue confirming it. The view of her corpse, covered in bloody, deep cuts in her flesh, is entirely surplus to requirements – especially with the shot as close as it is, to show off all the detail.
Further, her death doesn’t even particularly serve the narrative, except to prove that the large-igrade reacts to threats. And she doesn’t even get mentioned for the rest of the episode, never mind the series. To all intents and purposes, she’s a throw-away character who exists to demonstrate the behaviour of an alien, and yet the show extracts as much horror and shock from her death as is possible.
In the same episode, we are told in graphic detail the fate of Captain Georgiou. Now, the Klingons discuss it with a degree of satisfaction that fits their more brutal characteristics, which is fine. But again, the detail with which the act is presented seems unnecessarily brutal. Hell, the fact it happened at all in the Star Trek universe is shocking enough.
Georgiou’s death is savage in its own right. Gone are the days of getting shot with a phaser and collapsing to the ground with a few burn marks. Georgiou is impaled with a Klingon blade, straight through the chest. Her attacker, T’Kuvma, is then shot with a phaser, resulting in a slowly-widening, fiery hole engulfing his upper chest.
In the latest episode, ‘Choose Your Pain’, the Klingon captain is hit with a deflected energy blast which melts half her face. But even as the protagonists are fleeing the scene, we are treated to a lingering close-up of her screaming in agony as her flesh sears and her face deforms. Where Gerogiou’s and T’Kuvma’s suffering could be considered necessary to inform on the grief of the characters around them, the Klingon captain’s suffering is entirely incidental – nobody is present to witness her torment except for the audience.
Even the after-effects of the show’s violence are harsh. Lieutenant Detmer, an officer on Burnham’s previous ship, now assigned to the Discovery, bears extensive reconstruction to the side of her head and face, with metal scaffolds that would seem to be holding parts of her skull together.
And Burnham herself is put through the ringer – covered in extensive radiation burns for a large portion of the first episode, blasted through space without an EVA suit in the second, and seen screaming in agony and torment at the beginning of the latest, as she empathy-dreams about the large-igrade’s fate.
And of these examples, all of them bar T’Kuvma are women. And that’s another scary aspect of the show’s treatment of violence. Whilst we see men being killed, and Lorca bears a painful war-wound, all of the graphic, gory fates are restricted to the female members of the cast, many of whom are women of colour.
And as mentioned elsewhere, I’m not trying to claim that this was a deliberate decision on behalf of the show’s creators – but it’s a worrying correlation. Greater representation for women in Star Trek is a good thing, but it’s mitigated if they are to be the exclusive recipients of sadistic, cruel violence.
Indeed, as of ‘Choose Your Pain’, and including the examples above, there has so far been a 5:5 ratio between the number of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Episodes and the number of times we see the mutilation of women’s bodies. That goes up to 5:6 if we include the verbal description of Georgiou’s body being cannibalised. That is not a nice statistic for any show, especially one bearing the Star Trek trademark.
Even moving away from the gender balance of it all, a bog-standard redshirt is murdered in the latest episode, and whilst normally this would be a “punched in the head, slashed with a blade” type affair, we instead see two Klingons graphically plunge bayonets into his chest, leaving large, bloody wounds behind. Redshirts dying used to be simple – nowadays, its as visceral and gratuitous as a Tarantino movie.
Mutilations Are Fair Game But Affection Between Gay Men Remains Taboo
Whilst women being burned, lacerated and eaten is all considered appropriate content by the show’s creators, two men kissing is still, apparently, taboo. At the end of ‘Choose Your Pain’, it is revealed that two of the Discovery‘s crew are in a homosexual relationship.
Despite the fact that one of them narrowly escaped death just a few scenes earlier, and the other expresses relief that he is still alive, the most physical contact that they make is a hand laid lightly on the other’s shoulder. Which is fine, but the scene itself is set up in such a way that, had it been a heterosexual couple, I would have been fully expecting a kiss, and a hug, or indeed any significant display of physical affection.
