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Star Trek Discovery Episode Six: Bound to the Past, Shackled to Canon

At times it feels like a broken record when it comes to the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise. The show isn’t horrible, but isn’t great, either, and it’s hard to tell if it’s just a good sci-fi show being held back by years of a franchise, canon and expectations on its shoulders or if it’s just a bad Star Trek show. Voyager and Enterprise had notoriously bad starts, but were able to salvage their respective shows by trudging forward, learning from their mistakes and investing in their characters more.

The news broke that Star Trek: Discovery was picked up for a second season and there’s still a question of if they’ll stick to the “anthology” style that was originally proposed to telling different stories about different crews or if we’ll stick with Michael, Lorca and everyone else that we can’t remember their names because they aren’t distinctive characters just yet. This episode didn’t really bug me as much as past ones, which is either the show beating me down and lowering my expectations or them slowly learning that Star Trek as a focused arc is kind of dull and doesn’t work if you have no emotional attachment to your characters while dragging a story out for 15 episodes. This isn’t a movie where the pacing is supposed to be quick. The first two episodes served as a de facto film to bring us into the time of Discovery, but the idea of the focused arc still doesn’t really make sense.

This episode could mostly stand alone, which makes it feel a bit more like a traditional Star Trek episode than most of the rest. The focus was on Burnham’s relationship to Spock’s dad, Sarek, who went on a diplomatic mission to negotiate with the Klingons but was the victim of Vulcan extremist terrorism (the fuck?) because he has a human wife, a half-breed son and, apparently, an adopted human daughter.

The biggest annoyance here is that Spock’s absence is felt because they mention Spock and he becomes an integral part of the plot between Sarek and Burnham. It feels cheap, much like using Sarek at all. The closer you hold this plotline and Sarek’s relationship with Burnham to scrutiny, the more it falls apart, though. That’s a problem. When it was initially established it was weird, but forgettable. But now they’ve really gone all-in on Sarek being not just a caretaker or observer, but her adoptive father and you get the full spectrum of it on display here. The gaping plot hole is that Spock, a character that is so well-established, as were his problems with his father, somehow never mentions that an integral part of his growing up was having an adopted human sister who was the first known mutineer in Starfleet history. She started the fucking Klingon War!

It feels like an odd and huge thing to happen in the Star Trek continuity to never come up again. While I understand the need to work in characters from The Original Series like Harry Mudd, bringing in Sarek and making him this important just outlines how ludicrous this all is. Michael Burnham is goddamned infamous to Starfleet, as she should be. She’s toxic and while she may go on to redeem herself here and make herself a legend (duh), there’s still the fact that this never came up afterwards that leaves this all feel hackneyed and forced.

Like I said, this episode wasn’t really awful. This wasn’t one of those JJ Abrams-style shoot-em-ups without any Star Trek in it. There was Stark Trek in this episode, it’s just that the Star Trek wasn’t exactly done well. What’s worse is it feels like this team in charge of the show does love Star Trek and is trying, they’re just bogged down by the restraints of being stuck in a strange place, canonically, with their hands bound. They’re always gonna fuck something up, they’re always gonna get something wrong. Why not just set it post-Voyager and let people who love Star Trek do Star Trek right?

I want to love this, but it’s just not easy. Side note here, though: they’re really repeating a lot of stuff, huh? Like, is Lorca’s tribble gonna hate this new guy or what?

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.

Star Trek Discovery: Episode Four, or, Who Really Cares About Anything?

Imagine a place, a comfortable place that you feel safe in. Perhaps it’s somewhere from your childhood, the kind of place that you ran away to when things got complicated, or you were confused. This is the kind of place where you could always go to and know that you could be you, without worrying about what anyone else had to think about you, without that crushing responsibility or judgement that has grown to define your very existence. Maybe you have this place as an adult, or maybe it existed at some other, pivotal time in your life.

Even if this place was imaginary, it exists and is a powerful image that cannot be erased.

Now imagine something else, something doing its best to conjure up these images, but doing so without the same intent, thoughtfulness or weight. This something is trying to manipulate you, to draw you into this ideal of yours, but the not to comfort or remind you of a time when life was going your way. Oh no. Instead, what’s happening is these images are being conjured, distorted and broadcast because someone was told that this would be a good idea. These images exist, right? These vivid, ultra-lucid memories have such profound meaning for us that it’s a virtual slam-dunk to remind us of these images, even if the substance isn’t there.

Let’s take this a step further, and place these images on a platform, one that functions on a level that tries to beam the refuse that is “Young Sheldon” into your mind in a BAZINGA haze. There’s no point to any of this, none of these images, the platform or anything else have a lick of meaning other than to remind you that at one time you liked something and that a part of you wants to like something again, even though it’s a cheap facsimile: a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, just with the lines redrawn on each time bolder and more pronounced to cover up the degradation that occurred through each sad iteration.

