A little while ago, I wrote an article about how ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is just a show about people in rooms, talking. Needless to say, even people who didn’t like the show were not convinced by my arguments. But I stand by them, and the latest episode of ‘The Expanse’ is the reason why.
Spoilers for Season 3 of ‘The Expanse’ from her on out, along with gratuitous comparisons to ‘Discovery’. You Have Been Warned.
Last week’s episode, ‘Dandelion Sky’, was pretty explosive from a narrative perspective. We got a pretty huge, if vague, infodump on the origins of the Protomolecule; Holden made it to the centre of the mysterious station; we got to see Gunny again; we had a lot of backstory for Melba, the tacky rich bitch who needs to get some respect for herself; every ship in the region got frozen in place; and in general the whole storyline advanced significantly.
This episode, ‘The Fallen World’, is nearly the exact opposite. We learn virtually nothing new, most side plots stand still, and very little of the story develops in a significant way.
And it was my favourite episode so far.
Of the entire run.
To explain why, we need to look at probably the story that takes up the bulk of this episode: Drummer and Ashford, the captain and first officer, respectively, of the Belta battleship Behemoth.
First off, you’ve got great performances by Cara Gee and David Strathairn. Strathairn is almost unrecognisable with his sheriff’s moustache, burn scars and thin, scruffy hair – roughly 22 astronomical units from his appearance in ‘Good Night and Good Luck’. Strathairn is also typically brilliant, and as much as I love Gee’s tough, uncompromising performance as Drummer, the august Strathairn steals most of the scenes in which they appear together.
Immediately following their confrontation at the end of last episode and then the sudden deceleration of all ships in the area, in this episode Drummer and Ashford are pinned at opposite ends of a farming… machine… thing, and are both suffering from painful and potentially lethal injuries. The machine is mag-locked in place, so even though there’s no gravity they can’t move it to free themselves.
Cue some wonderful hateful cooperation between the two as they work together to save themselves. It’s almost entirely just the two of them talking (and occasionally singing), and this is where the first comparison to ‘Discovery’ comes in.
Because Ashford and Drummer aren’t just talking – there’s a mountain of context to what’s going on between them. For the last half of the series, since Ashford’s introduction he and Drummer have been circling and snapping at each other like dogs competing to be the Alpha of the pack. And that tension shapes every exchange between them as they’re stuck here, slowly dying, attempting to escape a painful death. The physical peril is more of a framework from which the real drama between the characters is hung.
In contrast, most of the scenes in ‘Discovery’ lack that tension, and the drama usually comes from the situation rather than from the characters. And I hate to say it, but that is a Star Trek trend that started way, way back in the days of ‘The Next Generation’ and, later, ‘Voyager’. It’s unfortunate that so much of the plot progression occurred in those shows, around a conference room table, where a group of people who are all friends discuss some made-up problem, and what drama there is is squeezed out of the imaginary peril in which our crew finds themselves.
Here, aboard the Behemoth, not much even happens, but we learn so much about these two characters as nothing happens. They tell us about their pasts, their motivations, hell, they spend five minutes just talking about clothes, and we still discover more about them than we did about Beverly Crusher by the end of ‘All Good Things’. We also get to see how resourceful these two Belta leaders really are, as they try a whole variety of jury-rigged and desperate solutions to their situation, and that leads me onto the next comparison to ‘Discovery’.
Do you remember in the first season of ‘Discovery’, when the crew are faced with a really, really difficult task that they’ve never done before, and they spend a few minutes talking about how dangerous it is beforehand, and then they try it and it works first time with no problems? You should, because it happens on at least six separate occasions.
Early on, Lorca has a plan to jump into combat with the Klingon ships bombing the dilithium planet, bait them into attacking Discovery and then jump away, leaving a load of bombs which completely destroy every Klingon ship. They try it once and it works flawlessly without them taking any damage or casualties.
Shortly after, Burnham is given the task to save the Tardigrade, so as her first resort she launches it out of the airlock. This works flawlessly and the tardigrade immediately rejuvenates itself before fucking off.
Later, the crew needs to get the cloaking calibrations off of the Klingon Ship of the Dead, which they do without getting hit or damaged.
Then, they need to fly a perfectly-timed manoeuvre through the middle of the Mirror Universe’s Emperor’s flagship, which they manage flawlessly without getting hit or damaged.
Then, they need to instantly terraform a planet into a spore-plant farm, something never done before, and they manage it flawlessly with a five-minute special effect.
And finally, they need to end the war with the Klingons by having an low-ranked Klingon torturer threaten Qo’Nos with a super-bomb, and this plan works flawlessly and with no resistance from anyone, resulting in an immediate end to the war.
This is absolutely Not a Trek trope, where the usual scenario involves the first solution failing horribly and resulting in LaForge shouting excitedly with his head tilted up by thirty degrees ; Riker putting his foot up on the side of Data’s console to get maximum camera coverage of his crotch; Picard denying Worf’s request to fire the torpedoes and Troi gasping a few times for good measure.
The point is, it’s more exciting when something doesn’t work than when it does. In ‘The Expanse’, everything is on the European Extreme difficulty setting. Need to move a space farm tractor thing? Someone’s going to have to die. Forget to lock your toolbox properly? You’re going to end up with a power drill as a permanent part of your anatomy. Want to bone some rich racer chick that you’ve never met? Well I hope you like Venus, my friend, as well as crashing into Venus at relativistic speeds.
And that’s what I love about this show – the writers are not afraid to draw from the enormous pile of deadly situations that can occur at literally any moment in space. In point of fact, every single problem encountered by our heroes in this episode is a result of a very simple, very basic principle of physics – that things in motion like to stay in motion, and making them stop means applying a force. A very large force, if the things are moving very fast.
A few episodes ago I wrote this article, covering how well ‘The Expanse’ nails its storytelling, and in it I predicted that the events in that episode were setting up a dramatic event for a character later in the series. Well, I was nearly right – I just didn’t anticipate it being a setup for large chunks of the Earth, Mars and Belt navies getting their crews pancaked to death all at once.
But it’s true that thanks to the second episode of this season setting up momentum and Newtonian physics as major antagonists early on, we now get to see what happens when alien magic-tech gets involved. The alien station brought every fast-moving object to a halt at the end of last episode, and the results are not pretty. Not only do we see scenes of first-law carnage in the corridors of the U.N.N. Thomas Price, but we learn that the M.C.R.N. Xuesen lost a third of its crew instantly due to the near-instant deceleration, with another third badly injured. Alex is left napping in a cloud of his own lasagne, and Amos is finally revealed to be a mere mortal when Naomi finds him with a gorgeous shiner and a concussion in the Rocinante‘s engine room.
What’s worse is that now that none of these ships can use their engines to accelerate, the clean-up has just become that much harder. A U.N.N. doctor tells Anna that without gravity, artificial or otherwise, blood can’t drain from wounds and all sorts of things that usually happen when a body heals stop happening, and whilst I’m not a space doctor, I assume that this is a realistic medical concern in zero-g. This kind of attention to detail is charming and grisly, and again emphasises just how horrific space travel can be.
We get a tragic example of just what weightlessness means when Anna attends the wounded Tilly. As Tilly cries in pain and anguish, the tears cling to her eyes instead of falling. It’s a beautiful, very subtle visual effect, and a mark of the real love that goes into even the smallest detail when making this series.
