‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Returns With A Representational Quagmire

Spoiler alert: I hate ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

The thing is, I used to hate it because it was alternately stupid and offensive. And so I used to be able to enjoy hating it for that reason.

Now it has returned after a festive hiatus and it does so with all the joy and wonder of a bloodshot-eyed office worker staggering to their desk on the Monday after New Year’s, hollow-eyed, stinking of cheap booze and regret, a single paper string from a party popper hanging limply from their unwashed hair.

To say that the show’s tenth episode, ‘Despite Yourself’, is lacklustre is as much of an understatement as the episode itself. It never picks up any momentum, and any that it accidentally accrues it quickly wastes.

Anyway, since I am about to go on for a bit, I’m going to list some random observations first, rather than last:

  • Detmer finally speaks to Burnham. Burnham doesn’t grace her with a response. The only other two women to speak to each other are Burnham and Tilly. L’Rell also gets lines. That’s a total of four women who speak this episode.
  • The men yet again get multiple conversational connections, between Lorca, Tyler, Culber, Stamets, Saru, Connor, the captain of the Cooper, random crew members…
  • I laughed sadistically and without restraint when Burnham and Ash Tyler the Human decided to fuck, knowing that Lorca was currently being tortured. The episode doesn’t even try to hide it, we literally cut from them wrapping their legs around each other to Lorca’s spleen wrapping itself around his lungs.
  • I wouldn’t have laughed if it had been anyone other than Lorca.
  • Jason Isaacs’ Scottish accent was beautiful, and beautifully fitting given that he was pretending to be the chief engineer at the time.
  • We don’t see any women brutally killed this episode, but in a single snap we do lose both half of the male non-white main cast and half of the gay main cast.
  • The other half of the gay main cast is currently alternating between catatonic and violently dissociative.
  • The other half of the male non-white main cast is currently suffering from violent PTSD.
  • Of the named characters who have died so far, four of them were played by non-white actors (Georgiou, T’Kuvma, Landry, now Culber) and two were white (Kol and Connor). One third of those deaths were women, which in fairness ties in with the proportion of talking roles women get in this series, too.
  • I like the fact that Tyler’s reveal isn’t even treated as a reveal, it just kind of happens. Presumably the writers realised that they would be surprising literally nobody who had actually followed the show on even a casual basis.

Shock and no Awe

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I didn’t anticipate Culber getting offed, but I think that’s because the writers didn’t, either. I think they wrote themselves into a corner and pretty much had no choice but to kill off a familiar character to make it seem like that particular story was advancing.

First off, a question:

If “PTSD regs require full-duty quarantine until you can get treatment”… how was Tyler allowed to serve to begin with?

I don’t know for sure that seven months of abuse and torture would cause everybody psychological issues, but surely when Tyler returned from the prison ship, the first thing that would happen is that he would be sent to an actual medical facility?

What happened, exactly? Did a doctor interview Tyler, ask him “Do you think you have PTSD?”, let him answer “Probably fine,” and subsequently clear him to man the weapons systems?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to feed into the fiction that people with psychological issues are inherent liabilities. But the fact that they have regulations prohibiting military service for people with PTSD suggests that you would assume a person is vulnerable until proven other wise.

I mean, Christ, Culber even tells us that they scanned Tyler when he first came aboard and knew then that he was essentially one large piece of scar tissue. And yet they never seem to have considered that he might have needed the attention of a qualified mental health professional following such an ordeal. Was this negligence? Malice? Did Lorca override them? Would he even be able to do that?

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The point is, Culber gets killed off without ceremony or even acknowledgement. A room full of medical scanners apparently can’t detect a murder, and neither can the ship’s general internal sensors, which you might think would be a useful feature. These ships aren’t exactly short on power, so you wouldn’t think that a periodic scan for corpses would be too difficult. Mind you, they probably switched it off after it kept getting set off by Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.

So, Culber dies without any immediate consequence, following in the path of Captain Georgiou, Commander Landry and T’Kuvma…

Hm.

That’s now four named characters of colour, two of them women, one of them gay, who have been killed, incredibly violently. Meanwhile, the only other person to die this episode is a white man who we had already seen die. Hell, the only other people we see die the entire series are all nameless mooks, plus Kol (who is the mookiest of antagonists anyway). You could potentially include Admiral ThatBloke in the count, but he barely gets two scenes in the joint pilot episodes.

