Star Trek Discovery – Through the Looking Glass and into even more Grimdarkness

The post title sums it up really. Star Trek Discovery is back and it’s as grimdark and depressing and un-Trek-like as ever in spite of liberally borrowing from Star Trek‘s most popular tropes.

If you’ve been following my Star Trek Discovery posts, you may remember that by the last couple of episode before the winter break, it seemed as if the show was improving. Well, it didn’t. Even worse, Star Trek Discovery seems hell-bent on destroying even the very few things about the show that actually worked.

As you may recall, when we last left Starfleet’s worst ship, crew and captain, they had just won a decisive victory in the war against the Klingons (well, they’ve had decisive victories before, considering that the tide of that particular war seems to turn every single episode), managed to destroy the Ship of the Dead, render the Klingon cloaking device useless, rescue Admiral Cornwell and take a high-ranking Klingon officer prisoner. So far, so good. Unfortunately, they also managed to fry the brain of their navigator and resident magic mushroom expert Paul Stamets, who promised to do “just one more jump” (a clearer case of famous last words were never uttered), one last jump which managed to land the Discovery somewhere else. Where exactly – past, future, gamma quadrant, delta quadrant, mirror universe, other parallel universe? – was not clear.

The answer to the mystery where the Discovery has landed after its last jump is one that is so utterly unpredictable that absolutely nobody could have seen it coming.

Warning! Spoilers behind the cut!

Just kidding, the production team went for the most predictable destination they could come up with, cause it turns out that the Discovery has jumped into – surprise! – the mirror universe. Yes, I’m sure absolutely no one saw that coming, especially since the various incarnations of Star Trek have been regularly visiting the mirror universe since 1967, i.e. 51 years ago. Now the reason for the popularity of the mirror universe in the past 51 years of Star Trek is that the episode which introduced the mirror universe, Mirror, Mirror, is a damned good episode, which holds up well even today, as Camestros Felapton noted on his recent rewatch. However, frequent repetitions do not necessarily make a good thing better. And so later reiterations of Star Trek visited the mirror universe again and again. Deep Space 9 had several episodes set there and Enterprise also visited the mirror universe in a two-part episode. I have very little memory of these episodes, since I had stopped watching both shows regularly by that point.

What makes the original “Mirror, Mirror” work so well is also the contrast between the utopian with a few flaws Federation and the dystopian Terran Empire. Therefore, the decision to have the darkest 1990s/2000s Star Trek series such as Deep Space Nine and late series Enterprise take a detour into the mirror universe is somewhat baffling, because the contrast just won’t be so great. Perhaps they were trying to prove that even though the characters of Deep Space Nine and to a lesser degree Enterprise did plenty of questionable things, they at least weren’t as bad as that.

And now Star Trek Discovery makes a detour into the mirror universe, set chronologically before Kirk’s famous trip there, but after Enterprise‘s. And since the Federation of Star Trek Discovery already is a dystopia which hands out life sentences for fairly minor misdemeanours and apparently builds its post-scarcity society on slave labour by prisoners, there really isn’t that much of a contrast between the Federation as portrayed in Discovery and the Terran Empire, except that the Terran Empire is xenophobic (which does not really match the Terran Empire we’ve seen in “Mirror, Mirror”, where Spock could rise to first officer) and that it has cooler uniforms. And so the shock of the Discovery crew upon finding out what their mirror universe counterparts have been up to (“Oh no, how could we be such evil people in this universe? And how can the Terran Empire be so much like the Federation, but so evil?”) rings hollow, because honestly, have these people ever looked at their own universe? They already live in a dark place, so the fact that the mirror universe is a degree darker doesn’t change all that much. Indeed, Camestros Felapton puts it best in his review, when he says that Star Trek Discovery has finally found a universe that suits it. Besides, all characters of whose fate we learn are actually better off in the mirror universe than in the regular universe with the sole exception of Lorca (and Connor, but then Connor dies in both universes, but at least got to become captain in the mirror universe). And I’m not all that bothered by bad things happening to Lorca, because he has been an awful person for much of the season. Though maybe that means his mirror universe counterpart is good. And indeed, there are suspicions that the Lorca we have been watching for the past seven episodes is actually from the mirror universe and somehow ended up in ours, which explains why he is so erratic and an awful person even by the admittedly low standards of the dystopian Federation. Given how very bad the Discovery production team are at surprises and shocking twists that actually shock or surprise anybody, I wouldn’t even be surprised if that theory turned out to be true.

