It seems that last week’s episode of Star Trek Discovery (which was actually good) was an outlier, because this week Star Trek Discovery is back on form and it sucks. If you’re interested in reading me detailing all the many ways in which Star Trek Discovery sucks, go here. For another take, check out Camestros Felapton who remarks on the inconsistency of Star Trek Discovery here. Or listen to Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Aster dissecting the show and its many problems at the Feminist Frequency podcast. Or read Bridget McKinney’s take at SF Bluestocking, which quite often mirrors mine.
In fact, this episode made me so angry that I’m pretty close to stopping watching this show altogether, because it’s not good for my health. Though I’ll probably watch next week’s episode, which is the last one before the winter break. And why does a streaming video show need to take a winter break anyway? Christmas/winter breaks make sense for broadcast television, but not for streaming videos.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
Episode 8 of Star Trek Discovery once more mashes several different plots together rather than focus on telling one story at a time with maybe a B-plot. It also once again steals part of its plot from previous Star Trek episodes, this time the original series episode “Errand of Mercy” with a bit of the original series episode “This Side of Paradise” thrown in for good measure. “This Side of Paradise” is actually a pretty good episode, but I’ve never particularly cared for “Errand of Mercy” and having just read a recap, I realise that my memories of it are rather hazy. Coincidentally, I also didn’t know that John Colicos, best remembered by SFF fans as Count Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica, plays a Klingon in that episode. “Errand of Mercy” is a very 1960s episode that hasn’t aged well with its focus on thinly veiled political issues of the day. Though at least it’s not as bad as “And Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (a.k.a. the one with the black and white faces) and its message of pacifism sadly still needs to be heard today. But even though “Errand of Mercy” is one of the weaker episodes of the original series, it still makes sense for Star Trek Discovery to riff on this episode. For “Errand of Mercy” was the episode that introduced the Klingons to the Star Trek universe and a war with the Klingons is the main focus of Star Trek Discovery.
And indeed a large part of episode 8 of Star Trek Discovery takes part aboard a Klingon ship. The female Klingon who tortured Lorca and sexually abused Ash Tyler a few episodes ago shows up again, this time sporting a new facial scar courtesy of Ash. She tries to ingratiate herself to the current Klingon head honcho (actually the third Klingon head honcho we’ve seen in the show so far) by helping him to interrogate (i.e. torture) a difficult prisoner. This difficult prisoner turns out to be none other than Admiral Cornwell, Captain Lorca’s sometime lover who was captured by Klingons two episodes ago and then sort of forgotten. During the interrogation, the female Klingon (apparently, the character’s name is L’Rell, but I honestly can’t tell these Klingons apart or remember their names) tells Admiral Cornwell that she wants to defect, because all her friends are dead and she hates the new Klingon head honcho. She also promises to help the Admiral escape. The Admiral accepts and they make an escape attempt, only to be intercepted by Klingons loyal to the new head honcho. The Admiral is supposedly killed (or is she?), while L’Rell is arrested (or is she?). Honestly, this whole bit didn’t make a whole lot of sense and the outcome is unclear.
Now I normally like the Klingons a lot and was always happy to see a Klingon focussed episode in Next Generation and the Star Trek series that followed. However, the Klingon scenes in Star Trek Discovery are just dull. I honestly don’t give a fuck about Voq and L’Rell and Kol and Kor and T’Kuvma and the umpteen Klingon houses. I can’t even tell them apart most of the time (honestly, the new Klingon make-up is awful) and I certainly don’t care about their political infighting. I also don’t care if L’Rell really wants to defect or if she is just lying again, cause lying seems to be something she does a lot. Nor do I care what happens to the Admiral – she’s an unpleasant character, even though I do like the fact that Lorca’s lover is a woman of his own age rather than someone who could be his daughter. And no, the problem is not that the Klingons speak Klingon among themselves, because I actually like that bit. Though it doesn’t help that the actors don’t speak Klingon very well, which makes their scenes feel stilted. But the whole Klingon subplot is just dull and I don’t know why a show with an already limited number of episodes needs to spend so much time among the Klingons, especially since these are the least interesting and least likeable Klingons we’ve seen in a long time. And let’s not even mention the flat out racist way they’re portrayed, which is even more troubling considering that Star Trek Discovery already has a bad record on race. If you want to have Klingon subplots to show the other side, so to say, then at least make them interesting and make the Klingons recognisably Klingon rather than runaway orcs pretending to be Klingons.
