‘Star Trek: Discovery’ And The War Without Consequences

I’m going to start this article on a tangent.

There’s an episode of ‘The Next Generation’ called ‘Power Play’, about evil space ghosts possessing two mooks and the Hero of Starfleet (Troi, Data and Miles O’Brien, respectively).

These space ghosts take three people hostage to force Picard and the crew to help them. One of the people they take hostage is Worf, he who wears the Bandolier of Denial. When threatened with death, Worf responds thusly:

“To die defending one’s ship is the hope of every Klingon.”

Wow.

That is one hell of a line. Why? Well, let’s pretend we’ve never seen, or even heard of, Klingons before. What does this line tell us?

First off, he’s speaking for “every Klingon”. Not literally true, perhaps, but this is clearly a statement about the Klingon mindset.  And he’s talking about their hopes, their aspirations – this is a statement about the Klingon ideal, their model existence. And it’s a statement which includes death, but not just any death – a meaningful one, a sacrifice, in fact. And not even mere sacrifice. “Defending.” “Defending one’s ship.” The act of preserving, an act borne out of duty, maybe even loyalty. And this isn’t “protecting”, either – “defending” has a very martial connotation. This isn’t about dying in service to others, this is about dying honourably, gloriously.

Am I giving a lot of credit to a throw-away line? Probably. I mean, this is hardly the best episode of ‘The Next Generation’. It’s not even the best episode in this season of Next Gen. And the effectiveness of this line is most likely accidental.

So let’s look at a line that most likely wasn’t accidental in its effectiveness.

Spock points to a diagram of the ship, scattered with blinking lights. “They knew exactly where to hit us.”

This line alone is pretty powerful. It tells us everything we need to know about the situation, without the need for any specifics. No technobabble, no talk of shields failing, of crew casualties, or warp cores breaching. You don’t even need the rest of the scene to know that the Enterprise has been under attack; you don’t need to see the sparks flying or the smoke pluming or the lights flickering to know that they’ve been badly wounded. And whilst Nimoy is gesturing towards a prop of the damaged locations, that’s entirely auxiliary.

Oh, and in case you don’t recognise the line itself, it’s from ‘The Wrath of Khan’, about twenty seconds after the Enterprise gets her arse kicked by Reliant. If you still don’t know which bit I’m talking about, go and watch ‘The Wrath of Khan’, like, seriously, right now, go, go do it, go watch it, it’s amazing, watch it, do it now.

So, why am I talking about these two lines? Well, it’s simply to point out that it is entirely possible to convey meaningful information in a very short space of time. And the irony that it has taken me ten paragraphs to explain that is not lost on me, I assure you.

And the reason I’m making this point is as follows:

As of ‘Lethe’, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has given us four episodes based around a war with the Klingons, and not a single line explaining how that war is going.

Not. One. Line.

I’ve covered this before from earlier in the show, but I want to go into a bit more depth here.

The fact is, I don’t give a shit about the actual war. We’ve been there and done that with the Dominion, back in the days when Trek still occasionally approached being a quality show. As I’ve stated elsewhere, what I care about is the universe that our characters inhabit, and how that affects them. And so far, it’s having no effect. This war is apparently raging across the known galaxy, and yet it’s having absolutely zero consequences for the entire cast.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Certainly, the fact that there is a war is leading to Things Happening. Lorca gets kidnapped, Sarek gets attacked, Cornwell gets captured. These things occur allegedly because there is a war, but there’s a problem.

During ‘Choose Your Pain’, before he’s kidnapped by the Klingons (Klingnapped?), Lorca is attending some sort of strategy meeting with a bunch of admirals. Here, he gets told that despite the fact that Discovery is apparently kicking all sorts of arse, they need to bring it off the front line until they can replicate it’s water-bear-operated mushroom drive.

During this meeting, Admiral Cornwell tells Lorca not to worry about being out of the fight, as “the rest of the fleet will pick up the slack.” Now, maybe she’s just trying to allay his anxieties, but everything about the exchange suggests that the war is going pretty well for Starfleet. The Discovery seems more like a novelty weapon, an experimental platform prior to implementation in the rest of the fleet. Lorca tells them “that’s a lot of slack,” but he’s an arrogant butthole so whatever, his words mean nothing to me. And besides, Cornwell tells him that they will “manage”.

