Aboard the U.S.S. Buran, in orbit over a vibrant, colourful planet, Gabriel Lorca sits in the captain’s chair in the middle of the bridge. Around him, officers carry on with business as usual. The door to the main turbolift slides open, and a tall, skinny young officer steps out, wearing a crisp, clean Ops uniform.
Lorca turns in his chair to face the new arrival. “Lieutenant Tyler! Is it third watch already?”
“It is, captain, nearly. Thought I’d get here early for once.”
“Well, we’re just about to launch exploratory carto-drones, which is my favourite bit. You wouldn’t mind if I kept the chair for a little longer, would you?” Lorca asks, with a wink.
Tyler chuckles. “I suppose not, sir, I think I can let you off this once.”
“Great!” Lorca says, and turns back to face the viewscreen. “Whilst you’re here, we can talk about the quality of your tactical reports.”
“You ever proof-read these things?” Lorca asks, waving a datapad at Tyler. “Sixteen spelling errors on the first page alone. You put so many commas in each sentence that it looks like the damn things are growing out of the text themselves. And listen, just listen, to this: ‘Phaser array efficiency rates, are decreasing at an increasing rate, through increasing rate cycles, but not at a rate, that would cause increased concern, over an increasing time period, within the same time period. We need to identify how to get these rates back to green rating, and how we will achieve this.’ It’s garbage, Tyler, you can do better.”
Some of the crew on the bridge watch in amusement. Tyler hangs his head. “I’m sorry sir. I didn’t realise it was that important.”
“That important? Tyler, this is written language we’re talking about here, the greatest tool in all our history. Shakespeare, Melville, Joyce, Austen, Lennon, Knowles, Lincoln, Obama, and that’s just English! Descartes, Confucius, Nanak, Tolstoy, Mann, Surak, T’Pau. We know their names because of how they used language, Tyler, so how about a little more respect for your words?”
Tyler stands straight. “Yes sir!”
Lorca smiles. “Good! Now get to your station.”
Before Tyler can move, the comms officer pipes up. “Captain! I’m receiving a priority one request for assistance. It’s the Shenzou, sir, she’s called for reinforcements at System JWST-86690.”
“The Shenzhou? What’s Philippa gotten herself into now?” he ponders, leaning forwards and clasping his hands together. “Send a response, acknowledge request and give them our anticipated time of arrival, which is, helm?”
“Roughly one hour and twenty-seven minutes, captain,” the helm officer answers. “Course already laid in.”
“Good job. Recall the drone – it looks like our little cartography mission will have to wait.” He runs a hand through his hair. “JWST-86-whatever. You ever noticed, Tyler, how these emergencies and distress calls are always somewhere remote and bleak? There’s never a towel shortage on Ryza, never a whisky surplus on Islay. I dream of the day we get called out to somewhere like Threnixis IV.”
“Threnixis? I’ve never been, sir.”
“Never, Tyler? Now that is a shame. Best sailing in the quadrant on the southern ocean, you’d be in heaven.”
Tyler grins. “Well, then the next shoreleave I get, I’ll be sure to spend it at sea.” He gazes view on the main screen. “Do you think the Shenzhou is in trouble, captain?”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be alright,” Lorca answers, smiling. “I know Captain Georgiou. She doesn’t like to lose.”
The biggest revelation of this scene: Lorca is well into Beyoncé. That should be canon. I may send a letter to the writers asking them to write it into season 2.
Not much going on here, but with Georgiou and Burnham having just been knocked out (or maybe killed? Probably just knocked out) following a dramatic fight scene, now is a good moment to take a quick breather and have a look at what everyone else is doing, prior to the inevitable war.
I just started my fifth re-watch of the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ re-imagined series, starting with the miniseries from 2003. We don’t spend lots of time seeing pre-war Colonial life, but we see enough to get a grasp on what’s been lost once the nukes have landed. I felt an issue with ‘Discovery’ was that we didn’t see enough of life in Starfleet before the war to appreciate the impact on life during the war. This is an attempt to rectify that a little.
This is also an attempt to bring forward the introduction of two of the most important characters to the very beginning of the story. Having Tyler and Lorca know each other just seems right to me – demonstrate in them a mentor/mentee relationship that can mirror Burnham and Gerogiou’s, except that this time, it’s the student, Tyler, who will be lost to the war, rather than the teacher.
Although I wanted to include the Mirror-Lorca plotline for the sake of proving my point, as I go through this re-write I’m realising more and more how difficult that is to implement. It just comes out of nowhere from a narrative perspective. The story is and should be about the war, and Burnham’s path to redemption.
Tyler’s role as a sleeper agent actually fits perfectly into the war arc, because it follows naturally that the Klingons would try infiltration as a means of attacking their enemies. But the Mirror Universe just has so little to do with it, that it really ought to be in its own series-long narrative, separate to any war with the Klingons.
And I am realising, as I write the interaction between Lorca and Tyler during peacetime, that there’s so much more drama and meaning that could be derived from Lorca being a grief-stricken captain who lost his crew, and subsequently loses his way, than there is from him being replaced by his evil clone in a random accident.
Okay, in my relentless denigration of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, I keep getting the same feedback from fans of the show:
“Why do you have to be so negatiiiive? If you don’t like it, don’t watch it! Real fans would be glad to see Star Trek back on TV! Why can’t you just be positive for a change?”
Well guess what, sperm-nozzles, I’m going to be positive. Maybe because I’m alone on Valentines’ Day, maybe because I’ve necked a bottle of wine and have impaired my judgement, maybe because I just want to shove it in the faces of all the fans of this awful, awful show, here’s some stuff I actually like about god damn ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.
1. Phillipa Georgiou
You may or may not have guessed that I love Phillipa Georgiou. Honestly, I was actually disappointed with Mirror Universe Emperor Georgiou, because as fun as it was to see Michelle Yeoh be evil and sadistic, Emperor Georgiou was ultimately quite a simplistic character – she’s evil, and she cares about Burnham, but she’s basically just evil.
Captain Georgiou, on the other hand, was wonderfully complex. She had the easy confidence of James Kirk with the statesperson-like dignity of Jean Luc Picard. I loved the fact that she was playful, and smart, and thoughtful. One of my favourite moments from the series was one of the crew noting Burnham’s elevated heart-rate during a daring E.V.A. mission. Georgiou’s response? “She’s having fun.”
Needless to say, I was sad when she only lasted two episodes, and I was outright upset and offended when L’Rell started describing her cannibalisation. But Georgiou was a great character to start the series – bright, optimistic, but simultaneously grounded and sincere. If the entire show had just been a rehash of ‘Next Gen’ story lines but with Georgiou in command, I’d have been so happy.
2. The Rest of the Cast
Okay, I hate most of the characters in ‘Discovery’. But I really like most of the cast. Sonequa Martin-Green did a fantastic job as an emotional human with a Vulcan upbringing. Mary Wiseman was completely endearing as Cadet Tilly, with great comic timing. Jason Isaacs was sublime as the slimy Lorca, and Anthony Rapp was wonderfully earnest as the frustrated scientist-turned-human experiment. Shazad Latif was occasionally heart-breaking in his angst.
Even the guest actors were great. Another favourite moment of mine is Admiral Cornwell, played by Jayne Brook, chastising Lorca and his self-inflicted suffering: “Why don’t you get your damn eyes fixed??” And let’s not forget James Frain: I actually think it’s a shame he was playing a Vulcan in ‘Discovery’, because he did a fine job, but he was so wonderful as the despicable Ferdinand in ‘Orphan Black’ that I really wish he’d had a greater emotional range to play with than is available to Vulcans.
However, I couldn’t really tell how good a job Mary Chieffo did as L’Rell, because one of the missteps of the series was covering the Klingons in such heavy prosthetics, and distorting their voices so completely, that it was difficult to gauge the performance of the actors beneath all the latex and behind the subtitles. The likes of Martok, Chang, the Duras Sisters, Gowron and and Kurn are great because there is still a great deal of humanity to them – they might be aliens, but they’re human enough for the actors’ talents to shine through.
I know that sounds like hyperbole, but there was so much that was great going on. The cheesy party (they’re space nerds, of course their parties are lame), the animal-friendly policy around space whales, the time-looping, the scenery-chewing by Rainn Wilson, the unrelenting sadism towards Lorca, Engineer Stamets’ transition from panic to realisation to calm resolution. This episode was delightful.
The ending ruined it. I mean, it really ruined it, from the “Here’s your punishment: a woman,” to the “You go right ahead and keep all those technical details about this advanced warship, don’t even worry about it,” the conclusion to the story was completely piss-poor. It was a waste. But until then, it was magical, and I would’ve paid foldin’ money for the entire show to be of this quality.
4. A Couple That Happened to be Gay
Stamets and Culber. Two people, in love. They’re weren’t really a gay couple – they were just a couple. I really liked the understated relationship they had – supportive, occasionally contradictory, but in general full of concern and love. That’s great. I liked that. It’s too easy to “play it gay” or to try to make a point about inclusiveness, but Sta/lber didn’t, they – well, they played it straight.
That being said, I genuinely feel that the lack of physical affection between them was awful. We first see them as a couple when they’re in the quarters, brushing their teeth before bed. They brushed their teeth, for Christ’s sakes! They told each other how much they cared about each other! They were in private! Why wouldn’t they kiss?
This was a smudge on an otherwise really positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship: it felt for all the world like the creators just wanted to save “Trek’s First Gay Kiss” for their mid-season finale. I wish they hadn’t. But I’m glad they got the rest of it right.
5. Female Competency
Burnham is a competent, versatile officer. Her suspension-of-disbelief-breaking fuckup in the pilot episode notwithstanding, she’s portrayed as just being good at stuff, the way Kirk was good at stuff, and Picard, and Janeway.
I love the remake of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and I love Starbuck in it, but I didn’t half get pissed off when Starbuck was “The Best” at everything. The best pilot, the best sniper, a would-be professional space-football player, a great strategist, a great musician, an artist, an angel, and on and on and on.
Burnham doesn’t get that fanfare. Saru describes her as “the smartest officer” he’d ever known, but in general she’s just shown as being capable and adaptable and determined. This is good. It’s too easy to try to empower female characters by over-stating their abilities; Burnham was smart, but I never felt that she was better than everyone – she was just a good officer. Until she wasn’t.
6. Women in General
Look, ‘Discovery’ has issues with representation. We can’t escape that. But I will give it some, some, credit for having women actually in the show. Don’t get me wrong, I am appalled that so many women like Detmer, Owosekun and Airiam are included merely as set-dressing, but I am also glad that they’re there in the first place. And, as dreadful as the finale might have been, it was cool to see that all the most powerful people involved were women.
There’s still a long way to go. And it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that ‘Discovery’ is doing better than other shows – there are many, many better examples of more proportional representation, even going all the way back to ‘Voyager’, ‘Farscape’ and ‘Babylon 5’. But I will grant that ‘Discovery’ is at least trying, even if it’s not trying hard or successfully enough, to make women a bigger part of the Star Trek canon.
(In fairness, the only reason I rake it over the coals so much in terms of female representation is because it’s putting itself on that path, just not well enough, and congratulating it for tokenism would be wrong.)
‘Discovery’ is more failure than triumph, but it does occasionally shine. Most of my gripes focus on its writing, the flaws in its narrative that prevent it from ever excelling. And that’s the real tragedy, because the story is the one thing you can get right before you ever get anyone else involved.
If one of your actors is piss-poor, or your director just doesn’t grasp the theme of the episode, or the sets look like Styrofoam and poster-paint, that can be a shame, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin a good story – for example, the aforementioned ‘Babylon 5′, which was plagued with terrible acting and embarrassing scenery but was still endearing because of the story it told.
So many small elements of DISCO were great, and they were wasted by an unfocused narrative that relied too heavily on twists and cliffhangers and plots, it actually breaks my heart a little, and all for the sake of a little more work in the writers’ room.
To pay lip service to brevity, here is a summary of what we’re going to cover today:
Gabriel Lorca is a complete fucking toerag.
Y’know who else is a complete fucking toerag? Everybody in the Mirror Universe.
Lorca’s old ship was the Buran, named for the old Russian space shuttle that never launched.
Lorca’s new ship is the Discovery, named for the old American space shuttle that launched several times.
Is it possible that the Buran was conducting transdimensional travel experiments similar in principle to the Discovery?
If so, is it possible that Lorca, or indeed the whole Buran, swapped universes, just as the Discovery did?
And is it therefore possible that Evil Lorca subsequently destroyed the ship to conceal his identity?
Find out answers to all of that and more, by reading on! Or don’t, I don’t fucking know, I’m guessing at this as much as the writers are.
Broken Soul or Arsehole?
There’s an argument to be made that Lorca is suffering from PTSD, or at least a condition with symptoms similar to PTSD. I’m no psychologist, so I won’t delve into this too much, I am happy to acknowledge it as a possibility and let someone more qualified than me review and rate that possibility.
Certainly, following a traumatic wartime event in which Lorca was forced to murder all of his crew, and suffer a debilitating injury, the possibility of him developing PTSD is a reasonable one. And this would explain things like his paranoia (keeping a phaser in his bed) and his emotional issues, although it’s notable that he does not seem to suffer avoidance – indeed, he willingly and frequently places himself and his crew in battle situations.
The PTSD angle doesn’t explain his apparent malignance, or his willingness to manipulate and emotionally abuse others to achieve his goals. As I understand it, PTSD can make a person’s behaviour more problematic than it otherwise would be in certain situations, but it doesn’t turn them into a bad person. Again, though, I’m not a mental health professional, so please don’t take these statements as medically sound.
But, if Lorca was actually his own Mirror Counterpart, we can see a stronger pattern:
Mirror Captain Tilly won her position by stabbing her captain whilst he was recovering in bed. Lorca sleeps with a phaser.
The next time we see Lorca with a phaser, he’s staring at his own reflection:
The Terran Empire operates under coercion and fear. Lorca’s only demonstrable leadership techniques so far are berating, bullying and emotional manipulation.
Right before overriding Discovery‘s jump co-ordinates, Lorca delcares “Let’s go home.” This is a few hours after explaining to Stamets the concept of parallel universes and the possibility of accessing them via the Spore Drive.
“No matter how deep in space you are, I always feel like you can see home,” is Lorca’s first ever line, again on the subject of home, and delivered as he is staring at his own reflection:
Lorca’s line in Episode Ten “There’s me hoping I’d find a better version of myself here,” in response to finding out that his Mirror Counterpart is dead.
Lives in the Terran Empire are entirely disposable, with assassination being the most common path to promotion. Lorca intentionally interferes with Discovery‘s jump coordinates, not knowing what it might do to the already unwell Stamets.
He also abandons Cornwell to likely ambush (and later refuses to try to rescue her) when she confirms that she’s going to report his unsuitability for command.
Lorca and Mirror Lorca were respective captains of the U.S.S. Buran and the I.S.S. Buran, respectively.
Both vessels were trialing experimental drives or transporters when there was some kind of accident. (Or, Klingons attacked causing something strange to happen, possibly linked to experimental tech).