Oh yes and all of the Klingon ships have cloaking technology now (which is apparently still a new thing at this point in time), which is demonstrated in a big space battle with the Discovery and another Starfleet ship, which is destroyed. Starfleet ships are destroyed with alarming frequency in Star Trek Discovery, which confirms my suspicions that this incarnation of Starfleet is not just the military arm of a nasty, prisoner-exploiting dystopia, but also fucking incompetent. Which makes them seem even more hypocritical for blaming Michael Burnham for the fact that they lost 8000 people in the first two days of the war (and why do they need such huge crews anyway, when they have a high degree of automation? But that’s a topic for another day). Cause the real reason that Starfleet lost 8000 people in the first two days of their war with the Klingons is that they’re fucking incompetent.
Apart from establishing once again that Starfleet is incompetent, the only purpose of the big space battle is to introduce what is apparently supposed to be this episode’s main plot. Because the widespread use of cloaking technology has apparently turned the tide of the war yet again. A few episodes ago, Starfleet was winning, but now the Klingons are winning. And coincidentally, I also can’t muster much of an interest in how this war goes. For starters, we already know that no side scores a total victory, since conflict between the Federation and the Klingons will continue to simmer for several decades yet. What is more, both the Klingons and the Federation as depicted in Star Trek Discovery are so awful that “A plague on both your houses” is the only appropriate response to their conflict.
However, luckily for the Federation, a potential solution to Starfleet’s problem with the Klingon’s cloaking devices is found on the planet of Pahvo. Pahvo is a supposedly uninhabited planet (but this is Starfleet and we know they’re not very good at detecting lifeforms, unless they jump up and down and shout “here”), where all nature lives in harmony. The planet also broadcasts music via a giant crystal transmitter. But there’s no sentient life there, no not at all, the music is a total coincidence. The Federation now has the brilliant idea to send someone to Pahvo to retune the crystal transmitter, so it can be used to decloak Klingon ships. Of course, this makes no sense at all – if Klingon or Romulan ships could be decloaked by blasting music or noise at them, every Starfleet ship would be equipped with giant sonic emitters. But then, Star Trek Discovery is the show which came up with the brilliant idea to have the titular starship jump through space via a network of magic mushroom spores navigated first by a space critter and then by a somewhat zoned out human.
Nonetheless, the Discovery is sent to the totally uninhabited planet of Pahvo to retune the transmitter. We’ve all seen Star Trek, so we know how this is going to go. The team sent down to deal with the transmitter consists of Michael Burnham, Ash Tyler and Saru a.k.a. Commander Rubberhead. No redshirt, which means that the intelligent life which totally doesn’t exist on this planet at least won’t be overly hostile. Though unfortunately, this also means that the life which totally doesn’t exist on this planet also fails to eat Saru.
Coincidentally, this is the first time beyond the desert planet at the very start of the first episode and some flashbacks set on Vulcan that Star Trek Discovery has actually visited an alien planet. So far, all of the episodes took place almost entirely aboard one starship or another. Which yet again shows how unlike any Star Trek show with the possible exception of Deep Space Nine Discovery is. Because visiting alien planets has always been the lifeblood of Star Trek. Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional shipbound episode and indeed some of my favourite Star Trek episodes have been shipbound. But too many of them can get claustrophobic fast and seven shipbound episodes in a row is highly unusual for Star Trek. So it’s a relief to finally get to visit a planet, even if this planet looks just like a forest in Canada dressed up with some CGI touches. But then, it’s a well known fact that 40% of all planets in the galaxy look like somewhere in Canada, another 40% look like somewhere in Southern California, 15% look like random quarries in Britain and 5% look like Photoshop.