(I also feel the need to bring up the character Tilly, here, and the fact that the same name is used in ‘Discovery’. It seems like the sort of thing that might just be a coincidence, but it’s such an unusual name, and she first appeared in the book ‘Abaddon’s Gate’, which was released in 2013, which leaves me thinking this is just another example of the latest Trek series “paying homage to” and definitely NOT “plagiarising” ‘The Expanse’.)
And speaking of Anna, we again get more scenes of her just wandering around being a generally decent person. And this feeds back into my earlier point, because a lot of what Anna does is be in a room, talking with someone, and yet there’s always more to it than that. She offers her assistance as a nurse to the above-mentioned U.N.N. doctor, who promptly tells her to bog off before explaining the gruesome fate awaiting casualties in zero-g. It’s an expository conversation wrapped in a grim and hopeless medley of suffering.
We then follow Anna on her pursuit of Melba, the manifest avatar of wealthy privelege. Melba murders people just so she can murder other people, and whilst her ultimate target is James Holden, that doesn’t allow me to forgive her for going on a violent crusade of sabotage just to impress her war-criminal father. She’s a goddamn uptight sack of tasteless trash and whilst I’ve greatly enjoyed her story so far, if I met her at a barbecue at a mutual friends’ house I’d secretly wipe every burger bun on my smelly arse just in the hope that she might eat one of them.
Anyway, Melba “Shithead” Mao (that entire family is a train wreck, by the way) EVAs her way to the Roci just so’s she can ruin more things for everybody, thinking that Holden might actually be there, and she runs into Naomi (the real hero of the show when Gunny isn’t on-screen) and we get the one action scene for this episode, and it’s very quick and it’s very brutal.
Melba attacks Naomi with her ‘Aliens’-esque powerloader spacesuit, and it’s a very one-sided fight between a walking crane and an unarmed Belta. Naomi barely manages to evade Melba’s attacks, using the lack of gravity to attempt an escape, but Melba catches her and begins choking her to death. She gets interrupted by Electric Anna, but this whole scene is another great example of the superior action sequences of ‘The Expanse’.
First off, it’s dynamic. Every action changes the nature of the fight. Melba launches herself at Naomi. Naomi dodges, and uses a mag-lock to pin Melba in place. Melba rips herself free as Naomi deactivates her mag-shoes to leap across the room and up to the exit hatch. Melba grabs her, and drags her back down to the floor, and that’s it, the fight is now over, and Naomi’s nearly killed. Now compare that to this trash:
In the above, Lorca, Burnham and Georgiou all fight in what is a very technically impressive bit of choreography, except that they spend nearly three full minutes beating, punching and stabbing each other and at the end, they’re all still just standing there, seemingly on full hitpoints, and nothing about their situation is radically different from when they started. Lorca even gets a knife thrown in his back at one point – he takes a moment to pull it out, then goes right back to fighting at full effectiveness. There are explosions, swinging swords, knives, phasers, and the scene is ultimately resolved by Lorca getting stabbed in the back whilst standing still.
Then we look back to ‘The Expanse’, and the fact that Holden has a bloodied nose for, like, three episodes after getting in one brief fistfight. Every action in ‘The Expanse’ has consequences, and as such every action in ‘The Expanse’ has weight.
In ‘Discovery’, if you scroll back up to that bullet list I made of the impossible tasks that they achieve flawlessly, you’ll notice something odd – not one of those tasks is relevant in any subsequent episode. The dilithium planet is saved and never seen again; the tardigrade is healed and vanishes for the rest of the season; the crew get the cloaking calibrations, then return at a point where the data is irrelevant anyway; the Emperor’s ship is destroyed, and we never revisit the Mirror Universe; a planet is terraformed, and then never mentioned; a new dictator is installed in the Klingon Empire, and that’s at the end of the season, so we’ll have to wait and see if that one gets any further look-in.
And if you think it’s petty of me to keep bringing up ‘Discovery’ in my reviews of ‘The Expanse’, then I need to explain that first, ‘Discovery’ invites the comparison through all the “homages” it pays to ‘The Expanse’. And secondly, the two shows are like mirrors of one another. They’re both futuristic, serialised sci-fi adventures following small crews in larger universes, both to the background of cosmic war with unknown technologies.
But every stumble ‘Discovery’ makes highlights every triumph that ‘The Expanse’ achieves. The crew of the Rocinante follow a richly compelling narrative that is propelled not by numerous secret identities and shocking plot twists, but by simple character-driven decisions and interactions, and by the unflinching application of long-term consequences to short-term actions.
My fascination with ‘Discovery’ was driven by how succinctly it captures so many pitfalls and shortcomings of modern storytelling – a microcosm of “narrative by hashtag”. My fascination with ‘The Expanse’ is driven by how expertly it tells a story without resorting to cheap tricks and flashy effects – in fact, it’s very, very difficult to highlight any small part of ‘The Expanse’ because so much of it is layered and built off of what has come before.
My absolutely favourite single moment of this entire season was shortly after Amos spaced the reporter and her creepy camera guy, and he says to Holden quite casually “I’m sorry I put them out the airlock, I should have told you first,” and Holden responds with a very off-hand “That’s alright.” That exchange had me in stitches, just because of all the disagreements Amos and Holden have had in the past, and all the weird shit they’ve been through now means that Amos apologising for spacing two people is handled as though he’s apologising for leaving the kitchen light on all night. And I absolutely cannot explain to anyone how much joy those two lines of dialogue brought me because NOBODY WOULD UNDERSTAND.
There’s a load more I could talk about in episode, and the season so far, such as Gunny remaining the best character, or the continued beautiful visuals, or the fact that this episode is nearly entirely female-led, or just the fact that Alex listens to country music because OF COURSE Alex listens to country music. But I’ve gone on enough. Now I just want to wait patiently for the next episode, which I have no doubt will somehow be even better than this one.
This is a summary, rather than a full article, as there’s so much that I want to cover right now that if I were to fully explore my thoughts on ‘Discovery’ so far, I would be writing until I died from ice-cream-induced heart attack (so about three weeks).
Well, it turns out the real Klingon was inside of Ash all along.
Certainly not me.
Okay, maybe I guessed a little. I think my suspicions started when, at the end of Episode Four we saw L’Rell telling Voq that he was “about to go through some changes”, and in Episode Five we see L’Rell with some rando human sex slave on her prison ship. And then we didn’t see Voq for the entire rest of the series.
Still though, WHAT A TWIST.
For a “faceless” leader renowned for her anonymity, Emperor Georgiou really likes to micromanage.
But it is nice to see Michelle Yeoh back
Even if it’s not surprising.
“We still live and die by Federation law,” says Saru, in full knowledge of the fact that Lorca has been tortured for seventy-two hours straight whilst Burnham and Ash make bumpies with their pelvises and sleep in silk sheets.
And, they’re going to take Ash to a tribunal. Except he’s either A) Been brainwashed, so get him to a medical facility, or B) he’s literally a Klingon spy in disguise. Those are the only options, there is no “He suddenly decided to turn traitor on his shipmates, learn fluent Klingon and dedicate himself to a foreign religion in the space of a day” option.
Sarek’s goatee was a cheap means of winning over the fans. It also totally worked, I loved it.
Burnham poses as the captain of the Shenzhou so she can get the files on the Defiant. Except that the files are encrypted. Even though she’s the highest-ranked officer on the ship. So if nobody is to read the files, why are they even on the ship? Or if the captain is meant to have access to them, why doesn’t she? If she can’t remember (never knew) any of the access codes, how would she even be able to do anything on the ship at all?
