Who Is The RED ANGEL? All Star Trek Discovery Theories RATED

Things are certainly cooking up on Star Trek Discovery! The show’s explosive second season has seen mystery after mystery! What are the red bursts? Who are the Ba’ul?  How did Leland get Burnham’s parents killed? What’s going on with Airiam???

Whilst some of the show’s puzzles have already been solved, there’s one BIG question that’s yet to be answered – just who is the Red Angel? And what are they up to?

Fans have come up with plenty of their own theories, so we’ve decided to go through the top ten and rate them by likelihood!

Who is the Red Angel? Maybe the answer is right in front of us…


Theory 1 – Sylvia Tilly

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Sylvia Tilly has been a fan favourite since we first met her all the way back in Season 1. Could she be the Red Angel?

With the revelation that the Angel is wearing a mech-suit from from the FUTURE, it seems unlikely – after all, how would Tilly even get to the future in order to get her own mech-suit?

BUT, we already know that Tilly has a special relationship with the time-defying mycelioid organisms called the jahSepp, whose realm exists outside of the known universe – maybe Tilly will use this connection to bend time and try to stop a terrible calamity by communicating with the only people she can trust – her Discovery colleagues.

PROBABILITY: 40%


Theory 2 – An Iconian

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The Iconians were discovered to be an advanced race long extinct in an early adventure of Jean Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D, in the Season 2 episode ‘Contagion’. Using advanced technology, they were able to travel vast distances in the blink of an eye. What’s more, their appearance in the video game ‘Star Trek Online’ is strikingly similar to that of the Angel as we’ve seen it so far.

HOWEVER, it turns out that the Red Angel is actually a time traveller from the future, not the past, as when Saru saw it up close, he noted that it was using technology that is much more advanced than Starfleet’s, meaning there was no other possibility than it being from the future – which means case closed on the Iconian theory!

PROBABILITY: 15%


Theory 3 – Emperor Georgiou

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Emperor Georgiou is shrouded in mystique, secrecy and suspicious motives. What does she really want? What’s her big plan? She has a complex relationship with Burnham, knowing more about the young officer and mirror of her protege than Burnham knows about herself!

With Section 31’s advanced technology that is much more advanced than the Starfleet’s, could Georgiou have found a way to leap across time, and be using such an ability in conjunction with an advanced mech suit to try and prevent a future disaster – and maybe earn her redemption in the process?

We’ve already seen Georgiou disguising herself with futuristic-looking technology on the Klingon homeworld – could that same level of technology service her time-hopping mission to redeem herself and save the Galaxy? We think this could be a strong possibility!

PROBABILITY – 80%


Theory 4 – Michael Burnham

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Michael Burnham has been at the centre of the whole Red Angel affair – from being the first member of the Discovery crew to witness the Angel itself, to her family ties to Spock, someone that the Red Angel has been visiting since an early age – even using him to guide his father Sarek to rescue an errant Burnham when she ran away from home, before she could be killed! This was after all of the advanced Vulcan sensor technology and tracking systems mysteriously failed under suspicious circumstances, preventing Sarek from finding the human child who was within a few hours’ walking distance of the family home – perhaps a sign of another mysterious force acting to harm Burnham?

If Burnham were the Red Angel, she would certainly have all the requisite knowledge of the events that transpire to show up at exactly the right time – some which is knowledge that only Burnham would have.

BUT, during the Red Angel’s mind meld with Spock, the Angel seemed to convey all of its visual information in a straightforward, unambiguous fashion, with no sign of any of Burnham’s characteristic long-winded monologues full of semantically-null musings and vague, nondescript allusions to the human condition. This seems like a pretty argumentk against the Burnham-Angel theory to us!

PROBABILITY: 5%


Theory 5 – T’Pol

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This one’s a bit out there, but long-running time travel plots are common to just two Star Trek shows: ‘Enterprise’ and, now, ‘Discovery’. One character familiar to all Star Trek fans is T’Pol, Enterprise‘s science officer and frequent time travel sceptic. She frequently butted heads with the rest of the (human) crew about the possibility of time travel, with her oft-repeated mantra: “The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that Time Travel is Impossible.”

Could it be that a long-lived T’Pol gained new-found faith in the theory of time travel? And that, upon its discovery, used it to travel through the ages, averting disasters and preventing catastrophes? Certainly she possesses the intellect and determination to take on such a monumental task – could it be the pointed ears of a Vulcan, not a human, that hide beneath the Red Angel’s futuristic helmet? We think it’s worth at least even odds.

PROBABILITY: 50%


Theory 6 – Will Riker

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If you thought that last theory was out there, just wait until you hear this one!

During Spock’s mind meld with the Red Angel, a keen-eyed redditor recognised one of the doomed planets in Spock’s vision as that of Risa – the luxurious, tropical resort planet which first appeared in ‘The Next Generation’, and which was a favourite shore leave destination for one William T. Riker.

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Top: Risa, as it appeared in Will Riker’s time period. Bottom: Risa’s new look, with new visuals established for ‘Discovery’.

That redditor, /u/bovis_stercus, further suggested that IF Risa was destroyed at some future point, could it be that a distraught Will Riker, moments away from arriving at the planet for a fun-filled weekend of sunbathing and no-strings-attached jamaharon, set himself upon a libido-driven rageful quest through time to save Risa and hence save his shore leave plans?

The only real votes against this one come from, yet again, the mind meld, where Spock didn’t see any visions of Deanna Troi taking a bath, prolonged close-ups of reflected images in Captain Picard’s head, or lists of reliable topically-applied antibiotic creams suitable for sensitive areas, so it seems unlikely that Riker’s bearded face lies beneath that helmet.

It’s a long-shot, but we don’t think it should be ruled out altogether!

PROBABILITY: 6%


Theory 7 – Spock

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Spock is more heavily entwined in the Red Angel’s machinations than any other character, having seen the Angel since very early in his life, and having clearly been chosen by it to assist in achieving its objectives. No reason has yet been alluded to for the Angel’s specific interest in Spock, but could it be possible that that it’s simply because the Angel is Spock himself?

This theory isn’t water-tight, as it seems like Spock would be well aware of the effect that the Red Angel would have on his mind, and it would seem… illogical to intentionally put himself through that madness, to the point that he required specialist psychic healing by the Talosians. Surely he’d find a more succinct way to communicate with himself? And would he not recognise his own consciousness during the mind meld?

We’re not ruling this one out, but we’re not ranking it highly either.

PROBABILITY: 10%


Theory 8 – Lorca

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The last time we saw Lorca, he was disintegrating under the force of the huge spore turbine at the heart of the Mirror Universe’s I.S.S. Charon. Could the title of the fourth episode of the series, ‘An Obol For Charon’, be a subtle hint at the identity of the Red Angel? Could it be that Lorca wasn’t disintegrated at all, but rather cast through the mycelial network, ending up in some distant future reality where planets are destroyed wholesale?

The other alternative is that the Angel is Lorca’s “Prime Universe” counterpart – the good, honourable man who was once a love of Admiral Cornwell, and who we never actually met during the run of the show. Maybe his journey into the Mirror Universe led him to some advanced technology, or some spatial phenomenon which granted him the ability to travel through time?

It’s not guaranteed, but it’s not impossible either!

PROBABILITY: 22.7%


Theory 9 – Airiam

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Airiam, Discovery’s spore drive officer, and a seemingly artificial, semi-robotic being of ambiguous, if not downright mysterious origins, has been acting weirdly. Ever since her interaction with the malicious code of the robotic cephalopod which attacked Pike’s and Tyler’s shuttle inside the Time Rift, Airiam has been behaving suspiciously and maliciously, doing sneaky things and seemingly under the influence of three sinister dots – some kind of advanced artificial intelligence.

Is it possible that Airiam will be sucked into this mess full-fold, and will end up taking on the identity of the Red Angel, her mechanical body changing form to adopt the advanced appearance of the Angel itself? Perhaps using knowledge of time rifts inherited from the malicious future robo-squid code to safely travel through time, causing the red bursts and guiding Discovery around the cosmos?

Might this also explain the change in casting for the character, from Sara Mitich to Hannah Cheesman in the second season? Maybe the Red Angel spells the end of Airiam as we know her, and the producers chose to change roles for Mitich to avoid writing her out of the show altogether?

This seems like a good bet to us!

PROBABILITY: 85%


Theory 10 – Titus

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Titus is a little-known character from the extended lore – a veteran Captain of the starship Fury of Descent, grizzled warrior and saviour of the planet Graia. He’s only ever appeared in one video game spin-off, voiced by the inimitable Mark Strong, which makes him a long shot for the Red Angel.

BUT, given that his story takes place nearly 40,000 years after the events of ‘Discovery’, and that he has been exposed to weird and twisted warp energy, AND that he’s already got his own mech suit, he’s a stronger candidate than you might think!

He’s even already dressed in ‘Discovery’-era colours – blue uniform with metallic gold command-division trim!

EVERYTHING ties together, from the time-altering affects of warp technology in the future, to his demonstrable dedication to self-sacrifice and his unerring determination to save humanity from enemies both without and within. He has both the means and the will to dedicate himself to such a selfless task of travelling through twisted time to save mankind from hostile alien threats. At multiple points, we even see him using jump-packs, allowing him to hover in the air, just as it seems the Red Angel is capable of doing – although it’s doubtful that time travel is an action which is supported by the Codex Astartes.

Titus is our “editor’s choice” of Red Angel identities!

PROBABILITY: 90%


Theory 11 – Elon Musk

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You’re gonna think we’re crazy, but hear us out on this one.

Elon Musk is already established as a part of Star Trek canon, identified by Lorca in Season 1 as a technological pioneer in the company of the Wright Brothers and Zefram Cochrane, and in Season 2 we find out that Ensign Tilly’s highschool is even named after him.

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Elon Musk is curious figure in our present day – capricious and controversial, but undoubtedly intelligent, driven, and completely open to crazy ideas – who else would launch an electric sports car into the asteroid belt?

Within the context of Star Trek, it seems entirely possible that Musk went on a Zefram Cochrane-inspired journey. Perhaps during an early flight of Musk’s into the solar system, a radiation wave hits and he gets shot through a wormhole. Now he’s lost in some distant part of the universe on a ship, a living ship, full of strange alien life forms. “Help me!” he calls, in transmissions back to Earth, “is there anybody out there who can hear me?” Maybe he’s being hunted by an insane military commander, so now he’s doing everything he can – he’s just looking for a way home.

Then he finds some kind of a time portal and a mech suit and tries to stop planets from being blown up or something.

It’s the longest of long shots, a real Hail Musk, but we think it might be worth a flutter! If so, could we be in store for a cameo by the world-famous entrepreneur and rocketeer?

PROBABILITY: 42%


Well, those are our guesses! Got theories of your own? Think we’re completely off the mark? Let us know in the comments! Or stop by Facebook or Twitter to leave us your opinions!

The truth is out there!

Discovery In Depth: Michael Burnham, The Hashtag Protagonist

Following on from my previous article where I gushed fondly over what ‘Discovery’ might have been with Captain Georgiou at the conn, I would like now to take a closer look at the show’s main protagonist, Michael Burnham.

Burnham is a fascinating subject. Divisive amongst fans for all sorts of reasons (some of which are none too savoury), it’s difficult to think of a Star Trek character which has prompted more discussion and debate. Everyone can agree that Neelix is a shitbird and that Data deserves to know what a hug really feels like, but it’s tricky to find any broad consensus on Burnham.

I’m writing this after Episode Five of Season Two, ‘Saints Of Imperfection’, has aired, which means:

  1. Expect spoilers and
  2. As with my Tilly article, I am sure everything I write will be completely invalidated by the next episode to be released.

First of all, it’s worth covering some of the basics.


The Basics

Michael Burnham is a mostly unique character in Star Trek in that she is a central protagonist in a story that follows her specifically, and where she is not an authority figure.

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Other Trek shows have had lead characters, but they are usually the “Captains” or the central authority figures of an ensemble, and their role as a protagonist is usually incidental – the stories in which they feature actually focus on the ship/location and the crew in general, of whom the Captain simply happens to be in command. Indeed, in any given series, particularly TNG onwards, the episodes in which the Captain is the central character will usually be in a minority, and the role of protagonist will be distributed among the other cast members. In effect, they take turns.

‘Discovery’ bucked this trend by focusing squarely on Burnham, and her personal journey as the mutineer and disgraced officer, eventually gaining apparent redemption – and even then she remains an officer on the ship in question and not its Captain.

Indeed, the Captains of ‘Discovery’ are invariably components of Burnham’s story, lacking arcs of their own: Georgiou gets fridged in the second episode to add to Burnham’s tragedy; Lorca is an impostor who shows her the other side of betrayal; and Pike is the “new Captain”, testing Burnham’s personal trust as well as her faith in science.

With this in mind, getting Burnham “right” as a character is paramount to the effectiveness of the story which is centred around her as an individual. Although the show is called ‘Star Trek: Discovery‘, implying that it focuses on the journey of the eponymous vessel, much like ‘Deep Space Nine’, ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’, really it should be called ‘Star Trek: Michael Burnham‘, because it is she who we follow – the ship itself is incidental to the story.

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In this article, I’m going to break down why I believe that Burnham doesn’t “work” as a character – specifically, why she doesn’t work as a protagonist in this protagonist-driven story, and the problems that it causes for the narrative.

We’re going to look at her character traits, or lack thereof. We’ll review the writers’ over-reliance on backstory and “origins” rather than motivations, and we’ll see how these extensive origins actually limit her character development rather than augment it. And finally, we’ll look at the role of the audience’s journey through the narrative, and why it is important for that journey to align with the protagonist’s journey throughout the course of the story.

First, though, I want to address a particular bugbear of mine when it comes to descriptions and criticisms of Michael Burnham, and of characters in general.

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What Burnham Is Not

I’ve frequently seen Burnham described as a “Mary Sue”, which is an assessment with which I personally disagree and which I feel is unhelpful, for the following reasons:

Accuracy

The term “Mary Sue” is relatively loosely defined, and even those conditions which are codified are entirely subjective. And even then, most of the definitions don’t apply to Burnham. She does not seem like an author-insert, with few of the show’s creators or writers seemingly having much in common at all with the character.

Further, Burnham is absolutely not shown as flawless. Smart, yes, and with a broad range of expertise, but given her first episode features her grasping firmly onto the idiot-ball and ruining everything for everyone, it’s safe to say she is capable of fucking up. Nor is Burnham portrayed as being particularly likeable, struggling as she does to form friendships even before her descent into mutiny.

Given that the main elements of Mary Suedom include author-insertion, wish-fulfilment and self-idealisation, it’s notable that Burnham doesn’t tick any of these boxes. Similarly, she can hardly be accused of “upstaging” established characters, given that she is the main character of the show itself.

Inherent Sexism

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Lifted from a Google image search.

“Mary Sue” has a masculine equivalent, “Marty Stu”, and I am sure that everyone who uses either term believes they do so equally and without regard to gender. Nonetheless, accusations of “Mary Suedom” – specifically, of unrealistically positive character traits, abilities, and idealisation –  seem to be made far more frequently against female characters than male characters.

For instance, it’s interesting ‘The Force Awakens’ is so broadly accepted as being a direct remake of ‘A New Hope’, and yet Rey is identified as a Mary Sue where Luke is not identified as a Marty Stu. Both characters share similar traits, backgrounds, abilities and character arcs, and yet Luke emerges from online debate relatively unscathed, it seems.

Which leaves me wondering if the Mary Sue accusation would still be levelled against Burnham if her gender matched her first name.

Relevance

My main contention with the Mary Sue argument, however, is its relevance to in-depth critique of any work of fiction.

Ultimately, it gets thrown around as a catch-all term for a character whose talents strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and yes, that is a valid critique, but it’s also a reasonably shallow one that pretty much goes nowhere.

You can still have a rounded character with a lot of talent. Jean Luc Picard is apparently good at just about everything: he’s a natural leader; a talented pilot; he was the only first-year cadet to ever win the Academy marathon; he was a scientist; an archaeologist; a strategist; he could sing; he could fight; everyone around him looked up at him with adoration and respect.

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By all these counts, Picard is a bit of a Mary Sue himself – and yet I don’t think any fans of the show would ever call him that, because we like him. We’re emotionally invested in Picard, and so the usual criticisms that would be levelled at a character with multiple talents are abandoned. And if the label of “Mary Sue” is only going to be applied against characters that we don’t like, and not the ones that we do like, then its value as a critique of a character or piece of writing becomes ancillary at best, and vindictive at worst.

Put simply, why is Michael Burnham a Mary Sue, but Picard is not? I imagine the answer is not due to an in-depth analysis of either character.


What Burnham Lacks

If we agree that Burnham is not a Mary Sue, then let’s take a look at what Burnham actually is, by which I mean, let’s review some of her character traits as presented over the course of the show.

If you’ve seen the Plinkett Review of ‘The Phantom Menace’ then you’ll be familiar with the “characterisation test”, in which Mike Stoklasa asks his friends and colleagues to describe different characters in the Star Wars franchise to see how they compare to one another.

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For those of you familiar with RedLetterMedia – on the left is Jay Bauman when he was still playing Andy Dwyer in ‘Parks And Recreation’, before he sexied up for ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’.

Now, I don’t have any friends and I hate my colleagues, so I’m going to have to do most of the work myself, but let’s take a look.

The rules are:

  1. Describe a character as best you can
  2. without referring to what they look like
  3. or what their job/role is.

I’m going to add an extra rule for this particular exercise, the purpose of which will become apparent later:

  • Without describing the character’s background or origins.

So, let’s go through the characters of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and see how this pans out:

Tilly

  • Awkward
  • Nervous
  • Ambitious
  • Kind
  • Optimistic
  • Reckless
  • Smart
  • Friendly
  • Inexperienced
  • Supportive
  • Vulnerable
  • Determined

Stamets

  • Passionate
  • Driven
  • Intelligent
  • Loving
  • Brash
  • Arrogant
  • Caring
  • Inconsiderate
  • Pensive
  • Headstrong

Saru

  • Compassionate
  • Considerate
  • Skittish
  • Thoughtful
  • Contemplative
  • Resentful
  • Suspicious
  • Passive Aggressive
  • Encouraging
  • Loyal
  • Surprisingly Jacked

Not all of these traits are necessarily positive, and that’s okay. Stamets is a bit of a dick sometimes, especially when his work is challenged. That might make him a bad person (I don’t personally think it does), but it doesn’t make him a bad character. Likewise, Saru held onto his grudge against Burnham for a good long while, and it may have been justified, but it’s not an endearing trait in its own right.

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Burnham

  • Intelligent
  • Stern
  • Brave
  • Foolish
  • Likes ‘Alice In Wonderland’
  • Spock’s Sis Raised by Vul Xenoanthr Occasionally Awkward

Not only are the fewer means of describing Burnham based on her actions in the show, but when you put those words side by side, you can see just how much more emotive the descriptions of each other character are by comparison:

traits
If it’s in a table then it must be true.

I’ve highlighted those traits that I think are the most provocative to most audiences, and maybe you disagree with the emphasis, and that’s fine. But in general, it’s more engaging to watch characters with strong emotional traits like those highlighted in orange – the others, traits like “Considerate” and “Pensive”, are good too, and necessary – but they are not as exciting or engaging to the audience.

By way of example, see Tyrion from ‘Game Of Thrones’ – he’s a fan favourite, a very endearing character with a lot of sympathetic traits. He’s also extremely cunning, witty and devious. And whilst Tyrion’s inherent tragedy makes audiences love him and root for him, it’s only because of his snippy comebacks, his clever insights and his surface-level arrogance and cockiness that we engage with him in the first place.

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Burnham doesn’t have traits like that. She’s smart, yes, but her first big on-screen action is one of outright stupidity and betrayal. She isn’t funny – she doesn’t make the audience laugh, and neither is she particularly sympathetic. She’s brave in the face of death, sure – but she’s hardly idealistic, beyond the tacked-on “morals” at the end of the first season.

Now, one defence of this particular lack of strong characterisation on Burnham’s part is that she’s a central viewpoint character, otherwise known as a “protagonist”. And it’s true that protagonists are generally less overtly characterised than their supporting cast – think Luke compared to Han and Leia, or Kirk compared to Spock and McCoy.

You need your viewpoint character to be a little less extreme and a little more accessible, because they are your audience’s window into the world you’re creating. So the protagonist has to be a bit more boring in order for the audience to “imprint” on them and get sucked into their story, rooting for them to succeed and achieve their goals.

Which raises another issue with Burnham…


Prot-Agony

Burnham is what you’d call a “pro-ta-gonist” or a “lead character.” She’s the character whose journey we follow throughout the run of ‘Discovery’. She’s the first character we’re introduced to and the character with whom we spend the most time, as well as being the character who interacts with all of the other characters the most.

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Rachel Thorn, British improviser of ‘Between Us’ and ‘CSI: Crime Scene Improvisation’ fame, once explained that improvised theatre lives and dies on the goodwill of the audience. When the audience has no idea of what to expect or even what kind of show they will be seeing, it’s vital to get them as comfortable as possible so that they can enjoy and easily follow the story that you’re telling.

For protagonist-driven improvised stories, Rachel further elaborates, it is therefore vital not to squander the audience’s goodwill, and the improvisers must clearly establish a protagonist and one or more objectives for which they can strive – narrative elements with which any audience will be comfortable and familiar. And the improvisers must establish these things quickly, before the audience gets too uncomfortable and starts counting the minutes until they can politely leave.

For non-improvised science fiction and fantasy stories, this same principle applies. When there are shows that run the range of cultural familiarity from as wacky as ‘Farscape’ through to as conventional as the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot,  it’s important to give the audience familiar narrative concepts to which they can cling as they get to know the world in which the story takes place.

And those two examples hold true. ‘Farscape’ softens the impact of its colourfully bizarre universe by having a conventional, accessible lead character. Meanwhile, ‘Battlestar’ lacks any central lead character, but benefits from a society that very closely mirrors our own in terms of social progression, political structures and military hierarchies.

Indeed, the Twelve Colonies are essentially just “Britain and North America with spaceships,” with familiar concepts of laws, presidents, elections, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, card games, and outdated religious fundamentalism. Even the technology level is mostly equivalent to 1980’s terrestrial equipment, with the only exceptions being the FTL drives, efficient launch thrusters on starships, gravity plating, and intelligent robots.

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So, when you have a universe such as that in Star Trek, with hugely advanced technology which includes forcefields, teleporters, tractor beams, holograms and cloaking devices, and you have weird, unfamiliar races like martial Klingons, permanently-terrified Kelpiens and emotionless vulcans, as well as a post-scarcity socio-economic Federation built on near-absolute egalitarianism, well, you need a familiar, accessible protagonist.

Which is a problem, because Burnham isn’t a very good protagonist.

And that’s because she is not a character who has any clear personal goals.

  • In ‘Conscience Is For Kings’ Lorca offers Burnham the chance to serve in Starfleet again and possibly redeem herself. She refuses, twice, instead of seizing upon an opportunity to at least try to atone for some of her crimes.
  • In ‘Lethe’ she describes how bored and unengaged she is with her duties aboard the ship.
  • In ‘Despite Yourself’ and ‘The Wolf Inside’, she treats her first chance at command (albeit of a Terran ship) with abject boredom. There’s no passion either way – she isn’t visibly anxious or excited or appalled or scared in any given scene – she remains stone-faced and grim throughout.

