Aboard the Shenzhou, Saru strides onto the bridge, Detmer in tow. She hurries forwards to the helm station and relieves the stand-in. As she sits down, the navigation officer leans over to her. “Are you sure you should be flying the ship? Weren’t you unconscious ten minutes ago?”
Detmer shrugs. “Well, I feel like I spent the night sleeping inside a warp coil, but the doc gave me a stimulant and cleared me. I’ll be fine.”
Saru steps up behind the captain’s chair and grips the back of it with both hands. “Status report, please.”
The ops officer responds. “Still no word from the captain, sir. We’ve detected some strange readings from the object, even through the scattering field. Tachyon emissions, building up over time.”
“Tachyon?” Saru queries, baffled. His threat-ganglia sprout from the sides of his head. “What could possibly-”
He’s interrupted as the bridge fills with blinding white light, and a painful shriek fills the air.
On the Klingon station, Burnham moves slowly into the main hall. It’s dark, lit only by the torches on the walls scattered between huge statues of Klingon warriors. On the main floor of the hall, there are piles of Starfleet torpedoes. Past them, at the far end of the hall beneath a great window into space, is a raised dais, and on it is T’Kuvma, with Georgiou on the floor beside him. Her hands are cuffed and her shoulder is still bandaged, but she is otherwise unharmed.
In front of T’Kuvma is a raised control panel. He cries out something in Klingon, and then he activates it. The hall fills with a dull hum, which gradually increases in pitch and volume. Burnham covers her ears, as does Georgiou, but T’Kuvma merely spreads his arms in triumph.
As the noise reaches its most deafening point, the entire hall disappears in a burst of white light. Burnham looks around, but she can barely make aything out beyond faint outlines. As her eyes adjust, other details slowly render into view, and the shape of the hall becomes apparent again – except now it is pure, brilliant white, with no refuge for the oppressive, murky shadows by which it was previously characterised.
Burnham, in her blue uniform, now appears as a glowing azurite idol in the brilliant light. Georgiou’s shoulder wound shines red and vivid, her uniform darkened by the blood. T’Kuvma, with his onyx Klingon skin and ornate, jet armour remains untouched by the light.
T’Kuvma stands facing the window, staring out at the darkness of space. The stars have vanished, unable to compete with the light from the station. The rocks and asteroids around the station, however, are bathed in the light, each one shining brighter than the full moon as they tumble and roll past the window.
Burnham takes the opportunity to move forwards, towards Georgiou and her captor. She advances up the middle of the hall, directly behind them both, darting from cover to cover.
As she reaches the half-way mark, the deafening shriek abates, followed immediately by a single loud, low, thudding pulse.
On the dais, T’Kuvma turns to Georgiou. “Time for the Galaxy to hear our truth,” he says.
On the bridge of the Shenzhou, the crew struggle to maintain their duties whilst blinded and deafened. Information and updates are shouted from one station to another, whilst Saru stands in the middle of it all, baffled. His ganglia stand proud on the sides of his head.
The noise abates whilst the light remains, and many of the bridge officers sag with relief at this respite. Saru doesn’t move, but stammers out a request. “Status report? Anybody?”
The ops officer volunteers an explanation. “A massive subspace disturbance, sir. That was a bang that the whole quadrant could hear.”
“What kind of a bang, lieutenant?”
“Single-frequency, massive amplitude. It…” The officer processes the data. “Wow.”
“’Wow’, lieutenant?” Saru’s expression is one of confusion and frustration.
“No, it’s, it’s one thousand, four hundred and twenty megahertz, sir. The Wow signal.”
Saru ponders for a second or two, before the comms officer chimes in. “Mister Saru, there’s an incoming transmission. From the station.”
Saru turns his head to her. “They’re hailing us now?”
“No, sir. They’re broadcasting everywhere. Putting it on screen.”
The image of T’Kuvma fades in on the main screen, stark against the brilliant white background. He holds his arms out before announcing himself. “Warriors of the Empire, and lesser nations across the stars, I am T’Kuvma. I am the appointed emmissary of Kah’less, Steward of His Holy Beacon, on which I now stand. Inheritor of ancient tradition, and guardian of the faith of my people.”
Aboard the Buran, Lorca, Tyler and crew watch the same transmission, silent and perplexed.