Burnham and Tyler intentionally beam down to the hostile planet five hundred metres away from the rebel stronghold. Into open terrain. And then act surprised when they get ambushed.
Probably the most boring “I-was-an-evil-agent-all-along” reveal scene I’ve ever witnessed. Just two people in a room, talking. So much of ‘Discovery’ features two (occasionally three) people just stood around talking about something that the audience hasn’t even seen. There are so many more interesting ways Tyler could have revealed himself to Burnham, instead he just monologues awkwardly at her for five minutes then tries to strangle her. Thrilling.
Apparently ‘The Expanse’ isn’t enough, they now also need to steal execution methods from ‘Battlestar Galactica’. (Okay, now I’m just whinging.)
No, wait, the whole Tyler arc is just Boomer’s from BSG. Jesus Christ.
HOLY CRAP, AND THE WHOLE POINT WAS THEM HAVING A PLAN WHEN THEY REALLY DIDN’T ALL ALONG. I mean, seriously, what exactly was Voq supposed to do? All he did was shag Burnham and be an incredibly suspicious liability. What the hell was the point of him turning into Tyler at all? Besides to have a “big surprising twist reveal”?
As outraged as I am, I am still happy to meme the shit out of it for internet points:
The Andorians get yet another overhaul in aesthetic. As do the Tellarites. At this point, it’s only humans and pointy-eared humans who have not been hit with the update stick. But we can’t be more than one or two reboots away from seeing bumpy-headed Vulcans.
Seriously, three days. He was getting tortured for THREE. DAYS. Here’s what Burnham got up to during those three days:
Was bathed by an actual body slave.
Spectated on some good old fashioned capital punishment.
Shagged her boyfriend.
Gave moody monologues.
Downloaded some data onto a USB stick.
Mirror Mind-Stamets appears. Because the one thing we need right now, between the Klingon spy, his imprisoned Klingon mate, the probable Mirror Lorca, Burnham meeting all her dead friends, and also some other bullshit, is yet another weird and metaphysical plot thread.
How come we still haven’t seen the tardigrade? Oh, right, he’s going to come back and Tardigrade Machina them back home, isn’t he?
Detmer and Burnham finally, finally, have an actual conversation. They talk about Burnham’s (presumably ex-) boyfriend. This is the eleventh episode in which these two bridge officers have both appeared in the same room.
There are still four more episodes. I’m not sure how well I will hold up.
There are possibly as many as two thousand articles I could write about all the issues with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and as I slowly work my way up to that number, a new issue has arisen with the latest episode.
We discover that in the Mirror Universe, Cadet Tilly’s counterpart is captain of the Discovery, in a revelation that is painfully predictable based on previous lines of dialogue (predictable, but not in the sense of a story that follows a logical path but rather of a dangerously unimaginative narrative).
My worry is that the writers have mistaken this event in the story for character development for Tilly, when in actuality it is really just making fun of a social awkward young woman.
I always liked Tilly, because she felt like what Reg Barclay should have been – a more ordinary human being on a ship full of near-superhuman futuristic heroes. Sadly Reg Barclay ended up as a bit of a creepy neckbeard who seemed like a caricature of Trek’s own fandom. Tilly, on the other hand, felt to me like someone just entering adulthood and still figuring themselves out in a reasonably sympathetic manner.
There were specifically two elements of Tilly’s character that I really liked:
She is determined to be a captain one day.
She is theoretically the best engineer on the ship.
Nope, sorry, fucked that one up: she’s the best theoretical engineer on the ship.
Because of Tilly’s scientific ability, she was in fact fast-tracked through the Academy, to serve on the most advanced science and research vessel in Starfleet (an organisation made up almost exclusively of scientists and engineers); in short, on a vessel full of extremely clever people, she is the cleverest.
And so, what tasks are befitting the best theoretical physicist on the ship, and probably in the entirety of Starfleet?
Boarding a ransacked vessel to retrieve a few hard drives.
Moving canisters of sparkly goo from one hole to another hole.
Dropping Trek’s first ever strategic F-bomb.
Sending Thoughts and Prayers to a dying space teddy-bear.
Providing moral support for her roommate (not even kidding, that’s literally what they say in the show).
Moving more canisters around.
Scanning a large space whale with a tricorder.
Counting down from 133, whilst moving canisters from one hole to another hole.
Now, I’m not specifically saying that any of these physical tasks are beneath atheoretical physicist. What I am saying is that they’re probably beneath the best theoretical physicist on the ship, particularly when that ship is literally propelled by an engine whose mechanisms exceed humanity’s understanding of the universe.
What I honestly hoped for after Tilly told us her credentials was that cool scene where they encounter an entirely new scientific problem, and so turn to the genius cadet to see if her younger, more open mind can reach a solution that they’d never consider. Y’know, that combination of expertise with a fresh perspective.
But that never happens. We get a hint of it when Tilly, Stamets and Burnham try to figure out an alternative to using the tardigrade in Episode Five, but Tilly’s role in that conversation is to just repeat information that everybody already knows and then say “fuck”.
For example, in Episode Ten, when they all arrive in the mirror universe, in an environment where every particle of matter behaves slightly differently and things that were previously thought to be impossible are now seen to be possible, you might think that would be an incredible opportunity for a young scientist to weigh in intellectually and offer some insight, particularly given that she’s just spent years of her life living in what is essentially a space university for super-nerds (Starfleet Academy being the Federation’s primary academic centre).
Instead we get a picture of her in boob-armour with straightened hair, playing for laughs the idea that her mirror counterpart might be someone who wields any degree of power or ambition. We then get a reasonably painful sequence of “Force The Nerdy Girl To Be Confident”, followed later by “Now The Nerdy Girl Has Sexy Hair She Is Both Confident And Sexy”.
Now, way back in Episode Three, when Tilly announces her command ambitions, I honestly thought it was great, like, genuinely. And I was glad to see her and Burnham training for Tilly’s career in Episode Six, running around the ship looking like massive dorks in their DISCO t-shirts.
But we never saw anything else. We never saw Burnham trying to teach Tilly how to understand alien cultures (fittingly for a xenoanthropologist) or deal with difficult political and diplomatic situations, or even train in tactics and strategy, or any of the other things that a Starfleet Captain might be expected to understand. In fact, besides two scenes involving running, we never see any more of Tilly’s training.
Indeed, Tilly’s last major appearance in the first half of the season is in the 70s-themed DISCO party in Episode Seven. She staggers about drunkenly, gets hit on, tries to set her roommate up with a Kling 100% Human Being, and then scans a whale. In the final two episodes of the demi-season, she gets a total of about three scenes – one, talking to Stamets about his increasing reliance on hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a couple more scenes where she’s once again lugging canisters of galactic semen around a room.
But it’s not like Tilly is a minor character – Mary Wise is one-sixth of the main cast (plus Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp, Shazad Latif, Doug Jones and Jason Isaacs) and one half of the main female cast (the other being Martin-Green). She should be up there getting arcs of her own, particularly given that this is a serialised narrative – it’s not a huge stretch to get a enough scenes over eight episodes to give a main character at least a little depth.
Episode Ten shows us that there’s a little promise in Tilly’s future, that she may aspire to become more than just Burnham and Stamets’ dweeby sidekick. But I really, really hope she does that through positive character qualities, and not because she only just now discovered the existence of hair straighteners.