What’s shockingly absent from this strategy briefing between four high-ranking military commanders, though, is any discussion of the war beyond three missions completed by Discovery. Taking a cue from the two examples I gave above, a single line could have provided so much context to the events of the episode, and the series to date. Here’s a few possibilities:

“Without Discovery, the fighting would’ve reached Vulcan by now.”

“Everybody’s tired, and everybody’s worried, but we need to keep it together.”

“The repair yards are already at capacity, soon we’ll be pulling antiques out of mothballs.”

“Lorca, you’re the most experienced captain we’ve got left.”

“If we get overconfident, we might find the ground falling out from underneath us.”

“We’re out of options.”

They’re out of options.”

“They’re getting desperate.”

“Nobody expected this to be easy.”

These are all hugely cliché, sure, but they’re simple and they convey at least a little meaning. And these are just off the top of my head.

It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t have to be accurate. The important thing here is the situation as it’s perceived by the characters. It may be that they’re well towards victory, but they all think they’re on the edge of Armageddon, and that’s fine so long as it informs the decisions that they make.

In the next episode, an in-universe week later, the same Admiral Cornwell is drilling Lorca a new arsehole (not literally, that occurs later in the episode) over his abject insubordination, during which time she describes Discovery as Starfleet’s “cornerstone of defence.” Again, this would be an ideal opportunity for a little added background, to put the Discovery‘s actions in the context of the larger war, and yet again that opportunity is ignored by the show’s writers.

Another instance in ‘Choose Your Pain’ is the introduction of a new character, Ash Tyler The Human. Ash Tyler The Human, from Humansville, on the Human Planet, is a Human Starfleet Human prisoner aboard the same Klingon vessel as Lorca following the former’s abduction. Given that he’s been imprisoned by other Klingons since the start of the war, you might naturally expect him to enquire after the war, and use the opportunity to speak to a high-ranking Fellow Human to find out how all of the Other Humans are fairing.

And yet… nothing. No “How’s the war going?” No “Are we winning, cap’n?” No “Has my torment and suffering over the last seven months meant anything?” And it’s just so odd. I can’t get my head around why a show which otherwise has a worrying fixation on violence shies away so much from the bigger picture. I mean, we get to see necks being broken, throats being slit and human bodies twisted into fusilli, all in excruciating detail, but apparently the show’s creators are squeamish about portraying war as anything other than a vague background hum.

And that’s the crux of it. Things happen in this show allegedly because of The War – Lorca is abducted; the mining colony is attacked; Sarek is suicide-bombed; Lorca is an arsehole; Cornwell gets captured – it’s stated that these all occur because of The War, and yet these are all standard Trek plots – rogue alien species attack Federation outposts all the time, and there isn’t a single season of Next Gen that doesn’t feature at least one episode about the crew being abducted, or brainwashed, or possessed, or held to ransom. Again, look at ‘Power Play’, discussed above.

All of the plotlines of ‘Discovery’ so far could have easily occurred as one-off incidents, unrelated to any grander narrative. And yet The War is mentioned in every other conversation. And yet, nothing about the war is discussed. It’s mentioned, but it has no real impact on anything that happens. Even Ash Tyl- ah, sorry, even Voq The Klingon’s arc could function perfectly well without the war. A Klingon infiltrating Starfleet to win glory for the Empire is an old trope that plays just fine as general Klingon shenanigans.

Which then raises the point – why does the War even exist? What does it add to the narrative? To the story? What’s even more infuriating is that some of these plotlines would actually be better without the war. Leaving your primary source of fuel in such a remote, poorly defended position is understandable when you’re at peace and not expecting an attack. But during a full-on escalated conflict with an enemy race? It makes Starfleet look like amateurs.

In ‘Deep Space Nine’, there’s a really interesting arc when Ben Sisko finds out that his son, Jake, has stayed behind on the Starfleet station that the Dominion now occupy. This little side plot sees father and son separated for a good chunk of the season, and it adds an extra personal investment for Sisko. The point at which he realises his son is missing is painful, and the point at which they reunite is touching. And it uses the war to drive character motives – Sisko can’t simply return to an enemy-held station to rescue his son, and Jake has to learn to cope in a dangerous situation without his heroic father around to protect him.

Elsewhere, Dax and Worf, a newly-married couple, find themselves on separate assignments. This doesn’t necessarily affect their duties, but it does mean that when we finally see them reunite, we understand how emotional a moment it is for them. All throughout the War arc, we see characters torn apart, brought back together, and the emotional rollercoaster that they experience throughout it all.