T’Kuvma continues, “A short time ago, this sacred shrine was assaulted by Starfleet soldiers. They sought to continue their campaign of cultural vandalism, by destroying this beacon and assassinating me.”
His image is replaced by footage from the internal sensors of the station’s hangar, as Burnham’s shuttle flies in and wipes out the squad of waiting Klingons. T’Kuvma speaks over the footage. “These operatives failed in their mission to erase yet more of our traditions, our way of life.”
Aboard a Klingon ship, a commander in vibrant armour decorated with gruesome trophies watches in outrage as the footage switches to Burnham, shooting the wounded Klingon and stepping over the body.
T’Kuvma’s voice continues. “Despite Starfleet’s brutality, my fellow warriors and I were able to counter this traitorous and dishonourable sneak attack, but the Empire must know – Starfleet means to end us. Klingon honour and Federation sensitivities cannot co-exist, and so they seek to pre-emptively gain supremacy.”
Back on the Shenzhou, Saru, Detmer and the others are still watching. T’Kuvma’s image returns to the screen. “I cannot abide such treachery!” he roars. “I am Klingon! We all are Klingon, and we cannot allow such trespasses against us!”
He reaches down and hauls Georgiou to her feet by her neck. “The Federation must pay for its transgressions! Starting with this one, this assassin and spy!” He shakes her. “Tell them! Tell them who you are! Tell them what you came here to do!”
Georgiou, visibly in pain, does her best to retain her composure. The harsh light amplifies the dirt on her face, and the wound on her shoulder. T’Kuvma’s hand chokes her, but she fights to speak audibly. “My name is Captain Phillipa Georgiou. We came here in a spirit of peace. We intend no harm to the Klingon Empire, we seek only-“
“FEDERATION LIES!” T’Kuvma roars, screams. He squeezes Georgiou’s neck tighter, and with his free hand draws a Klingon dagger. “In the name of the Empire!” he shouts, as he plunges the dagger into her chest, straight through her heart.
The crew of the Shenzhou gasp, and cry out. Saru staggers backward, aghast. Detmer shudders, her hands over her gaping mouth, her eyes wide in fright and shock.
In the main hall, behind T’Kuvma, Burnham watches as he releases his grip on Georgiou and lets her body drop limply to the floor.
Burnham doesn’t respond at first. She stays motionless, knelt behind cover. Her breathing grows deeper, and more ragged. She stares at Georgiou’s body. Silence pervades.
Burnham closes her eyes.
Saru is still stood up, but only in the strictest sense. His entire upper body hunches over, his head low and held in his hands. One of the officers weeps quietly. Detmer’s hands are still covering her face.
T’Kuvma starts talking again. “Such is the price of dishonour. My fellow Klingons, you already know the true face of the Federation. You are familiar with the beast that. To the rest of the galaxy I say this: the Federation has too long hidden its fangs behind the false nobility of its own enlightenment. At its heart, it is a crueller, more violent tyranny than even-“
He chokes, and then shudders. The centre of his chest glows, and then disintegrates. Red particles cascade across his body leaving grey dust in their wake. T’Kuvma’s body vaporises, vanishing to reveal behind it the figure of Michael Burnham, a phaser in her hand and her face twisted in anger and grief.
On the station, the blinding white light fades away, and the hall returns to its torch-lit murk. Burnham drops her phaser and sinks to her knees besides the body of Georgiou. She cradles her captain’s head in her lap and begins sobbing, overcome with everything that had come to pass so far.
Burnham gathers Georgiou’s body in her arms and awkwardly gets to her feet.
Aboard the unknown Klingon vessel, the Klingon commander, in her ornate armour covered in trophies, watches as the image of Burnham, phaser in hand, fades away. One of her subordinates approaches her. “Your orders, General L’Rell?”
L’Rell’s eyes narrow. “Set course for the binary star system.”
Let’s talk about the above events as they’re portrayed in the show.
Nothing that the crew does has any impact on what transpires. More specifically, none of Burnham’s actions change any of what happens. All of the drama around her mutiny is nullified, because she’s apprehended before she can actually do anything. The war is started because T’Kuvma gives the order to fire. That’s it.
