Star Trek: Discovery, Section 31, and the Death of Creativity

A cold, blustery day. Dark clouds turbulate overhead. Throughout the city, people look up the definition of “turbulate” and discover it’s being used incorrectly, but their lives continue unhindered.

Atop the city’s tallest building, at the very edge of the roof, stands a man. A writer. Lacking purpose or place in the world, he gazes down at the streets below and imagines his long descent and his messy, pavement-strewn end at the hands of gravity.

“Jon, don’t do it!” a woman’s voice calls. “I love you!”

“I know, Emily Blunt, and I’m so grateful to you for giving up your family and your life in Hollywood to come and live with me as a full-time ‘Roll for the Galaxy’ player,” he says, expositionally, “but it’s just not enough anymore. Besides, it’s weird that I never got past the point of calling you by your full name. You’d think that’d be step one, really.”

Hans Zimmer’s ‘Elysium’ from the ‘Gladiator’ Original Soundtrack can be heard non-diagetically. Jon stands, motionless, his arms outstretched, the cool breeze dancing across his open palms. It’s really dramatic and emotional.

Jon continues. “It’s just too much. All of it. Brexit. The #ihave hashtag. Trump. My literal emasculation. ‘Altered Carbon’s Saturn award. Matt Smith getting paid more than Claire Foy. My parents still being alive – the actuarial tables really fucked me over on that one.”

“But Jon!” Emily Blunt shouts, “it’s been confirmed! Season 2 of Discovery! They say Section 31 is going to be a major plot line!”

Jon sighs, closes his eyes, and steps backwards, away from the ledge. His arms drop. “Fine, then. I guess I’m still needed for a little while longer.”

Emily exhales deeply, her relief audible, her hand resting at her throat.

Jon wrings his hands to stop them from shaking. “Get me my keyboard and a shitload of codeine. It’s going to be another tough year.”

I loved ‘Deep Space Nine’. I really did. But Section 31 wasn’t half a mistake.

Within the series itself, it’s fine. Section 31 is a fringe group, maybe even just one man, the implication being that they operate well beneath Starfleet’s radar. And they only feature as part of Bashir’s arc – a direct reflection of his life lived undercover by necessity, and his desire for life of more overt subterfuge.

“Don’t worry about her, this is a James Bond holoprogram, she’s not a real person.” “You mean because she’s a holographic simulation?” “No, I mean because she’s a woman.”

Bashir idolises Garak’s life of secrets and deceit. He craves the excitement and the drama that it offers. That we learn that Bashir is something of his own secret agent, a product of genetic engineering that’s been illegal for centuries in the Federation, is a dark revelation. Bashir has spent his life undercover, hiding who he really is, unable to use the full extent of his abilities for fear of discovery. But this is a mundane deception, born out of necessity and survival rather than duty and intrigue.

Then one day, we meet Section 31. A shadowy, sinister organisation, allegedly part of Starfleet Intelligence, offering Bashir the chance to realise his full potential whilst living out his greatest fantasy. He refuses, because he finds their methods abominable. They melt back into the shadows, reappearing infrequently to do more dastardly deeds in the name of protecting the Federation.

There’s an implication that Starfleet Command is aware of Section 31 – maybe even some sort of agreement in place, especially in the latter stages of the Dominion War. Which to me, made sense. The Federation, on the brink of annihilation with an unrelenting enemy, starts making deals with the Devil himself. I mean, they’d brokered an alliance with the Romulan Empire, and they were just as culpable of state-ordered murder and oppression as anyone else.

The thing is, Section 31 were ambiguous, and nebulous, and unknown. This remained the case when they were revisited in ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ a few years later, acting as an independent organisation beyond Federation oversight.

A decade later, fucking Damon Lindelof shat out another of his movie scripts, this one called ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’. In it, we get a brief mention of Section 31, except this time they’re apparently part of the fucking infrastructure. They’re no longer some small, discrete fringe group. Now they’ve got a cavernous subterranean base beneath London, their head is a Starfleet Admiral, and they produce battleships on a whim.


This is the worst interpretation of Section 31. This is why it was a mistake.

Y’see, the Federation really ought to represent a higher form of government, a better society than the one we have now. A post-scarcity Utopian state of freedom, discovery and responsibility. And I’m fine with the darker necessities of such a society being explored. I like seeing what happens when a society like that is taken to the very edge. For me, that’s what DS9 did so well – it took all of these fucking future-hippies in uniforms and pushed them to their very limit – and showed them (mostly) keeping it together and staying loyal to the cause.

Section 31 can’t be a legitimate part of that society. You can’t have a secret organisation of genocidal assassins in a culture based around peaceful exploration – not without completely compromising everything that such a bright view of the future stands for.

Obviously the Federation will still have its spies. Starfleet will have its own intelligence service. Enlightened liberty doesn’t mean reckless naivety. There will always be some call for espionage, even if only to counter the espionage attempts of your enemies.

