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.
So, Hugh has been reconstituted by the Mycelium Network, and he’s come back ‘pristine’, in a new body, without scars, fresh as a daisy and all overly muscled (he must have been killing time in the gym while waiting to be back on the show). He tells us many times that he ‘doesn’t feel like’ his old self. Typical for this series, we get the same theme repeated in the story arc of multiple other characters… Saru is acting all different now he’s lost his ganglia (willy parts that came out of his neck).
The repetition of themes in the stories of umpteen characters is a really wearing device now, and robs episodes of screen time, time which would be better devoted to constructing ONE decent storyline for each episode. It’s like the characters are fighting each other to get screen time – and maybe that’s down to the contracts the various actors have? Shame, cos it ruins plot development in the shows. And this episode is no exception, sadly.
Things open promisingly enough, with the new Saru all but challenging Captain Pike to a fight on the command deck of the Disco. It’s a good moment. The new Saru then accompanies Burnham down to Saru’s home world cos they reckon the Red Angel has recently appeared there. Saru promptly blows off the Prime Directive and declares to his sister that there’s a whole galaxy out there and that the Kelpians are being lied to and murdered by their overlords (the Ba’ul, very much like the Gao’uld in Stargate SG1, or like the creepy long-haired girl in The Ring, the Japanese horror movie). The Ba’ul realise everything’s a bust and decide to commit genocide against the Kelpians…
Things are looking tense. But then the Red Angel turns up, displays omnipotent power, disables the Ba’ul and saves the Kelpians. The End.
The ending just comes out of nowhere, with no logic at all. It’s a total deus ex machina and is totally anti-climactic. Shame.
Damn. Sigh. And so we search for Spock for yet another episode of poor writing and nonsense.
Hmm. Episode 5 is called ‘Saints of Imperfection’ and, indeed, there’s a lot of imperfection going on. Imperfection that involves nothing but contradiction and incoherence. And the characters aren’t ‘saints’ at all, cos they’re part and parcel of all the imperfection going on. The fundamental problem that started in the previous episode is that Burnham’s character is now so inconsistent it’s ridiculous. Burnham was meant to be all ‘Vulcan’, logical and dispassionate (as per the upbringing of her formative years), but suddenly she’s the most empathic person on the damn ship – more human than the humans. She mopes about, looking doleful and pained. She gazes mournfully at Ash Tyler (her true love who is denied to her), she looks tragic about her disfunctional relationship with Spock (who isn’t even there) and, unprompted, she turns up at Tilly’s quarters to engage in a weepy sob. Trust us, Burnham, it’s painful for us too. What are the writers playing at? Well, that’s it: they’re playing about. They tell us so as well, cos Georgiu says: ‘It’s much more fun [like this] than [having] this Vulcan stoicism.’ The writers reckon they can wring more jokes out of proceedings by having everybody emotional and chaotic, like Tilly. It’s very lazy writing. The writers have lost direction and, once again, they verbalise it during Burnham’s narrator reverie and summary at the end of the show: ‘If I have a path, I’m still searching for it. We all are. I envy those who can believe there’s a greater hand writing our story.’ Burnham actually says that! How self-indulgent are these writers getting? They’ve put their hands up and admitted they’ve let it all slip. Oooooops.
Where does it leave us? Back to flaming square one. All the characters that have died up till this episode are back, and they’re all fit and healthy. Georgiu (the annoyingly cryptic and creepy Michelle Yeoh, whom the producers have clearly hired for another season but aren’t really sure what to do with) stalks around wearing black and trying to find a narrative for herself. Then Stamets (whose grief had made him so interesting) has his old love and life restored to him. Ash Tyler is back on board, and for some non-reason he gets to stay, cos Captain Pine supernaturally seems to know this will cause hi-jinks in future episodes. And… whatever. (By the way, we all know Lorca’s gonna reappear too, right?) We needn’t have watched anything at all before this episode then? Because nothing has had any real or actual consequence? What’s the point then? WHAT are you doing, writers? No wonder Saru has nothing to say throughout the entire episode (despite having had such a transformative moment in the previous episode). He’s shocked into a horrified silence, probably glad he’s wearing so much prosthetic make-up so that we don’t see him cringing and wincing.