In my version, T’Kuvma’s gambling. And the truth is, his plan may not have worked. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have worked at all. Until Burnham goes rogue – twice. First, by attacking the Klingon squad with the shuttle, and then sealing the deal by revenge-killing T’Kuvma. Now, there is clear, definitive evidence of Starfleet wrongdoing – even if it was all precipitated by T’Kuvma’s own violent actions, it casts the Federation, with its reputation for temperance, in a very new light.
Is this new version of the story perfect? No, absolutely not. But at least it ties things in together a little more. Now there is some justification for the crew’s hatred of Burnham – she may have avenged a beloved captain, but she has also bound them all into a war with the Klingons.
Also, L’Rell makes an appearance. It never made sense to me to have L’Rell as such a low ranking member of the Klingon Empire. It turns her into a bit of a spare wheel, and makes her arc of becoming leader of the whole Empire nonsensical. If she’d had her own ambitions, I’d buy it, but she spends all of her time in support of either T’Kuvma or Voq, which means that when she is simply handed leadership at the very end, it’s somewhat unsatisfying.
So now, she’s a General. It means she has much more scope to interact with the story around her, and in my mind, sets up much better any leadership arc upon which she may later find herself.
Also, L’Rell refers to “the binary star system,” as if there’s only one. Obviously, there are many binary star systems in the galaxy. But the Klingons certainly wouldn’t use an Earth designation for it, and using a different name means explaining somewhere in a story that’s already overly long just what the Klingons call the star system in question. Referring to it as The binary star system means that everyone, including the audience, understands exactly what she’s referring to, in the fewest possible number of words.
On the bridge of the Shenzhou, Saru paces anxiously in front of the captain’s chair. He taps his fingers together in a variety of rhythmic patterns, a Kelpien stress behaviour. He addresses the Ops officer. “Mission elapsed time, lieutenant?”
“Forty-seven minutes, sir.”
Saru keeps pacing. “Any further data on that object? Have you pierced the scattering field?”
“Negative, sir, but- hang on. Mister Saru, I’m picking up two incoming objects, they’ve just left the field’s area of influence.”
Saru’s threat ganglia sprout from the side of his head in alarm. He gently presses them down, and does his best to maintain his composure. “What objects? What are they?” He strides over to his science station.
The Ops officer keeps studying her console. “Sir, they’re life pods, from the shuttle! Two human life signs, it’s…” The Ops officer looks up in shock. “It’s Detmer, sir, and Furlan.”
Saru taps away at his console. His mouth drops open as he reads the display. “Con… confirmed. I, I don’t, does that mean…”
“Sir, those pods have been beaten up pretty badly on their way out of the debris field. Permission to beam them aboard? Sir?” Saru is non-responsive for moment. “Sir? Mister Saru?”
Saru stirs. “Yes. Yes, beam them directly to sickbay. And…” He pauses. “I will meet them there.” He leaves the bridge without another word. The captain’s chair remains empty.
Saru enters sickbay to Detmer sat on a biobed, and Furlan prone on another. The ship’s surgeon attends Furlan, treating a blast wound to his chest.
Saru surveys the situation. “Detmer, what happened? Where is the captain? Where is Captain Georgiou?”
Detmer is rubbing the side of her neck, where Burnham gripped her. “I don’t know, sir. She’s on the station, I think. They both are.”
“Burnham wanted to go back for her. For the captain. She… she shot Furlan, and she, I don’t know, she must have taken the shuttle back, but the Klingons…”
“Klingons?” Saru’s ganglia sprout again. “That’s a Klingon station?”
Detmer nods awkwardly. “They attacked. They attacked the shuttle, we had to fly out of there. We beamed Burnham out, but it was a mistake, it was meant to be the captain.” She shakes her head, as if to clear it. “Saru, she said it was a trap. The captain said they want to start a war, that we can’t let them. She told us not to do anything, to keep the peace, she said. Keep the peace.”
Saru ponders this new information. “Wait, where is Burnham?”
Inside the Klingon station, Burnham moves slowly, silently, along a dark corridor. She has her phaser drawn and held in front of her, ready to fire. Her eyes dart about, watching every nook and cranny.
She can hear guttural voices from down one corridor. She peeks her head around the corner to see a group of Klingon silhouettes in the distance. Their rough, alien speech is incomprehensible, so Burnham pulls Georgiou’s slim-line communicator out.
“… really work?” one Klingon voice asks.
“We are a strong people,” another responds. “T’Kuvma will remind us how much stronger we can be united. And we will help him.”
