Redemption Arcs and Yet More Complaints about Star Trek Discovery

Yes, I know that I already complained at length about Star Trek Discovery, but I’m not quite done yet.

In fact, I’m surprised how strongly I feel about about this, since until last week, I thought I was done with Star Trek for good. I’m still fond of the original series and The Next Generation, less fond of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. But to me, Star Trek is a story that has been told. It’s done and in fact it had been done at least a couple of years before Enterprise went off the air in 2005.

However, like pretty much any pop culture franchise, no matter how played out, that good old workhorse Star Trek is not allowed its well deserved rest. Instead, it’s trotted out again and again, a shambling, decaying zombie, stitched together Frankenstein-like with bits of other stories, a mere shadow of its former self. Indeed, maybe we should call the J.J. Abrams movies and Discovery zombie-Trek. It’s certainly an apt description. Though “War Trek”, as Ethan Siegel suggests in this disappointed reaction to the pilot, would also work.

Of all the Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine is the one that gets the most critical acclaim these days. To someone who watched every Star Trek except for the original series on first broadcast, this is baffling, because back in the day, no one liked Deep Space Nine. It was always the ugly step-sibling of the Star Trek franchise, watched when there was nothing else on, but never particularly liked, let alone loved, though it did manage a few really good episodes in its run (the Tribble episode and “Far Beyond the Stars”). What is more, Deep Space Nine also suffered in comparison to Babylon 5, which was broadcast at the same time and handled a similar concept (multi-species space station in a time of war) so much better. Of course, some twenty years later, Deep Space Nine is suddenly an immortal classic, while Babylon 5 is nigh forgotten. I strongly suspect that this is another result of the taste convergence due to the rise of the internet, when a few early US-based pop culture and geek websites imposed their taste on everybody else, whereas previously local fan communities had their own lingo and favourites, but that’s a topic for another post.

But considering that today, Deep Space Nine, unarguably the darkest of the Star Trek shows with the most unpleasant characters, is the most highly acclaimed of all Star Trek shows and that the Next Generation two-parter “Chain of Command” (a.k.a. the one where Picard gets tortured, written by none other than Ron D. Moore who would later go on to ruin Battlestar Galactica) is considered one of the most highly acclaimed episodes in the entire history of the franchise, even though every Trekkie I knew back then hated it on first broadcast, and given the explosion of grimdark that happened since Enterprise went off the air twelve years ago (and Enterprise veered towards grimdarkness from season 3 on), it’s no surprise that Star Trek Discovery looks like it does, dark, dreary and unpleasant with nary a hint of the generally positive future portrayed in most versions of Star Trek. In short, it seems Discovery took what I always considered the some of the worst bits of Star Trek and amped it up to eleven.

And indeed most of the people who seem to like it are Deep Space Nine fans who actively sneer at the old-fashioned do-gooding and the largely self-contained episodes of the original series, Next Generation and Voyager, even though serialization is one of the biggest banes of modern television along with the tendency towards grimdarkness among most of the “prestige shows”. And Star Trek Discovery seems determined to embrace all that.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

So episode 3 of Star Trek Discovery aired last weekend and we have finally seen the titular ship. It’s a science vessel engaged in black ops research, not a battleship per se. So it seems my “Dirty Dozen in Space” suspicions were wrong, though Michael Burnham is forcibly recruited by the Discovery‘s captain, after he apparently engineers that the prisoner transport that is transporting Burnham and a couple of other convicts to work in a prison mine breaks down, while the Discovery just happens to be in the vicinity. Once again, I can’t help but wonder why a post-scarcity society like the Federation has prison camps and forced convict labour in the first place. Unless the post-scarcity society of the Federation is really based on previously unseen prison camps and convict labour. Given the dystopian Federation presented in Discovery so far, I wouldn’t even be surprised, if it was. And yes, I know that the Federation is one of the fairly few quasi-Socialist future worlds in science fiction, but you can have Socialism without gulags.