I mean, I’m not saying that this is evidence that the show is bigoted. It’s a hell of a lot more representational than previous Trek outings. Or at least, it probably would be, if it didn’t keep killing off all of its minority cast.

It’s just that the longest-running characters are now made up of Burnham, Lorca, Stamets, Tilly, Detmer, Ash the Human, L’Rell and Saru. Admittedly, half of them are women (although Detmer averages less than one line per episode), but six out of eight of them are played by white actors.

So here’s those statistics side by side:

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Again, this doesn’t prove that the show is white supremacist propaganda, and those charts would likely be even worse for many other recent productions (particularly Star Wars, or even other Treks), but they’re hardly favourable for a show with a legacy of diversity.

(By the way, Ted, if you’re reading this,
A) Why are you reading this?
B) Can I call you Ted?
C) Don’t take it personally, but please don’t pat yourself on the back too much either.)


A Token of Appreciation

Here’s another worrying consideration:

I’ve already covered the amounts women talk to each other. To remind you, here are the charts, as of Episode Nine (I will update for Episode Ten in due course):

 

Now, here’s another set of data:

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Now, I will concede that this is likely not perfect data, as I put that above table together in a hurry and from memory. But what I want you to do is look at that table, and then look at the two network graphs above, and then do something a little weird:

Pretend Burnham’s a man.

If Burnham was a male character, here’s what would happen:

  • The number of women who are victims of horrible violence would reduce by 20%.
  • The number of female-female conversational connections would reduce by 73% (sixteen connections out of 22 would disappear).

That’s… that’s a subtle point to get your head around, so here’s another way to look at it:

  • Named male characters have a 92% chance of speaking to another named male character during the series, whilst non-Burnham named female characters have a 50% chance of speaking to another female character during the series.
  • Male named characters have a 12% chance of suffering gory violence, whilst female non-Burnham named characters have a 33% chance of suffering gory violence.
  • Women with names in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ have a one-in-three chance of being mauled, burned or eaten, and a one-in-two chance of talking to one another.

Just to reiterate, this isn’t proof of anything. It’s just worth taking in. Again, remember that these figures are probably a lot better than they would be for most other shows.

Now, those numbers have moved around a bit with Lorca and Connor getting a bit of punishment in Episode Ten, so I’m going to have to rerun everything. But seriously, take these figures with the stats about skin colour and… god damn.

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The thing is, can a show be accused of tokenism when its main character is a black woman? I mean, tokenism is literally using limited representation to appear more diverse than reality. Does it apply here? If you can remove one character and suddenly end up with barely any female interaction with the narrative, can you really claim to be inclusive?

I don’t know where I was going with this, but I really, really hope this show gets itself onto a better track soon.

(Note: there will be numerous flaws with the above numerical analysis that I cannot be fucked to track down and correct. If you spot them, leave a note in the comments and I will adjust my figures as long as you’re not a total dick about it.)

Six Things You Probably Missed In ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

1. Compelling Characters

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You may be used to Star Trek having characters with complex and intriguing arcs, such as ‘Next Gen’s Data and his bid to become human, or ‘Voyager’s The Doctor as he tries to expand beyond his programming. Or maybe even the entire cast of ‘Deep Space Nine’, with their varied and complex backstories that formed the basis of a lot of drama.

But there’s none of that nonsense with ‘Discovery’. You don’t need to worry about caring about these people, as they will all manage to repel or bore you sufficiently that you can watch the show comfortably in the safety of a vague sense of detachment and emotional emptiness. Will Stamets survive this latest threat? Who cares! He only talks about mushrooms anyway. Concerned about Lorca’s descent into madness? Of course you aren’t! He never developed a personality beyond “war person” in the first place.


2. Subtext

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You may have noticed a growing trend over the last eighty years or so of movies and television shows conveying some of their meaning and significance without actually having a character state it openly. Sometimes, a silent look will suggest that a relationship is falling apart. Subtle changes in body language might imply that a character is behaving out of sorts.

Fortunately, you don’t need to keep track of these pointless details in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. If you’re ever not sure of a character’s intentions, don’t stress, they’ll usually explain everything to another character in explicit terms later in the episode – or sometimes within the same scene! Gone are the days of having to tire your brain out by inferring ideas based on non-verbal cues – now you can have everything explained to you without the need for comprehension!