A third voice interjects. “The last of the explosives have been loaded, captain. They have been linked to the detonator.”
“Good! Then we are ready. Let us rejoin the fleet. I am tired of waiting, and of carrying things.” This silhouette produced some kind of instrument, and spoke into it. “This is the captain. We are ready. Energise.”
The whine of a transporter fills the corridor, and the Klingons disappear in glowing red flares of light. As they do, Burnham sees another, identical transporter beam, in the courtyard of a Federation settlement. She’s a child, and she watches from behind cover, watches as the Klingons open fire as soon as they materialise, indiscriminately murdering colonists. Outside the courtyard, explosions detonate, and flames fill the sky, as do screams and wails and angry roars of triumph.
As an adult, Burnham hyperventilates, her eyes wide in fright. She’s back in the corridor, now empty. The Klingons are gone, but she can still hear the screams, and her mother’s voice calling out to her.
In the main hall of the station, Georgiou sits on the floor with her hands cuffed in rigid metal clasps. There is no one else in the hall except T’Kuvma, who watches on a console display as Burnham flies the shuttle into the hangar and wipes out the Klingon soldiers waiting there. He zooms the feed in on her as she shoots the wounded warrior and steps over him. T’Kuvma laughs. “Your soldier is fierce, Captain.”
Georgiou is unimpressed. “She is no soldier, she’s a Starfleet officer.”
“We are all soldiers, Captain, in the great cultural war of our age. You should accept that fact, and embrace it.” He gestures at the image of Burnham. “She has. She moves with cold puprose, as though in the shadow of death.”
“The Federation is not at war with the Klingon Empire, cultural or otherwise. We seek only peaceful coexistence and cooperation.”
“THAT IS A WAR!” T’Kuvma roars, furious. “Cooperation,” he spits, “co-existence. These words mean one thing: assimilation. Tell me, Captain: were we to coexist and cooperate, would the Federation stand by whilst the Klingon Empire pursued our destiny of conquest? Would you sit idle whilst we took from weaker cultures what our strength entitles us to take?” he asks, clenching his fist. “No, you would step in, force us to lay down our weapons, and police the galaxy, as you do. The Federation are conquerors, worse than the Klingons, for whilst we conquer with ships and weapons, you, you, conquer with lies and manipulation, one hand outstretched, the other holding a chain of bondage.” He holds his arms out, as though addressing a crowd. “We Klingons are beings of conflict, and we must be allowed to seek conflict, or else we are nothing, just more Federation pawns like the Vulcans, the Andorians and the Tellarites.”
Georgiou remains defiant. “If this is a war of cultures, as you say, then you must be losing. You’re already speaking our language; you use it more than you use your own.”
T’Kuvma rounds on her and grabs her by the throat. “I use your delicate, frivolous words because I must.” He releases her. “Many of my people honour Kahless as the greatest warrior who ever lived, but they are fools.” He walks up to an old bronze statue of a Klingon warrior and gazes up at it. “Kahless did not unite our people because he was the mightiest warrior, he united our people because he was the greatest communicator. His words carried such power and meaning to our ancestors that he was able to forge a new empire, the grandest empire this Galaxy will ever know.”
“And you think you can follow in his footsteps? Unite your people and lead them to victory?” Georgiou asks, incredulously.
“No,” T’Kuvma answers, turning to face her. “I will not lead my people, Captain, another will have to carry that burden. But I shall unite them. My name will burn for a thousand lifetimes in the hearts of my people – yours will not. Which is unfortunate, Captain, because you, and your soldier,” he says, nodding at the image of Burnham again, “will be making the same sacrifice as me.”
Georgiou shakes her head. “Michael is too smart to make a martyr out of the likes of you.”
“Maybe,” T’Kuvma concedes. He hits a button on a control panel, and dozens of metallic containers are beamed into the hall. He gestures at them. “My ships have been collecting Federation weapons for some time,” he says, “and now they deliver them here, to this holy sanctuary.” He taps one of the torpedoes with a fingernail. “Very simple to modify, for such advanced technology,” he says. “Rigged for proximity detonation.”
He strolls through the piles of torpedoes. “I believe that your soldier will come here to kill me,” he explains, “but even if she does not, it will not matter, because as soon as your ship approaches, we will all be destroyed. And when my people arrive to find the wreckage of their ancestral temple scattered in the shadow of a Federation warship, they will not hesitate to strike back, united in their outrage.”