The lack of this physicality is notable, conspicuous by its absence, and whilst this may simply be a reflection of the two characters’ personalities (certainly there was no chemistry between them prior to this revelation), it doesn’t half come across as the show’s creators being too scared to show two men kissing.
Maybe I’m just reaching, or maybe my distaste with the show has coloured my view of it, but I hope this is not going to be a 2017 production that considers affection between two people to be more shocking and inappropriate than gory scenes of torture and brutality.
I don’t know how to start this review. I don’t know whether to address the crypto-racial misogyny, or the tragically off-kilter characterisation of half the cast, or the abject lack of any sense or logic to key scenes, or… Or…
Look, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is hot fucking garbage. That’s my conclusion. Four episodes in, and it’s garbage. And don’t come at me with all of that bullshit about “but nobody liked the first seasons of TNG or DS9!” because this isn’t the ’80s. ‘Discovery’ isn’t a cobbled-together series made under a tight budget and with limited competition – it’s a well-funded, pre-planned narrative that stands among dozens of other well-crafted sci-fi shows with strong first seasons – and in any case, the very fact that previous Trek shows have started so badly ought to have served as a lesson to the makers of ‘Discovery’, not a free pass for their incompetence.
Forgiving ‘Discovery’ its mediocrity because of the performance of its predecessors is like forgiving the Trump administration’s corruption because of Nixon. Let’s put it another way: if only twelve months ago a major mobile phone company released a new handset with a battery that occasionally exploded, you’d expect them to have addressed that issue by the time they released the next one.
In short: the next person who defends ‘Discovery’ by reminding me about ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ is going to get a hand-drawn erotic cartoon of Neelix mailed to them, special fucking delivery.
Anyway, the latest episode, the elegantly titled ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’ (I think they wanted to sound poetic) is full of so many issues that recalling and describing them all is going to cause me some mental anguish. So first off, let’s get the stuff that I liked out of the way:
Ways In Which It Did Not Totally Ruin My Evening
I liked Burnham’s very Trekky approach to the Large-igrade. Classic “let’s learn more” sciency stuff, all very lovely.
We get to see Georgiou again, and it’s actually pretty lovely. She gets a nice send-off – or would have, were it not for the whole “her being eaten” thing.
Saru is still a highlight, though is drifting worryingly close to being just another oblivious or enabling patsy.
The fungal engineer, Stavros, really leveled up for me in this episode. Admittedly, he reached Level 1 from Level 0, but that’s still an improvement.
Tilly has mother issues, because of course Tilly has mother issues.
We see a female admiral. She even gets a name. And less personality than a pair of googly eyes sellotaped to an IKEA lampshade.
The actors are competent.
Ways In Which It Ruined My Evening Entirely
Right, down to the nitty gritty. This is going to take a while.
Let’s start with the simple stuff.
They Can’t Even Build Their Fucking Ship Properly
Okay, the ship is the star of the show. Like it or not, the Discovery is what the show is named after, it’s where 90% of the show takes place, and it’s a pretty fucking important component of the narrative. Joss Whedon described the Serenity as “the tenth character”, and so much thought and consideration went into that ship’s layout, they actually built it as a full set (split over two levels) based on in-depth design documents.
Trek itself has a long-standing history of this. Indeed, the Discovery is herself based on old concept art of a new Enterprise for the unmade ‘Star Trek: Planet of the Titans’, the initial plans for an ‘Original Series’ movie prior to ‘The Motion Picture’ and V’ger.
Minor inconsistencies are one thing, but HOW THE FUCK does a show’s creative staff fuck up SO BADLY that they CAN’T EVEN BUILD A SINGLE FUCKING SET CONSISTENTLY. Not sure what I’m on about? Have a look at these crude screencaps:
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Good question.
See the blue rectangle, just to the left-of-centre in the final panel? That’s an external window, looking out into space. Now, scroll back up to the top of the collage. Do you see what I’m seeing? That’s right, it’s a FUCKING CORRIDOR leading from the left to the right. Which is straight past that window.