Only Lorca himself swapped realities, and Mirror Lorca found himself in Prime Universe, on the U.S.S. Buran, and scuttled her and killed all her crew to protect his identity.
The entire Buran swapped realities, and Mirror Lorca destroyed his own ship and all his crew because he realised they would never all be able to successfully remain incognito – this would be a one-man job.
The Buran was destroyed in the accident, and Mirror Lorca miraculously survived in the Prime Universe.
THEN Mirror Lorca manages to con his way into captaining this new, experimental ship he’s heard about that can transcend space and time with it’s incredible drive system. OR the fact that Lorca and the Buran were involved in the project to begin with game him the leverage to get the assignment.
It also gave him leverage to pick his own crew – Tilly, who he knew to be the Mirror Discovery‘s captain. Saru, who he knew to be Mirror Burnham’s slave. Detmer, who he knew to be Burnham’s first or second officer, and so on.
Mirror Lorca uses the Discovery to both chart the Mycelial Network, and win enough victories to keep him in command until he can collect enough data to chart a way home. (“Apparently, the 133 jumps we made filled in the gaps.”)
The matter of the attempted assassination on the Terran Emperor Georgiou is up for discussion. Either it was a ploy by the ambitious Mirror Lorca to seize power for himself, and the destruction of the Buran led to the reality-swapping accident, or it was a ploy by the Prime Lorca who was trying to oust an evil tyrant and shine a bit of Utopia on Shadesville.
Either way, it seems more and more compelling that Lorca is in fact Mirror Lorca, and that he’s been up to no good all along. Which seems strange, given that we’ve already got one Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing plot with Ash Tyler the Human. This is another, related story thread, which just seems weird and out of place.
The alternative is that this will be some kind of redemption arc for Lorca, who will see the evil around him, have a light cast on his own decisions and subsequently sacrifice himself for the crew of the Prime Discovery, thereby undoing all of the terrible things he had already done and making him a good guy all along.
Because that’s how it works.
Shit, I promised you answers.
Lorca is from a Mirror Universe, but he’s actually from the Mirror Universe where Watermelon-flavoured Calippos exist (everybody knows that watermelon-flavoured things are the best flavour of things). Now, he’s on a mission to return to some other universe where he can get a whole freezer full of Watermelon Calippos and spend the rest of his days in fat-free bliss.
‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ is a phenomenon. It has managed to stay funny through twelve seasons – a feat rarely matched on a show which has seen very few changes to its cast. One of ‘Always Sunny’s key assets is the character of Frank Reynolds, played by Danny DeVito.
Frank is inherently malleable. While the other characters remain reasonably consistent, Frank’s core motivations change episode by episode, purely in service of the storyline. In essence, what is funny is prioritised over what is narratively coherent.
This works for the kind of dark, bizarre comedy that ‘Always Sunny’ has mastered. The show is about a group of terrible individuals entering into usually pedestrian exploits, and twisting the situation into horrible, troubling scenarios, usually due entirely to their own narcissism and self-centredness.
A great example is ‘The Gang Gives Frank An Intervention’. The episode starts with Frank explaining that his “motivation of the week” is that he wants to be as disgusting and depraved as possible, so he goes to his brother-in-law’s funeral so that he can attempt to have sex with his ex-(now dead)-wife’s sister. The episode ends with the gang drinking red wine out of coke cans, berating a group therapist and shooing away a disgusting cousin by dousing her in salt. All of the stuff in between makes perfect sense as you watch it, even though, from an external perspective, it’s utterly absurd.
After just a few episodes, nothing that Frank does should be shocking – it may occasionally be unexpected, but the fact that Frank can carry on in such a frightful manner isn’t going to surprise anyone.
Now, why am I beginning my analysis of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ with a discussion about ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’?
Well, it’s because that character malleability is a great asset on a peculiar show like ‘Always Sunny’, and a key weakness in a show like ‘Discovery’.
Let’s bring it back to Trek for a moment and talk about Geordi LaForge. Geordi is a peculiar element of ‘The Next Generation’. Whilst he certainly gets his own storylines, if you asked me to describe his character, that description would revolve around his relationships with other crew members. He’s Data’s best friend, he’s Wesley’s tutor, he’s loyal to Picard, and so on. You could probably describe him as being determined to the point of obsessiveness, but that could describe just about any character on the show.
Geordi doesn’t really get an arc over the course of Next Gen, certainly not the way Picard, Data, Riker, Worf, Wesley or even Troi get arcs. The Geordi LaForge we see in ‘Insurrection’ and ‘Nemesis’ is pretty much the same Geordi LaForge who takes over Main Engineering in Season 2 (although yes, he was in Season 1 as a helm officer and no, I have no idea how that qualifies him for Chief Engineer).
All of this isn’t to say that Geordi lacks personality. He’s certainly likeable, and courageous, and so on and so on, and he’s played well by LeVar Burton.
But he doesn’t get his own development – rather, he serves the development of others, particularly Data, but also Riker, Troi and Wesley. We never particularly learn anything new about Geordi, compared to what we learn about those other characters.
(As a side-note, you could count his interactions with Dr Brahms as a mote of development for Geordi, but this was more like a one-off story that happened to get a sequel, rather than any in-depth development of the character.)
Having Geordi utilised in this capacity actually works fine for a series like TNG. There are lots of players, lots of storylines, and sometimes you just need a competent, charismatic support character who can adapt to fit what’s needed for someone else’s tale. Particularly in an episodic show like TNG, where each installment is a self-contained narrative with its own beginning and end.
For a serial like ‘Discovery’, with far fewer characters and a season-long narrative, meaningful characterisation becomes a lot more important. Motivations matter; arcs matter. A malleable character like Frank Reynolds has no more a place in ‘Discovery’ than he would in ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘Downton Abbey’. And a static character like Geordi LaForge might work if he was restricted to expositing – but if he’s going to be a “viewpoint” character then he has to to actually develop, with an arc of his own.
Where does this all get us?
Saru. Fucking Saru. That’s where it gets us.
This gangly-lookin’ motherfucker is possibly the greatest loss of potential in ‘Discovery’, short of The Entire Series Itself. And that’s shocking, given the extent to which the writers crow about how much effort went into creating the character.
If you’re wondering what I’m specifically talking about, I’ll explain it as coherently as I can.
In the two pilot episodes of ‘Discovery’, we’re introduced to Saru as a mildly snarky contrast to the nature of most Starfleet characters with which we’re familiar. Whenever you see someone in the red, gold or blue of a Starfleet uniform, they’re invariably bold, courageous, daring, inquisitive, blah blah blaaaaah. Seeing a Starfleet officer, even an alien one, who actively avoids trouble is a rare and interesting thing (most of the time).
We next see him in the third episode, ‘Context is for Kings’, where he has jumped in rank from Science Officer to First Officer, now the second-in-command aboard Lorca’s ship. Here he is much more at ease, casually strolling the corridors with Burnham, eating blueberries and being detached from things. We don’t see him interact with his captain in any meaningful way, so we don’t get to establish that relationship, except that Saru seems to respect Lorca.
In the next episode, ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’, Saru seems much more anxious and snippy, especially when he gets manipulated by Burnham, at which point he begins berating her and claims that Burnham “will fit in perfectly with Captain Lorca”, suggesting that he doesn’t actually respect Lorca all that much at all.
This is closely followed by ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’ (fighting ingloriously for the hotly-contested label of “Most Offensive Episode Of The Series”). Here, Saru finds himself in command of Discovery, coming across as utterly clueless as he asks the computer to tell him the qualities of a good captain (including “intelligence” and “bravery”, who would’ve guessed?). Saru is intent on rescuing Lorca, the captain he either hates or worships, it’s difficult to tell.
In any case, his inherent aversion to danger seems completely forgotten as he sends the ship deep into enemy territory without a second thought. He seems motivated by his desire not to lose another captain, as he did with Giorgiou, which is reasonable enough. He also outlines his jealousy at Burnham for taking Giorgiou away from him, and his chance to be mentored by her. Which is an interesting path to explore, I’ll grant.
In ‘Lethe’, we don’t really encounter Saru beyond a bit of exposition and some unrestrained subservience to Lorca at the very end. He is surprised to hear Lorca say that they’re going to “play it by the book” and not rescue Admiral Cornwell, but Saru is happy to go right along with it. Which means that, between ‘Lethe’ and ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’, we learn that he is actually one of those people who will kowtow to any authority figure in his presence, and immediately turn into a hard-line authoritarian once given any power of his own. Y’know, a total arsehole, basically.
We don’t see too much of Saru in ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ either, but we do see him standing up to Lorca on the subject of space wales, whose preservation is mandated by Starfleet regulations. Which means he’s unwilling to privately challenge Lorca, whom he both loves and hates, but he is willing to publicly challenge him in front of a load of bridge officers.
To outline what we’ve seen so far:
In the Pilot episodes, Saru is a scaredy-cat who is averse to any risky action.
In ‘Conscience is for Kings’, he is laid back and respects Lorca.
In ‘Butcher’s Knife’, he seems to think Lorca is an unethical arsehole.
In ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’ he jumps into enemy territory without hesitation to save Lorca.
In ‘Lethe’ he is happy to abandon an admiral to torture because Lorca says to.
In ‘Magic to Make’ he insists that Lorca adhere to his responsibilities to a space whale.
Now, maybe Saru cares about the space whale because he feels guilty about how he treated the large-igrade. Maybe he prefers to remain entirely within the constraints of rules and orders – hence he’ll follow regulations on rescuing space whales, but he will also follow orders in regards to rescuing admirals.
None of these character traits are especially contradictory – certainly, single a character could exist who would behave in the above different manners. But these behaviours are pretty inconsistent – they’re indicative of a fickle personality, which isn’t how Saru is presented.
What we’re left with is a character whose personality morphs to fit the narrative of each episode. He’s malleable, like Frank Reynolds in ‘Always Sunny’ – his characterisation is secondary to the demands of the plot.
And, a bit like Geordi, his own motivations are largely irrelevant. He claims to be jealous of Burnham, to be angry at her, but these feelings never particularly manifest in his actual behaviour or decision-making. They affect his tone of voice, but not his actions. It would be interesting to see him disagreeing with Burnham just because he hates her – to see him refuting an argument he knows to be valid just because of his feelings towards the person making it.
We also get no clear view on his relationship with Lorca, and this is critical. For one, the relationship between a captain and their first officer is typically the most significant of any Trek show, or indeed any cast of characters with a hierarchy. For reference, see Kirk/Spock, Picard/Riker(/Data), Janeway/Chakotay, Adama/Tigh, Bartlet/McGarry. It might not be the most important relationship within a work of fiction, but it is vital for determining the tone of a story that’s fixed in one place and with one crew.
‘Battlestar Galactica’s two most senior officers, William ‘Hard Six’ Adama and Saul ‘Salty’ Tigh have possibly the least dynamic relationship across the four seasons of the show: they start out as friends and broadly remain friends. Yet from their very first scene together we see Adama calling Tigh out on his problematic behaviour while offering him support and friendship. That frames one of the strongest themes of the show – of flawed, occasionally terrible enduring together through a horrible ordeal.
When you look at Kirk and Spock through the same lens, you see an entirely different dynamic. It’s co-operative, and it’s jovial, a little jokey (usually at Spock’s expense). This, again, informs on the rest of the show – one of general optimism through a series of generally light-hearted adventures.
But as of the seventh episode of ‘Discovery’, we hadn’t seen its captain and its first officer exchange more than one or two sentences. There had never been a meaningful scene between them that wasn’t entirely functional. As such, we’re left lacking a vital bit of context for the entire series.
We’re left to infer that Lorca keeps Saru at arm’s length, out of the loop, but we never really see Saru’s take on this – is he aware of the fact he’s just decoration? Is he annoyed with the lack of agency, or is he grateful for the reduced responsibility and the chance to spend more time eating blueberries?
We see plenty of scenes between Lorca and other crew members – particularly Burnham and Ash the Human and Stamets. But the vital connection with his first officer is ignored. Indeed, if it weren’t for maybe a small handful of exceptions, Saru’s only interactions on the ship would be with Burnham – we don’t even see him interact with any other members of the crew beyond functional exchanges.
In ‘CHOOSE YOUR PAIN’, Saru actually takes command of the ship, and yet we get very little insight into his command ability. We see him shouting at Burnham, Culber and Stamets, but each of these exchanges revolves around a single issue, that of the Large-igrade. We see him verbalising his thoughts on a tactical situation, but never him displaying anything approaching leadership.
At the end of the episode, he seems to acknowledge that he made a mess of things – and yet this doesn’t manifest into any follow-up action on his part in subsequent episodes. By way of example, we could have had a later scene where we see him replaying video logs of his time in command, or studying in greater depth some of those exemplary captains the computer listed for him. During the party in ‘Magic to Make’, maybe Saru wasn’t on the bridge with Lorca but was on a fake bridge in that holographic training room, playing through the Kobayashi Maru (Kobayashi Saru?) scenario over and over again.
Or – and this is a terrifying prospect, I know – we could have had a short scene where he just sits down with Lorca and asks to be mentored, asks to be included more in decision-making, or even asks to be given even less responsibility, to be frozen out of matters to a greater extent than he already is.
Once again, I’m left questioning the serialised format of the show, given how little they utilise it. If ‘Discovery’ were episodic, Saru’s lack of development following ‘CHOOOOOSE YOOOUUURRR PAAAAAIIIIIN’ would be forgivable, but the show’s creators have gone to great lengths to make clear that this is a long-running narrative.
So far, I’ve only been talking about the first seven episodes of ‘Star Trek: Bag of Hammers’, because in the eighth episode, titled… ah… It’s some stupid latin name, but the episode itself is basically a rip-off of ‘Errand of Mercy’ so I’m going to call it… hmm… ‘Errand of Derpy’.
Anyway, in ‘Errand of Derpy’, we get another Saru-centric storyline which should, again, be pivotal to the character’s development. In it, Saru is – well, he’s not exactly brainwashed, nor is he psychically compelled – but in any case, he turns traitor against Burnham and Ash the Human and attempts to sabotage the potentially war-winning mission that the three of them are on.
It’s worth noting that Saru is in command of this mission – he’s the ranking officer and is directly responsible not only for the mission’s success, but also the safety of the two crew members with him. It’s also worth noting, as previously covered, that this is somehow Starfleet’s only potential answer to the Klingon Cloaking Devices, because they haven’t yet tried plain old science, apparently.
On this planet of the Not-Organians (distinguishable from actual Organians by being blue instead of yellow), Saru is overcome with the feeling of peace and serenity that he experiences. For a creature motivated entirely by fear, suddenly being immersed in the safest possible environment imaginable is a bit like me finding myself on a planet full of nymphomaniac clones of Emily Blunt: my ability to critically analyse the situation in a rational manner is likely to be… compromised.
