Following the derivative self-indulgence of episode 1 of season 3 (which should have been entitled ‘The Michael Burnham Show’), it was a real relief to watch an episode that was actually an ensemble piece involving the wider crew of the Discovery. And it’s a proper old-school away-mission sort of episode! (Alright, it does steal its Wild West aesthetic from Firefly, but we can allow that, eh?) The Discovery crash lands on a mining colony and is in a race against time to make repairs before the ‘parasitic ice’ of the place can overrun the ship and snap it in two! Saru and Tilly head out to make contact with the locals, to see if they can scrounge some vital components… arriving in a Wild West sort of cantina to find that the locals really aren’t too friendly, and don’t really ‘believe’ in the Federation. Then, the system’s bad boy (Zareh) turns up, played ably by Jake Weber, no less. He’s looking to cannibalise the Discovery, especially once he learns there’s dilithium on board! Cue laser action and Georgiou finally earning her spurs! At last Michelle Yo is allowed to draw on some of her martial prowess (because, let’s face it, character-acting really isn’t her main strength)! I’m gonna stop there, so that I avoid any major spoilers. Suffice it to say, this episode restored my faith somewhat. Hurrah! (The only ‘lame’ plotting really was the stuff with Stamets in a Jefferies tube… but let’s chalk it up to homage and let them off on that.) I’d score the episode a solid 7.5 out of 10. Boldly go, Discovery!
Right, so episode 1 of the new season is called ‘That Hope Is You’ but, quite frankly, they should have called it ‘A New Hope’, given how much it borrows from Star Wars… not to mention Alien Mine, the BSG episode when Starbuck is marooned, and even Doctor Who! For all that, though, this season is all the better for borrowing from sci-fi that still has some credibility. If you recall, season 2 really lost its way… in so many, many ways. Spock was lost, the actors were lost most of the time, and the majority of it certainly left me at a loss… and bereft, too.
Season 3, sensibly, is a complete and utter departure from the universe that originally birthed it. Burnham (still painfully over-acting and emoting – she was meant to have been raised as a Vulcan, believe it or not, not that you’d ever know it from the way she’s constantly booing her eyes out) is propelled a thousand years into the future, along with the Discovery. Except Burnham hits a ship in the wormhole, crash lands on a nearby planet and loses all contact with the ship. Now, the whole series seems to be about her discovering the Discovery again! So it threatens to be the Burnham show throughout. Yikes. Remember your strengths Star Trek! It’s an ensemble show. Burnham is too annoying on her own to carry things!
Anyway, in the future, we learn, the Federation no longer exists. Gasp. Cue sobbing. You see, the Burn happened, during which all dilithium became unstable, or something like that, destroying all star ships in the universe! Ooops. So we’re in a post-apocalyptic junkyard future like Star Wars. Honestly, it’s so Tantooine it’s ridiculous. Still Burnham then sets about improvising a new crew for herself, based on people she meets along the way, like the cowardly lion, the tin man, the scarecrow, an animal whisperer called Book, a maine coon cat called Grudge (he COMPLETELY steals the show) and a Federation wannabe called Mr. Sahil.
This show isn’t perfect, and it does a bit of shameless flag flying at the end of the episode… but it’s timing feels right, as the US election nears and COVID closes in around us. Hope is exactly what we need. Well played, Discovery!
Guest review supplied by Nadine West @andiekarenina…
Let me be clear: I absolutely love the individual members of the cast and crew of Star Trek: Discovery. During Season 1, I was obsessed with “After Trek”, the Netflix banter-with-the-stars show that was available to watch once the episode of the week had aired, because Sonequa Martin Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp et al were just all so darned adorable. Their respect and love for each other shines through, and the showrunners have made sterling efforts to craft a piece of popular science fiction that embraces diversity with true Trekkian IDIC fervour. I would squeeze every man, woman and tardigrade involved in the series, make them mojitos and cupcakes, and have their babies.
And yet. And yet. There is a big problem, and the problem is that now, at the end of Season 2, I am so unbelievably sick of this ponderous first person Star Trek that I could scream.