So what, right? Because that window may well be looking out onto the ship’s hull, right? Because it’s not as though this room’s location WAS ALREADY ESTABLISHED IN THE LAST MOMENTS OF THE PREVIOUS FUCKING EPISODE, RIGHT?
Oh. Oh dear.
For reference, here’s the layout of Lorca’s Evil Laboratory, which I put together with the most expensive and advanced architectural software:
And, just in case that’s not clear enough, let me explain it verbally:
The creators of this show are idiots.
I know you’re thinking “this is just a tiny detail, Jon, why do you care?” But it’s not like these are two different sets. It’s not like they had to move between studios due to size constraints and overlooked something minor in the translation. This is THE SAME FUCKING SET. They walk from one room into the other, and yet NOBODY apparently spotted the fact that the layout of the second-most important location on the show made no fucking sense.
And the rest of the room is gorgeously detailed! I mean, I hate that it’s an EVIL LABORATORY full of ACTUAL SKULLS AND TORTURE DEVICES, but it’s clearly been lovingly put together by the set designers. Except for the placement of a massive window, through which many shots of the room are filmed, and which is situated in direct contradiction to the corridor literally three feet away.
Lorca Is A Basic Bully / Baddie And The Worst Captain Yet Seen On Star Trek
So, Captain Lorca. Captain Lorca. Captain. Loooorrrrcccaaaaaaa.
Okay, Jason Isaacs is a handsome young man, let’s get that out of the way. He’s also a solid actor, and reasonably charismatic. Cool. Good.
Captain Lorca is a stupid, inconsiderate, bullying arsehole who berates his crew and relies on emotional blackmail to further his desire to wage a pointless war.
I could pretty much leave it there, but let’s carry on.
The first thing we see of Lorca is him running a battle simulation with his crew. For some reason, he decided not to include his FIRST FUCKING OFFICER, Lt. Saru, because Saru looks all surprised when he walks onto the bridge. When the simulation is over, Lorca offers his bridge officers nothing but criticism, assuring them that the only chance they have of improving is due to the fact that this was literally the worst they could possibly have achieved. Okay, it’s war, fine, he needs to get these people up to standard so they don’t all die. Fine.
Then, he takes Burnham down into his EVIL LABORATORY which is FULL OF WEAPONS AND SKELETONS and introduces her to the Large-igrade. He tells her that he wants to know how it’s so good at killing Klingons and that she, as an anthropologist, is going to help him find out. Apparently, it isn’t obvious to him that this large, strong, fast and visibly armoured creature might be good at killing everything. Y’know, the way bears aren’t dangerous because they can run forty kilometers an hour and weigh up to 600 kilos, but rather because they harbour some cleverly hidden, biological secret that has eluded our understanding for millennia.
Hey, dickhead, IT’S BIG AND IT’S STRONG, do you really need Starfleet’s literal smartest human being to figure that out for you?
Anyway, he takes a break from berating his crew to eat fortune cookies and stare at a map in his ready room. Here, a holographic admiral delivers a message to him that Starfleet’s primary fuel production facility is under attack, and that there’s only six hours before it’s destroyed. And the nearest ship is eighty-four hours away at warp speed. Hey, good thing this isn’t a strategic location or anything, otherwise you might be inclined to keep a few more ships on standby in the vicinity.
So, Lorca lies to the Admiral about his ships’ capabilities, telling her sure, there’s no problem, leaping half-way across the galaxy with an experimental and knowingly unreliable form of propulsion will have zero, ZERO, unforeseen problems. This is because Lorca is the classic bully – horrendous to those less powerful than he is, obsequious to those with any amount of power over him.
At this point, he pushes his chief fungus engineer, Stavros, to activate the Event Horizon drive, fire up the gellar field and set course for the besieged refinery. Stavros (Davros?) counters that this is a stupid idea, as they literally have no idea of how to make their Bullshit Engine work reliably over that kind of distance, and they could all end up like the crew of the Glenn, i.e. as Walls’ Ice Cream’s next promotional variant of the Twister. Lorca counters back with the tried-and-tested “Well have you tried go fucking yourself, neeeerrrrd?” and walks off, triumphant.