Now, this makes sense for Saru, based on what we know about him. He totally would lose his shit when faced with perfect serenity. Sure. What’s frustrating from a narrative perspective is that at no point does he become self-aware of his own failure – at least, not until after the story has already been resolved and he’s back on the ship. Because Burnham manages to stop Saru from completely destroying their comms device, we don’t actually learn anything new about Saru from this experience – instead, he’s just acting as the antagonist for the episode.
Compare that to Next Gen’s ‘The Most Toys’, where we not only see Data dealing with being a captive but we also see him actually full-on murder a guy in cold blood and then lie about it. This is a huge development for the otherwise temperate android, and he suddenly becomes much, much more complex as a character (and quite a bit more terrifying).
The thing is, when Saru loses it on Not-Organia, that’s only a surface-level development of his personality. Really, we could have extrapolated what we saw based on what we already knew – that an extremely fear-based species would react extremely to a fear-free environment.
What we really needed to see was Saru dealing with this himself. The story doesn’t need to change much – it can still be Burnham who knocks him down and completes the mission – but there has to be some hefty introspective from Saru, beyond him just sat on a bio bed in sickbay feeling a bit guilty about what happened.
What we definitely don’t need is to immediately see him resuming his duties as first officer as though nothing had happened. At the beginning of ‘Into The Forest I Go’, between twenty minutes to an hour in-universe after the events of ‘Errand of Derpy’, Saru’s just on the bridge, carrying on like it’s an entirely new episode. Which, of course, it is – but it’s a new episode in a serialised show, with an unbroken narrative.
If you’re a Trek veteran, you may remember it being weird when Harry Kim was still an ensign after seven years, never having increased in rank since the beginning of ‘Voyager’. Indeed, as one of my friends recently pointed out, Nog the Ferenghi served Harry Kim drinks aboard Deep Space Nine in Voyager’s first episode, but over the next five years Nog would enroll in Starfleet Academy, graduate, and reach the rank of Lieutenant, such that Harry would have endured seven years of torment in the Delta Quadrant only to return home and be saluting his waiter.
This occurred because ‘Deep Space Nine’ was semi-serialised, with its last two seasons forming a fairly well-structured narrative. ‘Voyager’, on the other hand, remained episodic, like ‘The Next Generation’, with each episode remaining largely standalone. Harry Kim could never gain rank for the same reason that Geordi LaForge could never really progress – his role as a support character in other stories was vastly more important to the show than his actual development as a character in his own right. Geordi always needed to be there for Data – Harry always needed to be there for Tom Paris and to give status reports.
Nog was broadly a support character, too, usually there to fill a role in stories about the Siskos or Quark and Rom. But because of the continuous narrative, as these other characters developed, Nog had to develop, too. You couldn’t write connected episode threads about Jake growing up if his best friend of the same age never grows up either – because part of growing up is dealing with the people around you developing and changing themselves. Likewise, Quark couldn’t broaden his character without Rom, and Rom couldn’t develop without Nog, and so you end up with a character you probably forgot was in the show being the star of one of its most beautiful episodes.
(As an aside, the character of Morn, one of Quark’s regular bar patrons, is frequently lampshaded as being entirely static, never saying a word or even moving from the same bar stool, and yet still managed to get some character development. I can only assume that Garrett Wang either never watched the show, or was in a healthy state of denial.)
I’ll bring this back to ‘Discovery’ again which, I’ll reiterate, was conceived as a serialised narrative. The whole reason we’ve had to endure so much bullshit is so that the producers could fashion this trendy season-long continuous narrative. Which means we should be getting more Nog, less Harry Kim. Saru’s betrayal on Not-Organia should have come with consequences: it should not have been treated as a “one-off” “fire-and-forget” storyline with no knock-on effects.
And if you’re wondering why I’m so hung up on this, I’ll make it clear:
The consequences of a Starfleet officer turning traitor and endangering their shipmates is the entire premise of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.
Burnham’s decision to turn on her captain, jeopardise her ship and terminate her career is the very heart of ‘Discovery’s narrative. Saru repeating that mistake, nearly beat-for-beat, should be HUGE. Especially given Saru’s resentment of Burnham for her actions.
Extraordinary events demand an extraordinary response, and that goes double for a show as emotionally charged as ‘Discovery’ tries to be. Although Saru and Burnham share a short, concilliatory scene at the end of ‘Errand of Derpy’, a genuinely satisfying conflict could have developed had Burnham taken Saru to task.
After all, when she behaved in the same way she lost everything of value to her and was accused of instigating a galactic war. Indeed, Saru has just prolonged a galactic war, compromising Starfleet’s potential countermeasure to the cloaking device, but this isn’t even touched upon.
The fact is, Saru was initially a fairly well-realised addition to Trek canon. The ideas behind his creation were not ideas that Trek had particularly explored before: the concept of a race of cowards – not pacifists, cowards – with their biological impulses motivated entirely by fear and survival.
But a good initial idea is only as valuable as its ultimate manifestation. When shoddily executed, a good idea is worthless, and Saru has now become a fairly pointless, inconsistent character who lacks any of the qualities that made the likes of Data, Nog, or even Seven of Nine so compelling.
And it’s not as though he’s competing for airtime with a big cast of strong characters, like Data in TNG or Nog in DS9 or Seven of Nine in… well, never mind. But the fact is that ‘Discovery’ only features a handful of other series regulars, especially now that Tilly is barely getting one line per episode.
And as I’ve hopefully demonstrated above, there’s huge amounts of previous Trek that demonstrates what’s possible with a limited runtime – and that also demonstrates how badly things can go when the quality of a story takes a lower priority than commercial concerns.
There was no narrative requirement for Saru to go rogue this early on in the series. Sure, you can have him throw a wobbly in an extreme environment, but nothing in the show’s plot mandated his treachery. He could have been rendered useless by his fear, or left in an ecstatic stupor by the lack of it, and the lack of any follow-up would be a non-issue.
It was only because of the creators’ perceived need for hyper-dramatic conflict that Saru went all Bilbo-y. And it was presumably because of the need for a hyper-dramatic mid-season finale in the following episode that this development was immediately forgotten.
In the future, I intend to cover this cynical approach to storytelling – this assumed need for “tweetable” or “trendable” content that will drive social media engagement, but for now it’s enough to say that it will eventually have the opposite effect.
Whilst in the short term Saru’s behaviour might get people talking for now, in the longer term the variability and malleability of the character is going to leave him incapable of surprising us – just like Frank Reynolds.
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ finishes the first half of this season the way it began: with unparalleled, unmitigated, unequivocal horse shit. So much was wrong with ‘Into The Forest I Go’ that I’m actually glad we get this weird mid-season break as it means I get to spend that time picking this damn series apart piece by piece, like an air crash investigator, but more jaded and emotionally detached.
As a content note, below I’ll be discussing torture and sexual violence, amongst other potentially distressing topics, so please bear that in mind.
Ash the Human is now all-but confirmed to be Voq the Klingon, and the main surprise is that it turns out he wasn’t aware of what or who he really was. Which is good, because this is the episode where he and Burnham finally sleep together, and if he *had* known that he was Voq, that would have raised all sorts of consent issues that I just know the show’s writers wouldn’t have even been aware of, never mind addressed.
We also see him laid bare as a barely-coping victim of PTSD – which may have been a positive step forwards in terms of the portrayal of mental health in TV shows – until it inevitably turns out in a future episode that it’s not PTSD at all, and it’s actually just a symptom of him being a sleeper agent. If that’s the case, then this show can burn.
Ash’s PTSD episode also features a series of flashbacks to him “doing what he could to survive” by having sex with L’Rell, his former captor. Obviously this montage is highly stylised and sexualised, with Klingon boobies and everything, but let’s be clear here: that was a rape scene. It was a rape scene, and it was played to titillate. Hopefully, it’s pretty clear that such a thing is wrong in a TV show. Or in any capacity.
(As an aside, it doesn’t matter if he’s a man and she’s a woman, or that he technically “had a choice” in whether or not to sleep with her – if the reason somebody is having sex is to avoid physical harm or death (or as a result of any other form of threat or intimidation) then that person is being raped. Fucking ‘Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ managed to get its head around this in the boat episode, and that was ten years ago.)
(If you’re still not sure, then bear in mind that in the Western world at least, and elsewhere, it is legally impossible for a prisoner to give consent to a custodian.)
Now, I’m not sure what to make of this if we later find out that the sex occurred before Voq had his personality replaced with Ash Tyler. It still seems really, really gross from the perspective of the portrayal of sexual violence in TV and movies. And if we’re being honest, do we really think that the people behind ‘Choose Your Pain’ (or that bit where Harry Mudd was punished by being presented with a woman) are capable of handling the complexities of this kind of consent issue?
In yet another abject lack of surprise, it turns out Lorca – yes, he who aspires to the ‘Angry Celebrity Chef’ style of leadership – is indeed a Mirror Universe version of himself, or something. Basically, he says something like “Let’s go home,” and then overrides the jump co-ordinates so that they end up in a parallel universe, after showing Stamets earlier in the episode that he’s already been charting parallel universes in his spare time.
Woop di doo! Well done ‘Discovery’, you meet expectations, which in your case means being exactly as dull as I thought you were.
Because at this point, there’s two explanations: Lorca is from the Mirror Universe originally, and hence is evil and manipulative in his quest to get back home. Or, he’s evil and manipulative, and at this point is just doing stuff for shits and giggles and to avoid any consequences for his horrible actions. Which would make him, in essence, a clever four-year-old.
Starfleet Deserves To Lose The War
Faced with a tactically-insurmountable disadvantage, Starfleet is losing the war. The Klingon invisibility cloak allows the entire Klingon fleet to approach Federation ships, planets and outposts without detection, before launching devastating attacks. Pretty brutal.
Last episode, three of Starfleet’s best – a convicted mutineer, a PTSD-ridden former POW who’s been out of action for seven months of an eight-month war, and a lanky alien who is literally terrified of everything – were sent on a critical mission to secure a big antenna thing which might have helped them win the war.
This mission failed. Pretty fucking obviously.
At the beginning of this episode, roughly half an hour after the conclusion of the last one, Admiral Vulcan tells the crew that since the mission failed, Starfleet is now gathering its best scientists to come up with a new solution.
Hang on. So, you hadn’t already done that? Three weeks of getting your arses kicked by cloaked ships, and the Federation hadn’t yet made a concerted scientific effort to crack the cloak? Bear in mind, Starfleet was previously an organisation of scientists and explorers, as Lorca points out in this very episode. And they didn’t leverage their technological advantage when it came to the cloak?
For three weeks?
No matter, though. Because Lorca then tells Burnham and Saru (we’ll get to Saru later) to come up with a means of cracking the cloak. In three hours. It takes them one hour.
Such a shame that the Federation, consisting of “trillions” (again, quoting from this episode) of citizens couldn’t spare two scientists for a whole hour. Else they might have had this cloaking device sorted weeks ago. Y’know, the same Federation, as noted above, that’s renowned for its technological capabilities.
Now, this is the sort of thing that happens in Trek all the time. On countless previous occasions, Geordi and Data have pulled some Treknomagic bullshit solution out of their arses to solve an absurd problem in the nick of time. But that’s usually because they came across some information that nobody had seen before. Like, it’s a plot point – “If only we could <do the bullshit>!” “Wait, Data, we can <do the bullshit>! Look at these readings we took in our last encounter!”
As it is, the crew of Discovery manage to solve the cloaking device problem simply because they were the first ones to even try to solve it.
After three weeks.
If Starfleet’s response to the cloaking device was to send three idiots to a remote planet and literally try nothing else, then Starfleet deserves to lose, and the Klingons ought to win by default. The Starfleet of ‘Discovery’ is the Giant Panda of fictional star empires – so uninterested in its own survival that it writes itself out of the ecosystem.
So, in the last episode, Saru attacked both Burnham and Ash the Human whilst on the Planet of the Plot Device, and tries to sabotage the mission. This is a mission that will potentially end the war with the Klingons.
He turns traitor because he “finally experienced peace” or some rampant bollocks. Point is, at first it seems like he’s brain-washed, but actually he confirms himself that it was just him losing his shit, because his species evolved to experience terror every waking moment and when he was presented with safety he lost control.
Which is fine, that’s a motivation that makes sense for his character. There’s plenty of other dumb shit that happened in the last episode but this was sort-of okay.
What isn’t okay is that literally twenty minutes after caving in Burnham’s chest cavity and knocking Ash the Human unconscious, Saru is back on the bridge, as first-in-command, no less. Which…
Look, the “magic reset button” is a Trek staple, but this series is meant to be a continuous narrative. Not only that, but the last scene of that episode leads directly into the first scene of this episode, turning both episodes into a two-parter. Which raises the question:
WHY ISN’T SARU IN THE FUCKING BRIG?
He literally tried to prevent Starfleet from winning the war with the Klingons. He literally incapacitated one shipmate and tried to incapacitate the other. The last time a Starfleet officer did that, we got this entire fucking show, and the officer in question spent six months in prison before being press-ganged onto Lorca’s Little Ship of Horrors.
Now, okay, so you say that he wasn’t himself, he was subject to extenuating circumstances, fine, whatever. But you’re just going to let him back onto the bridge? In a command capacity?
You may notice that this font is being slowly invaded by italics. That’s because of just how poorly I am coping with the cluelessness of this show’s writers. This universe they have created is entirely inconsistent and nonsensical – and that’s to be expected for the likes of ‘The Next Generation’, which ran for seven seasons over seven years, with 178 non-sequential episodes all with distinct narratives.
But it’s been seven episodes since Burnham stepped off the prison shuttle onto the deck of Discovery and it seems like the writers have already forgotten why she was there. The fact that Saru can pull the same shit as her and evade any consequences is bizarre and jarring from a narrative perspective, and if you were binge-watching this crap you’d be baffled.
Win The War, But Not Too Quickly
This episode is ostensibly about the crew of Discovery winning the war – or rather, finding a way to allow the rest of Starfleet to win the war. And that’s a big thing for Lorca, too. Indeed, it’s basically all he talks about. Ever. “I’m a warrior.” “I win wars.” “I study wars.” “What was that? Was that a war? Can I have one?” and so on.
Lorca touts himself as this incredible warrior. Some kind of pragmatic, capable leader willing to do anything, anything, to win the war. I don’t care for this type of characterisation personally, but we can park that for now.
Pretend you’re a warrior. A ship captain, at war, trying to end it. And in front of you is the enemy flagship. Probably the enemy’s most powerful ship. It’s a cultural, probably religious icon to the enemy, festooned with the sarcophagi of fallen enemy soldiers. Aboard the ship is not only the head of the enemy’s entire military, the most powerful individual in their ranks, but also the original prototype of a piece of game-changing technology which allowed the enemy to gain the upper hand against your own forces in just two or three weeks.
And you have just pierced its invisibility field. It’s unshielded, it can’t fire back, and you have it completely by surprise.
What do you do?
Yeah, that’s right you probably just blow it up with torpedoes.
Never mind the chance of taking the ship, of disabling it from a distance so you can hold its commander hostage.
Never mind the chance to seize the original cloaking device. Y’know, the piece of technology you just risked your entire ship to try and gain more information about.