It’s a shame, cos the first half of the episode, set in the Mycelial Network, presents us with an intriguing scenario of ‘there’s a monster in the woods killing us one by one’. It taps into ancestral memories and fairy tales. It’s powerful. And the Tilly-May relationship is compellingly strange – an incipient interspecies lesbian relationship. But that scenario gets phallocentrically overtaken very quickly (by the Stamets-Hugh relationship) and it’s all put to bed before we have to see any actual physical intimacy (that’s where Hollywood draws the line, of course). AND THEN, the rest of the episode becomes this bizarre talking-heads exposition in which Pine, the Admiral and the head of Section 31 (Star Trek’s black ops division) witter nonsense about the never-ending pursuit of Spock and try to set up a political love-hate triangle amongst themselves, trying to give themselves characters and tense character relationships. ‘Enough of this manlier-than-thou bullsh+t!’ the Admiral castigates the other two… except neither of them have been acting in such a fashion. The Admiral tries to explain their characters to them. It’s like a writer’s meeting. Indeed, that’s what the entire episode is – confused writers talking to themselves about themselves, darlings. It’s so self-indulgent it’s nauseating. They seem to have entirely forgotten the audience is there. And, maybe, the audience won’t be there for very much longer. Buck up your ideas, please!
Once again I find myself wondering what Mr Dalton has been smoking, because he quite liked episode 4. Sure, there were some “themes” and stuff, but other than that episode 4 really struggled.
The episode title is An Obol for Charon. Charon is, of course, a reference to the mythical ferryman who carries the dead across the river Styx to the afterlife, an obol being the small unit of ancient Greek currency that the dead give him in payment. Based on this title you might think we’re going to have a discussion about death, one’s journey through life towards it and one’s legacy. These things are mentioned, certainly, but the episode isn’t about any of that. Nope, it’s about the pointless pursuit of Spock. Again. Everything else happens in the few minutes that are not devoted to this endless quest. As a result, the scenes dealing with these enormous and worthy topics are rushed past our eyes so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss them, all so we can get back to The Quest for Spock.
You know Spock, right? He’s the guy this show is all about, but whom we have yet to actually meet! Instead of Spock we have met Spock’s dad, Spock’s mum, Spock’s retcon adopted sister, the Mary Sue engineer Jett Reno, the red shirt science officer Connolly, a blob of sentient fungus (!) and this week’s comic relief. The comic relief’s name is Linus, which rhymes with “sinus” because, you know, that’s funny. And he makes a point of telling us he has six nasal canals which, you know, makes the fact that he sneezed on Connolly in episode 1 funnier, right?
You didn’t laugh?
Cool. Neither did I.
So, basically, Linus is the kind of alien a five-year-old would invent. And it gets worse because in this episode he doesn’t even get any characterisation. He’s just a plot device whose purpose is to remind the viewer that there is a thing called the Universal Translator and that, occassionally, it gets something wrong and doesn’t translate him, correctly.
This primes us for when Discovery, in pursuit of Spock’s shuttle, crosses paths with an object referred to only as The Sphere. This is actually one of the better opportunities this show has created to demonstrate its credentials as Star Trek. Our intrepid crew encounters a mysterious and powerful alien presence in deep space. At first, it seems to be a strange natural phenomenon until our heroes realise it’s organic and reacting to their presence. They conclude that it’s hostile and are about to retaliate. But they realise that their own limited human perceptions are colouring their judgement and that, to truly understand the unknown they must embrace the possibility of intelligences and motives that are not human. And thus, they perceive the alien’s actions in a new light, deduce its motives, come to an understanding of themselves within the context of the universe, and gain a measure of enlightenment. End credits. Job done. Star Trek, in the bag. Grumpy review transformed into Glowing review! Hurrah!
But the moment passed because there’s no time for any of this Trek stuff. We’ve got to find Spock! (Imagine me saying that as a small child having a tantrum, bouncing up and down, waving my tiny fists and going red in the face.) Stop doing that interesting stuff! We’ve got to find Spock!
And thus, this Grumpy review was born, instead.