In a surprise to literally no one except Lorca himself, the ship exits the Fungal Webway in the corona of a fucking star, and due to absolutely zero input from Lorca beyond a few cliches (“Collision is not an option! Get us the hell out of dodge! Beam me up, Scotty!”) manages to escape before the crew are all subjected to horrible fiery deaths. In the process, Santos gets his fucking face caved in, and really quite painfully at that:
For this, he gets a nice bit of motivation by our illustrious leader, who walks into the brightly-lit sickbay (and yes, they mention his sight problems again this episode, and once again ignore them) and immediately starts haranguing the engineer for his inability to do something which was considered theoretically impossible mere months ago. Even the Glenn, which Lorca describes as Discovery‘s “more advanced” sister ship, was incapable of safely doing what they just attempted, and yet Lorca is happy to rip shreds out of the one man left alive in the galaxy who understands the theory for not being able to achieve, and I’ll repeat myself here, the impossible.
So, when Stannis tells Lorca that he didn’t sign on for military service and that he’s a scientist, not a soldier, Lorca tells him to fuck off. He actually just tells him to leave the ship. He doesn’t appeal to his conscience, he doesn’t bring up the desperation of the war, the millions of lives that might be lost. He just tells him to leave, and then makes a half-hearted attempt to appeal to the engineer’s ego by comparing him to past pioneers (and Elon Musk, in a desperate bid to appear current).
Lorca then – and I can’t believe this actually happens – but he then, in one piece of dialogue, goes from stroking Stavros’ ego to then belittling him for having one. Like, this is the actual quote, word-for-word, from the subtitles:
“How do you wanna be remembered in history? Alongside the Wright Brothers, Elon Musk, Zefram Cochrane? Or as a failed fungus expert? A selfish little man, who put the survival of his own ego before the lives of others?”
Just, I don’t… Fuck! I mean, I could do a whole fucking article about nothing more than this one paragraph of dialogue, there’s so much wrong with it. Nevermind the inherent contradiction, just remember that Stavros’ chief objection to performing the long-range jump is to AVOID THE TORTUROUS DEATHS OF HIS SHIPMATES. He’s not objecting because there’s a risk he’ll look foolish, he’s objecting because there’s a risk he and the rest of the crew will be turned inside out, cooked alive or who the fuck knows what!
THIS, this fucking line right here, establishes everything wrong with Lorca. He doesn’t lead through encouragement or inspiration, he belittles and undermines. He doesn’t seek the best in people, he just makes them feel shitty until they feel too demoralised to object. And that’s what happens – Stavros doesn’t see the benefit of what they’re doing, he just walks out of sickbay because he hasn’t got a choice and he can’t be bothered arguing. This is the height of shitty characterisation, and highlights all the ways ‘Discovery’ is going wrong.
Okay, let’s move on, before I burst a blood vessel.
As Stavros storms out, Lorca decides to play the recording of the dying miners across the ship, without any announcement or anything. But it’s not as though the crew are unwilling to go save the colonists. It’s not like they all want to play it safe. In fact, most of them have nothing to do with the fungus engine whatsoever, but Lorca decides that playing them recordings of screaming, dying humans being bombed by Klingons is exactly the sort of thing to keep morale up and keep them focused on the task of not being mutilated by some kind of experimental engine malfunction.
Some bullshit sciency stuff happens with Burnham, Stavros and Tilly, they figure out how to make the improbability drive work using the Large-igrade (I’m going to keep calling it that until it catches on) and now, Lorca has a plan. I say “plan”, but that really dirties the word.