(As a side note, the “featured image” for this article, appearing at the top of this page, is notable for showing Tilly without the mole on her forehead. It’s a shot from within the show, but has visibly been airbrushed to be used for promotional purposes. It was taken from the CBS website, which as you can see here, features another screen capture, once again with that mole removed.
A curious reminder of this show’s “positive attitude” towards women. Just remember girls, there’s a place in the stars for you too – so long as your skin remains featureless and womanly.)
(As a further side note, I called the reveal of evil Tilly “painfully predictable,” but as one commenter correctly pointed out, I made no such prediction on this website. I did, however, make it on a time-stamped Facebook post on my personal profile about twelve hours before seeing the episode, which I have screen-shotted below:)
I swear to Christ, I cannot cope with this emotional rollercoaster. With my expectations about as low as they could possibly be, I approached tonights Harry “Dickhead” Mudd episode fully prepared for yet more dreck.
Then it turned around and started charming the pants off me. I mean, I was genuinely enjoying it, I was even laughing, I was even invested in the story. I mean, what show is this all of a sudden? Did I fall through a portal into the Mirror Universe? Who are you people? What is this?
Because I’m an honest man, or at the very least terrified of being accused of hypocrisy, I will give this episode, ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’, a title rivaling ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry’ in terms of dumb verbosity, all the credit it is due. Which is quite a lot actually. I’ll break it down for you.
The Good Stuff
I was amazed by how compelling Mudd managed to be as a villain. After his ridiculously off-tone “You haven’t seen the last of meeeee!” in ‘Choose Your Pain’, I was fully anticipating a truly rubbish antagonist, but he was genuinely quite threatening and determined. He was suitably arrogant about the advantage he had over the crew, and he basked in his superiority.
Mudd’s recollection of repeatedly killing Lorca was glorious to behold. Particularly the moment he beamed him into space. That was so delightfully wicked. It was a particularly nice choice to show us Lorca’s demise from a distance, just as a blur on the view screen – no close ups, for none were needed.
As one of my friends pointed out, Lorca’s general distance in this episode was ideal. He was just there, as a captain, not really doing much, not being a total dickhole, just being a bit severe. And I did enjoy him being repeatedly berated by a dumpy bearded idiot (no idea why).
Stamets was on form this episode, so much so that I’m willing to refer to him by his actual name. His confused panic was perfectly portrayed by Anthony Rapp, as was his increasing serenity as he gradually regained a little control over the situation.
Turns out that Rapp’s character is actually named for Paul Stamets, a real-world mycologist. Nice. Fair play, I can respect that.
Burnham was also on form, and her confused adolescent response to meeting a good-looking boy is quite charming. I wish her secret had been a little juicier, though. I’ve never been in love, Burnham, but you don’t see me getting a character arc. I would have loved it if she’d just come out and said “I want to grab Saru by his ganglia and fuck him ’til next July” or something actually shocking.
Space whales are a stupid, tired idea and yet I still love them and would like to see more.
Tilly remained Tilly. Enough said.
The violence. This is the kind of violence that should be in Trek. It was dark, sure, and definitely a bit disturbing, but it was shrouded in special effects. There was no blood in this episode, nobody being sliced apart or screaming in agony for minutes at a time. It was harsh, but it wasn’t sadistic, and it wasn’t directed solely at women, and I can respect that.
“There are so many ways to blow up this ship, it’s almost a design flaw,” was beautiful, as was “Here, can you let me lead, please?” This episode had some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in Trek for a while.
We finally, finally, get some fucking context to this bloody war. And with a nicely efficient line, as I’ve already discussed. “Because of [Discovery], the tide has turned. Because of us, we are winning.” Fantastic! That tells an entire story! They were on the backfoot, now they’re gaining the upper hand. One line in the opening log entry, that’s all it took. that’s all it fucking took! Why did we have to wait for five fucking episodes?
I am pleased to see Burnham sans a Starfleet badge. It marks her out among the crew – she’s got duties, but she’s still disgraced. That’s a subtle, but meaningful touch.
And finally, the fact that the resolution to the crew’s predicament was non-violent really pleased me. Them having to think their way out of it, instead of shooting or punching their way out, is incredibly refreshing – particularly after the trend in Trek productions that was so perfectly exemplified by ‘Into Darkness’.
Indeed, the fact that the problem itself was intellectual, rather than physical, was more-or-less spot on, and was exactly what this show needed as a palette-cleanser after all of the torture and mutilation of previous episodes.
Basically, this was a great episode for about… thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds. For thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds, this was probably one of the top twenty episodes in all Trekdom. Hell, maybe top ten. I’m not even kidding.
And yet the writers still manage to take all of that quality, all of that smooth sailing, and dash it upon the rocks of mediocrity.
The Bad Stuff
That thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds of quality I mentioned just above? Here’s how I got there:
Two minutes and thirty seconds at the beginning covers the still-terrible opening sequence. I’ll take a quick diversion here to say that this is literally the worst opening sequence of Trek, and it’s the worst by a margin. I mean, I hated ‘Faith of the Heart’ as much as anyone, but it was at least optimistic and upbeat. ‘Discovery’s opening theme is a depressing, atonal mess.
And at least ‘Enterprise’ gave us a nice montage of the development of Earth’s warp-capable craft – ‘Discovery’ just shows us the slowly-rotating CGI models for various props and costumes. It’s like a fucking ‘Skyrim’ loading screen, for fuck’s sakes. It’s as though the creators are embarrassed of the show, which in fairness, they should be, but still.
ANYWAY, two-and-a-half minutes gets us past the “previously on” and through the loading screen to Burnham’s personal log. I loved the fact that we’re back to log entries – they’re such nice bookends, and entirely capture the feeling of Star Trek.
Thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds after this point, though, it all goes to pieces, with just one line:
“You sent them to Stella…”
This is Stamets, concluding the explanation of the crew’s solution to Harry Mudd: they called his girlfriend on him. In a throw-back to ‘I, Mudd’ of The Original Series, but with a marginally less misogynistic tone, they reunite him with his girlfriend and her arms dealer father.
The reunion scene was painfully clichéd compared to the rest of the episode, but it was functional enough to get by. The real problem was its implications.
So, here’s what the crew know about Mudd at the point that they release him:
He is perfectly willing to murder hundreds of people, and has literally done so dozens of times just in the last half hour. That’s the plot of the episode.
He is complicit in the torture and abuse of prisoners, admittedly while a prisoner himself.
He knows every operational detail about the Discovery, including how her experimental drive works, the secret to controlling it, and its limitations.
He had full, unlimited access to all of Starfleet’s tactical and strategic data, from ship positions, supply routes and defense lines, based on the information that was openly on display in Lorca’s office.
He has active connections with the Klingons, with a pre-existing deal to deliver Discovery to them, and likely has valuable information about the Klingon Empire, with a proven willingness to divulge information in exchange for his own safety.
He is a total arsehole.
Knowing all of this, they choose to put him in the care of a known arms dealer who goes around in a black leather cape and a pimp cane, who makes a profit from selling weapons, who has promised to keep Mudd “out of Starfleet’s way”.
Okay, let’s unpick that.