Most of the time, Burnham seems merely to be along for the ride, doing what she’s told as she’s told to do it. There is no scene where she pleads to be given a chance to prove herself, nor even where she just has to watch longingly as other officers go off on adventures without her.

In effect, her mistakes at the Binary Stars and her subsequent criminal conviction seem to have left her dejected and depressed, and that’s actually pretty realistic. But it isn’t engaging! It’s not easy for an audience to latch onto a character like that for more than an episode or two, but Burnham seems determined to wallow in her self-pity for nearly a full season.

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What Burnham needed was a crusade. She needed to be handed some task or assignment that she could cling on to as her one chance at redemption. As a xenoanthropologist, she needed to be given the task of bringing a Federation ally into the war against the Klingons, or even of figuring out the cultural triggers for the Klingon Empire that might facilitate negotiations, maybe even a truce. And then we, the audience, needed to see her commit herself fully to that task, devoting herself to it with enthusiasm, maybe even desperation.

For a moment, that was very nearly the Tardigrade. But that problem is promptly resolved with thoughts and prayers by the end of the same episode in which the problem is introduced. Then we’re just back to indifference.


Let’s take a look at the character of Alicia Florrick, from ‘The Good Wife’.

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First off, if you’ve not seen ‘The Good Wife’, can I suggest you put all other projects and commitments on hold until you have at least finished the third season? You won’t regret it.

So, Alicia starts her journey as, essentially, a discarded trophy wife. She’s an attractive, young mother married to a disgraced politician, from whom she has separated following his scandalous involvement with prostitutes and alleged corruption.

She retains custody of her two children, living separately from her husband, whilst still publicly putting on a show of being a supportive, loving partner despite his indiscretions. She is, in fact, trying to be “the good wife”, as defined by society’s gender norms of powerful men doing despicable things and being forgiven by the women whose trust they abuse and whose lives they devastate because men are allowed to make any number of mistakes as long as they offer some kind of remorse afterwards because seriously, fuck the patriarchy.

We start the show with Alicia starting her new job as a low-ranked lawyer at a law firm owned by Will, a man her same age and whom she went to law school with. Whilst she left her legal career to become a political accessory, Will stayed in practice and advanced his career, and now as a favour to Alicia brings her in as a junior associate so that she can regain her independence and provide for her children.

Right from the get-go, Alicia is motivated and determined to prove herself as a capable lawyer and a loving parent. Every episode tackles her struggles to balance her responsibilities as a parent, her role as a prop for a rubbish politician, and her career as an ambitious young attorney.

Alicia’s personality, on the other hand, is… well, she’s pretty milquetoast. It’s frequently noted in the series itself that she’s a bit of a wallflower, especially compared to the serene authoritarianism of Diane Lockhart or the devastating straightforwardness of Kalinda.

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That is, until Alicia grapples with a case and takes the lead, when you realise that she’s competent, well-prepared, knowledgeable and actually pretty ruthless when she needs to be. She grabs cases in her jaw and doesn’t let go until she’s shaken them to death. She’s assertive, and cocky, and dedicated, and that shines through because of her motivation and her commitment to her objectives.

So even though Diane gets to tackle the chunkier, more philosophical matters around feminism and representation, and Kalinda gets to go around smashing cars up with baseball bats and weaponising her sexuality in a frankly terrifying manner, and Will gets to be smarmy and cocky and Cary gets to be sneaky and devious and Eli just gets all the best lines (God bless you Alan Cummings)…

… It’s Alicia that we follow and that we root for (most of the time). And it’s easy to root for her because she has qualities and traits that we, the audience, can relate to and also aspire to, and we can enjoy seeing her succeed because she cares so much about the things she does.


This tracks through other stories, too:

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All of these characters work as protagonists because they are strongly motivated by clear, sympathetic goals, and their goals are central to the main plot of the story. They also have agency to achieve those goals and to take actions that will directly effect the progression of the story. And that is what marks them out as successful protagonists. On the other hand:

So we look at Burnham in Season 1 of DISCO, and we see someone who:

  • Doesn’t want to engage with the wider story of the Klingon war;
  • Has no long- or medium-term motivations or goals;
  • Lacks the rank or authority to have any agency in the outcome of the war.

withoutgettinginvolved

That last one’s debatable, as she certainly gets sent on lots of important missions. But that serves as something of a contradiction given that she’s a disgraced officer with no rank, and in any case she never seems to have any motivation to go on those missions herself.

So, let’s look at Season 2 so far, where Burnham:

  • Has no knowledge or understanding of the Red Bursts or the Red Angel, hence no ability to interact with this aspect of the storyline;
  • Has made no decision to involve herself in the Red Bursts or the Red Angel but has simply been dragged into it by Pike;
  • Has no established on-screen relationship with her foster brother, Spock;
  • Has no other personal investment in the plot itself.

Which then leads into the question: what are Burnham’s goals this season? We’re five episodes in, and we have no established objectives of Burnham’s. The Red Bursts are Pike’s mission; Spock’s disappearance is something that she had to be guilted into reluctantly engaging with by a dying Saru.

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Burnham herself has no goals in this story – she has no horse in this race, beyond the fact that she is incidentally related to Spock.

Now, the same is also true of characters in The Original Series, The Next Generation, and to a lesser extent ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Voyager’. Neither Kirk nor Picard nor Riker nor any of the others have clearly-defined long-standing goals, and neither do they have particularly emotive character traits in the vein of Tilly or Saru.

However, these characters all take turns playing the protagonist on an episode-by-episode basis, which sadly means they all need to be suitable protagonist material, i.e. not so strongly characterised that the audience can’t imprint upon them.

Further, whenever one of these characters becomes the protagonist of an episode, they are usually given strong motivations which engage them with the larger plot. In both Riker’s and Geordi’s episodes, usually this motivation begins and ends with their penises.

For Kirk and Picard, it might be as simple as their need to protect their ship and their crew from whatever space-wuzzle is currently molesting the ship.

For Data, it will be some kind of insight into the human condition, whilst for Beverly it’s usually more driven by her relationships with others, or by reading her grandmother’s erotic memoirs.

blazinbev
Blazin’ Bev at it again.

Whilst the potential for such motivations exist for Burnham, she herself never truly grasps them, and we are left with a character who seems broadly disconnected from whatever story is occurring at any given moment. Her nuzzling with Ash on the planet Pahvo does not tie in with and is a distraction from the broader mission, and from Saru’s betrayal.

In ‘Into The Forest I Go’, she states openly that she has “no other purpose” than to plant the sensors on the Klingon ship –  but she makes this argument from the perspective of her having the best skill set to achieve the mission goals – we see her as a crew member attempting to maximise efficiency, rather than seeing a young officer desperately seeking redemption. Indeed, her very tone is a peculiar mix of argumentative disdain and matter-of-fact objectivity. She doesn’t display the necessary passion for the audience to connect with her emotionally and root for her.

otherwiseihavenopurposehere


More Backstory Than Story

So far, we’ve looked at what Burnham isn’t, but we haven’t really looked at what she is. Let’s do that now.

Remember that little characterisation test I ran above, with Tilly, Stamets, Saru and Burnham? Remember that extra rule I added? “Without describing the character’s background or origins.”?

Okay, let’s reverse it. Let’s only talk about each character’s background and origins. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to treat the two-part pilot of ‘Discovery’ as being background, since it is effectively a prologue and is separated from the series’ beginning proper by a full six months:

Tilly

  • The best theoretical engineer in Starfleet, in or out of the Academy.
  • Has a rocky relationship with her mother.

Stamets

  • A peacetime scientist roped into the war to develop his technology for military use.
  • Is married to the ship’s doctor.

Saru

  • Member of a species governed by fear of death, a prey species exploited by a predatory race.
  • Served under Captain Georgiou for many years.
  • We later learn that he is the only member of his species to leave his planet and encounter alien races.

These are all breathlessly brief. And that’s fine! We don’t need a shitload of backstory for our characters – in reality, they never existed until we first see them on the screen, so the most interesting parts of their lives should happen on-screen.

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Burnham

  • The orphan of a Klingon attack which killed her parents when she was a child.
  • The only human to be fostered and raised by Vulcans.
  • The foster-sister of Spock and foster-daughter of Sarek.
  • The target and survivor of a terrorist attack by Vulcan Logic-Extremists opposed to her integration into Vulcan society.
  • Psychically linked to her father Sarek, who saved her life via mind meld after the terrorist attack.
  • The first mutineer in Starfleet, betraying her captain.
  • Responsible for starting a war with the Klingons (but also isn’t, really, but we’ll get to that).
  • Sentenced to life in prison for her crimes.

Woah. I mean, even excluding the events at the Binary Stars, that only covers the last three points. Burnham has an incredibly detailed background, and almost all of it from when she was a child, and all of it established in the first couple of hours of her screen time.

What’s particularly notable is that the list of her backstory elements is longer than the list of her characteristics. It is also longer than her list of goals/motivations, because she barely has any motivations that she demonstrates on-screen.

What’s more significant from a characterisation and narrative perspective is that these are all things that happen TO Burnham, rather than being things which DESCRIBE her. Put another way, besides her mutiny, none of these things represent decisions that Burnham herself took, and so their effect on her personality must be inferred, as it is not implied.

If we look at Stamets, we see that he was a scientist before the war, whose work was deemed to be of military interest. We also see that he’s happily married to the ship’s doctor. This implies a person who is passionate, committed and inquisitive, pursuing science for science’s sake rather than because of its applications.

We can infer that he might be resentful of the path that was forced upon him, but we really need to see that manifest in the character – based on his background alone, he may be a patriot who is happy to contribute to the war effort, but is sad that his work will be seeing military use before it benefits any peacetime projects. Or not, but these are inferred traits.

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I got bored looking for pictures of Stamets, so here’s a picture of Amos. You’re welcome.

In Burnham’s case, all of her background elements do not imply much about her character. They may suggest that she has suffered trauma, that she had a distinct upbringing, but no aspect of her personality is implied by any of those events:

  • Did the loss of her parents make her resentful towards Klingons, or did it make her want to reach out to other cultures to prevent other children from becoming orphans?
  • Did she commit herself fully to her Vulcan upbringing, or does she have a rebellious side that saw her seeking out her native Earth culture?
  • Was her mutiny a justified, moralistic act, or was it a result of her ambition, or some quest for vengeance?

Now, these questions can be answered on-screen, but if these questions require on-screen exploration then they should become the story that we follow in their own right, and should not be the backstory to a different narrative. If a character’s background does not directly inform on their personality, then that background is essentially pointless, and simply clogs up the narrative.

Specifically: we, the audience, never meet Michael Burnham’s human parents, and so we have no idea of what kind of relationship she had with them. As a result, we do not know what effect their death had on Michael as a character, nor do we understand the full extent of Michael’s feelings towards the Klingons. Neither do we see her growing up on Vulcan as a human orphan, and so we have no concept how that upbringing shaped her personality.

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In order to understand all these backstories, and how they might lead to her committing mutiny as she did, these backstories need to be depicted on-screen – at which point, it is the backstories that become the story that should be told, rather than the subsequent events for which we, the audience, lack the necessary emotional context to understand the character that is Michael Burnham.

Trimming this down to two sentences:

As a writer creating a character, you cannot simply bolt on past events to the character’s origins if those events do not directly inform the character’s personality. Every aspect of a character’s backstory should be relevant to how the character behaves, and cannot replace strong motivations and defining character traits with which the audience can emotionally connect.


Going back to ‘The Good Wife’ and our friend, Alicia Florrick, Alicia’s backstory is very simple:

  • She gave up her law career to become a wife and a mother to two children.
  • Her husband betrayed her and disgraced himself publicly.
  • She separated from her husband, but maintains a public connection with him to support his rehabilitation.

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As mentioned previously, Alicia is a strong character with clear motivations. But her backstory is simple – it’s three short lines which require very little elaboration. Her sacrificing of her own career implies devotion and selflessness*. Her husband’s betrayal implies vulnerability and a trusting nature. Her commitment to remain publicly supportive of him implies loyalty and selflessness.

(* – A note to point out that she could have kept her career and still demonstrated those qualities, but we’re talking within the context of the show’s setting and early 2000’s America.)

Alicia does not have a particularly remarkable backstory beyond her disgraced husband. She is not a victim of terrible tragedy, nor is she the granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln. Her backstory is personal, and relatable to lots of people who have suffered betrayal, and broadly sympathetic. There is no mystery to it, neither does it require on-screen depiction for the audience to understand it.

If Peter, Alicia’s husband, was instead the protagonist of the show, then we would need more backstory, particularly around why he would betray his loving wife and risk his political career the way he did. But he is not the protagonist, and this is not his story.


The short version of all of this is simply to say:

The beginning of a protagonist’s journey should be the beginning of the overall story that is being told.

If your protagonist’s journey actually starts quite a bit before the story you’re telling, then you need to start there in order for your audience to connect with the protagonist. If it starts after, then you shouldn’t be wasting screen time on anything but essential world-building.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Luke never knew his father. Luke has always dreamed of escaping his life as a moisture farmer to go off on adventures. He has no other backstory (at first). Luke’s first adventure begins within twenty minutes of us meeting Luke for the first time.
  • Sarah is a young mother who has lost custody of her child due to her reckless lifestyle. She is desperate to prove that she has the means to provide for her daughter and get her back. Her first opportunity to change her fortunes occurs within moments of her meeting a mysterious doppelganger, scant minutes after we meet Sarah herself.
  • Katniss lives a life of relative poverty with her younger sister; both of their parents are dead. She is desperate to protect her sister. Her first major act of protective self-sacrifice occurs within the first twenty minutes of our introduction to Katniss.

katniss

In all three of these examples, each character has very minimal backstory. In the cases of Luke and Sarah (‘Star Wars’ and ‘Orphan Black’, respectively) we learn more about their origins in later instalments in the series, but crucially their introductions are minimalist and require very little exploration – Luke is a bored farm boy daydreaming of a more exciting life, Sarah is a scruffy waster who needs to create a better life for herself so that she can reunite with her daughter. Both of these characters are compelling and imprintable without the complex backstories that are later introduced.

For both Luke and Katniss (‘The Hunger Games’) we spend longer getting to know the worlds which they inhabit before the adventure begins. We see space battles and robots and Storm Troopers before we ever meet Luke, getting the essential world building out of the way early on. Before Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games, the social structure of Panem and some of its cultural concepts are explained to the audience.

A skewed example is that of Eleanor in ‘The Good Place’, an Arizona trashbag who lived a mediocre life of petty selfishness. One day, she wakes up in the Afterlife and realises that she has been mistakenly assigned to the Good Place, when really she ought to be in the Bad Place. This forces her to begin a journey of self-realisation and moral redemption in order to earn her place in Paradise.

In the case of Eleanor, the audience genuinely does require a deeper exploration of her backstory. But this fits thematically with the retrospective nature of ‘The Good Place’ and the ideas with which it wrestles – that of self-reflection on ones’ own actions, and the morality of the decisions we all make. As such, we do see more of Eleanor’s story in the form of flashbacks, and we do learn more about her upbringing and her personality before her death, and how this sculpted the character we see on screen.

eleanor1

Most importantly, though, the story being told is that of Eleanor’s journey to self-realisation and redemption, and so the story of ‘The Good Place’ starts at the beginning of Eleanor’s journey.

What splits this approach from that of ‘Discovery’ is threefold:

  • Eleanor has strong emotional characterisation in terms of her selfishness and biting sense of humour coupled with her resentment, regret and developing guilt.
  • Eleanor has strong, clear goals to motivate her, and to which she commits fully.
  • Eleanor’s backstory is not complex, and does not require a journey of its own – we do not need to follow Eleanor from birth to understand how she is the way she is today.

Conversely:

  • Burnham lacks strong emotional characterisation.
  • Burnham lacks strong, clear goals to which she is fully committed.
  • Burnham’s backstory is complex, meandering, and requires far more exploration and screen time than it is afforded in the course of the show.

So, why would the writers focus so heavily on Burnham’s backstory, and not her motivations and characterisation?

Well, to answer that we need, after much delay, to address the title of this essay:


The Hashtag Protagonist

So, let’s say you’re writing your weird Star Trek fan fiction about a resentful, embittered fish-out-of-water Starfleet cadet who has been coerced by her family to relocate to a distant frontier, leading into a high school / college coming-of-age drama about independence and social acceptance, with a sub-plot of eugenics (genetic engineering of humans) as an analogy for drug use, sexuality and the general breaking of taboo that comes with being a young adult in a strange new world.

fanfiction

You’re more or less writing this for yourself, even if you do misguidedly post the early chapters on your trashy sci-fi review blog, and so you don’t really care about how you can get this garbage piece of amateur-hour Twilight-meets-Voyager’s-‘Threshold’ bullshit to #Trend on #SocialMedia. Which means you also don’t care about unique selling points which can easily be turned into #Hashtags.

But when you’re writing your overly-long, barely-researched, poorly-worded blog post about narrative flaws in the latest Star Trek series, which you hope might go viral enough for you to seriously consider a career as a blogger so you can kick your bullshit soul-eating office job to the kerb and finally live your best life, you do care about hot-button issues and key, memorable terms which can easily translate into attention-grabbing #Hashtags, so you’re careful to include such things in the article itself so that you can plaster those #Hashtags all over your #SocialMedia posts hoping for #ReShares, #ReTweets and #Mentions. Because you’re a bag of #CheapTrash in the shape of a human.

Put simply, the easier it is for you to break down the key components of your piece of writing into #Hashtaggable #TwoWord #MemorablePhrases, the more likely you are to gain traction on #SocialMedia. And #SocialMedia is widely accepted as the most powerful marketing tool currently in existence.

#EnoughHashtags

Now, let’s say that you’re a mediocre producer and a terrible writer, and you have somehow been handed the reins of a successful, widely-loved franchise.

createdby

Let’s just assume that it’s a given that your primary goal extends only as far as driving subscriber numbers to your studio’s new streaming service. All other concerns are secondary.

And let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that you possess enough self-awareness to know that you lack the ability to create a genuinely engaging show which will draw viewers in on its own merits.

What do you do?

Well, you’re trying to appeal to an online audience, which means social media and online advertising is going to be even more important to your marketing strategy, and hence the success of the show/streaming service. Not least because you can include links directly to new episodes in your various tweets and posts. The more shares you get, the more clicks you get to your new streaming service, the more subscribers you gain. More subscribers equals more money

So, the solution is simple.

Roll on the hashtags.

Now, when I talk about hashtags, I do mean literal #Hashtags, but we’re also looking at sentences shorter than 200 characters (leaving space for links and images). We’re looking at anything that is short, snappy, and provocative, and slots in nicely into tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram stories.

I think you know where this is going.

#SpocksSister

#RaisedByVulcans

#FirstMutineer

#KlingonWar

#DisgracedOfficer

#OrphanedByKlingons

All of these backstory elements serve a single purpose – to turn a character into a collection of high-concept premises. A collection of hashtags and social media-friendly concepts which draw attention and make it seem like the story you’re writing will be treading new ground.

My hypothesis is that when ‘Discovery’ was being conceived, the people in the room focused entirely on the marketable premises that they thought would drive internet traffic and online word-of-mouth, and never actually got around to turning these backstory elements into a cohesive character.

burnhamtilly


I like Sonequa Martin-Green. She’s a good actor, and she seems to have genuine enthusiasm and charisma when she isn’t playing an emotionally repressed human raised by a race of emotionally repressed aliens.

I also think that it’s important to have new Star Trek shows led by protagonists from diverse backgrounds.

I think it was pretty much vital for a Star Trek show released in 2017 to feature a WoC (“woman of colour”) as its lead character. The franchise has always had a legacy for inclusion and diversity, even if in reality it often missed the mark.

What I do not think was vital was to stymie the development of Star Trek’s first WoC lead character by turning her into a social media mule.

goodideatime2

Here’s my proposition:

People of any background, race, gender or sexuality can be compelling, engaging and relatable protagonists, without the need for attention-grabbing backstories.

Michael Burnham did not need to be Starfleet’s first mutineer to be an interesting character. Nor did she need to be Spock’s Sister, Sarek’s Daughter, or any of the other gumpf that hovers around her.

Michael Burnham just needed to be a competent, confident and idealistic Starfleet officer, as with Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and… well, like those four who came before her.

Archer gets to sit in a corner muttering about Vulcans.

We know for a fact that this approach would work with Michael Burnham because we have already seen it work with Captain Georgiou. Georgiou was a competent, confident and idealistic Starfleet officer, and she was perfect. Georgiou had no special background, no ties to the wider franchise, and she would have made an amazing protagonist for this series, as I’ve maintained since the very beginning.

georgiou3

All we needed for Michael Burnham to function as a character was for her to act like an intelligent, moralistic but mostly normal human being. We didn’t need her to make stupid, unfathomable decisions which involve betraying her captain for poorly-explained reasons relating to a complex backstory.

Now, there’s a more cynical issue to cover, which I’ll try to tackle as elegantly as I can, which is:

Am I correct that Michael Burnham was conceived as a constellation of hashtags to help push an online marketing campaign.

Or, was it first decided that ‘Discovery’ needed a black, female protagonist, and out-of-touch executives and showrunners did not feel that audiences would connect with such a character on her own merits, prompting them to concoct a lot of dramatic, high-concept backstories in order to “sell” her to an uncertain market?

Because if I’m being 100% honest, I could genuinely accept the truth that Alex Kurtsman, Les Moonves et al would be willing to bow to changing market pressures to make their new show more inclusive, whilst also having no clue how to market a black female protagonist to an audience that they barely understand themselves.

What I wanted out of ‘Discovery’ was a show where the protagonist is a smart, capable black woman, with an awesome Malaysian female captain, a socially awkward female cadet, and two men in a loving marriage who show normal levels of affection towards one another –

And for all of that to be completely, 100% status quo, unremarkable, par for the course.

stametsculber

But between the fridging of Captain Georgiou and Commander Landry, the lack of women actually engaging with one another in the earlier stages of the show, and the generally dark, grim and miserable tone of the entire series, I honestly don’t think the creators of ‘Discovery’ are capable of thinking in those terms. I could genuinely be convinced that to someone like Alex Kurtzman, the very idea of a black woman leading a show is so bizarro-land that it mandates extra layers of dramatic intrigue just to be palatable.

And fine, that might be a stretch. But a quick review of Kurtzman’s IMDB page reveals that the projects for which he has either produced or written are all centred around white protagonists, predominantly male (with notable exceptions being ‘Sleepy Hollow’, in which the secondary lead is a black woman, and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, his only show to feature a black female protagonist.)

(As a side note, the same issue also bothers me with Stamets and Culber’s physically distant relationship. Through all of their scenes together across 14 episodes, they have kissed each other twice. Fan explanations for this have been “maybe they’re just not a physically affectionate couple”, which is fine, but it’s annoying to me that the first main gay couple we get on Star Trek should specifically have that fairly unusual trait, especially when it so neatly helps to avoid offending conservative audiences.)


The other concern with this focus on backstory is that it takes focus away from who Burnham is as a character.

Let’s look at ‘Lethe’, the sixth episode of the first season of ‘Discovery’. In it, Sarek is wounded by a terrorist attack, and is left dying on a damaged ship in the middle of a nebula. Burnham goes on a mission to psychically link with him, keeping him alive and hopefully locating his ship so that he can be rescued.