Anyway, having been flagged up by Linus as a dodgy piece of kit, the Universal Translator promptly malfunctions and starts translating everything everyone says, and everything displayed on screens, into random languages, 90% of which are recognisably human, with only one alien language…
Hmm, maybe the Federation has more in common with the Terran Empire than we first thought… but that’s the subject of another essay…
Meanwhile, the UT problem quickly renders the ship and crew helpless.
I like this idea; as far as I know, the UT has never failed quite so spectacularly on any other Star Trek show, before. Sure, there have been minor glitches, but in general this dictionary definition of the “plot device” has not received the attention it deserves, possibly until now. I especially liked the fact that the glitch affected all the computer displays in a very logical and believable extension of the UT’s function aboard the ship as a fundamentally important technology.
So, what’s the answer? Turn if off and on again, of course! But even as they do this, it turns out that Saru is dying. Quite quickly. In fact, he only started to feel symptoms that morning, but they’ve worsened now to the point where he’s convinced he’s suffering a terminal condition unique to his species, and one that is irreversible… Yeah, you know what’s coming. I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing it out.
Unlike Michael Burnham! There is hardly anything that happens in this episode that doesn’t get called out, pointed at and described in detail by Burnham for our benefit. For some reason, An Obol for Charon treats us like utter morons with no ability to recognise important moments or powerful emotions without Michael Burnham pointing at them and yelling into our faces that This Is Important, or You Should Feel Sad Now!
I swear, I was ready to push her out of an airlock.
If Discovery has one problem, it’s that it suffers from a phenomenon often observed in amateur authors who have yet to learn the subtleties of their craft. Amateur authors have a tendency to tell you, the reader, everything they think you need to know. It’s referred to as “author voice” because it’s like the author is leaning down over your shoulder and whispering into your ear as you read. “You should feel sad, now,” the author says, “because Saru is dying. That’s really sad. Be sad.”
What good authors do can be summarised fairly simply as show, don’t tell. Build a character by letting us watch him, struggle with him, cry with him, love with him, aspire with him. Then kill him. Do it simply. No fuss. We’ll bring the pain to the scene. You don’t need to tell us.
My god, the Discovery team really need to take this lesson on board. For example, Saru’s not-death scene could have been classy and respectable, but it was full of Burnham’s big puppy dog eyes (you know, for a kid raised on Vulcan, she’s very quick to tear up). And the moment the knife appeared I had a flashback to the TNG season 5 episode “Ethics” in which Worf, paralysed, asks Riker to help him commit suicide. That is one of the finest TNG episodes ever written, with a very good scene between Worf and Riker, one in which respect for the audience is not sacrificed on the altar of emotional sensationalism and badly directed over-acting. Unlike Saru’s not-death scene.
Show, don’t tell.
But Saru’s death scene did show me something I really liked. Saru’s quarters! Very cool. Especially the mossy mound he uses as a bed. It actually looks very comfortable.
Unfortunately, Saru with his shirt off looks exactly like an actor wearing a body prosthetic that looks exactly like what it is: a lump of latex. It also made Saru look far more muscular than he normally appears in his uniform. My first thought was when did Saru get so buff?
Burnham isn’t the only one who lectures the audience. The Mary Sue engineer Jett Reno turns up in Stametz’s “greenhouse” to annoy Stametz. She provokes him into a proper nerd rant by dissing his pet fungus project, which results in a lengthy lecture on environmentalism and its fictional future history leading up to Discovery’s present day. Unfortunately, this is another example of Discovery laying it on thick: another “author voice” problem. Since season 1 the idea that the damage the spore drive does to the mycelial network is an analogy for the damage we, in the present day, are doing to Earth through our use of fossil fuels, has been made painfully obvious. And I mean painfully.
We get it. Thank you. Please tone it down. It’s interferring with the story telling!
But Reno’s arrival in the greenhouse did, ultimately, lead to one of the more amusing scenes, when the sentient fungus known as May (no, not Theresa, although you’d be forgiven for making that mistake) released some sort of hallucinogenic airborne dust that got Reno and Stametz high long enough for May to swallow, engulf, or otherwise bodysnatch Tilly. That was funny. And it was refreshing to see two professionals behaving professionally to solve problems, instead of getting fixated on Spock (looking at you, Pike) or growing big wet puppy dog eyes (Burnham, just grow up).