Lorca’s Big Idea is to jump into orbit of the besieged mining colony, squander any element of surprise, let his ship get beaten to within an inch of its life, and then jump out again after dropping some explosive barrels. That’s it. For some reason, he even refuses to fire on the attackers after annihilating three of them instantly, in case he accidentally gains anything approaching a tactical advantage, and instead puts all of his faith in an unreliable technology under the control of a wild animal which has already willingly murdered two of his crew.
Burnham has somehow convinced him that the Large-igrade isn’t just a big sack of pure hate, so maybe it won’t try to kill them all, but what if it’s just unreliable? What if, due to its lack of linguistic capability, it jumps them to the wrong place, or at the wrong time? What if it just dies, or the device stops working, or any one of a million things that can go wrong? Why take that risk three FUCKING times when he could instead jump in once, and put his faith in guns? The same guns which instantly destroy three Klingon Birds of Prey when the Discovery first jumps in?
Further, what would happen if he didn’t destroy all of the Klingon ships? He lets Discovery‘s shields drop to near-zero before he jumps out. So what happens if he jumps back in and there’s two Klingon ships left alive that just immediately start blasting his dick off? Could he really not come up with a better plan than this?
Y’know, if this was Saru, a science officer roped into a war he didn’t want, now trying his best to win battles without dying, I’d understand his agitation and his anxiety and his stupid tactics, but Lorca is CONSTANTLY GOING ON about the fact he’s a warrior. He studies war, he even reveals that his EVIL LABORATORY is actually a WAR LABORATORY where he studies WAR any time he’s not stood behind an empty table in his ready room eating fortune cookies.
I’m going to try to bring my criticism of Lorca to a close at this point, because there are eleven more episodes of this fucking show, and I feel like I’m already repeating myself frequently enough. But honest to goodness, he must be the worst series regular to enter a Trek show since… since fucking Neelix. There is nothing inspirational, aspirational, or even anything interesting about Lorca. He’s an arrogant, stupid bully and I am dreading having to spend the remainder of the series with him. If he was merely repugnant, I could at least love hating him, like Joffrey Baratheon. But Lorca’s worse – he’s also boring, and that I just can’t forgive.
Women of Colour Pay For Their Representation With Horrible, Violent Deaths
Okay, this is going to be controversial with some of you, but fuck it, let’s get stuck in.
I am really, really, really, really concerned about ‘Discovery’s treatment of non-white women. Of the four to whom we’ve been introduced, who have been named and had more than expository dialogue, two have been violently murdered, one of whom was literally eaten after her death, and the other two are convicted criminals.
In order, we meet Captain Georgiou, played by the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, who really ought to have been the main character. She gets murdered in her second episode, to serve as character development for the show’s lead, Burnham. Georgious is stabbed, graphically, through the chest, and her bloody corpse is abandoned on the Klingon ship. We find out in this episode that the starving Klingons then ate her corpse. This, too, serves purely as character development for the Klingon leader, whose aide describes in detail him eating the flesh from her “smooth skull”, and how he smiled as he feasted.
Then we have the show’s lead, Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a black American woman. She does some typical leading-character stuff, most of it stupid. She then gets imprisoned for mutiny. Now, she’s the lead character and “hero” of the show, so this isn’t too bad. But she is also granted redemption by a middle-aged white guy, which… yeah.
Then we meet ‘Psycho’, played by Grace Lynn Kung, an Asian Canadian woman. Psycho is apparently a violent offender, and the only thing we really know for sure about her is that she’s a prisoner and convicted criminal. She gets a few lines before she gets put back on the space-bus and launched out of the story again.
Then we meet Commander Landry, played by Rekha Sharma, another Canadian woman, of North Indian descent. She’s aggressive, bigoted, impatient and violent, and that’s all fine, but she is also a complete fucking idiot and gets herself mauled by a violent water bear in her second episode. The last we see of her is as a mauled, lacerated corpse on a biobed, before her death is used as character development for… well, for the fucking water bear, as it happens. I mean, it could’ve been any random crewmember, but whatever.