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As Burnham attempts to psychically reach out to Sarek, he rebuffs her, kicking her out of his mindspace as he tries to close himself off from outside intervention. This leads to confrontation and revelation between father and foster-daughter, as they explore a key moment in both of their lives, in which Sarek chose Spock over Burnham to have the opportunity to join the Vulcan Science Expedition.

The issue with this is that, even though Burnham is our protagonist, we spend the episode learning more about Sarek and his relationship with his children, than we do about Burnham and her relationship with her father. And that’s a subtle but important difference, because the focus is on Sarek, and an exploration of his character – it is merely Burnham’s role in the story to reassure him on the decisions he made.

Winding on to Season 2, and we end up in a similar situation during ‘Point Of Light’, the third episode, in which Burnham’s foster mother, Amanda, boards Discovery. Throughout this episode, the pair of them discuss the matter at hand – Spock, Amanda’s son and Burnham’s foster brother, who is on the run after allegedly killing three Starfleet officers.

And again, all of the talk and discussion centres around Spock and his journey. And Spock is a character we are yet to even meet in this series! We learn very little new about Burnham herself, beyond the fact that she did something horrible to push him away from her. But what is then discussed is how this act affected Spock, and not how Burnham may have come to live with it as she grew up.

normalchildhood

Which means we’re taking Star Trek’s first black female protagonist and using her as a tool for expanding the characterisation of two existing white male characters. Her own development and growth as a character is sacrificed for the sake of Sarek and Spock.

This is all a symptom of giving her a complex backstory, and specifically a backstory which is intimately entwined with two significant characters from the existing Star Trek universe. Spock and Sarek are both more interesting to the writers, it seems, and at this point they’re more interesting to the audience, because Burnham has so little motivation and characterisation.


On The Other Hand, The Exact Opposite Might Be True

Now, let’s get one thing clear:

I can already hear all of your objections to everything I’ve just written.

You’ve watched ‘Discovery’, too, and you love it! And you love Michael Burnham! She’s a character you connect with! And all of my criticisms above are because I’m oversimplifying, missing important subtext, or just wilfully misinterpreting to fit my racist, misogynistic agenda.

Which, well… y’know. I guess. Whatever.

Well, let’s address this. With an analogy. Because I love analogies.


Towards the end of Season 6 of ‘Game Of Thrones’, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark are preparing for battle with Ramsay Snow, the dick-removing dickhead who has laid claim to their home, Winterfell.

We, the audience, watch as Jon relentlessly clutches onto the Idiot Ball, ignoring all of Sansa’s sage advice and experience dealing with Ramsay Snow, and sociopathic megalomaniacs in general.

cerseilannister
Stolen from chrysreviews.com – originally lifted from here.

Jon joins battle with the same reckless, headstrong manner with which he does everything, gets pretty roundly crushed by Ramsay’s superior strategy and intellect, and is only saved by Sansa’s forthright and proactive decision to summon aid from the Vale. Glorious knights sweep across the battlefield, routing Ramsay’s army and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

To the audience, Sansa has shown the superior intellect, political nounce and restraint of a competent leader. Not only does she outclass Jon, but she also out-names him, being Ned Stark’s last (known) legitimate child, and the last (known) living person currently in Westeros carrying the name Stark.

So naturally, in the next episode, the Lords of the North name Jon Snow the new King of the North, and Lord of Winterfell, and-

Wait a god damn moment.

How on earth are people rallying around this soppy sack of pugilistic masculine insecurity? Jon Snow is at best a decent duellist and at worst a god damn liability as soon as any degree of lateral thinking is required. Time and again we have seen him fuck up, make stupid, self-destructive decisions, and in general just be a flaming, shoddy, scruffy, beautiful mess of a human being.

To say that it’s disappointing to see him take the crown instead of Sansa is an understatement. It feels narratively cheap, like the writers have no idea what they’re doing – the events of the story do not follow from A to B to C.

kingofthenorth

The obvious answer is that all the sweaty, hairy Northern Lords saw Jon Snow lead the armies of the North, and also he’s a man, and also his soulful eyes and gorgeous hair give them feelings that they’re not quite sure how to process, and so of course they’ll pick him to be their leader.

But it’s not who we, the audience, would have picked.

And so it feels wrong.

The problem is that we, the audience, did not share the same journey as the Lords of the North. On our journey through the narrative, Sansa has grown from a prissy and useless teenager into a savvy, cynical political operator. Jon has shown literally zero character growth, on the other hand, and has remained as reckless and dumb as he was when we first saw him back in Season One.

Indeed, even short-term, our journey took us through the private meetings between Jon and Sansa, and the debates that they had on the best path forwards, and the many examples of Sansa correcting Jon on his ridiculous inability to think in anything but straight lines.

sansa

Now, to the audience, the Lords’ choice to crown Jon is just plainly wrong, and although we can take a step back and reason it out and come up with our own headcanon as to why it made sense to them, all of that is a distraction and breaks immersion in the story. By definition, if you have to detach yourself from the story being told just to be able to understand the story being told, then you’re no longer immersed in it.

Ultimately, to understand the Lords’ decision, it needed to be their journey that we followed, and not Sansa’s or Jon’s.

Separation between character journeys and audience journeys can be used very effectively, and the prime example of this in ‘Game Of Thrones’ is Joffrey. Time and again, we see his horrible, dreadful behaviour rewarded. This is painful to watch as an audience, because we know just how much of a fucking shitstain Joffrey really is. When other characters don’t know this, and subsequently don’t treat him like a shitstain, we get indignant, even furious.

How can Sansa still be fawning over him when he was such a prick to Arya? How can she be so stupid? So blind? Why is Joffrey not currently suspended from the spire of the Sept Of The Seven by his smelly britches?

joffers

But the intended effect is achieved – we, the audience, hate Joffrey and despise Sansa. Joffrey is established as a snivelling, sneery little shit whom we can all root against. Sansa is established as an oblivious, shallow child with no self-awareness.

Disconnect between the audience’s journey and a character’s journey can have a powerful emotional impact, but it will usually be a negative one, and so must be used wisely.

Now, how does this link into Burnham?


The Audience’s Journey

At the end of ‘The Vulcan Hello’, the first pilot episode of ‘Discovery’, Burnham betrays Captain Georgiou and attempts to fire on a Klingon vessel, which at present sits in space opposite Georgiou’s ship. No communication has yet been established.

In the lead-up to Burnham’s mutiny, we see her and Georgiou talking, with Georgiou insisting that she will exhaust all attempts at peaceful contact with the Klingons before adopting any military protocols. There has been no formal contact between Starfleet and the Klingons in decades, and so Georgiou sees this as a chance to forge a second “First Contact” – a chance to establish negotiations and build mutual understanding.

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Then, a Klingon beacon lights, sending a summoning call all across the Klingon Empire. Burnham leaves to go and talk to her father. They exchange a few pleasantries, Burnham explains the situation, and then we cut to Burnham on the bridge explaining to Georgiou that the only solution is to fire on the Klingons.

Georgiou refuses, Burnham pleads with her. When Georgiou still refuses, Burnham knocks Georgiou out cold, storms onto the bridge and tries to enact her plan before Georgiou can stop her.

And a lot of people, including myself, got really annoyed.

I got annoyed because I couldn’t understand how anyone in their right mind could come to the conclusion that Burnham had come to. I’d spent just as long with Georgiou as I had with Burnham, and so Burnham turning up out of the blue with her “hot take” that an unprovoked attack was the path to peace seemed utterly unconscionable.

And the reason I felt that way was because my journey, the audience’s journey, was disconnected from Burnham‘s journey. I didn’t see Sarek explain his suggestion to her. I wasn’t with her when her parents were killed by Klingons. I didn’t see her grow up with resentment and bitterness.

Burnham and I experienced different journeys.


The gap between the audience’s journey and a character’s journey can only be filled with “headcanon” – assumptions, inferences and guesswork to explain how two separate events can link together in a logical way.

headcanon
XKCD, delivering pure gold as usual.

And, because I want to piss off as many people as I possibly can, no, tie-in novels do NOT count – if you’re making a film or TV series and marketing it as a film or TV series, you don’t get to address the weaknesses in your story by afterwards telling people that they need to read a novel that somebody else wrote.

If your story relies on the audience to craft their own headcanon, then you are not fulfilling your role as a writer. Ambiguity within a story can be a good thing if it’s thematic and appropriate to the events of the story. It’s fun to try and guess whether or not Ellen Tigh is a Cylon, or who Rey’s parents really are.

But we shouldn’t be left to play guessing games as to the motivations of our protagonist. We shouldn’t be headcanoning our way to explaining major plot points in the show – particularly when we’re just 50 minutes into it and we’ve barely met any of these new characters, or gotten to know any of this new universe (and regardless of Star Trek continuity, it is a new universe, with the prequel setting and the changes in Klingon culture and revised technology levels).

And here’s the reason why:

If Burnham is on a path to redemption, what is she redeeming about herself? What is it about her way of thinking that she needs to change?

Because that’s what a redemption is: it isn’t simply admitting you were wrong, it’s about facing the same challenge again and, this time, besting it.

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I couldn’t be bothered to find yet another picture of Burnham, so here’s a picture of Gunny instead. You’re welcome, Dusters.

In order to understand what Burnham needs to do to find redemption, we need to understand what drove her to mutiny in the first place. Was it:

  • Childhood trauma at the hands of the Klingons?
  • An irrational devotion to her foster father and a willingness to blindly follow his advice?
  • A rebellious nature and a lack of respect for authority?
  • All three of the above?
  • Something else entirely?

If it was a result of childhood trauma, then the audience needs to see that trauma first-hand.

If it’s an irrational devotion to Sarek, then the audience needs to see that manifest in other ways – we need to see her blindly following other advice that he gives her.

If it’s a rebellious nature, then we need to see a track record of her disobeying orders because she thinks she has better ideas than her commanding officers.

If we don’t see any of these things, then we can’t connect with Burnham because of the separation between our journey and her journey. If the only way to understand Burnham is to take a step back and start trying to piece her together like a puzzle, then we are, by definition, not immersed in her story, but rather are acting as air crash investigators trying to coldly reassemble a downed jetliner.

If we’re not immersed in her story, if we’re actively frustrated by behaviour that seems erratic to us, if the burden of characterisation is laid upon the audience and not the writers, then you end up in a situation where half the audience don’t connect with the character, and the other half of the audience accused the first half of just being ignorant, missing subtext or intentionally disliking the character because she’s black and/or a woman.

When you look at protagonists done right, the ambiguity disappears:

  • Nobody disagrees that Ripley is motivated to save Newt because of her maternal guilt over the loss of her own daughter.
  • Nobody disagrees that Johnny Rico only joined the Mobile Infantry because he was a dumb kid who wanted to impress his girlfriend, or that he later became a slave to hatred and revenge.
  • Nobody disagrees that it is Clarice Starling’s ambition that motivates her to interview Hannibal Lecter, or that she later becomes emotionally invested in the case.

claricestarling

The fact that Burnham’s motivations are so open to debate, and the fact that such debate relies on supposition and assumption, is a sign of an objectively poorly-written character, that fails to achieve the very purpose of a protagonist – to provide a genuinely emotional connection for the audience.


When Peter Florrick, Alicia’s husband, approaches her and asks for more public support, asks her to make more sacrifices for the sake of his career, we’re right there with her when she tells him to fuck off. If we’d followed Peter around for three seasons, and not Alicia, we might instead feel that she was being unreasonable, or unsupportive, or downright petty or vengeful, because our journey would align with Peter’s.

But because our journey aligns with Alicia’s, we can unambiguously root for her. She doesn’t need Peter – he needs her! Kick him to the kerb, Alicia! You do what you want! Go fuck Ozymandias, you’re your own person!

(As an aside, if anyone appreciates that ‘Good Wife’ / Ozymandias reference, please let me know in the comments. I… I just really need the validation.)

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Intruder Alert

By clouding Burnham’s motivations in ambiguity, complex backstories, and a lack of strong characterisation, not only do we lose emotional connection to the protagonist and to her journey through the story, but we bring ourselves full circle, back around to that “Mary Sue” segment near the beginning of this article.

One of the inherent traits of a “Mary Sue” is that of “author insertion” – the inherent “otherness” of an unfamiliar character in familiar surroundings.

Given that this is Burnham’s show, it is impossible for her to be an “author insert”, because the thing into which she is being “inserted” is a show which has been written with Michael Burnham as the protagonist.

HOWEVER, the emotional detachment from Burnham that is felt by many in the audience creates a feeling of “otherness” about her. She feels like an outsider, an uninvited guest despite the fact that this is “her” show.

This goes part-way to explaining why a character like Picard does not seem like a Mary Sue – because the audience’s journey is aligned with Picard’s journey, he feels at home in the stories in which he appears.

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I’m genuinely just tired of looking at pictures of Burnham now, so here’s a picture of Naomi. You’re welcome, Beltalowda.

I still firmly maintain that Burnham is not a Mary Sue, for the reasons given earlier (most of all because I don’t like the term or its associations to begin with).

But I do understand the feeling that many seem to have of her being a square peg hammered into a round hole. Her actions and her choices feel strange, she feels like a mystery, an enigma, and it’s impossible to objectively identify her motivations based on the text of story.

The writers’ inability to properly establish her as a protagonist leave her feeling like an outsider in her own story.


In Summary…

We’ve reached the end of a marathon deconstruction of Michael Burnham, and protagonist characters in general. And if you’ve made it this far, I thank you.

To recap what we’ve covered:

  • Michael Burnham is not a “Mary Sue”, and if she is, then so is Jean Luc Picard.
  • Michael Burnham lacks strong characterisation, although that would be forgivable for a protagonist.
  • However, she also lacks strong motivations or goals, which is unforgivable for a protagonist.
  • Michael Burnham has far too complex a backstory, and it fails to characterise her.
  • This backstory itself seems to be more in service to marketing, or potentially to the fact that the show’s creators were uncertain about a black female lead.
  • The backstory distances the audience from Burnham’s journey through the main plot.
  • The misalignment between the audience’s journey and Burnham’s journey serves to make her actions seem erratic and unrelatable.
  • This then causes Burnham to feel out of place, despite the story being crafted specifically for her.

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An Ending

We have reached the end of this monstrous article, nearly 11,000 words in length. I hope you have found it engaging and provocative – or that you have at least appreciated the effort I put into stretched analogies and barely-relevant screenshots.

Although this article is titled “Discovery In Depth”, this series so far has really been about storytelling in general. ‘Discovery’ just happens to be the perfect example of bad storytelling that’s currently being released.

All the same, this is likely to be one of the last articles I write covering ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. I will still be following the show, and if anything crops up that is particularly egregious it may warrant a rant.

But that fact is that it has become tiring to talk about. The layers of incompetence in the writing require special effort to peel back and dissect, an the layers multiply with each new episode. Ultimately there are less exhausting subjects to write about.

I still, however, have to write up an analysis of The Great Big Crude Star Trek Survey (which is still live, by the way). I have also got a few other shows that I would like to talk about, which may offer new insights and new material.

Thank you all for reading. Good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Courts Chaos With ‘An Obol For Charon’

Quick Announcement:

The Great Big Crude Star Trek Survey Is Open!

All answers are appreciated, and every response will help build insight into the world of Star Trek and its fans. For more info, follow this link.

Now, back to our scheduled feature.


I believe it was William Shakespeare who said:

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Well, I would like to offer a complimentary notion:

“Restraint is the heart of genius.”

What does that mean?

Allow me to explain.

As this is another long article, I’ve added an abstract (AKA a synopsis, a summary, or a TL:DR) below. The rest of the article follows it.

‘An Obol For Charon’ contains many interesting story ideas, many of which have been explored in previous Star Trek series. Sadly, it packs too many of these concepts in, such that no one story arc receives adequate focus. This lack of narrative focus leads not only to many significant plot holes, but also to several crucial oversights in the relationships between characters.


Chaos By Parts

My initial review of ‘An Obol For Charon’, the fourth episode of the second season of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, was going to be a breakdown of each of the many subplots of the episode, exploring each one separately. It seemed like a sensible way to tackle the chaos of such a busy episode, barely 50 minutes long.

But then I realised that what I want to talk about is the chaos. Not the in-universe chaos, as the ship shuts down and everything goes wrong, but the narrative chaos, caused by inexpert hands duct-taping six contrasting narratives into a big, quivering, unstable blob that wants to collapse under its own weight like a beached whale.

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In a previous article, I commented on the similarities between ‘New Eden’ and TNG’s ‘Q Who’. I try very, very hard not to compare DISCO to other Trek series in terms of aesthetics, technology, canon and the like because those things just aren’t as important to me as the stories themselves. But when DISCO itself invokes the comparison, I’ll take it and run with it.

‘An Obol For Charon’ is, on the surface, directly comparable to TNG’s ‘Disaster’ – in both episodes, the ship (Discovery, Enterprise) is rendered helpless by some cosmic phenomenon and chaos ensues, leaving the crew separated, imperilled, and without access to any of the technology they would usually rely on to help them out.

‘Charon’ is also directly comparable to TNG’s ‘Ethics’ – in both episodes, a character (Saru, Worf) is left with some kind of debilitating and incurable medical condition to which their cultural response is suicide, and they must request the assistance of other crew to help them kill themselves.

‘Charon’ is ALSO reasonably comparable to DS9’s ‘Heart of Stone’, in which a character (Tilly, Kira) is trapped by a strange, lumpy lifeform and another character must find a way to save them, whilst cut off from any help or medical assistance.

This plotline itself invokes elements of both of the TNG episodes ‘Evolution’ and ‘Force of Nature’, where, respectively: the crew channel the communications of an alien race through a “possessed” crew member (Tilly for the JahSepp and Data for the Nanites) in order to negotiate a kind of truce; and where the crew discover that their heretofore vital engine technology is unknowingly causing environmental damage which is affecting an alien race.

JahSepp

In addition to these narratives, we also have the meta-plot of the Red Bursts and the Red Angel, the meta-subplot of Spock’s escape, and the meta-sub-subplot of the rift between Burnham and Spock preventing them from reuniting.

Finally, we have the A-plot of this episode, which is a massive, quivering, unstable blob that wants to die, but not before it sends someone its internet search history. This borrows elements from TNG’s ‘Tin man’ and ‘The Inner Light’, the first about a massive, living vessel seeking to die, and the second about a an ancient probe forcibly passing on the history and cultural legacy of  to the first ship it encounters.

Got all that?

Good! Now let’s talk about why it doesn’t work.


Disaster

‘Disaster’ is probably not one of the finest episodes of TNG, but it’s far from the worst, and manages to be memorable thanks to some fun and touching moments throughout.

Structurally, ‘Disaster’ is essentially a collection of B-plots. There isn’t really an “A-plot” – that being, a story arc which serves as the main focus of the episode, and that’s actually fine.

The Enterprise randomly strikes two quantum filaments – a kind of string that is cosmic but that is definitely not a cosmic string.

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This occurs at the end of the four-minute opening teaser, following a sequence of scenes in which we see the crew in “status quo” – the unborn Molly O’Brien is torturing Keiko by kicking, Beverly is torturing Geordi by begging him to sing, and three children are torturing Picard by existing.

Everyone is separated off into little groups: Beverly and Geordi are in a cargo bay; Riker, Data and Worf are with Keiko in Ten Forward; Troi and O’Brien are on the bridge; and Picard is in a turbolift with the three children – for those of you not aware, Jean Luc Picard hates children as much as Michael Burnham hates making sensible decisions.

The Enterprise is hit with the filaments, and the following things happen:

  1. Worf is left in charge of Ten Forward, which has become a makeshift medical bay, and must assist Keiko as she goes into labour.
  2. Troi and O’Brien are joined by Ro Laren in an isolated bridge, cut off from the rest of the ship and uncertain about the next steps to follow.
  3. Picard faces his own Kobayashi Maru, being trapped in a turbolift with a broken leg and three useless fucking children. Everyone thinks that ‘Chain of Command’ is the episode about Picard getting tortured, but this is actually the greatest torment he ever faced.
  4. Riker and Data set out to reach Engineering in order to regain control of the ship, but must find away around damaged corridors and passageways.
  5. Bev and Geordi are trapped in the cargo bay and discover a plasma fire, which is steadily poisoning them with radiation.

The key thing with all of those subplots is that they’re all actually pretty basic. Riker’s and Data’s journey is mostly just functional, and serves as the resolution to the overall peril, and Beverly and Geordi’s subplot is mostly just generic danger plot to give them something to do.

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The other three stories are more interesting:

  1. Keiko’s labour is fairly standard, but it presents Worf a problem that he can’t fight, shoot or stab – if Beverly were around the issue would be solved.
  2. Troi struggles with the burdens of command, having to get the other officers into line and make difficult decisions. She really just needs a command officer like Riker or Picard around to sort the problem out.
  3. Picard has to find a way to stop the children from panicking or giving up or succumbing to fear – he needs Troi, someone who can reach the children on an emotional level and keep them calm.

And that’s basically it. None of these things would be major problems on any other day – they’re only challenging because of the complete failure of all of the ship’s systems. Without those issues: Geordi and Beverly could just beam out of the cargo bay; Data and Riker could just take the turbolift; an actual doctor could take care of Keiko rather than Worf; Troi could just get guidance from a more senior officer; and Picard could just pistol-whip those little shits right in the face find someone, anyone, to take those children off his hands.

kidsscreaming

For the Worf, Picard and Troi stories, it’s just a chance to see our characters out of their comfort zones, facing new challenges that could be easily dealt with otherwise. And we even get nice little arcs out of it:

  1. Worf learns to embrace his softer, more sensitive side as he coaches Keiko through the birth of Molly.
  2. Troi gains confidence dealing with life-or-death decision-making, and asserting herself within the Starfleet hierarchy.
  3. Picard realises that children probably aren’t all that bad, and even comes to appreciate the hidden strength youth or whatever.

firmlybutgently


Disarray

There’s an old joke about how unlucky each vessel bearing the name Enterprise must be. Every week the crew meets some new, terrible, or just plain weird phenomenon which fucks everything up, and it seems to happen like clockwork.

Well, Enterprise got nothin’ on Discovery. In this episode alone:

  1. The crew are on a mission to investigate a weird galaxy-wide phenomenon.
  2. Number One comes aboard to give Pike an update on the investigation into Spock, who is wanted for murder after allegedly losing his mind. Number One points out how fishy this investigation is.
  3. Burnham doesn’t want to meet Spock when they do find him, due to a previous falling out.
  4. The ship runs into a giant living entity which completely mangles the computer –
  5. – which leads to all of the crew speaking different languages because of a Universal Translator function.
  6. The only way to free the ship is to accept a massive download of 100,000 years’ worth of information, because the living entity wants to die, but not before it passes on its legacy.
  7. The encounter with the living entity causes one of the crew members to enter their own death cycle –
  8. – which requires another crew member to help them commit suicide.
  9. Three crew members get trapped in Engineering with no way to escape.
  10. The compartment is charged with 100GeV of energy (that’s about 0.000000016J, or roughly the kinetic energy of a grain of sand travelling a speed of 1 millimetre per second) and the people inside have to discharge it somehow.
  11. One of those trapped crew members becomes infected with an inter-dimensional fungal parasite.
  12. One of the others drills a hole into the infected crew member’s head with a cordless drill so that they can communicate with the infecting organism.
  13. The organism infected the crew member in order to force the ship to stop using its special engines, which are devastating the organism’s ecosystem.

That’s not even a list of events, that’s just a list of plot threads. Now, in a longer, multi-episode narrative like DISCO’s, you can get away with running parallel stories which take longer to resolve, so for clarity, I highlighted all of the stuff that’s introduced in this episode in red.

