Friday, February 16, 2018

Through a Mirror, Darkly: Thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery's First Season

Well, folks, what is there to be done about Star Trek: Discovery?  Four months ago, writing about the season's first few episodes, I said that there were things about the show I really liked, and things I really disliked, but that it would probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I stood on the matter of the whole.  But here we are, nearly a week after the finale, and I'm no closer to a conclusion.  Neither, it seems, is the rest of fandom, which often feels like it's watching and reacting to several different shows.  And no one, no matter their opinion, seems very clear on what Discovery is.  Is it a bold reinvention of the franchise for the Peak TV era, or a shallow action-adventure whose ambitions often outstrip its capacity to execute them?  Is it the spiritual successor of the reboot movies, reveling in Star Trek tropes and fanservice without understanding the franchise's meaning, or is it a genuine attempt to grapple with the core ideas of Star Trek fifty years after its inception?  Is it, in short, Star Trek?

I don't know the answer to this question, and what's worse, I'm not even sure how to begin answering it.  Part of the problem--and also, I think, the reason that so many viewers and reviewers have had such wildly divergent reactions to this show--is that Discovery tries to do so many different things in its first season that it's hard to know how to begin assessing it.  So let's start with a plot summary.  Set about a decade before the original Star Trek, Discovery centers on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), an up-and-coming young Starfleet officer on the cusp of being named to her own command.  Raised by Vulcans[1] after the death of her parents, Burnham sees herself as a completely rational person, but (like most actual Vulcans on Star Trek) she turns out to be more driven by her emotions than she's willing to admit.  When a routine mission on her ship, the Shenzhou, becomes the Federation's first contact with the Klingons in decades, Burnham advises her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to fire first.  When Georgiou refuses, Burnham commits mutiny in order to protect her ship from what she sees as an incurably violent, bloodthirsty species.  This ends up devolving into a battle in which Georgiou is killed, the Shenzhou is destroyed, and the Federation and Klingon Empire are left at war.  Burnham, meanwhile, is stripped of her rank and sent to prison.

That's all in the first two episodes.  When we catch up with Burnham again, the war has been raging for several months, and her prison transport is picked up by the Discovery, a science vessel retasked to the development of technology critical to the war.  Discovery's captain, the rule-breaking, charismatic Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) recruits Burnham to his crew, arguing that she can help alleviate her guilt and the damage she caused by helping him to research a new propulsion system that could shift the tide of battle.  Working with engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and eager cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham helps to develop a "spore drive", which rides a network of fungal blooms that span the multiverse, allowing Discovery to travel in the blink of an eye.  Along the way, the show visits with two ambitious young Klingons, Voq and L'Rell (Mary Chieffo), who dream of uniting their society under a single political and ideological banner; introduces security officer Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was imprisoned and tortured by the Klingons, and who develops a romantic relationship with Burnham after he joins Discovery's crew; and pays an extended visit to the infamous mirror universe, where Georgiou's evil double turns out to be the emperor of the fascistic, xenophobic Terran Empire.

As I said, a lot of different things to try to accomplish in a single season.  And, in almost every case, Discovery's execution of these ideas has serious and specific problems.  Which means that it's hard to talk about my criticisms of the show without coming off more negative than I actually ended up feeling about it.  Before we get to that, then, let's talk about a few of the things I liked about Discovery, especially the ways in which it deviates from the Star Trek template that I initially found dismaying but which ultimately felt right.  I liked that the show takes a while--nearly half the season--to assemble its core crew, giving individual characters, and even Discovery itself, their own proper introduction rather than just plopping them all together at once.  I liked--after some initial reservation--the fact that the show is so locked into Burnham's point of view, which made it feel like a very different sort of story while still remaining recognizably Star Trek-ish.  I liked how, especially in the first half of the season, the show combines the needs of continuous storytelling with fairly well-structured, and even, in some cases, self-contained episodes.  I even liked the weirdness of the technology, which has been so derided in some quarters.  "The ship runs on mushrooms" sounds pretty silly, but if you think about it, a "mycelium network" along which a spaceship can travel in an instant is not actually a more ridiculous idea than a warp drive, and there's something to be said for expanding our idea of what SFnal science looks like beyond physics and into biology and zoology.[2]

