On the bridge of the Shenzhou, Saru paces anxiously in front of the captain’s chair. He taps his fingers together in a variety of rhythmic patterns, a Kelpien stress behaviour. He addresses the Ops officer. “Mission elapsed time, lieutenant?”
“Forty-seven minutes, sir.”
Saru keeps pacing. “Any further data on that object? Have you pierced the scattering field?”
“Negative, sir, but- hang on. Mister Saru, I’m picking up two incoming objects, they’ve just left the field’s area of influence.”
Saru’s threat ganglia sprout from the side of his head in alarm. He gently presses them down, and does his best to maintain his composure. “What objects? What are they?” He strides over to his science station.
The Ops officer keeps studying her console. “Sir, they’re life pods, from the shuttle! Two human life signs, it’s…” The Ops officer looks up in shock. “It’s Detmer, sir, and Furlan.”
Saru taps away at his console. His mouth drops open as he reads the display. “Con… confirmed. I, I don’t, does that mean…”
“Sir, those pods have been beaten up pretty badly on their way out of the debris field. Permission to beam them aboard? Sir?” Saru is non-responsive for moment. “Sir? Mister Saru?”
Saru stirs. “Yes. Yes, beam them directly to sickbay. And…” He pauses. “I will meet them there.” He leaves the bridge without another word. The captain’s chair remains empty.
Saru enters sickbay to Detmer sat on a biobed, and Furlan prone on another. The ship’s surgeon attends Furlan, treating a blast wound to his chest.
Saru surveys the situation. “Detmer, what happened? Where is the captain? Where is Captain Georgiou?”
Detmer is rubbing the side of her neck, where Burnham gripped her. “I don’t know, sir. She’s on the station, I think. They both are.”
“Burnham wanted to go back for her. For the captain. She… she shot Furlan, and she, I don’t know, she must have taken the shuttle back, but the Klingons…”
“Klingons?” Saru’s ganglia sprout again. “That’s a Klingon station?”
Detmer nods awkwardly. “They attacked. They attacked the shuttle, we had to fly out of there. We beamed Burnham out, but it was a mistake, it was meant to be the captain.” She shakes her head, as if to clear it. “Saru, she said it was a trap. The captain said they want to start a war, that we can’t let them. She told us not to do anything, to keep the peace, she said. Keep the peace.”
Saru ponders this new information. “Wait, where is Burnham?”
Inside the Klingon station, Burnham moves slowly, silently, along a dark corridor. She has her phaser drawn and held in front of her, ready to fire. Her eyes dart about, watching every nook and cranny.
She can hear guttural voices from down one corridor. She peeks her head around the corner to see a group of Klingon silhouettes in the distance. Their rough, alien speech is incomprehensible, so Burnham pulls Georgiou’s slim-line communicator out.
“… really work?” one Klingon voice asks.
“We are a strong people,” another responds. “T’Kuvma will remind us how much stronger we can be united. And we will help him.”
A third voice interjects. “The last of the explosives have been loaded, captain. They have been linked to the detonator.”
“Good! Then we are ready. Let us rejoin the fleet. I am tired of waiting, and of carrying things.” This silhouette produced some kind of instrument, and spoke into it. “This is the captain. We are ready. Energise.”
The whine of a transporter fills the corridor, and the Klingons disappear in glowing red flares of light. As they do, Burnham sees another, identical transporter beam, in the courtyard of a Federation settlement. She’s a child, and she watches from behind cover, watches as the Klingons open fire as soon as they materialise, indiscriminately murdering colonists. Outside the courtyard, explosions detonate, and flames fill the sky, as do screams and wails and angry roars of triumph.
As an adult, Burnham hyperventilates, her eyes wide in fright. She’s back in the corridor, now empty. The Klingons are gone, but she can still hear the screams, and her mother’s voice calling out to her.
In the main hall of the station, Georgiou sits on the floor with her hands cuffed in rigid metal clasps. There is no one else in the hall except T’Kuvma, who watches on a console display as Burnham flies the shuttle into the hangar and wipes out the Klingon soldiers waiting there. He zooms the feed in on her as she shoots the wounded warrior and steps over him. T’Kuvma laughs. “Your soldier is fierce, Captain.”
Georgiou is unimpressed. “She is no soldier, she’s a Starfleet officer.”
“We are all soldiers, Captain, in the great cultural war of our age. You should accept that fact, and embrace it.” He gestures at the image of Burnham. “She has. She moves with cold puprose, as though in the shadow of death.”
“The Federation is not at war with the Klingon Empire, cultural or otherwise. We seek only peaceful coexistence and cooperation.”
“THAT IS A WAR!” T’Kuvma roars, furious. “Cooperation,” he spits, “co-existence. These words mean one thing: assimilation. Tell me, Captain: were we to coexist and cooperate, would the Federation stand by whilst the Klingon Empire pursued our destiny of conquest? Would you sit idle whilst we took from weaker cultures what our strength entitles us to take?” he asks, clenching his fist. “No, you would step in, force us to lay down our weapons, and police the galaxy, as you do. The Federation are conquerors, worse than the Klingons, for whilst we conquer with ships and weapons, you, you, conquer with lies and manipulation, one hand outstretched, the other holding a chain of bondage.” He holds his arms out, as though addressing a crowd. “We Klingons are beings of conflict, and we must be allowed to seek conflict, or else we are nothing, just more Federation pawns like the Vulcans, the Andorians and the Tellarites.”