But ‘Into Darkness’ legitimised 31 in a way that just annoys me. It brings them front and centre, makes them something bigger than what they should be. They ought to be a minor part of the Star Trek tableau, a part-time boogeyman brought on when you need to strain Starfleet’s purity a little. They shouldn’t be major players in galactic affairs – they should be off on the sidelines, at the corner of your eye, never quite in focus.

So, let’s talk about this dumb scene, that was cut from ‘Star Trek: Discovery’s finale. And for good reason:

Let’s get all the obvious stuff out the way:

  • Fuck off with your lapdance comments.
  • Seriously, Emperor Georgiou gets given a free pass by Starfleet down in the caverns, and the best she can come up with is wandering upstairs to the brothel and settling down as a small business owner?
  • That bloke claims Section 31 was able to find Georgiou “because they’re more resourceful than Starfleet.” Gee, you really must be, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to track down the only human on Qo’Nos, who happens to wander around in plain sight in a public business. It must have taken at least half a dozen Google searches. Maybe even some Google Maps to find the right place.
  • Section 31 is so secretive that nobody’s heard of them. Hence they have their own badges, and they decide to hire, as their next agent, a woman who looks exactly like one of Starfleet’s Top Five most decorated officers.

Starfleet_database,_decorated_captains (1)

  • Also, what is the point, exactly, in giving her a black badge? What, is she supposed to wear it? Does she use it to identify herself to other agents? Are there no better ways to keep track of an espionage network in the future than to flash a really, ridiculously distinctive emblem at each other?
  • Also, we already saw Section 31 on board the Discovery way back in ‘Context is for Kings’. Were they not Section 31? Is the black badge actually just a Starfleet Intelligence emblem? If so, why does Emperor Georgiou need one? Won’t Starfleet Intelligence notice pretty quickly if one of the most famous captains ever is suddenly wandering around dressed as one of their own?

Okay, it’s pretty fucking dumb. Then, there’s the below quote, from this interview with the Neo Nazi Trill bloke from that clip:

Like I can’t say anything about this Section 31, but I don’t even know anything! Like, I’m going into Season 2, and I know it’s a massive part of Season 2…

My chief concern with this is how ‘Discovery’ is going to handle a subject matter that really ought to be handled with subtlety and nuance. Let’s just say they haven’t earned my confidence quite yet.

The thing is, Section 31 just isn’t that interesting. They work for an episode, or two, when they drop in, and the audience’s response is “Wait, who are these arseholes all of a sudden?” and then they’re gone.

It’s a bit like the Mirror Universe. Except that, where the Mirror Universe becomes more ridiculous the more you explore it, Section 31 becomes more mundane: “Oh, cool, it’s a super-secret cadre of badass spies. Oh, neat, they’re questioning the compromise between principles and survival, how original. Oh, is it a CIA allegory? Some Cold War stuff in there too? Oh, well I sure hope this doesn’t get too predictable too quickly.”

It just seems like the standard go-to whenever you want to make your Trek dark and edgy. Which is basically what Section 31 is. Sloan himself is essentially an edgelord, a power fantasy of pubescent white boys with anger issues. He comes across as all suave and cool – and yet his final appearance in DS9 is, very deliberately, a deconstruction of his entire persona. He’s revealed to be a small, suspicious man – vindictive and insecure.


Somehow, I suspect that we will see little new from a ‘Discovery’ sub-plot about Section 31. Obviously, they’ve not even finished writing the next season yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that, by the end of it, we will have seen the standard “but what are you willing to do to save paradise?” conundrum, rejected by the crew who will hold to their principles via some stupid plan that will send 31 scampering, and will inevitably make no sense on reflection.

It feels cheap to bring Section 31 back into the show, re-treading old concepts that we’ve already dealt with.

Especially when there’s a much bigger, much more interesting concept ripe for exploration, and which is spawned from the same origins as Section 31: namely, genetic manipulation.

Right now, in the modern world, we’re starting to hit upon a genetic revolution. Tools like CRISPR may be putting us on the cusp of exploring our own genetic destiny. And Star Trek happens to feature the Federation, a culture in which genetic modification, or eugenics, is strictly forbidden.


This thread has even been alluded to in the first bloody season of ‘Discovery’ itself. Stamets genetically modifies himself with space bear DNA to allow him to interface with the bullshit drive. Admiral Cornwell chews Lorca out for allowing it. And in the final scene we even get Stamets explaining that Starfleet is ditching the spore drive because of the eugenic implications.

A series that focused on genetic manipulation of humans would be really interesting, and really relevant to stuff that’s just on our own horizon. It would make the show modern, provocative, even. Especially because of the moral issues around eugenics as a concept.

Eugenics is one of those things that unreasonably gets a bad rap because of its association with the Nazis, rather than very reasonably getting a bad rap because of all the other horrible aspects to it. After all, the Nazis were also fans of Volkswagen, and it’s not as though that association informs on VW’s moral standing.