A Klingon voice sounds over the comm system. T’Kuvma responds with a few guttural words. Georgiou can’t understand any of it, nor can she loosen the cuffs around her wrists, despite her best efforts.
The Klingonese conversation ends. T’Kuvma inhales deeply, exhales slowly. He salutes the statue he was previously regarding, before addressing Georgiou. “The preparations are complete. It is time to light the beacon.”
This segment was far longer than I intended it to be, and way more talky than I wanted it to be, but there’s a lot going on here that needs setting up before we get to the juicy bit.
Most importantly, we need to understand T’Kuvma’s plan. We’ve had a lot of T’Kuvma talking in these last two parts of the story, but this all hangs on his plans to start a war, so we need to clarify it as much as possible. In short, if the audience isn’t bought into what he plans to do, and if it isn’t all as clear as possible, then no matter how climactic and exciting the final stretch is, it’s going to ring empty.
We also need to understand T’Kuvma’s motives. He’s a complex character with complex beliefs, so I did the best I could to break it down: he sees friendship with the Federation as a trap, not an opportunity, and so war is the only option for him.
It’s also important for us to understand a little more of what’s going on in Burnham’s head. She clearly has some past trauma around Klingons, and that’s vital knowledge if you’re to understand why she reacts so violently to this new situation.
We start off this part of the story with a catch-up with Saru. Here, he represents the Shenzhou in general, and its detachment from what’s going on aboard the station. When he finally gets some news about what’s happened, he’s just as confused as he was before, if not more so.
Next up, we’re going to finally see the start of that battle that makes up the title of this story, by way of a little bit of murder and quite a lot of revenge. Exciting times.
“Captain, I must once again register my severe objections to this course of action!” Saru insists as he strides down the corridor alongside Georgiou, Burnham and Detmer. “With the scattering field in place we will be unable to contact you or beam any of your back to the ship. And we still don’t know what the object is – it could be a Tholian web trap for all we know.”
Georgiou remains relaxed. “It might also be an entirely new species, Saru, a new civilisation. Would you really like to pass up a first contact opportunity?”
“Yes, absolutely, if it means putting my captain at risk.” Saru’s gestures become more frantic, his speech more hurried. “Captain, that object may not be a ship, but it remains a complete mystery to us.”
“And that is precisely why I want to go, Mr. Saru. I never could resist a good mystery.”
“Come on, Saru”, Burnham says, “you wouldn’t want to disappoint your captain, would you? Don’t worry,” she puts her hand on Georgiou’s shoulder in reassurance, “The captain will in in safe hands.”
They enter the shuttle bay and proceed up the boarding ramp of one of the Shenzhou‘s many shuttles. Detmer heads to the helm console at the front, whilst Georgiou and Burnham are joined by two security officers in tactical armour in the shuttle’s main hold. Georgiou turns to face Saru, who stands anxiously at the foot of the ramp. “Take good care of the ship, Mr Saru. And remember – take no unprompted action without consulting me or Starfleet Command. The last thing we want is to precipitate a conflict out here.”
Saru nods, and disappears from view as the shuttle’s ramp closes up. One of the security officers hands Georgiou a phaser as Burnham proceeds forwards to the front of the shuttle.
She leans down to Detmer. “Lieutenant, once we’re inside of the scattering field the shuttle’s transporter should be able to function. I just slapped a Viridium patch on the captain’s back – that will let you keep a lock on her. As soon as anything happens, you beam her back aboard and you set off for Shenzhou, do you understand? You don’t ask questions, you don’t hesitate, you just start flying.”
“Yes, Commander,” Detmer says, “but what about the rest of you?”
“The shuttle can only beam one person at a time,” Burnham explains, “and I don’t want you transporting the wrong person accidentally. We’ll be alright. Just keep her safe.”
Detmer looks back at the flight controls. “Well, now I feel a lot more worried.”
Burnham smiles. “You’ll do fine. I picked you for this mission specifically, Lieutenant. The captain asked me to fly at first, but it’s been two years since I last flew one of these things. We need someone who actually knows what she’s doing.”
“I won’t let you down, Commander.”
“Are we ready to launch yet?” Georgiou calls from the back of the shuttle, “or do you two need a little longer to conspire?”
