Ever heard of a Horta? You may be thinking of the humanoid emissaries of the Dominion from ‘Deep Space Nine’, but they’re actually “Vorta”. No, a Horta is a big, disgusting, misshapen monster that looks like a Fire Elemental’s hemorrhoid:
This bizarre creature is relevant for a couple of reasons. The first is that its home, Janus VI, was in fact shown as an easter egg at the end of ‘Discovery’s first episode. And the second is that it was the star of its own ‘Original Series’ episode, titled ‘The Devil In The Dark’. And the third is that it highlights a lot of what is currently wrong with ‘Discovery’ in a few fairly succinct ways.
The premise behind ‘The Devil In The Dark’ is that the inhabitants of a remote mining colony are being mysteriously slain, and the Enterprise is dispatched to investigate. They soon discover that the colonists are being killed by the giant quivering rocky snot-blob monster pictured above, which flops around the lower levels of the mine, preying upon solitary victims. The monster later attacks the colony’s power plant, putting the reactor on a path to go critical.
With the pressure on, Kirk and Spock race to find the creature and stop it whilst they still can. During this chase, they discover that the monster is in fact a silicon-based life form, entirely alien to the human colonists (and human audience watching the show), whose territory has been encroached upon by the mining operations. It was acting to protect its unhatched offspring, to prevent the extinction of its species. With this revelation, Kirk and Spock convince the miners to leave the creature unharmed, and even to cooperate with it in their mining operations.
It’s a classic Old Trek episode, well worth a watch (and currently on UK Netflix) or a re-watch if you’re like me.
In what way does it help me to criticise ‘Discovery’? Well, ‘The Devil In The Dark’ was a neat little story that has parallels with the Large-igrade arc in the latest series.
- Both start off with a dangerous monster.
- Both feature the hostile human reactions to such a beast.
- Both show the creature killing a member of the ship’s crew.
- Both end up revealing the beast’s true, more benign nature.
- Both result in the eventual healing and emancipation of the creature – emancipation from extinction in the case of the Horta, and emancipation from actual slavery in the case of the Large-igrade.
But let’s have a look at where these two stories differ.
For one thing, Kirk and the miners’ hostile reaction to the Horta is one of self-preservation. The Horta is killing them, and responsible for potentially devastating the entire planet. When it comes to their lives or the Horta’s, they choose their own, quite naturally – and those of the millions of people depending on the planet’s material output for survival.
Discovery‘s Lorca and Landry, on the other hand, literally just want to butcher the large-igrade to help them build weapons to fight a war. I mean, they don’t really seem to be too focused on the fact it may have wiped out the Glenn – they just see its use as a weapon. There’s no remorse over taking a life, or destroying an incredible new life form – in fact, you can see the glee in their eyes when they talk about weaponising the beast.
This is what you’d call “one-dimensional characterisation”. Landry’s capacity as an angry soldier who is angry and does soldiery things is precisely how you don’t write characters. Kirk actively weighs the need to protect the colony against the brutality of slaying a native life-form, and whilst he comes down hard on the side of the colonists, he nonetheless shows due consideration for the other side.
But what I really want to talk about is the presentation of the creature itself. For as Kirk and Spock learn more about the Horta, they come to see it as a complex and benign being in spite of its appearance. The fact it appears to them as so alien and repulsive and bizarre is the obstacle they must overcome – in essence, the true enemy is their own prejudice, in a roundabout way. If ‘The Devil In The Dark’ had a Very Special Message, it would be that life exists in many forms, and that with a sufficiently open and curious mind we can find commonality in even the most unexpected corners of the universe.
To be more specific, the episode encourages, within the characters and the audience, compassion and tolerance for the Horta that we might not otherwise feel, and it accomplishes this through behaviour. The fact that the Horta can be injured, feel pain. The fact that it possesses intelligence, resourcefulness, and later its ability to communicate. We come to care about the Horta as we learn more about it, and as our understanding of it begins to trump the revulsion we feel when we look at it.
(Sadly, the same can’t be said of me – most of my dates find that getting to know me only justifies the physical revulsion they experience).