You’ll notice that’s nearly all of it.

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What’s more, hardly any of these things are small problems. They’re all major issues which could warrant major exploration. Hell, most of them could be A-plots for a single episode.

Instead, we rush through each one without paying any level of notice to it. Here’s a few problems that are NOT adequately dealt with in the course of the episode (numbered correspondingly):

  1. We barely spend any time on the Red Angel / Red Burst phenomenon beyond a single scene in a conference room in which everybody makes clear that, after four episodes, they still have no idea of what they’re dealing with.
  2. Where did Number One come from? Did she leave the Enterprise and travel all this way to have a two-minute conversation with Pike, hand him a data pad, eat a Happy Meal and then leave again? Where did she go after she left?
  3. Burnham refuses to meet Spock because of the rift between them. Rather than introspecting and exploring her feelings on this, or how the rift occurred, she simply decides to see Spock because a dying Saru told her to.
  4. What is the nature of this living cosmic entity? What kind of creature is it? What is its purpose? Is it a vessel? Was it built, or did it evolve naturally? What does the existence of this kind of creature mean scientifically? Is it unique or are there more of them out there? How has it not been discovered before this episode?
  5. Can the Universal Translator really change the lip movements and intonations of the person who’s speaking? And why isn’t the solution to simply deactivate it across the ship so that everyone can at least understand what they themselves are saying?
  6. Why does the entity want / need to die? What is its motivation behind ending its own life? If its death cycle is out of its own control, then is there any way to save it?
  7. Saru starts dying because the entity triggers some sort of death process in Kelpien anatomy, and yet the first symptoms of this process occur at least several minutes before the Enterprise even sets out on a course that would intercept the entity – before Number One even sets foot aboard Discovey with the co-ordinates to which they are heading.
    discomfortthismorning
  8. Burnham has to help Saru kill himself, but although she get upset and they have several long conversations, at no point does she question the ethics of her actions, or indeed whether Saru can be saved. Saru says that that his death is certain, but nobody even doubts him – they all just take him for his word and allow him to continue dying.
  9. Reno, Stamets and Tilly, all highly-qualified engineers, get trapped in the Spore chamber and never seem to think of trying to get out – they make mention of the room being completely isolated, but even when Tilly has a fungus attached on her arm, drugging her with hallucinogenics, they never thing to just cut the door open to get her to sickbay – or even just find a way to get a doctor in with them.
  10. The compartment is charged with electricity, threatening to kill them all by incineration as a result of their oxygen igniting. To solve this, they improvise a technique to discharge the energy – which creates a massive blast and electrical bolt. Which would surely ignite the oxygen in the room, which is precisely what they’re trying to avoid.
  11. At the end of last episode, Stamets extracted the parasite from Tilly with the Dark Matter chamber. For some reason, that never emerges as another possibility, even though it seemed to work pretty well.
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  12. The situation is so bad that Reno and Stamets decide to improvise brain surgery on Tilly by drilling a hole in her head. This entire scenario is so awful that I was laughing uncontrollably – Stamets’ delivery of the line “We’re gonna do this old school. We need to sterilise that drill bit,” is delivered with perfect comic timing. Even at this drastic stage, neither one of them considers even trying to get Tilly in front an actual doctor.
  13. Discovery‘s Spore Drive is wreaking havoc on an ecosystem in another dimension. What kind of havoc is it wreaking? Why would the organism emotionally manipulate Tilly and mess with her head so much just to “build up trust” in order to “persuade her to deliver [the] message” to Stamets instead of just telling Tilly what was going on? If it can read Tilly’s mind and memories so accurately, would it not be able to recognise her concern for alien life forms? If it understands Tilly well enough to know how to manipulate her sympathies, why would it then choose to appear as a ghost in order to build trust? Would it not be obvious that Tilly, indeed any human, would immediately mistrust visions of a dead person?

Narrative focus is important. Not just to stop assholes on the internet from pointing out plot holes in your story, but because it enables a deeper exploration and examination of the themes that your story covers.

There’s a single line in this episode that is really interesting to me, which is from Saru, regarding his own species:

submits

Now, that’s a fascinating a concept – that the Kelpiens simply submit to death, that they lack the desperate drive for survival that exists in nearly all other species.

It’s an intriguing philosophy! And this is all the screen time it gets this episode. In the similar story ‘Ethics’, from TNG, Riker can’t bring himself to accept that Worf would seek to take his own life when he was physically handicapped, and that drove a lot of the debate of the episode.

To her credit, Burnham simply accepts that Saru is submitting to death, which makes her a considerate friend and which also fits her expertise as a Xenoanthropologist. But it also robs the storyline of the drama it needs! It would be a great point of conflict to see Burnham struggle to come to terms with Saru on this, unable, at first, to accept his perspective on his own situation.

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It’s alright Burnham, it’s just us, and we already know you’re smart, you can just say “a million”.

On a similar note, at one point Burnham stops by Engineering to “see if we can find a way to boost power to shields.” She can’t get in, because the doors won’t open. Nobody suggests breaking through them, or finding some other way in or out. Then Stamets says something that helps Burnham realise the solution to the Catastrafuck Of The Week and the point is that:

Tilly is Burnham’s best friend.

However, Burnham shows barely more than cursory concern for Tilly’s plight because she has to go back to being concerned about Saru. Because this episode is a mess.

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Little-known fact: this line was originally written for Riker.

Saru is dying. Tilly is being poisoned by an inter-dimensional fungus. The whole ship is on its arse. Burnham doesn’t have time to be worried about Tilly. But she should, because this is one of the most important relationships between two characters in the show so far – the one that we, the audience, have been following since Season 1. But now Tilly’s just the latest entry on Burnham’s list of “Today’s Bullshit.”

To the point that once the cosmic machine entity has released its hold on Discovery, Burnham doesn’t hurry to Engineering to try to help Tilly – she walks Saru back to his quarters so he can take his shirt off and lie down on a bed of moss.

 

And when it then turns out that he’s fine as his condition just suddenly corrects itself, Burnham still doesn’t go to check on Tilly, but instead follows the now totally-fine Saru to sickbay to congratulate him on not being dead. Then Burnham still doesn’t go to check on Tilly, but instead heads to Pike’s ready room to tell him that she will, at least, decide to speak to Spock when they finally meet, and by this point Tilly has been dragged into a fungal cocoon and off into the Phantom Zone, and Reno is slapping the magic mushrooms out of Stamets as they trip balls.

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By this point, the ship is working again, so there’s absolutely no need for Reno and Stamets to be dealing with Tilly’s situation alone. It just seems that nobody else can be arsed to come help – particularly not Burnham, who is off talking to Pike about her family issues.

This is all a result of the episode’s writers trying to cram so many storylines into one place that everything starts falling apart.

And I haven’t even come close to talking about the weird edits and scene transitions as Burnham just seems to teleport around the ship as needed, nor the complete abandoning of the Universal Translator problems which would themselves have been a great storyline.

Or indeed why Pike sees fit, during a period of crisis where the ship might be destroyed, to abandon the Bridge and visit Sickbay to get a status report, the very definition of an errand which could be left to pretty much anyone except the captain. Or why he then chooses to remain in Sickbay for a prolonged period to act as an unqualified nurse.

situationinsickbay
Ah yes, Pike, that certainly sounds like a captain-worthy task. Couldn’t they just write you a note?

On the surface, this was a fun episode that seemed like a throwback to classic Trek. But again, as with all things ‘Discovery’, it doesn’t take much scrutiny before it starts to dissolve into abstraction and nonsense.

The wrtiers’ inability to restrain themselves is their own undoing, and it allows them to turn some fascinating story concepts into rushed, glossed-over narrative dead-ends. This episode should just have been about the massive cosmic entity and the effect that it’s dying had on Saru – it didn’t need all of the other gumpf, fluff and nonsense to make it interesting.

The only outstanding positive element of this episode was Jet Reno, who remained wonderful throughout. But sadly, she wasn’t enough to single-handedly turn everything around.

fixherupducttape


Okay, I’ve talked about all the serious, in-depth issues with the episode. Now for more nitpicking:

Burnham comments that the attack is “slow” and therefore “inefficient”, even though the entire ship was multi-spectrally fucko’d seconds after arrival and they’re now completely helpless. SEEMS PRETTY EFFICIENT TO ME.

Stamets asks Tilly to sing her favourite song, so she starts singing ‘Space Oddity’… half-way through. Like, in the middle of a verse. Presumably she knew how cramped the episode was, and so decided to just skip to the most dramatically fitting part of the song.

It really, really bothers me that Stamets claims the Federation is completely dispassionate about the problems caused by dilithium mining. Sure, this is a (really hamfisted) analogy for anthropogenic climate change, but you expect a nation of genius scientists to be a little more switched-on than that.

Reno says that the computer sealed the doors because of the power overload… even though the lightning bolts are shown, clearly, four times over, striking the control panels. Which is both weird for them to do that, and directly contradictory. Neither explanation explains why they can’t leave the room later, beyond the general systems malfunction, except that YOU’RE ENGINEERS, JUST FIND A WAY TO OPEN THE FUCKING DOORS, NUMB NUTS.

lightning2

No, seriously, where the fuck did Number One come from and where did she go? Was Discovery really in transporter range of Spacedock where Enterprise is being repaired?

What the fuck is a “digital antibody” anyway? ‘Cause it sounds fucking stupid.

Why was the Spore Drive room completely unaffected by all of the ship’s malfunctions? Isn’t it an integral part of the ship? It makes sense that it’d be firewalled off, but then why aren’t other vital areas?

Linus the Saurian is an annoying fucking dweeb and it really bothers me that these futuristic space scientists talk like American teenagers. “That cold I had sucked.” Yeah, so do you, Linus, you god damn scaly-skinned piece of shit.

Pike was bound by his “oath and conscience” to honour the dying wishes of the mechanical entity – risking his ship and all of his crew getting ultra-fucked out of existence in the process. Fuck you, Pike.

oathancconscience

Christ, I’m still barely done, but I’m nearly at 4000 words. This’ll have to do for now. Good night.

Star Trek: Discovery’s ‘Point Of Light’ Returns To Fractal Stupidity

CONTENT WARNING – The bottom portion of this review contains disturbing images of mutilated infants. A second warning will be put up, but please proceed with caution.

And no, I can’t believe I have to write that warning on the review of a Star Trek episode, either.

Ohhhhh my God. Jesus. I was just, just, warming up to this show, and then BAM, it covers itself in stupid-sauce and jumps into a nest of stupid-wasps and then tries to numb the pain with a hefty dose of stupid-pills.

Did any of that make sense? No? Then I’ve set roughly the correct tone for a review of this toasty, grisly mess of a story.

This episode, ‘Point Of Light’, is what I’d call Fractally Stupid – it’s stupid on a basic, high level, but as you dig further into it, you realise that the stupidity extends to a greater and greater level of detail. It’s stupid all the way down – the closer you look, the more stupid you see.

It’s painful.

recruitment

My first complaint with this episode is that it’s nearly 50 minutes long and has roughly 90 billion storylines, none of which overlap. Given that fact, I’m going to make it easy for myself and break each one down, and carefully explain why each story is dumber than a bag of hammers.

Please note that there is so much stupid in this episode that I had to trim out a lot of it from this article. There’s also a lot of stylistic stuff, such as camera angles, dutch angles, terrible lighting, Klingons speaking English unintelligibly, the complete abandoning of several plotlines from last season, most notably the planet-destroying bomb that L’Rell controlls, L’Rell naming herself Khaleesi – the list goes on and on.

For now, I just want to focus on the chunkiest narrative aspects. Let’s dive in.


Michael Burnham: An Accessory To Spock

Alright, so we open with Burnham’s personal log, where she explains that she is yet to figure out the significance of the Seven Red Bursts-

sevensignals

Wait, shouldn’t that be Eight Red Bursts? Wasn’t the one in last episode a new one?

anothersignal

Did the writers just try to Shelby us again?

Anyway, Burnham can’t make any headway on the Red Bursts, not even with the help of Spock’s notes.

Where is Spock? Why, he’s in the psychiatric unit aboard Starbase 5. Which is precisely why Discovery went straight there after the end of last episode, where they established the absolute primacy of their mission, over and above Spock’s privacy or even Starfleet’s “General Order One”:

spocksprivacy

urgency

firstrule

Oh, wait, they didn’t go to Starbase 5. They were just flying around or something, I guess, because their mission probably isn’t that important.

Instead, Amanda, the 43-year-old mother of a 32-year-old Spock arrives after having just been to Starbase 5 and nicking Spock’s medical records, which leads to Pike getting in contact with Starbase 5 and learning that Spock allegedly murdered three people, escaped, and is now on the run.

Why wasn’t Discovery told about this? Because it was classified, or something. Which is why Starbase 5’s commander didn’t answer any of Pike’s calls. Except that he’s telling Pike now, because… Well, I can’t really figure out why he would tell him now, and not before.

He says:

signals

No, they do, asshole, they’re the whole reason Pike took command of Discovery, the reason he was able to violate the embargo on the Spore Drive as well as violate the Prime Directive. But now Starfleet has sort-of-but-not-really classified Spock’s case because:

files

Except that, the files only went missing because Amanda stole them. And Amanda only knew Spock was at Starbase 5 because… wait, hang on, nobody except Pike seemed to know he was at Starbase 5. Certainly neither Sarek nor Amanda knew, nor did Burnham. So how did Amanda know?

parentsnottold

spocksaidno

So:

  1. Did Pike radio in to Starfleet to ask about Spock, and they ignored him until…
  2. … Amanda found out, flew to Starbase 5 herself (faster than Discovery could instaneously spore-drive it’s way there from New Eden)…
  3. … and stole Spock’s records, causing Spock’s status to become classified?

Why would Starfleet obstruct the mission that they gave to Pike? If they have ulterior motives, then why assign him the advanced starship with the experimental drive that would facilitate his mission? If they don’t have ulterior motives, then why would they obstruct the mission?

But this is just a contradiction between a narrative that occurs over two episodes. Check out the contradiction in just these three lines of dialogue:

youknow

informed

anxious

  1. Burnham has to ask if Amanda knows about the signals, implying that they are not common knowledge.
  2. Amanda answers that Sarek told her specifically.
  3. Amanda then follows up by explaining that people are anxious to know what they are, implying that the signals ARE common knowledge.

This level of stupidity is so overwhelming that I genuinely find it quite taxing to get my mind around it. The writers of this show genuinely cannot maintain a single, coherent train of thought across three fucking lines of dialogue.

The rest of this story arc pretty much goes nowhere, beyond establishing that Spock had a vision of the Red Angel when he was a child, and that Burnham did something truly awful to him when he was younger as a means to protect him – which tracks true for Burnham’s mutinous “Chaotic Stupid” character alignment as established at the very start of the show.

The biggest takeaway from all of this is that the entire Burnham sub-plot was all about Spock, and not Burnham. We learn virtually nothing new about Burnham, beyond the fact that she was a colossal fuck-up as a youth as well as when she was a first officer. Also that she ran away one time. We sacrifice any opportunity to properly examine her own character, in lieu of exploring Spock, a character who is yet to appear in this show.

This narrative is dull, heavy on exposition, and does very little to advance the plot beyond sending Amanda on her merry way to find Spock herself. I’ll cover more of this narrative in my next character piece, which will be looking at Burnham specifically, but for now, we’re done with this little cul de sac of a story.

Onto the next.


Damn It, Tilly, I’m A Mycologist, Not A Spine Surgeon

Tilly is on the Command Training Program’s half-marathon exercise. One of many, because she apparently scores a PB:

personalbest

Oh, wait, she set a new course record, too:

courserecord

If she set a new course record, why is Burnham not mentioning that? Isn’t that the bigger achievement, as well as making the other two things obvious? Like, is it’s possible to set a course record and not beat your personal best on that course, and at the same time win? Whatever.

So, Tilly’s running with three other command trainees, and their coming is heralded by the computer announcing it like it’s fucking Red Alert or something, shutting off all the lights to boot:

marathonapproaching

This makes absolutely no fucking sense. I mean, it’s not as though they’re running on rough terrain, like an obstacle course or something, where the flashing lights might kind-of make sense, this just seems to be a fitness test on flat corridor floor panels. So the only reason for the lights to go out is to add dramatic, disorienting tension to Tilly’s confrontations with a ghost that’s haunting her.

Which is fine, if it’s something that happens solely within the context of Tilly struggling with the ghost. Except that the lights go out on Burnham, too, which means they’re actually getting switched off for some reason, which doesn’t make sense, which-

ARGH, WHATEVER

The point is, we later see Tilly wigging out on the bridge as this ghost, May, torments her, until Tilly shouts at her and then runs off in a nervous panic, which is understandable.

What isn’t understandable is the exchange that follows, where Tilly goes to her quarters, where Burnham is waiting, who explains that Saru has apparently been looking all over for Tilly despite the ship having internal sensors but WHATEVER, and then Tilly has a conversation with Burnham whilst being tormented by May the Ghost.

Tilly starts crying, and the ghost says that her eyes are dripping. Tilly then explains to Burnham that the ghost doesn’t know what tears are, to which Burnham responds:

whataretears

Exactly.

How can this ghost, which was able to extrapolate the image of an adult version of Tilly’s friend from high school that she knew for six months, and bring up a nickname (“Stilly”) that Tilly had forgotten, not know what crying is???

Especially given this line from when the ghost was introduced:

scary

How can it possibly know so much about Tilly’s life, and yet know know what crying is?

This leads Tilly to seek help from Stamets, who examines her and finds an interdimensional fungal infection attached to her nervous system:

mutlidimensionalfungalparasite

Look at that thing! All up and down her spine, her lungs, her… is… is it infecting her tits, too? Ah, whatever.

Stamets’ reaction to this?

Grab the nearest cask of dark matter, open the lid and just point it at Tilly, hoping it’ll suck the parasite out.

Y’know how it’s really difficult to safely remove parasites like ticks and leeches and even just athelete’s foot, because they root themselves into the outer layers of our bodies and need to be carefully removed just to avoid scarring?

This parasite is rooted in Tilly’s fucking brain stem and Stamet’s just yanks it out of her like an evangelist purging a demon. I mean look at this, he’s not even got the dark matter mounted to anything! He’s just holding it and waving it in her general direction, hoping for the best!

sucking

Bear in mind that it was exposure to dark matter that prompted the appearance of May in the first place, so what if this just fed the parasite instead of removing it?

What if as this parasite is removed, it rips a chunk of Tilly’s spinal column out with it? Or just fucks up her internal organs?

The point is, Stamets had no way to know, because there are literally, literally

37 SECONDS

between those two screenshots.

37 seconds between Stamets seeing a never-before-seen multidimensional fungal parasite, and him improvising a handheld solution to extracting it from Tilly’s central nervous system.

This thing is so wired into Tilly’s brain that it can conjure up images from the deepest parts of her long-term memory, and Stamets just casually tears it out of her without even speaking to a doctor first.

suck

This is, without a doubt, the STUPIDEST moment from all of Star Trek history. ALL of Star Trek history. I have never seen something this idiotic in my entire life.

So Stamets pulls a big snotty blob of goo out of Tilly’s spine and just throws it up into the air where Saru puts a forcefield up around it and…

… That’s it. That’s the last we see of the Discovery crew this episode, before we switch back to the Klingon Empire and the re-introduction of Section 31.


 

Klingon Power Struggles Klingons Struggling With Power

Do you like political intrigue? Drama? Difficult choices and forced compromises?

Then go watch some other show.

The Klingon plotline of ‘Point of Light’ tries so hard to be ‘Game of Thrones’ that damages itself in the process. It manages to be what ‘Game of Thrones’ would be, if everyone in Westeros was either Joffrey or a Pakled.

I’m going to try and cover this as succinctly as possible:

L’Rell is the High Chancellor. She is holding onto power through a few loyal family members and Ash/Voq, who acts as her de facto second-in-command.

The head of a rival Klingon House, Kol-Sha (whose son was Kol, the General of last season but whatever), seeks to challenge L’Rell and take the chancellorship away from her.

Kol-Sha shows up with red paint on his face, a sign of the old ways he represents:

oldway

L’Rell asks him to remove it, and he ignores her:

removehtepaint

So Ash tries to violently wipe the paint from Kol-Sha’s face:

removethepaintash

removepaint

Later, according to Kol-Sha:

begged

sensors

But… you didn’t beg her, Kol’Sha. She ordered you to remove it, and you refused.

Even if he’s just being metaphorical (a bit of a stretch) – was this his plan? To seize power? To turn up wearing paint filled with listening devices, so that L’Rell would ask him to remove it, he’d then refuse, and then her boyfriend would try to remove it himself?

What if L’Rell just didn’t give a shit about the paint?

What if she was like, “Huh, still wearing paint, I see. Anyway, here’s my economic recovery plan so that we don’t all starve to death after that immensely costly war.”

What was his next step?

Right, whatever, maybe he would just be to try something else, so, whatever. Whatever.

Whatever.

So then Kol-Sha uses these sensor thingies to learn two things:

  1. That Ash betrayed the Council to Burnham and the Federation.
  2. That Voq and L’Rell had a child.

With this knowledge, Kol-Sha decides to murder L’Rell and publicly release the recording of Ash betraying the Klingon Empire, taking L’Rell’s place on the grounds of treason committed by her second-in-command/lover/sworn protector.

Oh, no, wait, none of that happens.

Instead, Kol-Sha kidnaps L’Rell’s baby (a baby she cared so much about that she’s never met it) and then blackmails her into signing a form that would hand power over to him.

Klingons.

Kidnapping defenceless babies.

So they can blackmail their rivals.

Into signing a form.

Remind me again of how much ‘Discovery’ has done to explore Klingon culture and offer a new perspective.

sign

This then leads into a fight, in which L’Rell and Ash fight a bunch of Kol-Sha’s anonymous mooks for nearly ninety seconds of over-choreographed, poorly-lit swordplay, at the end of which more mooks arrive and they’re back where they started, making the whole thing completely fucking pointless anyway.

Seriously, these two images are before and after a massive, complex, poorly choreographed fight scene:

afterfight

beforefight

Except that they aren’t, I actually put them in the wrong order – the bottom one is the before shot. And if you couldn’t spot that, then that’s exactly my point.

Just to hammer the pointlessness of this fight home, Kol-Sha then just paralyses both L’Rell and Ash anyway:

stunning

He then proceeds to take the hand of the paralysed L’Rell and places it on “Transfer of Chancellorship Oversight Form P-627-B” and completes the process anyway:

signing

All of which means he could have just done that to begin with.

Why not just stun her before the fight?

When you go to steal the baby and leave L’Rell’s uncle hanging there, why not just lie in wait and ambush L’Rell, and then stun her?

Kol-Sha’s hologram was waiting for her to arrive, so he knew she was coming:

awaiting

So… Just stun her then?

To quote Mr. Plinkett:

Forcing someone to sign a [document] sort-of contradicts the purpose of a signature on a document. You might as well just forge it if you’re going to make her sign it.

I mean, Kol-Sha has the ability to hide sensors in paint and to paralyse two people who happen to be stood exactly either side of him, so I can assume he has the tech to just forge L’Rell’s thumb-signature. And even if he doesn’t, why both with kidnapping the baby if you’re just going to paralyse L’Rell anyway and then physically press her thumb onto the document anyway?