“Ready, captain!” Detmer responds. “Course laid in. Just give me the word.”
“Lieutenant, the word is given – engage.”
The shuttle lifts off from the deck and drifts out of the shuttle bay. Once clear of the rear doors, Detmer brings it about and heads straight for the debris field, and the distant, mysterious object.
“Michael,” Georgiou says, as they sit opposite each other, “do you know why I’m here?”
Michael raises an eyebrow. “This is a critical situation. Normally, a captain’s place would be on her bridge. But with comms down, command decisions cannot be made remotely. If there are Klingons out here, you will need to be calling the shots.”
“And if there are Klingons out here, Michael, how would you feel about that?”
“If you’re referring to my childhood trauma, then you know I have it under control. Vulcan mindfulness techniques are a powerful tool. Philippa, I have your back. And I always will.”
Georgiou lays a gentle hand on Burnham’s shoulder. “Michael, in seven years together, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I will never regret putting my faith in you.”
“You talk as though this is a parting of ways.”
Georgiou shakes her head. “Not yet. But Michael, you are reaching the point where there isn’t much more I can teach you.” She waves her hand to quiet Burnham’s protestations. “If I could keep you as my XO for another twenty years, I would, but you are capable of so much more than that. You could end up as an admiral, or an ambassador, or even a regional governor – but the first step towards any of those things is getting your own command.”
Burnham looks down at the floor, hiding her face from her mentor. “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”
Georgiou grips Burnham’s shoulder tightly. “You are not ready yet. But very soon you will be, and when the time comes, you can’t hesitate, you can’t second-guess yourself. Do you know what the first duty of every Starfleet officer is, Michael?”
“Of course: to the truth.”
Georgiou laughs. “Nearly. That’s the slogan, but the correct answer is that it’s to your own truth. We must always remember who we really are, Michael. Always.” She gestures out of the window to the mystery structure, steadily growing closer. “If there are Klingons out there, and they do mean us harm, we can’t allow ourselves to get drawn into their game. We’re Starfleet: we fight when we need to, but always we must seek the peaceful solution. That is our truth, and that’s my truth. I have to believe that every encounter is a step towards friendship and co-operation, even with those who call themselves our enemies.”
Burnham looks up at her captain. “My father said that ten years ago, at Khitomer.”
“Your father is a profound individual.”
An alarm sounds from the flight console, and Detmer calls back “One minute to contact, Captain. I’ve found an entrance into the structure, looks to be pressurised, too.”
Georgiou stands and smooths out her uniform. “Take us in, Lieutenant. Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
One thing that always struck me as odd was that Detmer and Burnham shared so much together, and yet never interacted. This seemed like a hugely wasted opportunity – Burnham and Saru get plenty of time to explore their relationship, but Burnham and Detmer never even have one.
Also, whilst I have criticised ‘Discovery’ for resolving so much of its plot in the form of two people stood in a room talking to each other, early on in the show there’s a powerful need to set up the world, and the relationships, that will define the narrative. So whilst a scene between two people sat in a shuttle talking about philosophy isn’t the kind of high-octane action you’d expect of a Transformers movie, it’s important for adding additional significance to the events that do follow.
Georgiou contradicts Picard here on the subject of first duties, and that’s not something you want to do lightly. But whilst broad statements work well for delinquent cadets, command-level officers need to operate with a little more nuance than that.
Burnham’s backstory, as a human raised by Vulcans, and as an orphan as a result of a Klingon raid, is all perfectly fine. But that is exactly the kind of backstory that, I feel, can be revealed in small bites, rather than all at once. Hints to it are made in this conversation, but hints are all that is needed – who is her father, exactly? What happened in her childhood that might cause her to struggle with facing Klingons? Stay tuned in to find out!
Hey, and how about that Viridium patch and all the shoulder-touching? Don’t worry, that’s just background detail, it definitely won’t turn into a plot point or anything.
“First officer’s log, stardate 1207.3. On Earth, it’s May 11, 2256, a Sunday. The crew of the USS Shenzhou has been called to the edge of Federation space to investigate damage done to one of our interstellar relays. Blast burns around the hole are inconclusive. Were they caused by an asteroid, or was it deliberately destroyed to limit Starfleet communications? And if so, by whom? Despite the mystery, I feel at ease. It’s hard not to in the face of such beauty – in this case, a binary star system. Around these two suns, ice, dust, and gasses collide to form planets future generations will call home. A humbling reminder that all life is born from chaos and destruction.”