Indeed, part of me was hoping that it would be revealed that the Discovery originated in yet another parallel universe (we know there is an infinite number of them from the Next Generation episode “Parallels”) and that they would have landed in the familiar quasi-utopian Star Trek universe instead. Cause that would at least have been interesting and less predictable and it also would have fixed a whole lot of issues with Star Trek Discovery in one swoop.

The crew figures out what’s up pretty quickly and after some initial shock decide to blend in by pretending to be their mirror universe counterparts. They also find some further help in records retrieved from the destroyed rebel ships the Discovery finds itself surrounded by. Turns out that mirror Lorca was some kind of rebel who tried to kill the Emperor, did kill mirror Burnham and vanished (three guesses where he vanished to). Mirror Burnham was the captain of the mirror Shenzhou before her untimely death, while mirror Tilly did become captain of the mirror Discovery and is so infamous for her cruelty to the point that she is nicknamed “Killy”. Burnham, Lorca and Tyler (because where Michael Burnham goes, Ash Tyler goes) are sent on a mission pretending to be their evil counterparts to infiltrate the mirror Shenzhou, where Lorca is promptly stuck into a torture chamber (well, he is a wanted traitor and fugitive in this universe), which seems to bother absolutely nobody, whether Burnham, Tyler or the audience, probably because Lorca is just plain unpleasant. Though Lorca sure gets tortured and killed a lot. Three out of ten episodes so far contain extensive scenes of Lorca getting tortured or killed. Meanwhile, Burnham gets into a fight with the mirror Shenzhou‘s current captain Connor (previously a redshirt aboard the Discovery) and has to kill him, because that is the mirror universe way.

Meanwhile, the mirror Discovery under the command of Captain Killy is in the universe where Discovery originated (and I’m still not convinced that this really is the Star Trek universe we know) and is probably about to single-handedly take over the dystopian Federation and win the war with the Klingons. It’s probably not telling that I would not care at all, if this were the case, because I find I don’t give a damn about either Discovery‘s Federation or the Klingons.

The bits about the Discovery and her crew impersonating their somewhat more evil miror universe selves are actually a whole lot of fun, from the Flash Gordon-esque uniforms (but then the mirror universe has always had a certain Flash Gordon look about it) via Lorca using Jason Isaac’s native Scottish accent, while pretending to be the Discovery‘s chief engineer (Lorca getting tortured also never gets old, sorry) to Captain Killy hamming it up. And if this had been all the episode was about, then it would have been a good one, even if not exactly original.

But this is Star Trek Discovery and so of course, they can’t just have a simple excursion into the mirror universe. Because this is modern quality TV (TM), dark and gritty (TM), where everything can happen, shocking twists abound and everyone can die (and not just their mirror universe counterparts either like poor Connor whom I have to confess I had already forgotten). And of course, Discovery had to prove that they, too, can be Game of Thrones and so they had to have a shocking twist (which shocked absolutely no one, cause people have been speculating about this for months now) and a shocking main character death (which actually was shocking and still managed to adhere to some of the oldest and most hated tropes in the book).