Which means the entire plot with the baby was utterly pointless. It didn’t need to be there, and could have easily been omitted in an episode that already had too many sub-plots.

Which leads me onto my next, distressing, point…


CONTENT NOTICE – This next section contains discussion and images of harm done to children, which may be distressing. Please do not proceed any further unless you are confident that you won’t be upset by it.


Dead Baby Jokes

I grew out of telling dead baby jokes about ten years ago. It happened when a friend pointed out that they’re actually pretty insensitive, and could be hurtful to people who have had to cope with the loss of a child. And even then, I didn’t stop immediately, it still took a while to phase that kind of joke out of my lexicon.

Now, I want to share with you a quote I included in an article I wrote waaaay back when:

nudity

So, nudity “just doesn’t feel right” for Trek. And let’s be clear, there are topless men all over the place. So what Aaron means is “female nudity.” Women’s nipples is apparently the thing that Trek isn’t ready for.

What Trek apparently IS ready for is images of decapitated babies.

We know this because such images appear in this episode, the penultimate scene of which involves High Chancellor L’Rell holding aloft the severed heads of both Ash and her infant child:

heads

head2

The one saving grace of this image is that it wasn’t *quite* as graphic as it could be.

The second is that technically, this is a genetically-perfect recreation of a baby’s head created by the sick fucks in Section 31, and not the baby itself.

The absolute condemnation of this scene is that is was completely unnecessary, and in no way required by the narrative.

Which is the definition of “gratuitous.”

L’Rell’s baby is brought into this story as an afterthought – a sub-sub-plot to the sub-plot of the Klingon power struggle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with introducing a child to the (already-problematic) relationship between L’Rell and Ash. But to introduce it, then use it for a gory and distressing visual, and then for the actual baby to just be put on a bus at the end as it’s transported down to some insular monastery, is just exploitative and really, really grim, and says a lot about what the creators of this show want to achieve with their story – which is, apparently, to shock and distress, rather than to provoke and inspire.


Section 31, Starfleet’s Most Famous Secret Undercover Intelligence Agency

stayanonymous
worldsgreatest
canthelp

There is so much I could talk about with Section 31 on an over-arching, meta level, but for the purposes containing the sheer volume of this already overly-long article, let’s just focus on what’s in this episode, and this episode alone.

So, Emperor Georgiou appears at the exact moment that Kol-Sha is about to execute Ash. She seems to phase through a wall, so it’s possible that she was there all along, watching the fight happen.

She reveals herself in order to kill Kol-Sha, L’Rell’s would-be usurper, and reinforce L’Rell’s position as a puppet tyrant installed by Starfleet using weapons of mass destruction.

staysintheseat

If Georgiou only just arrived, then it’s an awfully convenient coincidence that she turned up exactly at the split-second that Ash was about to get stabbed. That would be a rubbish bit of TV-writing.

If Georgiou had been there the whole time and was waiting for the right moment… Why didn’t she step in before Kol-Sha paralysed L’Rell and forced her signature out of her, thereby transferring her power to him?

In fact, why didn’t Georgiou step in during the massive fight when, L’Rell could have been easily stabbed in the face or decapitated or something?

If she didn’t want to risk getting hurt herself and needed the element of surprise, then why didn’t she step in just before the fight, when everyone was in the exact same position as they were before?

None of her motivations match her actions. Which makes this whole thing stupid.

But that’s not the only thing that’s stupid.

Section 31, a highly clandestine, super-secret, xenophobic intelligence agency within the Federation. They rely on absolute secrecy to achieve their objectives.

Absolute secrecy.

To maintain their veil of secrecy, they take the following actions:

  1. Hiring “misfits” and “freaks”, i.e. people with atypical behaviour which by definition makes them stand out.
  2. Hiring one of Starfleet’s most highly-decorated and presumably recognisable captains, Philippa Georgiou.
  3. Hiring Ash Tyler, someone guilty of treason against both the Federation and, now, the Klingon Empire.
  4. Wearing distinctive black badges marking them out as Section 31.

This… is just stupid. Just so, so stupid. The Archer comparison above is being generous.

misfits

The whole purpose of a secret agency is to remain secret. If you starting bringing along people who stand out from a crowd, and you have your own publicly-recognisable insignia… aren’t you defeating the point?

decorations

Section 31 should be made up of all of your most average-looking, run-of-the-mill, ruthless sociopaths. People who blend into a room, who are remarkable for being unremarkable.

freaks

They shouldn’t even have insignia badges, they should have either standard Starfleet badges, or none at all. They should just make themselves look like a civilian organisation. Or not even an organisation at all. They should be small cells, maybe just a few independent agents, compartmentalised and scattered across the galaxy.

blackbadges

But now, they have a distinctive-looking badass starship with big folding nacelles and its own crew. Hell, they’ve probably got a fleet of them. That’s just how secretive they are.

s31ship

I mean, why even bother with the intentionally ambiguous and nondescript name “Section 31”? You may as well just calls yourselves “Starfleet Black Ops” or “Swastika Squadron” at this point.


Stupid All The Way Down…

This episode may have broken me.

It was so dumb in so many ways, I could write another three articles at least this long just about Burnham’s and Tilly’s sub-plots.

More than anything, this episode was just kinda boring. It didn’t excite or thrill the way you might expect from a high-budget, dumb-but-fun blockbuster-style story. It just shocked and distressed.

I’m worried now that ‘New Eden’ was a fluke, that the glimmer of hope it offered was just a mirage, or worse, an intentional tease, of what this show will never be.

We’ll have to check in next week to see.

Discovery In Depth – Breaking Tension, Or “You Saved The Universe And Nobody Cares”

Stories are important to us. They convey ideas and they make us feel emotions. They help us understand things we might not otherwise understand, and they offer different perspectives on a confusing and scary world.

Science fiction stories are particularly important, because they help us develop our feelings about the unknown. ‘Arrival’ dealt with many themes, the most obvious being “how would we feel about the arrival of an alien race?” It also dealt with how we perceive time, and how we might react if we had 20/20 foresight as well as 20/20 hindsight.

But science fiction doesn’t have to be weighty and intellectual. Sometimes, it can simply help us realise how we feel about things like adventure and devotion – or isolation and terror.

But in order to make us feel anything, science fiction has to tell us a story.

sunset

But what even is a story?

Well, it’s easy to think that a story is simply a sequence of connected events. But a story, a real story, is more than that. A series of events is actually just a plot, and a plot is one half of a story. The other half is tension, otherwise known as “suspense”, or “emotional connection”.

To understand the difference between plot and tension, and to understand why both are important, let’s use an example, which I’m going to title ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’:

  1. Ensign Tilly is on her way to Engineering to begin her shift.
  2. On the way, she stops to get coffee.
  3. Then she accidentally spills the coffee on her uniform.
  4. So she goes back to her quarters to change into a clean uniform.
  5. Then she heads back to Engineering and arrives late.

That is a plot. It’s a sequence of connected events that make sense because one leads to the other.

However, there is no tension, or emotional connection, or context, to the plot laid out above. It’s possible that you, as a reader, have personally been in that situation before, and so you already have some emotional connection to Tilly, but for most people this is just a series of things that happen to Tilly – at best, we can infer that she feels annoyed or embarrassed by these events.

So let’s take this plot and make it a story:

  1. Ensign Tilly is on her way to Engineering to begin her first shift in her new role as Engineer’s Mate, and she feels nervous about making a good impression.
  2. Because of that, she wants to make sure that she feels alert, so she stops on the way to get a a nice shot of espresso with hazelnut syrup.
  3. Because she’s nervous, she doesn’t pay attention to what she’s doing and she spills the espresso on her favourite, best-fitting uniform.
  4. So, she hurries back to her quarters to change into a grubby uniform from yesterday, because she’s behind on her laundry.
  5. She finally makes it to Engineering, fifteen minutes late, flustered and self-conscious.

Hopefully you notice the difference. It’s important to note that the events haven’t changed. The exact same things have happened to Tilly, in the exact same order. But this time, we’ve got a little more context, and a little more information that allows us to empathise with her situation.

tillsad2

Further, right off the bat, we have tension. This isn’t just another day – this is a big step in her career, and she wants to make a good impression. Just from that, we now know that there’s something at stake, something for our character, and hopefully our audience, to care about.

If this were a book, we might explain Tilly’s nervousness through her inner monologue, or a description of her feelings by the author. In Film and TV, she might discuss it with a friend, or we may simply leave it to Mary Wise to show display nervousness in her performance. Given this is Star Trek, she’ll probably explain her feelings in her Personal Log voiceover. If this was a musical, we might have a ten-minute song with a thousand Starfleet dancers whirling around Tilly as she sings about destiny and dreams and some other bullshit.

The point is, this is now a story. It has plot, and it has tension. But what is tension?

As mentioned above, at its most basic level tension is simply “something to care about.” Tension is broadly made up of two components – stakes, and threat.

Stakes just means “something a character wants or needs.”

  • It could be as simple as the need to live, which is usually the central source of tension in action movies – “Will our hero survive this fight? Will she escape the crashing plane in time?” etc.
  • It could be more complex, like a promotion, or a relationship with a romantic interest, or to solve a murder.
  • It could be enormous, like saving the world from destruction, or small, like catching a train on time.

idolgif

Threat is pretty self-explanatory, but a proper delineation would be “the chance that something will go wrong.”

  • Our action hero is alone in her living room – there’s little uncertainty that she’s going to survive this ordeal, so we have no tension.
  • Our hard-working protagonist wants her promotion, and it’s a small company and she’s the only person in the town with the right experience and qualifications, so it seems pretty likely she’ll get the promotion, so why do we care?
  • Our main character needs to catch his train on time. He gets to the station five minutes early, and so stands on the platform for a little while until the train comes, and then he gets on it. Great! Story over.

We need both stakes and threat to create tension, and we need both tension and a plot to make a story. These four concepts are all of equal importance in telling a story that is compelling, captivating and meaningful.

Sometimes tension can be easy to create, flowing naturally from the events of the plot. Our character has to cross a tightrope across a deep ravine in order to escape the pursuing Nazis trying to kill her. We all understand the concepts of tightropes and of gravity, so as soon as we see our protagonist look down at the rocky river bed hundreds of feet below, we can instantly feel the tension.

tightrope

But it’s not always that easy. Most of us audience members have never commanded a Cold War-era nuclear submarine in combat, so when Ramius and Ryan have to evade destruction in the finale of ‘Hunt for Red October’, the film has to work a little harder to help us understand what is at stake and why it’s uncertain. It does this by having characters explain what is going on and what might go wrong, and by having scenes earlier in the movie which explain some of the concepts but with less tension.

It’s vitally important to make sure that both the stakes and the threat are understood by the audience. This means that the audience needs to be able to emotionally connect with whatever it is that’s at stake, and they need to understand how and why there is uncertainty in achieving them.

In our ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’ example story, the tension comes from her desire to make a good first impression on her first shift (the stakes) combined with that being put in jeopardy by her being late (threat). If we care about Tilly doing well in her new promotion, then we care about the events that have transpired and possibly caused her to fail.

tillysad

Once you build tension in a story, there’s three things you can do with it:

  1. Break it, frequently through humour, subversion or incompetence.
  2. Escalate it, usually by letting events reach a natural and sensible conclusion.
  3. Increase it, either by increasing the scale of what is at stake, or by increasing the chance of failure.

The bottom two, resolution and escalation, are nearly always preferable, but you need to choose which based on where you are in your story – in the middle of Act 2 or at the end of Act 3 you want to resolve the current tension, otherwise you want to escalate it. Breaking the tension is usually the thing you don’t want to do without good reason, for exactly the reasons we’ve already explained – stories need tension, and if you break the tension then you lose it, and if you lose the tension then you lose your story.

Just to finish off this basic explanation, let’s look at those three options and apply them to ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’:

  1. Tilly apologises profusely to Lieutenant Stamets for being late. He tells her that it’s no big deal, and it’s nothing to worry about, there’s nothing important to do around here anyway.
  2. Tilly apologises profusely to Lieutenant Stamets for being late. He tells her that he’s disappointed in her, that he had high hopes she’d be professional and reliable, and he feels as though she’s now broken his trust in her.
  3. Tilly apologises profusely to Lieutenant Stamets for being late. He tells her that he’s angry with her, and that if she’s late again, he’ll demote her back down to Assistant.

If you’re like me, then your strongest emotional reaction will be to either Scenario 2 or Scenario 3. That should be clear because they’re both more emotive in terms of Stamets’ reaction. But beyond that, they work with the tension, whereas Scenario 1 merely breaks it.

By having Stamets dismiss any importance around Tilly’s tardiness, the tension – the combination of stakes with uncertainty – is completely dissipated. The only way to build any tension up again is to introduce a new plot element – maybe they discover a problem with the warp core that they now need to fix. But if you need to re-establish tension, then you may as well skip the bit where Tilly spills her coffee on her uniform and just start at the point where they discover the problem with the warp core.

By having Stamets respond with sadness and disappointment at Tilly’s unreliability and to then indicate a permanent change in the relationship, we resolve the tension built up by Tilly being late. We resolve it negatively, but that’s okay – this would lead into a good “low point” for Tilly, and as such would fit in the middle part of a story.

tillyheadpalm

Finally, we can have Stamets respond with anger, and offer an ultimatum – “Don’t be late again or I’ll demote you.” This is an escalation of the tension – now it’s even more important that Tilly arrives for her shift on time tomorrow, because otherwise her career is over. Maybe later, a Klingon will sneak aboard Discovery to carry out his revenge against Tilly’s alarm clock, defeating it in glorious battle, and leaving Tilly to oversleep tomorrow and be forced to choose between arriving late to her shift again, or going to work without showering first.


Now, these are just the bare basics of storytelling, and there are lots of different ways to implement these concepts. HOWEVER, any successful story will nontheless have a plot and tension, which is made up of stakes and threat. From the Cohen Brothers’ most unconventional and high-brow work to the most primitive CGI-laden blockbuster of the century, if people enjoy watching it, it will be because the story builds tension within a coherent plot.

So, why have I just spent nearly 1800 words describing all of the most basic, first-chapter-in-a-“How-To-Write-Your-Own-Screenplay”-book concepts of story construction?

Well, the answer to that is the same answer I always give for my bizarre behaviour – because I wanted to whinge about ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Specifically, I want to go back to whinging about Season One, and some unfinished business I’ve got with events from that narrative. But I’ll also be looking at some minor points from Season Two, so buckle in, fuckos, we’re going on a ride.


Episode 13 of Season One of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, titled ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’, features a story about saving the Mycelial Network. The Mycelial Network is a universe-, or rather multiverse-spanning phenomenon which maintains all life in every universe in existence. The evil Terran Empire’s flagship the ISS Charon drew power from the network, and in so doing was poisoning it, threatening the entire network with destruction, and hence endangering every single lifeform in every single universe.

network

So, those are the stakes. All life, in every universe.

There are literally no higher stakes than that. That is literally all things that can possibly be at stake.

And it’s awful.

It’s awful because no living human being can grasp the full meaning of “all life in all universes”. Hell, we can barely cope with figuring out how many people are standing in a park. Which means there’s no way to form an emotional response to it. Stakes need to be human in scale – they need to be within emotional and intellectual reach of the audience.

But what about the threat?

Well, roughly 24 minutes into the episode, we get this line:

makeitoutalive

This comes after Tilly explains that the shockwave from destroying the Charon will almost certainly destroy Discovery and her crew. This is an unusual approach to tension, with the fate of all universes at stake, and then adding to that the certainty that even if the crew succeed at their mission, they will all be killed in the process.

Now, this is a really interesting element to introduce, and has a very ‘Passing Through Gethsemane’ from ‘Babylon 5’ feel to it (or “Suicide Mission” from ‘Mass Effect 2’ if you’re that way inclined), and is actually a great way to add weight to a story. You’re guaranteeing the negative consequences, making the threat certain. That’s the highest it can be.

Which means we have maximum possible stakes mixed with maximum possible threat.

But don’t worry, because literally five minutes later, at the 29-minute mark, we get this line:

goinghomeafterall

This comes after Tilly has described a way for Discovery to survive the assault on the Charon unharmed, and Stamets adds that not only that, but that they will now be able to find their way back to the original universe whence they came.

Which means within a space of five minutes and about three scenes, we’ve gone from maximum-possible threat to essentially zero threat. They have already overcome any uncertainty before they have reached it.

Eight minutes later, we watch the Discovery make its attack run, fly through the Charon, through the massive star-like energy ball within it, and out the other side. Sparks fly, and the ship shakes, but no damage is done, nobody gets hurt, they complete their mission, and then escape back to their own universe.

unscathed

This whole sequence obliterates any tension within this story arc, for the following reasons:

  1. “All Life In All Universes” is a completely unthinkable scale of danger for most non-Q audiences.
  2. The threat to Discovery – stakes which a human can understand – is completely diminished when Tilly and Stamets solve the problem before they ever meet it.
  3. At no point do we, the audience, understand what could go wrong or why.
  4. Nothing does go wrong, and so our characters overcome nothing.

If we go back to ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’ and Stamets’ three possible responses, this is the equivalent to him telling her it’s no big deal. Any tension we might be feeling is completely destroyed because it turns out the thing that both Tilly and the audience were worried about doesn’t matter anymore.

By taking out the tension, you’re transforming a story into a plot. There’s no longer emotional attachment, so you’re just back to a sequence of connected events.

To hammer the point home, let’s do a comparison. Here is the story as it occurs on the show:

  1. Discovery has to destroy the Charon in order to save all Life in all Universes.
  2. Tilly explains that this will destroy Discovery and everyone aboard.
  3. Saru gives a rousing speech to keep the crew focused.
  4. Tilly discovers that they can escape after all if they adjust their equipment.
  5. They adjust the equipment.
  6. Discovery attacks the Charon
  7. and succeeds on its first attempt.
  8. Discovery escapes. Everybody survives, nobody is hurt.

wayoutafterall

This is just a series of things which happen. But if we just switch some of those events around (and add a couple more):

  1. Discovery has to destroy the Charon in order to save all Life in all Universes.
  2. Tilly explains that this will destroy Discovery and everyone aboard.
  3. Saru gives a rousing speech to keep the crew focused.
  4. We see a montage of the crew coming to terms with their fate and preparing for one final, deadly mission.
  5. Discovery attacks the Charon
  6. and the Charon responds by firing all its weapons at Discovery
  7. badly damaging Discovery and killing several crew, forcing her to wave off and try to attack again.
  8. Discovery lines up for one more attack, ablaze and filled with smoke, the floor covered in debris.
  9. A wounded Tilly notices a resonance cascade in the Charon‘s power generator
  10. and theorises that if Discovery jumps to warp at the exact right second, her warp field might destabilise the cascade and cause the Charon to overload.
  11. Tilly struggles to focus through the pain from her wound as she coordinates with Detmer, carefully calculating the ship’s trajectory, until
  12. at the very last moment, Tilly signals Detmer to engage the warp engines, detonating the Charon‘s power generator.
  13. Discovery escapes, but many of the crew are injured or dead. The ship itself is burned and battered and falling apart at the seams.

I’ve tried to avoid using intentionally emotive language in the second version, but hopefully it’s clear which version carries more tension, and therefore more emotional weight. It’s just an example of the changes that could be made, and the key thing is that it wouldn’t require much more in the way of production effort – just a few changes to the CGI, and a bit of extra set-dressing and makeup.

Crucially, it wouldn’t require much more screen time, as we’re simply taking the scene where Tilly and Stamets work out the solution beforehand and changing it a little, then inserting it later in the story. If more time was needed, then I’m sure a bit of editing could be done to the five-minute sword fight aboard the Charon in which no major characters are killed.

And more importantly, there are real and predictable negative consequences to the actions taken by the crew. In ‘Wrath of Khan’, the Enterprise is fighting to save itself from Khan and the Reliant, and in the process many crew are injured or killed, most notably Spock, the most iconic figure of the franchise.

spock

In ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’, the Discovery is fighting to save All Life Everywhere, and the biggest negative consequence that follows from this is quite literally a few sparks flying on the bridge. This again destroys any tension and, further, it undermines the the severity of such an important mission. It makes saving the Universe seem almost casual – there’s nothing to suggest that the crew couldn’t do this another twenty times if they need to, and that’s not fitting when all of existence is at stake.

For Stark contrast, take a look at ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, where only half of all existence is at stake, and we still get the very serious consequences of some of our favourite characters who … don’t feel… so good.

You noticed the pun I dropped in there about “Stark contrast”, didn’t you?

The point is, in the space of ten minutes, Discovery saves the entire universe of universes, but they did so without any tension, any emotional connection, for the audience, which means the audience isn’t invested, which means the audience doesn’t have any emotion riding on the outcome.

They saved the universe, and nobody cares.


For the sake of balance, let’s have a look at ‘Discovery’ getting tension right, and for that, we need to go back a bit to the Harry Mudd episode (yes, that Harry Mudd episode, misogyny and all) titled ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’.

mudd1

In this episode (simplified down hugely), a vengeful Harry Mudd seeks to murder Captain Lorca and steal the secrets of ‘Discovery’. He does this with the use of a time-travel gagdet which allows him to re-live the half-hour over and over again, remembering everything he learnt from his previous attempts.

What Mudd doesn’t know is that one of the crew, Stamets, has been affected by the Spore Drive, and is also capable of retaining memories through each time-loop. So now Stamets has to try and stop Mudd before he kills the crew and steals the ship – and he can only do that by convincing the rest of the crew of what’s really happening.

cantslowdown

Straight away, we’ve got a plot, stakes and threat. The plot has already been laid out. The stakes are the Discovery and the fate of the crew, and the threat comes from Mudd’s nearly God-like advantage of being able to repeat the same sequence of events over and over, learning from and changing them each time – the Star Trek equivalent of the Konami Code.

Even better, the episode helps the audience to understand this threat by showing us repeatedly the dire consequences of Mudd’s near-victory. Over and again we are allowed to delight at the creative methods Mudd devises to brutally murder his nemesis, Lorca, made all the better by the fact that up to this point, Lorca has been nothing put a passive aggressive edgelord.

That’s the power of repetition at work.

So you take the following ingredients:

  • A sequence of connected events which form a plot
  • Tension and emotional connection for the audience, made up of:
    • The stakes of defeating Mudd, saving the crew and protecting Discovery
    • The threat of an enemy with a near-flawless advantage

You bake these in the oven with some neat special effects, strong acting, well-paced editing, narrative focus from the director, and some emotional highs and lows as our characters confront their inner demons, and

BOOM

That’s magic, baby. Magic to make the sanest person go mad, indeed. All of this is what makes the bulk of this episode so enjoyable, and is what makes it such a shame that it ends on such a daft note (with the crew letting Mudd go free with all of Discovery’s technical secrets, and being punished by being reunited with his loving fiancée – because women be bitches, am I right?).

(I am not right.)

lorcadead


That’s enough of praising the show, let’s get back to whingin’.

Another great example of tension-demolition comes from Season One, directly after the above ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’, and has the similarly-overwrought title ‘The War Without, The War Within’.

At the 29-minute mark of a 48-minute episode (of this “well-paced adventure show”), Stamets outlines the main problem that the crew need to overcome this episode:

growthem29m

He’s referring to the mycelial plants that power the ship’s Spore Drive, which will allow them to jump to the Klingon homeworld of Qo’Nos in order to survey their subterranean caverns in order to-

Whatever, this isn’t important.

What is important is the tension in the story, and there is none.