So, look, it’s great that we’ve got a black woman as the lead character. It’s also great that we have two high-ranking officers played by women of colour (WoC) in a mainstream show. And it’s still a bit worrying that they have such a high propensity for getting fucked over and violently dispatched. Of the deaths of named characters, we have the following:
Danby Connor, who loses his shit in the brig before being blown into space.
Admiral Brett Anderson, who gets his ship rammed to death during the same battle.
T’Kuvma, the Klingon spiritual leader who gets shot by Burnham.
Captain Philippa Georgiou, Burnham’s mentor, who gets stabbed and eaten.
Kowski, the security guy who gets no lines but does get eaten by the Large-igrade.
Commander Landry, the security chief who gets mauled by the Large-igrade.
Okay, so there’s six deaths there, three of them white guys. And in fairness, whilst the WoC on that list make up half of the named WoC on the show, the white guys on that list also make up half of the (so far) named white guys on the show. So, cold hard numbers, it seems objectively balanced.
But… I still get an icky feeling. And I know, unequivocally, that there’s no conscious desire by the creators to do horrible things to the non-white women on their show. But put in the context of the historical representation that women of colour have had in films and television, and… it’s just a bit icky.
Look, I’m out of my depth here, I’ll admit, and there are many people vastly more capable of exploring this topic than me, so I’ll leave it here. All I can really add is that I’ll be keeping an eye on how this progresses. The helm officer of the Discovery is also a black woman, but so far she’s unnamed and has had only expository dialogue. If she gets a little more to do, then this might just be me having representational jitters. If she gets infested with space maggots or something equally grim, then the situation starts to look a little less… progressive.
Context Is For Kings, But Not For ‘Discovery’
This is somewhat related to my rant about Lorca, above, but there’s a real issue with the presentation of the massive war at the heart of the show’s narrative: the fact that it isn’t presented. At all.
We are constantly reminded of the fact that the war exists. We know it’s there. And that is all we get. And this is unforgivable when it’s the motivation of the second-most important character on the show. Lorca is a warrior, he wages war, as he reminds us, every other line of dialogue. And desire to win the war is seemingly the factor behind all of his decisions.
So why do we know so little about it? When Lorca is briefed about the mining colony, he speaks with the admiral for a good couple of minutes. He even mentions that if they lose their main fuel production facility, they’ll lose the war. Well, no shit, that’s not particularly surprising. But that’s all the exposition we get. And I’ve already covered this in my previous review, but we don’t find out if Starfleet is being pushed back, or if they’re advancing into Klingon space, or even if it’s all just one big meat grinder being fought to a standstill in the middle.
And the key thing here is that I don’t care about the war. I’m not particularly interested in what’s happening all along the front lines – what does interest me is the effect it has on our characters. But with no context, it has no discernible effect.
Take Stavros. Stamos. Stanos? The engineer who looks like a budget Alan Tudyk. He doesn’t want to be a soldier. He and his research have been roped into this war effort against his wishes. That’s fine, that’s an acceptable bit of motivation for a character. But knowing more about the bigger picture would inform his character even more. Is he against it because it’s a pointless war with no endgame? Is he a pacifist, against violence despite the fact that his species faces annihilation? Does he feel bad about helping Starfleet out when it’s already got a decisive advantage over the Klingons?
What about Tilly, the fresh-faced cadet? How’s this affecting her? Is she worried about being killed before she ever graduates? Is she anxious about her career as a theoretical engineer being replaced with combat training and endless repair and maintenance of weapons systems?
Is Saru worried about the war reaching his home planet, filled with a fear-driven population? As a career scientist, is he concerned, as Stavros is, about the increased and permanent militarisation of Starfleet, which used to be an exploratory organisation?
None of these have to be in-depth discussions that take valuable time away from the literal cannibalisation of female role models. But just a few throwaway comments would really help build the world and set the tone. Even just setting the stakes for the ship and crew itself – if the Discovery is destroyed, is that a definitive loss for Starfleet? Is the fungus drive a last-ditch attempt that represents their best chance at victory? Or is this a side-project that could prove useful long-term, but for now is entirely incidental to the war effort?