I’m super, super disappointed that Section 31 is apparently the most creative, original story that ‘Discovery’ could pick for its second season, when so much other material is out there, waiting to be explored. A Section 31 storyline is going to be difficult to keep from feeling stale and redundant and old fashioned. And it’s not like this writing team has risen to such challenges in the past.

I simply can’t help but think that this is less about there being a natural vacuum for an original story which compliments Section 31, but rather another low-hanging fruit on the path to making Star Trek the dark, edgy show that nobody really wants it to be.

Anatomy of a Kelpian: Dissecting Characterisation in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ is a phenomenon. It has managed to stay funny through twelve seasons – a feat rarely matched on a show which has seen very few changes to its cast. One of ‘Always Sunny’s key assets is the character of Frank Reynolds, played by Danny DeVito.

Frank is inherently malleable. While the other characters remain reasonably consistent, Frank’s core motivations change episode by episode, purely in service of the storyline. In essence, what is funny is prioritised over what is narratively coherent.

This works for the kind of dark, bizarre comedy that ‘Always Sunny’ has mastered. The show is about a group of terrible individuals entering into usually pedestrian exploits, and twisting the situation into horrible, troubling scenarios, usually due entirely to their own narcissism and self-centredness.

A great example is ‘The Gang Gives Frank An Intervention’. The episode starts with Frank explaining that his “motivation of the week” is that he wants to be as disgusting and depraved as possible, so he goes to his brother-in-law’s funeral so that he can attempt to have sex with his ex-(now dead)-wife’s sister. The episode ends with the gang drinking red wine out of coke cans, berating a group therapist and shooing away a disgusting cousin by dousing her in salt. All of the stuff in between makes perfect sense as you watch it, even though, from an external perspective, it’s utterly absurd.

Frank, displaying the monster condom he uses for his magnum dong.

After just a few episodes, nothing that Frank does should be shocking – it may occasionally be unexpected, but the fact that Frank can carry on in such a frightful manner isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Now, why am I beginning my analysis of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ with a discussion about ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’?

Well, it’s because that character malleability is a great asset on a peculiar show like ‘Always Sunny’, and a key weakness in a show like ‘Discovery’.

Let’s bring it back to Trek for a moment and talk about Geordi LaForge. Geordi is a peculiar element of ‘The Next Generation’. Whilst he certainly gets his own storylines, if you asked me to describe his character, that description would revolve around his relationships with other crew members. He’s Data’s best friend, he’s Wesley’s tutor, he’s loyal to Picard, and so on. You could probably describe him as being determined to the point of obsessiveness, but that could describe just about any character on the show.

Geordi doesn’t really get an arc over the course of Next Gen, certainly not the way Picard, Data, Riker, Worf, Wesley or even Troi get arcs. The Geordi LaForge we see in ‘Insurrection’ and ‘Nemesis’ is pretty much the same Geordi LaForge who takes over Main Engineering in Season 2 (although yes, he was in Season 1 as a helm officer and no, I have no idea how that qualifies him for Chief Engineer).

The best picture I could find of Geordi sporting that fucking gorgeous beard. Unf.

All of this isn’t to say that Geordi lacks personality. He’s certainly likeable, and courageous, and so on and so on, and he’s played well by LeVar Burton.

But he doesn’t get his own development – rather, he serves the development of others, particularly Data, but also Riker, Troi and Wesley. We never particularly learn anything new about Geordi, compared to what we learn about those other characters.

(As a side-note, you could count his interactions with Dr Brahms as a mote of development for Geordi, but this was more like a one-off story that happened to get a sequel, rather than any in-depth development of the character.)

Having Geordi utilised in this capacity actually works fine for a series like TNG. There are lots of players, lots of storylines, and sometimes you just need a competent, charismatic support character who can adapt to fit what’s needed for someone else’s tale. Particularly in an episodic show like TNG, where each installment is a self-contained narrative with its own beginning and end.

For a serial like ‘Discovery’, with far fewer characters and a season-long narrative, meaningful characterisation becomes a lot more important. Motivations matter; arcs matter. A malleable character like Frank Reynolds has no more a place in ‘Discovery’ than he would in ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘Downton Abbey’. And a static character like Geordi LaForge might work if he was restricted to expositing – but if he’s going to be a “viewpoint” character then he has to to actually develop, with an arc of his own.

Where does this all get us?

Saru. Fucking Saru. That’s where it gets us.

Yes, you, you bleeding pissant.

This gangly-lookin’ motherfucker is possibly the greatest loss of potential in ‘Discovery’, short of The Entire Series Itself. And that’s shocking, given the extent to which the writers crow about how much effort went into creating the character.

If you’re wondering what I’m specifically talking about, I’ll explain it as coherently as I can.

In the two pilot episodes of ‘Discovery’, we’re introduced to Saru as a mildly snarky contrast to the nature of most Starfleet characters with which we’re familiar. Whenever you see someone in the red, gold or blue of a Starfleet uniform, they’re invariably bold, courageous, daring, inquisitive, blah blah blaaaaah. Seeing a Starfleet officer, even an alien one, who actively avoids trouble is a rare and interesting thing (most of the time).