After being attacked by other convicts aboard the Discovery, Michael Burnham is taken to see the Discovery‘s captain, one Gabriel Lorca (I had to look up his name). The Captain is a shadowy man – quite literally – who hangs around in the dark, supposedly because of an eye condition. So Federation science will be able to compensate for Geordi LaForge’s blindness in the not too distant future, but they can’t cure this guy’s eye condition? And just in case the fact that this guy constantly hangs around in the dark wasn’t enough to tell us that he is a very shady figure, it’s also revealed that he has a menagerie of imprisoned aliens, some of them sentient, on which his crew apparently experiments (Yes, a Federation starship experiments on alien life, including sentient alien life). The Captain also has a tribble on his desk. No one is quite sure why it’s there, though theories range from Klingon detector to possible bioweapon. It’s notable that there is only one tribble (and we know at what speed they reproduce), which suggests that this one is either dead, not being fed or the victim of future bioengineering. But whatever that poor tribble is doing aboard the Discovery, it’s clearly being abused.

Yes, Captain Lorca is abusing a tribble. What sort of monster abuses tribbles?

What makes the fact that the Discovery‘s captain is such an awful person even worse is that fact that the actor who plays him, Jason Isaacs, is so likeable. Yes, I know he’s played his share of villains like all British actors trying to make it in Hollywood and American audiences will probably associate him most with playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. But I primarily associate Jason Isaacs with playing private detective Jackson Brodie in the British crime drama Case Histories, where he is incredibly likeable. So why couldn’t we have gotten Captain Jackson Brodie instead of Captain… – well, I’d refer to him as Captain Arsehole, but since I already refer to Benjamin Sisko by that monicker, I’ll simply go with “Captain Tribble Abuser”.

Michael Burnham might have escaped the prison mines for now, but Captain Tribble Abuser forces her to work for him, to help with the research done aboard the Discovery (some nonsense about fungus spores that allow for faster space travel – yes, really, the Discovery’s top secret research involves magic mushrooms). He also tells her that she is obliged to help him stop the war she started. Of course, Michael Burnham did not start the war – the Klingons did. But then this show should be called “Star Trek: Blame Michael Burnham for everything”. Because pretty much every person in this show, including Michael herself, seems to be convinced that Michael Burnham is the worst person in the whole universe. The other convicts despise and attack her and the entire Discovery crew (with the exception of a young female ensign) treats her like crap. The security chief calls Michael and the other convicts “garbage”, the scientist she’s supposed to work with despises her (and to be fair, the entire Discovery, so at least this dude is an equal opportunity despiser) and the Discovery‘s first officer, this show’s resident rubber-headed alien who also was aboard the Shenzhou and unfortunately survived its destruction, keeps telling Michael that she’s a horrible person and how much of a disappointment she is to everybody. What makes this even worse is that the vast majority of these characters are played by white actors, whereas the much despised Michael Burnham is a woman of colour. And coincidentally, I’ve also seen people point out that the negative aspects of Michael Burnham’s character, her violent tendencies, her anger, her impulsiveness and her lack of control, all fit nasty sterotypes about black people, though to be fair, those traits could also result from a traumatised human kid being raised by emotionally distant Vulcans. Nonetheless, absolutely no one aboard the Discovery with the possible exception of the young female ensign and the unnamed redshirts is likeable and if Kirk or Picard or Archer or Janeway or indeed anybody else had been in charge of the Discovery, they’d all have been fired and, considering the Federation is a dystopia now, they’d probably be toiling in the prison mines next to Michael Burnham.

It’s not that we haven’t seen shady or outright awful Starfleet officers or Federation officials before. Every Star Trek captain with the possible exception of Janeway (due to being stuck in the delta quadrant with no contact to Starfleet or the Federation) has tangled with shady Starfleet officers and Federation representatives such as the mysterious black ops Section 31, which is suspected to play a role in Discovery as well. However, up to now, these shady Starfleet officers and Federation politicians were antagonists, who showed up for an episode or two to allow Kirk or Picard or Sisko or Archer to make a moral point, only to crawl back to whatever dark hole they’d come from. Star Trek Discovery, however, gives us a whole ship full of shady and unpleasant Starfleet personnel.

Now there are a lot of TV shows I watch mainly for the characters and their interactions. Not that I don’t like to see them doing something interesting like solving crimes, catching serial killers, fighting evil or exploring space, but a lot of the time my main motivation for watching a show is that I want to spend time with these characters. And one of the great strengths of the Star Trek franchise was always giving us characters you wanted to spend time with. Yes, the fact that those characters had cool adventures in space helped a lot, but even a dull episode was made better by banter between Kirk, Spock and Bones or Data, Whorf and Geordi or Picard and Q or Odo and Quark or Janeway and the Doctor and so on. Indeed, one point that unites the IMO less successful Star Trek iterations (Deep Space Nine and Enterprise) is that they had too few memorable characters. Deep Space Nine at least had a few good characters, though most of them were imported from Next Generation. Meanwhile, the characters of Enterprise were so dull that I cannot recall their names without looking them up. In this house, we refer to the different Enterprises as Kirk’s Enterprise, Picard’s Enterprise and Porthos’ Enterprise, because the most memorable character in Star Trek Enterprise was literally the Captain’s dog.