Michael and Ash use the excursion to spend some quality time together (more on that later), while Saru continues to be a pain in the butt as usual. First of all, the music generated and broadcast by the flora and fauna on Pahvo bothers Saru terribly. But then, I wonder why of all the people aboard the Discovery, you’d send the guy who’s afraid of everything down to the unexplored alien planet. Never mind that as first officer, Saru is probably needed aboard the ship, even though he never actually does much except stand around and snipe at Michael. Honestly, if you rewatch the clip from last week’s episode, where Harry Mudd kills Lorca 54 times in a row, Saru and the rest of the bridge crew just stand around and watch Lorca getting killed. None of them even try to intervene. Now imagine if someone had strolled or beamed onto the bridge of either Enterprise or the Voyager and attacked the captain. The entire bridge crew would have jumped on the intruder before they even had a chance to fire the first shot. Meanwhile, the Discovery‘s bridge crew just stands there and watches Lorca get killed, almost as if they’re secretly glad to be rid of him. And in fact, they probably are.
Talking about the Discovery‘s bridge crew, what precisely is the purpose of those people? I mean, these characters look really interesting – crashtest dummy woman (whose name apparently is Airiam), cyborg woman, black woman, rubberhead II – but they have barely any lines and zero personality. They only exist, so Lorca has someone to yell at. They could put actual crashtest dummies there and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. In all previous Star Trek versions (and in The Orville as well), the bridge is where the main cast (with the exception of the doctor and chief engineer) hangs out. But in Discovery, Lorca and occasionally Saru and Ash Tyler (and very occasionally Michael) hang out on the bridge, but the real action happens elsewhere. In fact, even Lorca is more frequently seen in his office or his secret lab of death than on the bridge. Meanwhile, the actual bridge crew are basically redshirts, but they’re probably the most expensive redshirts we’ve ever seen in Star Trek. Why create a cool looking character like Airiam, the sentient crashtest dummy, and have the actress spent two hours in make-up, only to give her nothing to do?
To absolutely no one’s surprise except the cast’s, the planet Pahvo turns out to be not uninhabited after all. For the blue glowy sparkles floating around everywhere that just happen to lead Saru, Michael and Ash to a hut in the forest (and of course, a hut on an uninhabited planet makes complete sense) are not fungus spores that escaped from the magic mushroom drive (I guess the special effects folks were feeling lazy that day and reused an effect), but the native sentient life of Pahvo. Once Michael, Ash and Saru discover that the glowy blue sparkles are actually lifeforms as well as sentient and intelligent, some debate breaks out about how to proceed now. Everybody agrees that since the planet is inhabited, they cannot simply reprogramm the crystal transmitter for their purposes without asking for permission first. However, the glowy blue sparks of Pahvo are also clearly a pre-warp civilization, so the Prime Directive forbids any intervention, regardless for what higher purpose, as the characters explain to each other for the sake of Trek newbies among the audience (since I’m pretty sure that three Starfleet officers – and yes, I’m including Michael here – already know all about the Prime Directive and don’t need it explained). Except that the inhabitants of Pahvo are clearly already aware of the Discovery team, so the damage has been done anyway. So it’s decided to initiate first contact procedures and nicely ask the inhabitants of Pahvo if the Federation may borrow their crystal transmitter to aid the war effort.
The task of initiating first contact falls to Saru, probably because he has the highest rank. And since the glowy blue things are telepathic and linked among themselves, they promptly forge a mental connection with Saru, which happens to look as if a blue glitter bomb went off in his face. Being telepathic, the aliens sense Saru’s anxiety (because Saru is always afraid) and also that the music broadcast by their planet is making him uncomfortable. So they telepathically assure Saru that every living being on the planet of Pahvo lives in total harmony with each other and that Saru has absolutely no reason to be afraid of anything, because Pahvo is completely safe. Meanwhile, they also get the gist of what has been going on in the wider universe from Saru.