I am talking of course about the “Ash Tyler is really the Klingon Voq, surgically altered to look human” theory which – I am sad to report – is not a theory anymore, since the show pretty much confirmed it. I can’t even begin to say how much I hate this development, even if it wasn’t exactly surprising, since plenty of people called it months ago. For starters, Ash Tyler is one of the most likable characters in Star Trek Discovery next to Tilly and Dr. Culber. Most of the other characters, including even Tilly, took some time to grow on me (and some never did – I still can’t stand either Lorca or Saru), but Ash was likable pretty much from the start. Plus, Ash was the only person who treated Michael like a human being right from the start (everybody else, including even Tilly, behaved like jerks to her early on) and the budding romance between Ash and Michael has been one of the very few things I actually liked about Star Trek Discovery.

But Ash Tyler, the ace pilot, good guy and conscientious officer, torture and rape survivor, never existed. He is just a fake persona created to hide Voq, one unlikable Klingon among a whole bunch of them. Oh yes, and his memories of torture and abuse are either false or falsely interpreted and the sex Ash had with L’Rell was totally consensual, since Voq and L’Rell were lovers. And of course, Ash’s PTSD, which left him literally paralysed the last time we saw him, is not real either, but the result of faulty Klingon conditioning.

In my last post on Star Trek Discovery before the winter break, I actually praised the way the show handled the subjects of PTSD and male rape, as did Laura Hudson at The Verge and Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor.com. The whole “Ash is Voq” development, however, not just undermines the entire character of Ash Tyler as presented so far, it is also a slap into the face of abuse and rape survivors everywhere. Because let’s face it, while our entertainment media has gotten better at portraying PTSD, it still doesn’t do all that great at portraying survivors of sexual violence, particularly male survivors. And Star Trek Discovery basically just dismissed a character’s traumatic experiences of torture and sexual violence as “Oops, it was all in your head. None of that every happened, at least not the way you remember it, and it was all totally consensual, the Klingon conditioning just got some wires crossed.”

As for how Ash/Voq learns all this, even though she gave him the mother of all PTSD flashbacks last episode, Ash still goes to see L’Rell in the brig and even lets her out of her cell for short periods of times. For some reason, no one notices this or finds it even remotely strange, but then Starfleet is apparently so bloody incompetent by now that they’re not even guarding the brig anymore (and coincidentally, the brig aboard the Shenzhou wasn’t guarded either, as far as I recall). L’Rell tries to trigger Ash’s memories that he is really Voq with a Klingon phrase, but because the conditioning is faulty, it doesn’t really work and Tyler is now partly Ash and partly Voq. Indeed, someone referred to him as “Klingon/Klingoff”, which is highly appropriate.

Coincidentally, it’s not just Starfleet that’s bloody incompetent in Star Trek Discovery, the Klingons are just as incompetent from getting stuck in their Ship of Dead without food or energy to completely botching the transformation and conditioning of Ash/Voq. Indeed, considering how bloody incompetent the two powers vying for dominance in the galaxy are, it’s a miracle that the Romulans or the Cardassians or the Borg or even the Ferengi haven’t already conquered them all.

L’Rell’s attempts to trigger Voq’s memories leave Ash (I’ll continue to refer to him as Ash) with disturbing flashbacks, memories that aren’t his own and occasional attacks of full blown Klingoness. So he does what humans (and presumably Klingons) normally do when they are experiencing health or psychological problems, namely he goes to see a doctor.

Doctor Culber hasn’t had an easy time at all. For starters, his life partner Paul Stamets is in a coma following that last disastrous universe-barrier breaking jump he did and still hasn’t come to except to occsionally mumble prophecies of dire doom and have one violent outburst. What is more, Lorca has assigned some other member of the Discovery‘s medical staff (Are there even other doctors aboard the Discovery? Cause Culber is the only one we’ve ever seen) to care for the comatose Stamets to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Which would be a sound decision, if I even remotely trusted Lorca to make it for the right reasons (which I don’t). Nonetheless, Doctor Culber is understandably upset.