Most of all, I liked Burnham, who feels layered and multifaceted in a way that I associate with the best Star Trek characters, a fully-rounded person who tries to approach every turn in her life with generosity and an open mind.  In my first write-up of the show, I called her
a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges. The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones. If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.
I stand by all this, and over the course of the season I continued to enjoy how Discovery used Burnham.  The show recognizes that the only thing to be done with a character as furiously competent--and yet as prone to boneheaded decisions--as Burnham is to keep piling challenges in their path.  Some of these challenges are emotional--grappling with guilt over her betrayal of Georgiou and her responsibility for her death; facing up to the fact of having failed for the first time in her life; falling in love with Tyler--while others are practical--in the mirror universe, Burnham goes undercover as her double in order to secure information necessary for Discovery's return home.  And it's always a pleasure to watch her grapple with them, with a combination of determination, intellect, and vulnerability.  No matter how messy or flawed the rest of the show ends up, the fact that Discovery is Burnham's story means that there's always something true and worth watching at its center, and it's this, more than anything else, that makes me feel that there might be a good show lurking here.[3]

But then there are those flaws, and the problem with them is not so much that the things that are bad about Discovery outweighs the things that are good, as how they reveal the limitations of the show's understanding of Star Trek, and of its ambitions within the franchise.  Take, for example, the show's handling of Klingons.  It would be one thing for Discovery to so thoroughly reinvent this foundational Star Trek race, right down to redesigning their makeup in a way that makes it difficult for the actors to emote (which is exacerbated by the choice to saddle them with lines in phonetic Klingon rather than English), if there was a stronger sense of what the show was trying to achieve with this.  But after an entire season that featured the Klingons heavily and included two major Klingon characters, I still have no idea what Discovery wants me to think about them.

A big part of the problem is that Discovery's story about Klingons often feels more like a story about Burnham.  She starts the season hating them and seeing them as irredeemably violent and bloodthirsty (with some justification, since she witnessed Klingons killing her parents as a child), and ends the season realizing that while there's still a great deal about their culture she can't respect, these are nevertheless people living their lives, and deserving of the basic rights that entails.  This is fine--if a little basic--as character arcs go.  But most Star Trek fans will have gone into Discovery knowing the Klingons much better than Burnham, and for us, what the show chooses to do with them feels shallow and unconvincing.

Co-creator Alex Kurtzman (yes, that Alex Kurtzman) has spoken about his desire to develop the Klingons as more than a violent Other, but this is something that was already done by The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, with far greater nuance and complexity than Discovery manages.  The Klingons who show up on Discovery, in comparison, feel rigid and joyless.  There's none of the warmth, humor, or depth of character that even minor Klingon characters on previous Star Trek shows demonstrated as a matter of course.  Weirdly, hardly any of them bring up honor or its importance to their worldview.

This might work if Discovery's purpose was to dismantle the romanticized view of the Klingons that some fans have developed (though, again, this is something that Deep Space Nine did twenty years ago, and much better).  But what it offers instead is effectively a validation of Burnham's view--Klingons as a monolithically violent culture with few redeeming qualities.  It's as if Discovery's purpose with the Klingons is to say "even people whose culture is inherently violent deserve basic compassion", but this is a great deal less thought-provoking than the show clearly believes, not to mention not very applicable to the real world.[4]

And if that seems like too much of an old school fannish complaint, too rooted in my familiarity with the franchise--which is, after all, trying to reinvent itself, and perhaps attract a new audience--then how about the way Discovery uses plot twists?  There are two major ones in the first season.  In quick succession, it's revealed that Ash Tyler is actually the Klingon Voq, physically transformed and brainwashed into believing that he is human, and that Lorca is actually his mirror universe counterpart, who escaped into our universe after a failed coup attempt against Emperor Georgiou.  There's a level on which both of these twists have thematic weight.  Tyler's horrified realization of what was done to him is a rare depiction of a male character coping with violation and its aftermath (and it also challenges Burnham to accept that she could have loved a Klingon), while the revelation of Lorca's identity makes sense of the increasingly uncomfortable way in which he pushes past Starfleet norms over the course of the season (it also explains why he recruits Burnham, since in the mirror universe the two were lovers).  But the aftermath in both cases is truncated--the Voq personality dies soon after it's introduced, leaving Tyler back in control of a human-looking body, and Burnham and Emperor Georgiou kill the imposter Lorca within an episode of his unmasking--and gives the impression that these twists existed for no reason other than themselves.  Taken together, they create the sense that the season--perhaps the show as a whole--has no weight or substance.