It’s incredibly frustrating to have a show that ostensibly entirely character-driven, and yet does nothing to shape the world that the characters inhabit. ‘Battlestar’ (the modern version) set the premise up immediately. It was entirely character-based, but we knew from the off what the scenario was – that we were following the last fifty thousand humans in the universe, and that every loss of life was a permanent detriment to the species’ chances at survival.
We’re two episodes into the “war arc”, six months after the war first started, and yet we still know nothing about it. What are the demands on either side? The Klingons got duped into this war – what do they want out of it? Kol explains that as soon as the war is over, the Klingon houses will divide again – if so, what goal has united them? Do they just want to wipe out the Federation? Do they want to vassalise it? Have I simply been playing too much ‘Stellaris’? We still don’t know.
In the last episode, this absence of information could have been down to Burnham’s limited perspective, the fact that she, as a prisoner, would be naturally excluded from most conversations. But in this episode, we see things from multiple perspectives – Lorca being briefed by an Admiral, repeated interactions between Lorca and Stavros, and plenty of scenes with the Klingons. Still no insight into the galaxy-spanning conflict that’s allegedly at the heart of the story.
And again, this isn’t about telling the story of the war – it’s about framing our characters. It’s about giving them the context they need to come alive, rather than exist in a vacuum and just do stuff because the plot demands it. And yet the show’s creators insist on remaining evasive on the whole topic of the war. It’s all very peculiar.
The Klingons Take Two Steps Back
In the pilot episodes, we got exposed to some surface-level detail of the revised Klingon culture. We heard more about their religious beliefs, the division within their society (or at least the fact that it was, apparently divided) and they got some nice new costumes and foreheads.
And it seems that’s as much as we’ll be getting. In the fourth episode, we get to see Klingons at their most desperate, starving to death aboard their crippled flagship. Their leader, the albino one, refuses to take the equipment they need from the Shenzhou, as it’s the ship that defeated them and led to his spiritual leader’s death.
Anyway, another Klingon leader shows up, which convinces the Albino to go and actually get the spare spark plugs they need from the Shenzhou. When he gets back, all of his crew have turned coat on him, joining with the other leader who had the foresight to bring them food.
That’s right, Klingons have the same view on loyalty as cats.
Which is fine, hunger is a perfectly acceptable motivation for switching sides. And, although it undermines to some extent the religious angle set up previously, it also does a lot to “humanise” the Klingons – we understand that they have a breaking point.
What I don’t understand is why the Albino is so unwilling to continue with T’Kuvma’s “spiritual path” or whatever. Given the trouble to which he went to start the war, I can only assume that taking part in that war, or at the very least not starving to death whilst it raged, was also a significant part of T’Kuvma’s intentions. Specifically, I’m confident that T’Kuvma would not have wished his ancestral ship, enshrined with those who had died for the cause, to rot away in empty space.
The Albino states that he won’t salvage the Shenzhou out of respect for T’Kuvma, which I can sort-of accept, but it just seems so at odds with everything you might expect them to actually believe in. As the Albino’s second-in-command points out, he was happy to eat the captain of the Shenzhou, just to survive. Surely taking part in the holy war that T’Kuvma started would be more respectful to his memory than allowing his war to fail for the sake of a spare alternator cap, or whatever it was that they needed.
And, indeed, the Albino says himself that he “swore to keep [T’Kuvma’s] fire lit… to resist assimilation.” I can sort-of see how using Federation technology to fix an heirloom vessel could be distasteful, but it’s not as though it’s a permanent modification – they can salvage the Shenzhou, make a single warp jump and then replace all the dirty Starfleet bits later. Religious and cultural zealotry is one thing, but this is like allowing a church to collapse because you won’t temporarily prop up a wall with a wooden beam taken from a mosque.
Like, obviously I’m not a Klingon, I don’t understand the intricacies of their society and the interactions between their traditions. The problem is I’m worried that the writers don’t, either, and they should because they’re the ones creating the Klingon culture.