Georgiou remains defiant. “If this is a war of cultures, as you say, then you must be losing. You’re already speaking our language; you use it more than you use your own.”
T’Kuvma rounds on her and grabs her by the throat. “I use your delicate, frivolous words because I must.” He releases her. “Many of my people honour Kahless as the greatest warrior who ever lived, but they are fools.” He walks up to an old bronze statue of a Klingon warrior and gazes up at it. “Kahless did not unite our people because he was the mightiest warrior, he united our people because he was the greatest communicator. His words carried such power and meaning to our ancestors that he was able to forge a new empire, the grandest empire this Galaxy will ever know.”
“And you think you can follow in his footsteps? Unite your people and lead them to victory?” Georgiou asks, incredulously.
“No,” T’Kuvma answers, turning to face her. “I will not lead my people, Captain, another will have to carry that burden. But I shall unite them. My name will burn for a thousand lifetimes in the hearts of my people – yours will not. Which is unfortunate, Captain, because you, and your soldier,” he says, nodding at the image of Burnham again, “will be making the same sacrifice as me.”
Georgiou shakes her head. “Michael is too smart to make a martyr out of the likes of you.”
“Maybe,” T’Kuvma concedes. He hits a button on a control panel, and dozens of metallic containers are beamed into the hall. He gestures at them. “My ships have been collecting Federation weapons for some time,” he says, “and now they deliver them here, to this holy sanctuary.” He taps one of the torpedoes with a fingernail. “Very simple to modify, for such advanced technology,” he says. “Rigged for proximity detonation.”
He strolls through the piles of torpedoes. “I believe that your soldier will come here to kill me,” he explains, “but even if she does not, it will not matter, because as soon as your ship approaches, we will all be destroyed. And when my people arrive to find the wreckage of their ancestral temple scattered in the shadow of a Federation warship, they will not hesitate to strike back, united in their outrage.”
A Klingon voice sounds over the comm system. T’Kuvma responds with a few guttural words. Georgiou can’t understand any of it, nor can she loosen the cuffs around her wrists, despite her best efforts.
The Klingonese conversation ends. T’Kuvma inhales deeply, exhales slowly. He salutes the statue he was previously regarding, before addressing Georgiou. “The preparations are complete. It is time to light the beacon.”
This segment was far longer than I intended it to be, and way more talky than I wanted it to be, but there’s a lot going on here that needs setting up before we get to the juicy bit.
Most importantly, we need to understand T’Kuvma’s plan. We’ve had a lot of T’Kuvma talking in these last two parts of the story, but this all hangs on his plans to start a war, so we need to clarify it as much as possible. In short, if the audience isn’t bought into what he plans to do, and if it isn’t all as clear as possible, then no matter how climactic and exciting the final stretch is, it’s going to ring empty.
We also need to understand T’Kuvma’s motives. He’s a complex character with complex beliefs, so I did the best I could to break it down: he sees friendship with the Federation as a trap, not an opportunity, and so war is the only option for him.
It’s also important for us to understand a little more of what’s going on in Burnham’s head. She clearly has some past trauma around Klingons, and that’s vital knowledge if you’re to understand why she reacts so violently to this new situation.
We start off this part of the story with a catch-up with Saru. Here, he represents the Shenzhou in general, and its detachment from what’s going on aboard the station. When he finally gets some news about what’s happened, he’s just as confused as he was before, if not more so.
Next up, we’re going to finally see the start of that battle that makes up the title of this story, by way of a little bit of murder and quite a lot of revenge. Exciting times.
The shuttle alights on the bronze, ornate landing deck of the alien station, dimly lit by yellow lights. As the shuttle comes to a halt its ramp descends, and Georgiou, Burnham and the two security officers disembark, phasers drawn, tricorders out, eyes narrowed and darting around for danger.
Georgiou turns to one of the bodyguards. “Furlan, stay here, guard the shuttle. Burnham, Tallman, with me.”
They move furtively towards a corridor and head down it. Burnham surveys the walls and their decoration. “Ornate detailing across every surface. Intricate patterns, carved into the metal by hand, judging by the uneven finish.” She runs her hand over one wall section, letting her fingers brush across each groove and ridge. “It’s cold, and solid. This entire structure might be a single piece of metal, sculpted into shape.”
Georgiou keeps her eyes forwards, checking every alcove and corner for potential threats. “Sounds like a slow way of building a station. You’ve told me what the scientist inside you can see: what does your anthropologist make of this?”
Burnham keeps her gaze on the structure around them. “Captain, this is ritualistic, ceremonial in design. I don’t think it’s a station, I think it’s a temple.”
They enter a circular room, with corridors leading off in multiple directions. At the centre of the room stands an obelisk, covered in arcane symbols. As Burnham examines the obelisk, one particular emblem catches her eye. She’s seen it before – an image of an armoured warrior flashes through her mind, the symbol engraved on his helmet, striding through flames towards her. Screams and explosions echo all around. The warrior holds a vicious blade in his hands, which he lifts over his head and then swings down towards her.
“Michael? Commander Burnham!” Georgiou shouts.
Michael keeps her gaze locked on that symbol. “Klingons,” she says. “This is a Klingon hieroglyph. A sign of one of their Great Houses. Captain, we have to leave.”
“Not without making contact. If this is a Klingon station then there’s a reason they put it here, and we need to know what that reason is.”