And if it isn’t explicitly explained, don’t worry. That just means there’s a DRAMATIC TWIST coming up soon, so stay tuned! It will completely surprise you, so long as you are incapable of independent thought.


3. Complex Ideas

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If you’re looking for simple, straight-forward problems with equally straight-forward solutions, then you’ve come to the right place. If you struggle to follow the loops and turns of ethical dilemmas, if abstract concepts such as the conflict between duty and loyalty befuddle your head, and the very notion of a no-win scenarios leaves you confused and ashamed, then this is the show for you.

Sick space tardigrade? Just say a prayer and fire it out the airlock! Need a new navigator, ’cause you just fired your last one out the airlock? Simply inject yourself with magic DNA! Need to unite a fractured empire? Start a war! Don’t worry about the justification, just open fire, everyone else will join you!


4. Watching It With Your Kids

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It’s possible that you, like me, grew up on Star Trek. Whether it’s ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Voyager’, or even ‘The Original Series’ if you’re reeeaaalllyyyy old. All the amazing technology, the weird aliens, the cool ships, the heroism, all filling you with a sense of wonder, a passion for space travel and the endless possibilities it presents.

Fortunately, your own children will be spared that tedium. There’s no room for kids here! Between the lacerations, the torture, the facial burns, the psychological trauma, the torture, the implied rape, the cannibalism, the torture, the bloody stabbings, the swearing, the animal abuse, and don’t forget the torture, there’s absolutely zero chance of a child making it through a single episode without long-lasting emotional damage!

The storylines and characterisation may all be adolescent, but don’t you worry, the content is all adult, allof the time.


5. Optimism

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Remember the vision of the future that Star Trek once gave us? A time of technological and social enlightenment, where diverse crews worked together to overcome adversity in the face of exotic danger?

Well there’s none of that horseshit here, bucko! We all know that nobody wants to see that dreary, dull, boring advanced society. We want dark, gritty warfare, with prisoners of war being murdered in their cells, widespread hunger, civilisations on the brink and a return to the kind of Nazi science that even now is considered to be barbaric. We want bombing runs on civilians, we want nefarious motives and deceitful captains. Throw out your moral fortitude – everything is a shade of grey. Forget the unification of humanity – give us criminals and murderers and racists. The future is bright – with the fire of War.


6. An Inspiring Theme Tune

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Any Trekkie worth their salt with be able to hum at least one of the theme tunes from the previous shows – even ‘Enterprise’s ‘Faith of the Heart’. But you can say goodbye to those irritating ear worms – ‘Discovery’s theme is so anonymous, its own composer can’t even remember how it goes! Atonal and subdued, there’s zero chance that this soporific non-melody will leave you in anything approaching a positive frame of mind – just like the show itself! And also in keeping with the show, as soon as the theme tune’s over you can completely forget about it and go about your day – what a refreshing change of pace!

Is ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Veering Too Closely To Sadism, Sexism and Bloody Violence?

With the many issues that are emerging with the latest Star Trek series, I’ve decided to try shorter, single-topic articles rather than the romping, five-thousand-word anger fests that I usually produce.

First up, I want to talk about Violence.


Are We Watching A Sadist’s Vision Of The Future?

Trek has always been violent. Action has been at the heart of Star Trek since its very first episode. Even the mostly-peaceable ‘The Voyage Home’ managed to slot in some nightmarish images of whales getting harvested. And one of the most famous scenes from arguably the best entry into the franchise features a brutal ear-fucking by some space maggots. And let’s not even get started on The Next Generation’s ‘Conspiracy’.

What I’m really, really concerned about with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is the sadism of it all. Not the sadism of the characters, mind – Khan was a sadist through and through, and the violence he inflicted on others matched that.

I’m talking about the fact that the show itself – indeed, its creators – seems to revel in the suffering endured by its characters, even when it’s incidental.

Take a look at Landry, for instance. By all counts, I’m glad the show is rid of her – she was a horrid, prejudiced dolt who was entirely out of place in Trek’s moral palette. When she gets killed by the large-igrade, we see her thrown around the room like a ragdoll by the beast, and that’s relatively standard for Trek. What was less standard was the CSI-style, top-down close-up of her lacerated body that immediately followed.

For the purposes of the narrative, we knew she was dead. We even get the standard dialogue confirming it. The view of her corpse, covered in bloody, deep cuts in her flesh, is entirely surplus to requirements – especially with the shot as close as it is, to show off all the detail.

