Star Trek Discovery Episode Five: Morality and Peak TV Poison the Well

There’s a lot of weight involved with the history of Star Trek. In part, this is why prequels to what is already a very fleshed-out universe can tend to be more divisive than previous iterations of Star Trek. We’re here, in the middle of the second prequel to The Original Series, and much like Enterprise earned the ire of fans throughout its historically-maligned run (it’s actually way better than anyone would give it credit for), Discovery is now sort of maddening.

I tend to stay away from reading TV bloggers because they tend to be infuriating. This idea of “peak TV” has turned television blogging into praising the same few, tired tropes that have proliferated their way into just about every “important” television show. It’s not that these things are exactly bad, it’s just that too much of the same thing can grow tiresome. When it comes to Star Trek, though, I’m not quite sure that the peak TV ideals work into the Star Trek universe, yet, here we are, with a “Peak TV” Star Trek and I guess that people sort of like it? But what I hear from a lot of other people that I know dig Star Trek is a resounding “meh, but it’s Star Trek, I guess.”

So here we are, episode five of Star Trek: Discovery and I’m just a blank slate. It happened and while I wasn’t super angry about it, I wasn’t super happy about it, either. This idea of a big, cohesive story arc sounded great in theory. Remember the great Star Trek story arcs? TNG had the Borg, DS9 had the Maquis, the Prophets, the Dominion, Voyager was just a big story arc and Enterprise had the Temporal Cold War and the Xindi. So a story arc isn’t exactly new to Star Trek, but there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. In a way, it’s suffocating. Star Trek being as focused as a short-run series doesn’t feel right. There’s always a focus on the characters, on the smaller, unaffiliated planets that Starfleet stumble upon and make contact with or have moral dilemmas over.

Morality plays a huge part in Star Trek and any attempt at morality here feels hamfisted and like the show is trying too hard to play into ambiguity or the idea of antiheroes without giving a reason to care about actual heroes. Everyone is fucking awful, nobody gets along or trusts each other and most of the characters feel like complete, selfish pieces of shit with only Michael being punished for doing something that wasn’t really her actual fault. The idea is supposed to be that Captain Lorca is morally ambiguous, perhaps a bit on the “darker” side of the spectrum, but it kinda doesn’t work? He doesn’t have moral dilemmas in his decisions, instead there are simply decisions made by Lorca and other members of the crew that, in the realm of Star Trek, should require a lot of thought, a lot of struggle and give us insight into these characters. Yet, there’s nothing.

There’s only really one character with any sort of moral compass, which is Michael, our protagonist. Even then, it feels hollow because the rest of the characters are just there, making their decisions and there has been zero repercussions, only minor mulling over of what’s happening. Everyone is at war and nobody seems to give a shit. Stamets is sort of having moral problems, but will very quickly cave in and doesn’t grapple with anything, but we know that he’s gay, which as a focus in Star Trek, seems weird. Because this isn’t new territory, it’s been established that humanity’s views on sexuality has come a long way. I’m not saying that having gay characters is bad, because it’s great, but the way it was presented here was a weird… backpat?

This weird morality stuff with Lorca ditching Harry Mudd in a Klingon prison ship just feels off for Star Trek. This is only ten years prior to TOS, and while the Federation didn’t exist yet and canonically, well, there probably isn’t a Prime Directive just yet (seriously it’s not clear when exactly it was implemented). Yet, since it is so damned close to TOS, we know that Starfleet puts its captains through intense scrutiny, that someone seemingly this mentally unfit to lead is a captain of an insanely expensive and important ship for Starfleet makes almost zero sense. This guy, who blew up his own damned ship and crew, it was revealed, for seemingly hilariously dumb reasons, was given another damned ship. He even gets dressed down by Starfleet in this episode!

I honestly don’t even care if this dude he rescued is a Klingon plant or whatever. Who cares? My god. At least they let their mushroom-tripping super predator that was actually pretty chill once he got stoned go. Can’t wait to see why this trippy mushroom drive ends up being scrapped and never mentioned again in Star Trek canon.