The effect of the communion with the glowy blue spark on Saru is remarkable, because Saru immediately takes on a strange, zoned out look (well, stranger than usual). And what is it with Star Trek Discovery characters appearing as if they’re on drugs anyway? For a subplot of this episode reveals that Stamets’ reaction to the magic mushroom drive and the tardigrade DNA he injected himself with is getting worse. At first, it only seemed to turn Stamets into a more pleasant person with the tendency to hug random people and attempt to play matchmaker for Michael and Ash Tyler. But in this episode, we see more negative effects, when Stamets staggers out of the drive, clearly confused, and addresses Tilly as Captain, which is a big deal, considering how hierarchical and authoritarian Starfleet is in this incarnation of Star Trek. There are some fan theories whether Stamets addressing Tilly as Captain means that he has become unstuck in time and can see the future and/or parallel universes, especially since it has been established that Tilly wants to be a Starfleet captain one day. But whatever is really going on, it’s clear that the magic mushroom drive and the tardigrade DNA are affecting Stamets in unpredictable ways. The sensible thing would be to inform the Discovery‘s doctor, but Stamets is unwilling to do this, because as soon as he reports problems resulting from his interfacing with the magic mushroom drive, he will be relieved from duty, the magic mushroom drive will rendered unusable and the Federation will lose the war. Stamets can’t even talk about his problems with his partner/husband, the cute doctor, because the cute doctor is obliged to report Stamets’ problems to his superior, the Discovery‘s head doctor (honestly, what is it with this huge crew where we don’t even see the people in charge of the various departments at all?), who will then relieve Stamets of his duty. And if the cute doctor keeps Stamets’ condition to himself, he’ll be endangering his own career, because Starfleet is ultra-hierarchical and authoritarian now. Apparently, they no longer respect doctor-patient confidentiality nor the privacy of intimate relationships either. But then, the Federation is a dystopia now. As for Stamets, since Tilly accidentally became aware of his condition, he confides in her, since she is apparently not obliged to report him to anybody (yet more inconsistencies). And so Stamets and Tilly agree to monitor his condition. We all know how well this will turn out. I mean, what could go wrong?
As for things going wrong, Saru’s mental connection with the inhabitants of Pahvo is clearly affecting him adversely as well. For Saru is so blissed out in his anxiety-free state that he completely forgets about the mission and instead wants to stay on Pahvo in perpetual bliss forever. However, Michael and Ash are not on board with that idea, so Saru decides to force them to stay on Pahvo by destroying their communicators. Saru crushes the communicators with his bare hands BTW, so his alleged prey species has superstrength? Superspeed I can accept – and Saru is shown to have superspeed not much later – because a prey species would need it to run away from those who’d prey on them. See antelopes and gazelles in the real world. However, superstrength (by human standards) makes no sense for a prey species, unless whoever preys on them is Godzilla or Cthulhu. Which would actually be interesting, though it’s not really the sort of story Star Trek normally tells. But then, Star Trek Discovery is not Star Trek anyway.
Ash and Michael pretend to go along with Saru’s plan for now. But then Ash tells Michael to retune the transmitter, while he distracts Saru. Unfortunately, Saru and his glowy glitter pals uncover Ash’s ruse, whereupon Saru tells Ash that he is being deceitful. Which he absolutely is, in this situation, though it’s also another big honking hint that Ash is a Klingon spy. Honestly, by now the only surprise would be if Ash turned out to be nothing more than exactly what he claims to be, a Starfleet officer from the Pacific Northwest US.
Once Saru figures out that Ash and Michael have tricked him, he’s seriously pissed and uses his superspeed to set off after Michael who’s just about to retune the transmitter. Saru attacks Michael and – since he has superstrength – proceeds to beat the shit out of her. Okay, so Michael gets to shoot him as well, but Saru is clearly the aggressor here. Now I suspect we’re supposed to be shocked at such a display of violence from the normally reserved and constantly anxious Saru. However, it’s also been established from the very first episode on that Saru really does not like Michael (no matter what actor Doug Jones says – what’s actually on screen is saying something else). So the scene comes across as Saru, finally freed from his anxiety, promptly attacks the woman he resents and blames for all his problems. He even says as much to Michael. As he’s beating her up, Saru says to Michael that she’s taken everything else from him (basically she got the job as Captain Georgiou’s first officer that Saru wanted), but that she won’t take his newfound peace away, too. So in short, everything that is bad about Saru’s life is inevitably Michael’s fault.