So, they have the ability to summon, like, a thousand Starfleet ships, or even just one ship, or even no ships at all. I mean, the goodies’ whole plan was to rewire the computer so Mudd’s attempt to summon the Klingons wouldn’t work. And that’s what they did. So why didn’t they just make it so that his transmission was never sent, and instead lock him in the brig? I mean, they overpowered him anyway.
Seeing Mudd carried off on a Starfleet Prison shuttle would have been the perfect ending to this episode. Seeing him miserable and forlorn and facing a lifetime in prison would have made perfect sense. Not even a lifetime, even if they ignored the whole “attempted mass murder” thing and just locked him up for the duration of the war to prevent him sharing his knowledge with anyone else.
But the fact that they literally sent him on his way with not even a slap on the wrist is appalling. It’s just so, so stupid. It makes no sense and makes our protagonists come across as dribbling morons. Y’know, he’s not some misguided soul, here, he’s a for-profit would-be mass-murderer who literally went through with the cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds of Starfleet officers potentially hundreds of times.
Not to mention that he was intending to sell Starfleet technology to their enemies. And even if he’s no longer able to do that, he can still sell all of their technical and strategic secrets. And he could do that with a fucking hand-held radio, or even a carrier pigeon. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to let someone as dangerous as that out of your hands?
And I know why they resolved it the way they did. The did it because the previously-established canon demanded it. Harry Mudd turns up in The (now-defunct anyway after all the production advancements) Original Series, therefore they obviously can’t violate that plotline, despite the fact that they seem willing to play entirely fast and loose with every other bit of established canon on the show, from the technology to the uniforms to the Klingons’ very appearance.
So, because of the commercial desire to use a recognisable name from the franchise, regardless of how little sense it makes, the writers’ hands were forced into this absurd ending that sabotages what otherwise would be an all-time great episode of Trek. And it really did ruin it for me – I finished the episode angry, despite having enjoyed myself for 87% of its run time.
WHY WON’T THEY KISS???
One final thing. We still get no kiss between Stamets and Culber, despite yet another perfect setup. No, we just get another platonic pat on the shoulder, a gesture as romantic as that between Kirk and Scotty in your average Original Series episode from the ’60s.
I mean, we get to see people being vaporised from the inside out and choking to death in space, and obviously I’m fine with that because it all happened to Lorca, but really? Still no gay kiss? I just want to see two dudes making out, that’s all. That’s all I want. And we even get to see multiple heterosexual couples making out in the background of this episode. Just no gays. Unless I’m misreading the situation and it’s actually the interracial aspect of the relationship of which the show’s creators are terrified.
Taking a broader view, Rapp is openly queer, as he has described himself, and Cruz is an active participant in the LGBT culture, and I can only imagine how these two actors must feel to be playing a loving homosexual couple that is denied any opportunity to express physical affection, either in public or in private. It just feels like a huge step backwards.
I don’t know how to start this review. I don’t know whether to address the crypto-racial misogyny, or the tragically off-kilter characterisation of half the cast, or the abject lack of any sense or logic to key scenes, or… Or…
Look, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is hot fucking garbage. That’s my conclusion. Four episodes in, and it’s garbage. And don’t come at me with all of that bullshit about “but nobody liked the first seasons of TNG or DS9!” because this isn’t the ’80s. ‘Discovery’ isn’t a cobbled-together series made under a tight budget and with limited competition – it’s a well-funded, pre-planned narrative that stands among dozens of other well-crafted sci-fi shows with strong first seasons – and in any case, the very fact that previous Trek shows have started so badly ought to have served as a lesson to the makers of ‘Discovery’, not a free pass for their incompetence.
Forgiving ‘Discovery’ its mediocrity because of the performance of its predecessors is like forgiving the Trump administration’s corruption because of Nixon. Let’s put it another way: if only twelve months ago a major mobile phone company released a new handset with a battery that occasionally exploded, you’d expect them to have addressed that issue by the time they released the next one.
In short: the next person who defends ‘Discovery’ by reminding me about ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ is going to get a hand-drawn erotic cartoon of Neelix mailed to them, special fucking delivery.
Anyway, the latest episode, the elegantly titled ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’ (I think they wanted to sound poetic) is full of so many issues that recalling and describing them all is going to cause me some mental anguish. So first off, let’s get the stuff that I liked out of the way:
Ways In Which It Did Not Totally Ruin My Evening
I liked Burnham’s very Trekky approach to the Large-igrade. Classic “let’s learn more” sciency stuff, all very lovely.
We get to see Georgiou again, and it’s actually pretty lovely. She gets a nice send-off – or would have, were it not for the whole “her being eaten” thing.
Saru is still a highlight, though is drifting worryingly close to being just another oblivious or enabling patsy.
The fungal engineer, Stavros, really leveled up for me in this episode. Admittedly, he reached Level 1 from Level 0, but that’s still an improvement.
Tilly has mother issues, because of course Tilly has mother issues.
We see a female admiral. She even gets a name. And less personality than a pair of googly eyes sellotaped to an IKEA lampshade.
The actors are competent.
Ways In Which It Ruined My Evening Entirely
Right, down to the nitty gritty. This is going to take a while.
Let’s start with the simple stuff.
They Can’t Even Build Their Fucking Ship Properly
Okay, the ship is the star of the show. Like it or not, the Discovery is what the show is named after, it’s where 90% of the show takes place, and it’s a pretty fucking important component of the narrative. Joss Whedon described the Serenity as “the tenth character”, and so much thought and consideration went into that ship’s layout, they actually built it as a full set (split over two levels) based on in-depth design documents.
Trek itself has a long-standing history of this. Indeed, the Discovery is herself based on old concept art of a new Enterprise for the unmade ‘Star Trek: Planet of the Titans’, the initial plans for an ‘Original Series’ movie prior to ‘The Motion Picture’ and V’ger.
Minor inconsistencies are one thing, but HOW THE FUCK does a show’s creative staff fuck up SO BADLY that they CAN’T EVEN BUILD A SINGLE FUCKING SET CONSISTENTLY. Not sure what I’m on about? Have a look at these crude screencaps:
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Good question.
See the blue rectangle, just to the left-of-centre in the final panel? That’s an external window, looking out into space. Now, scroll back up to the top of the collage. Do you see what I’m seeing? That’s right, it’s a FUCKING CORRIDOR leading from the left to the right. Which is straight past that window.
So what, right? Because that window may well be looking out onto the ship’s hull, right? Because it’s not as though this room’s location WAS ALREADY ESTABLISHED IN THE LAST MOMENTS OF THE PREVIOUS FUCKING EPISODE, RIGHT?
Oh. Oh dear.
For reference, here’s the layout of Lorca’s Evil Laboratory, which I put together with the most expensive and advanced architectural software:
And, just in case that’s not clear enough, let me explain it verbally:
The creators of this show are idiots.
I know you’re thinking “this is just a tiny detail, Jon, why do you care?” But it’s not like these are two different sets. It’s not like they had to move between studios due to size constraints and overlooked something minor in the translation. This is THE SAME FUCKING SET. They walk from one room into the other, and yet NOBODY apparently spotted the fact that the layout of the second-most important location on the show made no fucking sense.
And the rest of the room is gorgeously detailed! I mean, I hate that it’s an EVIL LABORATORY full of ACTUAL SKULLS AND TORTURE DEVICES, but it’s clearly been lovingly put together by the set designers. Except for the placement of a massive window, through which many shots of the room are filmed, and which is situated in direct contradiction to the corridor literally three feet away.