We next see him in the third episode, ‘Context is for Kings’, where he has jumped in rank from Science Officer to First Officer, now the second-in-command aboard Lorca’s ship. Here he is much more at ease, casually strolling the corridors with Burnham, eating blueberries and being detached from things. We don’t see him interact with his captain in any meaningful way, so we don’t get to establish that relationship, except that Saru seems to respect Lorca.

In the next episode, ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’, Saru seems much more anxious and snippy, especially when he gets manipulated by Burnham, at which point he begins berating her and claims that Burnham “will fit in perfectly with Captain Lorca”, suggesting that he doesn’t actually respect Lorca all that much at all.

This is closely followed by ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’ (fighting ingloriously for the hotly-contested label of “Most Offensive Episode Of The Series”). Here, Saru finds himself in command of Discovery, coming across as utterly clueless as he asks the computer to tell him the qualities of a good captain (including “intelligence” and “bravery”, who would’ve guessed?). Saru is intent on rescuing Lorca, the captain he either hates or worships, it’s difficult to tell.

In any case, his inherent aversion to danger seems completely forgotten as he sends the ship deep into enemy territory without a second thought. He seems motivated by his desire not to lose another captain, as he did with Giorgiou, which is reasonable enough. He also outlines his jealousy at Burnham for taking Giorgiou away from him, and his chance to be mentored by her. Which is an interesting path to explore, I’ll grant.

In ‘Lethe’, we don’t really encounter Saru beyond a bit of exposition and some unrestrained subservience to Lorca at the very end. He is surprised to hear Lorca say that they’re going to “play it by the book” and not rescue Admiral Cornwell, but Saru is happy to go right along with it. Which means that, between ‘Lethe’ and ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’, we learn that he is actually one of those people who will kowtow to any authority figure in his presence, and immediately turn into a hard-line authoritarian once given any power of his own. Y’know, a total arsehole, basically.

We don’t see too much of Saru in ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ either, but we do see him standing up to Lorca on the subject of space wales, whose preservation is mandated by Starfleet regulations. Which means he’s unwilling to privately challenge Lorca, whom he both loves and hates, but he is willing to publicly challenge him in front of a load of bridge officers.

To outline what we’ve seen so far:

  • In the Pilot episodes, Saru is a scaredy-cat who is averse to any risky action.
  • In ‘Conscience is for Kings’, he is laid back and respects Lorca.
  • In ‘Butcher’s Knife’, he seems to think Lorca is an unethical arsehole.
  • In ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’ he jumps into enemy territory without hesitation to save Lorca.
  • In ‘Lethe’ he is happy to abandon an admiral to torture because Lorca says to.
  • In ‘Magic to Make’ he insists that Lorca adhere to his responsibilities to a space whale.

Now, maybe Saru cares about the space whale because he feels guilty about how he treated the large-igrade. Maybe he prefers to remain entirely within the constraints of rules and orders – hence he’ll follow regulations on rescuing space whales, but he will also follow orders in regards to rescuing admirals.

The lighting is more dynamic than the character.

None of these character traits are especially contradictory – certainly, single a character could exist who would behave in the above different manners. But these behaviours are pretty inconsistent – they’re indicative of a fickle personality, which isn’t how Saru is presented.

What we’re left with is a character whose personality morphs to fit the narrative of each episode. He’s malleable, like Frank Reynolds in ‘Always Sunny’ – his characterisation is secondary to the demands of the plot.

And, a bit like Geordi, his own motivations are largely irrelevant. He claims to be jealous of Burnham, to be angry at her, but these feelings never particularly manifest in his actual behaviour or decision-making. They affect his tone of voice, but not his actions. It would be interesting to see him disagreeing with Burnham just because he hates her – to see him refuting an argument he knows to be valid just because of his feelings towards the person making it.

We also get no clear view on his relationship with Lorca, and this is critical. For one, the relationship between a captain and their first officer is typically the most significant of any Trek show, or indeed any cast of characters with a hierarchy. For reference, see Kirk/Spock, Picard/Riker(/Data), Janeway/Chakotay, Adama/Tigh, Bartlet/McGarry. It might not be the most important relationship within a work of fiction, but it is vital for determining the tone of a story that’s fixed in one place and with one crew.

‘Battlestar Galactica’s two most senior officers, William ‘Hard Six’ Adama and Saul ‘Salty’ Tigh have possibly the least dynamic relationship across the four seasons of the show: they start out as friends and broadly remain friends. Yet from their very first scene together we see Adama calling Tigh out on his problematic behaviour while offering him support and friendship. That frames one of the strongest themes of the show – of flawed, occasionally terrible enduring together through a horrible ordeal.

When you look at Kirk and Spock through the same lens, you see an entirely different dynamic. It’s co-operative, and it’s jovial, a little jokey (usually at Spock’s expense). This, again, informs on the rest of the show – one of general optimism through a series of generally light-hearted adventures.