It certainly doesn't help that when those twists are swept away and the time finally comes for Discovery to make an argument for itself as more than just an action story, as a part of the Star Trek narrative, it makes such a hash of things.  Returning from the mirror universe sans the fake Lorca (but with Emperor Georgiou in tow, because apparently being a Nazi cannibal isn't enough to get Michael Burnham to leave you to die if you look like her dead mentor), Discovery finds itself nine months in its future, with the war against the Klingons nearly lost.  Georgiou offers her expertise as a wartime consigliere, arguing that the Federation is constitutionally unsuited to an all-out war for its survival.  She offers to guide Discovery to the Klingon homeworld in what is meant to be a strike on military targets, but behind their backs she turns out to have made a more sinister deal with the remaining Starfleet brass, to detonate a supervolcano under the planet's surface and render it uninhabitable.  When Burnham and the Discovery crew learn about this plan, they refuse their orders.  Burnham makes a deal with L'Rell, giving her the supervolcano detonator so she can use it to claim leadership of the Empire and end the war.[5]

This isn't bad, exactly, and the moment where Burnham and the Discovery crew learn about the plan and reject it out of hand is genuinely moving precisely because there's no doubt or debate.  It is simply obvious to the entire crew that this is not who they are and that they must find another way.  But it's also very neat--the one mutiny at the beginning of the season in which Burnham rejects Starfleet values in order to protect Federation lives paralleled by another mutiny at the end of the season in which Discovery refuses to destroy the Klingon race in order to save their own.  One might even say glib.  As Zach Handlen writes in his review of the finale, you can very clearly imagine Discovery's writers deciding on this clever structure, making a half-assed attempt to write a middle story that would actually earn it, and then giving up with the job half-done.

Much like its handling of the Klingons, Discovery's attempt to examine what the Federation means and how it functions under pressure is interesting in theory.  This is, after all, a utopian vision invented fifty years ago by a man who was possibly a rapist, which takes as its template a society that in the real world was rooted in imperialism and exploitation, whose self-image as benevolent and free was at least in part a fantasy designed to paper over oppression.  There absolutely is room, and perhaps even a necessity, to take a serious look at that utopia, especially in this current moment, as we watch the liberal democracy that inspired Gene Roddenberry to imagine the Federation devour itself from the inside out.  But what Discovery ends up delivering is, again, a combination of things done better by Star Trek shows in the 80s and 90s, and original ideas that are extremely shallow and poorly handled.

Lorca is a prime example.  For most of the season he poses a serious challenge to the viewers, not just in how he conducts himself, constantly pushing against Federation values and norms, but in the way that he nevertheless gains the crew's loyalty for his intelligence, his determination, and his ability to think his way out of problems.  This didn't exactly make me happy, but what I wanted was for the show to face this uncomfortable contradiction head-on, to have Burnham recognize the fact that the man she's following is betraying the ideals they've both sworn to uphold.  Revealing that Lorca is actually from the mirror universe does away with all that complexity.  It makes him--and, more importantly, the other characters' loyalty to him--something that can easily be squared away and dismissed.  An episode after his death, it's easy to forget that he ever existed (which, among other things, feels like a waste of Isaacs's fine, magnetic performance).

What's even more problematic about the attempted genocide storyline is how it reveals the shallowness of Discovery's idea of Star Trek.  Like the reboot movies before it, Discovery seems to think that the most--perhaps the only--interesting question to ask within the Star Trek universe is "should we have a Federation?"  Does it, for example, make a civilization weak to live in peace and prosperity?  And what happens when such a society meets an existential threat?  Does it give up its values and civil liberties in order to survive?[6]  But the thing is, this is literally the most boring, basic question one can ask about Star Trek.  The real challenges posed by a society like the Federation aren't questions of if, but of how.  How do you create a truly just, fair, equal society?  How do you balance freedom of conscience and opinion with your core values of tolerance and peace?  How do you prevent the exploitation of those who are weaker than you?  How do you help people outside your society, and do you have the right to encourage them to be more like you?

