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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally got around to watching the entire first half of the first season of CBS's Star Trek: Discovery series. I'm running behind on this show since I don't have a CBS All Access subscription. I've been deliberately avoiding information about the post-hiatus episodes, so information and opinions in this post may be outdated by the time I get around to publishing it. Maybe later episodes have resolved some of these complaints. If so, feel free to ignore such comments, or let yourself be giddy with the dramatic irony. Oh, and feel free to comment, even if you do so with spoilers. I won't be offended or upset.

Before I go into the details, I want to at least try to dispel the idea that I'm just an angry fanboy who is butt-hurt that the series doesn't strictly adhere to continuity. That's come up when I've talked about this show to people in person. So I'm not going to spend this review talking about how the Klingons look different. I don't care that they look different. I've already addressed that. It does bother me that the Klingons also seem to be culturally dissimilar to the established Klingons, but I won't harp on that either. I'm not going to complain about how the uniforms and badges are anachronistic. I got that out of my system before the show even launched. I'm not going to complain that the tech looks more advanced than Original Series tech. These complaints are mostly pedantic and silly. In fact, the aesthetic look of the show is actually one of its strengths.

The visual style is one of Discovery's strengths, even though almost all of it is anachronistic.

Instead, I want to talk about how I feel that the show betrays the series' foundation as hard science fiction, and how it actively avoids the very spirit that made the Original Series and Next Generation so beloved.

Discovery isn't optimistic or forward-thinking

I'm going to start with the more important of the two: that Star Trek: Discovery betrays the spirit of Star Trek.

Star Trek became so popular, and remained so culturally relevant, at least in part because it depicted a hopeful, forward-thinking version of humanity's future. People from all over the Earth had mostly set aside their differences and decided to work together so that humanity could explore the galaxy side by side with whoever else was willing to join them. That cooperative mentality allowed us to overcome poverty and tyranny, reduce disease, and provide a post-scarcity quality of life that allowed virtually everyone to live comfortably and happily and to pursue their dreams and aspirations without the burden of having to make ends meet. That is a society that I would want to live in. It is an ideal to strive for.

Star Trek isn't perfect, but it has always provided an ideal to strive for.

That isn't to say that every series, movie, and episode of Star Trek has to have everybody getting along all the time and living happily ever after. Some of the best works within the Star Trek IP are good because they challenge the series' own lofty ideals. Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country (my personal favorite film in the franchise) explored how years of conflict with the Klingons had made Kirk and his crew (and the top brass at Starfleet) bitter and borderline racist. Episodes like TNG's "Chain of Command" showed that Starfleet was still willing to conduct clandestine acts, and "I, Borg" exposed that Starfleet was still willing to de-humanize those who it labeled as "others". Heck almost the entire series Deep Space Nine revolved around challenging the Federation's ideas of religious tolerance, economics, the balance between security and individual liberty, and the desire to maintain peace when confronted with an enemy who desires only war. The creators of Voyager were probably intending to similarly challenge Trek's ideals when they stranded the ship on the opposite end of the galaxy, far from the support of Starfleet, and replaced half the crew with Marquis freedom fighters and terrorists. Sadly, that show goes on to mostly drop those concepts and becomes a bland copy-cat of TNG.

Plenty of quality entries in the Star Trek canon have challenged the series' very own ideals.

With all that said, I'm not automatically angry that characters in Discovery are "imperfect", or that they don't get along with each other. My problem is that right from the start, the show can't seem to really decide who these characters are.

Michael Burnham and Captain Lorca are profoundly terrible, unlikable characters in the early episodes. Burnham starts to get consistently better around episode 5 or 6, but Lorca remains inconsistent and unlikable throughout. Burhan spent seven years as an officer on the Shenzhou, but never learned to socialize or attend a party? In fact, the only characters that I like are Lt. Saru and Tilly (and Captain Georgiou while she was around). Even these characters don't seem particularly consistent. Now, that's not automatically a deal-breaker. The first season or two of every Star Trek series after the original has had issues with characterization. Just look at Mr. Data in the first couple seasons compared to the rest of the series. It takes a while for the writers and actors to really find who these characters are. So I'm not going to condemn the show completely because I'm not digging the individual characters so far.

