As a TV critic watching Star Trek Discovery has been one of the weirdest experiences of my life (not my real life mind you, just the TV critic life I live in my head). I have always loved Star Trek. I’ve been a fan of the franchise for as long as I can remember, so for me to watch a Star Trek series that was bad Star Trek, but middling to good TV was surreal. There’s really no middle ground. As a generic action sci-fi, Star Trek Discovery was a passable — if forgettable — entry to the sci-fi pantheon. As Star Trek though, it is as bad as the much reviled Star Trek Into Darkness or even *gulp* Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The First Discovery episode this year, however, was a radical change of pace from the bottom up, as if the series was finally catching up on the legacy of the franchise the writers, directors, producers, and cast had stumbled into being the caretakers of. Spoilers aplenty will be following.
It Rebooted the Series Without Fundamentally Changing Anything
I got the distinct impression from this episode that this has been the moment the whole series has been working toward, almost like this was the real story all along. The episode opens up on the Discovery in an alternate dimension, and takes about half the episode before the episode reveals where they are at specifically. For old Trek fans, the slow reveal of where they were was incredibly obvious yet satisfying. I knew from the moment we see a Vulcan ship fire on the Discovery that they were, in fact, in the Mirror Universe (I also assumed this because Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander Riker from The Next Generation, spoiled that a few months ago). All of these moments slowly culminated into the first real briefing room scene of the series, with Burnham saying that they were in a alternate timeline where the galaxy is rules by a Empire of racist, xenophobic humans. This scene in particular serves as a mission statement (for what I assume will be the rest of the season). The Discovery is stuck in a parallel dimension full of evil doppelgängers and have to survive long enough to get home. It’s the strong thematic plot that Discovery has desperately wanted the Klingon War to be, but has failed so spectacularly to deliver by not actually focusing on it at all. The Klingon War always felt like this thing that was there, but so underdeveloped that it was hard to understand why the characters were concerned with it. It was also bad, in the sense that we know how the war ends up working for the Federation. As a result, no amount of exposition makes the war interesting because the Klingons are, somehow, even more generic than they’ve ever been, while also not supplying the natural threat that a race full of angry, muscly warriors should. I never once felt the threat posed by the Klingons, therefore each character’s tortured dialogue and character moments underlined how badly they wanted me to care about the undeveloped war, and stole from what made the show good.
The mirror universe, however, is not so well developed. With only a handful of episodes exploring the mirror universe, the writers now have an entire playground to play with without having to worry about upsetting fanboy sensibilities. This actually allows the characters to have real agency. Whereas Burnham’s actions never really influences or impacted anything in any sense (because we know how the war will end up, and everything anyone did was blunted by this fundamental reality) what these characters do will actually be allowed to have real consequences. For once, the series doesn’t feel like an edgy fanfic someone made after watching J.J. Abram’s Star Trek films. It’s actually starting, if ever so slowly, to feel like Star Trek.
The mirror universe will even, ironically, allows the series to offer the self-reflection that the series so desperately needs of it’s characters. I don’t know if it’ll allow it to slow down any, but the plot seems that going forward, the series will be able to allow their character to self-reflect and, hopefully, allow them to change by showing them doing things of consequence. For instance, lets take Saru’s big episode “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.” In this episode Saru suffers a mental breakdown after coming to a planet where he finally doesn’t feel threatened. He assaults starfleet officers, tries to sabotage their mission (a mission that we are told could be the difference between victory or defeat in the war), and two episodes later he’s fine. His actions are never allowed to have any consequences because the setting couldn’t allow it.
This episode, as previously mentioned, was also directed by Star Trek veteran Jonathan Frakes. Frakes, by virtue of his skills as a director and as a Star Trek veteran, restores the simple competency that a good director can bring. The cinematography and camera work is finally not distracting. He still uses plenty of dutch angles, sweeping camera movements, crane work, dolly shots, and eschews the much loathes lens flare. Much more under-appreciated, however, is how well Frakes gives Discovery and the Mirror Shenzou a sense of space previously lacking. So often in this show the quick camera work and close ups, combined with the rapid fire editing, allowed us to go ten episodes without any real establishing shots. The Discovery hasn’t really felt like a real place until now, it hasn’t had (and still doesn’t) have a character like other hero ships in the series, but this episode at least opens us up to the possibility of it being a real place.