Right at the end, we finally return to some sort of discussion of the central theme of the episode that is referenced in the title, but was quickly side tracked; that of how we approach death and what legacy we leave behind. Saru contemplates the fact that he has lived through a life stage that his people have always assumed was terminal, and that he has now shed his ganglia, the physical incarnation of his fear. However, he does not conclude that his death cycle was artificially stimulated by the weird emissions of the Sphere (whose weird emissions also nearly wrecked the ship, so they were pretty powerful). No, instead he gets all metaphysical and concludes that the “central organising belief” of his people must be wrong.
Ok, now what is Saru smoking?
He claims that he no longer feels fear, and that as a result he feels liberated and at the same time, has come to the realisation that his people’s beliefs, which lead them to sacrifice themselves as food to more powerful beings, are wrong.
Say that you have an accident and lose your sense of smell. Now, being unable to perceive scent, you sit in your hospital bed and conclude that the idea of smell is all a lie, and that the rest of humanity are somehow being conned into believing they can smell things like food and flowers, so that they will buy pastries and bouquets from powerful beings called chefs and gardeners.
None of this makes sense, and it’s obvious why: because it doesn’t have to. You, the audience, are just required to go along with it so that the writers can execute their Big Plan for Saru.
What’s the plan? He’s going home to liberate his people. And the writers need to set him up with the power to do this, which involves divesting him of the physiological restraints that inhibit the rest of his race, and gifting him some sort of insight that will motivate him to lead the struggle for freedom from… whatever they’re called. I don’t know how to spell the name of these predators, as Saru describes them. Bow Uhl? I’m tempted to call them Bow Wows. With the waggy tails. Who like to nom on Kelp biscuits…
You see what I’m getting at. It’s all contrived. I’ve used that word several times to describe the plot lines we’ve seen so far in season 2. We can add contrived to author voice and show, don’t tell on the list of writing sins that Discovery commits. And at the top of this list is the biggest one. Story. You see, a good story tells itself. You just have to plug in a plot, which is just a sequence of related events, add a few characters, put a title on the page and do a spell check. There are two hard parts to writing: dreaming up a good story, and sitting down and making yourself write it out. Everything else is almost procedural, so long as you have a good story.
Good stories tell themselves. And this story doesn’t. We know this because the writers are forcing it, which results in all the flaws just described. And this episode is the very worst example yet… and we’re only four episodes in…
Put it this way: I’d pay Charon a million bloody obols to avoid having to watch this episode ever again.
And now, some really stupid things that happened, or were said, which made me stop and go WTF?
THE DOCTOR: upon examining Saru, “The pain would render the average humanoid unconscious.”
I don’t even know where to begin. This is one of the most unintelligent lines I’ve ever heard on Star Trek. If you want to say that Saru is suffering but that he’s really stoical about it, and is an all round ace dude who can deal with hard stuff with composure and dignity, well… you don’t have to! We know! We see it in his character and his actions! That’s the whole “show, don’t tell” thing! That’s why Saru is the most popular character on this show!
An adult human being wrote that line, and got paid for it. Jeez…
LOCATION: Sick bay. Two senior bridge officers (Burnham and Pike) are covered in fresh blood from a large open torso wound which they are ineffectually trying to bandage, whilst simultaneously debating the nature of the alien sphere. Meanwhile, the casualty writhes on the bed, apparently dying judging by the quantity of blood that is pouring out. As this happens, the doctor is waving a glowy thing over the casualty’s forehead. Over his forehead. Not his exploding chest wound. No, she leaves the sticky bit to the two unqualified officers, instead. And yet we have very clearly seen several other medical personnel in the background in the previous scene.
And if you think any of that makes sense, I want to know what you’re smoking, because dat’s some good shit!
LOCATION: A science lab, in which Burnham and Saru and examining sensor data from the Sphere. Burnham gets all frosty and tight-lipped. Saru notices, despite the fact that he’s in pain and dying. Yes, the dying man notices that Burnham is not happy. Poor Burnham. Poor healthy, not-dying Burnham.
SARU: “You are wondering why I kept this from you.”