Further, her death doesn’t even particularly serve the narrative, except to prove that the large-igrade reacts to threats. And she doesn’t even get mentioned for the rest of the episode, never mind the series. To all intents and purposes, she’s a throw-away character who exists to demonstrate the behaviour of an alien, and yet the show extracts as much horror and shock from her death as is possible.

In the same episode, we are told in graphic detail the fate of Captain Georgiou. Now, the Klingons discuss it with a degree of satisfaction that fits their more brutal characteristics, which is fine. But again, the detail with which the act is presented seems unnecessarily brutal. Hell, the fact it happened at all in the Star Trek universe is shocking enough.

Georgiou’s death is savage in its own right. Gone are the days of getting shot with a phaser and collapsing to the ground with a few burn marks. Georgiou is impaled with a Klingon blade, straight through the chest. Her attacker, T’Kuvma, is then shot with a phaser, resulting in a slowly-widening, fiery hole engulfing his upper chest.

In the latest episode, ‘Choose Your Pain’, the Klingon captain is hit with a deflected energy blast which melts half her face. But even as the protagonists are fleeing the scene, we are treated to a lingering close-up of her screaming in agony as her flesh sears and her face deforms. Where Gerogiou’s and T’Kuvma’s suffering could be considered necessary to inform on the grief of the characters around them, the Klingon captain’s suffering is entirely incidental – nobody is present to witness her torment except for the audience.

Even the after-effects of the show’s violence are harsh. Lieutenant Detmer, an officer on Burnham’s previous ship, now assigned to the Discovery, bears extensive reconstruction to the side of her head and face, with metal scaffolds that would seem to be holding parts of her skull together.

And Burnham herself is put through the ringer – covered in extensive radiation burns for a large portion of the first episode, blasted through space without an EVA suit in the second, and seen screaming in agony and torment at the beginning of the latest, as she empathy-dreams about the large-igrade’s fate.

And of these examples, all of them bar T’Kuvma are women. And that’s another scary aspect of the show’s treatment of violence. Whilst we see men being killed, and Lorca bears a painful war-wound, all of the graphic, gory fates are restricted to the female members of the cast, many of whom are women of colour.

And as mentioned elsewhere, I’m not trying to claim that this was a deliberate decision on behalf of the show’s creators – but it’s a worrying correlation. Greater representation for women in Star Trek is a good thing, but it’s mitigated if they are to be the exclusive recipients of sadistic, cruel violence.

Indeed, as of ‘Choose Your Pain’, and including the examples above, there has so far been a 5:5 ratio between the number of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Episodes and the number of times we see the mutilation of women’s bodies. That goes up to 5:6 if we include the verbal description of Georgiou’s body being cannibalised. That is not a nice statistic for any show, especially one bearing the Star Trek trademark.

Even moving away from the gender balance of it all, a bog-standard redshirt is murdered in the latest episode, and whilst normally this would be a “punched in the head, slashed with a blade” type affair, we instead see two Klingons graphically plunge bayonets into his chest, leaving large, bloody wounds behind. Redshirts dying used to be simple – nowadays, its as visceral and gratuitous as a Tarantino movie.


Mutilations Are Fair Game But Affection Between Gay Men Remains Taboo

Whilst women being burned, lacerated and eaten is all considered appropriate content by the show’s creators, two men kissing is still, apparently, taboo. At the end of ‘Choose Your Pain’, it is revealed that two of the Discovery‘s crew are in a homosexual relationship.

Despite the fact that one of them narrowly escaped death just a few scenes earlier, and the other expresses relief that he is still alive, the most physical contact that they make is a hand laid lightly on the other’s shoulder. Which is fine, but the scene itself is set up in such a way that, had it been a heterosexual couple, I would have been fully expecting a kiss, and a hug, or indeed any significant display of physical affection.

The lack of this physicality is notable, conspicuous by its absence, and whilst this may simply be a reflection of the two characters’ personalities (certainly there was no chemistry between them prior to this revelation), it doesn’t half come across as the show’s creators being too scared to show two men kissing.

Maybe I’m just reaching, or maybe my distaste with the show has coloured my view of it, but I hope this is not going to be a 2017 production that considers affection between two people to be more shocking and inappropriate than gory scenes of torture and brutality.