So for a show that relies so much on the interplay between its cast like Star Trek to be saddled with so many unpleasant characters like Discovery is a huge problem. Now I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Michelle Yeoh’s character Captain Georgiou and the Michael Burnham we saw in the very first episode before everything went to hell. But the Discovery crew are all unpleasant jerks to the point that I wouldn’t mind if the space monster from the third episode broke free and ate them all. As for Michael Burnham, the main reason I still have some sympathy for her is because she is the underdog here, since her guilt trip is pretty annoying.

For Michael Burnham believes that she deserves all the punishment and the abuse. She genuinely believes that she is the worst person in the universe and just wants to “serve her sentence”, either unaware or not caring that she will be shovelling shit for the Federation for the rest of her life. During a mission to a sister ship of the Discovery, she even leads the above-mentioned space monster away from the rest of the team – comprised of people who despise her and a redshirt, who probably despises her as well, because everybody aboard the Discovery and in the whole Federation hates Michael Burnham. Whereas I was screaming at the screen, “Let the monster eat them all, steal a shuttle and get the hell away from there!” In fact, I kept hoping throughout the episode that Michael Burnham would nerve-pinch the nearest person, steal a shuttle (maybe rescue the tribble first, because the poor little tribble does not deserve to be abused) and defect to the Romulans. Actually, I would have preferred the Klingons, but since the Klingons are back to being villains and nothing but villains now, the Romulans will have to do. Though the whole debate is academic, because Michael Burnham accepts all the abuse, since she believes she deserves to be punished.

In my last post, I wrote that Star Trek Discovery hits several of my personal hot buttons, which is why I was pretty much predisposed to dislike the show. I forgot one hot button, however, namely stories where a constant stream of abuse and humiliation is heaped on one character, supposedly to teach them a lesson about some past wrongdoing, until they finally repent. I have always hated such stories, for as long as I can remember. Back when I was a kid, there were quite a few children’s books like that. I read these books, when there was nothing else to read, but I hated them with a passion, because – like I would put it back then – “everybody was always so mean to the main character and they hadn’t even done anything wrong.” Here is an example, which I still clearly remember more than thirty years after I first read it, because I hated it so much. The protagonist Isabell’s sins for which she must be humiliated non-stop include such shocking behaviour as wearing her hair open, watching TV, listening to pop music and wearing a pink ski suit. The book was first published in 1962 and so it of course was hopelessly dated when I read it in the 1980s. But I suspect that even in 1962, the “punishment” for Isabell’s sins must have seemed excessive.

Unlike Isabell, Michael Burnham is not being punished for wearing the wrong hairstyle and the wrong colour of ski suit. However, the only actual crime she committed was nerve-pinching Captain Georgiou, an attack which knocked her out for all of sixty seconds and caused no permanent harm. Besides, Captain Georgiou was well on the way to forgiving Michael for what she’d done by the time she died. However, Michael never managed to put her plan to fire at the Klingon ship into action and it’s pretty clear that the Klingons would have attacked and likely destroyed the Shenzhou anyway, because the Klingons are xenophobic isolationists. And BTW, it is massively problematic to use a dark-skinned alien race (more darker skinned than ever in Discovery) that has traditionally been protrayed by actors of colour as a stand-in for the xenophobia and isolationism of the white nationalists that elected Trump and voted for the AfD and for Brexit. Okay, so Michael Burnham did kill the Klingon head honcho, which complicated matters, but was completely understandable given the circumstances. And besides, events proved her right in the end and the Shenzhou should have fired at the Klingons, while they were still able to. For that matter, if – as Michael explains – it’s standard Vulcan policy to fire at Klingons whenever they show up, why does no one in Starfleet know about this and why don’t they take this policy seriously, especially since Vulcans aren’t given to senseless violence? That’s another problem with the show, the worldbuilding makes no sense and the logic is bad enough to make a Vulcan go catatonic. Nonetheless, considering what Michael Burnham actually did, both the life sentence and the constant stream of humiliation to which she is subjected are completely over the top.