The problem is that the show is basing a lot of its drama around conflicts and relationships between these characters, but no two episodes seem to be able to agree on exactly what those conflicts and relationships are. I honestly do not recognize Stamets as a character from episode to episode. Admittedly, there's eventually a narrative excuse for this, in that his mind (and personality) is being altered by the use of the Spore Drive (more on that later), but that isn't doing any favors for the perception of the character. In one episode, crew are decrying Captain Lorca as a dangerous warmonger; in the next, they're violating orders and putting the whole crew in danger in order to rescue Lorca from the Klingons. Everyone is confrontational and adversarial with one another, until around episode 5 or 6, they suddenly and inexplicably seem to like and implicitly trust each other with no actual development building up to that.

Warmongering and broken metaphors

So does Stamets think that Captain Lorca is a warmonger or not?

Stamets' characterization of Lorca as a "warmonger" is also wholly apt. Lorca is a warmonger! The Klingons aren't invading Federation space. They aren't looking to conquer Earth. At least they weren't at the start. They are looking to protect their way of life. I get that they're intended to be allegories for the contemporary alt-right movement in the United States and Europe, but the analogy fails because the Klingon Empire is a sovereign government. They have a right to enforce their borders against a belligerent foreign power!

If the Klingons are supposed to represent immigration hard-liners who want to build a wall, then the analogy also falls apart because Federation citizens aren't simply migrating into Klingon space; the Federation government is actually colonizing planets along the borders and building military installations. The Klingons' racial identity isn't being threatened by demographic or ethnic changes within their society; they are reacting to a rival state claiming territory within the Klingons' sphere of influence. If anything, this analogy seems closer to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but without any of the nuance or complexity, and which paints an unjustly-monstrous picture of Palestinians and portrays Israel as a blameless victim of blind hatred and unjustified violence.

Are the Klingons supposed to be representing the alt-right? Or Palestine?

It's really hard to tell what this allegory is supposed to represent because the show almost completely drops it. There's a few passing references to the Klingons' desire for cultural purity, but the whole war thing seems to be resolved halfway through the first season without ever going into any detail of the ideological justifications for the conflict. The villain never gets any real characterization or development. Is he a zealous racial purist? Is he just a power-monger? Does he just hate humans and wants an excuse to kill them all? Compare him to a well-written Trek villain like Khan or Gul Dukat or Kai Wynn. You can't; there is no comparison. Kol is a non-character.

Tilly may be the show's only saving grace.

Tilly is perhaps the show's single saving grace: a character who is genuinely excited by the wonders of the universe and who seems to see the best in those around her. She isn't judged by others for her apparent social handicaps, and is able to overcome those handicaps in order to accomplish great things. She has an innocent naivety (possibly from being on the autism spectrum). She's wonderful, and I love the performance by Mary Wiseman. She seems to be the sole consistent example of the spirit of Star Trek living within this show.

Discovery is also completely disinterested in the ideal of peaceful exploration of space. There is no illusion that Discovery is a ship of exploration, or that Captain Lorca is a scientist or explorer, or that the show itself is about "strange new worlds" or "boldly going". We were nine episodes in before the first planet-of-the-week episode, and the only two alien creatures that we've seen so far have both been turned into weapons. Discovery is clearly and exclusively a military vessel, and Lorca has zero interest in the peaceful exploratory mission of Starfleet. The spirit of wonder and of discovery simply isn't there. Or at least, it isn't there yet.

Now, it is entirely possible that the show is deliberately violating this spirit in order to provide a similar challenge to the classic Trek ideals over a longer-term. Perhaps they are starting at a lowpoint in the Federation's history in order to work back up to the idealistic Federation and Starfleet that we all know and love. Maybe the increased militancy is going to become the topic of scorn in later episodes or seasons.

I would prefer that they have taken a route more akin to Deep Space Nine of starting out positive, then sinking into a darker middle act that challenges the characters' perceptions of right and wrong before validating the ideals and optimism of the start of the series. Maybe all these characters are starting out as selfish jerks so that they can learn lessons and grow as people -- that certainly seems to be the whole point behind Burnham's character. But even if that's true, I don't think that will save the series as a whole, because it doesn't fix the second biggest problem I have with the series.

Discovery isn't science fiction

In addition to having issues with the characters and social justice messages of the series, I'm also have trouble taking Discovery seriously as hard science fiction. Or at least, as the "Star Trek" brand of science fiction. If this show had all the Star Trek licensing stripped out, and was simply called Discovery, I'd probably be much more able to accept it. I might even like it. Because it does carry the burden of being "Star Trek", I do expect it to take certain rules of the series seriously.

The Spore Drive is basically just Midichlorians.

The entire show is foundationally dependent on a warp drive that is powered by the Star Trek equivalent of Midichlorians and completely disregards the size and scale of the Star Trek universe (I told you I'd complain about it when Star Trek does it!). Star Trek has a shaky track record with regard to warp. While a trip between neighboring star systems should take days at warp 5, Star Trek V has the Enterprise warping from Earth to the Romulan Neutral Zone, and then to the center of the galaxy, in what seems like hours. Discovery consistently depicts ships making warp trips between star systems in a matter of hours (even providing an explicit duration of 3 hours for one specific trip).

The Spore Drive isn't some silly little contrivance that we can dismiss and then move on. Star Trek is, admittedly and unfortunately, littered with such things. Look at all the silly and unnecessary "parallel Earth" plot lines of the Original Series, or Voyager breaking the warp 10 barrier in "Threshold", or the sudden invention of the Katra for The Search for Spock, or Captain Archer using subspace currents to get the Enterprise to Qo'Nos in a few days even though its top speed is warp 5. These things happen. I wish they hadn't, but they do. The Spore Drive of Discovery isn't the warp 10 prototype shuttle from "Threshold". It isn't some throwaway gimmick-of-the-week plot device for a throwaway episode. The Spore Drive is the primary MacGuffin on which the entire series' plot and drama are based. It can't be ignored or waived away.

Besides, what's the point of having a magic warp drive that can wink you anywhere in the galaxy if regular warp drive is this fast to begin with? What was the point of using Stamets to plot a hundred-plus micro-jumps to triangulate the position of the Klingon Death Ship (which is presumably just parked in place, exactly where you last saw it), if the regular warp drive would have accomplished that equally as well? Did the writers forget about the Picard Maneuver?

Wouldn't a variation of the Picard maneuver have accomplished the same thing as the micro-spore-jumps?

Oh, and the stupid spinning thing that the Discovery's saucer does when activating the spore drive is completely stupid-looking and unnecessary. I said I didn't want to get into petty aesthetic complaints, but that one really bothers me.

All that being said, Star Trek has always been based around hard science fiction: things that actually have some semblance of plausibility -- or at least, things that had some semblance of plausibility at the time that the show was written. Perhaps this is my own personal hang-up, but I just don't find the concept of the whole universe (and apparently other universes) being connected by a network of sentient fungus to be plausible. I didn't find it plausible in The Phantom Menace, and I don't find it plausible in Star Trek. Seriously, I certainly hope that I'm not the first person to make this comparison...

Warp drives are plausible. Matter transportation and synthesis is plausible. Artificial gravity is plausible. As far as I'm aware, there is no serious scientific conjecture that the entire universe is connected by trans-dimensional fungus. If you can dig up a peer reviewed paper on the subject, then feel free to post a link in the comments, and I might reconsider my position.

Vulcan Mind Melds now transcend time and space.

Love transcends time and space

Oh, and speaking of the Vulcan Katra being a silly contrivance invented for The Search for Spock: Discovery goes out of its way to make that even more ridiculous. Vulcan mind melds can now suddenly transcend time and space. Though, ironically, the episode about Sarek and Burnham's relationship is probably the only episode so far that I actually liked...

Even when Discovery has an interesting idea, it fails to follow through. There's an episode where a sentient planet summons the Klingons to meet with Discovery because the planet thinks it can broker peace. It's basically a rehash of the ideas of the Organians or the Metrons from TOS. Except that Discovery is so thoughtlessly-written that it doesn't even bother to follow-through on this idea that it spends an entire episode setting up. Not only does Captain Lorca not even consider the possibility of negotiating, but the planet that summoned the Klingons doesn't even attempt to make contact with them either. It's like they copied the first act of an Original Series episode, but then forgot to write the second act and just threw in a battle scene instead.

The sentient planet Pahvo summons the Klingons to mediate peace, but then doesn't follow-through.

And then there's the appearance of Harry Mudd as a psychopathic serial killer instead of a comically-inept con man. Rainn Wilson performs the part just fine, but the character just didn't feel like Harry Mudd at all. This episode is kind of a pivot point for the series, in that it's the first episode in which I actually felt some sympathy for the crew of Discovery. The episode is a copy of TNG's "Cause and Effect", but wastes so much time on establishing the mechanics and reveling in all the ways for Mudd to murder Captain Lorca, that it has to rush through the good character moments that are sprinkled throughout.

I liked Rainn Wilson;
hated the villainous Harry Mudd.

And then there's some stupid decision-making going on in production. For example, did you know that each episode of Discovery has its own title? I don't blame you if you weren't aware, because there are no episode title cards to tell the audience what the name of any given episode is. Some titles are also really long and don't flow off the tongue very well. People just aren't going to recognize "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry" in the same way that we instantly recognize "The Measure of a Man" or "All Good Things". Why are the writers / producers even making up these titles if they aren't going to show them to the viewer?

Put simply, I'm not at all impressed by Star Trek: Discovery as of episode 10. The show and stories are silly, but not in the campy way that made Star Trek successful.

Could it still be an anthology after all?

Maybe Discovery could have been a perfectly servicable space adventure series if CBS hadn't slapped on the baggage and expectations that come with the Star Trek name. After all, the Spore Drive concept works fine in Dune, which is a popular and well-regarded sci-fi classic that actually does a halfway decent job of explaining why that mechanic is allowed to work. Even so, I'd still be disappointed that this is yet another pessimistic piece of science fiction that makes humanity appear inherently self-destructive instead of being the more optimistic science fiction that I prefer, and that I think our culture desperately needs.

Discovery destroys the Klingon Death Ship, apparently concluding the whole Klingon War storyline.

Here we are, 10 episodes in, and it's still hard to judge the show because the writers keep pivoting it. The pilot was completely unrepresentative of the rest of the show, so we couldn't judge the series based on that. Now it looks like the Klingon war is basically over, and the Discovery is going to start exploring other universes and parallel dimensions. All the stuff about the Klingons that made up the bulk of the first season might be moot with regard to the rest of the show moving forward.

Maybe the whole point is that Discovery takes place in a parallel universe outside of traditional Trek continuity. Perhaps this will be used by the creators to justify the stylistic anachronisms and tonal differences. In that case, the Klingon makeup, ship designs, uniforms, delta shield insignia, and so forth can all be waived away. Maybe the spore drive will be used as a vehicle for exploring alternate universes? Maybe it will take us into the mirror universe? Maybe we're already in the mirror universe, and that explains why everyone is an asshole? Maybe this show will turn into a Star Trek version of Sliders or Quantum Leap? Or maybe it will transition into being the anthology series that I'd hoped it would be?

Perhaps the Spore Drive will turn Discovery into a Star Trek version of Quantum Leap or Sliders?

But if that's the case, and that is the show that CBS wants to provide, then why did they string fans along for this throwaway Klingon plot? Why did they so completely sabotage the first impressions of the series with the unlikable characters, mystical pseudo-science nonsense, off-putting aesthetic decisions, and meaningless modern cultural allegories? Why couldn't they have just set up a show that takes place decades or centuries after Voyager in which Starfleet develops a quantum drive (ditch the stupid spore concept) capable of travelling between parallel universes? Why not set that up in the pilot, and start the series on the foundation of exploring other realities and timelines? Something more akin to a more grown-up version of Doctor Who.

Will Trek fans who weren't already on board be willing to give the show a second chance after being deliberately trolled by the first 10 episodes? Are the people who like Star Trek: Discovery going to be upset that CBS sold them on a sci-fi war drama and then pulled a bait-and-switch on them? Is the show under-written and poorly-thought-out? Or are they trying to set us all up for some clever, pre-planned twist that just isn't working out so far? Is the show going to degrade to a Star Trek version of Lost? Would even a genius twist be enough to "fix" the early criticisms? I honestly can't tell, and that's why Star Trek: Discovery is so frustrating.

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