“Aye, captain,” Burnham concedes. She scans the room and the corridors leading away from it with her tricorder. “The solid mass of the structure is making it hard to get a topograhical reading. I have no idea of which way we should go.”
Georgiou walks up to one corridor entrance. “Down this one.”
“Why that one, captain? Do you know what’s down there?”
“We don’t know what’s down any of them. Sometimes, you just need to make a decision.” Georgiou starts down the corridor, Tallman following her. Burnham joins them, and they move steadily onwards.
They reach the next room, circular again, this time with vaulted alcoves all along the walls. Deep channels run from each alcove to a grate in the room’s centre.
Georgiou squats down to examine one of the channels, following it to the grate. “Analysis, Number One?”
Burnham surveys the chamber. “The grooves in the floor, clearly intended to carry fluid. Alcoves at the side, big enough to hold a single humanoid.”
“You think this was a shower room?” Georgiou asks with a smirk.
“Captain, I think this was a sacrifice chamber.”
Georgiou catches Burnham’s eye. They share a look, and then turn for the exit.
An armoured warrior drops into each alcove from above. They each dash forwards as they land, roaring. Georgiou and Tallman open fire, dropping a couple of them, as Burnham grabs her communicator and flips it open. Before she can speak into it, one of the warriors smashes it out of her hand and swings for her head. She ducks, and strikes him back with both hands clasped together.
The Starfleet officers are surrounded. Georgiou takes down one warrior with a flurry of high kicks and rapid punches. Tallman keeps firing his phaser, but is grabbed from behind thrown into a wall. Burnham fends off one of the armoured foes with steady, precise attacks, each blow delivered with Vulcan-like accuracy.
But they are outnumbered. Georgiou has to dodge the powerful sweeps of a Bat’leth, getting backed up against the wall as she does. Two warriors lay into Tallman, beating him to the ground, before they each produce vicious daggers which they plunge into his back. Burnham’s elegant poise meets its end as her adversary hunkers down and then charges forwards like a bull, grabbing her around the abdomen and then diving, plunging her backwards into the floor.
Burnham, dazed, looks across to see Georgiou stabbed through the shoulder. Burnham screams out. “Captain! Philippa!” she bellows, but it does no good, as Georgiou sinks to the floor. The last thing Burnham sees is an armoured gauntlet, striking her full in the face.
Finally, some action! Narratively, this isn’t far off filler. It’s a means of getting the characters into the hands of their Klingon captors. We see a little Klingon culture along the way, but not a great deal.
And poor old Tallman – he gets no lines, just a couple of stab wounds to prove that these Klingons aren’t messing around.
I lack a great deal of imagination, so all of the side characters get names taken from actors. Furlan is named for Mira Furlan, of Babylon 5 fame, as is Tallman. Patricia Tallman is actually a Trek alumnus – most notably from ‘Starship Mine’, but has appeared in plenty of TNG, DS9 and Voyager episodes.
You’re faced with a choice. Allow your own species to become the victims of genocide, or commit genocide against your enemies to stop them. Then a third option becomes apparent: hand a weapon of mass destruction to a religious militant and install them as a dictator, ending the war that is about to end your civilisation.
What would you do?
The season finale of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, titled ‘Will You Take My Hand’, was touted by many as a “return to Starfleet’s ideals.” A lot of the dialogue focused on principles, on morals and ethics and standing by what’s right, not what’s convenient or easy.
This is an article about lots of boring but important geopolitical stuff, but there’s a side-note that I want to bring up first that I didn’t include in my initial article about the season finale. And I should have, because it’s also important.
In ‘Will You Take My Hand’ Ash Tyler, the victim of L’Rell’s imprisonment, torture, rape, and Mengele-esque medical experimentation, chose, freely, to join his abuser on her adventures, rather than linger with Starfleet.
I don’t really have any more I can add to that. I hope that that fact speaks for itself, and I hope that it brings to light just how offensive this show really is.
But it gets worse.
this is the moment I was hoping would arrive, that even when faced with total annihilation, Star Fleet would not compromise it's ideals and principles.
As mentioned above, L’Rell is a torturer. She even claims that as her profession. I dunno, maybe she uses the word “interrogator” but she definitely tortures people. She also definitely rapes people – she admitted herself that she sexually abused Ash during his captivity, either before or after he was transmuted with Voq’s essence.
Speaking of, she also subjected Ash, against his will, to a grotesque series of experimental medical procedures that literally imbued him, forcefully, with the suppressed consciousness of another sentient being.
Oh, and she eats people.
Many thanks to Burnham for seeing past our cultural differences and believing in L’Rell’s ability to lead/get those Klingons in line! It takes a strong, grounded woman to recognize another one. Glad we used our broken hearts to bring about peace. #womenpower#DiscoPartyhttps://t.co/TBfAzjBtTB
As of ‘Will You Take My Hand’, L’Rell is unrepentant for all of these crimes. And they are crimes. They’re so ghastly in nature, and she was personally, directly involved in all of them. Not only is she unrepentant, she actually seems proud of the things she has done.
A bit of background: L’Rell is a religiously-motivated militant. We first meet her as part of T’Kuvma’s movement of Kahless-inspired renegades. She is present when T’Kuvma opens (unprovoked) fire on the Federation fleet, and remains loyal to T’Kuvma’s cause throughout – that cause being the unification of the Klingon Empire by any means necessary.
T’Kuvma’s movement is heavily implied to be suggestive of Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Middle East – motivated by religion, with extreme views against “outsider influence”, particularly the U.S. and Western European nations, and using violence and military action to prosecute their agenda.
Not to be emotional, but I CRIED over watching L’Rell gain the leadership over the Klingons. SO GREAT to see girl power, even in alien races ♥️ @startrekcbs@marythechief#DiscoParty
Indeed, the whole Klingon Empire falls into this allegorical pattern – scattered nations and tribes, called “houses”, connected by shared cultural history but ultimately divided, the Klingon Empire is almost an embodiment of the Western world’s anxious perception of the Middle East – a collection of aggressive, socially regressive cultures united only in their hatred of the West.
In ‘Will You Take My Hand’, the crew of Discovery discover that Starfleet has secretly sanctioned a mission of genocide.
An evil agent is recruited by Starfleet and sent to Qo’Nos, the Klingon homeworld with a population of billions, to destroy it. She is given a drone-mounted bomb powerful enough to set off the planet’s volcanoes, pouring lava across the surface and generating enough fumes, smoke and ash to render the planet uninhabitable, slaughtering countless sentient beings in the process.
The crew, our protagonists, react to this by threatening mutiny and refusing the mission. Instead of genocide, they find a third way.
They reprogram the bomb’s detonator, and give it to L’Rell.
Certainly, that’s preferable to genocide. As a result of this action, L’Rell appeals to the Klingons to end the war. When they mock her, she threatens them with the destruction of Qo’Nos and the presumptive end of their civilisation. They fall into line. The war ends.
THAT'S MY GIRL HAIL THE QUEEN FROM HOUSE OF MOKAI L'Rell breaks glass ceiling and becomes a leader of the klingon society. really the best thing ever!! I hope we'll see @marythechief being awesome in the next season. thank you @startrekcbs for this journey. pic.twitter.com/ikCJRN8dhz
Our protagonists go home, to peace. They are awarded medals. They are pardoned of their past crimes. They are celebrated as heroes. And it’s certainly true that in the artificial scenario with which they are presented, in which the only options are genocide or a threat of genocide, they chose the lesser of two evils.
So far, so Starfleet.
Except for the fact that Starfleet sanctioned genocide in the first place. But let’s move past that.
This is an article from 1999. This was written about Osama Bin Laden nearly two years before the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Here is a key excerpt:
“Three years ago, [Hampton-el] was convicted of planning a series of massive explosions in Manhattan and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Hampton-el was described by prosecutors as a skilled bomb-maker. It was hardly surprising. In Afghanistan he fought with the Hezb-i-Islami group of mujahideen, whose training and weaponry were mainly supplied by the CIA.
He was not alone. American officials estimate that, from 1985 to 1992, 12,500 foreigners were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up.”
That CIA involvement was part of ‘Operation Cyclone’, a CIA project under President Carter and later President Reagan to supply aid, weapons, equipment and training to religious militants (mujahideen) who were engaged in fighting the USSR and the communist government of Afghanistan. The USSR’s defeat in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the cold war.
It also fed directly into the acceleration of Islamic extremist advancement in and around the Middle East. Weapons meant for the mujahideen were instead sold on the Pakistani black market. Guerilla training camps were quite easily repurposed into terrorist training camps – guerillas and terrorists having often employed similar tactics and strategies. Cyclone ended the Cold War and arguably began, or at least prologued, the War on Terror.
Not just the U.S., mind. Fans of ‘The Crown’ ought to be familiar with the Suez Crisis, but Britain has a long and shameful history to its foreign policy, often times in concert with the United States, but frequently in its own right. In fact, almost every Western nation has a troubled history in its relations with foreign powers.
A Brighter Future
With all of that history behind us, what do the writers have our so-called heroes choose as their heroic, principled solution to a war in space?
They hand a weapon of mass destruction to a religious extremist, and install her as a dictator over her own people.
… L’Rell is a torturer. She even claims that as her profession. I dunno, maybe she uses the word “interrogator” but she definitely tortures people. She also definitely rapes people – she admitted herself that she sexually abused Ash during his captivity, either before or after he was transmuted with Voq’s essence.
Speaking of, she also subjected Ash, against his will, to a grotesque series of experimental medical procedures that literally imbued him, forcefully, with the suppressed consciousness of another sentient being.
What happens if there’s a revolutionary counterculture on Qo’Nos? What happens if, following a costly war with an embarrassing end, Klingon culture takes a radical shift towards democracy and social progression? Would L’Rell have any incentive to permit such an event? Who would be willing to challenge her, to risk the entire Klingon Empire? And if they could challenge her successfully – doesn’t that mean that the plan has failed?
Back when thunderstorms and earthquakes were the most powerful events on Earth, we submitted ourselves to the Gods, in whose hands we believed our fates were held. Then, the first atom bombs dropped, and we realised that the old Gods were dead.
What followed was fifty years of paranoia, deceit and hate-mongering. Yes, in that time we had civil rights, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and even the beginnings of the Information Age. But we also had McCarthyism, missile crises, proxy wars, the Vietnam War, and nuclear proliferation. That sheer, existential terror gave rise to Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Milošević, Pinochet.