Frakes’s unobtrusive camera work also allows him to hone his camera in on something else that’s been signature Trek that’s been sorely lacking — subtle ACTING! The cast on Discovery is a collection of some of the best actors around that have somehow managed to escape prestige TV and movies thus far, and yet they’ve been fed sloppy dialogue, poor plots, and Abrams style directing that actively runs away from quieter moments. This script, combined with Frakes’s direction, combine with the skill of the cast finally allows the material to click. I’m thinking specifically of the quieter moments in the episode where Frakes allows the camera to linger on a character’s face after something has happened. The best example of this is Burnham after her incredible fight with a member of her mirror Shenzou crew in the turbolift. It was a tight, well choreographed fight that actually made the threat to Burnham feel real. The viscerally of the fight made the moment pay off at the end, when Burnham stabs the crewman to death. As he’s dying, the camera lingers over her face and allows us to project all the feeling that we ourselves would feel in this position onto her; the shock, the fear, the anger, the regret, the realization that she’s never stabbed anyone to death. It allows the viewer, for once in the series, to actually have empathy for the characters. Throughout the episode, these pauses allow us to have empathy for these people we barely know, and I hope that it continues.
A Few Minor, and One Major Problem
I’ll start with the small issues and work my way up to the big ones.
The CGI was noticeably worse this episode, specifically all the outside shots looked like they easily could have been unused footage from Star Trek Voyager. For a series that has really put an emphasis on heavy effects (that have been good looking at least) it was weird to see such poorly done CGI.
There are still a ton of background members of the Discovery crew that are nothing more than set dressing. We’ve got generic black male crewman. We’ve got black crewwoman conn officer with epic hair. We’ve got a f#@king android. We’ve got good looking white guy no. 2. Like, these are people we see on the bridge every episode and we know nothing about them.
Can we just stop with the holograms? I understand it allows for you to actually have the actor on set to act, but I really, really, really miss the view screen. It’s such an iconic part of Star Trek to excise entirely from the show. Also, stop telling me it’s because it makes for a better performance. If William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban can snarl at each other for an entire movie without ever being in the same room, then you can make it work.
Okay, now to talk about my BIG problem … Dr. Culber’s death. This show has a propensity for building up interesting characters specifically for the purposes of killing them off in shocking a shocking manner. Instead of taking a organic character death approach like, Game of Thrones (Where a character’s death is fundamentally the fault of the characters itself, or the capriciousness of the setting), they are taking The Walking Dead approach, which is fundamentally about shocking the audience and not about telling a story. Aside from Cubler’s death being done strictly for shock value, there is no way in hell that Tyler is able to get away with it. What I mean is, there’s no way Tyler is able to get out of sickbay even. There is no way a nurse wasn’t RIGHT THERE. There’s no way there weren’t cameras recording the whole thing. Also, where the hell was the other doctor that was going to be taking over for Cubler? Also, why is Cubler the only person ever in sickbay when it’s implied there’s multiple medical professionals?
Then there’s the other major problem with this, and that it’s following in the long tradition of the “bury your gays” story trope. It’s a troubling and problematic story trope that I never in a million years thought Star Trek would do, much less this Star Trek, which has been so self-consciously focused on social justice issues, both in it’s casting and themes. In a series where anyone can die, this is less of an issue, but Star Trek seemed to have accidentally stumbled into the worst kind of “bury your gays.” Cubler was killed after Star Trek spent all this time ginning up their relationship and broadcasting it over the internet, leading the classic trope, as reported by tvtropes.org as when, “gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus “perverting” the other one, has to die at the end.” This also will most likely turn into the “stuffed into a fridge” trope, which at this point is just lazy writing. If you need more understanding as to why this is a problem issue, check out this dissertation on the “bury your gays” trope. If you want to see the Star Trek’s team defense of this, check out their statement here.
- Those Mirror Universe outfits are sufficiently over the top, and badass.
- Everyone in my house looked at me like I was crazy when I fist pumped at the mention of the U.S.S Defiant. I can’t believe these people watched Enterprise, but I’m happy about it nonetheless.
- Anyone else want The Emperor to be someone from Enterprise? Cause I definitely do.
- I wish they would just say the name “VoQ” and stop pretending that we don’t know that’s why Ash is.
- “Captain Killy” is by far the best of Tilly’s alternate universe names.