And what we’re specifically not seeing is every battle that takes place. We don’t get periodic updates on front lines and casualties. But we do get them, and they invariably result in our characters making decisions around them. Someone loses an old friend during a distant, off-screen battle. We don’t ever meet that friend, but we do see the effect that the loss has on the characters we care about.

And that’s just absent from ‘Discovery’. The war is entirely abstract, entirely inconsequential to what occurs, excepting Engineer Stavros’ occasional line about “being a scientist and not a soldier.” And even that loses its impact, as we never see Stavros doing anything except what he’d normally do.

When the Dominion attacks Deep Space Nine, we see Bashir, the doctor, and Dax, the scientist, and O’Brien, the engineer, all take up arms to defend it. We see them outside their comfort zone, because that’s where the war has taken them. In ‘Discovery’, the crew carry on jogging around, chatting shit, eating burritos and torturing large-igrades. And that’s fine, we don’t need to see them fighting all the time. But maybe we could see them rushing medical aid to a frontier outpost? Maybe see Stavros having to help out his partner in triage, see Tilly develop her leadership skills as she co-ordinates paramedics.

As is the nature of ‘Discovery’, potential is wasted at every opportunity.

Crude Fiction: Formal Complaints aboard the Enterprise

I’ve been re-watching a lot of Trek recently, and y’know what? It’s fantastic, it really is. ‘Deep Space Nine’ is as awesome as ever, and ‘The Next Generation’ is just wonderful.

One trend I noticed, though, in Next Gen’s later seasons, was Riker’s increasing tendency towards “Trickster God” status. As such, I decided to follow through on that, with a skit on one of my favourite pieces of internet comedy. Okay, two of my favourite pieces of internet comedy. Enjoy.


Number One,

I’ve had a series of complaints sent to me regarding your conduct over the last few weeks. If the stories inside these letters are true, then I think we need to have a discussion about acceptable behaviour aboard a starship, however I thought it only fair that you be given the chance to review the complaints yourself so you may give me your own interpretation of what happened.

Regards,

Picard.


Dear Captain,

As you may be aware, a few days ago I attempted to simulate the gaining of body weight, a common experience for humans of my age. The crew and other officers were very supportive, particularly Doctor Crusher, who helped me to accurately capture the built-up subcutaneous bulk necessary for an authentic representation.

Sadly, there was one exception to this supportiveness, which was Commander Riker. I found it highly inappropriate of him to follow me around the corridors with his trombone, playing what can only be described as a series of ‘sad notes’ as I walked to my various destinations.

Though I had expressed a desire to also be subjected to the ‘ribbing’ that many overweight individuals suffer in some primitive societies, I feel that Commander Riker’s elaborate efforts were particularly over-the-top and unrealistic by most standards. Especially his reassignment of Engineering Team Four-B to reconstruct the entrance to my quarters, such that I was unable to fit through the doorway without considerable difficulty.

I am yet to raise the issue with Commander Riker, and would appreciate any advice you could offer on confronting him in a constructive and friendly manner. Although I have since returned to my normal weight and size, I feel his actions may have had a hurtful effect on other members of the crew who are themselves naturally of a larger size.

Kind regards,

Data.


Jean-Luc,

Will’s been bothering me again. The other day he came into sickbay with another Parrises Squares injury, which is pretty normal. After I patched him up, he started asking questions about chemical compounds – things like the best way to replicate methylamine, tropane alkaloids and ergotamine. When I asked him why he wanted to know, he just said “don’t worry about it.” A few days later, he came in and just straight-up asked how to make to “the good stuff, you know, the real hard shit.” Again, I asked him what it was for, but he just told me to stop worrying and then left again.

Jean-Luc, if he wants to know more about chemical preparations I don’t mind him asking, but I would just feel a lot better if I knew why. Would you have a word with him, make sure he’s not doing something ill-advised?

Beverly.


I received this one a couple of days afterwards, Number One, and I certainly hope the two aren’t related:


Captain I love this ship everything is so shiny and I love how fast it goes and how all the stars shoot past like little fairies and I love the seats everything is so comfy and how the jeffries tubes are like ants nests and I love how your head looks like an ice moon but I hope you aren’t sleeping with my mother but if you were I’d be your dad no wait you’d be my dad and then we could go fishing together and you could teach me how to make wine that tasted like warp speed I love you love from Wesley.


