A good plot twist is enough to keep an audience on their toes, to keep them guessing and wanting more, but the thing about plot twists is that they need to be used sparingly. A part of what makes plot twists effective is that they happen when you either least expect it or when you most dread them. A good plot twist has been foreshadowed, either discreetly or directly, depending on the story being told. When a plot twist is pulled off properly it can feel overwhelming, exciting or even rewarding. So why do people, like myself, complain about them?
Watch Star Trek Discovery and you’ll see why. The sheer amount of plot twists that have been thrown at the audience in the span of just a few episodes is not just overwhelming, it’s downright ridiculous. Much like the early portions of the season, nothing in this series ever really gets a chance to breathe or take shape, instead it’s just a mad dash to the next plot point without concern over anything beyond BLOWING FUCKING MINDS~! Blowing minds is cool and all, but it can also feel cheap when overused, which is what we have here. I didn’t write about episode 13, What’s Past is Prologue, because, in my mind, it was going to be one line and one line only:
Another fucking plot twist.
I’m trying not to be too down on everything here, so it felt like a waste of time to just do that and post it, plus I didn’t watch it until Wednesday night or so. Stuff happened, it pushed the plot along, but there had to be another fucking PLOT TWIST at the end of the episode and this is bordering on parody at this point. Guess what? They came back, but it’s nine months in the future and the Federation is almost destroyed by the Klingons! This alone is a good plot point, but the whole Mirror Universe diversion was nothing but a series of plot twists to the point where I can’t imagine giving a shit about this. It’s an easy and cheap way (both storytelling-wise and production-wise) to escalate the Klingon War without having to actually show any of it. They want to convey a sense of being overwhelmed, of desloation and loss, but instead it’s just another amped-up way to tell this story and commit the biggest sin of fiction: telling and not showing.
I am aware of this because I’ve always had a proclivity of telling and not showing in my own work. Look, I kinda like exposition dumps sometimes, the same with skipping key action to get to the good stuff, but there’s a time and a place for it. Other times it’s just sort of lazy storytelling (myself included) and the same thing can be accomplished by being creative. This brings us directly into episode 14, The War Without, The War Within, which is perhaps one of the best episodes of Discovery and shows just what this series is actually capable of.
Star Trek Discovery boasts a great cast that works well together, amazing special effects and the Star Trek name. Those things alone are enough for most, but what really makes this show work when it does is just how well these characters interact with each other. The cast just gel and, for the most part, feel natural with each other. It’s the kind of thing that you usually don’t see in a Star Trek series for a season or two. Granted, we’re at the tail-end of this season, but still. This episode takes time to stop and let the characters interact with each other, to react to their circumstances and actually figure stuff out instead of dashing headlong into another quandary only to find things COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN EXPECTED WHOOOOOA.
The Ash Tyler twist was predicted well in advance, mostly because of IMDB snooping, not because of actual in-story clues, but whatever. Part of the annoyance of the reveal was that they had worked pretty hard to push that he was surviving with PTSD and trying to cope with life afterwards, only to say, “nope, he’s just a secret Klingon and didn’t know it! HA!” Thankfully, they didn’t stop there and are going to explore matters with him further, although it was alarmingly easy to get him all fixed up, wasn’t it? There are tense moments with Stemets and Michael, as well as getting to watch Saru seem to grow into his role as a commanding officer by believing in himself and his crew more. There’s also Tilly who learned by playing Captain in the Mirror Universe more about herself, her ambitions and the realities of war. This kind of stuff is indispensable, just like the Michael and Tyler interaction near the tail-end of the episode. This is what this show should be and what this show has mostly failed the live up to. Star Trek is never about the adventures, the bad guys, the war or the action, it’s about the people and how they interact with the universe around them. That’s what this show has failed to embrace while trying to reach a broader audience and why people like myself get so frustrated with the show.
A show like DS9 took the idea of the super-advanced Federation, void of racism, sexism, inequality and poverty and explored why that isn’t always easy. The show placed a grieving commander in charge of a station that was once a mining prison for a group of people that were being oppressed by another group of people, who now all had to interact and live together. The show explored why there was a bad side and a good side, but that the good side had some really evil portions and the evil side was being defined by the evil actions of a few, not defining a race as a whole. We also saw Sisko reflect on the past numerous times and how humanity wasn’t always “good,” which helped to give further perspective into the ongoing struggles, I’d even argue with those episodes helping to frame DS9 as whole.
The Mirror Universe in Discovery was supposed to show the crew what humanity was capable of if it gave in to its darker urges, but it was perhaps a bit too over-the-top. We’ve seen the Mirror Universe utilized in the past, but the best applications were usually deeply personal to the characters involved and exploring their own duality, instead of trying to make an overarching point about humanity’s problems. Michael, out of her own conflicted feelings, saved Phillipa the Emperor and brought her back to the original universe, with her now playing a key role in the fight against the Klingons. The struggle that we’re supposed to be focusing on is how desperate times lead to desperate measures and how someone like Michael, who opened up the series by making a call that started a war out of desperation, now sees that humanity needs to hold onto that very humanity in how we conduct ourselves otherwise there’s nothing left after the fighting is done.
The Federation installing Emperor Phillipa as Captain Phillipa, claiming her to be found after being lost at sea — not actually an evil version of herself from another dimension — was totally fine. It was another twist, but at least this one had some build to it. Like I said, I mostly liked this episode and found it to be one of the best of the series, but mostly because it gave everything room to breathe and helped to pay off some lingering story threads that were left dangling while there was a lot of shooting, stabbing, kicking and probing going on.