It's been close to twenty years since any work with Star Trek in the title even tried to address these questions, and in some ways Discovery feels like it's going backwards.  Even as it prides itself on honoring Federation values in its big moments, it misses their complete violation in its small ones.  When Burnham arrives on Discovery in a group of other prisoners--who are apparently being press-ganged to work in dilithium mines--they're greeted by security chief Landry (Rekha Sharma), who remarks that "I see we're unloading all kinds of garbage today".  When Lorca and Tyler are held prisoner by the Klingons and mount an escape, they leave behind a fellow Federation citizen who had been informing on them to their captors, even though he begs to be taken along.[7] Worst of all, only two episodes before Discovery's crew refuses to blow up Qo'noS, they blow up the Imperial City-Ship in the mirror universe, with probably tens of thousands of people on board, without anyone even mentioning the subject of collateral damage.  At best, this is sloppy writing.  At worst, it's an indication that Discovery's writers have only the faintest, broadest understanding of what Federation values are.  That whenever they're not writing a story that is explicitly about Federation values, they default to some kind of space opera standard where heroic characters shoot first, think only of themselves, and don't care what kind of society they live in.

At the same time, there are moments where it feels like Discovery does know what it means to be Star Trek, where it remembers that this franchise isn't just--much less primarily--about big moments of sacrifice, but about small moments of decency and kindness.  It's Burnham fighting for the space animal that Discovery has been using as a navigator in the mycelium network, which is suffering from the ordeal.  It's Saru (Doug Jones), Burnham's former crewmate on the Shenzhou, who resents her for Georgiou's death, but still shows her kindness and hospitality when she arrives on Discovery, because she's a disgraced prisoner whose life sucks at that moment.  It's Tilly sitting next to Tyler in the mess hall after the Voq personality is exposed and removed, reminding him and the other officers that he deserves their compassion.  And it's also Tilly, in a later scene, putting herself between Tyler and Burnham, who isn't ready to talk to him about their relationship.  It's Admiral Cornwall (Jane Brooke) bonding with L'Rell over their shared courage and toughness, without losing sight of the things that set them apart.  It's Tyler joining in with a bunch of blustering Klingons as they play a gambling game, and finding joy in his hybrid nature for the first time.  Most of all, it's Captain Georgiou hearing Burnham's reasoned, logical argument for why she should attack the Klingons, and saying simply: "Starfleet doesn't fire first".

As a lot of people have noted, Star Trek shows have a history of starting out quite wobbly.  Discovery has enough good points that in theory it too could pull off the transformation that Deep Space Nine or The Next Generation achieved in their second and third seasons, and become a truly top notch series and a worthy addition to the franchise.  On the other hand, that kind of improvement doesn't tend to happen in the era of Peak TV.  It requires more episodic storytelling, fewer overarching storylines, and a willingness to play around that most modern TV shows don't have, and which Discovery hasn't really demonstrated.  Put another way, to ask whether Discovery could become a good show is really to ask what it is that currently makes it bad.  Is it simply a matter of execution, or is it that the people making it don't really know what they're trying to accomplish, and what the significance of the universe they're working in is?  I have sufficient respect for the bones of the show--for Burnham, and the other characters, and the moments where they feel like Starfleet officers--that I'm willing to stick around in hope, but I really don't know yet whether that hope has any basis in reality.



[1] Raised, in fact, by Sarek (James Frain), which is just one of those things about Discovery--like the prequel setting--that you have to sigh and accept as the price of admission.  On the whole, Discovery is pretty good about not wallowing in fanservice, including in how it uses Sarek.  But there are moments--chiefly the season's closing scene--where its obvious lack of faith in itself as its own story is genuinely embarrassing.

[2] Also, the mycelium network is one of the few instances in which Discovery does any meaningful kind of worldbuilding, expanding the boundaries of the existing Star Trek universe.  Even allowing for the fact that the show's story focuses on war and not exploration, there's something awfully limited and narrow about how it draws its world, as if its writers were afraid to go past the edges of the map they'd inherited.  But with the network, they give their universe a new dimension, even if they're going to have to do some fancy footwork to explain why no subsequent Star Trek show ever used or mentioned this technology.