Let me explain. Just in case you don’t know, the designations of first and third person come from prose fiction: first person means a narrator who tells the story as “I”, like in Jane Eyre or To Kill a Mockingbird, and third person is where no one character is speaking, where the author can move more fluidly around the stories of the characters, who are “he/she”, like in Of Mice and Men or Harry Potter. First person means you’re deep inside one head, seeing only what that person sees, and you’re also a bit stuck there…and you begin to see my drift. I am so sick to the back teeth of being stuck in Michael Burnham’s head that I want to smash my way out of her fictional skull with a claw hammer and experience anything, ANYTHING, beyond her frame of reference.
Now I know Trek has always had central characters. Yes, there were more Spock episodes than Sulu episodes, more Picard episodes than Geordi LaForge episodes. And yes, there was a point at which the Voyager writers’ room forgot that any character except Seven of Nine existed, but I blame that on the hip-to-waist ratio hypnotism effect and forgive them. But broadly speaking, all previous Trek series have been confidently, vibrantly third person storytelling which allows us to see a full spectrum of characters’ lives – both those in our regular crew AND those we meet along the way. Some token examples amongst so many: in TNG, we saw more minor characters like Deanna Troi drive many episodes, delved into her complex relationship with her mother (all hail Lwaxana!) and even saw her involved with complex storylines like working undercover as a Romulan officer to aid Romulan defections (Face of the Enemy, TNG 6:14). In DS9, Quark, Dax et al drive several humorous and moving episodes: in Voyager, even the omni-tedious Tom Parris gets to be the star of his own Sliding Doors-style narrative in Non Sequitur, amongst many others. Even cameo characters – Joan Actual Collins, anyone? – are allowed room to grow and become firm fan favourites.
Let’s turn, then, to Season 2 of Discovery. If Season 1 was focused on Michael Burnham, then Season 2 developed a kind of Michael Burnham OCD which deformed everything else around it. Tilly’s genuinely interesting confidence growth arc? Sidelined. Ariam, a fascinating character with great story potential? Featured, corrupted, spaced and exploded in five minutes flat for dubious plot reasons. Stamets and Culber’s hideously painful reunion, separation and resolution? Nah, eight lines of dialogue across five episodes ought to do it
Stamets: Everything is super perfect now you’re back from the dead, golly gee.
Culber: I have seen too much. I am no longer the man you knew. We must break up.
Stamets: *sad eyes*
Culber: Now I shall have a fight with Tyler.
Stamets: *sad eyes*
Culber: I shall now go and work on the Enterprise for reasons.
Stamets: *sad eyes, melancholy astrophysics*
Culber: PSYCH! I shall stay with you now you are injured and we might die, love puppy.
Stamets: K. I’m very bleeding. I miss my spore drive.
I exaggerate. But honestly not by much. The writers clearly also have no idea what to do with Jet Reno, my actual favourite new Trek character in eons, so they just give her two lines of “generic acerbic lesbian bantz” every three episodes. As for everyone else on the bridge who’s not Saru, you would have to google their names before you could discuss them. Don’t pretend to me. You refer to her as “redhead who looks a bit like Willow from Buffy with the face-thing” too. Indeed, at the end of Season 2, Admiral Cornwell (Who? The one who’s been hanging around without much to do who isn’t Michelle Yeoh, that’s who) is summarily exploded by a photon torpedo in what is clearly intended to be a heart-rending moment…but since we know next to nothing about her, we simply go “eh, torpedoes” and shrug, before flashing back to yet another endless scene of Michael and Spock droning on about their feelings.
And droning feels like the operative work here: S2 Discovery was remarkably one-note from start to finish, because it abandoned episode variation in favour of through-arc. There’s no room for more light-hearted, positive, even fun episodes here, when everything is wall-to-wall Vulcan childhood trauma and looming apocalypse. (Sidebar: tv writers? Enough apocalypse already, guys. Seriously. Umbrella Academy, Sabrina, Thrones, Disco and sundry others – make us genuinely care about saving ONE life. I promise you faithfully that it will be more emotionally powerful than all your “oooh the world nearly ended but it didn’t” shenanigans, however much brass-and-string music you wheel out. Wrath of Khan, guys. Joyce on Buffy. Re-watch and learn.)
