First, let me lay out my stall. I’m a lifelong trek fan but I’m not wedded to the so-called Prime timeline, the Kelvin timeline, or any other timeline. I’m happy for new stories to be explored under the general umbrella of Star Trek, which I define as a philosophy of life and an optimistic vision of humanity’s future. It is not a specific set of rules about how many engine nacelles a ship should have, or what colour uniform the people should wear, or even whether or not Klingons should have hair! And perhaps because of this, I enjoyed season 1 of Discovery, was perfectly happy to forgive its various problems and was looking forward to season 2.
This feeling lasted right up until I saw the first episode of season 2. Then I read A.J. Dalton’s review of it and thought “Are we watching the same show?”
Significant spoilers follow…
Well, Mr Dalton, I thought you went very easy on episode 1. My review in a nutshell would have been two words: utter drivel. You quite rightly observe the apparent Star Wars influence, which we see in the frenetic action sequences and in the sublimation of any kind of plot to that action. But you didn’t make much mention of the horrible characters that this episode subjects us to, some of which we’re going to be forced to endure for the rest of the season.
There is, for instance, the really quite bizarre episode of the Enterprise science officer. This unfortunate sole seems to have carried out a very brief and entirely one-sided vendetta with Michael Burnham (of which Burnham appeared blissfully ignorant). I won’t name him: you won’t need to remember his name. He arrives onboard with his chin tucked into his throat and his eyes bugging in two different directions, which seems like a sad attempt by the episode’s director, Alex Kurtzman, to instantly cue the audience into the fact that he’s an antisocial arsehole. He then answers the questions asked of him accurately and with perfect clarity. He does this only to suffer an unjustified put-down by Burnham who uses a completely inaccurate analogy to summarise what he said… and she gets it wrong. So do the writers, who confuse an ‘analogy’ with a ‘simile’. Silly writers. Three of them wrote this and not one of them checked a dictionary.
Science Officer (okay, okay, his name is Connolly) then gets sneezed on with alien snot from an alien with a huge head. Oh, the hilarity! Oh, raptuous jakes and funnies! How we are supposed to laugh. And how we most definitely do not.
Connolly is then shown behaving in a monstrously unprofessional and irrational way by ignoring both common sense and the direct orders of his commanding officer during a moment of acute danger. This results in him flying his pod-racer… sorry “landing pod” into an asteroid fragment, suffering an unnecessary, messy and pointless death. The end. WTF?
I noted earlier that the director was Alex Kurtzman. This should in fact explain everything about the bizarre and tragically short life of Connolly, because it was Kurtzman who brought us classics such as the Transformers movies, a fine example of frenetic action prioritised over actual plot where the target demographic is seven year-olds. So, naturally, they put him in charge of Star Trek!
Not long after this we meet another character and this one, I’m afraid, looks like sticking around longer than poor old, misunderstood Connolly. She is Jett Reno, an engineer and textbook Mary Sue character whom the crew rescue from the wreck of the USS Hiawatha.
For anyone not familiar with writers’ short-hand, a Mary Sue character is one who is unrealistically perfect in almost every way, having more brains than Spock, possessing enormous charisma and self-confidence, and being completely unflappable in the face of scrotum-clenching danger. The term was coined to describe wish fulfilment characters that appeared in Star Trek fan fiction writing of the 1970s.
In this case, Jett Reno is extraordinarily gifted at pretty much everything. Whilst stranded on a tectonically unstable dark matter asteroid with no atmosphere, she manages to find the time to invent, perfect and even apply a smart paint job to a brand new drone technology that Starfleet, with all its vast resources and comfortable working environment, has so far failed to develop. But no! That’s not all! She also finds time to dabble in transplant and neurosurgery which she performs under conditions that make M.A.S.H. look palatial, and she does all this whilst under constant threat of invasion and messy evisceration from Klingons.
So what? You might be muttering. Isn’t Star Trek all about exceptionalism? Well, to the extent that Star Trek encourages us to be exceptional, and shows us examples of what we might aspire to be. But this is extreme and potentially fatal for any future plot line involving Reno. You see, Reno can basically do anything, and do it with a smile. With a character like Reno around, the writers will struggle to invent situations of believable jeopardy to place the ship in. This will render useless one of their biggest tools for creating conflict and drama, and thus make the whole show into “one long plotless Kurtzman-style empty action fest” which is my slightly longer, eight word review of episode 1 in a nutshell.
Okay, now that I’ve vented my spleen, what were the good points?
No lens flare. You can actually see stuff! Yay!
Everything is just so pretty! Now that I can see it all, I realise what I was missing in season 1. The sets, the seamless, photographic-quality CGI, the textures. It’s all there. Your eyeballs will not be sorry.
Christopher Pike. In another instance of disagreement with Mr Dalton, I thought Pike was pretty good over all. And I think he will improve as the season progresses. Although there was one instance when he seems to put his foot in his mouth: after discovering the wrecked USS Hiawatha, he appears to suggest that they might not mount a rescue for practical reasons, and because they’re already on another, more important mission. But wait… if you listen carefully you might conclude that the bridge crew didn’t wait for him to express that opinion. They jumped straight in (or rather, Burnham jumped straight in) and assumed he was about to justify leaving possible survivors to die on the grounds of practicality. Lorca did quite a lot of this, because Lorca was all about “the mission” and this got him a certain amount of respect, until the crew realised that Lorca’s mission was very different to theirs! And so, once bitten, twice shy and we see a suddenly very nervous bridge crew all trying to read the Captain’s mind… and getting it wrong. Trust issues? In the wake of Lorca, you bet! They get it wrong, but Pike doesn’t react like the authoritarian Lorca would have. Instead he very gently sets them straight without any posturing and without throwing his weight around.
This felt like a very realistic and human moment. It was a moment firmly grounded in the collective past trauma of this group of people who find themselves struggling to overcome the damage left behind by their former captain/abuser. So, in this case, well done the writers! I only wish we might see more of this in future episodes.
Oh yeah, there was something about Spock, blah blah blah retcon, don’t care, got bored and was sighing with fatigue when I realised that Burnham was now going to run across an exploding asteroid, and there would be fire and danger and emotion. Then the cavalry arrives in the form of Pike who has somehow developed the magic power of transporting himself onto the surface of the asteroid; the asteroid that they spent ten minutes telling us they could not transport onto the surface of, because “technobabble”. (And because they really wanted to play pod racer, instead, because beaming down is, like, so last century.) But then Pike beams back down anyway, despite not being able to, and then transports himself and Burnham away, in exactly the manner they said they could not.
Funniest moment: when Saru’s ganglia came out and the unspeaking bridge officer gave him a significant look, to which Saru remarked “Really? Are you surprised?”
Saru was, of course, sensing the imminent cancellation of the show! Because, really, I actually quite enjoyed season 1. I thought season 1 worked and was perfectly happy to give Discovery every benefit of the doubt. And now they’re making me regret it.
Bah humbug. What else is on Netflix? Some kind of Titans thing, but I bet DC have cocked that up, as well. And dozens of really miserable movies, with stories that are tedious and end badly for the main characters. What’s going on? What’s with this relentless doom and gloom? It’s almost like a genre unto itself. We can call it gloomfic, or something. It’s what comes after grimdark, but with less grit and more misery. Marvellous.
And on top of that it’s January and it’s raining.
[The Grumpy Guest Review is always provided by Michael Victor Bowman, whom you may wish to check out, to abuse and amuse at www.lifedescribed.com. Or follow him on Twitter: @mvictorbowman.]