When Ash comes to him, complaining of mysterious symptoms, flashbacks and the like, Doctor Culber runs a battery of tests and scans (one wonders why they haven’t done this before, e.g. after Ash escaped from Klingon captivity) and finds something strange that shouldn’t be there. Whereupon Voq’s personality emerges from Ash and snaps Doctor Culber’s neck.

Yes, that really happened. Star Trek Discovery just had one half of the only gay couple in Star Trek history killed by a previously sympathetic character in front of his life partner (though we hope poor Stamets was at least unconscious and didn’t have to watch) for cheap shock value. Worse, they have also killed off the third main character of colour in the span of ten episodes (five, if you include the two Klingon head honchos Michael killed, since both were played by actors of colour). That leaves Michael and Ash as the only characters of colour in the main cast still standing and I’m pretty sure that Ash wont survive the end of the season either. Hell, it’s very possible that Michael won’t survive the end of the season, but instead has to nobly sacrifice her life to redeem herself for whatever sins the writers seem to think she has committed.

Honestly, for a show that explicitly bills itself as progressive and diverse, Star Trek Discovery‘s track record on race, gender and sexual orientation is appalling. Captain Philippa Georgiou, who was billed as one of the main characters in the publicity materials, is killed off after only two episodes and briefly reappears from beyond the grave as a hologram. The Discovery‘s first security chief, played by an actress of Asian origin, dies of terminal stupidity after two episodes, unmourned because she was a horrible character. Doctor Culber, a gay man of colour, was killed off after ten episodes all in all (and he didn’t even appear until episode four or five). His life partner Paul Stamets, another gay man, is in a coma with severe brain damage. Michael Burnham, a woman of colour, is imprisoned and abused at every turn for things white men get away with all the time (including in Star Trek Discovery) and blamed for everything bad that ever happened in the entire Federation. Ash Tyler, a man of colour, is revealed to be a Klingon sleeper agent and also a murderer. And coincidentally, Ash Tyler is portrayed by Shazad Latif, a British actor of Pakistani origin. So Star Trek Discovery had the lone Muslim actor (not sure if Shazad Latif really is Muslim, but statistically it’s very likely, considering Pakistan is 96% Muslim) portray the sleeper agent and infiltrator who betrays his friends and colleagues to destroy the Federation and the production team obviously sees nothing whatsoever wrong with that. Honestly, it’s as if the Star Trek Discovery producers are trying to check off a whole bingo card of offensiveness here, considering their flat out appalling track record in the treatment of people of colour, LGBT people, Muslims as well as rape and abuse survivors.

At least, the Discovery showrunners seem to be aware how offensive killing off a gay main character (one of only two in the history of Star Trek) is, since they did some preemptive damage control by pointing out that yes, they know killing off LGBT characters is a trope and that it’s offensive, and would we please, please trust them. It’s the same thing we’ve been hearing over and over again from the cast and crew ever since Star Trek Discovery started. “Please, trust us. We know what we’re doing, honestly. We’re Star Trek fans, just like you, and trust us, what we are making is proper Star Trek. Just please be patient.” Indeed, here is another interview of that sort, in which two of the showrunners promise that the rest of season 1 will involve “a lot of fun for Star Trek fans” and that season 2 will be more Star Trek-like.

There is just one problem with all of those promises. By this point, pretty much no one trusts the showrunners anymore that they really know what they’re doing and that they have even an inkling of what Star Trek is supposed to be like. And indeed I feel sorry for the poor actors who are asked to defend the hot mess that is Star Trek Discovery over and over again, especially since it’s pretty obvious that most, if not all of them know what a mess the show is. Take a look at this interview with Shazad Latif and Jason Isaacs, where it’s pretty obvious what Shazad Latif thinks of the part he’s playing and literally says that he doesn’t have any control over the show and what happens to his character. And coincidentally, even though the showrunners seem to be aware that killing off a gay character is offensive, particularly in a franchise with as bad a track record on LGBT issues as Star Trek, they seem to be totally unaware that killing off only characters of colour and letting the lone Muslim in the cast play the evil sleeper agent is just as offensive, since I have heard zero apologies about that.