In the case of the large-igrade, well, things are rather more straight-forward than that. To prove my point, have a look at this:
That’s the “monster” in ‘Discovery’, and whilst it certainly lives up to that moniker in its initial appearance, as it chases the crew around barely-lit corridors, here we see it presented as a big friendly teddy bear, sat in its little chair, all dumpy and helpless. It even cries out as some needlessly harsh-looking devices plunge into its abdomen. It’s got a mouth, and stubby little arms and it turns its head as it looks around in awe, despite not having any eyes.
And in case it’s not clear, I will lay it out as directly as possible: the creators of ‘Discovery’ seem to think that a creature needs to be cute before we’ll empathise with it.
The two stories follow the same beats, the same turning points, and yet ‘Discovery’ still manages to make a dumber, simpler version of something that was more-or-less nailed over half a century ago. It’s further exacerbated by greater missteps in the newer series.
‘The Devil In The Dark’ ends with the miners agreeing to work with the Horta and its offspring, slowly growing accustomed to this new species after learning that it harbours no ill will towards any life form, that it only caused harm to the miners to prevent its own extinction, and that it is capable of communicating complex and abstract thoughts and ideas.
The crew of Discovery also start working with the large-igrade, and yet they do so before they have learned anything about it – except for the fact that it eats their space mushrooms and only turns violent when it’s under threat. Indeed, by the start of the fifth episode, ‘Choose Your Pain’, they have been using the large-igrade as their navigator for weeks, and yet seem to understand nothing about its true intentions, its needs or its life cycle. They have placed the fate of Starfleet’s most advanced ship, and its entire crew, in the hands of a creature which could at any moment turn on them, behave completely erratically or simply cease to function.
And, in a development that failed to surprise me in any capacity, the large-igrade does precisely that, shrinking up into a protective ball and stranding Discovery deep behind enemy lines. This then leads to much drama and head-scratching as this crew of arseholes try to figure out how to make their damn engine work without a cute, tubby little space monster that eats mushrooms.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that, at the end of the episode, the first officer commands Burnham to save the creature’s life, and for the first time in five episodes I was actually excited to see what would come next. I anticipated that the next episode would focus on the crew studying the large-igrade, using the long-form narrative structure of the series to do a cool, in-depth study into an alien race and how to save its life. Y’know, classic Trek stuff.
What I didn’t expect (although I really should have) was that in the very next scene they would simply feed the creature some mushrooms, blast it out of an airlock and then watch it wake up because now it had “freedom”. I mean, really. That’s the solution? It takes about a minute to resolve and is about as intellectually satisfying as homeopathy.
Again, contrast that with ‘The Original Series’, and McCoy explaining that he had no damn idea how to heal the Horta, because it’s essentially made out of rock, and damn it, Jim, he’s a doctor, not a bricklayer, how the hell is he supposed to heal it? And we don’t go into much detail, but we at least get a bit of thought behind it, as Bones talks about shovelling thermal cement onto its wounds that they normally use for emergency shelters, protecting the wound until it can naturally heal.
And that’s just it – a creature so alien that it treats a building site as a hospital. Compared to a glowy blue teddy bear that needs “freedom” to wake up. What, were you fresh out of “inspiration”, or “wholeness”, or “prayer”? Hey, that’s it, we’ve finally found something that might truly benefit from social media Thoughts and Prayers! Next time you find a wounded space tardigrade, just post about it on Facebook and all of your friends’ “likes” should sort it right out.
And this, for me, is the true weakness of ‘Discovery’ so far – wasted potential on stories that could be compelling, if they were fully explored. But all they get, at best, is a casual glance. The writers barely dip their toes into the pool of possibilities, get scared and scamper back to the sunbeds of mediocrity.
We don’t need the next ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ or ‘Darmok’ or ‘Duet’ here. We don’t need a rehash of ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ or ‘The City on The Edge of Forever’. We just need solid narratives, told well enough to captivate us.
Given the series-long narrative, it’s not as though the show is short on time to tell these stories. The capacity is there to flesh these plots out, and yet for some reason, we’re in a rush to get through them.