Before Saru and Michael can permanently maim or kill each other, Ash shows up, having convinced the glowy blue sparkles that the Discovery‘s mission is important. So the sparkles retune the transmitter themselves, much to Saru’s horror. However – surprise – the glowy blue sparkles haven’t retuned the transmitter to make cloaked Klingon ships visible, after all. Instead, they’ve sent out a signal to both Starfleet and the Klingons to lure them to the planet, where the glowy blue sparks will persuade them to stop the war immediately and instead live in the same blissful harmony the glowy blue things enjoy. Now I actually like the idea of the supposedly primitive aliens, who turn out to be a) not primitive and b) react to the Federation’s non-intervention policy with “Well, it’s nice you have those principles, but we actually believe intervention is just fine and by the way, we can save you from yourself and your warlike impulses.” That idea was used to great effect in the original series episode “Errand of Mercy” which this episode is clearly patterned after. And in “Errand of Mercy”, the Organians’ ploy to end or at least defuse hostilities between humans and Klingons actually works out, sort of. But this is not the optimistic Star Trek of old, but Star Trek Discovery, the modern, grimdark take on Star Trek. And therefore, we all know that things won’t work out the way the inhabitants of Pahvo hope they will.
So the Discovery hangs around to defend Pahvo from the Klingons, while Michael, Ash and Saru are beamed back on board. Once there, Saru admits that he was not acting under the influence of the aliens, but that his actions were of his own free will, because he was so thrilled to be finally not afraid anymore. Whereupon he is court-martialled for refusing to follow orders, endangering the mission and the war effort and for attacking his crewmates and given a life sentence in the nastiest prison labour camp the Federation has to offer, where he will finally have a reason to be afraid of each and everything. Because that’s what the Federation is now, a nasty dystopia with a massive prison industrial complex.
But consistency is too much to expect from Star Trek Discovery and while it’s not clear what will happen to Saru after what he did, it’s pretty obvious that Saru will no more end up relieved off his duties, let alone in prison, than Lorca did for blowing up his own ship and killing his own crew and Harry Mudd did for trying to sell the Discovery to Klingons and killing Lorca as well as plenty of random Discovery crewmembers 54 times in a row. Mind you, while I don’t like Saru, I don’t actually want to see him in prison. I just want him transferred to a quiet outpost where he can’t do any harm and won’t have to suffer any excessive anxiety either. But the fact that Michael gets a hugely excessive sentence and is literally used as a scapegoat for Starfleet’s complete and utter incompetence, while Saru likely won’t get more than a slap on the wrist and Lorca and Harry Mudd both got off with far worse crimes than anything Michael ever did shows that white male privilege is alive and well in the 23rd century. And it’s interesting that Saru, though an alien, apparently counts as white and male as far as Star Trek Discovery is concerned, while Doug Jones’ other major role in 2017 in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water groups his character with in with the women, people of colour and disabled people. Indeed, going by the trailers, it looks as if a disabled woman and a woman of colour rescue Doug Jones’ character from white men intent on torturing and dissecting him.
I strongly suspect that this episode was supposed to make us sympathise with Saru and the plight of being afraid all the time. And indeed, it seems to have done just that for some people. However, it doesn’t work for me at all, because – in emotional pain due to being constantly afraid or not – Saru is still a highly unlikeable character. And while this episode tried to show us how Saru sees the world and how deep the stress from being afraid all the time really is for him, it also managed to highlight the unpleasant aspects of his character, namely his resentment of Michael Burnham and his tendency to blame her for everything that is wrong with his life. I also wonder whether the writers are aware of the implications of having an anxious and unqualified white man (well, an anxious and unqualified white rubberhead, to be exact, but Saru counts as an honourary white man for the purposes of Discovery) resent a more qualified woman of colour for having gotten the job he felt entitled to. Because that’s the vibe I’m getting from Saru and this episode did nothing to change that. Constantly afraid or not, Saru is a jerk.