Never mind the chance to seize the cultural icon of a race motivated to war with you for religious reasons.
Nah, probs better to just wipe it out.
How stuuuuuuuuuuupid is Lorca meant to be, exactly? And how dumb is Starfleet to want to give him a medal for this? He had the actual most valuable asset in the war against the Klingons – an asset that would enable the Federation to negotiate peace probably overnight. I mean, Lorca knows they’ve just found a way to see through the cloaking devices of the Klingons. Combine that with holding General Kol and the Ship of the Dead to ransom, and you can present the Klingons with both an incentive to agree to a ceasefire, and a disincentive to continue a war which is about to become a whole lot more costly to them.
And I get there might be reasons that Discovery had to destroy Kol’s ship. I appreciate that. But the fact that capturing it wasn’t brought up as an option suggests to me that the writers didn’t even consider it.
But here’s the trick: it had already been done.
The crew of Discovery know that they can successfully board the Klingon flagship because that’s exactly what happened in the pilot episodes. The busted-ass Shenzhou managed to disable the ship of the dead with a single photon torpedo, and would probably have captured T’Kuvma alive had they sent more than two people.
But as recently as this same episode Lorca sends two crew members to sneak aboard Kol’s ship, and not only do they do so successfully, one of them nearly manages to kill Kol in hand-to-hand combat.
Just target the ship’s weapons and engines and then beam a whole bunch of people over with phasers on the “Stun” setting. And just like that, you’ve got critical leverage over the Klingon Empire, your deadly adversary.
Or, waste your extreme tactical advantage and just blow the ship up, no questions asked. Seems reasonable.
The monumental stupidity of all this is astonishing. I genuinely struggle to cope. It’s like being trapped in a Lovecraftian nightmare specially crafted for a writer. The show’s idiocy is almost comic – but the joke is on me.
Put Her On The Medical Bus
Admiral Cornwell gets her legs busted. Or her spine. It doesn’t matter. The point is, she is added to the constantly expanding list of “Female Authority Figures In ‘Discovery’ Who Receive Lethal Or Hospitalising Injuries In Some Way”. Just to outline the issue (again):
Georgiou – stabbed, eaten.
Burnham – burned by radiation.
Landry – eaten by bears. One bear. Mauled. Mauled by a single bear. A space bear.
L’Rell – face burned off.
Stella – married to Mudd.
Cornwell – paralysed from the legs down.
Tilly – relegated to “single line of social awkwardness on legs.”
That’s not the point I want to make, though. The point I want to make is:
Immediately after Lorca destroys Kol’s ship, Cornwell was put on an “emergency medical shuttle” to Starbase 88, as confirmed by the Vulcan admiral. She’ll make a full recovery, so that’s all good.
After hearing this, Lorca tells the admiral that the algorithm for detecting cloaked ships is “being refined for fleet-wide use” and will be sent to Starfleet in eleven hours.
This exchange raises so many questions that it’s easier to just use another list:
Why not send the algorithm straight away?
Why refine it first?
Why does it take eleven hours to refine something that took less than an hour to create from scratch?
At the beginning of the episode, Starbase 46 was three hours away. Presumably that was the closest one, because Discovery would’ve been ordered to the closest, right? So you’re looking at a minimum journey time of three hours, right? Assuming shuttles travel as quickly as starships? So it’s safe to assume that it took Cornwell’s medical bus three hours at least to reach Starbase 88, riiiight? So it’s actually more like fourteen hours to refine the algorithm? Seriously?
The Vulcan admiral also tells Lorca that Klingon ships are speeding towards Discovery, which is shown to still be in orbit over the same planet. So, for three hours they just hung around? Refining an algorithm?
Why not just put a, I dunno, a fucking USB stick containing the algorithm on the shuttle with Cornwell? Starfleet would have it by now! They could be “refining” it themselves!
All of this is just throw-away dialogue, really, but throw-away dialogue shouldn’t be bringing into question major plot points! The main thrust of this conversation is that Cornwell will recover, Discovery needs to head home so Lorca can get a medal, and now the war is theirs to win. But so many stupid things get said that the entire plot of the episode starts breaking down entirely.
I already mentioned that there are Klingon ships headed for Discovery, and yet we later see Lorca approach Stamets to stand with him, staring out at the sunset over the Planet of the Plot Device. They shoot the shit for a while, they talk about medals and stuff. Then Lorca guilt-trips Stamets into using the jump-drive one last time, because Klingons are totally on their way to kill them all.
Soooo… Why, exactly, are they not already at warp? Earlier in the episode they use the jump drive at warp, so that would still be an option. So why wouldn’t they be warping the shit away from the danger zone? What reason could they possibly have for not going to warp immediately after Lorca’s conversation with the admiral? What possible justification could there be for Lorca just wandering around the ship and looking at sunsets?
I mean, we know Lorca’s up to no good, but what about the rest of the crew? What about Saru? Y’know, the first officer who is permanently terrified? I mean, Lorca tells Stamets that they can use the warp drive to get home without need for the jump drive – so why the everliving fuck aren’t they already at warp? Maybe I was wrong, maybe Ash isn’t a Klingon agent, maybe everybody is a Pakled agent.
More like ‘Star Trek: Bag of Hammers’ if you ask me.
These are just the most glaring issues from a narrative perspective. Issues around theme and characterisation are pervasive, and I’ll have to cover them later. For now, ‘Discovery’s first half finishes exactly as it started – troubled, troubling and completely out of order.
I swear to Christ, I cannot cope with this emotional rollercoaster. With my expectations about as low as they could possibly be, I approached tonights Harry “Dickhead” Mudd episode fully prepared for yet more dreck.
Then it turned around and started charming the pants off me. I mean, I was genuinely enjoying it, I was even laughing, I was even invested in the story. I mean, what show is this all of a sudden? Did I fall through a portal into the Mirror Universe? Who are you people? What is this?
Because I’m an honest man, or at the very least terrified of being accused of hypocrisy, I will give this episode, ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’, a title rivaling ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry’ in terms of dumb verbosity, all the credit it is due. Which is quite a lot actually. I’ll break it down for you.
The Good Stuff
I was amazed by how compelling Mudd managed to be as a villain. After his ridiculously off-tone “You haven’t seen the last of meeeee!” in ‘Choose Your Pain’, I was fully anticipating a truly rubbish antagonist, but he was genuinely quite threatening and determined. He was suitably arrogant about the advantage he had over the crew, and he basked in his superiority.
Mudd’s recollection of repeatedly killing Lorca was glorious to behold. Particularly the moment he beamed him into space. That was so delightfully wicked. It was a particularly nice choice to show us Lorca’s demise from a distance, just as a blur on the view screen – no close ups, for none were needed.
As one of my friends pointed out, Lorca’s general distance in this episode was ideal. He was just there, as a captain, not really doing much, not being a total dickhole, just being a bit severe. And I did enjoy him being repeatedly berated by a dumpy bearded idiot (no idea why).
Stamets was on form this episode, so much so that I’m willing to refer to him by his actual name. His confused panic was perfectly portrayed by Anthony Rapp, as was his increasing serenity as he gradually regained a little control over the situation.
Turns out that Rapp’s character is actually named for Paul Stamets, a real-world mycologist. Nice. Fair play, I can respect that.
Burnham was also on form, and her confused adolescent response to meeting a good-looking boy is quite charming. I wish her secret had been a little juicier, though. I’ve never been in love, Burnham, but you don’t see me getting a character arc. I would have loved it if she’d just come out and said “I want to grab Saru by his ganglia and fuck him ’til next July” or something actually shocking.
Space whales are a stupid, tired idea and yet I still love them and would like to see more.
Tilly remained Tilly. Enough said.
The violence. This is the kind of violence that should be in Trek. It was dark, sure, and definitely a bit disturbing, but it was shrouded in special effects. There was no blood in this episode, nobody being sliced apart or screaming in agony for minutes at a time. It was harsh, but it wasn’t sadistic, and it wasn’t directed solely at women, and I can respect that.
“There are so many ways to blow up this ship, it’s almost a design flaw,” was beautiful, as was “Here, can you let me lead, please?” This episode had some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in Trek for a while.
We finally, finally, get some fucking context to this bloody war. And with a nicely efficient line, as I’ve already discussed. “Because of [Discovery], the tide has turned. Because of us, we are winning.” Fantastic! That tells an entire story! They were on the backfoot, now they’re gaining the upper hand. One line in the opening log entry, that’s all it took. that’s all it fucking took! Why did we have to wait for five fucking episodes?
I am pleased to see Burnham sans a Starfleet badge. It marks her out among the crew – she’s got duties, but she’s still disgraced. That’s a subtle, but meaningful touch.
And finally, the fact that the resolution to the crew’s predicament was non-violent really pleased me. Them having to think their way out of it, instead of shooting or punching their way out, is incredibly refreshing – particularly after the trend in Trek productions that was so perfectly exemplified by ‘Into Darkness’.
Indeed, the fact that the problem itself was intellectual, rather than physical, was more-or-less spot on, and was exactly what this show needed as a palette-cleanser after all of the torture and mutilation of previous episodes.
Basically, this was a great episode for about… thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds. For thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds, this was probably one of the top twenty episodes in all Trekdom. Hell, maybe top ten. I’m not even kidding.
And yet the writers still manage to take all of that quality, all of that smooth sailing, and dash it upon the rocks of mediocrity.
The Bad Stuff
That thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds of quality I mentioned just above? Here’s how I got there:
Two minutes and thirty seconds at the beginning covers the still-terrible opening sequence. I’ll take a quick diversion here to say that this is literally the worst opening sequence of Trek, and it’s the worst by a margin. I mean, I hated ‘Faith of the Heart’ as much as anyone, but it was at least optimistic and upbeat. ‘Discovery’s opening theme is a depressing, atonal mess.
And at least ‘Enterprise’ gave us a nice montage of the development of Earth’s warp-capable craft – ‘Discovery’ just shows us the slowly-rotating CGI models for various props and costumes. It’s like a fucking ‘Skyrim’ loading screen, for fuck’s sakes. It’s as though the creators are embarrassed of the show, which in fairness, they should be, but still.
ANYWAY, two-and-a-half minutes gets us past the “previously on” and through the loading screen to Burnham’s personal log. I loved the fact that we’re back to log entries – they’re such nice bookends, and entirely capture the feeling of Star Trek.
Thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds after this point, though, it all goes to pieces, with just one line:
“You sent them to Stella…”
This is Stamets, concluding the explanation of the crew’s solution to Harry Mudd: they called his girlfriend on him. In a throw-back to ‘I, Mudd’ of The Original Series, but with a marginally less misogynistic tone, they reunite him with his girlfriend and her arms dealer father.
The reunion scene was painfully clichéd compared to the rest of the episode, but it was functional enough to get by. The real problem was its implications.
So, here’s what the crew know about Mudd at the point that they release him:
He is perfectly willing to murder hundreds of people, and has literally done so dozens of times just in the last half hour. That’s the plot of the episode.
He is complicit in the torture and abuse of prisoners, admittedly while a prisoner himself.
He knows every operational detail about the Discovery, including how her experimental drive works, the secret to controlling it, and its limitations.
He had full, unlimited access to all of Starfleet’s tactical and strategic data, from ship positions, supply routes and defense lines, based on the information that was openly on display in Lorca’s office.
He has active connections with the Klingons, with a pre-existing deal to deliver Discovery to them, and likely has valuable information about the Klingon Empire, with a proven willingness to divulge information in exchange for his own safety.
He is a total arsehole.
Knowing all of this, they choose to put him in the care of a known arms dealer who goes around in a black leather cape and a pimp cane, who makes a profit from selling weapons, who has promised to keep Mudd “out of Starfleet’s way”.
Okay, let’s unpick that.
So, they have the ability to summon, like, a thousand Starfleet ships, or even just one ship, or even no ships at all. I mean, the goodies’ whole plan was to rewire the computer so Mudd’s attempt to summon the Klingons wouldn’t work. And that’s what they did. So why didn’t they just make it so that his transmission was never sent, and instead lock him in the brig? I mean, they overpowered him anyway.
Seeing Mudd carried off on a Starfleet Prison shuttle would have been the perfect ending to this episode. Seeing him miserable and forlorn and facing a lifetime in prison would have made perfect sense. Not even a lifetime, even if they ignored the whole “attempted mass murder” thing and just locked him up for the duration of the war to prevent him sharing his knowledge with anyone else.
But the fact that they literally sent him on his way with not even a slap on the wrist is appalling. It’s just so, so stupid. It makes no sense and makes our protagonists come across as dribbling morons. Y’know, he’s not some misguided soul, here, he’s a for-profit would-be mass-murderer who literally went through with the cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds of Starfleet officers potentially hundreds of times.
Not to mention that he was intending to sell Starfleet technology to their enemies. And even if he’s no longer able to do that, he can still sell all of their technical and strategic secrets. And he could do that with a fucking hand-held radio, or even a carrier pigeon. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to let someone as dangerous as that out of your hands?
And I know why they resolved it the way they did. The did it because the previously-established canon demanded it. Harry Mudd turns up in The (now-defunct anyway after all the production advancements) Original Series, therefore they obviously can’t violate that plotline, despite the fact that they seem willing to play entirely fast and loose with every other bit of established canon on the show, from the technology to the uniforms to the Klingons’ very appearance.
So, because of the commercial desire to use a recognisable name from the franchise, regardless of how little sense it makes, the writers’ hands were forced into this absurd ending that sabotages what otherwise would be an all-time great episode of Trek. And it really did ruin it for me – I finished the episode angry, despite having enjoyed myself for 87% of its run time.
WHY WON’T THEY KISS???
One final thing. We still get no kiss between Stamets and Culber, despite yet another perfect setup. No, we just get another platonic pat on the shoulder, a gesture as romantic as that between Kirk and Scotty in your average Original Series episode from the ’60s.
I mean, we get to see people being vaporised from the inside out and choking to death in space, and obviously I’m fine with that because it all happened to Lorca, but really? Still no gay kiss? I just want to see two dudes making out, that’s all. That’s all I want. And we even get to see multiple heterosexual couples making out in the background of this episode. Just no gays. Unless I’m misreading the situation and it’s actually the interracial aspect of the relationship of which the show’s creators are terrified.
Taking a broader view, Rapp is openly queer, as he has described himself, and Cruz is an active participant in the LGBT culture, and I can only imagine how these two actors must feel to be playing a loving homosexual couple that is denied any opportunity to express physical affection, either in public or in private. It just feels like a huge step backwards.
So, it’s more-or-less confirmed at this point that Ash Tyler, played by the British actor Clem Fandango, is in fact Voq in disguise. From the fact that Voq’s listed actor literally doesn’t exist, to the fact that Voq’s competent lampshade L’Rell, three weeks after joining Voq in exile, is suddenly now the captain of the battlecruiser on which Ash Tyler is kept. Or the fact that everyone keeps saying that Ash the Human fought like a Klingon. Or the fact that-
Look, whatever, let’s just talk about the trouble the creators went to so they could disguise this TOTALLY UNTELEGRAPHED MASSIVE PLOT TWIST OH WOWIE.
