Hello friends of (and the few haters of – who choose to read this for reasons I cannot fathom. Self flagellation perhaps?) STAR TREK: Discovery! I know the internet has just been on EDGE waiting for me, the authoritarian auteur of all things ‘Trek, to weigh in on the new show.
Calm down Automated Hater-Unit 571.
I wasn’t about to venture forth with a critical evaluation of the show after the premiere. There simply wasn’t enough to form a fully coherent idea of where DIS (I see DSC a lot around the conversation but I still prefer the title nomenclature that matches previous incarnations) was headed, what it meant and what its strength and weakenesses were based on two episodes. I wasn’t even sure THIS would be the week I finally decided to force everyone to read my thoughts, but after Ep. 5 I concluded that there was no longer any need to wait.
We have a winner, and its name is Discovery.
It’s no perfect game. It’s not a 300 frame. There are some fumbles, a few knock-ons and some terrible on-court technical errors, but in every way that counts Discovery delivers.
Black Alert everybody:
DIS is definitely a different ‘Trek than we’ve been presented with before. We’ve had more than 700 installments of ‘episodic’ ‘Trek: Go to this planet, meet these people, either try and help them or do your best to change their way of life, then fly off and find a new planet next week. It’s been done. Sure DS9 and ENT really ran hard with the ‘serialization’ ball, but even then they still structured each episode around a particular story. DIS is the first show to move to almost entire serialization, a move that matches the current climate of binge watching and streaming TV.
What if I told you they HADN’T abandoned the episodic structure though?
While the plot lines from the previous week definitely follow a lead through the next weeks episode, the structure of a self contained story is still present in DIS.
Premiere double-header aside – think to episode 3: “Context is for Kings”. Or ‘the return of Michael Burnham’. Much like Janeway in the beginning of VOY ‘Caretaker’, Lorca takes a young prisoner under his wing (command) and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Except she does. Until she realizes she doesn’t have much choice. Given a chance to make the most of her situation, she opts to take Lorca’s offer and remain on board Discovery. Fitting as Lorca has been plotting something for her the whole time. The point of the episode is that Burnham discovers what choices she CAN make while her fate is still out of her control.
Ep. 4, with the incredible awkward name of “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s cry” sees Burnham, Tilly and Stamets learn about Ripper, the adorable Dire-Tardigrade. This installment has a dilemma, the fate of the miners on Corvan II which only Discovery can save and the arc progresses through finding a solution using Ripper’s biology, then Burnham realizing what that solution means for our newest cos-playing challenge. By the end of the episode it’s clear that Ripper is not an infinitely powerful Guild-Navigator and that his utilization, even abuse, is taking a toll.
Reach “Choose Your Pain” and the quest to rescue Lorca and that missions connection to Ripper’s fate are their own story line again, while providing a satisfying cap to the running plot threads provided by the previous two episodes. Not entirely ‘self contained’ as ‘Trek once was, but still enjoyable as one offs.
If we compare this to some of DIS contemporaries we can see the difference.
I love ‘The Expanse’ (Yes I know I should read the books, and no, once the show has run its course I probably won’t – I call that the ‘Lord of the Rings’ effect – as in ‘no I haven’t read those either’ but the movies were great) It’s much ‘harder’ Sci-Fi than ‘Trek (remember the age when that wasn’t really possible to say about a show?) ‘The Expanse’ is great drama, realistic science and compelling characters. It’s also a show in great need of a binge, because without two or three lined up in a row, each episode feels a little like threads from last weeks plot just bleeding into the next week. It has that ‘Game of Thrones’ (also no longer need to read the books) thing where you love the show, but you’re hard pressed to remember just what happened in any particular episode because they all run together. If you’ve got three hours to yourself that’s just fine. Enough events go by and enough developments… develop that you’re satiated with where the story moved you to, but one episode on it’s own never seems to sustain enough drama or story to stand alone.
I argue that DIS can still do this. It’s much more satisfying to watch an episode in line with its companions, but a single episode itself is still enough to fulfill the desire for drama and closure.
So it blends in well with the modern binge/streaming model, but still carries the self contained ‘Trekness at its core.