[3] For a contrasting perspective on Burnham, see Angelica Jade Bastién at the Vulture, who argues that the constant piling of challenges on Burnham's shoulders is emblematic of the "she can take it" attitude towards black women in pop culture.  I don't agree with her take--Burnham feels a lot less acted-upon to me--but I have to admit that she's given me a lot to think about.  I do, however, absolutely agree with Bastién's frustration with Discovery handling of gay themes.  The show's production crowed for months about featuring televised Star Trek's first gay couple in the form of Stamets and his partner Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) only to kill Culber part way into the season.  Given how unforgivably long it's taken this franchise to give the LGBT community its due in this supposedly egalitarian future, this was a slap in the face, and no amount of mealy-mouthed promises that Culber will return in some form (so far he's appeared as a sort of ghost who haunts the mycelium network, which apparently justifies Stamets having almost no emotional reaction to the death of the man he loved) can make up for it.

[4] This isn't the only place where Discovery's seeming ignorance of Star Trek shows past the original series can feel frustrating--I had to hold myself back from making this entire essay merely a list of things the show attempts, and which Deep Space Nine did better back in the 90s.  I will, however, note that mirror universe Georgiou is basically the Intendant, right down to the bondage gear and evil bisexuality.  But while Deep Space Nine at least started out by taking a serious look at the Intendant's moral depravity--like the fact that she sexually abused enslaved people--Discovery very quickly ends up where the later DS9 mirror universe episodes did, treating Emperor Georgiou as a fun, camp villain.  There's obviously a lot of fun to be had watching Michelle Yeoh play a remorseless thug, but coming only a single episode after this Georgiou waxes nostalgic about depopulating Betazed, or cavalierly consumes the brains of sentient aliens, the tonal whiplash is a little hard to take.

[5] Further to my thoughts above about Discovery's weird take on the Klingons, it should go without saying that a Klingon threatening to blow up Qo'noS unless they're made Emperor would be seen as completely without honor, and thus not a fit leader.  And from a purely practical standpoint, there's no way L'Rell can hold on to power with only this single, apocalyptic threat to back up her reign.  But at that point there's only ten minutes left in the season so you just go with it.

[6] Not to keep harping on this, but this is also a question that Deep Space Nine dealt with, at much greater depth and complexity, in 1996.  And it wasn't even one of the better Deep Space Nine stories.  Just watch Deep Space Nine, is what I'm saying.

[7] Obviously, as it turns out neither Lorca nor Tyler are Starfleet officers, but at that point they both think the other is (and Tyler still believes that he is one as well), so there's no justification for them betraying their putative oath so severely.  Also, no one who hears the story later on seems to think there was anything wrong with their actions.

17 comments:

Arresi said...

I'm wondering if you see a parallel between Discovery and the prestige dramas? I feel like I've seen very similar things written about, say Breaking Bad or Battlestar Galactica, especially the ethical debates that are less groundbreaking that the authors seem to think, and complicated characters having their complications written off before anyone has to think too hard about what they have to say.

The only defense for the "DS9 did it before" I can offer is that a good chunk of Worf's DS9 plots were rehashes of Worf's TNG plots, and that didn't drag the show down too much.

As for Burnham, how centered on her does the show remain after the pilot? Are we talking Kirk or Kira?

gareth-wilson said...

Discovery was similar to prestige dramas at first - Lorca seems like another haunted middle-aged white man having sex with inappropriate women, like Tony Soprano. But the Mirror Universe plot abandons that. The closest match I can think of is The Vampire Diaries - both shows burn through plot like a Roman candle. That's not a criticism - VD was great in the first few seasons.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Arresi:

To begin with, I would say that Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica are two very different shows. The former is, despite its strong plotting, a character-based show. It's about a person (or rather people) and how they change. While politics is a factor in the show, it isn't about its world in any meaningful way. BSG, on the other hand, while it also paid attention to its characters' journeys, is mainly about its world. The reason that Breaking Bad is the better show is that it finds something truer to say about Walter White (and the way he embodies a certain kind of male self-importance) than BSG did about post-9/11 America.

