World-Building in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

So, recently I hit the highlight in my writing career – one of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’s writers actually responded to me trash-talking their show.

This is huge. Partially because it’s the closest to show-business I’ve ever been, and partially because, if I’m being honest, it feels like validation. After six weeks of dedicating entire minutes of my spare time to pointing out all of the flaws in ‘Discovery’, having one of its writers directly insult me over Twitter is like… it’s like seeing an ex post a vague facebook status about you. Sometimes, it’s just nice to know you’ve gotten to someone.

Anyway, he hasn’t continued our brief four-tweet spat, sadly, but that’s for the best. As much as I like to whinge about the writing on ‘Discovery’, it’s obviously a tough and demanding job, trying to balance the need to produce new, exciting stories without betraying the source material, and I don’t want to berate a fellow creative just because I disagree with how they’ve done things.

No, what I really want to talk about is the world-building in ‘Discovery’, and how it shapes the show’s narrative. Setting’s really important, especially in a serialised narrative such as ‘Discovery’, and this is a topic I’ve wanted to cover for a while.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I could continue the twitter argument with Mr Sullivan. It would hardly be difficult to address the fact that he used the phrase “big budget” to make himself seem more important. And it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that maybe a little more of that budget should’ve been spent on the writing staff.

But I don’t want to make comments like that. I want to take the high road, and keep this civil. I want to talk about high-brow things, like how a show’s setting informs the decisions of its characters. I don’t want to get into a petty tit-for-tat, where I sarcastically thank him for sarcastically praising my knowledge of television writing, and then suggest that we have so much in common and that we truly are brothers in creative arms.

Exchanges like that are petty, and beneath me. I mean, I COULD point out the delicious beauty of the fact that his profile picture is him sat in front of a pair of two-dimensional characters, and ask him if he intentionally wrote ‘Discovery’s characters with the same level of depth. I’m just saying, that’s a thing I COULD do, but I won’t. ‘Cause I’m classy.

And the temptation is there. It’s there in force. Oh! how I crave to sink to the level of pointless rebuttals and insult-slinging. But that isn’t me. That’s not something I’d do. I feel the urge to ask if substituting “clueless” for “crude” is the kind of wordplay that qualifies a person to write for a Star Trek show. I pine to request a job on the writing staff, based on the fact that I once rhymed “Lorca” with “Orca“, and must therefore be in the running for a top-tier script job. But that’s an awfully pedestrian way to conduct myself.

No, I won’t make fun of him. Maybe he was just sticking up for his colleagues when he lashed out. No, I won’t make fun of him! Do you hear? You’ll have to get your entertainment someplace else! I’m not about to sully my own website with some tawdry, crass and adolescent smack-talking session, I’m not that… ah… crude. Oh.

And let’s just be honest with ourselves, the insult tree is ripe for picking when it comes to the writers of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. Hell, I wouldn’t even need to reach beyond the confines of the Star Trek universe itself to let them know what I really think of them. Sure, I could quote Mr Sullivan on his ‘After Trek’ experience, when he claimed that the next episode will be on par with ‘Balance of Terror’. I could ask him if he actually meant ‘Spock’s Brain’, or ‘The Outrageous Okona’. I could suggest that I’m glad to see such diversity in modern Star Trek shows, and congratulate him on being the first Pakled to hold a regular writing position on a major TV series.

And sure, I could question how he has time to respond to a two-bit twitter troll like me when there are still episodes of ‘The Expanse’ that remain unplagiarised. Or maybe I could just send him a link to the Merriam-Webster definition of subtext and suggest he instead devote his time to understanding it. Hell, I could have just sent him the Amazon link to ‘Children of Dune’ with the tagline “Hey, I just found a great documentary about Discovery’s spore drive!” but I wouldn’t do something like that.

These are such trivial, quotidian matters, when there are much grander themes to discuss! Wouldn’t you rather me engage in a more academic exploration of why the political and social background of a story gives it the structure it needs to truly resonate with an audience? Would you not prefer me to detail why the nature of a fictional civilisation adds context and meaning to the actions of its inhabitants?

Surely you’d prefer that to me throwing playground insults at a poor, overworked writer? Insults like “Well the big budget might buy special effects but it clearly can’t buy a compelling narrative,” or “If you’re so worried about adhering to canon, try not writing for a franchise with almost 800 previous instalments,” or “Don’t worry, nobody thinks this is a real Trek show anyway.” Aren’t we all above that? Are we not all better than that?

No, let me focus on the real matters, let me write about the important subjects, the subjects which matter to me, as a writer. Let me enthuse about my craft, and in so doing shed light upon the manner in which careful, considered world-building can lay the foundation for a truly fantastic story.

Because, you see, there’s hardly any world-building in ‘Discovery’, and there really should be more. It’s such a shame.

‘Jupiter Ascending’ Is The Same Movie Three Times Over, And Is Also Just An Overblown ‘Dune’ Fan-Fiction

Have you ever seen ‘John Carter Of Mars’? If you came to this article to decide whether or not to watch ‘Jupiter Ascending’, I can provide a solution straight away, and that solution is to go and fucking watch ‘John Carter of Mars’ because it’s the same fucking film, except that it was done first and is better in every measurable way. It’s funnier, smarter, better paced, just as batshit crazy and is far, far more deserving of two hours of your life than ‘Jupiter Ascending’, which I can only assume is ironically named because of the frequency with which people are subjected to gravity throughout the whole bloody film as a substitute for actual threat.

First things first, everything in this film has a stupid name, worse than anything that ever dribbled out of George Lucas’ wretched approach to nomenclature. ‘John Carter’ also features lots of silly names, but ‘John Carter’ was based on a bunch of erotic pulp space opera novels from the 1920s. ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is based on the Wachowskis having no creative restraint, and as such has no excuse for being so inaccessible.

The story itself is simple. Mila Kunis is a genetic duplicate of a dead space queen who had three garbage children each with a horrifying sexual attraction to her. Earth is a completely ordinary planet in a galaxy full of millions of others, but is still also somehow the most important planet in the story, because it’s Earth, or something. The three children are all thousands of years old and willing to murder each other and their own mother over control of the Earth, because it’ll boost their profits by eight per cent, Or Something. The three children all send mercenaries to capture Mila because she is the legal inheritor of Earth, as laid out in her own will before she was murdered by her own children, OR SOMETHING.

The point is, there’s nothing special about Earth. Sean Bean is really keen to point out that there’s nothing special about Earth, except for it being the birthplace of the genetic plagiarism of Space Queen Kunis and also important enough for three of the most powerful people in the galaxy to dedicate weeks of their time and a shitload of angst to owning it. Because it turns out that they all have stocks in a massive Spice-market, except the Spice is made from people and not sand worm larvae. It’s Soylent Spice, and Earth is one of many Arrakises across the Galaxy, and at this point it becomes clear that with all of the elaborate costumes, ridiculous names and mystic bullshit, ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is just a teenage ‘Dune’ fan-fiction that got a bit out of hand, ‘Fifty Shades’ style.

But I’ve already whittered on enough about a lot of narratively-null trash, so let’s get down to the real issues.

That headdress is approximately the 563rd most ridiculous thing in this film.

One is that the eponymous Jupiter never actually ascends. I mean, she physically gains elevation at a few points, but she’s exactly the same person at the end of the film as she was at the beginning. Her lack of agency is staggering, because random shit just keeps happening to her, or maybe because of who she is, but she never does anything. I think at the end she punches Eddie Redmayne a few times, but that doesn’t seem so hard given that his body is basically a series of plastic coat hangers tied together with shopping bags.

I mean, at one point she just about chooses not to marry the skeevy space prince who states he doesn’t give a shit about her but heavily hints that he really wanted to fuck his mum, and also makes pretty fucking clear that he’s going to wait about three nanoseconds after the wedding ceremony before stabbing her in the brain and using her pancreas as a sex toy, inheriting all of her property anyway. So she made that decision for herself, I suppose.

She also tells Eddie Redmayne to fuck off when he makes the generous offer of letting her abdicate her space throne and all of her space power and space wealth so that he can almost immediately harvest Earth, killing everyone and turning them all into Soylent Spice. So she also has that going for her. She goes from someone who is occasionally taken advantage of by her family to being someone who will Not be taken advantage of by her evil incestuous space family. How Empowering.

No, all the agency in the entire affair rests with Channing Tatum, aka The Plasticene Muscle Man, who is some kind of dog-person with magic ice skates and A Dark History. And this leads into probably the biggest problem with ‘Jupiter Ascending’, its structure. Laying out the major plot developments:

  1. Mila Kunis is bored on Earth.
  2. She gets captured by creepy space aliens, and is rescued by Running Wolfman.
  3. She finds out she is a space queen.
  4. She gets captured by her creepy space daughter, and is rescued by Running Wolfman.
  5. She gets captured by her creepy space son, and is rescued by Running Wolfman.
  6. She gets captured by her other creepy space son, and is revealed to have been the mastermind behind her own ascension to the space throne, and in the epilogue is shown ruling Earth as a cruel and vindictive tyrant for a thousand years.
  7. Just kidding, she gets rescued by Running Wolfman.