I can hear it now from people: “But the Klingons!” – “But the Prime Directive” – “But Vulcans” – “But canon” – “But that one line that an actor said in a show made fifty years ago that must be adhered to without fail forever”
If that’s all ‘Trek is to some people, an ever expanding self-referential web that is only acceptable as long as no thread ever contradicts another then they have probably stopped reading this by now – And I invite them to stop. Please. You won’t like anything you read from here on.
‘Trek’s desire for continuity has been both its greatest asset and its biggest folly. Asset because it’s made ‘Trek a truly remarkable franchise in terms of staying relatively internally consistent. A folly because anyone who dares interpret anything differently from what some loud mouth fans believe to be the only possible interpretation is branded a shill of the creators and not a devotee of “True ‘Trek” (Whatever that’s supposed to be). I’m sure even now there are some people out there who claim I’m a paid hack for CBS because I won’t denounce this affront to fandom. (Believe me, if CBS was offering me any money I would TOTALLY take it – as a screenwriter getting your hands on network money is like finding Morn’s stash of latinum – before he swallowed it all).
I’ve been a ‘Trek fan since before TNG. There was a time when I was a screaming fanboy like many others, outraged by even the simplest violation of what I thought ‘Trek was supposed to be. It made it hard to appreciate something I used to love. Even TNG was not entirely consistent within itself. As I studied film/tv making and began my writing career, I learned just how tough it is construct a good, compelling story, even without 50+ years of rules laid down before me. Trying to keep EVERYTHING perfectly consistent is a fools errand and sells the strengths of ‘Trek short. I mean the fact that ‘Trek managed to stay SO consistent all this time is a testament to the efforts and talents of the generations of writers/researchers they’ve had working for them.
I realized the problem wasn’t ‘Trek. It was me. I had an IDEA in my head of what ‘Trek was, and when the new shows didn’t ‘match up’ to what I thought they should be, I was disappointed. Yeah no shit. Everyone who’s a fan has a ‘perfect’ version of ‘Trek in their head, and expecting a team of writers & producers who have NEVER MET you and probably NEVER WILL to cater PRECISELY to your desires is self-indulgent bullshit.
I decided to try a different approach. I would let ‘TREK tell me what ‘Trek was. After all I wasn’t the one making it – they were. If I wanted to enjoy it I needed to come and meet on Trek’s terms, not my own. And how much I have learned since then…
This is what I mean by Discovery taking us back to school. It’s teaching us once again that we DON’T have the full picture of what Starfleet and the Federation’s history is. It was always implied that there was an epic struggle against the Klingons yet this was never truly defined. Now we’re understanding what that conflict looked like. In TWOK Carol Marcus remarks that “Starfleet has kept the peace for 100 years” We can either choose to interpret this line as meaning that ‘DIS’ IS NOT CANON or we can interpret it in the sense that the UN has managed to keep relative GLOBAL peace since its inception after WWII – even after having fought the Korean War for three years. (Or 64 years now depending on how you keep score) If the war with the Klingon’s ends before a year is over, does this one year in a century really ruin Starfleet’s record of ‘keeping the peace’? Some can say yes, and my example of the UN in our world still stands.
“Has there ever been a mutiny on a starship?” – “No Mr. Chekov, never.” This can either mean that Michael Burnham VIOLATES CANON or that what happened on the Shenzou wasn’t actually a ‘mutiny’ as Starfleet defines it. Do the rogue actions of one officer constitute mutiny in the broad sense, especially since she didn’t succeed, or does mutiny require a degree of success and coordination among multiple crew members? If anyone can find the STARFLEET (and not just the online dictionary) definition of mutiny as outlined in their regulations I would be happy to take a look and discuss.
What I’m saying is that like in our modern world, just because one person says something that does not make it absolutely irrefutable. Discovery is showing us the amazing growing pains that the Federation went through to reach the relative ‘stable’ time of Kirk’s era – a time which wasn’t really ‘stable’ at all since the Organians needed to impose a peace treaty on both sides to prevent another Klingon/Federation war – a fact that is essentially (and rightfully for stories sake I think) forgotten shortly thereafter. The Klingons went to war with the Federation for a short time in the prelude to the Dominion War, and I didn’t see any Organian’s stopping that. Best I can tell there was no ‘time limit’ on their imposed treaty so what gives? I guess one of ‘Trek’s best shows isn’t ‘canon’ by that definition.