On Qo’Nos, L’Rell now holds the power of life and death over an entire planet. She is the new God Emperor. What sort of world will Qo’Nos become? How will its people react to their new situation, hostages on their own world, held captive by this new monster? This torturing, raping, cannibalising monster, who wields the power of absolute destruction over an entire civilisation.
And she was given that power by our heroes.
Our Heroes, who were honoured and decorated not only by their fellows, but by their creators, the writers and producers who decided that the ultimate message, the ultimate lesson, of this series of Star Trek, would be that genocide is wrong, but only if it’s your finger on the button.
As I previously mentioned: yes, this was absolutely the preferable alternative to direct and immediate genocide by Starfleet’s hand. But the fact that these were the only two options is because the writers of the show deliberately set up the scenario that way. It’s the no-win scenario, sure, but it’s the no-win scenario within an entirely artificial environment.
The principal reason that things have gotten to such an extreme point is because the Discovery returns to the Prime Universe after skipping nine months accidentally. There is no cause-and-effect here; there’s no reason for the ship to have skipped that much time, except that the writers needed to squeeze a genocidal story line into two episodes. They wrote themselves into this corner, and produced this ultimate, horrible solution, this violent and corrupting path down which Our Heroes must walk.
So many references are made this episode to principles, to morals and ethics that make us who we are, that define us. Which means that this solution is what defines Starfleet: imposing autocracy on our enemies, under threat of extinction, so that we can preserve our own way of life.
Those are the morals that ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is trying to teach us. That we need not consider the consequences of our actions beyond their immediate effect. That we need not concern ourselves with the well-being of our enemies so long as we get to go home and pick up our medals.
That, so long as you can make a nice speech at the end, you don’t need to worry too much about the mess you made in getting there.
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.
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.
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.
I want to pitch you a story idea. Don’t worry, it’ll only take a moment.
A veteran captain of an old ship finds herself at the edge of friendly territory, staring down the gunports of the mysterious vessel of a former enemy. Her young first officer betrays her, instigates mutiny and fires on the alien vessel. Reinforcements appear on both sides, and suddenly the captain is stuck in the middle of a cataclysmic battle. Now she has to fight – for survival, for peace, and for answers.
That’s the show we almost had. That we could’ve had. All of the elements were there, but Star Trek: Discovery instead swaps the perspectives and we get this:
A young officer finds herself and her captain staring down the gunports of the mysterious vessel of a race of aliens who murdered her parents. She speaks to her pacifist mentor, who tells her that pre-emptive bloodshed worked this one time, so she pleads with her captain to open fire without provocation. Her captain refuses, so the young officer assaults her captain, attempts to take over the ship and fire on the aliens herself. She fails, the aliens attack anyway and without reason, her captain ends up subsequently murdered and the young officer maintains throughout that she was “doing the right thing,” even as she gets convicted of FUCKING MUTINY in a court-room that actually manages to be more sinister than that of the evil alien race she so badly wants to murder.
Look, it’s a fucking mess. As I write this, ‘Discovery’ is only two episodes old, and all the usual caveats are being bandied around:
But it’s only the pilot episodes! All the other Trek shows had rubbish pilots!
But it’s a series-long narrative! Nothing ever gets resolved in the first episode!
But it’s Star Trek, back on TV! Give it a chance!
Like ‘Into Darkness’ before it, the more I think about ‘Discovery’s first two episodes, the angrier I get, so let’s start with the big issues and work our way down.
In A Real-World Age of Racial Tension, Star Trek Comes Down On The Side Of The Racists
This is the thing that really bothered me. A few years back, there was a great movie about an old soldier coming to terms with his inherent bigotry, having to help to broker peace with a violent, hostile faction that had caused him great personal loss.
It was called ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’.
In it, the protagonist, a character called ‘James Kirk’, is caught up in an assassination plot, where the leader of a race of hostile aliens called ‘Klingons’ is killed whilst trying to start peace negotiations. It was the Klingons who had previously murdered James’ son just a few years earlier.
James doesn’t trust the Klingons, and he never will. He’s never been able to forgive them, for the death of his son. And yet throughout it all he remains committed to the peace process. As an officer of ‘Starfleet’, an organisation dedicated to protection, peace and, most importantly, exploration, he never betrays his oath to preserve life and prevent war. In the space of about a hundred minutes of screen time, he comes face-to-face with his own deep-seated bigotry, but with the help of his friends his tolerance and his trust win through.
Basically, at the beginning of the film, James thinks the Klingons are up to no good, as do a lot of heavily prejudiced people around him. And it turns out that a few of the Klingons ARE up to no good – but so are many Starfleet officers. We find out that even the most bloody of adversaries are equally capable of evil – and equally capable of peaceful intentions.
Now, let’s look at ‘Star Trek: The Rediscovered Bigotry’:
The “protagonist”, a character called ‘Michael Burnham’, is a career officer in the same Starfleet as James. She was raised by a race of aliens called ‘Vulcans’ – vegetarian, meditative, spiritual pacifists. Specifically, she was raised and mentored by their chief diplomat, who, in James’ time, would help to broker peace between Starfleet and the Klingons. Michael’s parents were killed twenty years ago when she was a child, during a Klingon raid of her colony.
Michael doesn’t trust the Klingons. She knows that they only practice war and violence. And so, when she’s confronted with one of their ships, she talks to her meditative, pacifist diplomat foster-father and asks him what to do. He tells her that two centuries previously, the Vulcans brokered peace with the Klingons by pre-emptively attacking Klingon ships on sight, until the Klingons grew wary enough to sue for peace.