Because as soon as we see L’Rell without Voq, there’s a good chance that means Voq’s up to something, given L’Rell told him literally in the very last episode that her matriarchal House of Spies And Deceivers (Oh? Really? The women get to be in charge of lying and treachery? Nice one, that’s a progressive change of pace) would totally help him out or whatever.
So why bother with the out-of-universe subterfuge for such an obvious revelation? Especially if we’re going to have it teased in the dialogue throughout? If you’re not going to particularly try to hide the twist, what’s the point in even having a twist?
What’s worse is that Voq attempting to integrate into a human ship, disguised as a human, would actually be an amazing long-running character arc. You could ramp up the tension with every scene, you could have awkward little moments, you could do all sorts of things to explore the human condition in an intellectually engaging manner.
And there’s the rub. “Intellectually engaging.” My guess is, the show’s writers decided that having a big, dramatic reveal would be more commercially successful than introducing a complex scenario that would actually tax the brains of the viewers. Because then everyone would run to twitter with the hashtag #didntseethatcoming and #wowwhatagreattwist and #ifklingonsarentrealthenhowarepeoplereal. And y’know what? They’re probably right. A big GOTCHA twist is much more likely to “trend” or “go viral” or whatever than anything remotely interesting.
Of course, I could be wrong, and it could be that once he was captured, it was actually Lorca who was replaced by / brainwashed to be a spy for the Klingons. Maybe it will turn out that all this messing around with Voq is a huge double-bluff, and that actually the REAL SPY WAS TILLY ALL ALONG or something stupid. And this could be okay, but it’s sort-of just the same thing as above – it’s a slightly more complex twist that nevertheless derives its value from being a A TOTALLY UNPREDICTABLE AND SHOCKING DEVELOPMENT.
Of course, if Ash Tyler the Human really is Voq the Klingon, then it raises the question of how he managed, in the space of three weeks, to not only alter his voice but also gain enough proficiency with the human language of English to be able to speak it with a North American accent, including idioms, inflections, etc. etc. I mean, I can buy there being some advanced technology to radically alter his physical attributes in a small space of time, maybe even some kind of rapid memory implantation, but an entire new way of speaking? An entire new way of thinking? In three weeks?
And how does L’Rell feel about getting half of her face disruptored off? Was her merely getting wounded part of the plan? Did they know that Lorca would suffer a sudden accuracy failure after vaporising two other Klingons with no difficulty just moments earlier? I mean, she personally interrupted Ash and Lorca’s escape attempt, which wasn’t even necessary: she could have merely been elsewhere on the ship during the escape. Intervening herself makes it 100% necessary for her to be violently incapacitated (and, as a reminder, SADISTICALLY FUCKING MUTILATED) in order for Voq’s plan to work.
Maybe it’ll be explained with the usual amount of detail and care that the series devotes to all of its other topics, i.e. none at all. We’ll see.
Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who Is The Worst Captain Of Them All
(JUST KIDDING, OBVIOUSLY IT IS LORCA)
Lorca’s now pretty much the most evil Starfleet character we’ve ever seen. Even Sloan, of Section 31, could at least argue he was acting to preserve the Federation, regardless of how ruthless and unacceptable his methods were.
Lorca, on the other hand, has now been revealed to be motivated entirely by self-interest, attempting to sexually manipulate the otherwise-fantastic Admiral Cornwell into ignoring his obvious and plentiful personality disorders and later abandoning her to become at best a hostage of the Klingons and at worst, just another torture victim, which, bear in mind, just one week earlier was a fate he himself had endured. So, that’s pretty much unforgivable. Hell, the sex thing was unforgivable in its own right. Hell, everything else Lorca has done has been almost entirely unsympathetic and abominable.
Given all the forced mirror imagery, the presence of Stavros’ mirror ghost (which, by the way, is absolutely not how mirrors work in any capacity), Lorca’s status as the lone survivor of a disaster, his awkwardness with former lover Cornwell, and the fact that at this point, it’s about the only explanation for Lorca’s behaviour that even comes close to being satisfying, it seems almost guaranteed that Lorca is a Mirror Universe version of himself. He even has an Evil Laboratory, full of Evil Weapons and Skulls in Display Cases, which is about as Mirror Universe as you can get.
Which, again, whatever, okay, fine, so he’s from the Mirror Universe. But there’s a problem.
The Mirror Universe makes no sense.
I mean, I know that most of the stuff in Star Trek makes little sense, but the Mirror Universe really makes no sense, even just from an in-Universe perspective.
Now don’t get me wrong, because I love the Mirror Universe episodes. They’re silly fun, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. They’re a brilliant chance for the regular cast to have a lot of fun twisting their usual roles around, and we, the audience, get to have fun with them. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the isolated MU episodes we get are great little diversions. They’re high-camp and brilliant.
But they still make no sense. As stand-alone episodes (or as their own separate little continuity in ‘Deep Space Nine’) they can present us with a story of their own, and move on before we have to think about any of it too much.
But when they’re folded into a series-long narrative that seems to be one of the main stories / themes of an entire show, Mirror Universe arcs are just too problematic. Here’s why:
The Mirror Universe is established in ‘Enterprise’ to have stemmed from a key change in how Zefram Cochrane handled First Contact with the Vulcans, which makes sense – the radical cultural differences would require a historical change to come about.
But that was multiple generations before most of our characters were even born. So with the “Prime” Starfleet focusing on peaceful exploration, and the other focused on aggressive expansion, for many decades, there’s hardly any chance that the parents of our characters would even meet. And if they did, and if they also eventually hooked up, it’s almost impossible that they would end up matching the same egg with the same sperm to produce the same person that we see in the show.
And even if that happened, with such different cultures, those two babies, genetically identical, would surely not share the same names? With such a drastic cultural difference, wouldn’t names be different too? And hell, wouldn’t the uniforms be different? Like, radically different? Because they’re made for different purposes, right? And the ships, surely they’d differ more than in their paint jobs – I mean, one’s built for long-term exploration, the other for outright war. They’d be completely different.
And even if all of that was the same, as it’s presented in the show, there’s still no way that the same babies would grow up to be the same people holding the same positions on the same ship. How would Mirror Spock happen to be Mirror Kirk’s first officer? How could Mirror Sulu, who’s the head of Mirror Security, still be sat at the mirror helm of the mirror ship?
And all of that is fine for one-off episodes. Like, it doesn’t have to make sense, because it’s just one episode, and it’s all for fun anyway. The main message of the original, ‘Mirror Mirror’, was to show, in Spock’s words, that:
“It was far easier for you, as civilised men, to behave like barbarians, than it was for them, as barbarians, to behave like civilised men.”
– Spock, on being asked how he could spot the Mirror Universe interlopers so quickly.
That’s a nice, simple point to make, and the episode works perfectly to demonstrate it.
But let’s look at that possibility in ‘Discovery’, shall we?
If it’s true that Lorca is indeed from the Mirror Universe, then all of the problems listed above become narrative issues not just for a single episode of silly fun, but for the whole series. It means that Star Trek really does present a universe separate from our own, because it means that things like genetics, cultural development, even language, all of those things fail to function in the same way that they do in reality.
And, again, that’s been the case before. From Next Gen’s ‘Genesis’, to Voyager’s interminable ‘Threshold’, and everything in between, Star Trek’s science has been, at best, ropey. But that was all with stuff that was actually fairly complex and niche and, again, was all contained within individual episodes.
And, to put my storyteller hat on again for a moment, getting Lorca revealed as a Mirror Universe version of himself is all well and good, but again, wouldn’t the more interesting story have been to have that revealed from the beginning? Like with Voq, show his struggles with integrating into this new universe in which he finds himself. That’s exactly what ‘Mirror Mirror’ did, as did DS9’s various MU episodes. It’s the cross between the “fish out of water” story and the “false identity” story, which can provide a load of narrative possibilities.
It would also have been interesting to see Lorca as just the “broken man”, as Cornwell described him, someone psychologically wounded by his ordeals in war, now struggling to cope with the situation in which he finds himself. I mean, it would be problematic, as it would suggest that people with mental health issues should be viewed as villains, but it would at least be a chance to revisit a topic that Trek has already dealt with (rather beautifully) before.
Sadly, though, neither of those offer up a potentially viral SUPER TWIST REVEAL OH MY GOD, and so we find ourselves here.
Will I be right? Will I be wrong? Who knows with this fucking flaming train wreck of a series. I’m sure there’s a good probability that I will end up with egg on my face by tomorrow evening (after the episode airs, and presumably proves me wrong with some amazing in-depth story development; I won’t just be eating egg for no reason, I’m a fucking vegan).
I don’t know how to start this review. I don’t know whether to address the crypto-racial misogyny, or the tragically off-kilter characterisation of half the cast, or the abject lack of any sense or logic to key scenes, or… Or…
Look, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is hot fucking garbage. That’s my conclusion. Four episodes in, and it’s garbage. And don’t come at me with all of that bullshit about “but nobody liked the first seasons of TNG or DS9!” because this isn’t the ’80s. ‘Discovery’ isn’t a cobbled-together series made under a tight budget and with limited competition – it’s a well-funded, pre-planned narrative that stands among dozens of other well-crafted sci-fi shows with strong first seasons – and in any case, the very fact that previous Trek shows have started so badly ought to have served as a lesson to the makers of ‘Discovery’, not a free pass for their incompetence.
Forgiving ‘Discovery’ its mediocrity because of the performance of its predecessors is like forgiving the Trump administration’s corruption because of Nixon. Let’s put it another way: if only twelve months ago a major mobile phone company released a new handset with a battery that occasionally exploded, you’d expect them to have addressed that issue by the time they released the next one.
In short: the next person who defends ‘Discovery’ by reminding me about ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ is going to get a hand-drawn erotic cartoon of Neelix mailed to them, special fucking delivery.
Anyway, the latest episode, the elegantly titled ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’ (I think they wanted to sound poetic) is full of so many issues that recalling and describing them all is going to cause me some mental anguish. So first off, let’s get the stuff that I liked out of the way:
Ways In Which It Did Not Totally Ruin My Evening
I liked Burnham’s very Trekky approach to the Large-igrade. Classic “let’s learn more” sciency stuff, all very lovely.
We get to see Georgiou again, and it’s actually pretty lovely. She gets a nice send-off – or would have, were it not for the whole “her being eaten” thing.
Saru is still a highlight, though is drifting worryingly close to being just another oblivious or enabling patsy.
The fungal engineer, Stavros, really leveled up for me in this episode. Admittedly, he reached Level 1 from Level 0, but that’s still an improvement.
Tilly has mother issues, because of course Tilly has mother issues.
We see a female admiral. She even gets a name. And less personality than a pair of googly eyes sellotaped to an IKEA lampshade.
The actors are competent.
Ways In Which It Ruined My Evening Entirely
Right, down to the nitty gritty. This is going to take a while.
Let’s start with the simple stuff.
They Can’t Even Build Their Fucking Ship Properly
Okay, the ship is the star of the show. Like it or not, the Discovery is what the show is named after, it’s where 90% of the show takes place, and it’s a pretty fucking important component of the narrative. Joss Whedon described the Serenity as “the tenth character”, and so much thought and consideration went into that ship’s layout, they actually built it as a full set (split over two levels) based on in-depth design documents.
Trek itself has a long-standing history of this. Indeed, the Discovery is herself based on old concept art of a new Enterprise for the unmade ‘Star Trek: Planet of the Titans’, the initial plans for an ‘Original Series’ movie prior to ‘The Motion Picture’ and V’ger.
Minor inconsistencies are one thing, but HOW THE FUCK does a show’s creative staff fuck up SO BADLY that they CAN’T EVEN BUILD A SINGLE FUCKING SET CONSISTENTLY. Not sure what I’m on about? Have a look at these crude screencaps:
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Good question.
See the blue rectangle, just to the left-of-centre in the final panel? That’s an external window, looking out into space. Now, scroll back up to the top of the collage. Do you see what I’m seeing? That’s right, it’s a FUCKING CORRIDOR leading from the left to the right. Which is straight past that window.
So what, right? Because that window may well be looking out onto the ship’s hull, right? Because it’s not as though this room’s location WAS ALREADY ESTABLISHED IN THE LAST MOMENTS OF THE PREVIOUS FUCKING EPISODE, RIGHT?
Oh. Oh dear.
For reference, here’s the layout of Lorca’s Evil Laboratory, which I put together with the most expensive and advanced architectural software:
And, just in case that’s not clear enough, let me explain it verbally:
The creators of this show are idiots.
I know you’re thinking “this is just a tiny detail, Jon, why do you care?” But it’s not like these are two different sets. It’s not like they had to move between studios due to size constraints and overlooked something minor in the translation. This is THE SAME FUCKING SET. They walk from one room into the other, and yet NOBODY apparently spotted the fact that the layout of the second-most important location on the show made no fucking sense.
And the rest of the room is gorgeously detailed! I mean, I hate that it’s an EVIL LABORATORY full of ACTUAL SKULLS AND TORTURE DEVICES, but it’s clearly been lovingly put together by the set designers. Except for the placement of a massive window, through which many shots of the room are filmed, and which is situated in direct contradiction to the corridor literally three feet away.
Lorca Is A Basic Bully / Baddie And The Worst Captain Yet Seen On Star Trek
So, Captain Lorca. Captain Lorca. Captain. Loooorrrrcccaaaaaaa.
Okay, Jason Isaacs is a handsome young man, let’s get that out of the way. He’s also a solid actor, and reasonably charismatic. Cool. Good.
Captain Lorca is a stupid, inconsiderate, bullying arsehole who berates his crew and relies on emotional blackmail to further his desire to wage a pointless war.
I could pretty much leave it there, but let’s carry on.
The first thing we see of Lorca is him running a battle simulation with his crew. For some reason, he decided not to include his FIRST FUCKING OFFICER, Lt. Saru, because Saru looks all surprised when he walks onto the bridge. When the simulation is over, Lorca offers his bridge officers nothing but criticism, assuring them that the only chance they have of improving is due to the fact that this was literally the worst they could possibly have achieved. Okay, it’s war, fine, he needs to get these people up to standard so they don’t all die. Fine.
Then, he takes Burnham down into his EVIL LABORATORY which is FULL OF WEAPONS AND SKELETONS and introduces her to the Large-igrade. He tells her that he wants to know how it’s so good at killing Klingons and that she, as an anthropologist, is going to help him find out. Apparently, it isn’t obvious to him that this large, strong, fast and visibly armoured creature might be good at killing everything. Y’know, the way bears aren’t dangerous because they can run forty kilometers an hour and weigh up to 600 kilos, but rather because they harbour some cleverly hidden, biological secret that has eluded our understanding for millennia.
Hey, dickhead, IT’S BIG AND IT’S STRONG, do you really need Starfleet’s literal smartest human being to figure that out for you?