(Why? Because he’s only known himself for a matter of minutes!)
BURNHAM: “You don’t have to bear it alone.”
(She says this as if he had known about it for years. He’s had a vague suspicion since breakfast, and only confirmed it at around lunch time!)
This strikes me as exactly what it is: contrived and artificial. Someone really wanted to write this kind of emotional dialogue between them, but the plot didn’t call for it. So what the hell, they stuck it in anyway!
BURNHAM emotes all the way through the episode, oozing like a wet sponge, telling us things which are obvious and do not need to be spelled out to us as though we were stupid.
BURNHAM to SARU, with big, wet puppy dog eyes: “You are the most empathic soul I have ever met.”
(No shit. He took time out from dying on his feet to notice that you were all tight-lipped and pissy that he didn’t spot his terminal condition ten seconds earlier and rush to tell you.)
BURNHAM to us, the AUDIENCE, after the Sphere finally explodes and dies, but somehow preserves the ship from the blast: “It’s final act was to save us so we could tell its story.”
(Duh! Kinda got that point from all the huge hints and clues and other statements of the obvious that preceded your statement of the obvious. This is just one level up from the doctor’s idiot remark in sickbay. Well done.)
It’s also a straight rip off from the TNG season 3 episode, Tin Man. Star Trek: Discovery, boldly re-discovering plot lines that Star Trek has used, before!
[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.]
We continue to hunt for Spock – Captain Pike’s former Number One (who is gratuitously beautiful and flirtatious) giving us enough info to set us off in pursuit of Spock’s fleeing craft. En route to intercept Spock, however, the Enterprise is caught in a multiphasic stasis field by an ominous planetoid. Yay! It’s just like the scenario of an episode of the classic series.
The Enterprise’s systems are infected by some sort of virus, with hilarious universal-translator consequences… At the same time, the cold-virus that an alien member of Pike’s crew displayed two episodes ago infects other crew members, with some scary implications… And the bio-organism extracted from Tilly in the previous episode breaks free to take possession of people…
As you can see, this episode is layered. The themes of infection, possession, mutation and evolution are played out in various ways, all becoming metaphorically symbolic of a ‘bigger’ idea, a philosophical idea concerning birth, life, death and rebirth. It’s an intelligent way of presenting such themes without becoming dogmatic or expository. It makes episode 4 a very GOOD episode.
It was a pleasure watching this episode. It’s nuanced, tender and poignant. It offers some proper problem-solving that doesn’t rely on mummery and meaningless explanation: rather, the ‘problems’ are as emotional and moral as they are practical; so the problems are representative of personal challenges and the opportunity for genuine character growth. Heavens above! Genuine character development? Of characters we already care about? Whatever next? In all respects (technical, creative and metaphorical) then, this episode is a tour de force and a must-watch. Miss this one and there’ll be a real gap in your understanding in later episodes. Hurrah!
‘Point of Light’ was an episode of two halves in which one half was compelling and very watchable and the other was, basically, a waste of time. I’ll get to the good bits, but first a brief rundown of the useless part.
We open with Burnham trying, once more, as she has tried in both episodes 1 and 2, to interest us in these red lights and in the connection between the red lights and Spock, and in the connection between Spock and Burnham, and how the connection between Spock and Burnham might be related to the red lights… oh God, please stop. We do not care about twinkly little red plot devices in the sky whose only purpose is to be an excuse for two things. These things are, one: to give Pike the authority to reactivate the Spore Drive despite the harm this does to Stametz, and two: to give Discovery an excuse to go places and do things when it gets there.
Really… so far, that’s all the red lights have been good for. Plot devices.
And Spock? Well, he’s just another plot device, and a really bad one, too.
But enough of that! Ash Tyler has a beard, and he’s L’Rell’s new Torch Bearer. He’s also up to his nostrils in a very Shakespearian story set within the halls of power at the top of Klingon society, where there is forbidden love, assassination, intrigue and heart-wrenching sacrifice. It’s all good stuff. It comprises most of the watchable and interesting scenes in this episode.