Lorca Is A Basic Bully / Baddie And The Worst Captain Yet Seen On Star Trek
So, Captain Lorca. Captain Lorca. Captain. Loooorrrrcccaaaaaaa.
Okay, Jason Isaacs is a handsome young man, let’s get that out of the way. He’s also a solid actor, and reasonably charismatic. Cool. Good.
Captain Lorca is a stupid, inconsiderate, bullying arsehole who berates his crew and relies on emotional blackmail to further his desire to wage a pointless war.
I could pretty much leave it there, but let’s carry on.
The first thing we see of Lorca is him running a battle simulation with his crew. For some reason, he decided not to include his FIRST FUCKING OFFICER, Lt. Saru, because Saru looks all surprised when he walks onto the bridge. When the simulation is over, Lorca offers his bridge officers nothing but criticism, assuring them that the only chance they have of improving is due to the fact that this was literally the worst they could possibly have achieved. Okay, it’s war, fine, he needs to get these people up to standard so they don’t all die. Fine.
Then, he takes Burnham down into his EVIL LABORATORY which is FULL OF WEAPONS AND SKELETONS and introduces her to the Large-igrade. He tells her that he wants to know how it’s so good at killing Klingons and that she, as an anthropologist, is going to help him find out. Apparently, it isn’t obvious to him that this large, strong, fast and visibly armoured creature might be good at killing everything. Y’know, the way bears aren’t dangerous because they can run forty kilometers an hour and weigh up to 600 kilos, but rather because they harbour some cleverly hidden, biological secret that has eluded our understanding for millennia.
Hey, dickhead, IT’S BIG AND IT’S STRONG, do you really need Starfleet’s literal smartest human being to figure that out for you?
Anyway, he takes a break from berating his crew to eat fortune cookies and stare at a map in his ready room. Here, a holographic admiral delivers a message to him that Starfleet’s primary fuel production facility is under attack, and that there’s only six hours before it’s destroyed. And the nearest ship is eighty-four hours away at warp speed. Hey, good thing this isn’t a strategic location or anything, otherwise you might be inclined to keep a few more ships on standby in the vicinity.
So, Lorca lies to the Admiral about his ships’ capabilities, telling her sure, there’s no problem, leaping half-way across the galaxy with an experimental and knowingly unreliable form of propulsion will have zero, ZERO, unforeseen problems. This is because Lorca is the classic bully – horrendous to those less powerful than he is, obsequious to those with any amount of power over him.
At this point, he pushes his chief fungus engineer, Stavros, to activate the Event Horizon drive, fire up the gellar field and set course for the besieged refinery. Stavros (Davros?) counters that this is a stupid idea, as they literally have no idea of how to make their Bullshit Engine work reliably over that kind of distance, and they could all end up like the crew of the Glenn, i.e. as Walls’ Ice Cream’s next promotional variant of the Twister. Lorca counters back with the tried-and-tested “Well have you tried go fucking yourself, neeeerrrrd?” and walks off, triumphant.
In a surprise to literally no one except Lorca himself, the ship exits the Fungal Webway in the corona of a fucking star, and due to absolutely zero input from Lorca beyond a few cliches (“Collision is not an option! Get us the hell out of dodge! Beam me up, Scotty!”) manages to escape before the crew are all subjected to horrible fiery deaths. In the process, Santos gets his fucking face caved in, and really quite painfully at that:
For this, he gets a nice bit of motivation by our illustrious leader, who walks into the brightly-lit sickbay (and yes, they mention his sight problems again this episode, and once again ignore them) and immediately starts haranguing the engineer for his inability to do something which was considered theoretically impossible mere months ago. Even the Glenn, which Lorca describes as Discovery‘s “more advanced” sister ship, was incapable of safely doing what they just attempted, and yet Lorca is happy to rip shreds out of the one man left alive in the galaxy who understands the theory for not being able to achieve, and I’ll repeat myself here, the impossible.
So, when Stannis tells Lorca that he didn’t sign on for military service and that he’s a scientist, not a soldier, Lorca tells him to fuck off. He actually just tells him to leave the ship. He doesn’t appeal to his conscience, he doesn’t bring up the desperation of the war, the millions of lives that might be lost. He just tells him to leave, and then makes a half-hearted attempt to appeal to the engineer’s ego by comparing him to past pioneers (and Elon Musk, in a desperate bid to appear current).
Lorca then – and I can’t believe this actually happens – but he then, in one piece of dialogue, goes from stroking Stavros’ ego to then belittling him for having one. Like, this is the actual quote, word-for-word, from the subtitles:
“How do you wanna be remembered in history? Alongside the Wright Brothers, Elon Musk, Zefram Cochrane? Or as a failed fungus expert? A selfish little man, who put the survival of his own ego before the lives of others?”
Just, I don’t… Fuck! I mean, I could do a whole fucking article about nothing more than this one paragraph of dialogue, there’s so much wrong with it. Nevermind the inherent contradiction, just remember that Stavros’ chief objection to performing the long-range jump is to AVOID THE TORTUROUS DEATHS OF HIS SHIPMATES. He’s not objecting because there’s a risk he’ll look foolish, he’s objecting because there’s a risk he and the rest of the crew will be turned inside out, cooked alive or who the fuck knows what!
THIS, this fucking line right here, establishes everything wrong with Lorca. He doesn’t lead through encouragement or inspiration, he belittles and undermines. He doesn’t seek the best in people, he just makes them feel shitty until they feel too demoralised to object. And that’s what happens – Stavros doesn’t see the benefit of what they’re doing, he just walks out of sickbay because he hasn’t got a choice and he can’t be bothered arguing. This is the height of shitty characterisation, and highlights all the ways ‘Discovery’ is going wrong.
Okay, let’s move on, before I burst a blood vessel.
As Stavros storms out, Lorca decides to play the recording of the dying miners across the ship, without any announcement or anything. But it’s not as though the crew are unwilling to go save the colonists. It’s not like they all want to play it safe. In fact, most of them have nothing to do with the fungus engine whatsoever, but Lorca decides that playing them recordings of screaming, dying humans being bombed by Klingons is exactly the sort of thing to keep morale up and keep them focused on the task of not being mutilated by some kind of experimental engine malfunction.
Some bullshit sciency stuff happens with Burnham, Stavros and Tilly, they figure out how to make the improbability drive work using the Large-igrade (I’m going to keep calling it that until it catches on) and now, Lorca has a plan. I say “plan”, but that really dirties the word.
Lorca’s Big Idea is to jump into orbit of the besieged mining colony, squander any element of surprise, let his ship get beaten to within an inch of its life, and then jump out again after dropping some explosive barrels. That’s it. For some reason, he even refuses to fire on the attackers after annihilating three of them instantly, in case he accidentally gains anything approaching a tactical advantage, and instead puts all of his faith in an unreliable technology under the control of a wild animal which has already willingly murdered two of his crew.
Burnham has somehow convinced him that the Large-igrade isn’t just a big sack of pure hate, so maybe it won’t try to kill them all, but what if it’s just unreliable? What if, due to its lack of linguistic capability, it jumps them to the wrong place, or at the wrong time? What if it just dies, or the device stops working, or any one of a million things that can go wrong? Why take that risk three FUCKING times when he could instead jump in once, and put his faith in guns? The same guns which instantly destroy three Klingon Birds of Prey when the Discovery first jumps in?
