Star Trek: Discovery isn’t a perfect show. It has potential, but there’s simply so much bad to wade through that it’s not worth any good that’s well… discovered. And that’s really disappointing to admit because no first season of any Star Trek is very good. All had some glaring issues, but DSC takes the cake. And of all of the systemic issues with DSC, Gabriel Lorca’s story arc is the most prominent. Obviously, spoilers from episode 13 follow.
I’m, of course, referring to Lorca’s big reveal as a Mirror Universe native who really prefers to wear dark leather coats and walk around drawling fascistic mantras—you know, instead of being interesting. And just as soon as we’re given this twist, Lorca is mercilessly murdered. Everything about this plot twist reveals how Jason Isaacs is an incredible actor and how the show is a writing mess.
Let’s start from the beginning.
The Lorca We Never Got
The idea of who Lorca was going to be was sold to us time and again. He was a Starfleet captain who was going to challenge the ideals of Starfleet. He was packaged to us as the guy who thought that the Federation was worth saving, but that you might have to do things that violate Federation ideals in order to win against an enemy willing to win at all cost. This plot thread was never fully developed beyond this implied belief set causing tension between him and some of the crew. We never see Lorca actually do anything bad. Sure, he was cool with exploiting the tardigrade (which in retrospect, the reveal explains why it was so easy for him to make that call), but that’s it. This is a compelling story idea, and this is the central idea the entire show has been premised around. Lorca was the man to do that.
The Twist of Twists
The twist that Lorca was, in fact, a closet racist, fascist from another dimension landed about as surprisingly as any other twist in this show. They had laid the hints on thick throughout the whole season, with Isaacs practically winking at the camera, but the idea was so hamfisted and ridiculous that I assumed them red herrings, that Lorca wasn’t from the Mirror Universe because that was the easy way out. The idea that the show’s ship could be run by a man with a broken moral compass was one of the best innovations of DSC, and gave us a real way of contrasting the ideals of the Federation on a weekly basis. The tagline for the show practically begged, “Is the Federation Worth Saving?” Once again, Lorca was the vehicle for that.
The actual reveal of Lorca as the big, bad made this problem all the worse. Lorca had not once actually held any Federation ideals. He, in fact, didn’t think the Federation was worth saving, and per Jason Isaacs’ interview on the podcast Transporter Room 3, Lorca’s every action served the purpose of maintaining control of the one ship that could get him home: Discovery. Lorca would have been far more compelling as a Mirror Universe character if he was actually a reformer. I kept hoping that he would have a Mirror Universe twist, but that he would be a rebel against the Empire rather than a usurper within it. It would have been a continuation of the central theme while still allowing for the twist, while also complicating matters. It would have forced Burnham to chose between her father figure and her mother figure in a real way. But making Lorca a true Terran undermined any real chance that Burnham would ever side with Lorca. Instead of being a multilayered character that we want to root for as a bad guy, we get a caricature of a Trumper fascist. I mean, Lorca literally says he want’s to “Make the Empire Glorious Again” in the same speech talking about immigrants pouring over the border. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he started wearing a red trucker hat with that slogan on it just in case we missed the point. Lorca, in the span of one episode, transformed from one of the most fascinating characters ever to be in Star Trek to a Richard Spencer knock-off. The transition was so quick and the ease of him being able to spout his xenophobic fascist nonsense so sudden, that I assumed he was still lying. I had never seen a character go from being a fully formed character to a cartoon so quickly.
How the Twist Undermines the Show
Moreover, the cartoonishness of the Mirror Universe undermined any real examination the Federation vs the Empire. The show, via this reveal and the Mirror Universe as a whole, rejects any real examination of a fascist state vs the Pluralistic Federation. The show never takes the claims of the Terrans (or the Klingons for that matter) seriously. It doesn’t even try to make their point of view sympathetic, and as a result doesn’t actually strengthen Federation ideals by actually testing them against something else. By doing that, it really undermines the central theme of the series of whether the Federation deserves to survive. The resurgence of fascism is a real thing in 2018, and I was hoping that by spending so much time in this universe that we would be given time to show why a pluralistic society like the Federation is more advantageous than a closed-off empire, but the show never slowed down enough to allow that. It would have been interesting to have your typical Star Trek briefing room scene with Burnham’s mirror crew and see how they would approach a mission, but the show has done such a bad job establishing a sense of routine on the Discovery it makes that sort of contrast nearly impossible.
To give you a Star Trek example, look no further than Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Enemy.” In this episode we have an mortally injured Romulan on board the Enterprise, and on the surface we have another injured Romulan. Each one of these Romulans are paired with a member of the Enterprise crew, both of whom have to chose whether to help these Romulans, who are the enemy. Geordi La Forge, who got stuck on the surface, decides to help the Romulan he finds, and the two work together to survive the planet. Worf, on the Enterprise, is the only member of the crew who has blood compatible for the Romulan to take in a transfusion. Worf’s parents were killed by Romulans. They are his sworn enemy, and therefore refuses to help the Romulan. When Worf tells the Romulan that he is the only person who can save him, the Romulan replies, “I would rather die … than pollute my body with Klingon filth.” Two officers and two Romulans make choices in this episode, one set chooses to overcome their animosity and help each other survive. The other set doesn’t, and is destroyed because of it. We learn so much about Worf and Geordi through their interactions while facing similar circumstances. We learn way more about the Romulans in this episode than we had in the entire series thus far. We see Federation ideals get challenged, and we get to see what it looks like when a Starfleet officer chooses not to live up to those principles. It’s an example of how you write a character focused story verses a plot focused story. TNG, and by extension the majority of Star Trek, is a character focused series where the story’s direction is dictated based on each characters motivations. In DSC, the plot dictates what the characters are going to do next. I saw somewhere online in a comment that the Discovery isn’t powered by a spore drive, but a Murphy’s Law drive, with each episode being the next bad situation for them to get in to.
That is really the main problem of the show. It has the main theme that it wants to talk about in it’s crosshairs, but it keeps missing the target. They had a great antagonist with a fascinating opposing worldview in T’Kuvma, and he was killed off in the first episode. Then we have VoQ, appearing to continue that antagonism, but who is instead shunted into another body and is never allowed to show that contrast. Then we have L’Rell, who is an unreliable narrator (and whose makeup is so consistently bad I can’t focus on anything she’s saying). Then we have the Klingon War which is simultaneously omnipresent and also only hanging around on the fringes.
Then we have Lorca.
Every twist exists to do one thing: be a twist. It’s there to subvert audience expectations, but instead by the time we get to the twists they’re so painfully obvious they can’t even serve that. Between that and immediately killing off any characters that actually provide depth to the show you’ve nothing but a crew of characters that I know nothing about. Tilly is defined by nothing but her exterior traits (which is a shame because she is a delight). Burnham is defined by her inconsistency. Saru is the alien castmember. Stamets is the science guy who is apparently unfazed by his the death of his partner. To put this in another perspective, we’ve spent about 633 minutes with these characters. If these were movies (which the people behind this show keep insisting we think about the show like a movie), then we would be a quarter of a way through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Can you imagine making it that far through those movies and not understanding who Harry, Ron, and Hermione are? Our lack of understanding of who these core characters are, much less the names of the various side characters who have speaking roles is inexcusable. The show needs to abandon their over reliance on twists and actually do some character work for once. They have a great cast. They have great sets. The bones of a good show are there, they just need to slow down and show us who these people are. ■