I would definitely agree that like BSG and a lot of other SF shows of the late 00s and early teens, Discovery has a fairly limited view on politics that begins and ends with the questions that came to dominate the cultural conversation after 9/11 and the Iraq war. Which is frustrating, in part, because of how manufactured that conversation was, and in what bad faith. Suddenly making everyone ask "is it OK to torture terror suspects?" wasn't some meaningful growth of the political discourse. It happened because Dick Cheney had a hard-on for torturing people and somehow managed to make everyone else look like a rube for questioning him. The fact that Hollywood writers are still falling for this trick in 2017 is honestly kind of embarrassing.

As for Burnham, how centered on her does the show remain after the pilot? Are we talking Kirk or Kira?

This is definitely not an ensemble show, though the other characters get a bit more room to shine. Tyler, for obvious reasons, but also Stamets and Saru. I have some hope that the second season will move the show more towards a more traditional type of Star Trek story, where Burnham isn't always at the center of the action.

Gareth:

Lorca seems like another haunted middle-aged white man having sex with inappropriate women

I mean, the only woman we see him sleeping with is Cornwall, who is age-appropriate and apparently an old friend. It's only later on that we find out he had a borderline-exploitative relationship with the Burnham in the mirror universe (and even then, we only have Emperor Georgiou's word that this is what it was).

gareth-wilson said...

Fair enough, although she is his commanding officer. On another subject, do you think it's the behind-the-scenes drama that led to the plot problems? Are the Voq and Mirror-Lorca storylines what Fuller left the showrunners with, and they just wanted to get rid of both and do something else?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'd be shocked, frankly. Not only is there nothing in Fuller's previous work that suggests a fondness for this kind of twist storytelling, it's extremely reminiscent of Kurtzman's previous TV show Fringe. There are, in fact, a lot of similarities between Discovery and Fringe beyond the twists: the hypercompetent but emotionally withdrawn heroine, the woo-woo science, the fascination with alternate universes. Honestly, I find it hard to discern Fuller's influence on the show at all.

gareth-wilson said...

I thought the credits sequence was Fulleresque, but you're right that there's no obvious influence in the show itself.

londonkds said...

The sexualized depiction of Mirror Georgiou in the last episodes disappointed a lot of fans I read, because of the earlier lack of the gross sexualisation seen in previous Trek shows' Mirror episodes - no black PVC catsuits or Britney Spears style stomach-baring uniforms. Someone on the show apparently said in an interview that they were trying to get away from the whole "evil is sexy"/"sexiness is evil" attitude.

Standback said...

I love Burnham as a character, and if she's working for you as the core of the show, I can definitely see why you're warmer to Discovery than I am :)

Personally, my feeling was that the writing failed the character. Particularly past the first 3-4 episodes, Michael gets a lot of screentime, but mostly as kind of a tourist in her own storyline; very little action and agency, more just letting the plot events roll over her.

The first episodes seemed to be establishing a sort of character arc -- an original sin which is a vague cocktail of firing first; of being ruled by fear; of committing mutiny; of either causing or allowing the war to begin; of not protecting her Captain well enough.

But very quickly, all these threads seem to be forgotten. After freeing the Tardigrade, Michael's rebelliousness or willingness to question orders doesn't come up again. Her status as a Starfleet pariah melts away with Landry's death; by the time Mudd's time loop rolls around, she's tagged as "the person everybody on the ship will trust." Her guilt over Georgiou is reduced to the absurdly shallow "Duel with the Klingon who... didn't kill her but does have her comm badge" and "suffer silently with an evil emperor who looks like Georgiou." Nothing builds on those early threads or develops them -- until the finale, which suddenly rushes back to themes that were neglected for the whole length of the season.

And what does get developed, instead, is:
(A) Additional dollops of backstory (targeted by logic extremists; has a piece of Sarek's soul; unfairly excluded from the Vulcan Expeditionary Group; kept her parents put three days thus indirectly responsible for their deaths...), none of which develop existing threads, or seem to be going anywhere, and
(B) Her relationship with Tyler, which seems mostly there in order to set us up for the presumed whammy of Voq's reveal.