So, Michael implores her captain to pre-emptively destroy the Klingon vessel.
Michael is a human, which means that in the two centuries since the Vulcans and Klingons made peace, her own species went from the brink of nuclear annihilation to planetary unification, eradicated economic scarcity, formed a socialist technological utopia which spans hundreds of star systems, and is now one of the most influential species in the galaxy.
Knowing all of this, and having been through the Vulcan education system of unwavering rationality and logic, and being an established “xeno-anthropologist”, Michael concludes that Klingon culture could not possibly have changed in those two centuries, and that therefore whatever tactics worked back then must still be entirely applicable now. She reaches this conclusion strongly enough to betray her own captain, and friend, of seven years, and tries to commit mass murder, even knowing that a fleet of Klingon vessels is likely only moments from arriving.
Now, the problem here isn’t that Michael jumped to stupid conclusions, or took stupid actions, or acted entirely in contradiction to the anthropological background established for her character in the same fucking episodes. Well, okay, they are all problems, but no worse than the problems that plague many other TV shows. The problem is that Michael is proven right.
Because as she predicts, the Klingons attack. Without provocation, without reason. We see the Klingons as they make their decision to attack, and it all boils down to one religious weirdo and known outcast telling them that they, y’know, totally should attack, because, like, have you seen those Starfleet guys? They want to talk! To Klingons! Who does that? Villains, that’s who.
Which means that the Klingons are, apparently, exactly as bloodthirsty and aggressive as Michael believes. That’s the actual truth. We even see other Starfleet officers calling Michael out on her racist bullshit – and they are proven to be wrong.
In ‘The Undiscovered Country’, in roughly the same amount of screen time as ‘Discovery’s opening two episodes, we are shown that the Klingons are a functioning society – martial, certainly, even aggressive – yet still capable of pragmatism, and philosophy, and contemplation. They may turn to warfare more readily than the Vulcans, or even the Humans, but they, as a nation, don’t just commit to random acts of violence without reason. They do things with purpose.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of people really pleased with the “cultural development” that the Klingons received in ‘Discovery’, and in fairness, it is nice to see them get some fancy new costumes and a more cohesive aesthetic and for them to reveal a bit of their religious side. But all of that is surface detail – it doesn’t particularly inform their decision to just start a war because some bloke told them to.
And, not to get too on the nose about things, but I’m concerned about a Star Trek franchise that uses, as its main antagonists, a bunch of overly-religious, dark-skinned foreigners who commit “terror attacks”, as the show calls them.
Y’know, it wasn’t so long ago that ‘The Next Generation’ put a Klingon on the bridge of the Enterprise, specifically to point out that different species, races and cultures can all co-operate because they all share so much in common.
If ‘Discovery’ changes tack a little, or reveals more of the Klingon culture to explain their apparent total lack of hesitation when it comes to starting galaxy-wide wars, then I will feel a lot better about things. But if it doesn’t, this is going to feel like a huge step backwards in terms of cultural and racial sensitivity.
Oh, and we should probably mention the fact that the dark-skinned leader of the Klingons gets killed, and replaced with a white-skinned dude. And the fact that a Malaysian captain who is also a woman is killed off to be replaced with a middle-aged white dude. Get your shit together, Star Trek.
Two Full-Length Pilot Episodes Barely Manage To Set Up A Single Plot Point
Broadly speaking, you’ve got a few different formats for TV shows these days. You can go entirely episodic – such as the original ‘Star Trek’, and ‘The Next Generation’ after it. Each episode is an instalment in its own right, a self-contained story with little, if any, continuity between episodes and series. Or you can go for a more modern, entirely series-driven narrative, like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Orphan Black’, where story arcs are rarely concluded within a single episode and instead each week offers a segment of a continuing plotline.
If those are two ends of a spectrum, then you’ve also got everything in the middle, exemplified by the latter series of ‘Deep Space Nine’, and also ‘Babylon 5’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Arrested Development’, ‘iZombie’, and many others, where you get an over-arching series narrative, delivered in episodic “chunks” (and sometimes scattered in between non-arc episodes, as in ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Firefly’).
Whichever format a series falls into ends up defining the structure of each episode, and particularly the structure of its pilot episode. Pilot episodes, as the very first introduction to hopefully a long-running series, have two objectives – to lay out the premise of the show, and to get the audience back the following week. Now, the premise of the show includes its tone, its story, its settings, but also its characters and their relationships with one another.
A great example of a good pilot episode is that of ‘Firefly’, the episode itself titled ‘Serenity’ (confusingly, the same name as the follow-up movie after the show’s cancellation). This pilot is ninety minutes long, and introduces us to all of the most important elements of the show itself. It introduces all nine characters (as well as the tenth, the ship itself), it shows us their roles and responsibilities, it shows a good chunk of the universe they travel in, and the kind of stakes they’re up against. The use of energy-dense food as the plot-central cargo highlights the kind of survivalist tone that will dominate the rest of the series, through ‘War Stories’ and ‘Out of Gas’, whilst the criminal shenanigans set the mood for future heists in ‘The Train Job’, ‘Ariel’ and ‘Trash’. And finally the peculiar arrival of Simon and River Tam, and their significance to the antagonistic and oppressive Alliance, prepares the foundation for a longer-running, series-length mystery.