And we get to see a proper D7 cruiser! At last! An actual proper Klingon ship from Star Trek, not the eccentric collection of weird designs that we got in Season 1. Some of those looked like electric guitars that had been melted a bit. Compare that to the D7, which has bags of personality, most of which is staring down a barrel pointed right between your eyes. It’s a very welcome addition to the show.
As if all that wasn’t enough, we also got Emperor… sorry, Captain Georgiou who has become a Section 31 badass. This is almost a sour note in the Klingon half of the episode because Georgiou is almost too badass, too well-equipped and too powerful, easily defeating a gang of tooled-up, alert Klingons with some very fancy technology. But as that’s pretty much the only sour note in the Klingon half, it’s forgivable compared to the dross we get elsewhere.
And it means we get more Georgiou!
Not only does Tyler have a beard, he also has a little albino kid! Apparently Voq got L’Rell in the family way before he was modified into a human. But this doesn’t help us to resolve the essential problem with the Voq/Tyler character, which is trying to figure out if the individual in front of us was born Voq, or born Ash Tyler.
In other words, does the physical body in front of us have Klingon sperm or human sperm?
One suspects the writers of both seasons haven’t been able to make up their minds about what he really is. It looks like they’re just keeping it vague and rolling with it. And maybe they’re right: maybe it really doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s actually turned into a brilliant metaphor for the confusion Tyler feels about himself, because it seems as though he doesn’t know what his sperm looks like, either!
Overall, this half of the episode earns a wow. It’s disappointing that the albino child was so quickly written out of the show, being sent to a monastery from which he will never return. But other than that, we got Shakespearian plotting, a D7 cruiser and Georgiou. If ‘Point of Light’ was nothing else but this, it would get a big thumbs up right now and a Glowing review, instead of a Grumpy one. But alas, there’s the other half with its red lights and some dude called Spock and the increasingly illogical Burnham and… yes, sorry, we have to go there.
Spock. They evoke his name as though it’s somehow powerful, as though the enormous weight of canonical history that surrounds the character originally played by Leonard Nimoy will immediately cascade over us like an emotional waterfall and instantly infuse us with a burning fascination to learn more about what is happening to Spock!
But this is episode 3 of Star Trek: Discovery, a brand new iteration of the franchise and, in almost every respect, a retcon of the original timeline that Spock was popularised within. In this context, we’ve never known Spock. Actually, we already expect that we won’t because we know he’ll be younger and played by a different actor. He’s just an empty name. We don’t care about this character BECAUSE WE’VE NEVER MET HIM.
Contrast this with the continuing trials and tribulations of Ensign Tilly who, this week, is plagued by a hallucination that is apparently trying to ruin her career. We care about this, and we root for Tilly, willing her to find a solution to this problem. We give a damn about Tilly BECAUSE WE’VE MET HER. We’ve watched her strive and suffer and cry, and stand up against injustice, and risk her life for her friends and a mission she believes in. She’s real to us. Spock isn’t. We don’t care about Spock. We have no reason to.
And all Burnham does is constantly talk about how important Spock is. Well, if he’s so damn important, let’s meet him! And for a brief moment, episode 3 lets us think that we are about to finally see the man of mystery in the flesh!
But no. Instead we get his mother.
We get Amanda, human wife of Sarek, and finally some insight into Spock’s particular problem with his family. It appears to be two-fold. Amanda, conscious that Vulcan children were supposed to grow up as cold automatons, starved him of love and yet, equally conscious of Burnham’s traumatic past and the difficulties of being an emotional human child in a land of emotionless, super-intelligent space elves, lavished it on Burnham. Spock’s human-half saw his mother spoiling his unwanted step-sister and silently burned.
This all comes to light in a confession from Amanda who’s been carrying the burden of guilt for damaging her son’s human half. But she leaves the room angry at her daughter, instead, when Burnham admits to doing something to Spock so terrible that he essentially cut Burnham off for life.
Why did Burnham wound Spock? Well, bear with me because this makes no sense. Apparently, Burnham did this terrible thing to protect him from the attentions of so-called Logic Extremists. We’ve only heard of these people in passing remarks from Sarek, but we’re supposed to regard them as the Vulcan equivalent of Taliban. Apparently Spock would be a target for them if they knew he was close to his sister. But if he was estranged from Burnham, then apparently they wouldn’t regard him as a target. You know, not because it was Spock’s father Sarek who brought Burnham to Vulcan, or married a human. They wouldn’t target him because of Sarek, from whom Spock is not estranged. No, of course not… and anyway, how the hell did teenage Burnham know all this when Spock didn’t?