I suspect that the whole first season of Discovery is supposed to be some kind of redemption arc for Michael Burnham. Now I have massive issues with redemption arcs. The first issue is that “redemption” is a word that has no real equivalent in German. There is a translation, of course, but fact is that the English language has a lot more words for saying that someone has done something bad and now feels really, really sorry about that and has to go through humiliation and suffering to make up for it than German does. Though we have one that English does not have, the so-called Canossa Gang (walk to Canossa) and coincidentally, I always thought that Heinrich IV was right there and Pope Gregor VII was wrong. But atonement, redemption, grovelling, we don’t really have words for that and the words we do have are rarely used and only turn up in contexts of old theological texts and equally old parenting guidebooks. So the first time I came across the term “redemption arc” in the context of either Buffy or Angel (at any rate, it was a Joss Whedon show), I had no idea what the term meant and couldn’t even find a proper translation and besides whatever character was undergoing a redemption arc at the time hadn’t done anything to deserve the abuse they were receiving IMO. Here is a great post why redemption arcs inevitably involve a whole lot of suffering. So in short, I don’t like redemption arcs very much, because there is something sadistic about them, since they are usually used as excuses to humiliate and heep a lot of abuse upon a character, which is something I hate.

That’s not to say that redemption stories, once you get past the fact that English has a word for that, cannot work, because there are some redemption arcs that work very well indeed. The Marvel movies, which I like a whole lot, frequently do redemption arcs. The Iron Man movies, the Thor movies, Doctor Strange, Ant Man, Loki in Thor – The Dark World, Bucky’s arc in Captain America – The Winter Soldier, Black Widow’s arc in pretty much everything, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron, everybody in the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, etc…, it’s redemption arcs all over. Indeed, the redemption arc (“With great power comes great responsibility) is one of Marvel’s core stories. DC does them on occasion as well in its TV shows, see Leonard Snart and Mick Rory in Legends of Tomorrow or Mon-El in Supergirl, but Marvel specialises in redemption arcs. And amazingly, they work. They work so well that we’re willing to read and watch variations of the same story of the likeable, but arrogant prick who has something disastrous happen to them, endures a sojourn in the wilderness while receiving/honing their new powers, returns to civilisation to use those new powers for good and finds friendship, a surrogate family and sometimes true love, too, over and over again.

So what is it that makes Marvel’s redemption arcs work, when so many others don’t? First of all, they always offer us something to like about our portagonist, even if they are pretty much an arsehole. See Tony Stark interacting with the soldiers at the very beginning of the first Iron Man film. We also get a hint of why they became that way (usually Daddy and abandonment issues) and see that regardless of how much material wealth they have, something in their life is missing. Besides, the Marvel movies don’t wallow in misery – the sojourn in the wilderness usually takes up maybe thirty minutes at most of the movie in question. Thor’s sojourn in the wilderness is longer and makes up the bulk of the first Thor movie, but then the Thor getting used to Earth scenes (cause Earth is Thor’s sojourn in the wilderness) are so funny that we don’t mind. What is more, even during the low point of the redemption arc, where our hero or heroine is supposed to suffer, Marvel protagonists usually find friends and allies and aren’t universally despised like Michael Burnham. And so Tony Stark meets Yinsen, Thor meets Jane, Darcy and Eric Selvig, Doctor Strange meets Wong, Mordo and the Ancient One, the Guardians of the Galaxy meets each other, etc… Besides, the Marvel movies always start with their protagonists missing something in their lives (usually they are isolated and have no real purpose in life at the beginning or try to follow someone else’s idea of how their life should be like), no matter how outwardly perfect their lives might look. And when they undergo their ordeal in the wilderness, we know that even though things look bad for them now, it will get better. Our hero will get superpowers, will find their true purpose in life and will get a bunch of really cool friends, too. In short, the Marvel movies have a hopeful outlook and manage to offer redemption arcs without the steady stream of abuse and humiliation that makes them so unpalatable and that’s why they work, where so many others fail.