This scene transitions into the next scene where Stamets barely explains his plan – the most coherent explanation we get comes from Tilly:

terraform

Over the next ten minutes, we get a single scene in which we see Tilly doing some work or other on this incredibly ambitious project whilst Burnham distracts Tilly by talking about her own lovelife.

At the 39-minute mark, we are treated to the following visual:

badcgi2

That’s the terraforming process complete. They manage to change the ecology of an entire moon (and it is an entire moon, that’s confirmed on-screen) in a few seconds.

And, not to get off topic here, but can we talk about how fucking terrible that CGI looks? The one thing people keep telling me is that as a “DISCO-hater” I’m just angry that the show doesn’t look like TOS or TNG, because now it’s got a “big budget” and “really good visuals” – but just look at that image above! I’ve literally seen more convincing visuals in fucking ‘Star Trek: Online’, nevermind the rest of the on-screen franchise.

76-star-trek-online-screenshot-6
This is literally a shot of a random planet from a trashy MMO, and it still looks better than bloody ‘Discovery’

And just in case you don’t believe me:

maxresdefault
Another STO shot. And I don’t even play the fucking game, I loathe it.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yes, so anyway, Stamets’ plan works without a hitch. There literally isn’t even a moment where it seems like it won’t work. They just launch their 42 pods, which are apparently enough to terraform an entire planet, and yes, I know that it’s just 42 because it’s possible to literally count, here, look:

podslaunched
“Why did you go to the trouble to count these?” you may ask. Well, first off, it’s just multiplication – 7 launchers each with 6 pods. And secondly, as per my explanation above for erratic behaviour – because I wanted to whinge about ‘Discovery’

Okay, so 42 pods, all fly down to the surface, plant their spores, fire some electromagnetic pulses, the spores grow, and that’s it. Then everyone starts patting Stamets on the back like he did something incredible, and we even get this line from Admiral Genocide:

congratulate
Okay, so her name’s not actually “Admiral Genocide”, I’m being facetious. It’s “Admiral War Crimes”

Well, what’s she congratulating him for? Was there meant to be anything special about what just happened? If it was special, both of the following needed to happen:

  1. The threat of failure needed to be setup.
  2. Stamets’ method of overcoming this threat of failure needed to be shown.

Instead, we simply have the following:

  1. Stamets needs to grow more Mycelium.
  2. Stamets explains (sort of) to Tilly that they need to terraform a moon.
  3. They terraform the moon.

That’s not even leaving anything out, that’s literally the sequence of events around this sub-plot.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But this episode was more about relationships than it was about the spores.” And I’d agree – but that simply raises the question of why even include this subplot at all? If it’s just there for a thing to happen, then have the thing happen off screen! If you’re not going to add any tension to any of it, why devote three scenes and eight minutes of screen time to it at all, if the summary is: “We needed to do a thing, so we did it.”

But even if you do need to show it, why present it as the climax of the episode? There’s a couple of scenes that follow in which Burnham tells Ash to go fuck himself for trying to kill her and now begging her to take him back, and then we get the reveal of Emperor-Captain Georgiou right at the very end. But these are both presented as codas, or epilogues – the scene between Ash and Burnham to tie off their relationship, and the scene with Georgiou to land a cliffhanger for the final episode of the season.

So this big, “beautiful” moment with the terraforming and the fungi-growing is presented as the crescendo of the episode, as though something great has just been achieved. But according to the script, nothing has been achieved – nothing was overcome. We don’t even see them building the array of seedpod-launchers, as they’re just suddenly present in the shuttlebay, ready to go when the plot needs them.

Let’s move on, before I get really angry.


64minutes

Alrighty, so, in the latest episode, ‘New Eden’, the crew of Discovery face a terrifying threat – radioactive debris from a planet’s rings has been knocked out of orbit and is descending towards the planet, threatening an extinction-level event – i.e., all life on the planet, including 11,000 humans, will be wiped out in a matter of hours.

If this seems familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the plot from ‘Deja Q’, the Season 3 TNG episode in which a planet’s moon is on a collision course with the planet itself, an event which will wipe out all life on the planet.

descendingmoon

In both scenarios, they rule out weaponry, as destroying the debris or the moon will only make matters worse. Neither ship’s tractor beams are capable of doing the job, so a creative solution is needed. In both cases, the answer involves gravity manipulation.

But for all the similarities between the two scenarios, ‘Deja Q’ gives us a much better story out of it, and we’ll cover why soon.

First of, let’s cover the tension, which works well for both stories:

  • The stakes are sound – all life on a planet. In ‘Deja Q’ there’s no immediate danger to the Enterprise, but in ‘New Eden’, Pike, Burnham and Owosekun are also on the planet, adding a more personal stake for the crew.
  • The threat is well established – all their existing technology won’t help, the obstacle is just too potent for the crews to deal with conventionally.

Great! We’ve got something to achieve and obstacles to overcome in order to achieve it. Strong start.

Except, that’s not the start. Not in ‘New Eden’. First mention of the planetary threat occurs at 22 minutes into the episode – almost exactly (in fact just slightly over) half-way into the episode.

extinctionlevelevent

Meanwhile, this threat is established in literally the first spoken words of ‘Deja Q’, in the Captain’s Log spoken by Picard at the very beginning of the cold open.

This difference is key, because it gives ‘Deja Q’ the time it needs to escalate the tension around the catastrophic asteroid, a tension which is escalated and escalated until it is finally resolved nearly 44 minutes later. In contrast, because of ‘New Eden’s pacing issues, it has less than half its remaining run time to resolve the issue.

And, indeed, it actually has less than that. Because at the 32-minute mark, once again almost exactly ten minutes after establishing the tension of the story, the problem has been solved. Why DISCO writers will insist on resolving their big action set piece narratives in less time than I need to take a dump is beyond me, but they seem to do it every episode.

Regardless, ‘Deja Q’ gives itself the time it needs to escalate the tension of the situation. The Enterprise makes its first attempt to push the moon to a safe orbit within the first two minutes, until they realise that they can’t push the moon hard enough without burning out the ship’s systems.

shortonboth

This is the first escalation of tension. The second comes at the 30-minute mark, where Geordi uses Q’s suggestion and attempts to science the asteroid into having a smaller inertial mass. This starts to work, until an enemy entity opens fire on the Enterprise, forcing them to cancel their attempt.

The ultimate resolution of this tension is via of a pseudo-Deus Ex Machina by Q, who sacrifices himself to get rid of the enemy entity, regains his powers, and restores the moon’s orbit as an act of compassion.

The key takeaway from all this is that we have a plot, and we have tension, therefore we have a compelling story, as follows:

  1. A moon is crashing towards the planet, threatening to kill millions.
  2. The Enterprise tries to stop it once, and fails due to the magnitude of the task.
  3. The Enterprise tries to stop it a second time, and fails due to enemy interference.
  4. Q sacrifices his own life to give the Enterprise a chance to stop the moon.

stepasidegracefully

Now, let’s take a detailed look at ‘New Eden’.

The tension is established half-way through the episode, as discussed. And in response, Saru announces with full conviction:

catastrophe
You’ll note that he didn’t specify anything about ‘Discovery’ itself, which he certainly allowed to become a catastrophe.

All very heroic, and all very good. And sure enough, we later cut to Tilly, using her genius-science-brain to figure out a creative solution to avert catastrophe, which is great. Then she runs up to the bridge all Tilly-like and starts getting all excitable with Detmer, which is also great.

HOWEVER

However, do you remember what Detmer said when she first alerted Saru to the danger? Here, I’ll remind you:

64minutes

That “64 minutes” bit is what’s called “A Ticking Clock”, and is a very effective, reliable way to add threat to your story, increasing the tension. In fact, it’s an important element to this story. Y’see, in ‘Deja Q’, the Enterprise had a good 25 hours to sort its shit out:

25hours

That’s also a ticking clock, but because of the timescales involved, it’s much less important to building threat – it’s still useful, but minutes is better than hours when it comes to building tension.

So, ‘New Eden’ has a rapidly ticking clock. What does the crew do with those precious 64 minutes?

Well, um…

Nothing.

Literally, nothing.

Here’s Airiam, the very next time we see the bridge crew:

4mins32seconds

Four minutes left! A full SIXTY MINUTES has passed and they’ve done nothing. No failed attempts to stop the debris, accidentally making it worse. Hell, they’re not even out of the concept stage yet, check out this dickhead:

phasersdumbass
It was a dumb idea when Riker suggested it in ‘Deja Q’, and it’s a dumb idea now, so just shut the fuck up, Rhys. No, wait, Bryce? Shit, I always get all these walking status reports mixed up.

Sixty minutes have passed, 94% of the time they have to avert this catastrophe, and they’ve done nothing. Which means that not only are Saru’s words ringing hollow in the ears of the audience, but it also dissolves the significance of the stakes – after all, if it’s so important to save the people on the planet, why haven’t you tried anything? They haven’t even come up with a plan! They’re still spitballing!

rikerdumbass
I wasn’t kidding when I said that these episodes had a lot in common.

So that ticking clock was clearly pointless. I mean, sure, Saru & Co. might be trying to avoid making the situation worse, but it’s an extinction-level event, it’s not as though they can make it much worse. Especially when there’s just four minutes left before it’s all over.

So, let’s take a look:

  1. Debris is crashing towards the planet, threatening to kill thousands, including three crew members.
  2. It will happen in 64 minutes.
  3. Tilly puzzles on the problem in sickbay.
  4. The bridge crew take no action for 60 minutes.
  5. Tilly runs up to the bridge and explains the plan to save the day.
  6. The plan works. The day is saved.

This is another great example of ‘Discovery’ breaking the tension through incompetence. They did it in ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’ by solving all their problems before they ever encountered them, and they did it ‘The War Without, The War Within’ by just never building any tension in the first place. And they do in ‘New Eden’ by making the crew look like a big bunch of dumb idiots.

Now, I don’t want to be too harsh on this episode, as I enjoyed it personally, and I genuinely appreciated that they faced environmental problems that required savvy and creativity to overcome. These are all positive steps forwards for the series as a whole. But I do need to call out the failings where I see them, and they are significant.

And if you think that this doesn’t matter, because ‘New Eden’ is actually meant to be about loftier, more philosophical matters, like faith and rationality, then that’s fine, but so was ‘Deja Q’. Hell, ‘Deja Q’ wasn’t about the moon at all, it was about Q’s journey into humanity, and his contrast with Data, and it was about accountability, facing consequences for your actions. Hell, ‘Deja Q’ manages to run a good “save the planet” story and yet still leaves plenty of time for Data to talk about his breakfast:

nutrientsuspension

Or even just talk to Q about relationships:

interpersonalrelationships

Or even just watch Q get stabbed for being a complete turdburger:

yellsinpain

And that’s not even covering the bit where Data saves Q at his own expense, or Q feeling guilty over Data’s sacrifice, or all the debate between Picard, Riker and Geordi over whether or not it’s worth putting the planet below in danger just to protect Q from the Calamarain.

allamarayne
No, I said “CALAMARAIN” – get the fuck out of my DISCO review, Emissary!

And the point here is not to point out that TNG is “just better” than DISCO (although it is) – but rather, to point out that you can still have complex and heady themes alongside a more pragmatic story element, and build tension for both. ‘Deja Q’ is the proof that it can be done. Hell, ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’ proves that it can be done, too. It’s as though the writers of ‘New Eden’ simply chose not to.

I’ll point out here as well that in ‘Deja Q’, the resolution of the problem is a Deus Ex Machina of a kind, as Q uses his literal God-like powers to correct the moon’s orbit. But, importantly, he only gets his powers back because he behaves in a way we’ve not seen before, by selflessly sacrificing himself after experiencing guilt and remorse for the first time in his life. We learn something new about Q, and we see a different side to his character, and that’s yet another great emotional connection for the audience.

In ‘New Eden’, we already know that Tilly is smart, so seeing her solve the problem doesn’t really tell us anything new about her. Neither do we learn anything new about the crew (beyond the fact that Detmer’s wonderfully cocky) because they don’t take any action themselves, and they don’t make any decisions. This means we don’t even get character growth out of this whole affair, rendering it meaningless.


The whole point of ‘Discovery’, its ethos, if you will, was to leverage bigger budgets, modern special effects and a young, fresh production team to create Star Trek for the new generation. They’re intentionally trying to increase the amount of action and excitement in the show – that’s a stated goal by the creators.

Which then brings into question – why the hell can’t they do it? Why do they fail to build that tension in almost every episode? And it is nearly every episode – I’ve just picked out the three simplest examples here.

As I said at the start of this monstrous article, stories are important. They are important because they make us feel things, and that’s more important than anything else. They give us emotional connections to concepts we may face one day – or that we have faced before – and allow us, the audience, to grow as individuals by developing our own ideas, our own conceits and our understanding of the world.

Which means that getting stories right is important, too. You have to build that emotional connection with the audience, you have to build that tension, in order for them to invest themselves in the story you’re trying to tell. Otherwise, there’s no point in telling the story at all – you may as well just list a sequence of events.

Star Trek Discovery ‘New Eden’ – A Steady Hand On The Tiller

Most of ‘New Eden’ made me feel happy.

The second episode of DISCO’s second season was a relatively well put-together work of fiction. There were stakes, there were debates, there were expressions of self-doubt by the characters. There was an away mission, which was lovely, and in classic Trek style it was to an M-Class planet, the “M” standing for “Much like California.”

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Tilly & Co. once again getting excited by science stuff and doing science things with science objects. The science-solution to the science-problem was about as lucid as Trek gets with this sort of stuff and it broadly fits with the concept of a gravity tractor.

sarurunstametsrun

 

Detmer and Owosekun have graduated from “having lines” to “being plot-relevant”. Detmer’s a cocky little deviant and that’s just fine. Owosekun is apparently a Luddite, which is an… interesting concept for a community of people living in a tech-driven neo-Utopia. Particularly since the Luddites were a protest group whose opposition to machinery was due to fear of losing their jobs.

Airiam gets one more line this episode, taking her up to a franchise-total of four lines. What species is she? Who knows! I’m fine with leaving some character development for later, but she’s the most visually distinctive member of the crew and it would be nice for her to at least have some degree of characterisation beyond “none at all.”

Hands-down my favourite Stupid Pike Moment of this episode is the crew explaining to Pike the concept of the Spore Drive and Stamets’ role in making it work. I get that Pike’s the Supply Captain, but surely he’s been briefed a little since he took command? Surely it’s important to know that your chief engineer is half-tardigrade?

Another stinker is the receipt of the distress call and Pike’s immediate command to “ready photon torpedoes.” The distress call clearly refers to some kind of ground attack, Pike, so unless you want to atomise the victims as well as the attackers in some kind of callous display of indifferent, godly power, maybe just chill a bit?

dumbpike
Have you considered switching to decaf, captain?

Pike pushes hard on the whole “Well maybe there IS a god, did you ever think about that?” cul-de-sac of thought, further cementing his role as the lovable, dim, handsome captain who’s just glad to be along for the ride.

I didn’t have anything coherent to say about his ‘F’ grade in Astrophysics last time, and I’m not sure I do yet. On the one hand, it’s fine for leaders to have flaws.

On the other hand, the leaders of SPACESHIPS should probably know at least a little about “the branch of astronomy concerned with the physical nature of stars and other celestial bodies, and the application of the laws and theories of physics to the interpretation of astronomical observations.” I dunno, just give him an ‘F’ in Botany or something instead.

badassdoctor

Overall, ‘New Eden’ was kind-of fine. Tilly was fun, if cringey. Burnham’s and Pike’s relationship is complicating nicely. It felt like a very standard episode of Star Trek. Jonathan Frakes’ directorial input was evident in the focused, tight scenes that didn’t leap from plot point to plot point just to Shelby the audience into submission.

I was glad that there was no unnecessary action scene. Pike’s phaser-blast to the chest seemed like a contrived means of forcing the away team to seek a return to Discovery before the planetary story had reached a natural conclusion. But there was also no ridiculous, budget-soaking asteroid pod-race. This was a show about people in rooms, talking, but this time the conversations changed the nature of the problem that the crew was facing.

ltreactionshot
Where will you be when Tilly strikes?

It was lovely to see the crew not just doing Science Stuff, but working together whilst doing so. There’s a part of me that hated Detmer’s delivery of the line “Extinction-Level Event”, but then I loved the way she and a hospital-robed-Tilly just started bouncing off each other trying to solve the Problem of the Week. It reminded me of Geordi and Data stood at the pool table on the Enterprise-D in ‘Deja Q’, talking excitedly about tractor beams and warp fields.

The Star Trek Grinch in me wants to criticise the “dumming-down” of the language, with talk of pulling doughnuts and the computer confirming Tilly’s assertion that things might go “boom”. But again, seeing Tilly with her Nerd-Goggles and Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator warmed the geek-cockles of my heart.

Likewise, Saru giving Tilly a stern but affectionate talking-to in sickbay was pretty touching, and felt like a nice relationship for these characters to have – uniting on their shared insecurities and self-doubt. Nothing wrong with that.

sarucare

Stamets kept up the pathos and the sensitivity, which is also great. Anthony Rapp’s shown us a few different sides of the character, and Stamets has become a genuinely engaging element of the show.

The biggest failing of this episode was insufficient focus or development of the New Eden colony, their culture and their way of life. It felt like it had been heavily edited, stripped down for time, or potentially not fleshed out at all in the script. Which is a shame, as the last episode was a full sixty minutes, and I’d have been fine with this 45-minute episode running a little longer so that we could get more emotionally invested in the people of New Eden.

Specifically, Jacob was a fascinating character on the surface, but we just never got to fully understand his background, nor why his family remained devoted to science and technology.

This also leads into the absurd line by Burnham: “Say my religion is science.” That just doesn’t make sense from anybody’s perspective – either from the New Eden colonists, who despite their low-tech way of life all seem relatively intelligent, nor to Burnham herself, who as a Science officer and anthropologist should understand that science isn’t a belief system, but rather an approach to characterised by “testable explanations and predictions about the universe.”

religion
Oh, come on, Burnham, you’re better than this.

Moreover, it’s entirely possible to be both religious and scientific – to hold irrational beliefs covering abstract concepts that cannot be tested, such as purpose, meaning and destiny, whilst still approaching all physical, observable phenomena via the rational, empirical method.

This notion that “science” is somehow an equally valid religious choice alongside Taoism, Islam, Christianity or even Wicca is so bizarre and just reeks of Kurtzman.


One curious point that struck me in this episode was all of the space-based CGI looking suddenly… better. I can’t for the life of me put my finger on it, if it’s higher detail models, better textures, better lighting, or all three, but the show is suddenly looking more like a high-budget TV show and less like screencaps from Star Trek Online.

For comparison, here’s the beauty shot from our first view of Discovery back in Season One’s ‘Context is for Kings’:

disco1

And here, from the end of ‘New Eden’:

disco4

Overall, this episode felt like it had a steady hand on the tiller. I don’t know if that really is the influence of Frakes, as his previous entry in the franchise was nonsensical and dull as sin. Either way, I was left feeling that if this is a level of quality that ‘Discovery’ can maintain, it might end up being a compelling show.

And one further point – with the introduction of the ship’s new grumpy doctor, and the increased importance of the bridge crew, I’m no longer feeling the need to track female interactions – women talk to each other, and do plot things, and in general manage to avoid just being victims all the time. It’s great! It’s how it should have been from the very beginning.

Discovery in Depth – Continuity and The Shelby Method

My first look at ‘Discovery’s Season 2 Premiere, ‘Brother’, was a chaotic ejaculation following an unexpectedly positive reaction to the show’s latest episode. However, there are heavier themes and ideas to explore in the world of ‘Discovery’ critique beyond “Just how explicit am I allowed to be in describing the things I would let Jet Reno do to me?” and “At some point I need to see Tilly and Stamets sing ‘Faith of the Heart’ together during the ship’s Karaoke night.”

One of the frequent topics of discussion with regards ‘Discovery’ is its fit within the Star Trek canon – which is shorthand for “does it keep continuity with what has come before / what will come after in other shows and films?”

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never cared that much about continuity with the rest of the franchise. Canon gets violated in Star Trek more frequently than the Prime Directive, very often with the same series violating canon that the series itself established several episodes earlier (see: beaming through shields).

However, several recent instalments in the franchise haven’t just ignored broader franchise continuity – they’ve ignored their own continuity from just a few scenes or even just a few moments before.

To explore this phenomenon, I’d like to introduce “The Shelby Method” of continuity.

shelby1
No, not that Shelby.

Continuity – The Shelby Method

If you’ve seen ‘Memento’, you’ll be familiar with its main character Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce. In it, Shelby is unable to form new memories – events occur, and within a few minutes he will have forgotten them entirely, finding himself in new and strange situations with no clue as to how he got there.

It’s notable for being a great little movie, with a wonderful cast, and for being Hollywood darling Christopher Nolan’s first widely-distributed film and the beginning of his $2.4 billion filmography (but sure, feel free to keep complaining about the plot holes in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’).

=ê™e

It’s also notable for inspiring what I have now coined as “The Shelby Method” of film and TV storytelling, most notably used in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

It works like this:

The significance of any information, plot development or dialogue is retained across the next two camera shots, after which it can be abandoned completely in favour of superseding information.

In short, if you’re telling a story for film or TV and you need cool stuff to happen, there is absolutely no need for previous events in the story to stop the cool stuff from happening.

For example, in ‘Into Darkness’:

  1. Admiral Marcus fires on the Enterprise
  2. causing her warp core to become dislodged
  3. causing Kirk to sacrifice himself whilst kicking it back into position
  4. causing Kirk to die
  5. causing Spock to scream “KHAAAAAN!”

Now, as your brain works through that sequence of events, and you begin to think “Hang on, why is Spock shouting ‘KHAAAAAN!’ when it was Admiral Marcus who was more responsible for Kirk’s death?” Spock is already down on Earth, chasing Khan through the streets of San Francisco, and now McCoy is resurrecting a Tribble with Khan’s blood, and now Spock’s on a hovering garbage scow, and now McCoy’s shouting at Uhura, and now Spock’s whaling on Khan with a lump of metal, and now he’s screaming like an animal, and by now you’ve already forgotten about that bit with the warp core, haven’t you?

spock_screaming_khan

If clever tricks of perspective and carefully-orchestrated special effects are considered “Movie Magic”, then the Shelby Method is “Movie Con-Artistry” – it’s the practice of moving the story along so quickly and dazzling or otherwise overwhelming the audience such that you prevent them from committing the events of your story to their long-term memory. You turn your audience into Leonard Shelby, remembering only the last few brief seconds of what they’ve just experienced.

Another example would be in Season 1 of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, episode 8, ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’, where Discovery‘s First Officer, Saru, betrays Burnham and Tyler and attacks them, sabotaging their mission to gain a war-winning advantage against the Klingons.

And as Saru lies in sickbay, explaining that he wasn’t even being mind-controlled, he was just emotionally overwhelmed, and you start thinking “Well, the last time a First Officer behaved that way, it was Burnham, and she spent six months in prison, and that’s the entire driving theme of this series, so is Saru going to at least get a court martial?” and then the peace planet emits a huge energy pulse summoning the Klingons, and Burnham and Tyler walk onto the bridge, and Lorca says something, and the communications officer says something, and we cut to the Klingon leader Kol, and then we end on a cliffhanger, and then at the beginning of the next episode the scene continues and everyone’s trying to figure out what to do about the Klingons, and Saru is there too, as First Officer, and

Wait, shouldn’t Saru be in the brig?”