In other words... all the story "about her" never really seems to be about her. It showcases Burnham as determined and vulnerable and badass, yes, but it gives her no story, no agency, no stakes. She winds up more as the one who mops up when Stamets can't stop the time loop; when Saru decides to defect; when the Captain turns out to be a doppelganger, when Starfleet admirals plump for genocide.

Which I think is a crying shame, because Michael Burnham is a fantastic, compelling character, and Sonequa Martin-Green is a terrific actress. It would not be difficult to write her an actual story arc. To make a story arc about the choices she makes, not just the twists she has to suffer through. But I just don't feel that's happened this season.

gareth-wilson said...

I'd say that sexy scene was taken from Game of Thrones, except that would make Georgiou Podrick.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ziv:

I guess I didn't expect the lead in a Star Trek show to direct the plot as much as you seemed to want her to? It's a pretty reactive format (notwithstanding that main characters in genre stories tend to be reactive just in general) and if anything I thought the extent to which Burnham was moving the story - her mutiny sets the plot in motion, her importance to Lorca, Georgiou, and Tyler determines a lot of the middle story, and her final mutiny saves the day - was a bit extreme. Most Star Trek stories are about people who are in the right place at the right time, and the heroic framework that Discovery takes is, if anything, a warped take on the show's premise.

In addition, I felt like Burnham did have an important journey throughout the season, but that it was an emotional one. She starts out very certain of herself, but also divorced from her human side. Making a huge, costly mistake shakes her self-image to the core, and as she says to Tyler at the end of the season, she mostly spends it rebuilding herself as someone new, more vulnerable but also more open to others. A big part of this is her prejudice against Klingons, and while that's not my favorite part of the season, I can see what the show was going for - that by learning to accept her own flaws and limitations, Burnham can see the personhood of others even when they are enemies.

Gareth:

Just once, I'd like a story to acknowledge that when a sex worker says "I should be paying you", what they actually mean is "I'm gunning for a tip and/or repeat business". It might have been nice to puncture Emperor Georgiou's self-satisfaction that way.

Standback said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Standback said...

>I guess I didn't expect the lead in a Star Trek show to direct the plot as much as you seemed to want her to? (...) Most Star Trek stories are about people who are in the right place at the right time, and the heroic framework that Discovery takes is, if anything, a warped take on the show's premise.

I might be skewing too strongly to DS9, because that's most of the Trek I've seen in the last few years, and it's always been what I've found most memorable.

But what I'm talking about isn't plot; it's just... focus. I think of character episodes as always, well, spotlighting some aspect of a character's nature. If it's "Odo is a suspicious bastard," he gets a mystery investigation. If it's "Odo has always felt alone," he gets to raise a baby, or to get harassed by Lwaxana. If it's "Odo's impartiality can mask his unwillingness to take a stand," we get a flashback to his days under Dukat on Terok Nor.

I don't feel like Burnham got one of those. Not even in the pilot; not even in the finale. Everything she faces is surface-level and practical. I feel like maaaybe the Mirror Universe episodes went there a bit -- I particularly like "Despite Yourself," which I do feel has Michael aware of how easily she fills the shoes of her dark counterpart, and her explanation to Tilly that the Terrans' cruelty stems from their own fear. But it's very, very little, and I was really looking for more.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

OK, but the entire season is a spotlight of Burnham's nature, or more precisely the fact that she doesn't know herself very well and is still figuring out who she is. If anything I'd expect you to complain that hardly anyone else gets that kind of spotlight.

Standback said...

> OK, but the entire season is a spotlight of Burnham's nature

How so?

> If anything I'd expect you to complain that hardly anyone else gets that kind of spotlight.

I really and truly have no objection to a tight focus on one character :)

Retlawyen said...

Very much agree with this review. The problem of this show isn't deciding whether it is a good show or a bad show. The problem is that it is both.

In particular, I think your comment re: Captain Lorca is absolutely on the mark. They wasted a lot of time on leadup to a fascinating question that they had absolutely no interest in examining in any depth.

zahrawithaz said...

I really don't know how anyone can sum up this show, but I applaud you for trying! I actually was much more negative than you toward the show when it first began, and ended up being much more positive, but realistically, it's an enjoyable mess. And you're dead on about its commitment to failing to hit the marks DS9 exceeded.