By far my favourite episode of this series was the most traditional Star Trek episode of them all, New Eden, closely followed by the next most traditional, Sounds of Thunder. In New Eden, the crew discover a human civilisation on a remote planet, living in prelapsarian harmony; our crew must wrestle with the dilemma of whether to leave them in their innocence or to tell them the truth some of them half suspect – that they belong to an advanced and intergalactic species. In Sounds of Thunder, we meet Saru’s species and their eternal enemies, the Ba’ul, and our preconceptions of the history between these two races are skilfully and enjoyably subverted. These two episodes stand out because they are the best of Trek: outward looking, full of the spirit of – ironically – discovery, and focused on exploring the universe and the moral dilemmas that arise as we learn more. In both of these episodes, I genuinely cheered at the intelligent writing and plotting that took me out of Michael bloody Burnham’s endless psychodrama and into the starry galaxy instead.
Perhaps next season, with the confirmation of a new showrunner and the option to re-boot a little, Discovery will begin to find its feet and its wider horizons. I’m sceptical, but I’m a Star Trek fan, so I live in hope.
Good episode, this one. We learn that Airiam was a normal Starfleet officer who was in a horrible shuttle crash: her husband died and she could only survive as a cyborg; and every night she has to decide which memories to delete because of her limited capacity. There is a moral dilemma here, as in many ways she doesn’t wanna hang on to the painful memories, even though they define her. It makes her an intriguing and compelling character from the get-go. She is lonely and only has emotional input from playing various parlour games with others – without a human body, her social options are entirely limited. It makes her a tragic figure really, and this is the main interest of the episode.
It starts poorly. The female admiral (Cornwell) arrives on the Disco to give us all the exposition and scenario we need for this episode. Sigh. Bad writing. And SPOILERS straight from the beginning. Very bad writing. We are told we have to get to the HQ of Section 31, known as ‘Control’, which is the superbrain of Starfleet. The thinking is Control has lost control to ‘logic extremists’ (Vulcan terrorists). Meanwhile, Airiam’s eyes go red every now and then, due to the alien infection she got several episodes back.
We get to Control, Burnham and Spock having an argument about the pros and cons of logic along the way (vaguely relevant, but also fairly contrived). Airiam continues to act suspiciously – she doesn’t even trust herself – and nor does Commander Nhan – not that either of them bother to flag it up to anyone in a position to stop her.
The away-team (containing Burnham, Airiam and Nhan, OF COURSE) arrives in Control. It’s a mess. There’s a showdown… and it actually works. It’s emotional and tragic. And we pretty much save the universe from ‘the extinction of all sentient life’. Phew, that’s alright then.
But this episode works overall. There are decent themes about the nature of being, artificial intelligence and sentience. Worth a look.
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.]
So, Star Trek Discovery’s second season has started! Captain Pike comes aboard the Discovery and promptly commandeers it. His own ship (The Enterprise, of course) has been damaged and Pike needs a ship to complete a secret mission from Starfleet, to find out why seven red energy bursts have occurred across the solar system.
Pike brings his Science Officer with him… but it isn’t Spock! Where’s Spock, Michael Burnham (Spock’s estranged half brother) wonders. Indeed, the episode is entitled ‘Brother’, so we’re all wondering where Spock is. We get some tantalising flashback memories of the young Spock from Burnham, but they don’t tell us much.
Yet the episode pursues the red energy bursts instead of the Spock question. Fair enough, especially as Pike brings some welcome ‘old Star Trek’ style and vibe with him. Indeed, the away-mission down onto the crazy asteroid at the centre of one of the red bursts feels like an episode from the classic series. Hurrah!
Sort of. Because of the debris field around the asteroid, Pike and co. have to take individual pods to the asteroid surface and it feels like nothing more than a Star WARS pod-race. The tech and reference is all wrong. Down on the asteroid is a wrecked medical vessel, where Engineer Denise Reno has been keeping brains in jars alive using weird necrogothic technology. It’s like something out of Alien or The Chronicles of Riddick. Again, it’s all wrong.
Anyway, the asteroid is made of some material promising to get the ol’ Stamets-super-jump tech working again, but safely this time, without any cute Tardigrades being hurt. Whatever. The main question, though, is where the hell is Spock?!
It’s not a bad opener at all. Lots of promise. It’s gonna struggle to deliver on soooo much promise… but you’ve gotta keep the faith, eh?