Well, of course not. Because as per the Shelby Method, Saru did nothing mutinous within the last two camera shots, so what possible reason could there be for him to be in the brig?

Congratulations, you’ve just been Shelby’d.

butiwascollage


Orders and Uniforms

So, let’s take a look at ‘Brother’, the first episode of DISCO’s second season, and let’s see if we can keep up, starting with the final moments of the ‘Previously On’ segment at the very start:

  1. Discovery enters maximum warp straight from Earth to Vulcan
  2. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  3. but the sender of the signal can’t communicate via audio or even transmit their registry number
  4. and it turns out to be the Enterprise
  5. and she’s Captain Pike’s ship
  6. with Spock aboard
  7. and we see the Enterprise approach Discovery under her own power with all her lights on
  8. and we cut to a montage of photos from space probes and telescopes
  9. and Burnham talks about an ancient (hundred-thousand year old???) story of creation
  10. and we see Burnham’s introduction to Sarek
  11. and then to Amanda
  12. and then to Anakin-Spock
  13. and then Anakin-Spock makes a holographic dragon float around the room
  14. and then he closes the door
  15. and then we’re back on Discovery
  16. and the Enterprise is completely disabled with no systems online and all her lights off
  17. except life support
  18. but all crew are alive, including Spock
  19. and it’s Tilly’s idea to communicate via Morse Code
  20. and Enterprise has just signalled via Morse that Captain Pike and an engineer and a science officer are beaming over
  21. and they beam over
  22. and Spock isn’t there
  23. and Pike takes command of Discovery under Starfleet’s orders
  24. and explains that he wanted to deliver the news himself and so asked Starfleet not to notify Discovery
  25. and the Enterprise engineer comments on how badass Discovery is
  26. and Pike explains that at least Enterprise picked up the new uniforms
  27. which Discovery‘s crew don’t have
  28. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  29. called “signals”
  30. which appeared simultaneously “over the past 24 hours”
  31. and then simultaneously disappeared, except for one
  32. which Discovery‘s crew has never heard of
  33. and Enterprise‘s science officer is arrogant in explaining the issues they cause
  34. and when they tried to scan the red bursts, their systems went haywire
  35. and Pike and Burnham talk about Spock
  36. and Linus the Saurian has a cold
  37. and we see Discovery‘s vast, lit-up, spacious roller coaster interior which is big enough for manned service pods
  38. and Saru theorises on the origin of the Red Bursts
  39. and the science officer explains that six hours ago
  40. one of the bursts “stabilised long enough to get a fix on its position”
  41. and Pike explains that they were on route
  42. when the ship’s systems completely shut down
  43. and that Starfleet is sending a team to tow the Enterprise home
  44. and then Pike asks Saru for his command codes
  45. and Saru explains that he can’t hand them over without a DNA test
  46. and then Linus sneezes on the arrogant science officer.

Okay, that’s a lot to take in. And maybe it all makes sense as you read it from top to bottom.

lightsonlightsoff
Lights on, lights off.

But, surprise surprise, all that formatting I added wasn’t random. Let’s put it together in a more categorised fashion, starting with all the reds:

  1. Discovery enters maximum warp straight from Earth to Vulcan
  2. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  3. and it turns out to be the Enterprise
  4. and we see the Enterprise approach Discovery under her own power with all her lights on
  5. and the Enterprise is completely disabled with no systems online and all her lights off
  6. and it’s Tilly’s idea to communicate via Morse Code
  7. and Pike takes command of Discovery under Starfleet’s orders
  8. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  9. which appeared simultaneously “over the past 24 hours”
  10. and then simultaneously disappeared, except for one
  11. and when they tried to scan the red bursts, their systems went haywire
  12. and the science officer explains that six hours ago
  13. one of the bursts “stabilised long enough to get a fix on its position”
  14. and Pike explains that they were on route
  15. when the ship’s systems completely shut down

So, here’s a question: what is the current state of the Enterprise? Are her systems completely down to the extent that they need Morse Code to communicate? She flew up to Discovery under her own power, but then her systems are completely dead except life support. All of her lights and engines are on as she approaches Discovery, at a time when she can’t even send an audio message, or even her registry number, but then they’re off less than two minutes later.

discoveryinterior
I guess Time Lords are canon in Trek now. Yes, that is a manned service pod flying around inside the hull of Discovery.

Maybe the underlined bits will help:

  1. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  2. but the sender of the signal can’t communicate via audio or even transmit their registry number
  3. and we see the Enterprise approach Discovery under her own power with all her lights on
  4. and the Enterprise is completely disabled with no systems online and all her lights off
  5. and it’s Tilly’s idea to communicate via Morse Code
  6. and Pike takes command of Discovery under Starfleet’s orders
  7. and explains that he wanted to deliver the news himself and so asked Starfleet not to notify Discovery
  8. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  9. and that Starfleet is sending a team to tow the Enterprise home

Well, now it seems like Pike had some extensive communications with Starfleet after the Enterprise‘s systems went completely down. Enough to transmit her status, to get a response, to request that Starfleet not contact Discovery themselves so that he can pass the message along, and gets a response about the status of the towing team, and then sends a garbled distress signal unable to even identify his own ship via its registry number.

enterpriselightson2

Which all happened before the Enterprise lost all power to all her systems, because we see her travelling towards Discovery after the show establishes that her communications are completely down.

I’m struggling to get my head around this, so let’s have a look at the blue bits (with a bit of red in there, admittedly):

  1. Discovery enters maximum warp straight from Earth to Vulcan
  2. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  3. and Pike explains that at least Enterprise picked up the new uniforms
  4. which Discovery‘s crew don’t have
  5. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  6. which appeared simultaneously “over the past 24 hours”
  7. and then simultaneously disappeared, except for one
  8. which Discovery‘s crew has never heard of
  9. and the science officer explains that six hours ago
  10. one of the bursts “stabilised long enough to get a fix on its position”

Which means, whilst Discovery was at Earth, and all the crew were getting their medals, and Burnham was chatting with Sarek about that one time he tried to wipe out an entire civilisation, the blue uniforms with metallic division colours were the standard uniform. Then they beam up to the ship, head into warp, and somehow nobody told Starfleet’s most advanced starship about the Red Bursts, or about the change in uniform.

uniforms

Meanwhile, we find out later that Enterprise sat out the war (as Starfleet’s “instrument of last resort”???? Despite the Klingon ships being in orbit over Earth????) on its five-year mission, presumably returning to Earth at some point before being dispatched to investigate the Red Bursts. Which would be a minimum of six hours before Discovery leaves Earth for Vulcan.

If it even returned to Earth at all. In any case:

  • How does Enterprise have the new uniforms before Discovery?
  • How does Enterprise know about the Red Bursts before Discovery?

If you can’t figure it out, then congratulations.

You’ve just been Shelby’d.


Magic Eyes

My previous examples took place over longer periods of time: several scenes and about twenty minutes of screen time in ‘Into Darkness’, and roughly five minutes and a handful of scenes in ‘Discovery’.

Now I want to take a look at a single-scene example, with the relevant events taking place within 66 seconds of each other.

So, under the command of Captain Pike, Discovery approaches a massive interstellar asteroid.

  1. Needing more information, they use telescopic cameras to take images of it
  2. and Burnham advises that the closer they are, the better a picture they can get
  3. so they move closer
  4. and as they do they cause a repulsive effect between them and the asteroid “like two similarly charged magnets”
  5. which pushes the asteroid onto a five-hour collision-course with a pulsar
  6. and then they detect a Starfleet vessel on the asteroid
  7. which they show in a zoomed-in digital overlay on the main viewscreen
  8. showing a crash-landed ship
  9. which they try hailing but get no response
  10. and they can’t zoom in any further to see the ship’s registry
  11. so Burnham reminds Saru that his eyes have “a larger optical window than [human eyes]”
  12. so Saru’s pupil dilates and he reads the registry number.

Well, by now you should know what’s coming next:

  1. Needing more information, they use telescopic cameras to take images of it
  2. and then they detect a Starfleet vessel on the asteroid
  3. which they show in a zoomed-in digital overlay on the main viewscreen
  4. and they can’t zoom in any further to see the ship’s registry
  5. so Burnham reminds Saru that his eyes have “a larger optical window than [human eyes]”
  6. so Saru’s pupil dilates and he reads the registry number.

So, does Saru’s vision allow him to… add pixels to the digital screen overlay?

If not, then couldn’t anyone read the display better by just walking closer towards it?

If it’s not a digital display, then why does it appear like a window popping up on a Macbook?

screencollage1

And in any case, are Saru’s eyes really better than high-tech cameras with telescopic lenses?

If you want to track this yourself, then go to time code 27:44 and start watching. Within one minute and six seconds, you’ll be at Saru’s pupil dilation.

Which means that within one minute and six seconds, within the same scene, with all the same cast members, on the same set, we introduce telescopic cameras, forget about them, zoom in digitally on a distant object, and Saru develops magic eyes.


What’s The Point?

So, why is the Shelby Method a thing, and why does it matter?

Well, it’s a staple of writers like Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who have throughout their careers relied on overloading the audience with new information so quickly that the audience can’t pierce their baffling, confusing, often nonsensical storylines.

This lifts the burden of having to make sure their stories are in any way satisfying, cohesive or clever. This goes as far back as ‘Lost’, where new plot threads and mysteries were introduced every episode without ever being solved. And not just ‘Lost’ or ‘Star Trek’. For another defining example, go and take a look at ‘Prometheus’.

Crafting a smart, sensible story is difficult. And it takes a long time. And it often means that you have to sacrifice that cool thing you really want to include because it just doesn’t make sense.

magnets

A few years ago, a friend of mine was asking for advice on a medieval fantasy book they were writing. In it, their characters frequented a sailor’s tavern. My friend had lovingly described every detail of this tavern, from the trophy fish on the wall to the shanties that were sung to the all the nets and floats and fenders and other maritime trappings that added so much character to this wonderful setting. They were so in love with it, and justifiably so, that they had made it one of the main settings for their story – a comfortable port of call to which their characters frequently returned.

The problem?

The story all took place a hundred miles inland.

On the edge of an ancient desert.

My friend had asked me to help them figure out how to make this awesome maritime tavern fit within the narrative they had constructed. And I couldn’t. The best solution I could come up with was that it had been ironically decorated that way by its owners. Kind of a trendy hipster “out of place / fish out of water” bar. Which was hardly a satisfying explanation.

What I should have told them is:

“Don’t worry about it. Just introduce new plot elements every other sentence. Keep adding more events and details to your story. Move it along so fast that your readers don’t have time to wonder why a sailor’s tavern is a hundred miles inland next to a desert.”

My friend was having this quandary because they cared about the story they were telling. This was a passion project, and they wanted it to be as good as possible. This wasn’t some product they were churning out to hit a commercial target. They’d been labouring for years on the story that they wanted to tell.

pulsar

If the writers of modern day Star Trek want to ignore the franchise’s larger continuity, then that’s up to them. If it gets in the way of them telling the story that they want to tell, then I say, go for it. Violate that canon. Every other entry into the franchise has done before them.

But here, in ‘Discovery’s second season, they can’t even be bothered to stick with their own continuity, even within the same scene. They make a cool thing happen. Then they need another cool thing to happen, but it contradicts the previous cool thing. Don’t worry – they just space the two cool things out with at least six lines of unrelated dialogue and they’re golden.

And if you didn’t notice, then congratulations.

You just got Shelby’d.

‘Star Trek: Discovery’s Season 2 Premiere ‘Brother’ Jumps The Shark By Being Pretty Good, Actually

Having just finished ‘Brother’, the first episode of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, I can confirm that my entire identity as a blog writer has been shattered.

I didn’t hate it.

This is a chaotic “first impressions” article as I pull my thoughts into coherence following a surprisingly enjoyable experience. I’m going to follow it up later in the week with a more cohesive look at what we’ve seen so far and where it fits within the show, as well as some of the “meta” problems that sit around it.

First, though, stray observations:

  • “Sometimes it’s wise to keep our expectations low, Commander. That way we’re never disappointed.” – Now that’s just not fair. If the show’s going to make fun of itself, then all the joy of doing so is gone for me.
  • Vulcan interior design! Brought to you by Ikea!
    • At first I thought Sarek’s home looked horribly un-Vulcan. Then I realised “Duh! Of course it does! He’s the Vulcan ambassador to Earth, this’ll be in North America somewhere!” Then Amanda promises to take Michael to Earth, where she’s never been, and I groaned with frustration.

ikea

  • Tilly has somehow forgotten every bit of character development she had in the last season and is now back to being disturbingly awkward and socially incapable.
  • Airiam, still the ship’s third-highest ranked officer, doubles her line count TO DATE by speaking her name. And then triples it when talking about a power cable.
    • Also, I can only assume that her first name is “Lieutenant Commander”, or she just ignored Pike when he asked them all to forget their ranks.
  • Pike and the Enterprise crew got the new uniforms (although he still changes into the old DISCO-style ones at the end of the episode) but hasn’t Discovery literally just left Earth? And Enterprise has been on its mission? So, why didn’t Discovery’s crew get the uniforms before they left? How did Enterprise get them first? Ah, whatever.
  • Detmer and Owosekun get lines! Multiple lines! They even talk to each other! Such progress! It is 2019.
  • “Red thing! Where’s my damn red thing?” How did you become a captain exactly, Pike?
  • The “interstellar asteroid” is travelling at “5000 km/s”. Voyager 2 is currently travelling at roughly 16 km/s. Which means… no, that actually checks out. Wait, did ‘Discovery’ just get a science measurement roughly correct?
  • One of Discovery’s design features is apparently “telescopic cameras,” and the line delivery implies that this is a non-standard feature. That’s right! Starfleet’s most advanced ship has reached an equivalent technology level to 1960’s paparazzi!
  • They then have to get Saru to look at the crashed ship’s registry with his superior eyes because this is ‘Discovery’ and all prior information is rendered null and void as soon as we cut to the next shot.
    • Which… he’s looking at an electronically-enhanced image on the viewscreen anyway, so… what, do his eyes multiply the pixels on a viewscreen? Guy could’ve been a champion professional gamer in that case.
  • “Really? Are you surprised?” asks Saru, as a bridge officer looks at his extruding threat ganglia. Well, yes, actually, Saru, your bloody threat ganglia never shot off all those other times you were about to die in Season One, so, yes, I am pretty fucking surprised.
  • Also, Saru briefly transmorphs into C-3PO for some “The odds of surviving…” banter.
  • I adore Commander Reno and I would like to have her babies – and she seems to have the capability to make that happen biologically. She had better be a recurring character or I may have to take drastic action.
  • Michael’s helmet-hair is adorable.
    • And, I know I’m trash, but I still really miss her lovely fringe (or “bangs”) from ‘The Vulcan Hello’. That was such a nice hairstyle on her.
  • Apparently, the first couple of episodes of this season blew more than half the budget for the entire season, and with Burnham’s desperate escape from the exploding wreckage, I can see how. Jesus, that was an extravagant scene.
  • There’s problem-solving! And obstacles to overcome! What is this, a Star Trek show all of a sudden?
  • Poor old Enterprise, busted up and being towed home. Farewell, sweet princess, we shall see you at some plot-convenient point later, I can only assume.
  • There were NO LONG, POINTLESS FIGHT SCENES. Hell, there wasn’t even any shooting! It’s almost as though compelling science fiction doesn’t need people stabbing each other to be good.
  • Spock’s quarters aboard the Enterprise have some lovely little nods to the old sets of ‘The Original Series’. Those brass circle-pattern screens particularly.

quarterscomparison

Right, that’s enough bullet points. Let’s get down to business.


What’s Going On?

Good question.

So, despite the Enterprise flying up to Discovery at the end of last season under its own power and with all its lights on, in the time it takes Tilly to be a bumbling dickhead apparently Enterprise shuts down completely. Almost as though the writers had no idea what they were doing last season and just jammed the Enterprise in at the end for a fanservicey cliffhanger.

But that’s okay, because Pike says the Enterprise was sent here to take command of Discovery. Even though the Enterprise’s systems were down so completely that they could barely transmit their registry number, they nonetheless conversed with Starfleet Command, located on Earth, from where Discovery had moments earlier departed, and got orders to intercept Discovery on her way to Vulcan, despite all her systems going completely offline with no explanation at some random point, and, with her systems still offline, flew up to Discovery, broadcasting a Priority One distress call, but then died completely, but they still picked up the colourful new uniforms along the way, and then…

I’ve lost track.

enterprisecollage1

Look, the first half of this 60-minute episode is a mess. In fact, that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a complete fucking Kurtzman is what it is. A massive steaming Kurtzman, with a magnitude of about 16.3 Lindelofs.

None of it makes sense, and it seems like there were a lot of re-writes and re-shoots to make it even nearly comprehensible. None of the writers really seem to know how to get Pike onto Discovery to achieve the appropriate level of fanservice demanded by their studio overlords, so they just keep throwing plot points out like narrative diarrhoea in the hope that the audience will gloss over it all and just keep drooling into their laps.

They also, clearly, have no idea of what to do with Sarek, as he has a moment with Burnham where he explains that he’s going to leave Discovery as soon as she drops out of warp, but then they drop out of warp into a Dark Matter debris field and immediately get the shit smacked out of them but Sarek still never appears again, but we never see him leave, so didheleaveordidhestickaroundforabitandwherewashisshipdidhetakeashuttleorIdon’tknowwhat’sgoingonpleasehelpmeJasonJasonJasonJasonJasonJasonJasonJASONjasonjasonJasonJASonJasonJaSON.

Let’s move on.


Commander Reno

Ah, Commander Jet Reno.

Just like Captain Georgiou before you, you are FAR too good for this show.

jetreno2

First off, “Jet Reno” is the best name ever.

Second, God damn you are one competent motherfucker.

I’m a bit skeptical of “the body’s just a machine and I read a lot” explanation for an engineer carrying out BRAIN SURGERY but y’know what? Fuck it, maybe she’s just that smart. I love her. I love her so much.

She responds to Pike’s “You stayed behind?” with exactly the right amount of contempt and fuck-youery to cement her as a fundamental Starfleet disciple.

jetrenocollage1

She delivers every line with the perfect degree of deadpan pragmatism.

I haven’t done any research on whether or not we’ll see her again, and I don’t intend to, as the hope of seeing her returning and bossing all of these simpletons around will be the one thing that keeps me going through this entire god damn season.

For those who aren’t watching the show: we meet Jet Reno on a wrecked hospital ship, stranded on an asteroid eleven months earlier in the opening stages of the war with the Klingons. When the ship was wrecked, most of the crew and the patients left in escape pods, but some of the wounded were in too bad of shape to leave that way.

So Jet Reno, star commander and steel-hided badass, stays behind, on her own, to keep the ship’s systems going and look after the patients. In that time, she improvises floating worker drones to help her with manual labour, and somehow figures out how to run a human off a Bolian heart.

She keeps the beating heart in a jar.

jetreno1

She fits Star Trek’s optimistic vision of humanity’s future so perfectly that I can barely believe she appeared in ‘Discovery’. She’s tough, capable and compassionate, and I am completely fine with her becoming the template for all future characterisation within this show.


Emotional Attachment

The acting was another wonderful element to this episode.

I liked Alan Tudyk’s Anthony Rapp’s performance in Season One. And I loved it here. He brought a fantastic degree of pathos and thoughtfulness to the recently-bereaved Stamets, struggling to cope with living in a claustrophobic environment in which his partner was recently murdered. I felt genuinely sorry for him, and shared in his grief.

Sonequa Martin-Green was variable. There were some great touches, such as her grinding her teeth as she thinks about her troubled relationship with Spock. But later in the episode, she seems to suffer from the bobble-head syndrome that plagues so many actors. That may have been a result of the director, however, and I’ll not condemn her for it unless it becomes a pattern.

Anson Mount gave a lovely turn as Captain Pike. We’ll talk about the more general issues with Pike in a bit, but from an acting perspective he was pretty much spot-on. He’s casually likeable and seems like a nice guy to talk to at a barbecue or to be stuck in a turbolift with.

Detmer and Owosekun (Emily Coutts and Oyin Oladejo) can actually act! I know you would never have guessed it given the eight-and-a-half “status update” lines they had between them in the first season, but here they get at least that many lines each, and they seem to be enjoying themselves. Keep it up, ‘Discovery’, and soon you’ll almost be an actual feminist show!

burnham1

Burnham and Tilly have a lovely moment in sickbay. They seem like genuine friends, with real affection for one another, and they excitedly talk about science shit, and they seem almost exactly like what you’d expect to see in a good Star Trek show made within the last ten years. And, Tilly gets her terrible “The power of maths!” line out of the way with in this episode, and it is terrible, but at least it’s out of the way with early on and I don’t have to spend the next few weeks dreading its arrival


What is this? It’s like I’m having feelings about ‘Discovery’, but they aren’t bad, horrible feelings that burn like a smouldering, fitful rage. They’re nice feelings, almost like I’m rooting for these characters and want to get to know them better. I didn’t finish the episode depressed. I actually want to see more.

I’m scared.

Philippa Georgiou – The Best Captain That Star Trek Never Had

CONTENT WARNING:

THERE ARE A LOT OF PHOTOS OF MICHELLE YEOH AS CAPTAIN PHILIPPA GEORGIOU THROUGHOUT THIS ARTICLE.

YOU’RE WELCOME.

Well, a new season of ‘Discovery’ is about to start, which means that I, like an alien scout vessel in a secret research base as larger alien motherships approach the Earth, am regaining my writing power – all my little gizmos are turning back on, so to speak. Was that a stretched and esoteric reference to Brent Spiner’s role in ‘Independence Day’? Yes. Am I going to apologies for it? No.

Right from my very first article about ‘Discovery’, I argued that the show should’ve been about Philippa Georgiou. That was literally the first two paragraphs I ever wrote about the show. Since then, a lot has happened. The show got a second season. New spin-offs have been announced. I’ve had surgery on my genitals. The world is a different place, but one thing remains the same:

‘Discovery’ should still have been about Philippa Georgiou.

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I’m not going to talk about the just-announced Section 31 series starring Michelle Yeoh in this article. It’s exhausting enough just hating on the Trek that already exists, and I simply don’t have the energy to hate on a show that doesn’t even have a title yet.

(I do hate it, though. It’s about a genocidal future space fascist who tortures her political enemies joining forces with a genocidal future crypto-fascist black ops team of edgelords and it’s going to be terrible.)

No, I want to stay positive this time, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Captain Georgiou only featured in two episodes of Star Trek ever (three if you count her hologram) but she’s frankly one of my favourite characters from the franchise. Let’s talk about why.


The cold open to ‘Discovery’ was my absolute favourite bit from the entire fifteen-episode season. It was lovely. It had as much respect for the Prime Directive as any series before it and I was glad. The Prime Directive is trash. It’s stupid, ugly trash, and it is a good thing when the Prime Directive is violated. (Except for that weird one where the rogue captain turned all the natives into Nazis, but we can rightfully gloss over that for now.)

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The highlight was Georgiou walking out the Starfleet Delta in the sand so that the Shenzhou could find her and Burnham. It was a simple, intelligent solution to the problem they were facing. SURE, there are a few plot holes in there somewhere, but hell with it, it was what I wanted from the show – characters using their wits to work their way out of difficult situations.

