29 October 2017
“Lethe” is an interesting oddity in Discovery so far, in that it feels the most like a stand-alone episode we’ve seen to date. We get to see some major character growth from Burnham, see more of Sarek’s history, and gain further insight into Lorca’s state of mind, but ultimately the episode feels more like classic Trek than anything we’ve seen so far…and that’s both a good and bad thing. Fundamentally, this episode is fine; nothing outstanding, nothing damning…which is a refreshing sign of stability from a series still in flux (despite the recent announcement of renewal for Season Two, something thought impossible just before launch). Just don’t expect to be blown away.
Fan buzz on the ‘net following this episode was mostly focused on the problematic nature of Discovery being a prequel series and with good reason: the show has consistently integrated modern tech and favored modern sci-fi tropes like holograms into an era in Trek where we know these things don’t exist. In the J.J. Abrams films, we get an Original Series redux that looks and feels how we now imagine future tech, but Discovery is set in the Prime Timeline of the TV shows and original movies: they still carry archaic phaser pistols and use flip out communicators, yet also teleport around the ship, communicate using holograms and have a fully functioning holodeck.
Not to mention a teleportation spore drive…
Ultimately, in order to have an enjoyable, modern show, we fans of the classic Trek shows just need to accept that the design of Trek and it’s technology has been soft rebooted, but not the continuity (sigh, even the Klingons…). Star Wars suffered a similar re-design in the prequel trilogy, where everything was slicker and shinier, a far-cry from the lived-in grit of the Original Films (happily remedied in the new films); however, in Wars the re-design lost a fundamental element of tone and style, whereas this design reboot actually moves to re-position Trek in the future of viewers in 2017. Given that my fucking smartphone can double as a VR simulator and tablets are now a dime-a-dozen, tech that was futuristic in Deep Space Nine (iPads) and Next Generation (holodeck) either are our reality or not-far-off…thus, to keep Trek feeling futuristic, we need to keep pace with modern technology, even when dealing with a prequel (hell, if we pay too much attention to everything the Original Series set up, we have to content with a large portion of the world having been ruled by a genetically augmented Ricardo Mantalban back in 1992…granted, I’d take Khan over Trump, but still…).
Trek is about our future, even when it’s about Trek’s past…and loathe as we are to lose some things or to see future-tech incorporated early in the Trek timeline, it’s a necessary evolution. Wars has always been a fable of a mythological past, Trek has always been predictive science fiction about the future: both new iterations reflect that and I suspect a modern Trek show that featured design of the 60s would feel a parody of itself. Strange though the design reboot may feel, it’s for the best.
Also, apparently the Discovery, science and secret black ops vessel, has t-shirts that say ‘DISCO.’ I…what? This is right up there with the Klingon redesign for baffling choices. Does this mean the Enterprise has shirts that say ‘ENTER’? Does Janeway have a ‘VOYAG’ shirt in a drawer of shame somewhere? Or do you only get one if you ship’s name can be truncated to a cute pun? There’s so much I need to know about these shirts, but I suspect we’ll never know…
Full spoilers follow
The Problem with Sarek
Contrary to my feelings about the design reboot, the focus on Sarek continues to be vexing at best and frustrating at worst. Lethe finally brings in a mention of Spock, as we learn that Sarek prevented Burnham from joining the Vulcan Expeditionary to leave room for Spock (also considered not Vulcan, as a half-human), who in turn rejects the Expeditionary to join Starfleet, meaning Sarek’s sacrifice of Burnham’s career was for nothing. At work here is the idea that Sarek is seeking to prove that humans and Vulcans are not so dissimilar, which tracks given his human wife, half-human son, and now – in this new series – human ward Burnham…but the question that the show has done little to prove is: “Do we need it?”
Currently, the answer is a resounding: no.
I was damn excited when I heard that James Frain was going to be playing Sarek in Discovery, remembering Sarek as a complicated and interesting character from Next Generation that can bring interesting perspective to episode plots while also loosely tying the show to classic series. I assumed, prior to the premise announcement that he raised Burnham, that he would be a recurring guest-star similar to Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd. Instead, he was chosen to be a pivotal father-figure, even given a weird, cross-galaxy, permanent mind-meld with Burnham. Up until now, we’ve basically seen the Spock story replayed (hell, even child Burnham at the Vulcan Academy looked like the Spock at the Vulcan Academy scene from the 2009 Star Trek film) and it feels…off. Any Vulcan could have served this purpose, but instead we fall into the ‘One Degree of Separation’ trope of characters having to be connected to everything of note. The mere lack of mention of Burnham by Spock is so incredibly bizarre to begin with, that piling more baggage on Sarek also feels disingenuous. At the moment of his death in this episode, Sarek is only thinking about Michael Burnham? BULLSHIT. We know he’s a shitty dad, but his and Spock’s entire arc was Spock coming to understand the depth of emotion present not only in his half-Vulcan heart, but that of his fellow Vulcans, most of all his father; but this scene suggests that Sarek cares more about Burnham than Spock…which would be TOTALLY FINE if he was any Vulcan but Sarek. Hell, make him Sarek’s brother. Problem solved. But instead, we get a pile-on onto a character that we only really cared about in connection to an iconic character that isn’t present in this show.