The show takes hits for being too ‘dark’, for being so unlike the ‘positive, hopeful’ view of Humanity that Gene wanted to spread like extra-pleasant herpes. I say if that’s your conclusion you’re not really looking close enough at what DIS is doing. The entire basis of the background arc is a desire to live by Starfleet’s credo of peaceful exploration. In a wonderfully innovative spin on storytelling we are given a situation where this very concept is used against our expectations. Had Georgiou listened to Burnham then yes we would’ve wound up with a devastating engagement but little else. But I mean c’mon, as an audience we know what the deal with the Klingons is, but expecting Georgiou to go against everything Starfleet has taught her about what their mission is and what they’re doing in space is ludicrous. People bitch that Georgiou was ‘naive’ but she literally upheld the ‘optimisitc vision of Humanity’ that so many say is missing from this show.
Trek has a long history of Officers making questionable decisions. There’s an entire rogues gallery of Captains and Admirals who violate everything ‘Trek is supposed to stand for:
All officers who gravely misunderstood what their duty was, or abandoned it completely. Now DIS presents us with the mercurial Capt. Gabriel Lorca:
And rather than rushing through a 42 minute episode to judge him, we are given a chance to examine this character from multiple angles and points of view. Is he a heartless war-monger? Is he a pragmatic fatalist, exactly the kind of person you need in the most desperate hours of ‘kill or be killed’? Is he a scientist pushed to his very limits? There are those who have decided already that he is Starfleets Hitler and deserves our scorn – but a show wouldn’t be hung on one character who was so easy to dismiss. We are challenged to understand Lorca, to wonder about his motives and try to peel back the layers of a man who quite literally likes to stay in the shadows. Maybe he’ll turn out to be just like Pressman or Kennelly or Ransom, but with the limited exposure we’ve had for him, there are no easy conclusions. Maybe when DIS is over we’ll look at ALL of these characters a little differently. (Except Commodore Stocker – that guy was just a turd.)
The other flashpoint is Burnham, the ‘Mutineer’. She polarizes people like no other. “How can she think of herself as an officer? She’s a menace to everyone around her. I don’t like her.” Yeah, Burnham isn’t the poster-girl for an ideal Starfleet Officer, but does that mean her presence breaks the show? Makes it ‘Not ‘Trek?
Remember these guys?
All very compelling characters (some of them primary cast members) who were not ones to follow the rules, marched to the beat of their own drum. Worf straight up killed a guy (Durass) in front of his First Officer, and later abandoned a Starfleet intelligence asset to rescue his wife, ensuring the asset was killed. Ensign Ro Laren participated in the incident at Garon II that saw eight crew members die and she later betrayed Starfleet to join the Maquis. Julian Bashir is one step removed from Khan Noonien Singh, being genetically resequenced, a truth he kept secret for years, and then later was tempted to join Section 31. Sure Garak wasn’t Starfleet, but Starfleet was happy to make use of his talents when it suited them, and he was more crooked than a Klingon mud mask. Tom Paris was literally lifted out of a Federation prison and later was demoted for dereliction of duty. Torres never graduated Starfleet Academy quite simply because she couldn’t follow the rules. ALL of these individuals have deep flaws running through them that stain their ability to do their duty, but we accept them as characters because of the dimension they add.
What about ‘Sloan’ though? He’s the same in an inverted way. Sloan follows a very SPECIAL set of rules not required of the typical Starfleet officer. In some ways Sloan is MORE Starfleet and upstanding that many on the list, but the career path he’s chosen is one of dubious merit. Without him of course, Starfleet and the Federation would be in a much worse situation than they are with him working behind the scenes.
And let’s not forget the biggest rule breakers of them all:
Yeah. Went there.