(To that end, can I point out that DS9 solved a longtime problem in Star Trek's black characters by giving Sisko an ethnicity as well as a race--by making him African-American and from New Orleans and rooted in a specific culture that had meaning to him. Whereas Burnham, wonderful though she is, has no connection to a culture other than Vulcan, and is in fact written so that she could just as easily be played by a white actor, and the Nigerian character in the crew is more name than character. At the current moment, I find this sinister.)

It's hard to get a grip on this show, because it clearly wants to be about Star Trek's tradition of progressive politics on some level. And yet it let down both the progressives who wanted to see Star Trek's glossy optimism critiqued, and those (mostly USians, imo) fans who rely on ST as a rare if flawed voice for left-of-center politics in the mainstream (through its use of Lorca and the Federation at large).

It also strangely managed to subvert many of the things for which it won internet praise. It had a Malaysian woman captain...and killed her to replace her with a white man. Stans argued it was better to have the morally questionable leader be a white man and let the Malaysian woman be virtuous yet dead...and then they brought her back as a maniacal villain. They had an interracial same-sex male couple...and quickly killed not just one of them, but the brown one who hadn't gotten much characterization. Some poor fool argued Tilly was a great step for representation of people on the autism spectrum...and then she was presented as as the social adept foil to awkward Burnham. Much noise was made over the racial diversity and physical disabilities of the outstandingly attractive bridge crew....who receive no characterization and precious few lines over the course of the entire season. Fans heavily praised the show for not sexualizing its female characters in the Mirrorverse...and then came the finale episode, with its corset and Evil Bisexual woman leader. Perhaps most strikingly, people lauded the progressiveness of depicting a male rape victim...and then through a plot twist revealed that that sex was consensual and hopeless muddled the point. I could go on and on.

Leaving aside that many of these laurels were from the inherently unstable halls of "I like it, therefore I will find some politically praiseworthy about it" side of the internet and/or people with limited ability to analyze media, the almost comic reversals say something to me about the sheer incoherence of its messaging. Or about the mismatch between certain branches of the online fandom and the show.

And yet I do think Burnham is a fantastic character, coherent and consistent and interestingly complex, and that every now and then a point that strikes me as authentically Star Trek shines through. And a lot of the plot twists worked for me, especially toward the end when alt!Georgiou's rise feels like the logical result of Burnham's poor choices. They even won me over to Lorca's origins, which I was prepared to hate on the same grounds you cite, if only because it made sense of the rather bizarre trail of clues planted early on. And like you, I'm curious about where it will go.

Darryl said...

I haven't finished the show--I'm not even halfway through it. I also haven't watched much of any other Star Trek show--I've seen the odd episode of TOS, and a couple of episodes of Deep Space Nine with a heavy focus on Bashir, who I was quite fond of, but I never watched it regularly. I've never really been a Star Trek fan. I watched Discovery on the recommendation of a friend, and I'm really enjoying it. Maybe it's easier for me to like it, because I haven't particularly fallen in love with the usual Star Trek format, so things that feel too different or like too much of a retread to serious fans don't bother me.

I'm also willing to be a bit gentler with Discovery for the same reason I'm very fond of the new Star Wars movies, despite them not being (in my opinion) exactly great films. Star Trek's a show that goes back to the sixties, and a lot of it, especially in the older series, is very white and very male. I'm really happy that kids who watch this series, including a couple of ten- and eleven-year-olds in my family, are going to grow up with a Star Trek that has a Black woman as the lead character, just as I'm glad that the kids who are watching Star Wars for the first time will be associating it with female leads and characters of colour. I was particularly glad that they had a gay character--I really never expected to see someone who was gay in a Star Trek series. I've often felt very alienated from mainstream media, especially because I remember a time when there was essentially no LGBT representation in the media, and so it really does mean a great deal to me that the world has changed enough that even a very popular, mainstream series like Star Trek can have gay people in it. So perhaps I'm grateful enough for that not to focus as sharply on the actual quality of the show, but honestly, I did think the show itself was also very good. Maybe not perfect, but I liked it far more than a lot of people seemed to, probably partially because I'm not comparing it to previous works in the franchise.

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