Seriously, those are the plot developments. An hour of dull exposition, interspersed with pointlessly lengthy action scenes, followed by the same fucking plot three times over. I honestly believe the Wachowskis got bored after writing the second act, and just hit ‘Ctrl+V’ a couple of times and then auto-corrected some of the names. It was so repetitive that it could’ve fooled you into thinking it was a strange rehash of ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘ but made with about one sixteenth of the talent.

So you end up with this bloated two-hour mess which manages to multiply its mediocrity through repetition. I would love to credit the creativity that went into the visuals and the costumes and so on, but the story itself is so fucking void of captivation that I can’t bring myself to do so. Stories don’t have to be original, but when they start plagiarising themselves I start to lose patience.

The Padishah Emperor and Alia At- nope, sorry, wrong franchise.

The villains were all stupid to the point of being impotent. Eddie Redmayne will happily kidnap and murder, but won’t just fucking harvest Earth when he could because “it wouldn’t be legal.” Creepy Space-Incest Boy wants to kill Whining Houndbum, so rather than shooting him in the heart or just locking him in an airtight box for three days, he leaves him his energy shield and his magic ice skates, then blasts him out of an airlock filled with emergency spacesuits, placing him roughly at the “Bond Villain” level of evil competence / ability to achieve objectives.

The action scenes took forever and were pointless. During one, I wandered off, did a bit of washing up, went for a piss, got changed (unrelated to the piss), hung some laundry out to dry (still unrelated to the piss) came back and it was the SAME fight scene and NOTHING HAD CHANGED (I didn’t piss myself). Martial arts films can get away with shit like that because their fight scenes are daring displays of acrobatics and staggering precision. The Wachowskis fill the screen with CGI lasers and spaceships which make it impossible to follow what’s happening and which were put together by legions of underpaid graphic artists, whilst the directors presumably go home to huff the smell of one another’s socks and practice high-fiving.

There was a weird montage scene where Mila Kunis, allegedly one of the most powerful people in the galaxy, has to go through about three hundred different registry offices to get a piece of paper which actually grants her the title – which is ultimately achieved through a pedestrian level of bribery. Like, to become the ruler of Earth you just need to slip someone a tenner and wink at them, Or Something. Anyway, it’s weird and pointless, lasts far too long and is basically just the same joke over and over. The only other time you see shit like this is in films based off books with a need to include lengthy written segments as efficiently as possible. Aesthetically and structurally it seemed identical to other scenes in the ‘Harry Potter’ series, for example, but that makes no sense because ‘Jupiter Ascending’ isn’t based off a book but rather a vomit stain on the floor of a petrol station toilet.

I think this is the scene where she catches him licking his own testicles and barking at a cat.

Like all terrible films these days, ‘Jupiter Ascending’ picks up and then drops plot threads like a grubby-fingered hippy trying to find the best avocado in the discount salad aisle of a suburban corner shop. Sean Bean betrays Drooping Cheekbone and then they’re best friends again, all within the space of eight minutes. Tuppence Middleton has Queen Kunis captured, so she can show her a statue of her pre-dead self, watch her get undressed and take a bath, and then, I don’t know, she doesn’t seem to want to actually use Mila for anything except just having a bit of a chat. You’d think she could’ve just called her.

A lot of people have piped up about Redmayne’s own peculiar brand of skinny-Blessed scenery-chewing, but the fact is it could’ve been one of the strongest points of the whole bloody film. His two siblings – Middleton and The Other Bloke – both deliver such standard performances that the only clue they’re from a different culture, nay, planet, to our own, comes from their costumes. They’re meant to be aristocrats, dozens of millenia old and in charge of hundreds of thousands of star systems, but they don’t present any differently to any other scheming Earth-bound homo sapiens. Meanwhile, Redmayne delivers a quite alien persona that comes close to selling the notion that he might be from another world. If the rest of the cast had gotten on board with his approach, I’d be willing to give the film a bit more slack.

There are plenty of other things that make me foam at the liver when I think about this shitshow, from the boring performances delivered by every actor that wasn’t warming down from playing Stephen Hawking, to the fact that Tunneling Moleman or Maudling Humdrum or whatever he’s called actually gets WINGS at the end, because of all his “good deeds” Or Something. Christ, you’d never have thought that a film that steals material from ‘Dune’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘John Carter’ and now fucking ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ would ever make a good story, and ‘Jupiter Ascending’ proves that you would be absolutely correct, it doesn’t make a good story, it in fact amounts to three separate helpings of the same turd-flavoured sorbet heaped into a soggy sugar cone, sprinkled with gold flakes to make it look pretty.

Sean Bean was alright in it, I guess.