Anyway, he takes a break from berating his crew to eat fortune cookies and stare at a map in his ready room. Here, a holographic admiral delivers a message to him that Starfleet’s primary fuel production facility is under attack, and that there’s only six hours before it’s destroyed. And the nearest ship is eighty-four hours away at warp speed. Hey, good thing this isn’t a strategic location or anything, otherwise you might be inclined to keep a few more ships on standby in the vicinity.
So, Lorca lies to the Admiral about his ships’ capabilities, telling her sure, there’s no problem, leaping half-way across the galaxy with an experimental and knowingly unreliable form of propulsion will have zero, ZERO, unforeseen problems. This is because Lorca is the classic bully – horrendous to those less powerful than he is, obsequious to those with any amount of power over him.
At this point, he pushes his chief fungus engineer, Stavros, to activate the Event Horizon drive, fire up the gellar field and set course for the besieged refinery. Stavros (Davros?) counters that this is a stupid idea, as they literally have no idea of how to make their Bullshit Engine work reliably over that kind of distance, and they could all end up like the crew of the Glenn, i.e. as Walls’ Ice Cream’s next promotional variant of the Twister. Lorca counters back with the tried-and-tested “Well have you tried go fucking yourself, neeeerrrrd?” and walks off, triumphant.
In a surprise to literally no one except Lorca himself, the ship exits the Fungal Webway in the corona of a fucking star, and due to absolutely zero input from Lorca beyond a few cliches (“Collision is not an option! Get us the hell out of dodge! Beam me up, Scotty!”) manages to escape before the crew are all subjected to horrible fiery deaths. In the process, Santos gets his fucking face caved in, and really quite painfully at that:
For this, he gets a nice bit of motivation by our illustrious leader, who walks into the brightly-lit sickbay (and yes, they mention his sight problems again this episode, and once again ignore them) and immediately starts haranguing the engineer for his inability to do something which was considered theoretically impossible mere months ago. Even the Glenn, which Lorca describes as Discovery‘s “more advanced” sister ship, was incapable of safely doing what they just attempted, and yet Lorca is happy to rip shreds out of the one man left alive in the galaxy who understands the theory for not being able to achieve, and I’ll repeat myself here, the impossible.
So, when Stannis tells Lorca that he didn’t sign on for military service and that he’s a scientist, not a soldier, Lorca tells him to fuck off. He actually just tells him to leave the ship. He doesn’t appeal to his conscience, he doesn’t bring up the desperation of the war, the millions of lives that might be lost. He just tells him to leave, and then makes a half-hearted attempt to appeal to the engineer’s ego by comparing him to past pioneers (and Elon Musk, in a desperate bid to appear current).
Lorca then – and I can’t believe this actually happens – but he then, in one piece of dialogue, goes from stroking Stavros’ ego to then belittling him for having one. Like, this is the actual quote, word-for-word, from the subtitles:
“How do you wanna be remembered in history? Alongside the Wright Brothers, Elon Musk, Zefram Cochrane? Or as a failed fungus expert? A selfish little man, who put the survival of his own ego before the lives of others?”
Just, I don’t… Fuck! I mean, I could do a whole fucking article about nothing more than this one paragraph of dialogue, there’s so much wrong with it. Nevermind the inherent contradiction, just remember that Stavros’ chief objection to performing the long-range jump is to AVOID THE TORTUROUS DEATHS OF HIS SHIPMATES. He’s not objecting because there’s a risk he’ll look foolish, he’s objecting because there’s a risk he and the rest of the crew will be turned inside out, cooked alive or who the fuck knows what!
THIS, this fucking line right here, establishes everything wrong with Lorca. He doesn’t lead through encouragement or inspiration, he belittles and undermines. He doesn’t seek the best in people, he just makes them feel shitty until they feel too demoralised to object. And that’s what happens – Stavros doesn’t see the benefit of what they’re doing, he just walks out of sickbay because he hasn’t got a choice and he can’t be bothered arguing. This is the height of shitty characterisation, and highlights all the ways ‘Discovery’ is going wrong.
Okay, let’s move on, before I burst a blood vessel.
As Stavros storms out, Lorca decides to play the recording of the dying miners across the ship, without any announcement or anything. But it’s not as though the crew are unwilling to go save the colonists. It’s not like they all want to play it safe. In fact, most of them have nothing to do with the fungus engine whatsoever, but Lorca decides that playing them recordings of screaming, dying humans being bombed by Klingons is exactly the sort of thing to keep morale up and keep them focused on the task of not being mutilated by some kind of experimental engine malfunction.
Some bullshit sciency stuff happens with Burnham, Stavros and Tilly, they figure out how to make the improbability drive work using the Large-igrade (I’m going to keep calling it that until it catches on) and now, Lorca has a plan. I say “plan”, but that really dirties the word.
Lorca’s Big Idea is to jump into orbit of the besieged mining colony, squander any element of surprise, let his ship get beaten to within an inch of its life, and then jump out again after dropping some explosive barrels. That’s it. For some reason, he even refuses to fire on the attackers after annihilating three of them instantly, in case he accidentally gains anything approaching a tactical advantage, and instead puts all of his faith in an unreliable technology under the control of a wild animal which has already willingly murdered two of his crew.
Burnham has somehow convinced him that the Large-igrade isn’t just a big sack of pure hate, so maybe it won’t try to kill them all, but what if it’s just unreliable? What if, due to its lack of linguistic capability, it jumps them to the wrong place, or at the wrong time? What if it just dies, or the device stops working, or any one of a million things that can go wrong? Why take that risk three FUCKING times when he could instead jump in once, and put his faith in guns? The same guns which instantly destroy three Klingon Birds of Prey when the Discovery first jumps in?
Further, what would happen if he didn’t destroy all of the Klingon ships? He lets Discovery‘s shields drop to near-zero before he jumps out. So what happens if he jumps back in and there’s two Klingon ships left alive that just immediately start blasting his dick off? Could he really not come up with a better plan than this?
Y’know, if this was Saru, a science officer roped into a war he didn’t want, now trying his best to win battles without dying, I’d understand his agitation and his anxiety and his stupid tactics, but Lorca is CONSTANTLY GOING ON about the fact he’s a warrior. He studies war, he even reveals that his EVIL LABORATORY is actually a WAR LABORATORY where he studies WAR any time he’s not stood behind an empty table in his ready room eating fortune cookies.
I’m going to try to bring my criticism of Lorca to a close at this point, because there are eleven more episodes of this fucking show, and I feel like I’m already repeating myself frequently enough. But honest to goodness, he must be the worst series regular to enter a Trek show since… since fucking Neelix. There is nothing inspirational, aspirational, or even anything interesting about Lorca. He’s an arrogant, stupid bully and I am dreading having to spend the remainder of the series with him. If he was merely repugnant, I could at least love hating him, like Joffrey Baratheon. But Lorca’s worse – he’s also boring, and that I just can’t forgive.
Women of Colour Pay For Their Representation With Horrible, Violent Deaths
Okay, this is going to be controversial with some of you, but fuck it, let’s get stuck in.
I am really, really, really, really concerned about ‘Discovery’s treatment of non-white women. Of the four to whom we’ve been introduced, who have been named and had more than expository dialogue, two have been violently murdered, one of whom was literally eaten after her death, and the other two are convicted criminals.
In order, we meet Captain Georgiou, played by the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, who really ought to have been the main character. She gets murdered in her second episode, to serve as character development for the show’s lead, Burnham. Georgious is stabbed, graphically, through the chest, and her bloody corpse is abandoned on the Klingon ship. We find out in this episode that the starving Klingons then ate her corpse. This, too, serves purely as character development for the Klingon leader, whose aide describes in detail him eating the flesh from her “smooth skull”, and how he smiled as he feasted.
Then we have the show’s lead, Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a black American woman. She does some typical leading-character stuff, most of it stupid. She then gets imprisoned for mutiny. Now, she’s the lead character and “hero” of the show, so this isn’t too bad. But she is also granted redemption by a middle-aged white guy, which… yeah.
Then we meet ‘Psycho’, played by Grace Lynn Kung, an Asian Canadian woman. Psycho is apparently a violent offender, and the only thing we really know for sure about her is that she’s a prisoner and convicted criminal. She gets a few lines before she gets put back on the space-bus and launched out of the story again.
Then we meet Commander Landry, played by Rekha Sharma, another Canadian woman, of North Indian descent. She’s aggressive, bigoted, impatient and violent, and that’s all fine, but she is also a complete fucking idiot and gets herself mauled by a violent water bear in her second episode. The last we see of her is as a mauled, lacerated corpse on a biobed, before her death is used as character development for… well, for the fucking water bear, as it happens. I mean, it could’ve been any random crewmember, but whatever.
So, look, it’s great that we’ve got a black woman as the lead character. It’s also great that we have two high-ranking officers played by women of colour (WoC) in a mainstream show. And it’s still a bit worrying that they have such a high propensity for getting fucked over and violently dispatched. Of the deaths of named characters, we have the following:
Danby Connor, who loses his shit in the brig before being blown into space.
Admiral Brett Anderson, who gets his ship rammed to death during the same battle.
T’Kuvma, the Klingon spiritual leader who gets shot by Burnham.
Captain Philippa Georgiou, Burnham’s mentor, who gets stabbed and eaten.
Kowski, the security guy who gets no lines but does get eaten by the Large-igrade.
Commander Landry, the security chief who gets mauled by the Large-igrade.
Okay, so there’s six deaths there, three of them white guys. And in fairness, whilst the WoC on that list make up half of the named WoC on the show, the white guys on that list also make up half of the (so far) named white guys on the show. So, cold hard numbers, it seems objectively balanced.
But… I still get an icky feeling. And I know, unequivocally, that there’s no conscious desire by the creators to do horrible things to the non-white women on their show. But put in the context of the historical representation that women of colour have had in films and television, and… it’s just a bit icky.
Look, I’m out of my depth here, I’ll admit, and there are many people vastly more capable of exploring this topic than me, so I’ll leave it here. All I can really add is that I’ll be keeping an eye on how this progresses. The helm officer of the Discovery is also a black woman, but so far she’s unnamed and has had only expository dialogue. If she gets a little more to do, then this might just be me having representational jitters. If she gets infested with space maggots or something equally grim, then the situation starts to look a little less… progressive.
Context Is For Kings, But Not For ‘Discovery’
This is somewhat related to my rant about Lorca, above, but there’s a real issue with the presentation of the massive war at the heart of the show’s narrative: the fact that it isn’t presented. At all.
We are constantly reminded of the fact that the war exists. We know it’s there. And that is all we get. And this is unforgivable when it’s the motivation of the second-most important character on the show. Lorca is a warrior, he wages war, as he reminds us, every other line of dialogue. And desire to win the war is seemingly the factor behind all of his decisions.
So why do we know so little about it? When Lorca is briefed about the mining colony, he speaks with the admiral for a good couple of minutes. He even mentions that if they lose their main fuel production facility, they’ll lose the war. Well, no shit, that’s not particularly surprising. But that’s all the exposition we get. And I’ve already covered this in my previous review, but we don’t find out if Starfleet is being pushed back, or if they’re advancing into Klingon space, or even if it’s all just one big meat grinder being fought to a standstill in the middle.
And the key thing here is that I don’t care about the war. I’m not particularly interested in what’s happening all along the front lines – what does interest me is the effect it has on our characters. But with no context, it has no discernible effect.
Take Stavros. Stamos. Stanos? The engineer who looks like a budget Alan Tudyk. He doesn’t want to be a soldier. He and his research have been roped into this war effort against his wishes. That’s fine, that’s an acceptable bit of motivation for a character. But knowing more about the bigger picture would inform his character even more. Is he against it because it’s a pointless war with no endgame? Is he a pacifist, against violence despite the fact that his species faces annihilation? Does he feel bad about helping Starfleet out when it’s already got a decisive advantage over the Klingons?
What about Tilly, the fresh-faced cadet? How’s this affecting her? Is she worried about being killed before she ever graduates? Is she anxious about her career as a theoretical engineer being replaced with combat training and endless repair and maintenance of weapons systems?
Is Saru worried about the war reaching his home planet, filled with a fear-driven population? As a career scientist, is he concerned, as Stavros is, about the increased and permanent militarisation of Starfleet, which used to be an exploratory organisation?
None of these have to be in-depth discussions that take valuable time away from the literal cannibalisation of female role models. But just a few throwaway comments would really help build the world and set the tone. Even just setting the stakes for the ship and crew itself – if the Discovery is destroyed, is that a definitive loss for Starfleet? Is the fungus drive a last-ditch attempt that represents their best chance at victory? Or is this a side-project that could prove useful long-term, but for now is entirely incidental to the war effort?
It’s incredibly frustrating to have a show that ostensibly entirely character-driven, and yet does nothing to shape the world that the characters inhabit. ‘Battlestar’ (the modern version) set the premise up immediately. It was entirely character-based, but we knew from the off what the scenario was – that we were following the last fifty thousand humans in the universe, and that every loss of life was a permanent detriment to the species’ chances at survival.
We’re two episodes into the “war arc”, six months after the war first started, and yet we still know nothing about it. What are the demands on either side? The Klingons got duped into this war – what do they want out of it? Kol explains that as soon as the war is over, the Klingon houses will divide again – if so, what goal has united them? Do they just want to wipe out the Federation? Do they want to vassalise it? Have I simply been playing too much ‘Stellaris’? We still don’t know.
In the last episode, this absence of information could have been down to Burnham’s limited perspective, the fact that she, as a prisoner, would be naturally excluded from most conversations. But in this episode, we see things from multiple perspectives – Lorca being briefed by an Admiral, repeated interactions between Lorca and Stavros, and plenty of scenes with the Klingons. Still no insight into the galaxy-spanning conflict that’s allegedly at the heart of the story.
And again, this isn’t about telling the story of the war – it’s about framing our characters. It’s about giving them the context they need to come alive, rather than exist in a vacuum and just do stuff because the plot demands it. And yet the show’s creators insist on remaining evasive on the whole topic of the war. It’s all very peculiar.
The Klingons Take Two Steps Back
In the pilot episodes, we got exposed to some surface-level detail of the revised Klingon culture. We heard more about their religious beliefs, the division within their society (or at least the fact that it was, apparently divided) and they got some nice new costumes and foreheads.
And it seems that’s as much as we’ll be getting. In the fourth episode, we get to see Klingons at their most desperate, starving to death aboard their crippled flagship. Their leader, the albino one, refuses to take the equipment they need from the Shenzhou, as it’s the ship that defeated them and led to his spiritual leader’s death.
Anyway, another Klingon leader shows up, which convinces the Albino to go and actually get the spare spark plugs they need from the Shenzhou. When he gets back, all of his crew have turned coat on him, joining with the other leader who had the foresight to bring them food.
That’s right, Klingons have the same view on loyalty as cats.
Which is fine, hunger is a perfectly acceptable motivation for switching sides. And, although it undermines to some extent the religious angle set up previously, it also does a lot to “humanise” the Klingons – we understand that they have a breaking point.