There’s absolutely no reason to care, outside of an insignia, a title and a promise, yet you are drawn to it because that promise is so strong. That good faith is a folly, because through four, painstakingly mediocre hour-long stretches (which could’ve been shorter if the platform wasn’t beaming periodic intermissions that froze the whole fucking thing) there’s been nothing, absolutely nothing worth a damn, not a single character, plot twist, gizmo or bit of nostalgia. Just simulacra. Just a sad stab in the dark without a rhyme or reason beyond market research and a desire to do something — anything — with an age old franchise but to drag it through the chaparral while on fire because these images have been burnt into our minds, these memories have formed bonds that can be exploited and only a fool would pay $7.99 a month to watch a fading fucking reminder of who we used to be.

Star Trek Discovery Episode Three Was… Not Terrible

So last week I went in pretty hard on Star Trek: Discovery. For good reason, though: it didn’t quite feel like Star Trek. If you aren’t big into Star Trek that’s going to seem like a strange statement because, well, it’s Star Trek and it’s nerdy.

Truthfully, I had planned to write more last night about it, but then Las Vegas happened and it was difficult to focus on anything but that. In fact, it still is. Yet, I’m writing about Star Trek here because who knows.

I’m still hesitant to go all-in on Discovery because there is still that lingering fear that it’s going to be more JJ Abrams than the Trek we know and love, but this was indeed closer to Star Trek than the first two episodes were. In fact, throughout the episode I kept finding myself thinking “why even bother with those two episodes?” They were action-packed, but only really introduced a few recurring characters and while it served for backstory for the lead, Michael, those two episodes were still largely… nothing?

If anything they could have been condensed into one and served as an introduction as opposed to a stand-alone movie with a big name actress to establish our lead.

As a writer, I look at the first two episodes, then I look at the third, and I’m imagining what the third would feel like without that context from the first two and how it could have been a much more effective mode of storytelling to leave that mystery there. Introduce Michael as the quiet “mutineer” in Starfleet trying to redeem herself and sprinkle in her memories of those events as flashbacks throughout the season instead.

That gives the character an air of mystery and us, the viewer, finally seeing the full story unfold through her eyes would allow us to see that her actions that led to her disposition were justified. Instead, we’re to believe that they were and that she was unfairly punished by Starfleet and there is no dawning inside of her that she can forgive herself after self-reflection.

For starting a war, she also got let off pretty easily after a mere episode. Sure, they’ll be uneasy about her and she’ll have to win their trust over, but this whole redemption arc feels telegraphed by their fairly linear and straightforward storytelling method that is more focused on action than introspection.

The pacing was a lot better in this episode, the mystery and horror elements were fine, if sorta ho-hum, but it felt more like a Star Trek episode in that there were problems that needed ingenuity and trust to overcome, albeit not many.

Let’s Talk About Star Trek: Discovery

I’m sorry my poor, neglected blog. Truth be told, I haven’t been writing all-that-much of late. I’ve been trying, but twin boys are not just a lot of work, they are all-encompassing. Not that I’m complaining. Okay, perhaps I’m complaining a bit, because I miss writing and have attempted to kickstart things a few times only to find myself strapped for time and forced away from a project for days, if not weeks. If you’ve ever had the seedling of an idea before, you know how fragile it can be, and know that for it to sprout it requires ample amount of care and dedication. Scrawling out a few thousand words of a new idea only to abandon it within a few days, then returning to it and having a difficult time recapturing the magic is an absolutely soul-crushing feeling.

But is it as soul-crushing as the new, super-hyped Star Trek series debuting and failing to deliver? Yes, probably moreso, but still, Star Trek is one of the most beloved franchises in all of science fiction and requires a certain touch. Star Trek: Discovery lacks that touch in every possible way and after so long of a wait for a new series it feels pretty damned rotten, let me tell you.

That’s not to say that the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery were terrible, because they weren’t. In fact, they were pretty good, just not Star Trek. Okay, let’s pause for a second here, because there needs to be an understanding that they are, indeed, rather close to the JJ Abrams-era of Star Trek films that have been released and have been largely forgettable, popcorn affairs. Those Abrams-era films have so little in common with prior iterations of Star Trek that it feels like an entirely different franchise echoing the past with better effects, more attractive casts and a focus on action over substance.