“None forthcoming, Commander.” Saru taps away at his console. “There is no chemical residue, no ionic scoring indicative of a particle weapon, and the damage is too limited for any kind of explosive weapon.”
Michael Burnham stands at the front of the bridge, gazing into the image on the viewscreen as a worker bee clamps hold of the relay buoy and turns back for the Shenshou‘s shuttle bay.
Behind her, Captain Phillipa Georgiou enters, a beacon of calm confidence. “Status, Number One.”
Burnham turns to her captain. “Nothing yet to report, Captain. We found the buoy, and it has a large hole in it. Saru is struggling to produce an answer.”
“I am not struggling, Captain,” Saru protests. “I merely lack the data required for a satisfactory conclusion. As a trained scientist, I might have expected our First Officer to appreciate the value of an empirical approach.”
Burnham raises an eyebrow. The other bridge officers exchange glances. Georgiou raises a quieting hand. “Alright, you two, we all know you’re both smart. How about you put those brains to work and take a guess?”
Burnham gestures to Saru, inviting him to go first. He shakes his head. “Please, as our executive officer, Commander Burnham, your analysis must take precedence.”
Burnham nods curtly. “The buoy is of limited strategic value. It forms part of a relay network with layered redundancies, and the nullification of this unit has resulted in no detriment to our frontier monitoring capabilities. In short, Captain, if this is an act of sabotage, it was carried out by someone who had no strategic goal in mind. My deduction: this was a freak accident, a stray rock flung out from the stellar disc at an unfortunate trajectory.”
Georgiou considers this analysis. “Officer thinking, Commander. Always concerned with the bigger picture. Lieutenant Commander?” she asks, turning to Saru.
The Kelpien nods in acknowledgement. “Commander Burnham offers a succinct analysis, but one based on supposition and circumstance. The damage to the relay is comprehensive and precise, leaving no functionality whatsoever. To put it bluntly, you could not switched the relay off more permanently if you were trying, and space rocks are rarely so determined. This must have been a deliberate act.”
Georgiou now considers Saru’s analysis. “Two capable Starfleet officers, reaching opposite conclusions, based off the same data.” She strokes her chin, imitating a wizened, bearded old sage. “Lieutenant Detmer, what would you do in my situation? Who would you bet on?”
Detmer, sat at the helm station, smiles. “My dad always taught me never to bet against Vulcan logic, Captain. But he also told me that when there’s trouble, follow the Kelpien, ’cause they know their way to safety. So, I don’t know. I’m sorry, Captain.”
“Don’t apologise, Lieutenant,” Georgiou insists, “your dad sounds like a smart man. Alright, let’s get to the bottom of this. Saru, run a tachyon sweep at low-band frequency, see if we can pick up any warp trails that have been masked by those stars.”
“Aye, Captain,” Saru answers. “Running sweep. Any warp trails will have to be recent, even just a few hours is enough time to…” He trails off. “Captain, I, there’s something out there. In the debris field.”
Burnham hurries over to Saru’s science station as Georgiou inquires further. “What’s out there, Saru? A ship?”
“Difficult to say, Captain, it’s-” Burnham cuts him off, shunting him out of the way and taking over the console. “It’s some kind of artificial construct, Captain,” she explains. “Roughly a hundred-and-twenty-thousand kilometres from our position. Symmetrical in shape, it seems to be around three hundred metres in size.”
Saru rolls his eyes. “I, too, can read data from a console,” he says, shunting Burnham away from the console, “and I can also deduce that the reason for First Officer Burnham’s ambiguity is the result of some kind of scattering field around the object. Whatever it is, Captain, it’s hiding from us.”
Georgiou’s eyes narrow. “Alright, both of you, my ready room, now.” She stands up and straightens her uniform. “Detmer, you have the conn.”
The beautiful brass telescope in the Captain’s ready room provides a better view of the object, but it remains obscured by asteroids. Whatever it is, it’s rendered in bronze, and is elegant, almost organic, in shape. Burnham squints through the eyepiece in frustration.
“I still can’t figure it out, Captain,” she says, adjusting the focus. She abandons the old astronomical device and stands straight. “Captain, Phillipa, what are we doing out here?”