What I don’t understand is why the Albino is so unwilling to continue with T’Kuvma’s “spiritual path” or whatever. Given the trouble to which he went to start the war, I can only assume that taking part in that war, or at the very least not starving to death whilst it raged, was also a significant part of T’Kuvma’s intentions. Specifically, I’m confident that T’Kuvma would not have wished his ancestral ship, enshrined with those who had died for the cause, to rot away in empty space.
The Albino states that he won’t salvage the Shenzhou out of respect for T’Kuvma, which I can sort-of accept, but it just seems so at odds with everything you might expect them to actually believe in. As the Albino’s second-in-command points out, he was happy to eat the captain of the Shenzhou, just to survive. Surely taking part in the holy war that T’Kuvma started would be more respectful to his memory than allowing his war to fail for the sake of a spare alternator cap, or whatever it was that they needed.
And, indeed, the Albino says himself that he “swore to keep [T’Kuvma’s] fire lit… to resist assimilation.” I can sort-of see how using Federation technology to fix an heirloom vessel could be distasteful, but it’s not as though it’s a permanent modification – they can salvage the Shenzhou, make a single warp jump and then replace all the dirty Starfleet bits later. Religious and cultural zealotry is one thing, but this is like allowing a church to collapse because you won’t temporarily prop up a wall with a wooden beam taken from a mosque.
Like, obviously I’m not a Klingon, I don’t understand the intricacies of their society and the interactions between their traditions. The problem is I’m worried that the writers don’t, either, and they should because they’re the ones creating the Klingon culture.
The ambiguity is acceptable in a complex culture like this, but it warrants further exploration, which we don’t seem to get. That being said, there’s a promise of the Albino visiting “The Matriarchs” (groan) as he strives to regain his position as spiritual leader, which could be interesting, and I’m really hoping it’s not some weird, vaguely sexist abstraction that contains very little substance. If there’s some fucking prophesy, I’m picking up my shit and I’m leaving for good.
One final thing on these Klingon segments – they aren’t half boring. It took me ages to put my finger on it, but it wasn’t until a friend pointed out the issues. Here is a perfectly average screencap of a normal Klingon scene:
What you have here is a really nice, really expensive set, with some really cool, really expensive prostheses and makeup, with dialogue subtitled from carefully developed alien language – all of which is great. You also have a load of actors who, due to the expensive and extensive prostheses, and the gruff language which has to be subtitled, are incapable of fully practicing their craft.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re all doing the best they can. But that isn’t very much, due to the physical limitations. To make matters worse, the Klingon arc is arguably the more theatrical of the two narratives, dealing as it does with ancient houses, divided empires and spiritual awakenings. And yet despite all of these themes, every Klingon scene ends up being a series of words on the screen whilst people in monster masks make guttural sounds at the camera.
In the first review I wrote of this series, I compared this new show to ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’, as many of the themes are similar. And I’m going to do so again, because in ‘The Undiscovered Country’, during the iconic trial scene, we again get to see Klingons in their native environment, speaking in the Klingon language. Except, although the scene starts off in Klingon, it takes a moment to show us that it’s being translated for the benefit of the defendants, at which point it switches to English so that Christopher Plummer can get back to Acting, darling.
I suppose the difference is that the creators of ‘The Undiscovered Country’ gave the audience the benefit of the doubt. They assumed, correctly, that most people would be able to surmise that the Klingons were still speaking Klingon, and even if they didn’t, it hardly matters in the context of the show.
The creators of ‘Discovery’, on the other hand, are presumably wracked with anxiety over their audience forgetting that the people with big bulgy knobbly heads and weird-coloured skin and quadruple nostrils are aliens, should they for a moment communicate in anything but their correct, completely fictional language. Meanwhile, the actual audience is just left bored and feeling a bit sorry for all of the young actors whose careers will in no way be advanced by their participation in this calamity.
Other Fucking Annoying Stuff
“Who saved us?” asks the little girl, in the most terribly delivered line so far, contributing to nothing except my continued ill health.
Why would you create a type of parcel that beeps annoyingly until it’s opened? What if you just didn’t have time, but had to carry it with you? What if you wanted to wait for someone else, because you wanted to open it with them? Why create a passive aggressive piece of luggage? What the fuck is the point except to act as a prompt for a fictional character?
And the fucking telescope. It’s confirmed as the same one that was on the Shenzhou. So, did someone bring it with them when they all jumped on escape pods? They chose to get the telescope in case a mutineer decided they needed it for character development, but left the unencrypted crew manifests and the vital and likely confidential power generation technology? What else did they leave behind? What other weird and pointless stuff did they take with them? Or did someone see Georgiou’s will, realise they needed the telescope, and so went back to the derelict Shenzhou whilst still in the vicinity of Klingon ships, and again, left sensitive information behind? Like, in the same fucking room? Who the fuck wrote this garbage?
Commander Landry was a shithead for the duration of her presence on the show, but she also gets killed off pretty quickly, which would be good were it not for the representational issues already mentioned, which leaves me confused about my feelings, which leaves me even more angry.
Right, I’m actually done. I’ve written over five-and-a-half thousand words on a forty-minute slice of boiled shit that doesn’t warrant two minutes of attention. Also I’m tired. Tired of Trek being shit. Tired of the contempt that fills every frame of this show. Tired of the self-loathing seeping out of every facet of its existence.
As the legendary Mr Spock is fond of saying, I like to think that there always are… possibilities. ‘Discovery’ is offering us many possibilities, but I want to look at just two for now:
The first is that Burnham’s journey will bring her into conflict with her new captain, who is revealed to be a war criminal conducting illegal, or at least immoral research. She will confront him, he will give some speech about “making hard decisions” because “we’re at war” and “if somebody doesn’t do the bad stuff, there won’t be anyone left to do the good stuff.” Burnham will refute this, and attempt to incite another mutiny, this time succeeding, and redeeming herself following her actions at the Binary Star System.
The second option is that Captain Lorca’s apparent immorality is a double-bluff – that he really is an ethical and conscientious commander in the best traditions of Starfleet officers, and that the air of malevolence about him is due to Burnham’s negative view of the world following her failures. Burnham’s journey will bring her into conflict with her own preconceptions, and she will finally come to the realisation that she needs to trust others around her – not just their character, but their judgement.
If we pretend, for the moment, that ‘Discovery’ is a live show, entirely improvised, that it has not already been filmed and that either of these options remain viable at this point in time, then we currently sit at a potential split in reality. Down one path lies Burnham’s redemption, and down another, her enlightenment. Either is equally possible, if not equally probable, and as such we can consider that there are two (or more) futures which are yet to manifest.
With that metaphysical wankery established in the most pretentious way possible, let’s explore those futures.
Burnham’s redemption is the journey that best fits what we have explicitly seen so far, based on the behaviour of the show’s new authority figure, Gabriel Lorca, captain of the Discovery. Straight off the bat, he’s presented with shady vibes; literally, his very first appearance he’s cast as a silhouette in a darkened room. He explains that this is due to some war injury to his eyes, making him sensitive to sudden changes in light. Which is a trait which is immediately forgotten within this very episode, when we later see him beaming from one room to a more brightly lit one without discomfort, and pressing his face up to a forcefield which glows sky blue on contact with his hand.
I mean, Trek is defined by its lack of technological discontinuities between episodes, but to screw up character traits within thirty minutes of their introduction is a new low. Unless Lorca was lying to Burnham, in which case he intentionally made such a sinister introduction just to fuck with her, I guess.
Dramatic lighting aside, Lorca also seems to fall well into the ‘Trashy Evil’ D&D character alignment, given his role as, apparently, leader of all Forbidden Science in Starfleet. His character traits include:
Dismissive of socialism.
Likes fortune cookies.
Literally owns a literal secret creepy laboratory literally full of literal skulls and literal alien skeletons and a literal enclosure for a literal alien monster.
By his side is his security chief, That-One-From-Battlestar, or “Landry” as she likes to be known. Landry (played by Rekha Sharma) has a similarly diverse array of qualities, such as:
Together, they conduct sinister experiments with some kind of space fungus which may be the origin of all life in the universe and which is definitely a rip-off of the protomolecule from ‘The Expanse’. If you’ve read my previous article, you may have picked up on that point. And in fact, this episode marks itself as being entirely derivative of multiple different films and series – none of them Star Trek.
Now, this is a tricky subject. On the one hand, I don’t want to get a series that is constantly winking and nodding towards previous installments in the franchise just to please nostalgia junkies. On the other hand, just taking elements from other franchises isn’t any more preferable, especially when those franchises did it better originally.
So when Burnham, Landry and her new room-mate, Cadet “Happy-Go-Ginger” Tilly, go on an away mission to the Discovery‘s mysteriously crippled sister ship, the Glenn, I wasn’t too fussed about us suddenly getting a xenomorph chase through jeffries tubes. It’s not the first time Trek has “drawn inspiration” (putting it charitably) from other sources, but this is the third episode of a new series, and is really a second pilot, given that it’s introducing a new ship and crew. I would hope that this would be too soon for a brand new series to have run out of original ideas.
Getting back to the point at hand, if Lorca, Landry and their research efforts are as sinister as they seem – if we are to take them at face value – then the narrative will inevitably go down the path of Burnham discovering Lorca’s crimes, inciting mutiny, the crew picking sides, a lot of tension, shouting, speech-giving and appeals to varying shades of morality, followed by some climactic confrontation and resolution. Basically, most episodes of ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
I can probably even write the speech that Lorca will give. Hmm, let’s see…
“I thought you understood, Burnham, I thought you were capable of seeing the bigger picture. Don’t you get it? If we lose this war, if the Klingons beat us, we lose everything, every code, every law, every bit of good that Starfleet has ever done will get wiped clean. If someone doesn’t make the hard choices, if people like you and me weren’t willing to do what no one else wanted to get their hands dirty doing, then we’d have already lost, and all those things you think the Federation stands for would be ashes.
“Do I you think I like this? Do you think I enjoy getting my hands dirty? Do you think anyone wants to betray their ethics like this? It’s not about doing what’s right, Burnham, it’s about doing what’s necessary, for those people out there, for Starfleet, for the Federation. We all wish we could win this war the clean way, the nice way, the honourable way, but sooner or later somebody has to open their eyes and see the reality of the situation. I thought you were smart, I thought you could do that – see the context, and do what needs to be done.”
“You’re a monster, Lorca,” Burnham says, “I learned the hard way what happens when you break your oaths, and I lost everything. But I’m not going to let it happen again.”
“Then you must have worse eyes than I do. Landry, take her to the brig.”
Landry draws her phaser on Burnham, prompting Saru to draw his own weapon nervously, his frills extending in anxiety. Across the bridge crew members stand, weapons in hands, eyes darting across the room. In the background Bear McCreary conducts an array of non-diegetic djembe in an escalating rhythm, whilst a Jedi uses her lightsaber-armed mechsuit to fend off a glowing blue xenomorph. Admiral Dutch (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) swaggers onto the bridge and commands everyone to “Git to da shuttles!” whilst a black-suited Will Smith cracks wise whilst neuralysing a Klingon spy and a brown-coated Nathan Fillion punches Klaatu in the face. Off-camera, I vomit myself to death, and my parents later find my body and conclude that, of all the possibilities, this was the most probable and the most fitting way I could have gone.
My primary concern with Burnham’s redemption arc is that it means that Lorca, Landry, any of their supporters and whoever in Starfleet signed off on their mission are all villains. And if there are groups of immoral people in Starfleet, that means the future isn’t really much brighter than the present. The whole point of Star Trek was to portray a vision of humanity united by its principles.
Now I may be a hypocrite – okay, I’m absolutely a hypocrite – but Deep Space Nine also toyed with this idea with its introduction of “Section 31”, a shadow agency within Starfleet, bent on subterfuge and incredibly unethical activities in the name of defending the Federation. And that never bothered me as much. Maybe it was because it was well handled, maybe it was because it wasn’t the focus of the entire show, just three episodes.
Or maybe it was because Section 31’s presence in DS9 seems more fitting with the Federation engaged in a deadly war with The Dominion. As the series wound on, the war became more and more desperate, with entire episodes devoted to just how badly Starfleet was getting its arse roundly kicked by the Jem’Hadar over the course of four years.
Of course, Starfleet is also at war in ‘Discovery’, but the difference here is that we are provided no insight into the state of the conflict. There isn’t a single line in the third episode to indicate how the war might be progressing, six months after it began. A cadet talks about her career aspirations without any apparent anxiety over her survival. Burnham is accused of starting the conflict, but only blamed for the lives lost in the opening battle. The war itself is only mentioned a handful of times, and never with any context to inform the danger it poses.
And that’s a problem, because if the war is going terribly, why aren’t we feeling that tension? And if the war is going well, why is it necessary to start conducting shady research? Lorca mentions – literally mentions, off-hand – that hunger, need and want are returning to the Federation, and yet we see first hand that they possess technology that can synthesise food and clothing – and it’s implied that the same synthesising technology exists in prisons.
We see okudagrams with meaningless territory maps, so the war is definitely occurring. And we get told that over eight thousand people died during the battle at the Binary Stars – but, as in the first two episodes, we have no concept of how significant a loss that is in the greater Starfleet. Is that half the fleet? Or a hundredth?
Now bear in mind, the fucking title of the episode is ‘Context is for Kings’, and the one thing the episode offers us none of is, very specifically, Context. Without it, it’s impossible to get a bead on the severity of the war, and hence the justification of Lorca’s actions.
And that might be the point: this could all be to highlight Burnham’s disconnection from the outside world, her own ignorance of what’s going on due to her imprisonment. But even still, we don’t get any hint of how things are going from her interactions with the crew. She even bumps into Saru, who is now the first officer of the Discovery, and even though the ship is stationed “far from the front lines”, his entire character is based around him being afraid of everything, even just the sound of a shuttle taking off. And yet he casually strolls the corridors, eating synthetic blueberries and chatting shit.
In any case, if Lorca is just another morally dubious villain who believes too much in the ends justifying the means, that’s actually a fairly dull story. It’s been done. Repeatedly. On just about every single sci-fi show since the 1930’s. There’s very little tread left on that tyre, and if that’s all we get out of the whole narrative, I’ll be disappointed.
If revisiting old ideas is a necessity to make up for a creative scarcity, then why not reach a little further? What about focusing on the Klingon war, but ‘Darmoking’ it, making it an issue of communication? Where there are certain concepts that just don’t translate via language, and Burnham has to use her skills as a xeno-anthropologist to find commonality between these two cultures?
Or maybe run with the theme and rip off ‘Redemption’? Have the mission be to infiltrate the Klingon homeworld to find Klingon dissenters who are against the war, and try to work with them to forge a peace effort? Or follow ‘In The Pale Moonlight’s example, send the Discovery on a diplomatic mission to find other races who might ally with the Federation – again, we get to use Burnham’s background (which has already been forgotten, it seems) and we get to explore new worlds and new civilisations. Each new race would present a different challenge, have different demands, different principles.
There’s lots of possibilities, and it galls me that the show seems to have committed to the worn-out “do the ends justify the means?” schtick, especially given that we already know that in the world of Star Trek, they never should.