Saru briefly experiencing life without fear clearly mirrors Spock finally being able to acknowledge his emotions under the influence of alien spores in the original series episode “This Side of Paradise”. “This Side of Paradise” works, because we’ve come to know and like Spock by then. And because we care about Spock, we want him to be happy. Not necessarily with Jill Ireland, but happy. And the fact that we’re invested in Spock also means that his devastation at the end when he realises that he’d found happiness for the first time in his life only to lose it again feels true. However, Star Trek Discovery hasn’t given us any reason to care about Saru. All we know about him is that he’s constantly afraid of everything, that he resents Michael and that he’s a jerk. Another problem with Saru is that he is a very one note character. Now alien race in Star Trek tend to be very one note anyway. Vulcans are logical, Ferengi are greedy, Romulans are devious and warlike, Klingons are aggressive, warlike and care about honour, Cardassians are aggressive and warlike and don’t care about honour, Barjorans are religious. Nonetheless, characters like Spock, Quark, Worff, Gul Dukat, Kira, Ro Laren, etc… overcame those limitations and became fully rounded. Saru, on the other hand, has only two modes, afraid and sniping at Michael. So far, he’s not a multidimensional character, which is a pity, because Doug Jones is a very fine actor who knows how to make you care about a rubbery alien. However, at this point, I no more care what happens to Saru than I care what happens to Airiam, the living crashtest dummy from the bridge. That is, I actually care more about what happens to Airiam, because at least I don’t actively dislike her, unlike Saru.
Worse, once more a few tweaks could have made this episode work. After all, Saru has been driven by his impulses to commit to same “crime” that Michael has committed. This could have made him more sympathetic to her situation (which is even worse than I thought), while understanding what life is like for Saru every day could have made Michael more sympathetic towards him. This episode could have provided a basis for the mutual respect that Doug Jones believes Michael and Saru feel for each other. But once more, the writer (supposedly, an author of Star Trek tie-in novels, i.e. someone who knows what Star Trek is supposed to be like) blew that opportunity.
But even though Saru was the focus of this episode, the show does not forget Michael and Ash and their budding romance, which is notable, considering they did forget the captured Admiral Cornwell for a whole episode. Because while Saru is busy being scared and communing with the glowy blue glitter aliens, Michael and Ash have the chance to share some quality time together. They also kiss – this time for real and without any time rewinds.
Now I’ve seen quite a few complaints about the budding romance between Michael and Ash, but I really like them together. Ditto for Stamets and the cute doctor. For starters, I do like romance (or indeed any strong interpersonal connection) in my science fiction. I do agree that the romance between Michael and Ash feels a bit rushed, they’ve only known each other for three episodes and have already danced and kissed. Now I don’t think Discovery should emulate the positively glacial pace at which romances between series regulars developed in previous Star Trek incarnations, but Star Trek Discovery really does err on the side of speed here.
Still, Michael and Ash make a cute couple and besides, Michael really deserves something good in her life. I also like the fact that Ash is probably the person aboard the Discovery with the most reason to be angry at Michael (cause Saru’s reasons boil down to “I’m a jealous of her”), considering he spent six months as a POW, getting tortured and raped by Klingons. However, Ash is the only person who treats Michael as a human being from the first time he meets her on. Even Tilly didn’t want Michael to sit at her desk at first, but the man who spent six months as a POW due to the war everybody believes Michael started is nice to her from the start. Ash Tyler is really a ray of light in the generally grimdark world of Discovery. In fact, the improvement of Star Trek Discovery started at around the same time he showed up.
In short, Ash is a genuinely nice guy (and I for one can understand his desire to hurt the Klingons, given what he’s been through) who enters into a whirlwind romance with Michael. So of course he will turn out to be a Klingon spy, probably even in the very next episode. Because nothing good can happen to Michael Burnham ever.
Case in point: While Ash and Michael spend some quality time in the romantically glowing forest of Pahvo, they start talking about what they will do after the war. Or rather Ash starts talking about what he wants to do after the war (trout fishing in a cabin in the woods – and why do Star Trek characters always go for such low-tech back-to-nature vacations anyway?). Ash clearly wouldn’t be averse to going trout fishing with Michael. However, Michael bursts his bubble by telling him that once the war is over, she’ll have to go back to prison and do slave labour for the Federation, because she still has a life sentence to serve.
At this point, I literally screamed at the TV, “What?! You mean Michael hasn’t even been pardoned by now. Then why is she even trying to help Starfleet? Why doesn’t she sabotage the hell out of them and try to escape?”
Now I like Michael Burnham as a character. I’m also very much on her side. First of all, because the narrative is very much focussed on her, much more than previous Star Trek shows ever focussed on a single character. Besides, Michael is the underdog who has been treated badly and I always have a tendency to side with underdogs. I’ve even been known to side with villains, if I feel they have been treated badly. Cause if you only ever see people like yourself as villains in the media you consume, guess what? You’ll start to identify with the villains, because that’s the only place you’ll ever have in a story like this.