Like ‘Firely’, the (combined) pilot of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ lasts around ninety minutes. But that’s where the similarities end, sadly. It introduces six main characters – two of whom will be dead by the pilot’s end, and one of the ones left alive speaks a total of about eight lines. The titular ship itself, the Discovery, doesn’t even make an appearance outside of the title credits. Two factions are introduced, but despite war breaking out between them they receive no exposition – we get no indication of their relative strength, or their advantages or disadvantages, or even their size. Is Starfleet an armada of thousands of ships in this time period? Are the Klingons a quadrant-spanning empire or do they only occupy a small corner of the galaxy? What exactly are the stakes in this conflict? What do the Klingons count as a victory?
Michael has allegedly been a crew member under Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) for seven years, along with Lieutenant Saru, but they still deliver basic exposition about themselves to one another as though they’ve just met. Of course, this is for the audience’s benefit, but it contradicts the stated facts about their relationships. We don’t meet anyone else from Starfleet – a small handful of crew members get a couple of functional, information-delivering lines (plus one particular bit of jarringly anachronistic ‘banter’) and we meet an annoying but broadly sensible admiral who lasts for two minutes before getting terminally pancaked.
A lot of people have been comparing ‘Discovery’s pilots to previous Trek pilots. This is a somewhat flawed approach – ‘Discovery’ isn’t competing with thirty-year-old sci-fi shows produced on low budgets, it’s competing with the mind-bogglingly huge catalog of contemporary and expensive shows on offer across multiple viewing platforms. But let’s compare it to old Trek anyway – just for fun, eh?
‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’ was the second pilot for The Original Series. Like ‘Discovery’, it only introduced a handful of main characters, and like ‘Discovery’, two of them would be dead by the end. But it was also forty-five minutes long, and presented a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. At least three characters had arcs of their own, where they learned something new about themselves, and about the galaxy they inhabited. There never was an over-arcing plot to The Original Series, and so we don’t get much world-building. But this was also fifty-one years and two days before ‘Discovery’s release.
The Next Generation was introduced with ‘Encounter At Farpoint’, a two-part pilot, like Discovery’s, and about equivalent in length. In it, we meet ten main characters (and a couple more who would become much more significant later on (plus an old but familiar face)), and we see how they each deal with difficult and dangerous situations. We learn about their personal histories, their past and present relationships. We learn in near-excruciating detal about the ship on which the show would be set for the next seven years – we see its capabilities and a whole host of new technologies. And, again, we get a fully resolved story in that time, and arcs for many of the characters, and we even get a smidgen of world-building with the introduction of the Q Continuum. Now, ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ is not necessarily an enjoyable piece of television, but it does its bit as a pilot episode.
Half-way through Next Generation’s run, we got a spin-off show, ‘Deep Space Nine’. This show opens with ‘Emissary’ (not ‘The Emissary, that’s an episode of Next Gen, do keep up). ‘Emissary’ uses ninety minutes to present a large, ensemble cast and deliver their backstories, which would inform the development of their relationships, friendships and rivalries over seven seasons. We get to explore the station, meet its inhabitants, learn about its position and its importance. We’re introduced to the series’ long-running antagonists, the Cardassians, and their leader, Gul Dukat, as well as the spiritual-mystical-bullshit plot about The Wormhole Prophets that would keep resurfacing throughout the rest of the show. We learn about the Bajorans, some aspects of their culture and their religion, and their recent history of oppression by the Cardassians, and the political fallout that followed their emancipation. Oh, and alongside all of that world-building we also get a fully resolved story with multiple character arcs. And, like ‘Farpoint’, ‘Emissary’ isn’t DS9’s best installment – but again, it sets up the show that we’d end up loving.
‘Caretaker’ is a shakey start to a shakey show. Star Trek: Voyager was not my favourite part of the Star Trek franchise, but its pilot episode, again, did a solid job of introducing another seven-season-long piece of Trek history. It’s ninety minutes, again. We see the ship, we meet two different crews who later merge. We get a fully-resolved story. We also get some good groundwork on the show’s over-arcing premise – that they’re stranded, decades from home, with limited resources and little hope of seeing their families again. We learn about some of the first season’s recurring antagonists, the Kazon, and we get some world-building for the Delta Quadrant, the area of space in which the show is set.
After ‘Voyager’, there was ‘Enterprise’. I will be honest, I hated ‘Enterprise’, and providing a breakdown of its pilot would require me to watch it again, which I’m just not prepared to do. But I do remember a few details – ninety minutes long, ship, crew, long-running antagonists, fully-resolved story, etc. etc. Something about Klingons. Oh, and it did its best to introduce the era’s technology level – set many, many years before The Original Series, it was necessary to regress the technology somewhat, which I think it managed to do.
Anyway, the point is that it is possible to do a good pilot within ninety minutes. There is more than enough time to introduce a sizable cast, to start a long-running narrative, and to tell a story – and if you don’t believe me, I’ve presented my findings in the below table:
As you can see, the data speaks for itself.
Starfleet Is Apparently Now A Sinister Shadow Government
Okay, this probably seems minor to most of you but it really pissed me off. Why was Burnham’s court martial so fucking shady? We’ve seen Starfleet courtrooms before – they’re well-lit and full of people wearing pyjamas. They look like this:
Or maybe this:
And sometimes this:
Hopefully by now I’ve made myself clear.