Saru bristles at the familiarity, but Georgiou smiles. “Something bugging you, Michael?”
“Why are we here, investigating a broken antenna? And then we find this? It has to be more than coincidence.”
Georgiou’s smile widens. “So you think a little maintenance work is beneath us?”
Burnham remains severe. “Captain, this is a Walker-class exploratory vessel. Our long-standing mission is searching for imminent supernovas. Fixing busted satellites is…” She searches for the right words. “Is a waste of material.”
Georgiou moves to behind her desk and takes a seat. On shelves behind her is a collection of old navigation equipment – sextants, calipers, compasses, even one of the first subspace orientation devices from before the days of Starfleet. Georgiou leans back in her chair. “We are barely ten light-years from Klingon territory. This system is the last piece of Federation real estate before you hit neutral space.”
Saru nods. “This is one of the farthest reaches of the outer frontiers. Captain, are you saying that you suspect Klingon activity in this system?” His ganglia twitch, extruding slightly in alarm before retreating again.
“No,” Georgiou says, “not yet. Starfleet hasn’t recorded an encounter with a Klingon ship in twenty years. By all counts, the Empire is in disarray, focused on internal squabbles. But,” she says, cautiously, “there have been reports. Missing ships near the border. Sensor whispers all along the frontier. I recently spoke to Captain Nicholls – she was investigating a burst of neutron radiation near Betazed three weeks ago, and she swears she saw the stars dancing – dancing – in front of her eyes. She says the stars were dancing in the shape of an eagle, or a falcon, or some other bird of prey.”
Burnham’s mouth hangs open, and Saru’s ganglia stretch out behind his head. Georgiou stares out the window at the two suns, tearing at each other in a tug of war.
Burnham breaks the silence. “Captain, as your First Officer I should have been made aware that we would be heading into battle.”
Georgiou looks towards her. “Battle? We’re not going into battle. And I didn’t tell you about Starfleet’s suspicions precisely because of your history with the Klingons.” Georgiou leans forwards. “Michael, this isn’t a warzone, this is Federation space. You’re right, we’re not here to fix a satellite, but we’re not here to start a fight, either. Starfleet just wants to cover all its bases.” She stands, and moves over to the window. “Whatever’s out there, whatever broke our satellite, it wasn’t random. It’s sat out there, watching us, hiding in plain sight, fogging our sensors but holding our attention.”
“Captain Georgiou, this is clearly a dangerous situation and we must immediately call for backup,” Saru says frantically. “We are alone out here, and completely exposed. If there are Klingons in this system, we are entirely at their mercy.”
“I must concur with Science Officer Saru,” Burnham says. “At least send word to Starfleet. This is clearly a trap.”
Georgiou smiles again. “Have we fallen through a wormhole into a parallel universe? My first mate and my science officer, agreeing with one another?” She laughed. “When a troubled Kelpien and Vulcan logic align, who am I to argue?” She moves back to her desk and activated the comm-link. “Lieutenant McFadden, send word to Starfleet Sector Command, advise them of the situation and the unknown object, and request any available ships to rendezvous with Shenzhou at system JWST-86690.”
Burnham remains composed, but her eyes betray her anxiety. “What do we do until they arrive? The nearest ships will be hours away.”
“Well, Number One, when was the last time you piloted a shuttle?
As part of my analysis and break-down of ‘Discovery’, I feel it’s not enough to merely point out the problems – I ought to be offering solutions. As a result, this is the first installment of a personal project to re-write the series from the bottom up.
I’ve set myself a few rules – first, that most of the premises set up by the show are maintained. Specifically:
Burnham is a disgraced officer who threw away her career with some really poor judgement, precipitating a war with the Klingons.
The Discovery is a ship with an experimental spore drive.
Lorca is a mirror-universe impostor with a hidden, wicked agenda.
Ash Tyler is a sleeper agent, with Voq’s memories and personality suppressed.
I will also be keeping almost all of the same characters and settings, where possible, and will do my best to hit the same plot milestones as the show.
This is entirely self-indulgent, and I make no apologies. I certainly have no shame.
This first installment is to set the scene – to establish the same setting and the same characters as we meet in the show. I wanted to capture Georgiou’s same easy confidence and cool charisma, and the playful rivalry between Burnham and Saru. We’ll see how it all plays out.
‘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 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.