Further, what would happen if he didn’t destroy all of the Klingon ships? He lets Discovery‘s shields drop to near-zero before he jumps out. So what happens if he jumps back in and there’s two Klingon ships left alive that just immediately start blasting his dick off? Could he really not come up with a better plan than this?
Y’know, if this was Saru, a science officer roped into a war he didn’t want, now trying his best to win battles without dying, I’d understand his agitation and his anxiety and his stupid tactics, but Lorca is CONSTANTLY GOING ON about the fact he’s a warrior. He studies war, he even reveals that his EVIL LABORATORY is actually a WAR LABORATORY where he studies WAR any time he’s not stood behind an empty table in his ready room eating fortune cookies.
I’m going to try to bring my criticism of Lorca to a close at this point, because there are eleven more episodes of this fucking show, and I feel like I’m already repeating myself frequently enough. But honest to goodness, he must be the worst series regular to enter a Trek show since… since fucking Neelix. There is nothing inspirational, aspirational, or even anything interesting about Lorca. He’s an arrogant, stupid bully and I am dreading having to spend the remainder of the series with him. If he was merely repugnant, I could at least love hating him, like Joffrey Baratheon. But Lorca’s worse – he’s also boring, and that I just can’t forgive.
Women of Colour Pay For Their Representation With Horrible, Violent Deaths
Okay, this is going to be controversial with some of you, but fuck it, let’s get stuck in.
I am really, really, really, really concerned about ‘Discovery’s treatment of non-white women. Of the four to whom we’ve been introduced, who have been named and had more than expository dialogue, two have been violently murdered, one of whom was literally eaten after her death, and the other two are convicted criminals.
In order, we meet Captain Georgiou, played by the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, who really ought to have been the main character. She gets murdered in her second episode, to serve as character development for the show’s lead, Burnham. Georgious is stabbed, graphically, through the chest, and her bloody corpse is abandoned on the Klingon ship. We find out in this episode that the starving Klingons then ate her corpse. This, too, serves purely as character development for the Klingon leader, whose aide describes in detail him eating the flesh from her “smooth skull”, and how he smiled as he feasted.
Then we have the show’s lead, Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a black American woman. She does some typical leading-character stuff, most of it stupid. She then gets imprisoned for mutiny. Now, she’s the lead character and “hero” of the show, so this isn’t too bad. But she is also granted redemption by a middle-aged white guy, which… yeah.
Then we meet ‘Psycho’, played by Grace Lynn Kung, an Asian Canadian woman. Psycho is apparently a violent offender, and the only thing we really know for sure about her is that she’s a prisoner and convicted criminal. She gets a few lines before she gets put back on the space-bus and launched out of the story again.
Then we meet Commander Landry, played by Rekha Sharma, another Canadian woman, of North Indian descent. She’s aggressive, bigoted, impatient and violent, and that’s all fine, but she is also a complete fucking idiot and gets herself mauled by a violent water bear in her second episode. The last we see of her is as a mauled, lacerated corpse on a biobed, before her death is used as character development for… well, for the fucking water bear, as it happens. I mean, it could’ve been any random crewmember, but whatever.
So, look, it’s great that we’ve got a black woman as the lead character. It’s also great that we have two high-ranking officers played by women of colour (WoC) in a mainstream show. And it’s still a bit worrying that they have such a high propensity for getting fucked over and violently dispatched. Of the deaths of named characters, we have the following:
Danby Connor, who loses his shit in the brig before being blown into space.
Admiral Brett Anderson, who gets his ship rammed to death during the same battle.
T’Kuvma, the Klingon spiritual leader who gets shot by Burnham.
Captain Philippa Georgiou, Burnham’s mentor, who gets stabbed and eaten.
Kowski, the security guy who gets no lines but does get eaten by the Large-igrade.
Commander Landry, the security chief who gets mauled by the Large-igrade.
Okay, so there’s six deaths there, three of them white guys. And in fairness, whilst the WoC on that list make up half of the named WoC on the show, the white guys on that list also make up half of the (so far) named white guys on the show. So, cold hard numbers, it seems objectively balanced.
But… I still get an icky feeling. And I know, unequivocally, that there’s no conscious desire by the creators to do horrible things to the non-white women on their show. But put in the context of the historical representation that women of colour have had in films and television, and… it’s just a bit icky.
Look, I’m out of my depth here, I’ll admit, and there are many people vastly more capable of exploring this topic than me, so I’ll leave it here. All I can really add is that I’ll be keeping an eye on how this progresses. The helm officer of the Discovery is also a black woman, but so far she’s unnamed and has had only expository dialogue. If she gets a little more to do, then this might just be me having representational jitters. If she gets infested with space maggots or something equally grim, then the situation starts to look a little less… progressive.
Context Is For Kings, But Not For ‘Discovery’
This is somewhat related to my rant about Lorca, above, but there’s a real issue with the presentation of the massive war at the heart of the show’s narrative: the fact that it isn’t presented. At all.
We are constantly reminded of the fact that the war exists. We know it’s there. And that is all we get. And this is unforgivable when it’s the motivation of the second-most important character on the show. Lorca is a warrior, he wages war, as he reminds us, every other line of dialogue. And desire to win the war is seemingly the factor behind all of his decisions.
So why do we know so little about it? When Lorca is briefed about the mining colony, he speaks with the admiral for a good couple of minutes. He even mentions that if they lose their main fuel production facility, they’ll lose the war. Well, no shit, that’s not particularly surprising. But that’s all the exposition we get. And I’ve already covered this in my previous review, but we don’t find out if Starfleet is being pushed back, or if they’re advancing into Klingon space, or even if it’s all just one big meat grinder being fought to a standstill in the middle.
And the key thing here is that I don’t care about the war. I’m not particularly interested in what’s happening all along the front lines – what does interest me is the effect it has on our characters. But with no context, it has no discernible effect.
Take Stavros. Stamos. Stanos? The engineer who looks like a budget Alan Tudyk. He doesn’t want to be a soldier. He and his research have been roped into this war effort against his wishes. That’s fine, that’s an acceptable bit of motivation for a character. But knowing more about the bigger picture would inform his character even more. Is he against it because it’s a pointless war with no endgame? Is he a pacifist, against violence despite the fact that his species faces annihilation? Does he feel bad about helping Starfleet out when it’s already got a decisive advantage over the Klingons?
What about Tilly, the fresh-faced cadet? How’s this affecting her? Is she worried about being killed before she ever graduates? Is she anxious about her career as a theoretical engineer being replaced with combat training and endless repair and maintenance of weapons systems?
Is Saru worried about the war reaching his home planet, filled with a fear-driven population? As a career scientist, is he concerned, as Stavros is, about the increased and permanent militarisation of Starfleet, which used to be an exploratory organisation?
None of these have to be in-depth discussions that take valuable time away from the literal cannibalisation of female role models. But just a few throwaway comments would really help build the world and set the tone. Even just setting the stakes for the ship and crew itself – if the Discovery is destroyed, is that a definitive loss for Starfleet? Is the fungus drive a last-ditch attempt that represents their best chance at victory? Or is this a side-project that could prove useful long-term, but for now is entirely incidental to the war effort?
It’s incredibly frustrating to have a show that ostensibly entirely character-driven, and yet does nothing to shape the world that the characters inhabit. ‘Battlestar’ (the modern version) set the premise up immediately. It was entirely character-based, but we knew from the off what the scenario was – that we were following the last fifty thousand humans in the universe, and that every loss of life was a permanent detriment to the species’ chances at survival.