But even though I like Michael, I don’t get her. Yes, she feels guilty about the death of Captain Georgiou and the destruction of the Shenzhou and she even seems to believe the Starfleet propaganda lie that she started the war. But Michael’s martyrdom complex is really grating by now. Come on, Michael, what really happened is that Starfleet and the Federation royally screwed you over and used you as a convenient scapegoat to hide their own incompetence. You owe these people nothing, so why are you helping them? Why not bide your time and try to escape? Cause you’ll never serve out that sentence of yours. You’ll be the Federation’s slave worker for life.
As a matter of fact, I wonder why Michael wasn’t at least tempted by Saru’s plan for them to stay on Pahvo forever. Okay, so Saru is a jerk, but it’s a big planet and surely there’s a nice little spot somewhere where she can build a cabin in the woods and go fishing with Ash. For that matter, why didn’t Michael at least consider grasping any of the opportunities to escape she’s had before? Why not let the tardigrade maul the away team aboard the Discovery‘s destroyed sister ship and try to steal a shuttle to escape? Why not help Harry Mudd in exchange for her freedom? Okay, so letting the tardigrade kill the away team would be somewhat mean, but at this point Stamets and the security chief who later died of terminal stupidity have treated her abominably (and the redshirt actually does get killed by the tardigrade). And Harry Mudd is a double-crossing scumbag and besides, he’s just killed Ash, the only person on board who’s been unequivocally nice to Michael. Still, why isn’t Michael at least tempted by these possibilities of escape? Why does she risk her life over and over again (and even kills herself at one point) for the sake of people who treat her like dirt and who’ll just throw her back into prison at the first opportunity anyway?
Coincidentally, Ash reacts to Michael’s revelation by suggesting that they simply let the mission fail then, so the war will last a little bit longer. And since I value personal loyalty higher than loyalty to a system, I found this moment very sweet. Ash really is a keeper. This leads to a very nice riff on the famous line of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, which of course was uttered by Michael’s foster brother Spock. And talking of Spock, I recently discussed with another Star Trek fan appalled by the new series how Star Trek Discovery diminishes Spock’s character, though he isn’t even in the show. Cause Spock is the guy who was willing to commit mutiny, violate the Talos IV taboo and put his own life on the line, all for the sake of giving the severely disabled Captain Pike a chance to live out his days in happiness. And Spock was the guy who walked into a radiation soaked chamber and laid down his life (okay, he got better) to save his friends and the Enterprise. Spock will do literally anything to help the people he cares about. So are we honestly supposed to believe that someone like Spock would let his own sister languish in prison? Nope, Spock would probably hijack the Enterprise (still commanded by Captain Pike at this point) and break her out and then at his court martial, he’d tell everybody that what he did was perfectly logical. And he’s get away with it, too, because Spock is awesome.
So I like Michael and hate how Starfleet is treating her. And for that matter, why are there no #JusticeforMichaelBurnham campaigns like there were for Barb from Stranger Things? Yes, I know that Michael is undergoing a redemption arc and that redemption arcs are supposed to involve suffering to satisfy the cult of guilt and punishment that seems to be so popular in the US and that I flat out hate. I go a bit more into my problems with redemption arcs in this post and I will probably do a more general post on redemption arcs in the future.
However, there are some redemption arcs that work for me. The examples I give in the other post are the Marvel superhero movies, which have redemption arcs that work. IMO, the key to a succesful redemption arc is that no matter how perfect the protagonist’s life seems to be before it is plunged into chaos, there must be something missing. Quite often, this is a purpose or an interpersonal connection of some kind. Basically all the Marvel movie characters are missing these two things. And once they’ve overcome their ordeal in the wilderness, they will get not only superpowers, but also a new purpose in life as well as the best friends in the universe and possibly true love.
Since last episode, we know what Michael has been missing in her life, namely love. Okay, it’s a bit cliched, but it makes sense given her repressed Vulcan upbringing. But much as I like Ash Tyler, true love shouldn’t be the only thing Michael gains during her redemption arc.