Meanwhile, Michael Burnham’s life is pretty good at the beginning of Star Trek Discovery. She, too, has abandonment and daddy issues, but she is generally in a good place. She has an exemplary career behind her, a close relationship with her Captain (and apparently, Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green also became friends in real life), is largely respected by the crew (she doesn’t seem to get along with rubberhead, but then rubberhead is a jerk) and is about to get her own command. There really isn’t anything missing in Michael Burnham’s life at this point, except maybe a romantic relationship and I’m not sure how interested she is in that. After all, she was raised by Vulcans. For all we know, she might even have a fiancé waiting for her on Vulcan in one of those childhood betrothals Vulcans arrange for their children. So when she loses everything, she has to gain what exactly? The respect of the Discovery crew? Captain Lorca’s trust? And why would she even want that, considering Lorca and his crew are a bunch of jerks? There is nothing waiting in Michael Burnham’s future that is better than what she had before. And considering that Star Trek is a show that has always dealt in hope, giving us a story where the protagonist has nothing better to hope for is yet another violation of what Star Trek used to be.

Come to think of it, Star Trek Discovery would probably have worked better, if the show had skipped the pilot and started out with Michael in prison, because then at least she has something better to look forward to. Or if they’d swapped Captain Lorca with Captain Georgiou (either actors or personalities), so Michael starts out on a ship where she doesn’t get along all that well with the Captain and the crew. She mutinies, lands in prison and is rescued by a Captain who – to her own surprise – treats her well. That’s actually a story that might be worth watching and would be less of a bait and switch for all the people who were looking forward to seeing a Star Trek show featuring two women of colour in command and interacting, only for one of them to die and the other to end up in prison. Though it still wouldn’t feel like Star Trek.

And that’s the main problem with Star Trek Discovery. It just doesn’t feel like Star Trek. Not that there is anything wrong with telling the story of an evil Federation or at least a Federation where the cracks that have been noticeable just beneath the surface of the Federation for a long time, suddenly come to the fore. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen quite a few science fiction universes where the premise was clearly: Like the Federation, but evil. Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series is good example of this and Becky Chambers did a good job of highlighting the less savoury aspects of her Federation like entity in A Closed and Common Orbit. Hell, the Republic of United Planets in my own In Love and War series is an evil Federation of sorts, though I wasn’t consciously aware of that, until I was working on a tense scene in an upcoming In Love and War novella, while angry at Star Trek Discovery, and accidentally typed “Federation” where I should have written “Republic” in one hell of a Freudian slip. For that matter – and that’s the most I’ll talk about my own books here – I actually have a court martial scene in Graveyard Shift, where gross incompetence on the part of Republican officers causes a horrible disaster with a big loss of life. And the penalty handed out by a shady military tribunal in a clearly dystopian regime (“dishonourable discharge and a few years in a prison camp”) is still less than what Michael Burnham gets. Meanwhile, Colonel Brian Mayhew, who is the main antagonist in the series (I would say “villain”, but Mayhew insists that he is not a villain and that he wants a redemption arc), actually speaks up against his more bloodthirsty colleagues who want a harsher sentence. So even my supposed villain, representative of a clearly evil dystopian regime, is still less awful than the supposedly so noble Federation in Star Trek Discovery.

So the problem is not so much that the Federation is a dystopia now, because stories about an evil Federation can work. However, an evil Federation story is not what I expect from a show that carries the official Star Trek label, at least not all the time. And this is really the main problem, namely that whatever Discovery is, it just isn’t Star Trek. The tech doesn’t fit, the Klingons don’t fit, the dystopian Federation doesn’t fit. And the deliberate references to previous Star Treks – Sarek, the tribble, the gorn skeleton Captain Lorca keeps in his private collection, Captain Georgiou’s bottle of Chateau Picard wine, the fact that Michael Burnham recites Alice in Wonderland to herself in times of stress, a book her foster brother Spock is also fond of (and for that matter, why does no one in the Federation ever appreciate any culture post approx. 1950?) – all serve to highlight that fact that Discovery just doesn’t feel like Star Trek even more. But then, the credits of the production team of Star Trek Discovery range from Batman and Robin via Hawaii Five-Oh to Hannibal. One thing the producers don’t have in their resumes, however, is Star Trek and it shows. Meanwhile, the people who actually have past experience working on Star Trek or are known to be huge fans are all working on The Orville (I will have to watch that, do I?).

So now we have a show that apparently looks and feels like Star Trek, but doesn’t have the official label, and one show which has the official label, but feels nothing whatsoever like Star Trek. Maybe, Star Trek Discovery is really set in the mirror universe and any moment now, a goateed Spock will be beaming aboard the Discovery to rescue his foster sister and the abused tribble.

Now that would actually be kind of cool.

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