Kirk has definitely violated the Prime Directive on numerous occasions. (Destroying Vaal on Gamma Trianguli VI is just the first incident that comes to mind.) He’s also disobeyed direct orders, and stolen a goddammed starship! Spock is almost worse in some ways. He’s commandeered the Enterprise in ‘The Menagerie Pt I & II’ and don’t feed me the ‘ends justify the means’ bullshit about him wanting to do it for Pike, he still broke the rules. Remember this exchange from ST: VI – TUC?
Spock: Mr. Scott, I understand you’re having difficulty with the warp drive. How much time do you require for repair?
Scotty: There’s nothing wrong with the bloody thing…
Spock: Mr. Scott, if we return to Spacedock, the assassins will surely find a way to dispose of their incriminating footwear, and we will never see the Captain or Doctor McCoy alive again.
Scotty: Could take weeks, sir.
That is Spock sure as shit indirectly ordering his chief engineer to falsify a report. Oh yeah, then he also “sort of” defected to Romulus for “diplomatic reasons”, to which we never really get to learn the results since Romulus doesn’t last another 30 years after that.
Good characters in drama are the ones who generate conflict with their actions. Kirk & Spock are Starfleet legends but their careers are, shall we say, ‘colourful’? As much as they are meant to exemplify the best in us, they are not the shining beacons of valiant righteousness that are needed if we want to condemn Burnham for ultimately wanting to try to prevent a war.
All out proof that DIS is working to be ‘Trek at its best?
The Officer that everyone thinks isn’t fit to wear the uniform is the one who wanted to set Ripper free. Burnham is the one who eventually forced Stamets to see the error of what they were doing, and rather than follow Saru’s orders to the letter, Stamets put himself in harms way to protect Ripper at the critical moment. In TRUE STAR TREK FASHION Human decency and empathy won out, and the ‘right’ thing was done for another living creature. This is exactly what ‘Trek is all about. Rather than spoon feeding it to us in moralistic episode like has been done 700+ times before, DIS takes the journey of showing us ALL sides of the issue, exploring it through a variety of characters in a longer form, but everything it’s doing is still ‘Trek to the core.
Sure, there are some things in DIS that I miss:
- Warp Factors. JJ did away with these in the Kelvinverse and I was a little dismayed to see that we haven’t brought them back in DIS. Warp Drive is treated a little too much like Hyperdrive in this incarnation, but this quibble doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the show.
- Phasers are pulses rather than streams. I DO miss the streams. It would be nice to see that brought back, and maybe the planned ‘blending with TOS’ approach they say they plan to take will do this. Again, doesn’t hurt my enjoyment, I just kinda wish they did it the other way.
And some things that just don’t make much sense:
- Seriously, who salvaged the Telescope off the Shenzou?
- What was Landry’s plan? Protecting herself from a creature immune to phaser fire with a phaser rifle?
- Corvan II processes 40% of the Federations dilithium but ISN’T behind a near impenetrable defensive line? Has no one played Star Trek: Ascension?
Don’t look to closely at other ‘Trek episodes though, because things start to fall apart there if you examine them too closely as well:
- Wait, the shuttlecraft Galileo is on it’s way to investigate the Murasaki Quasar? But a Quasar is a super-intense electromagnetic eruption from a blackhole at the centre of a distant galaxy (not our own) – they had a LONG trip ahead of them.
- How do Kirk, Spock and McCoy get BACK through the Guardian of Forever?
- The Excelsior encounters the subspace shockwave from Praxis’ collapse when they’re cataloguing gaseous anomalies, but when it comes time to take down Chang’s prototype Bird of Prey the Enterprise is the one with the cataloguing equipment?
- So the transporter can just restore Dr. Pulaski’s old genetic pattern, but can never be used to do that again?
- Quark and a bunch of Ferengi seriously manage to out-smart and defeat the Jem’Hadar AND the Vorta clone of Iggy Pop?
- Janeway, what the fuck is a “dark matter asteroid?”
You see what I’m getting at.
I have to stop here, because this is so damn long already. But I feel my point is made to the few who stuck it out this far. DIS isn’t perfect, but it’s ‘Trek in every sense of the word, and I’m thrilled to have it to watch every week.
To all the Hater-bots out there who were just waiting to see what I had to dump on you, I assure you I won’t sign out leaving you disappointed: