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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally sat down and binged the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. I was actually excited to see it (not excited enough to sign up for CBS's All Access service), since it looked like the mirror universe twist would take the show in new and creative directions, and might even establish that Discovery would be a sort-of anthology series after all.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I was initially excited to see Discovery's mirror universe episodes.

Stakes feel artificial and exaggerated

The mirror universe storyline didn't feel like it was new or creative at all. In fact, it felt like it was retreading a lot of territory that Star Trek has covered before. Except now, they are supercharging it with stupid.

Once again, I'm not going to fuss about the show being aesthetically different from the original series. Such complaints are mostly pedantic. You can't use the same 1960's aesthetics from the original series and expect the show to look futuristic to modern audiences. I can overlook the shiny touch displays, the redesigned ships, the new Klingon makeup, the holographic communications, and things like that. I'm a bit less willing to overlook details like the insignia badge, but whatever.

I was actually a little bit excited to see the mirror universe in the second half of Discovery. After all, the mirror universe episodes of Enterprise were some of the most fun that series ever allowed itself to have. Granted, it was super fan-servicey and silly, but it had that campy charm that helped make the original series so successful. Discovery does not have any camp, or any charm.

Enterprise's "In a Mirror, Darkly" got away with its silly fan service by being charmingly-campy.

What I can't tolerate are the major anachronisms like the Klingons having cloaking devices ten years before Balance of Terror, fifteen years before The Time Trap, and twenty-eight years (give or take) before The Search for Spock. Yes, I also complained about the Romulans already having a cloaking device in Star Trek: Enterprise as well.

Did she just kick a throwing knife out of the air?

What I can't tolerate is silly McGuffin / Mary Sue engines that let a ship be anywhere instantly and single-handedly determine the outcome of an intergalactic war.

What I can't tolerate is genocidal McGuffin superweapons that are going to blow up the entire enemy homeworld as a way to artificially up the stakes.

What I can't tolerate is characters Kung-Fu kicking throwing knives out of the air in what is supposed to be a grounded, gritty, realistic setting.

What I can't tolerate is unrealistically-massive super ships that seem to be competing with the most incredulous Super Star Destroyers of the Star Wars extended universe. On second thought, I guess that is the sort of thing that the Terran Empire (in all its hubris) probably would do, so maybe I'll give a pass on that regard.

The stakes feel so artificial and exaggerated that it's hard to take any of it seriously.

I also don't get how the debris of the mirror I.S.S. Discovery was transported to the prime universe. Stamet's spore lab was in the emperor's flag ship, and they weren't using the spores for transit, they were just drawing power from them. So the mirror Discovery didn't have a spore drive, which means it shouldn't be able to jump between universes. They also weren't transposed by being in the same ion storm at the same time (as was the case, apparently, for Captain Lorca). So how did the I.S.S. Discovery end up in the prime universe? Is the show trying to tell us that not only can the spore drive transport a ship anywhere in the multiverse (and apparently any time as well), but that it can also pull things from other places in the multiverse too?

I also couldn't stand the needlessly ham-fisted environmental allegory that was casually thrown into the last couple mirror universe episodes. The magic fungus doesn't just connect different points in the multiverse; it also has to somehow be connected to all life in every conceivable universe? It wasn't already too frustratingly close to Midichlorians? Do we really need this ham-fisted global warming allegory about how the Terran Empire's selfish and irresponsible use of an energy source is depleting its supply and will actually lead to the destruction of all life in the entire multiverse?! And are we expected to believe that the Terran Empire is the only (or at least the first) civilization short-sighted enough to try drawing power from the spore network and risk killing all life in the universe? And if the spores also connect all temporal points, then shouldn't any future attempts to draw energy from the network, in any universe, also similarly threaten all life in the multiverse?

Do I detect a super-lazy, ham-fisted attempt at a global warming allegory?

Thank goodness there aren't any Daleks in the Star Trek multiverse because they'd deliberately kill the entire Midichlorians network if it meant they could exterminate all "lesser races". This is the kind of nonsense that you get when you try to set your stakes this unrealistically high! Classic Trek was always content to base its drama around the death or suffering of individuals or small groups of people, because individuals and small groups of people (and caring enough to reduce their suffering) were meaningful to Star Trek's humanist philosophy. Discovery isn't satisfied with anything less than the complete annihilation of all life in every conceivable universe. I mean, where the heck do you go from here? Every future season is going to have a hard act to follow when it comes time to up the apocalyptic drama!

Consistency of chapters versus consistency of episodes

The second half of the season also continued the firs half's penchant for inconsistent writing and characterization.

It was no surprise that Lorca was from the mirror universe, but I was surprised that Landry wasn't.

Lorca being from the mirror universe wasn't a surprise. I had actually been hearing theories that might be the case (or that he was part of Section 31) as soon as he debuted. It certainly fits with his early characterization. But then, of course, a lot of that early characterization for Lorca got dropped in episodes 5-9. He became much more casual, much more easy-going, was less confrontational, and seemed to be a bit less gung-ho about the war. He wasn't backstabbing Starfleet officers or handing them over to be Klingon prisoners anymore. He just kind of started getting along with everybody -- for no apparent reason.

The character of Security Chief Landry also seems to be broken by the whole mirror universe arc. In the first few episodes, she is Lorca's right-hand lady, and seems to be in on all his schemes. She's a total asshole. I would have assumed that she had been from the mirror universe as well. But no! We go to the mirror universe, and there's another one of her. She's also just as much of an asshole, so it's not like they mirrored her personality and used her as a kind-hearted, benevolent foil to Lorca and Georgiou.

Spock's and Data's initial characterization weren't entirely consistent with their later characterization.

Again, this points to one of my earlier criticisms of the show, which is that not only are the characters not particularly likeable, but they aren't particularly consistent either. As I've said before, this is not new to Star Trek. Watch Spock in the original pilot and compare him to later episodes of the original series, and then do the same with Data between season 1 of TNG and season 3 or later. Big differences. Characters growing into themselves is a much more excusable thing in less serialized shows like the Original Series or TNG, or when it's part of a well-executed arc. It's much more of a problem in a serialized show like Discovery, in which a single, unifying narrative was supposedly written in advance, and these sorts of inconsistencies can be written out of early episodes. If a character's personality and interpersonal dynamics are changing from one chapter to the next, then that's a problem.

Tyler is clearly established as being
a surgically-altered Klingon.

There's also the connundrum of Ash Tyler / Voq and L'Rell. If Tyler was supposed to be a sleeper agent, then what exactly was the intended activation method for Tyler / Voq? It couldn't have been a magic keyword whispered in his ear by L'Rell, because that would require not only that Tyler remain assigned to Discovery after being "rescued", but also that L'Rell somehow manage to get aboard Discovery. Neither of those things should have seemed particularly likely. It only lined up that way because Lorca was such a wildcard captain.

Speaking of Ash, is he Klingon, or not?! The series can't seem to decide. In the episode in which he kills Dr. Culber, it is revealed that he's been subjected to extensive surgery, which implies explicitly tells us that Voq's Klingon body was surgically altered to appear human. Later episodes make mention of a "species reassignment" procedure, which seems to corroborate that Tyler is a surgically-altered Voq. But then they start implying that Voq's consciousness was embedded into Tyler's brain, other characters treat him as if that's the case, and Tyler seems to win out in the clash of personalities in the end.

Is Ash supposed to be an allegory for gender reassignment? If so, it's a bad (or at least clunky) metaphor. He's not a Klingon who innocently identifies as human, and simply wants other people to see him as he sees himself -- in which case accepting that human identity is the morally right thing to do. I got the feeling that is what Discovery maybe wants us to think. But Ash / Voq is a literal enemy spy! Is Discovery trying to tell me that transgender people are all sleeper-agents waiting to destroy our society? Surely that isn't the message that the show is trying to convey!

So is the character Voq surgically-altered to look like Tyler? Or was Voq's consciousness and memories inserted into Tyler's mind? Because that's a pretty big deal when interpreting this character. The writing and directing doesn't seem to be consistent here.

People are sometimes depicted as being conscious in the transporter beam ...

Again, older Star Trek is not immune to this problem. Watch Kirk and crew talk about feeling dizzy in the transporter beam in "Mirror, Mirror". Watch the two officers screaming in agony during the transporter accident in The Motion Picture. Watch Kirk and Savik having a conversation mid-transport in The Wrath of Khan. Watch Barclay seeing aliens in the transporter beam in "Realm of Fear".

Then watch Scotty trap himself in a transporter buffer for almost a century in "Relics". Watch Will Riker be duplicated by a transporter in "Second Chances". Watch Picard and others rematerialize as children in "Rascals" and then later be rematerialized as adults based on patterns stored in the transporter's memory. Watch Tuvok and Neelix get combined by the transporter into a single character in "Tuvix", then be separated again into their original identities.

... other times, transporter patterns can be copied, pasted, transposed, merged, backed up, or restored.

Now tell me: do people remain conscious in the transporter beam? Does the transporter move a person from place to place, or does it destroy a person at the source and recreate a copy of them at the destination? You can't answer those questions, because individual episodes of Star Trek are in conflict with each other regarding the answer.

Seriously, I could go on with stuff like this for days!

This is a problem for lore continuity, but for the purposes of telling individual stories, it's perfectly fine. These are all good episodes (except maybe "Rascals"). I would even consider "Tuvix" to be among Voyager's best episodes (top 10 or 15).

If you're a fan of Discovery, then it might seem like special pleading for me to be so critical of Discovery while simultaneously appearing to give a free pass to the earlier series for comparable (and sometimes more egregious) inconsistencies. The problem is that Discovery (as a completely serialized narrative) has a fundamentally different story structure than the other Star Trek series. Such inconsistencies in older Trek can be overlooked as long as the individual episode tells a completely self-contained, good story. It's much harder to overlook the same inconsistencies in Discovery because every episode is a chapter in a single unfolding narrative. Unless a book is going for some kind of unreliable narrator trick (like American Psycho or Fight Club), it's individual chapters have to be logically consistent with each other. The chapters of Discovery, similarly, have to be internally consistent with one another; whereas, the individual episodes of Star Trek (being self-contained) do not have such tight restrictions. They're more free to take creative license in service of an individual episode's story. That's not a double-standard or special pleading; that's the nature of narrative formats of the shows.

Unless you're going for an unreliable narrator gimmick,
the chapters of a story must be logically consistent with each other.

That being said, even if Discovery were completely episodic (like the older series), then I would still be holding it to a higher standard. The reason for that is that those logical inconsistencies do bother me in the older series. I would expect any new series to learn from the mistakes of the past and not repeat them -- and certainly not to make them worse! This wouldn't necessarily be a fatal flaw of a new episodic (or anthology) series, but it would still be something that I would be critical of.

In Discovery's case, these aren't minor details or gaffes that are popping up because of script changes or reshoots. These are major plot points that were supposedly planned-out and written in advance. Considering the amount of planning and money that went into this show, I expect these plots to be well thought-out and virtually air-tight. The writers aren't making this stuff up every week as they go along the way that they did in the older series. But they could've fooled me. I mean, CBS expects us to pay a subscription for this! Discovery isn't sitting around on network television like all the other Trek series were. The standards and expectations need to be higher! All the pretty special effects, lens flares, and excessive blue lights don't mean squat if the story isn't well-written and well-conceived.

Full circle

To the show's credit, the story does come full circle in the second half of the season. I get what they were trying to set up with the Klingon war. The Terran Empire is supposed to be a mirror for the Federation that reflects a face that looks more like the Klingon Empire that the Federation is at war with (right down to eating their vanquished foes). Federation command decides to throw away all of its values in an attempt to outright destroy the Klingon homeworld in a plan that was proposed by this "evil" mirror universe's emperor. In so doing, they risk becoming the Terran Empire that they consider to be so vile. These are all ideas that I thought would have worked really well in Star Trek: Enterprise, and they are particularly relevant in the reality of modern politics and culture. There's a valid and important message here. I just didn't like its execution in Discovery.

Burnham's arc comes full circle when she preaches the principles of the Federation to a genocidal admiral.

Further, Burnham does end up with a full arc. She starts out betraying Starfleet, and ends up protecting Starfleet's values from the leadership that nearly betrays it. I still don't feel that arc was very well executed though.

Tilly is still Discovery's shining beacon of optimism.

In the interests of not being completely negative, I do want to say that I also still really like Mary Wiseman as Cadet Tilly, and I'm also enjoying Doug Jones as Commander Saru even more than I did in the earlier episodes. Wiseman, in particular, is fantastic in the mirror universe. Even though the scene itself is completely stupid, I do like how Tilly tries to see through Tyler's transgressions and gives him the benefit of the doubt. This naive optimism is what I really like about Tilly, even though it makes absolutely no sense in context of this episode. He's a Klingon spy who murdered Dr. Culber! He should be in the brig waiting for Starfleet intelligence (or Section 31) to take custody and interrogate him.

Still has an identity crisis

Put simply, I could tolerat the iffy writing if the sci-fi concepts and faithfulness to the original Star Trek philosophy and continuity were stronger. Alternatively, I could tolerate the weak sci-fi and tenuous (at best) relation to Star Trek if the show were solidly-written. But Game of Thrones, this is not. Discovery doesn't get its sci-fi right, doesn't get its Star Trek right, and is sloppily-written to boot.

The biggest problem (besides the contrived writing and McGuffins) is that Star Trek: Discovery still can't seem to decide on what its identity is going to be. This is apparent by the show's cop-out tease of an ending. I was actually surprised at how readily the show just ditched the spore drive, in its ad hoc attempt to explain why Starfleet isn't using that device in any of the other series or movies that take place in the future. You'd think that Voyager would have, at some point, at least considered the idea of installing its own spore drive. I was expecting that Discovery would turn into a universe-hopping series, or that it would use the spore drive to explore the farthest reaches of our own galaxy or universe. That at least would have been exotic and interesting, even though I think the spore drive (as a concept) is one of the single dumbest ideas that's ever been presented in Star Trek.

The spore drive was tossed aside
as cavalierly as Luke's lightsaber.

But now that's not happening, so once again, I'm left wondering what the heck the writers even want to do with this show. The pilot was unrepresentative of the first half of season 1, which was, int turn, not entirely representative of the second half of season 1. Now the Klingon war is actually over (for super-realsies this time), and the spore drive has been chucked over Discovery's shoulder as cavalierly as Luke Skywalker's lightsaber. That conflict with the Klingons, and that McGuffin engine, were the two foundational pillars of the entire series. Those were to Discovery, what Q's trial of humanity was to TNG, what Sisko being the Emissary of the Prophets was to DS9, and what being lost in the Delta Quadrant was to Voyager. With them gone, I can't imagine season 1 being representative of what we'll see in season 2. And that's assuming that the crew of Discovery doesn't get relegated to the background, and the show shifts to being more about Captain Pike's Enterprise instead.

Deep Space Nine was confident enough that it opened with the Enterprise-D leaving. Picard symbolically hands off the torch of Star Trek to Captain Sisko, and the Enterprise flies away, leaving the audience with this new crew. Voyager confidently inverts this hand-off by having Voyager depart from Deep Space Nine (ostensibly to leave behind the Star Trek that we know). Of course, Voyager goes on to fail miserably at following-through on this idea, and becomes a lackluster copy-cat of TNG. Discovery seems to have no confidence in itself moving forward. It is so desperately unsure of itself, that in the last minute of the season, the Original Enterprise has to swoop in to (presumably) try to salvage the show.

Instead of passing the torch (as in Deep Space 9), the Enterprise arrives as if to save Discovery.

The conclusion of the season 1 finale seemed to promise a return to more traditional Star Trek with its tease of the [redesigned] Enterprise and Alexander Courage's classic theme during the ending credits. But the reboot movies have already played this trick on fans thrice, and so I don't buy it with Discovery either. Despite reciting the "final frontier" / "boldy go" monologue at the end of all three of the reboot movies, I don't have any expectation that Star Trek 4 (if it happens) will be any less about a bad guy with a McGuffin superweapon looking to get revenge, or that it will be any more about exploring strange new worlds or boldly going where no one has gone before. Similarly, I don't expect, despite casting Anson Mount as Chris Pike for season 2, that Star Trek: Discovery will ever truly feel like part of the Star Trek canon.

I don't buy into Discovery's implication that it will be more like Star Trek now.

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