But as of the seventh episode of ‘Discovery’, we hadn’t seen its captain and its first officer exchange more than one or two sentences. There had never been a meaningful scene between them that wasn’t entirely functional. As such, we’re left lacking a vital bit of context for the entire series.


We’re left to infer that Lorca keeps Saru at arm’s length, out of the loop, but we never really see Saru’s take on this – is he aware of the fact he’s just decoration? Is he annoyed with the lack of agency, or is he grateful for the reduced responsibility and the chance to spend more time eating blueberries?

We see plenty of scenes between Lorca and other crew members – particularly Burnham and Ash the Human and Stamets. But the vital connection with his first officer is ignored. Indeed, if it weren’t for maybe a small handful of exceptions, Saru’s only interactions on the ship would be with Burnham – we don’t even see him interact with any other members of the crew beyond functional exchanges.

In ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’, Saru actually takes command of the ship, and yet we get very little insight into his command ability. We see him shouting at Burnham, Culber and Stamets, but each of these exchanges revolves around a single issue, that of the Large-igrade. We see him verbalising his thoughts on a tactical situation, but never him displaying anything approaching leadership.

At the end of the episode, he seems to acknowledge that he made a mess of things – and yet this doesn’t manifest into any follow-up action on his part in subsequent episodes. By way of example, we could have had a later scene where we see him replaying video logs of his time in command, or studying in greater depth some of those exemplary captains the computer listed for him. During the party in ‘Magic to Make’, maybe Saru wasn’t on the bridge with Lorca but was on a fake bridge in that holographic training room, playing through the Kobayashi Maru (Kobayashi Saru?) scenario over and over again.

Or – and this is a terrifying prospect, I know – we could have had a short scene where he just sits down with Lorca and asks to be mentored, asks to be included more in decision-making, or even asks to be given even less responsibility, to be frozen out of matters to a greater extent than he already is.

Once again, I’m left questioning the serialised format of the show, given how little they utilise it. If ‘Discovery’ were episodic, Saru’s lack of development following ‘CHOOOOOSE YOOOUUURRR PAAAAAIIIIIN’ would be forgivable, but the show’s creators have gone to great lengths to make clear that this is a long-running narrative.


So far, I’ve only been talking about the first seven episodes of ‘Star Trek: Bag of Hammers’, because in the eighth episode, titled… ah… It’s some stupid latin name, but the episode itself is basically a rip-off of ‘Errand of Mercy’ so I’m going to call it… hmm… ‘Errand of Derpy’.

Anyway, in ‘Errand of Derpy’, we get another Saru-centric storyline which should, again, be pivotal to the character’s development. In it, Saru is – well, he’s not exactly brainwashed, nor is he psychically compelled – but in any case, he turns traitor against Burnham and Ash the Human and attempts to sabotage the potentially war-winning mission that the three of them are on.

It’s worth noting that Saru is in command of this mission – he’s the ranking officer and is directly responsible not only for the mission’s success, but also the safety of the two crew members with him. It’s also worth noting, as previously covered, that this is somehow Starfleet’s only potential answer to the Klingon Cloaking Devices, because they haven’t yet tried plain old science, apparently.

On this planet of the Not-Organians (distinguishable from actual Organians by being blue instead of yellow), Saru is overcome with the feeling of peace and serenity that he experiences. For a creature motivated entirely by fear, suddenly being immersed in the safest possible environment imaginable is a bit like me finding myself on a planet full of nymphomaniac clones of Emily Blunt: my ability to critically analyse the situation in a rational manner is likely to be… compromised.

Now, this makes sense for Saru, based on what we know about him. He totally would lose his shit when faced with perfect serenity. Sure. What’s frustrating from a narrative perspective is that at no point does he become self-aware of his own failure – at least, not until after the story has already been resolved and he’s back on the ship. Because Burnham manages to stop Saru from completely destroying their comms device, we don’t actually learn anything new about Saru from this experience – instead, he’s just acting as the antagonist for the episode.

Compare that to Next Gen’s ‘The Most Toys’, where we not only see Data dealing with being a captive but we also see him actually full-on murder a guy in cold blood and then lie about it. This is a huge development for the otherwise temperate android, and he suddenly becomes much, much more complex as a character (and quite a bit more terrifying).

The thing is, when Saru loses it on Not-Organia, that’s only a surface-level development of his personality. Really, we could have extrapolated what we saw based on what we already knew – that an extremely fear-based species would react extremely to a fear-free environment.

What we really needed to see was Saru dealing with this himself. The story doesn’t need to change much – it can still be Burnham who knocks him down and completes the mission – but there has to be some hefty introspective from Saru, beyond him just sat on a bio bed in sickbay feeling a bit guilty about what happened.

What we definitely don’t need is to immediately see him resuming his duties as first officer as though nothing had happened. At the beginning of ‘Into The Forest I Go’, between twenty minutes to an hour in-universe after the events of ‘Errand of Derpy’, Saru’s just on the bridge, carrying on like it’s an entirely new episode. Which, of course, it is – but it’s a new episode in a serialised show, with an unbroken narrative.

If you’re a Trek veteran, you may remember it being weird when Harry Kim was still an ensign after seven years, never having increased in rank since the beginning of ‘Voyager’. Indeed, as one of my friends recently pointed out, Nog the Ferenghi served Harry Kim drinks aboard Deep Space Nine in Voyager’s first episode, but over the next five years Nog would enroll in Starfleet Academy, graduate, and reach the rank of Lieutenant, such that Harry would have endured seven years of torment in the Delta Quadrant only to return home and be saluting his waiter.

This occurred because ‘Deep Space Nine’ was semi-serialised, with its last two seasons forming a fairly well-structured narrative. ‘Voyager’, on the other hand, remained episodic, like ‘The Next Generation’, with each episode remaining largely standalone. Harry Kim could never gain rank for the same reason that Geordi LaForge could never really progress – his role as a support character in other stories was vastly more important to the show than his actual development as a character in his own right. Geordi always needed to be there for Data – Harry always needed to be there for Tom Paris and to give status reports.

Nog was broadly a support character, too, usually there to fill a role in stories about the Siskos or Quark and Rom. But because of the continuous narrative, as these other characters developed, Nog had to develop, too. You couldn’t write connected episode threads about Jake growing up if his best friend of the same age never grows up either – because part of growing up is dealing with the people around you developing and changing themselves. Likewise, Quark couldn’t broaden his character without Rom, and Rom couldn’t develop without Nog, and so you end up with a character you probably forgot was in the show being the star of one of its most beautiful episodes.

(As an aside, the character of Morn, one of Quark’s regular bar patrons, is frequently lampshaded as being entirely static, never saying a word or even moving from the same bar stool, and yet still managed to get some character development. I can only assume that Garrett Wang either never watched the show, or was in a healthy state of denial.)

I’ll bring this back to ‘Discovery’ again which, I’ll reiterate, was conceived as a serialised narrative. The whole reason we’ve had to endure so much bullshit is so that the producers could fashion this trendy season-long continuous narrative. Which means we should be getting more Nog, less Harry Kim. Saru’s betrayal on Not-Organia should have come with consequences: it should not have been treated as a “one-off” “fire-and-forget” storyline with no knock-on effects.

And if you’re wondering why I’m so hung up on this, I’ll make it clear:

The consequences of a Starfleet officer turning traitor and endangering their shipmates is the entire premise of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Burnham’s decision to turn on her captain, jeopardise her ship and terminate her career is the very heart of ‘Discovery’s narrative. Saru repeating that mistake, nearly beat-for-beat, should be HUGE. Especially given Saru’s resentment of Burnham for her actions.

Extraordinary events demand an extraordinary response, and that goes double for a show as emotionally charged as ‘Discovery’ tries to be. Although Saru and Burnham share a short, concilliatory scene at the end of ‘Errand of Derpy’, a genuinely satisfying conflict could have developed had Burnham taken Saru to task.

After all, when she behaved in the same way she lost everything of value to her and was accused of instigating a galactic war. Indeed, Saru has just prolonged a galactic war, compromising Starfleet’s potential countermeasure to the cloaking device, but this isn’t even touched upon.

Don’t touch him, you know where he’s been.

The fact is, Saru was initially a fairly well-realised addition to Trek canon. The ideas behind his creation were not ideas that Trek had particularly explored before: the concept of a race of cowards – not pacifists, cowards – with their biological impulses motivated entirely by fear and survival.

But a good initial idea is only as valuable as its ultimate manifestation. When shoddily executed, a good idea is worthless, and Saru has now become a fairly pointless, inconsistent character who lacks any of the qualities that made the likes of Data, Nog, or even Seven of Nine so compelling.

And it’s not as though he’s competing for airtime with a big cast of strong characters, like Data in TNG or Nog in DS9 or Seven of Nine in… well, never mind. But the fact is that ‘Discovery’ only features a handful of other series regulars, especially now that Tilly is barely getting one line per episode.

And as I’ve hopefully demonstrated above, there’s huge amounts of previous Trek that demonstrates what’s possible with a limited runtime – and that also demonstrates how badly things can go when the quality of a story takes a lower priority than commercial concerns.

There was no narrative requirement for Saru to go rogue this early on in the series. Sure, you can have him throw a wobbly in an extreme environment, but nothing in the show’s plot mandated his treachery. He could have been rendered useless by his fear, or left in an ecstatic stupor by the lack of it, and the lack of any follow-up would be a non-issue.

It was only because of the creators’ perceived need for hyper-dramatic conflict that Saru went all Bilbo-y. And it was presumably because of the need for a hyper-dramatic mid-season finale in the following episode that this development was immediately forgotten.

In the future, I intend to cover this cynical approach to storytelling – this assumed need for “tweetable” or “trendable” content that will drive social media engagement, but for now it’s enough to say that it will eventually have the opposite effect.

Whilst in the short term Saru’s behaviour might get people talking for now, in the longer term the variability and malleability of the character is going to leave him incapable of surprising us – just like Frank Reynolds.


‘Star Trek: Discovery’ And The War Without Consequences

I’m going to start this article on a tangent.

There’s an episode of ‘The Next Generation’ called ‘Power Play’, about evil space ghosts possessing two mooks and the Hero of Starfleet (Troi, Data and Miles O’Brien, respectively).

These space ghosts take three people hostage to force Picard and the crew to help them. One of the people they take hostage is Worf, he who wears the Bandolier of Denial. When threatened with death, Worf responds thusly:

“To die defending one’s ship is the hope of every Klingon.”


That is one hell of a line. Why? Well, let’s pretend we’ve never seen, or even heard of, Klingons before. What does this line tell us?

First off, he’s speaking for “every Klingon”. Not literally true, perhaps, but this is clearly a statement about the Klingon mindset.  And he’s talking about their hopes, their aspirations – this is a statement about the Klingon ideal, their model existence. And it’s a statement which includes death, but not just any death – a meaningful one, a sacrifice, in fact. And not even mere sacrifice. “Defending.” “Defending one’s ship.” The act of preserving, an act borne out of duty, maybe even loyalty. And this isn’t “protecting”, either – “defending” has a very martial connotation. This isn’t about dying in service to others, this is about dying honourably, gloriously.

Am I giving a lot of credit to a throw-away line? Probably. I mean, this is hardly the best episode of ‘The Next Generation’. It’s not even the best episode in this season of Next Gen. And the effectiveness of this line is most likely accidental.

So let’s look at a line that most likely wasn’t accidental in its effectiveness.

Spock points to a diagram of the ship, scattered with blinking lights. “They knew exactly where to hit us.”

This line alone is pretty powerful. It tells us everything we need to know about the situation, without the need for any specifics. No technobabble, no talk of shields failing, of crew casualties, or warp cores breaching. You don’t even need the rest of the scene to know that the Enterprise has been under attack; you don’t need to see the sparks flying or the smoke pluming or the lights flickering to know that they’ve been badly wounded. And whilst Nimoy is gesturing towards a prop of the damaged locations, that’s entirely auxiliary.

Oh, and in case you don’t recognise the line itself, it’s from ‘The Wrath of Khan’, about twenty seconds after the Enterprise gets her arse kicked by Reliant. If you still don’t know which bit I’m talking about, go and watch ‘The Wrath of Khan’, like, seriously, right now, go, go do it, go watch it, it’s amazing, watch it, do it now.

So, why am I talking about these two lines? Well, it’s simply to point out that it is entirely possible to convey meaningful information in a very short space of time. And the irony that it has taken me ten paragraphs to explain that is not lost on me, I assure you.

And the reason I’m making this point is as follows:

As of ‘Lethe’, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has given us four episodes based around a war with the Klingons, and not a single line explaining how that war is going.

Not. One. Line.

I’ve covered this before from earlier in the show, but I want to go into a bit more depth here.

The fact is, I don’t give a shit about the actual war. We’ve been there and done that with the Dominion, back in the days when Trek still occasionally approached being a quality show. As I’ve stated elsewhere, what I care about is the universe that our characters inhabit, and how that affects them. And so far, it’s having no effect. This war is apparently raging across the known galaxy, and yet it’s having absolutely zero consequences for the entire cast.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Certainly, the fact that there is a war is leading to Things Happening. Lorca gets kidnapped, Sarek gets attacked, Cornwell gets captured. These things occur allegedly because there is a war, but there’s a problem.

During ‘Choose Your Pain’, before he’s kidnapped by the Klingons (Klingnapped?), Lorca is attending some sort of strategy meeting with a bunch of admirals. Here, he gets told that despite the fact that Discovery is apparently kicking all sorts of arse, they need to bring it off the front line until they can replicate it’s water-bear-operated mushroom drive.

During this meeting, Admiral Cornwell tells Lorca not to worry about being out of the fight, as “the rest of the fleet will pick up the slack.” Now, maybe she’s just trying to allay his anxieties, but everything about the exchange suggests that the war is going pretty well for Starfleet. The Discovery seems more like a novelty weapon, an experimental platform prior to implementation in the rest of the fleet. Lorca tells them “that’s a lot of slack,” but he’s an arrogant butthole so whatever, his words mean nothing to me. And besides, Cornwell tells him that they will “manage”.

What’s shockingly absent from this strategy briefing between four high-ranking military commanders, though, is any discussion of the war beyond three missions completed by Discovery. Taking a cue from the two examples I gave above, a single line could have provided so much context to the events of the episode, and the series to date. Here’s a few possibilities:

“Without Discovery, the fighting would’ve reached Vulcan by now.”

“Everybody’s tired, and everybody’s worried, but we need to keep it together.”

“The repair yards are already at capacity, soon we’ll be pulling antiques out of mothballs.”

“Lorca, you’re the most experienced captain we’ve got left.”

“If we get overconfident, we might find the ground falling out from underneath us.”

“We’re out of options.”

They’re out of options.”

“They’re getting desperate.”

“Nobody expected this to be easy.”

These are all hugely cliché, sure, but they’re simple and they convey at least a little meaning. And these are just off the top of my head.

It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t have to be accurate. The important thing here is the situation as it’s perceived by the characters. It may be that they’re well towards victory, but they all think they’re on the edge of Armageddon, and that’s fine so long as it informs the decisions that they make.

In the next episode, an in-universe week later, the same Admiral Cornwell is drilling Lorca a new arsehole (not literally, that occurs later in the episode) over his abject insubordination, during which time she describes Discovery as Starfleet’s “cornerstone of defence.” Again, this would be an ideal opportunity for a little added background, to put the Discovery‘s actions in the context of the larger war, and yet again that opportunity is ignored by the show’s writers.

Another instance in ‘Choose Your Pain’ is the introduction of a new character, Ash Tyler The Human. Ash Tyler The Human, from Humansville, on the Human Planet, is a Human Starfleet Human prisoner aboard the same Klingon vessel as Lorca following the former’s abduction. Given that he’s been imprisoned by other Klingons since the start of the war, you might naturally expect him to enquire after the war, and use the opportunity to speak to a high-ranking Fellow Human to find out how all of the Other Humans are fairing.

And yet… nothing. No “How’s the war going?” No “Are we winning, cap’n?” No “Has my torment and suffering over the last seven months meant anything?” And it’s just so odd. I can’t get my head around why a show which otherwise has a worrying fixation on violence shies away so much from the bigger picture. I mean, we get to see necks being broken, throats being slit and human bodies twisted into fusilli, all in excruciating detail, but apparently the show’s creators are squeamish about portraying war as anything other than a vague background hum.

And that’s the crux of it. Things happen in this show allegedly because of The War – Lorca is abducted; the mining colony is attacked; Sarek is suicide-bombed; Lorca is an arsehole; Cornwell gets captured – it’s stated that these all occur because of The War, and yet these are all standard Trek plots – rogue alien species attack Federation outposts all the time, and there isn’t a single season of Next Gen that doesn’t feature at least one episode about the crew being abducted, or brainwashed, or possessed, or held to ransom. Again, look at ‘Power Play’, discussed above.

All of the plotlines of ‘Discovery’ so far could have easily occurred as one-off incidents, unrelated to any grander narrative. And yet The War is mentioned in every other conversation. And yet, nothing about the war is discussed. It’s mentioned, but it has no real impact on anything that happens. Even Ash Tyl- ah, sorry, even Voq The Klingon’s arc could function perfectly well without the war. A Klingon infiltrating Starfleet to win glory for the Empire is an old trope that plays just fine as general Klingon shenanigans.

Which then raises the point – why does the War even exist? What does it add to the narrative? To the story? What’s even more infuriating is that some of these plotlines would actually be better without the war. Leaving your primary source of fuel in such a remote, poorly defended position is understandable when you’re at peace and not expecting an attack. But during a full-on escalated conflict with an enemy race? It makes Starfleet look like amateurs.

In ‘Deep Space Nine’, there’s a really interesting arc when Ben Sisko finds out that his son, Jake, has stayed behind on the Starfleet station that the Dominion now occupy. This little side plot sees father and son separated for a good chunk of the season, and it adds an extra personal investment for Sisko. The point at which he realises his son is missing is painful, and the point at which they reunite is touching. And it uses the war to drive character motives – Sisko can’t simply return to an enemy-held station to rescue his son, and Jake has to learn to cope in a dangerous situation without his heroic father around to protect him.

Elsewhere, Dax and Worf, a newly-married couple, find themselves on separate assignments. This doesn’t necessarily affect their duties, but it does mean that when we finally see them reunite, we understand how emotional a moment it is for them. All throughout the War arc, we see characters torn apart, brought back together, and the emotional rollercoaster that they experience throughout it all.

And what we’re specifically not seeing is every battle that takes place. We don’t get periodic updates on front lines and casualties. But we do get them, and they invariably result in our characters making decisions around them. Someone loses an old friend during a distant, off-screen battle. We don’t ever meet that friend, but we do see the effect that the loss has on the characters we care about.

And that’s just absent from ‘Discovery’. The war is entirely abstract, entirely inconsequential to what occurs, excepting Engineer Stavros’ occasional line about “being a scientist and not a soldier.” And even that loses its impact, as we never see Stavros doing anything except what he’d normally do.

When the Dominion attacks Deep Space Nine, we see Bashir, the doctor, and Dax, the scientist, and O’Brien, the engineer, all take up arms to defend it. We see them outside their comfort zone, because that’s where the war has taken them. In ‘Discovery’, the crew carry on jogging around, chatting shit, eating burritos and torturing large-igrades. And that’s fine, we don’t need to see them fighting all the time. But maybe we could see them rushing medical aid to a frontier outpost? Maybe see Stavros having to help out his partner in triage, see Tilly develop her leadership skills as she co-ordinates paramedics.

As is the nature of ‘Discovery’, potential is wasted at every opportunity.