The ambiguity is acceptable in a complex culture like this, but it warrants further exploration, which we don’t seem to get. That being said, there’s a promise of the Albino visiting “The Matriarchs” (groan) as he strives to regain his position as spiritual leader, which could be interesting, and I’m really hoping it’s not some weird, vaguely sexist abstraction that contains very little substance. If there’s some fucking prophesy, I’m picking up my shit and I’m leaving for good.
One final thing on these Klingon segments – they aren’t half boring. It took me ages to put my finger on it, but it wasn’t until a friend pointed out the issues. Here is a perfectly average screencap of a normal Klingon scene:
What you have here is a really nice, really expensive set, with some really cool, really expensive prostheses and makeup, with dialogue subtitled from carefully developed alien language – all of which is great. You also have a load of actors who, due to the expensive and extensive prostheses, and the gruff language which has to be subtitled, are incapable of fully practicing their craft.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re all doing the best they can. But that isn’t very much, due to the physical limitations. To make matters worse, the Klingon arc is arguably the more theatrical of the two narratives, dealing as it does with ancient houses, divided empires and spiritual awakenings. And yet despite all of these themes, every Klingon scene ends up being a series of words on the screen whilst people in monster masks make guttural sounds at the camera.
In the first review I wrote of this series, I compared this new show to ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’, as many of the themes are similar. And I’m going to do so again, because in ‘The Undiscovered Country’, during the iconic trial scene, we again get to see Klingons in their native environment, speaking in the Klingon language. Except, although the scene starts off in Klingon, it takes a moment to show us that it’s being translated for the benefit of the defendants, at which point it switches to English so that Christopher Plummer can get back to Acting, darling.
I suppose the difference is that the creators of ‘The Undiscovered Country’ gave the audience the benefit of the doubt. They assumed, correctly, that most people would be able to surmise that the Klingons were still speaking Klingon, and even if they didn’t, it hardly matters in the context of the show.
The creators of ‘Discovery’, on the other hand, are presumably wracked with anxiety over their audience forgetting that the people with big bulgy knobbly heads and weird-coloured skin and quadruple nostrils are aliens, should they for a moment communicate in anything but their correct, completely fictional language. Meanwhile, the actual audience is just left bored and feeling a bit sorry for all of the young actors whose careers will in no way be advanced by their participation in this calamity.
Other Fucking Annoying Stuff
“Who saved us?” asks the little girl, in the most terribly delivered line so far, contributing to nothing except my continued ill health.
Why would you create a type of parcel that beeps annoyingly until it’s opened? What if you just didn’t have time, but had to carry it with you? What if you wanted to wait for someone else, because you wanted to open it with them? Why create a passive aggressive piece of luggage? What the fuck is the point except to act as a prompt for a fictional character?
And the fucking telescope. It’s confirmed as the same one that was on the Shenzhou. So, did someone bring it with them when they all jumped on escape pods? They chose to get the telescope in case a mutineer decided they needed it for character development, but left the unencrypted crew manifests and the vital and likely confidential power generation technology? What else did they leave behind? What other weird and pointless stuff did they take with them? Or did someone see Georgiou’s will, realise they needed the telescope, and so went back to the derelict Shenzhou whilst still in the vicinity of Klingon ships, and again, left sensitive information behind? Like, in the same fucking room? Who the fuck wrote this garbage?
Commander Landry was a shithead for the duration of her presence on the show, but she also gets killed off pretty quickly, which would be good were it not for the representational issues already mentioned, which leaves me confused about my feelings, which leaves me even more angry.
Right, I’m actually done. I’ve written over five-and-a-half thousand words on a forty-minute slice of boiled shit that doesn’t warrant two minutes of attention. Also I’m tired. Tired of Trek being shit. Tired of the contempt that fills every frame of this show. Tired of the self-loathing seeping out of every facet of its existence.
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:
Dismissive of socialism.
Likes fortune cookies.
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:
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.
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.