We’re two episodes into the “war arc”, six months after the war first started, and yet we still know nothing about it. What are the demands on either side? The Klingons got duped into this war – what do they want out of it? Kol explains that as soon as the war is over, the Klingon houses will divide again – if so, what goal has united them? Do they just want to wipe out the Federation? Do they want to vassalise it? Have I simply been playing too much ‘Stellaris’? We still don’t know.
In the last episode, this absence of information could have been down to Burnham’s limited perspective, the fact that she, as a prisoner, would be naturally excluded from most conversations. But in this episode, we see things from multiple perspectives – Lorca being briefed by an Admiral, repeated interactions between Lorca and Stavros, and plenty of scenes with the Klingons. Still no insight into the galaxy-spanning conflict that’s allegedly at the heart of the story.
And again, this isn’t about telling the story of the war – it’s about framing our characters. It’s about giving them the context they need to come alive, rather than exist in a vacuum and just do stuff because the plot demands it. And yet the show’s creators insist on remaining evasive on the whole topic of the war. It’s all very peculiar.
The Klingons Take Two Steps Back
In the pilot episodes, we got exposed to some surface-level detail of the revised Klingon culture. We heard more about their religious beliefs, the division within their society (or at least the fact that it was, apparently divided) and they got some nice new costumes and foreheads.
And it seems that’s as much as we’ll be getting. In the fourth episode, we get to see Klingons at their most desperate, starving to death aboard their crippled flagship. Their leader, the albino one, refuses to take the equipment they need from the Shenzhou, as it’s the ship that defeated them and led to his spiritual leader’s death.
Anyway, another Klingon leader shows up, which convinces the Albino to go and actually get the spare spark plugs they need from the Shenzhou. When he gets back, all of his crew have turned coat on him, joining with the other leader who had the foresight to bring them food.
That’s right, Klingons have the same view on loyalty as cats.
Which is fine, hunger is a perfectly acceptable motivation for switching sides. And, although it undermines to some extent the religious angle set up previously, it also does a lot to “humanise” the Klingons – we understand that they have a breaking point.
What I don’t understand is why the Albino is so unwilling to continue with T’Kuvma’s “spiritual path” or whatever. Given the trouble to which he went to start the war, I can only assume that taking part in that war, or at the very least not starving to death whilst it raged, was also a significant part of T’Kuvma’s intentions. Specifically, I’m confident that T’Kuvma would not have wished his ancestral ship, enshrined with those who had died for the cause, to rot away in empty space.
The Albino states that he won’t salvage the Shenzhou out of respect for T’Kuvma, which I can sort-of accept, but it just seems so at odds with everything you might expect them to actually believe in. As the Albino’s second-in-command points out, he was happy to eat the captain of the Shenzhou, just to survive. Surely taking part in the holy war that T’Kuvma started would be more respectful to his memory than allowing his war to fail for the sake of a spare alternator cap, or whatever it was that they needed.
And, indeed, the Albino says himself that he “swore to keep [T’Kuvma’s] fire lit… to resist assimilation.” I can sort-of see how using Federation technology to fix an heirloom vessel could be distasteful, but it’s not as though it’s a permanent modification – they can salvage the Shenzhou, make a single warp jump and then replace all the dirty Starfleet bits later. Religious and cultural zealotry is one thing, but this is like allowing a church to collapse because you won’t temporarily prop up a wall with a wooden beam taken from a mosque.
Like, obviously I’m not a Klingon, I don’t understand the intricacies of their society and the interactions between their traditions. The problem is I’m worried that the writers don’t, either, and they should because they’re the ones creating the Klingon culture.
The ambiguity is acceptable in a complex culture like this, but it warrants further exploration, which we don’t seem to get. That being said, there’s a promise of the Albino visiting “The Matriarchs” (groan) as he strives to regain his position as spiritual leader, which could be interesting, and I’m really hoping it’s not some weird, vaguely sexist abstraction that contains very little substance. If there’s some fucking prophesy, I’m picking up my shit and I’m leaving for good.
One final thing on these Klingon segments – they aren’t half boring. It took me ages to put my finger on it, but it wasn’t until a friend pointed out the issues. Here is a perfectly average screencap of a normal Klingon scene:
What you have here is a really nice, really expensive set, with some really cool, really expensive prostheses and makeup, with dialogue subtitled from carefully developed alien language – all of which is great. You also have a load of actors who, due to the expensive and extensive prostheses, and the gruff language which has to be subtitled, are incapable of fully practicing their craft.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re all doing the best they can. But that isn’t very much, due to the physical limitations. To make matters worse, the Klingon arc is arguably the more theatrical of the two narratives, dealing as it does with ancient houses, divided empires and spiritual awakenings. And yet despite all of these themes, every Klingon scene ends up being a series of words on the screen whilst people in monster masks make guttural sounds at the camera.
In the first review I wrote of this series, I compared this new show to ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’, as many of the themes are similar. And I’m going to do so again, because in ‘The Undiscovered Country’, during the iconic trial scene, we again get to see Klingons in their native environment, speaking in the Klingon language. Except, although the scene starts off in Klingon, it takes a moment to show us that it’s being translated for the benefit of the defendants, at which point it switches to English so that Christopher Plummer can get back to Acting, darling.
I suppose the difference is that the creators of ‘The Undiscovered Country’ gave the audience the benefit of the doubt. They assumed, correctly, that most people would be able to surmise that the Klingons were still speaking Klingon, and even if they didn’t, it hardly matters in the context of the show.
The creators of ‘Discovery’, on the other hand, are presumably wracked with anxiety over their audience forgetting that the people with big bulgy knobbly heads and weird-coloured skin and quadruple nostrils are aliens, should they for a moment communicate in anything but their correct, completely fictional language. Meanwhile, the actual audience is just left bored and feeling a bit sorry for all of the young actors whose careers will in no way be advanced by their participation in this calamity.
Other Fucking Annoying Stuff
“Who saved us?” asks the little girl, in the most terribly delivered line so far, contributing to nothing except my continued ill health.
Why would you create a type of parcel that beeps annoyingly until it’s opened? What if you just didn’t have time, but had to carry it with you? What if you wanted to wait for someone else, because you wanted to open it with them? Why create a passive aggressive piece of luggage? What the fuck is the point except to act as a prompt for a fictional character?
And the fucking telescope. It’s confirmed as the same one that was on the Shenzhou. So, did someone bring it with them when they all jumped on escape pods? They chose to get the telescope in case a mutineer decided they needed it for character development, but left the unencrypted crew manifests and the vital and likely confidential power generation technology? What else did they leave behind? What other weird and pointless stuff did they take with them? Or did someone see Georgiou’s will, realise they needed the telescope, and so went back to the derelict Shenzhou whilst still in the vicinity of Klingon ships, and again, left sensitive information behind? Like, in the same fucking room? Who the fuck wrote this garbage?
Commander Landry was a shithead for the duration of her presence on the show, but she also gets killed off pretty quickly, which would be good were it not for the representational issues already mentioned, which leaves me confused about my feelings, which leaves me even more angry.
Right, I’m actually done. I’ve written over five-and-a-half thousand words on a forty-minute slice of boiled shit that doesn’t warrant two minutes of attention. Also I’m tired. Tired of Trek being shit. Tired of the contempt that fills every frame of this show. Tired of the self-loathing seeping out of every facet of its existence.