This makes so little sense that it is actually giving me a headache.
Anyway, Burnham basically hurt Spock’s feelings so that he would go away and stop emailing her, or whatever. And thus be safe from being targeted (whatever that actually means).
Here’s a thought: why couldn’t Burnham just talk to Spock at the time. Aren’t Vulcan kids supposed to be incredibly clever and rational, far more so than other species’ children of the same age? Why couldn’t Burnham and Spock secretly agree to behave in public like they hate each other, so as to fool the extremists? Why?
It’s all so horribly contrived. The writer may as well hold up signs saying “Care about this. It’s important, but don’t ask why. Just care, because otherwise my shitty writing won’t make sense.” But I don’t think it’s the writer’s fault, because the Klingon half was solid. I think the Spock and red lights story arc is, in fact, a constraint on the writers of this show; something that’s been imposed from above. There’s a wall full of post-it notes in the writers’ room and the post-it notes must be obeyed, and if they say thou shalt meet Amanda, not Spock, in episode 3, and get a load of tedious monologue as a result, then that’s what you’ll get. But if you do that you can write Klingons for the rest of the episode. First do your homework, then you can play.
The writer’s name is Andrew Colville, by the way. Because credit where it’s due, the Klingon stuff was cool. The director was Olatunde Osunsanmi whose work I don’t know, but I’m happy to report that he clearly doesn’t subscribe to the Alex Kurtzman school of cinematography, which is to say we got lots of story and were not blinded by mindless action and death (here’s to you, Science Officer Connolly).
Let’s finish on some good stuff.
Pike remains solid. He generally comes across as a perfectly safe pair of hands whom his crew can trust, and who has a brain and can use it. We have no reason to resent him for chair-blocking Saru. Pike is also able to accurately summarise the plot, which he does during a conversation, in a way that Burnham failed to during the intro, which begs the question: why is Pike easier to write for?
And then there’s Tilly, yay! (You’ve just go to say yay when you talk about Tilly). This part was quite good, too. Her hallucinations are brilliantly resolved within the context of the show’s established canon and by the end of the episode, we have an actual mystery that we can get our teeth into; one that know something about, that will have consequences for characters we already know and love (unlike Spock) and is a mystery we can speculate about based on past events and existing knowledge… none of which applies to twinkly red lights. Or Spock.
[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, Tilly is seeing a dead friend from her school-days. Spock’s mum explains at length about Spock’s half-Vulcan/half-human psychological disorientation (stuff we all know very well). Ash, down on the Klingon homeworld, is going through his whole I’m Volk-the-Klingon in the body of the human Ash Tyler confusion. And Burnham is hallucinating red angels and crying about it – actually crying, even though we’ve seen her go through hell and highwater in season 1 without shedding a single tear! Okay, okay, we get the theme of duality and self-doubt already! Do you really need to belabour it so damn self-indulgently? Stop whining about your anxiety already.
The main problem though is that with so many split personalities needing ‘resolution’, the 50-min episode really doesn’t have time for us to go through the crisis and dramatic symbolic/psychological progression for each character. So what do we get instead? We get a big block of exposition or an immediate explanation and solution for the ‘problem’. The closest we get to an actual plot-line is down on the Klingon homeworld, where all sorts of politics are going on. Yet, we expect Ash to prove his worth and save the day… except that all gets fudged and we get an awful deus ex machina moment of salvation… with a character who’s already died at least twice and really shouldn’t exist anymore (except they’re a big star and the series doesn’t wanna waste them).
In summary, then, we only stay engaged because we have learnt to care about these characters in previous episodes. We give the episode leeway and tolerance. But, honestly, it’s a really duff episode (that’s me being polite). A critic friend of mine called it a ‘process episode’, which means it dumps a load of info on us so that we will understand/enjoy the drama and action of upcoming episodes. Fair enough. But it’s sooooooo clumsily done. Oh well. Onwards!