And yet, because ‘Discovery’ is pretty much entirely style-over-substance, Burnham’s court martial is conducted in the dark, with three adjudicators who are all apparently from the race of aliens who can only be perceived as silhouettes. For, reference, here’s an image of a Klingon courtroom. You may have heard of the Klingons, they’re the fucking antagonists of the whole fucking show.
And Michael Burnham doesn’t even get her own defense attorney, meaning trials in Starfleet are now less fair than trials in the Klingon Empire. Wasn’t Starfleet meant to represent the pinnacle of human social advancement? Isn’t the Federation dedicated entirely to the fair and just treatment of all of its citizens? Christ, ‘Starship Troopers’ was a dystopian satire with trials that lasted seconds and resulted in executions, and even in that universe you could see the judges’ faces.
Portraying Starfleet’s courtrooms in such a sinister fashion implies that Burnham was unfairly sentenced, but it’s worth bearing in mind that she did attack her captain, attempt mutiny and do everything she could to start interstellar fucking war. What’s the point that the director’s trying to make, exactly?
Starfleet and the Federation should be aspirational – they should represent a brighter, better path for humanity. Deep Space Nine’s “Section 31” was controversial among fans precisely because it was such a cynical element in what was always meant to be a shiny, optimistic vision of the future. Don’t get me wrong, I liked “Section 31”, and the idea that maintaining Utopia won’t always be easy, and that there will always be someone trying to corrupt paradise from within. But ‘Discovery’ presents that as the accepted norm.
Also, whilst I’m on the subject of minor things that normal people don’t care about, why does the science console on the Shenzhou (Captain Georgiou’s ship) display only two pieces of rudimentary information at a time? Every random screen in Star Trek was always covered in data, with navigational charts, crew rosters and details of diplomatic missions to Alderaan. But now, apparently the science console, y’know, the nexus of all the data collected by every sensor and scanner on the ship and which requires a seasoned officer with multiple degrees in various disciplines to use, presents two numbers at a time, in 3000-point font size. Seriously, fuck this show.
Okay, Fine, There Is Some Good Stuff If I’m Being Completely Honest And Unreasonably Generous
There are some moderately positive elements to Star Trek: Discovery. By which I mean there were occasional moments that didn’t leave me furious.
Burnham using ethical theory to convince the computer into releasing her from icy, vacuumy death in the brig was my favourite moment. It had a classic Star Trek feel, and brought back memories of Kirk talking super-machines to death on a regular basis. It’s a shame that Burnham wasted this good faith by being an unrepentant bigot and warmonger the rest of the time.
The cold open, in which Georgiou and Burnham traipse across a desert planet to save a primitive species from dying of thirst, was also great. It immediately confirmed Georgiou as a resourceful, charismatic leader, and was a nice reminder of the humanitarian exploration that used to be the focus of the franchise. Y’know, before Damon Lindelof turned up and made it all about torpedoes and violence.
Captain Georgiou in general was wonderful, and as mentioned at the start of this post, should really have been the main character. She seemed like a good old fashioned Starfleet officer – ethical, curious, determined and capable. Christ, do you remember being able to look up to the characters on Star Trek? When Picard would give a speech that actually convinced you of the virtue of morality? When Kirk was a thoughtful, sensitive soul and not a horny teenager who liked shouting? When starting a war represented the worst-case scenario, and not the desired outcome of the show’s main character? Crude Reviews remembers.
Lieutenant Saru was snarky and charming in a pathetic fashion. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with a species whose racial trait is “fucking terrified”, but it makes about a thousand times more sense than whatever the fuck the Ocampans were meant to be, so I’ll gladly see where it leads.
I appreciated the decision to have Georgiou and Burnham wear some actual fucking protective equipment when knowingly going into a fight. For too long, Trek characters have willingly thrown themselves into dangerous situations wearing, at the very best, a fairly thick whoollen tunic.
There Are Always Possibilities
Obviously, I’m unhappy about ‘Discovery’s opening gambit. “Unhappy” is the wrong word, actually – it makes me uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with the shift towards “dark” and “gritty” Star Trek. It’s all very well trying to fit Star Trek into the modern trend of violent, depressing, series-long narratives, but there surely must still be some scope for a little bit of positivity?
I’ll be sticking with ‘Discovery’. Despite the disappointments of its pilot episodes, it has left itself plenty of room to do some interesting stuff. The Dominion War was a chance for DS9 to explore humanity’s ability to cling to its values whilst fighting for its survival. ‘Discovery’ could do something similar, and that might be excellent.
That said, with confirmations that ‘Discovery’ will bring back both Harry ‘Sex Trafficker’ Mudd and the Mirror Universe, and with only a fifteen-episode season (including these two pilot episodes), I worry that the greater likelihood will be that the show becomes an endless series of callbacks to what has boldly gone before, interspersed with violence and violations of orders and some contrived excuse for another fucking holodeck episode.
What really, really worries me is that Burnham will never have that “Oh, shit!” moment. By the end of the pilot episodes, she remains convinced that she tried to do the right thing. There’s no “maybe I goofed” feeling coming from her – she seems to still think everyone around her is blind to the realities of the situation. And the show has proven her right: if she had been able to fire upon and destroy the Klingon ship when she tried to, she may have averted the subsequent battle. And that, for me, is a terrible lesson for Star Trek to try to teach. I always thought Star Trek was about finding alternatives to violence, about finding commonality and shared values, but it seems that now we’re on a darker path.