Of course, the redemption path is just one possibility. The path of enlightenment remains open, and this is arguably the more interest direction the show could take.
As I discussed at some length above, this episode is entirely and ironically devoid of context, which acts against it if the presumed redemption are is to be followed. But that same lack of context means that I may be jumping to conclusions regarding Lorca. As pointed out to me by others, we haven’t strictly seen Lorca do anything clearly villainous yet – he simply acts in a really shady manner. And whilst Security Chief Landry is clearly a sack of arse, even she is yet to get her hands dirty.
But morbid interior decoration aside (who knows, maybe his background-Trek-hobby is Phrenology?), Lorca’s yet to cross any lines in the sand as far as ethics go. Which means all of the sinister presentation may be a function of Burnham’s distrust of him, and her own self-doubt over what the right thing even is anymore.
And this is the more interesting path to follow, I believe. Having Burnham coming to terms with her actions, and hence being able to put into context Lorca’s, could be a fascinating character arc. Her constantly perceiving villainy and having to reshape her preconceptions, challenging herself to see the actual truth of the matter, could be really rewarding.
Indeed, Burnham learning to put faith in other people again would be a redemption in its own right – and in so doing, learning to put faith in herself. This would be the ‘Trekkiest’ journey for her to take (which sadly also kills off any probability of it manifesting given recent Trek trends).
For instance, we see Lorca imprison the xenomorph at the end of the episode, which means Burnham will probably find out soon, as well. And at first, she will probably jump to the conclusion that Lorca’s doing it to figure out if it can be used as some kind of weapon – this was my conclusion, too.
But as was pointed out to me, he may have saved it so as not to condemn it to death aboard the Glenn. Maybe he recognised it was dangerous, but chose to bring it aboard to study it because it’s a new form of life they’ve never encountered before. Maybe he’s still cleaving to the Starfleet way, looking for new opportunities for discovery and exploration – hence the show’s title.
And Burnham would require some convincing. She would probably go to Saru, try to bring him on side, try to alert him to Lorca’s sinister activities – only to find that she once again jumped to the wrong conclusion, that she assumed the worst in people and assumed the worst-case scenario.
The problem with this potential story arc is that it lacks the hyper-dramatic, emotionally turbo-charged conflict that seems to be mandatory for Trek productions these days. By its nature, it’s a much more sedate, meditative journey, and whilst there’s room in there for a bit of shouting and speech-giving, this still makes it the least likely option, even if it is the most interesting one.
The other issue with it is that Lorca has already validated Burnham’s ludicrous actions in the first episode. He actually told her she was right when she tried to attack the Klingons first, and this is really problematic. Because if he’s lying, then it undermines the potential benevolence of his character and defines him as manipulative; and if he’s not lying, then it again comes around to the show supporting Burnham’s mutiny and her attempt at cold-blooded murder, and the idea that her inherent prejudices were correct.
(And whilst he wasn’t present himself, given he’s got Saru as his first officer and other members of the Shenzhou‘s crew aboard the Discovery, he’s not likely to be mistaken.)
So, if Lorca is the virtuous Starfleet captain then he’s also someone who, like Burnham, adheres to bigoted views. Or he’s one who lies to get what he wants and doesn’t hold people accountable. Either interpretation is problematic if he is ultimately presented as being a “good” person. If he’s not, then it looks like we’re back on the relatively dull “stop the war criminal” redemption path outlined previously.
This also doesn’t address Landry’s fairly awful behaviour throughout this episode. Lorca aside, Landry is definitely a nasty piece of work based on her bigotry towards Vulcans and prisoners alone. It was Dostoyevsky who said:
“The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
Which is basically another way of saying “nobody cares how fancy your clothes are or how high your skyscrapers soar, if you can’t even be bothered to treat the worst of your criminals with basic decency.”
So, I dunno. Burnham’s enlightenment is the path I’d like to see, but it’s already had a few holes poked in it, and it really doesn’t seem a probable candidate. Time will tell.
I feel like I’ve made enough predictions for now, so here are a few things that seem open-ended enough that I’ll enjoy just seeing them play out.
Saru seems mostly clued in about the “Black Alert” experiments (the fungal space-jumping), but it appears that Landry is Lorca’s de-facto second-in-command. Certainly, Saru’s involvement in the shady stuff has not yet been explored, and I’m happy to see where he fits into all this. Is he an ignorant patsy, happy to be stationed far away from the front lines? Or is he fully on-board with all of the dark science that’s going on right under his nose?
Saru also mentions that the Discovery can perform three hundred experiments at once. It would actually be fascinating to see what these might be, and I’m certainly hoping they aren’t just a precursor to the research of McCoy’s ‘Into Darkness’ brand of medical testing. “Hey, doctor, why does lab 206 require thirty gallons of ‘mixed variety’ blood?” “Oh, yeah, don’t worry about it, I’m just trying to breed space vampires, I think it’d be neat.”
Cadet Tilly is charmingly dense and has already been given the start of a strong character arc, and by definition as a cadet she has the most potential to grow and adapt her personality. That being said, if I was in Burnham’s position, I would probably have already smothered her to death in her sleep. I mean, I’m already serving a life sentence, why put up with some snoring, dribbling arsehole for a whole night?
In a handy list:
I am super, super uncool with Landry referring to the prisoners as “garbage” and “animals”. Even nowadays, there’s a growing awareness that rehabilitation rather than punishment is the best way to handle prisoners, and dehumanising them just feels gross for a setting that’s apparently so advanced the socio-economic causes behind most crimes have been eliminated over a century ago.
Speaking of, why did the bald prisoner speak as though he was from a lower socio-economic status? How is socio-economic status a thing in a post-scarcity society? I’m conscious of the fact he was a murderer, but that doesn’t explain why he’d speak like he grew up on the rough streets of a 20th-century American city.
And staying on this, why did the three prisoners just suddenly decide to shank Burnham? That literally came out of nowhere, went nowhere, and seemed to exist only to show off her “Vulcan martial arts” – and subsequently Landry’s racism towards Vulcans. How enlightened.
And how did none of the Discovery‘s crew step in? Okay, they all hate Burnham, and okay, Landry held one of them back from intervening, but the rest? I mean, even nowadays, in a reality as shitty as ours, the military understands its duty of care to its prisoners. The only other time in Trek that we see prisoners being allowed to brawl is on Rura Penthe, the Klingon moon which the Klingons themselves describe as a “gulag”. Christ, I mean, I know there’s a war on, but how about some fucking standards, at least?
And, just sticking with this, but in a post-scarcity society, which we know the Federation was at the time these people were incarcerated, how do you get criminals at all? There’s literally no necessity-born reason to turn to crime when everything is provided for free. Which means if these people were committing crimes, it was presumably due to some kind of mental or emotional stability. In which case, why weren’t they kept in pyschiatric care, being treated for whatever mental disorders caused them to go on murder sprees? Even if it’s only to study them to spot the signs in other potential offenders before they can harm anyone? Do the show’s creators really just see post-scarcity humanity as 21st-century United States but with spaceships instead of obesity?
I don’t understand why the prison shuttle pilot’s tether broke and she floated off into space like, exactly 0.7 seconds before the autopilot randomly malfunctioned. That seems like peculiar bad luck.
I’m find with characters having quirky character traits, but Burnham’s reciting of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ whilst fleeing the xenomorph was distracting. It’s one of those traits that only TV characters have, like calling siblings “brother” or “sis”, or of being intentionally cryptic when a simple explanation would literally solve the entire conflict of the episode. Like, I’ve never met a human raised by Vulcans after her parents were murdered by Klingons, so I dunno, maybe it’s more realistic than I realise, but it definitely shattered my immersion and was an instant reminder that I was watching a TV show.
Okay, so, this show seems to be ripping off ‘The Expanse’, we all get it, but they even called the fucking fungus “prototaxites stellaviatori”. Jesus, don’t shows have teams dedicated to checking this shit these days? Why not just call it “protomoleculus rippofficus” and call it a day?
They spent, like, a full minute running away from a xenomorph in darkened, strobe-lit corridors, with the outcome being a pseudo-redshirt getting eaten and them ending up in a room. It’s a good thing that was such a necessary part of the plot, as otherwise we might have wasted valuable seconds on pointless world-building and character development elsewhere in the episode.
In another handy list:
The head scientist of the creepy fungus project wound me up to my tits with all of his fucking poetic pseudo-scientific horseshit, BUT I liked the fact that he cleaved to the traditional pacifistic aspects of the Federation, disgruntled over the use of his research in a military context.
In general, the increased diversity of species aboard the Discovery was a good step forwards. In the words of Azetbur, the Federation has always been portrayed as a “homo-sapiens-only club”, and seeing multiple alien races was great.
During Burnham’s little fungal projection, we see multiple scenes, one of which looked like the original artwork for the subterranean refinery from the Original Series episode ‘The Devil In The Dark’ (which is the one with the Horta). This is a neat little easter egg, even if it does fuel my fears of the show relying more and more on call-backs to previous works.
The Klingon “shushing” Tilly and the resulting dialogue was a nice moment, I will admit.
We live in surprising times. I don’t think anybody anticipated the run-away success of ‘The Expanse’, the TV adaptation of James Corey’s series of novels. Following the conclusion of its second season, many fans feared a long wait until the next installment, or worse – cancellation.
But in a peculiar move, SyFy seem to have released The Expanse’s third season a year early, and without any particular fanfare or promotion. And that’s not the only risk taken – many of the series regulars fail to make an appearance, and one prominent character has been entirely re-cast.
‘Context For Kings’, the first episode of the third season, opens cold inside a prison transport. We are immediately greeted with three familiar faces: Kenzo, the spy who was discovered aboard the Rocinante; Janus, the commanding officer of the UN science vessel in season 2; and Doris, the botanist who helps Prax following the attack on Ganymede.
What’s interesting is that these three characters all seemingly perished in the previous two seasons. Kenzo was abandoned by Holden to the protomolecule, and Janus also died to the creepy blue stuff when his ship was dismantled. And we last saw Doris floating out of the airlock of a Belter rescue ship.
How these three characters survived, and how they came to end up all together on a prison shuttle, isn’t explained during this episode, but will presumably be revealed later in the series. What we do know is that they travel with a former UN Fleet officer called Burnham, who has been imprisoned for mutiny.
Their shuttle is disabled by what appears to be the protomolecule, draining power from its engines. However, the prisoners are rescued by an advanced UN vessel, called Discovery. The prisoners are greeted with suspicion and insults as they are brought aboard the secretive vessel. Paranoia and secrecy seem rife on the Discovery, and it doesn’t take long before enough hints are dropped that the ship is a military research vessel, engaged in experimentation with the protomolecule itself.
It seems the UN has gone ahead with its plan to purchase the protomolecule from Mao and his company, and placed the research project under the command of Lorca, a UN officer who ticks all the boxes of a classic ‘Expanse’ character – mysterious, untrustworthy and manipulative, Lorca is par for the course of utilitarian and calculating leaders we’ve come to expect in the dark and gritty view of the future that ‘The Expanse’ presents.
Lorca’s background, however, brings up one of the main weaknesses of this episode. It seems that the UN finds itself at war, and Lorca is happy to do anything he can to seize an advantage, willing to use the protomolecule and the mutant monsters it creates, if he can turn them into effective weapons.
But one thing that’s really missing is his motivation – he tells us that he’s fighting a war, but barring a single enemy combatant, we have no idea of how this war is progressing. Is the UN winning, or losing? How come we don’t see anything from the perspective of Mars? Or the OPA and the Belters? Lorca’s role as an unscrupulous warmonger is fine, but it needs the context of the larger story to fully explain why such sinister research is required to win.
Absent from all of this is our usual cast of characters. The Rocinante and her crew don’t appear, and neither does Chrisjen, her fate left hanging from season 2’s finale. Whilst the show runners clearly want to set up this new string of developments, it felt more like an introduction for viewers new to the show, which is a shame, as everything in this episode is already incredibly familiar to fans of ‘The Expanse’.
What’s more peculiar is the fact that the three characters we do recognise are pretty quickly put on the space-bus, in favour of following Burnham. Confusingly, our party of three resurrectees attack Burnham without reason during a meal break, after which we don’t see them again. Burnham, however, is brought onto the Discovery‘s crew by Lorca, who needs her skills and experience to assist with the protomolecule research.
This offers us probably the first main dump of solid information on the protomolecule. It seems that the research aboard the Discovery has revealed that the molecule is fungal in nature, and spread across the cosmos. There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific poetry spewed by the chief researcher, which sounds more like Qui-Gon Jinn’s explanation of midichlorians than it does the hard science this show is known for.
We also get to see more of what the molecule can do to living beings. The Discovery‘s sister ship, the Glenn, suffers an accident whilst conducting identical research, and Burnham is sent with a few other members of the crew (who we’ll get to in a moment) to find out what happened. Once aboard, we see that the crew have been violently twisted into broken heaps of flesh by the effects of the experimentation on the fungal protomolecule. It’s all very gory, and exactly in keeping with ‘The Expanse’s level of violence and occasional body horror that would be out of place in any other franchise.
This begins a short ‘Alien’-style romp through the abandoned ship, as Burnham and crew attempt to escape without being devoured by a hulking monstrous creature, some twisted form of an animal that was presumably kept aboard the Glenn. We don’t find out if this is an intentional part of the research, although the episode closes with the reveal that Lorca is keeping the creature securely in a creepy lab filled with skeletons.
This felt very on the nose for ‘The Expanse’ – the show usually deals with grey morality, with the ethical spectrum, and giving Lorca an actual skeleton-filled secret laboratory seemed like a very clumsy means of highlighting his villainous nature. We’re all adults here, we can reach our own conclusions, thank you.
Overall, this episode was a bit lacklustre. I’m hoping it’s just because it’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come, but we didn’t get any of the politics that make the universe of ‘The Expanse’ so interesting. Getting to learn more about the protomolecule was neat, but it seemed to be more to service the characterisation of Lorca.
And this also sadly telegraphs what I believe will be the ultimate story path for this set of characters. With Burnham being established as a mutineer, and already setting up Lorca’s betrayal of his promise to her following her challenging him on ethical grounds, it seems obvious that she will eventually hold him accountable and seize control of the ship itself. I hope it’s not that predictable, but in any case, hopefully next episode we can get back to Chrisjen, the Rocinante and the real meat of the story.
I also just want to briefly talk about the departure of Frankie Adams from the cast, and the decision to recast her character, “Gunny”, with Mary Wiseman. It was fun having the socially-awkward super-soldier back on screen, but it was jarring seeing her in a UN uniform and a wide grin. Not as jarring as the shift in her character, however, which has taken her from a brooding idealogue to a preppy, very-nearly insufferable sidekick for Burnham. I’ll wait to see how this plays out, but I’m cautious about how this bodes for the rest of the season.
And one final, final aside, I quite liked the Discovery‘s first officer, Saru. We don’t learn much about him, but given his lanky frame he seems to be a belter. How he came to be the second-in-command of a UN vessel should be an interesting bit of backstory.