Captain Picard,

I must strongly protest at the actions of Commander Riker over the past few weeks. On my birthday, shortly after my return from the Bat’leth tournament on Forcas III, I explained to Commander Riker my distaste for “surprise parties.” Counsellor Troi confirmed that she had persuaded him not to host one for me, for which I was most grateful.

However, since then Commander Riker has hosted no less than twenty-three surprise parties for me, all within the space of a month. They were mostly held in my personal quarters in a gross violation of my privacy, however he has also held four in Ten Forward, three at my Mok’bara classes and one at a briefing of my security staff.

This is completely unacceptable, and I must insist that you make him stop! I have repeatedly asked him to cease these childish events, and each time he has promised that he would, only to later tell me that he thought “it would be more of a surprise if I thought he had stopped.”

I have even requested a more secure locking mechanism on my quarters, but I did not realise that Commander Riker was a member of the Accommodation Administration Committee – and I did not like the way he was smiling at me as the committee chair offered to install security-coded maglocks on my door.

Please have this infantile display brought to an end at once!

Yours respectfully,

Lieutenant Commander Worf.


Captain,

Thank you for your congratulations on my recent promotion. It will take me some time to adjust to the increased responsibility, especially whilst maintaining my responsibilities as ship’s counsellor, but I look forward to the challenge.

I need to talk to you about the application process, though. Will was assessing me, as you know, and as you also probably know I struggled with one of the later parts of the test, the “engineering test.” It took me some time, and some repeated attempts, to figure out that it was necessary for me to sacrifice one life to save many. I am grateful to Will for taking me through it and helping me succeed, but some of his behaviour during the test was just troubling.

After I figured out that I had to send Geordi to his death, Will said there was a second part to the test. It seemed like more of the same – this time, a security problem, with hostages. The thing is, it turned out that the solution was once again to order Geordi to his death. I thought maybe that was a coincidence, but then in part three there was another simulation, even more elaborate, which required me to sacrifice Geordi again. We got to part five, with an incredibly contrived scenario which somehow required me to stab Geordi to death with a micro-optic drill before I decided enough was enough.

When I confronted Will about it, he said he was surprised I made it as far as part three, never mind part five, and then said I must have “some serious issues.” I told him he had taken things too far but he just laughed and told me that I needed to speak to a psychiatrist – I hope you appreciate why I didn’t find that funny.

Captain, Will and I go back a long time but this was too much, and I’m worried he’ll do the same thing to other officers – I don’t think Data would cope well with that kind of “test”, and I’m certain Geordi would object.

Please let me know if you need any more information.

Troi.


Sir,

I don’t know how, but somehow Commander Riker has managed to change all of the access codes on all of the transporter consoles again, this time to “stupidpaddy123”. I know it was Riker because last week he invited me as guest of honour to “Interstellar Scotland Day” in Ten Forward, and introduced me as “the ship’s resident walking stereotype, Paddy O’Toolbag”. I told him I was Irish and he told me to stop boring everyone and just play a tune on the haggis, and when I told him I wouldn’t he started playing ‘God Save The Queen’ on his trombone and then asked why I wasn’t singing along.

Regardless of the offensiveness of his remarks, he shouldn’t be messing around with security codes on any ship system, it’s a security issue and it makes life harder for me and my colleagues.

I’d also appreciate it if you could have him apologise for reprogramming my replicator to only produce boiled potatoes regardless of what I order. It must have taken him weeks to manually reconfigure every recipe in the databanks.

All the best,

Chief of the Potato People.


Sir,

That last message was meant to be signed off with “Chief O’Brien”, but he’s messing with my auto-correct now, too. Could you have a word?

All the best,

Chief Curly O’Curlycurls.


Number One, I hope you see why these reports are so troubling. Speaking of events in Ten Forward, I was less than pleased with your antics last week. I was quite excited to attend the First Annual Frontier Archaeology Symposium, so you’ll understand my disappointment to walk in to find myself at “Johnny Luke’s Head Polishing Masterclass”. Although I am impressed at how many of the crew and senior officers you managed to convince to wear bald caps.

Please see me at 0900 tomorrow, and please make sure you’ve had a good hard think about what it is you’d like to say for yourself.

Picard out.