If Star Trek: Discovery had debuted as Starbound Discovery or whatever, as a new franchise, I’d probably be pretty excited about where the show could go. Yet as not only a Star Trek, but yet another fucking prequel to The Original Series, there is a certain weight to be carried with that. Not only does the show need to fit into the already-established canon, but it needs to find its own identity in a world that is a mere ten years before the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

Star Trek has never relied on action as the main method of telling a story. Instead the focus has been on wonder, discovery, interplay between characters, politics and, most importantly, exploring the relationship between humanity and its neighbors, surroundings and itself. The first two episodes of Discovery were bombastic and exciting, almost self-contained in that they told one story that introduced a new villain and saw his story arc more-or-less completed come the conclusion of episode two. There was no need for nuance, setting a foundation in the universe or establishing characters because what they wanted to establish was WAR. VIOLENCE. THE KLINGON THREAT.

So how have past Treks handled debuts?

  • The Original Series: Captain Pike is taken captive by a strange race, where he undergoes a series of unwitting trials where humanity is explored. There are fights, but minimal.
  • The Next Generation: Encounter at Farpoint is legendary for a reason. Q is introduced to the crew of the new Enterprise on its maiden voyage, where Picard encounters a strange, new race and try to get to know each other, only for something to be awry. It involves a mystery, a strange being and critical thinking to overcome the odds and avoid a possible dilemma.
  • Deep Space 9: Benjamin Sisko, who holds a grudge against Captain Picard for the death of his wife, is assigned the seemingly impossible task of maintaining a diplomatic space station, where it is uncovered that he’s actually some sort of religious figure to the Bajoran people. He must grapple with his complicated feelings towards Picard and transitioning from life on a starship to life on a space station.
  • Voyager: Captain Janeway is searching for rogue Maquis ships while one of her crew is undercover within. Voyager and the Maquis are ripped through a wormhole into the Delta Quadrant more than 70 years away from home and must cope with their hostilities with each other to come together to brave a strange new existence.
  • Enterprise: Captain Archer is tasked with returning a Klingon that crash-landed on Earth back to Qo’nos in the Starfleet’s first real foray into intergalactic politics, where he must travel in a ship with the warp engines his father designed against the wishes of the Vulcans, who have been the protectors of humanity since first contact.

Now, let’s look at Discovery.

Captain and Commander are on a desert planet, looking to save indigenous life, they talk about the Commander getting her own command. Back in space they encounter a strange object, which the Commander takes a jet pack out to explore. There, a space-suited Klingon charges forward and she sorta accidentally stabs him to death. The Commander executes a poorly-done mutiny because the Captain won’t shoot the recently-discovered Klingon ships on sight and then a giant fucking space battle happens because Klingons are rebuilding their empire and this happened to be the meeting place.

The usual charm just isn’t there. Instead the focus is on action from the get-go. The Klingons were always depicted as warlike and assholes, but this was just on another level. There was one conversation, then a giant space battle featuring both Starfleet and the Klingons ensued.

There’s some things set up there, like how our protagonist was on the precipice of her own ship, how she messed it all up and how the show will now be her redemption story. So, essentially, she’s Tom Paris from Voyager. Okay. The problem is, Star Trek has never been a solo show. Sure, the Captain is always the focal point (Commander Sisko in DS9’s case), but all of the other characters are just as vital throughout. Sure, it’s only been two episodes thus far telling one story, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember anyone’s name and there looks to be only one character that’ll carry over into the main cast. Even the “lesser” Treks like Enterprise and Voyager had an ensemble cast of characters that would endear themselves to viewers.

A part of the problem feels like the announced scope of the show, which would be a fifteen-episode season playing out a “two chapter” story arc. While long story arcs have contributed to the best of each series, the “throwaway” standalone episodes tend to be some of the best, by focusing on individual characters.Think “Beyond the Stars” from DS9 where Sisko has a vision from the Prophets as himself in New York, pre-Civil Rights, as a science fiction author for a magazine. It’s one of those powerful, unforgettable episodes that, while it plays into the larger story, is relatively self-contained.

The commitment, on CBS’s part, doesn’t seem to be there. CBS has literally sat on the franchise for years after Enterprise failed to deliver and done absolutely nothing with it. Now that the JJ Abrams-era films have done well, they used that as an opportunity to launch a new series. But the problem is the distribution: it’s behind a ridiculous paywall. No, it’s not on a popular streaming service like Netflix, Amazon or even Hulu. Instead it’s on CBS All Access, which is $5.99 a month. Oh yeah, and there’s ads, too. To get rid of the ads it’ll cost you $9.99 a month. Only the most hardcore of hardcore Star Trek fans are going to fork over money for a worthless streaming service such as this, yet this show seems to be aimed at the mythical “wider audience.” If they were always going to toss this behind a paywall, why bother trying to make a “cool” action series? You don’t simply stumble upon a pay service that you don’t need and decide to check it out. The show feels doomed for failure and like it’ll play out within one season before being cancelled and never heard from again.

It is, of course, Star Trek, which means that this could all be wrong and it could get a lot better. Enterprise not only started out rough, it was pretty awful until it got going. Voyager was shitty for entire seasons before it found its sea legs.