The good news coming out of this is that Burnham has started acting like a full person now, which is a delightful change of pace: Sonequa Martin-Greene is charming and capable, but all too often seems to get hamstrung into being quiet and intense (happened for several seasons in The Walking Dead before her genuinely touching final episode) and it’s nice to see her getting to embrace the elements of the character that are most engaging.
We finally have a hero to root for (other than poor, lovable Tilly, who is definitely this show’s Wesley Crusher, but with less screen-time and better lines)…which we’re going to need, because Lorca is definitely not okay…
The War Captain
Lorca’s storyline this week further explores his damage, bringing in clearer elements of PTSD while still refusing to let him off the hook for his obsessions. It’s a delicate balance, but I’m glad the show kept him in the role of manipulator and fanatic, despite his trauma. When visited by Admiral Cornwall (who is also a psychologist? Oh, Starfleet…) Lorca gets to play romantic lead, rekindling the on-again, off-again relationship the Admiral implied existed last episode. After a night of scotch and romancing, Lorca awakes with a start to find someone in his bed and starts choking her while pointing a phaser to her head. Cornwall realizes Lorca was just manipulating her as a smoke screen for his deteriorating mental health and does something few Starfleet Admirals ever do: she sees he’s unhinged and demands, despite his desperate pleas, that he resign his command, rightly assessing that Starfleet’s best weapon is in the hands of a madman.
Now, here’s where the plot misses a major opportunity (or did it?): with Sarek saved but injured, Cornwall goes to meet the dissenting Klingon houses, telling Lorca they’ll announce his resignation when she gets back. In my heart-of-hearts I wanted Lorca to orchestrate her mission as a means of disposing of her: it would be a tremendously conniving, Machiavellian move on Lorca’s part and really cement him as a mastermind…unfortunately, the Klingon peace talks are a trap and while the result is the same, Cornwall captured and the resignation delayed, I wish Lorca had had more hand in it.
We do get a great beat between Saru and Lorca following this, where Saru is surprised that they aren’t going to break Starfleet regulations to mount a rescue mission (it would be a first in Lorca’s career not to break Starfleet rules), but instead Lorca opts to await Starfleet orders, with his phaser tucked ominously in his belt (who knows, he may still find a way to dispose of Cornwall during the rescue).
This is a story beat we’ll see play out in a future episode, but as it stands it’s a missed opportunity. But, at least we know the show isn’t going to let-up on the villain captain concept (he only saved Sarek so Burnham would personally owe him and he’s made the suspicious Ash Tyler security chief). Speaking of…
The Romantical Adventures of Michael Burnham
With Ash Tyler being integrated into the crew (along with Burnham receiving her bridge role), we finally have the entire announced cast on-board the ship, with Burnham and Tyler having a slightly-flirty-antagonistic relationship that echoes Leia and Han in Empire Strikes Back. With Burnham and Tyler both being combat mission types, it’s nice to get a pair of buddy cops on the ship (as opposed to the mentor/mentee relationship she has with Tilly) and gives us a sense of what away teams will look like moving forward (plus giving Burnham a romance option). However, Tyler is still a question mark: although Lorca looked up his history, the circumstances of his imprisonment still raise a lot of questions. If he is indeed a double agent, this is a great set-up for having Burnham close to him and provides a fascinating lens by which to watch their scenes.
With tin-foil-hat firmly on head, I will continue to watch this relationship with great interest.
Vulcan Terrorists and Treacherous Klingons
So, this was interesting: Sarek’s mission is endangered by a Vulcan suicide bomber (who unironically flashes Sarek the ‘Live Long and Prosper’ as he detonates). Traditionally, we’ve seen some infighting by Vulcans, but nothing on the scale of this: the centre of the issue being the integration of Vulcans into Starfleet, which is objected to by the Logic um…terrorists. It’s an interesting enough angle, I suppose, that Vulcans would have this kind of behaviour in their society, but I can’t help but feel it falls a bit too thoroughly into the grimdark trope: we’ve established that war-is-hell, but does everyone, everywhere have to be as terrible as they can possibly be all the time?
Same goes for the infuriatingly predictable Klingon ‘peace talks’ betrayal, where two houses that are on the outs with Kol’s rising empire seek to talk to the Vulcans about joining the Federation…only to immediately betray everyone to earn Kol’s favour. It unfortunately continues to cast the Klingons as the WORST and furthers the single minded drive of Lord of the Rings’ orcs: right now, they are single-mindedly evil, rather than a complex, full society as we saw in previous Treks. We had a brief chance to see some depth and dissent here, but it’s immediately passed over to service the Cornwall plot and further cement that the Klingons are bad (#NotAllKlingons?). I know the show is playing into the villainous Klingons from the Original Series, but it seems to forget that we really fucking like Worf and have spent a lot of time with enjoyable Klingons over the years…it’s odd that while the design has been completely changed almost universally across the show from the Original Series, the villainous, treacherous Klingon trope is held here as sacrosanct. Hopefully we’ll see some more depth soon (and no, an albino religious fanatic does not count as depth).
…I’m still not over it. Maybe Q made them?