So let’s tweak Michael’s story a little bit: Maybe her Starfleet career to date wasn’t quite so perfect. After all, Starfleet was never Michael’s first choice anyway. So maybe her relationship with her first captain isn’t the lovely mentor-mentee relationship she had with Philippa Georgiou. Maybe Michael isn’t that happy aboard the Shenzhou. Maybe the captain merely tolerates her, but neither likes nor trusts her. Maybe she frequently clashes with the captain. Maybe she is isolated aboard the Shenzhou. The crew respects her, but she has no real friends, no connections, because since she was raised as a Vulcan, she has problems connecting to humans. And then there is the jealous and incompetent science officer who flat out hates her (cause Saru is a jerk and would probably work better as a villain of sorts).
They encounter the Klingons, Michael turns against the captain, the Shenzhou is destroyed, the captain killed, Michael ends up in prison and hits rock bottom. Eventually, she is rescued by the Discovery, Starfleet’s latest cutting edge research vessel and conscripted by its captain. However, the captain is not the disturbed and borderline psychotic Lorca, but more like Captain Georgiou, someone who recognises Michael’s potential, treats her kindly and mentors her. In short, swap Lorca and Georgiou, either personalities or – better yet – actors. Hell, keep Admiral Cornwall, for that matter, and make her Philippa Georgiou’s occasional lover, who then gets captured and escapes with the aid of a Klingon woman, to whom she becomes attracted.
Still, due to her situation, Michael is initially isolated aboard the Discovery. Jerky Saru is there and lords over her and she doesn’t get along with her immediate superior Stamets either. However, then she befriends her roommate Tilly, Stamets eventually comes around as well (keep the tardigrade DNA angle) and his partner, the cute doctor, is always nice to Michael. And then there is the new security officer Ash Tyler with whom Michael is beginning to fall in love…
Hell, let’s tweak it even further and make Michael a little less guilt-ridden. Maybe Michael recognises exactly that Starfleet and the Federation have screwed her over, because they needed a scapecoat to cover up their own incompetence. Maybe her time in prison has shown her the dark side of the Federation, that its post-scarcity society is built on slave labour. So when Michael comes aboard the Discovery, she is justifiably angry and determined to find a way to escape and to hell with Starfleet and the Federation.
Except that she lets chance after chance pass by. Sure, Stamets might be a jerk, but he and his partner make such a cute couple, so Michael doesn’t want him to die. And besides, she suspects that the tardigrade is not the monster it appears to be at first glance. And yes, it would probably be better for Michael, if the captain were never rescued from the Klingons, but the captain has been good to her, dammit. And while Harry Mudd may be a doublecrossing scumbag, siding with him would be Michael’s ticket to freedom. Except that Harry Mudd has just killed a whole lot of people and seems to enjoy it. And besides, he’s killed the captain who’s been good to Michael. And he’s killed Ash whom Michael really doesn’t want to die. And while staying forever on Pahvo with Ash is certainly tempting, Saru really isn’t acting like himself (hey, maybe give Saru a mini redemption arc, too, and let him recognise Michael not as a rival, but as a teammate). Hell, raise the stakes even further, so retuning that crystal transmitter will save the Discovery or the Enterprise with her brother Spock on board or her adopted homeworld Vulcan which is being besieged by Klingons.
As for Ash Tyler, why not give him a redemption arc, too? Maybe he really is a Klingon spy or surgically altered Klingon or whatever. He only wants to subvert and destroy the Federation, but then he meets this young human woman who doesn’t quite fit in, but to whom he’s immediately attracted. Maybe he knows that she is the one who killed the Klingon head honcho or maybe he only finds out later. But though Ash is supposed to uncover the Discovery‘s secrets and destroy her, he finds himself drawn to her crew, particularly Michael. He likes these people and doesn’t want to destroy them. And besides, the Klingons have been lying about humans and the Federation anyway. Hell, maybe the Klingons – at least the ultra-xenophobic Klingons he serves – are wrong about this whole war.
So you see. Just a few little tweaks and Star Trek Discovery could tell the story it’s apparently trying to tell (though it’s hard to be sure, considering how muddled the show is) and yet be so much better. And indeed, this is the most frustrating thing about Star Trek Discovery, namely that you occasionally get glimpses of the much better show that it could be.