And what’s great is the characterisation of Georgiou throughout the two pilot episodes. Michelle Yeoh owns the part. She figures out a plan and just executes it calmly. She doesn’t flap, she doesn’t lose her cool. She’s thoughtful, lighthearted and calming, whilst also owning any space she’s in. Where Jean Luc rarely leaves the few central square feet of the bridge of the Enterprise, fixing himself as the central point of authority, Georgiou strides about with an easy confidence.

There’s a lovely little line where, as Burnham is flying through the debris field in her EVA suit, one of the bridge officers remarks that her heart rate is high. Georgiou responds with a smile, “She’s having fun.” She makes clear that she has an intimate familiarity with her officers, far more friendly than Picard or Janeway, and more parental than Sisko’s more casual relationships.

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Indeed, of all the captains, Georgiou seems closest to Kirk more than any other. Just as ol’ James T. was a charismatic leader who won his crew over with a wink and a smile, Georgiou laughs and jokes with her people. It seems like it would just be good fun to be an officer on the Shenzhou, compared to the increased formality of life aboard the Enterprise D, or the spartan utilitarianism of the Defiant. Or the rampant space-nobbery of the NX-01.


There’s another fantastic exchange between Georgiou and Burnham shortly before the Klingon beacon lights in ‘The Vulcan Hello’:

Georgiou:Shenzhou is the only line of defence if the Klingons attack.”

Burnham: “Not if. When.”

Georgiou: “I have to hope that whatever happens here can serve as a bridge between our civilisations.”

Burnham:”That’s the diplomat in you talking. What does the soldier say?”

Georgiou: “Nothing good.”

This little exchange here is what the entire show should’ve been about. There’s so much weight and theme within it that I can barely believe it came out of an episode of ‘Discovery’. Let’s break it down.

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Burnham’s correction, her assertion that a Klingon attack is guaranteed, is a classic support-character argument. Offering a contrasting point of view, usually a more pessimistic one, that the main character overcomes with their own reasoning. Georgiou counters with a classic bit of Trek peace-mongering: “… serve as a bridge between our civilisations.

A bridge between civilisations. A belief that there is more that unites us than divides us.

This should have been the message of ‘Discovery’. That for all of the contrasts between Klingon and Federation culture, even after a bloody conflict common ground can be found. As I’ve already covered, that was not the ultimate message of the show, and that was a great shame, because we see the germ of something wonderful in the very first episode, before it’s discarded in favour of stabbing, torture, rape and plot twists.

This is reinforced by the next lines. “That’s the diplomat… What does the soldier say?” And again, this right here succinctly addresses one of the great conflicts of the franchise to date – that of a militaristic organisation such as Starfleet being employed in the name of science and exploration.

Acknowledging this duality in Georgiou, that she must act in equal measure as a builder of bridges and a guardian against conquest, could’ve been a wonderful character arc. Had she lived, we might have seen her dealing with the Klingon war in a way not yet explored by previous series.

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Sisko was always a soldier. The genesis of his character was in battle at Wolf-359. He started out as a wounded veteran, embittered and robust. The Dominion War was an extension of his character – we see the war (mostly) through his eyes, the eyes of a soldier, and so we never see any internal conflict within him the way we would with, say, Picard or Janeway.

Georgiou could have offered fresh perspective. We could have examined the two halves of her career and how they interact. Maybe one episode could have featured the Shenzhou visiting a backwater planet, where Georgiou has to convince its inhabitants to join Starfleet and fight in the war, or maybe she’s even there to outright conscript young fighters as losses mount and desperation sets in. We see her using her skills as a negotiator to convince people to join her cause, knowing that many of them will never return, and we face her torment as she does so, weighing the need to win the war against the cost of fuelling it with more lives, more casualties.

All of the previous captains represented different military virtues – Kirk embodied intrepidity and determination. Picard was the model of discipline and responsibility. Sisko was all about duty, whilst Janeway stood for principles (most of the time). Meanwhile, Archer… I guess Archer represented authoritarianism or something. I dunno, I was never too sure about him.

The point is that it would have been so lovely to find out what Georgiou represented within this pantheon. If Kirk is the God of Leaping Before Looking, maybe Georgiou would have been the Goddess of Skill, or Adaptability, or Cunning.

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Oh my.

Another wonderful aspect of Captain Georgiou that we see in these first two episodes is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty as she is faced with unfamiliar challenges. She visibly struggles to figure out the next best move, and leans heavily on Saru and Burnham to inform her decisions and to advise her. This absolutely humanises her, and makes her so much more accessible as a character.

Both Picard and Janeway were too formal and rigid, particularly early on in their respective shows, for an audience to truly connect with them. Hell, it’s Season 4 of TNG before we get to ‘Family’, which is the first real moment of vulnerability we see in Picard. Kirk goes the other way, being so effortlessly charismatic and unfazed that he seems almost superhuman. Sisko’s most humanising feature was his relationship with Jake, and their shared loss of Jennifer.

In Georgiou, we see a competent and smart individual nonetheless struggling to overcome strange and dangerous obstacles. She’s vulnerable, without being weak or incapable. And most of all, her motivations are clear – to resolve this situation without starting a war, maybe even forging a new relationship with an enigmatic alien culture.


Georgiou showed so much potential just in those first two episodes, that it now makes me genuinely a little sad to know we’ll not see her again. Yes, we’ll still see Michelle Yeoh, as the cannibalistic, sadistic and morally bankrupt fascist tyrant Emperor Georgiou, who is the mirror in every way to the quiet confidence of Captain Georgiou. And Yeoh plays both parts well, for sure. But I genuinely think that Captain Georgiou could have easily stood at the level of any of her predecessors in all of those “Who Is The Best Captain” debates had she been given the chance.

More than anything, it was just a joy to watch a charismatic leader solving problems and facing difficult situations. That was a show to which I would have given my heart, and I wonder now if all of the bitterness towards ‘Discovery’ stems from the narrative betrayal of the show’s creators in having Georgiou killed off so early on.

Oh well. At least some part of that dream might live on in this new Section 31 series.

But probably not.

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Spock, Chewbacca and The Prequel Paradox

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ brought us Han Solo’s origins as a young scoundrel. As I covered in my earlier review, it was kind of alright, if you overlook the odd bits about race and feminism.

But one thing that stood out was the scene where two Storm Troopers talk about Chewbacca eating people. Sure, technically it’s not cannibalism, but we don’t have a word for one sentient being eating another sentient being from a different species, so to satisfy all you bloody pedants out there, and for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call it “Shmannibalism”.

There’s also a scene where Chewie literally dismembers a person. He physically, actually pulls their arms from their body.

Chewbacca is a violent sociopath.

So, you watch ‘Solo’, and then you go and watch ‘A New Hope’ and you’re like… Oh. Han Solo kept the shmannibal as his co-pilot. His co-pilot eats people. And that comment he makes to C-3PO, about Chewie pulling people’s arms out of their sockets when he loses… that wasn’t a joke. Han was talking literally.

Wait, Han Solo’s ship’s computer is a former civil rights activist, who was literally stripped of her bodily autonomy and forced into servitude as the Millennium Falcon‘s satnav?

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“This is my friend Chewie. It’s cool, he hasn’t eaten anybody in, like, three days.”

And suddenly, that lighthearted space adventure with laser swords and magic and starfighters duelling over an enormous space station – it all has a bit of a different tone. Because one of our heroes – our heroes – eats people, and violently dismembers them. He’s as violent and gruesome as Hannibal Lecter.

And also the most famous ship in the franchise is run on slave labour.

And this is the problem with prequels. Prequels change the way we see existing characters, such as:

A lot of the time, a known (and often popular) character from a franchise will appear in that franchise’s prequel, and a lot of the time it kinda works, either because the character is kept consistent with their original appearance, or because the prequel is divorced enough from the original that it doesn’t quite feel like “canon”. For example:

  • Obi Wan Kenobi feels like a consistent-enough character from ‘The Phantom Menace’ all the way through to ‘Return of the Jedi’.
  • Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’ is completely compatible with, even complimentary to, Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
  • ‘Prometheus’, as much as I like to whinge, doesn’t really affect your experience of ‘Alien’, because the films are so radically different in tone and structure.
  • The 2009 remake of ‘Star Trek’ was drastic enough of a reboot, stylistically and otherwise, that it very effectively walls itself off from the rest of the franchise in its own little continuity.

For me, the Ur-Example of recent times is that of Sarek in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (because of course it is, it wouldn’t be a Crude Review if I didn’t whinge about DISCO).

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Sheer poise and sophistication.

Sarek, a famously logical, ethical Vulcan renowned for having spent his life as a diplomat and advocate of peace, is revealed, in the finale of DISCO’s first season, to have been an active participant in a plot to destroy a planet with billions of people on it, before being publicly revealed as a conspirator.

Which makes it weeeeeeiiiird when we then see him in ‘The Original Series’, the movies and ‘The Next Generation’ being revered as a diplomat, even sat next to the president during fraught negotiations with the Klingons, the same race he tried to commit genocide against. It puts a bizarre spin on everything, with this weird, horrible genocide plot now hanging over every scene that Sarek is in.

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Ooh, awkward.

(By the way, destroying a planet in a surprise attack to “bring peace to the Galaxy” was exactly the plot of the original Star Wars, and, SPOILER ALERT, it wasn’t the good guys.

…It was Space-Fascists.)

Now, you may be thinking “But what about sequels? Don’t they have the same issues?” And to an extent, they may, when a familiar character is diminished or warped to fit the narrative of a commercially-driven sequel (*cough* Gimili *cough*). But the difference with sequels is that they, by definition, follow after what has come before.

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Awkwaaaaard.

When we see Luke choke Gamorrean Guards in Jabba’s Palace, that doesn’t overwrite the innocent farmboy we first saw on Tatooine – it just shows a different path for the character. If they ever made an origin story for Luke Skywalker, and we found out that a couple of days before ‘A New Hope’ he ethnically cleansed a village of Jawas in the Dune Sea, then we’d have a situation where all of his boyish enthusiasm takes on a different tone.

Similarly, Darth Vader’s redemption in ‘Return of the Jedi’ doesn’t change the nature of his terrifying authoritarianism in ‘Hope’ and ‘Empire’. However, finding out that Vader’s initial fall to the Dark Side was because he was pretty lamely duped into it by the Emperor does diminish a lot of his power and agency in the Original Trilogy, and the drama between him and Obi Wan.


It doesn’t, though. None of these prequels actually ruined anyone’s childhood. Any rational adult can divorce their mental association between a crappy cash-in prequel and an old classic. When I watch the Original Star Wars Trilogy now, I broadly don’t even think about the Prequel Trilogy. When I watch ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, the trash of the Hobbit trilogy doesn’t even enter my mind.

But, that brings us around to the self-defeating nature of these prequels. What do I mean by that?

Well, most media intended for mass consumption these days is motivated almost entirely by commercial concerns. Sure, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ genuinely feels like a passion project for just about everybody involved, but that’s a rare exception, and for every furious road there are five tired Melissa McCarthy vehicles rehashing a bunch of ideas that have already gone before. (I love Melissa McCarthy, by the way, I just wish we could see her doing something a little different for a change. Don’t even get me started on Will bloody Ferrell.)

Besides the bottom line, though, there’s always going to be a glimmer of artistry in almost any production. There will always be, you would hope, some desire by the cast and crew to entertain and intrigue their audience – to tell a story. At its very worst, you get the likes of ‘Transformers’ and ‘Into Darkness’, where commercialism completely dominates any creative imperative, but there would hopefully be a balance in most productions. The Marvel Universe films are all strong examples of commercially-driven movies that retain some artistic essence, if for no other reason than the fact they’re genuinely quite entertaining.

Let’s take another look at the Star Wars Prequels, this time focusing in on ‘The Phantom Menace’. As great a misstep as the plot contrivances may have been, Lucas was clearly intent on spinning some kind of politically intriguing tale set in the Star Wars universe. He failed. Badly. But there’s that little spark of the storyteller still shining through. You can at least see what Lucas was going for, no matter how wide he fell from the mark. He gets points for at least kind-of giving a shit, even if only for ‘The Phantom Menace’.

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Part of that artistic intent, with a prequel or a sequel, is to make this instalment a part of the larger series, or franchise or whatever. Put simply, most of the time the creators of these sorts of films want to add their creation to the existing canon, to contribute to a greater whole. The Prequel Trilogy was genuinely intended to be a canonical part of the Star Wars saga. ‘Enterprise’ really wanted to show us life before Starfleet. The Hobbit trilogy was designed to fit snugly into the Lord of the Rings movie-canon.

So then you create your new addition to the canon, where Darth Vader is a stupid whiny teenager or where Chewbacca actually eats people and then… it gets discounted. Because to maintain the image of Chewie as the lovable walking carpet, you have to keep the events of ‘Solo’ out of your head when you watch ‘A New Hope’. So now, ‘Solo’, which was meant to inform on the origins of the iconic Han Solo and Chewbacca duo… doesn’t. Because nobody* wants to think about it. Nobody* wants to see Darth Vader as a miserable Hayden Christensen, so they just… won’t.

And so, you hit the Prequel Paradox. You’ve pushed your own artistic creation out of the canon to which it was meant to contribute. It makes itself irrelevant in the minds of the fans*.

* By “nobody” and “fans” I am, of course, assuming that all audiences are identical to myself: angry fat men on the internet. In truth the majority of the audience likely don’t give a shit, and rightly so.

But how relevant do you even want it to be? How loyal do you need your new creation to be to the existing source material? Which leads into the ULTIMATE problem with prequels.


‘Rogue One’ was unique. For all of its flaws, at the very least it subverted our expectations. As we progress through the final act, we gradually come to realise that everybody is going to die. And it’s a great subversion. It’s the depressing, brutal ending that nobody really expected from a Star Wars movie.

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‘Solo’ gives us the opposite. We see Han and Chewie and Lando and the Falcon in all of these dangerous situations that we already know they will survive. The filmmakers do their best to use the supporting cast creatively, with double-crosses and casualties throughout. And tension doesn’t rely on not knowing what’s going to happen – you can still feel tense when re-watching a scene you’ve seen thirty times before. But from a story perspective, we already know that Han ends up with Chewie, and they both end up with the Falcon, and Lando lives through it all, and so we know that every scene in the movie will contrive to allow them to live.

The existing canon acts as a restraint on the narrative.

Now, let’s address the real reason I wanted to write this article.

Ethan Peck cast as Spock in Star Trek: Discovery

So, as I’ve previously covered, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has a new Spock in town. We knew it was coming. From the first time we saw Sarek in the show, we knew Spock would be dragged into this mess.

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Mr Spock, if The Original Series had been written by Stephenie Meyer.

And I want to make clear, right out of the gate, that I don’t give a shit about Klingon creature designs or the revamp of the Enterprise or the uniforms or any of that crap. Klingons have changed their appearance and culture so many times that there is no consistent version of the Klingon Empire anymore. Hell, the Klingons in ‘Deep Space Nine’ aren’t even the same Klingons we see in ‘The Next Generation’. The “Refit” Enterprise made no logical sense except as a way to make a nicer model for the big screen. And we’ve seen so many bloody uniform variations that I really don’t give a shit anymore (and besides, shouldn’t Pike’s uniform feature a polar neck? Jus’ sayin’).

But I do give a crap about Spock. Specifically, I give a crap about what will be at stake in the adventure to save him. Because ‘Discovery’ is part of the canon, right? And we know, canonically, that he’s going to be back with Captain Pike before long, and not long after that he’s going to team up with Kirk and McCoy, and then he’s going to try and re-unify Romulus and Vulcan, and THEN he’s going to fly a jellyfish-ship into a black hole and then travel back to an alternate reality where his younger self will beat up Benedict Cumberbatch with a lump of metal.

So we already know that Spock will probably be fine. But that’s okay, because we knew that all the way through the Original Series, too.

But we also know that Pike’s going to be fine, and that they will end up back on the Enterprise, which will also be fine, so the story’s going to have to contrive that particular conclusion, too.

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Well, I guess he’ll be sort-of fine.

We also know that we’re probably not going to get too many huge shake-ups to the wider world of Star Trek, because we know everything will still be there in a few years’ time once we get to ‘The Original Series’.

So it already seems as though this huge universal theory of bullshit that Burnham’s really, really cringey voice-over alludes to in the awful trailer is probably not going to amount to much, long-term.

And despite all of that, they could probably still make a decent-ish story with enough tension about Captain Pike commandeering the Discovery to save Spock and unravel the mystery of the Red Bursts.

And that is the main issue I have. Because isn’t this show meant to be about the crew of Discovery?


Lets talk about Burnham.

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Burnham has two main problems as a character:

  1. She has no motivations throughout the first season. She refuses Lorca’s offer of redemption, only to be forced into it, and then just wanders around, bored. There’s even a scene where she tells Tilly directly just how unengaged she is. And that never changes. Burnham never makes any decision to engage with events and drive her life forwards – things just happen, and she responds to them.
  2. She is introduced as Spock’s foster-sister.

So, the first one is just a general complaint that I wanted to get off my chest, but the second is what I want to talk about.

And no, it doesn’t matter that Spock never mentioned her. There was literally an entire film about Spock suddenly having a brother that he’d never spoken about before and that he has never mentioned since. Hell, Kirk had a brother that he mentions in a single episode, who again never features outside of that episode. Data had Lore, and then B4. Burnham can still be canonically Spock’s sister and it really doesn’t change much.

But, what does matter is that it becomes part of Burnham’s identity. Burnham is now Spock’s sister. She’s Sarek’s daughter. Everything that happens is now connected to those two existing characters inextricably, and it also means Burnham’s pretty much stuck in their respective shadows. She’s not her own character – she’s just a relative of these other (male) characters that the fans will recognise.

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And it’s also pointless. Burnham is an interesting character in her own right. An orphaned human raised by Vulcans – cool. A traitor to Starfleet who “starts a war” (but doesn’t really) – also cool. She doesn’t need to be connected to Sarek and Spock, and arguably she shouldn’t be, because it ties her fate into that of those other two characters whose futures are already set in stone by previous installments.

Particularly when the plot of the second season (or at least part of it) is going to be Burnham searching for Spock. Specifically, Burnham’s investment in the plot, based on the trailer, seems to be to find her foster brother, and it was Spock who took a leave of absence to investigate the mysterious phenomena across the Galaxy. If this turns out to be true, then notice that Burnham won’t be motivated by her own curiousity or desire for discovery – the actual drive and ambition is all Spock’s.

Not to mention that there was already a Star Trek story about searching for Spock, called ‘Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.’ Hell, TNG had it’s own Spock-hunt, called ‘Reunification’ (parts 1 & 2). In fact, this isn’t even ‘Discovery’s first search for Spock – they did one in the first season, called ‘Lethe’, where Spock was played by Sarek, his father.

And let’s take a look at ‘Lethe’ for a second, because it’s exactly what I’m talking about – Burnham tries to track down the dying Sarek, and she learns about his inner conflicts through the medium of dream-karate (the most Vulcan metaphor I can possibly think of, I mean, of course the rational, highly cultured and scientific Vulcans would characterise everything in the form of physical combat). But what you’ll notice is that all of the revelation and self-discovery is Sarek’s, not Burnham’s. Sure, her relationship with her foster father develops, but it develops through Sarek’s character growth, rather than Burnham’s.

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And the main reason this happens is because Sarek is the already-established character that the fans will recognise. If we imagine that James Frain was playing, I dunno, Sarevok (in this continuity Faerûn is in the Alpha Quadrant), some hitherto unknown Vulcan who fostered Burnham, then there might be less perceived need to make the story about him, and instead it might be Burnham who learns new things about herself as she struggles to save him.

This change would also have absolutely allowed the writers to have Sarevok participate in any kind of awful, genocidal atrocity, and therefore have him face more severe consequences for it, without violating the canon. Hell, they would have all the freedom they needed to flesh him out beyond the constraints set by Sarek in previous Treks.


All of this stems from the decision to make ‘Discovery’ a prequel, rather than a sequel. I should refer to this tweet, by on of the show’s writers, Ted Sullivan:

Writing for a franchise with as long and twisted a continuity as Star Trek is understandably daunting. Disney binned all of the Star Wars Expanded Universe stuff when they bought that franchise specifically for this reason (and also because a lot of it is garbage and they probably didn’t want to pay out royalties every time they mentioned Mara Jade). Continuing a series without breaking continuity is really fucking difficult, and most of the old Trek writers didn’t even bother to do it themselves a lot of the time.

But that is multiplied tenfold when you do a prequel. With a sequel, you’re creating new canon, and you can move away from established universe norms through the actions of your characters. Want to ditch the Prime Directive? Have a scene where two crew members discuss it being abandoned for political reasons. Want to make the Klingons a race of peaceful scientists? Explain the cultural shift, using a montage, or flashbacks, or even just basic exposition.

You can’t do that with a prequel, because every change has to be carefully explained and later on corrected to remain within canon. How is it that a war with the Klingons took the Federation to the brink of collapse, but that war is never mentioned in all of the dealings with the Klingons just ten years later? How is it that the Federation handed the means to destroy the Klingon homeworld to a renegade and yet the Klingons don’t constantly bring that up every time Kirk starts preaching about peace and co-operation?

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One of these two is the representative of an empire which uses weapons of mass destruction to coerce submission from its enemies. SPOILER ALERT IT’S NOT THE KLINGON.

And these things can be explained, there is no doubt about that, but you’re then forced to dedicate screen time to explaining them, rather than telling the story you actually want to tell. Sullivan accurately describes Trek canon as a set of “handcuffs,” but by writing a prequel, he’s really put himself in a straitjacket.

And all of this is at the expense of the show itself. This isn’t just me complaining about DISCO again*. As mentioned, I want the show to succeed – but I want it to succeed on its own merits, by telling original stories with interesting characters that bring something new to Trek, rather than just revisiting the same icons and cultural references like ‘Funkopops: The Series’.

* I mean, it’s mostly just me complaining about DISCO again.


Prequels can be fantastic. They can be a great way to learn more about a character or event in an established universe. ‘Rogue One’ succeeded because it took something we knew nothing about, the “daring raid” to seize the Death Star plans, and made a fun, clunky character piece out of it, with big spaceship battles and pointless cameos by R2-D2 and C-3PO. ‘Rogue One’ worked because of how little we knew about the subject at hand – a passing reference in the opening crawl of the first ever Star Wars film. And consequently, it could be its own entity, and tell the story it wanted to tell.

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‘Solo’ failed because of how much we knew about the subject at hand – specifically, two of the most famous sci-fi characters in modern times. And because we knew so much about where Han and Chewie were going, there was very little room to explore where they had come from. The film struggled to tell its own story, and where it deviated from what the fans knew, it ended up making itself obsolete (unless you’re a diehard Chewie-is-a-cannibal theorist).

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ failed for… well, for lots of reasons, but I think the main one was that it handcuffed itself to pre-ordained fates not just of its characters, but of its various nations and species and factions and technologies. They get a cool new mode of transportation, that we know won’t exist in the future. They go to war – a war whose consequences we know will be forgotten within a decade. Like with ‘Solo’, this isn’t just about narrative tension, it’s about having room to develop a story beyond rigid confines established by different writers half a century ago.

It’s about being able to tell the story that you want to tell, rather than the story that you are forced to tell.

If I were a writer stuck with the commercial decision to create a prequel to a much-loved, long-running franchised, I’d just get on with it and try to do my best, and I can only assume that’s exactly what all the writers of all the terrible prequels that have ever been made have done. Ultimately, when you have a job to do, you just do it.