Besides, showrunners, writers and creators should not have to tell their audience over and over again to trust them, because if they actually did their job right, the audience would trust them without requiring constant reassurance. And indeed, constant reminders by the people in charge of a beloved franchise to please, please trust them are always an indicator that something is seriously wrong. Just remember the whole “Steve Rogers is and has always been a Hydra agent” storyline that Marvel Comics came up with last year in its infinite wisdom. Fans were up in arms – and for very good reasons, too – and the writers were constantly asking their fans to please trust them and have patience. But even with a brand that has an established reputation like Star Trek or Marvel Comics, patience and trust eventually run out, especially when it’s clear that the people in charge have no real clue what they’re doing. By this point, Star Trek Discovery has pretty much exhausted mine and everybody else’s patience. Indeed, the comments under one of the many “please, please trust us” article I linked above were very telling. “Oh, so it’s going to be fun for Star Trek fans”, someone commented, “So what are they going to do? Kill Kirk? Kill Spock? Blow up the Enterprise?” Because by this point, much of the audience expects that if there is a new way to piss on what Star Trek used to be, the Discovery showrunners will find it.

Coincidentally, the many random Star Trek Easter eggs such as the reference to the USS Defiant from the original series episode “The Tholian Web”, revealed to have ended up in the mirror universe in an Enterprise episode I did not watch, are another symptom that the production team constantly has to remind us that yes, this is Star Trek we’re watching. Because if Discovery actually felt like Star Trek, we wouldn’t need constant Easter eggs to remind us.

At the start of the winter break, I was cautiously optimistic that Star Trek Discovery might be salvagable, since the show was actually getting better, the annoying Klingon war plotline seemed to have been wrapped up and the jump to somewhere else was a chance to give the show a fresh start. But with this episode, Star Trek Discovery pretty much destroyed what little was good about the show – mainly the relationships between Stamets and Culber and Michael and Ash – in one swoop, plus killed off one of the few likable characters and made another of the few likable characters a pretty much irredeemable villain. Really well done, Star Trek Discovery showrunners. You just managed to destroy one of the very few things about your show that actually worked.

We are currently in the unprecedented situation that we have two takes on Star Trek (three, if you include the Black Mirror one shot “USS Callister”) airing at the same time. And of these three, the official version, Star Trek Discovery, manages to do the worst job. For while “USS Callister” is not Star Trek (nor is it trying to be), it does use the visual language of classic Star Trek to make a point about toxic masculinity and nerd entitlement and one about the rights of digital persons that is worthwhile in its own right. And I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of the adventures of the USS Callister under the command of Captain Nanette Cole.

The Orville, meanwhile, is Next Generation era Star Trek with the serial numbers filed off and some sophomoric humor added (though less than you’d think, given showrunner Seth MacFarlane’s other output). Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that while Star Trek: The Next Generation followed the adventures of the Starfleet flagship, crewed by the best Starfleet has to offer, The Orville follows the adventures of a lesser Starfleet ship crewed by well meaning, but somewhat less competent people. The Orville is not Star Trek, but it works as Star Trek, a lot better than Discovery does. And indeed I wonder what we’d have gotten if Seth MacFarlane rather than Bryan Fuller, Alex Kurtzman and whoever else had been given the mandate to make a new official Star Trek show.

Meanwhile, the official Star Trek show, Star Trek Discovery manages to be the least Star Trek-like of the three. Coincidentally, it’s also the hottest mess. For while it’s pretty clear what Black Mirror in general and “USS Callister” in particular as well as The Orville are trying to do with the basic Star Trek idea, I have no real clue what Star Trek Discovery is trying to do and I suspect the production team has no idea either. Yes, they keep talking about redemption arcs and wanting to show us what the Federation is like at war and how the Federation journeys from darkness into the light and apparently, there’s also a point about xenophobia, isolationism and Trump somewhere in there as well. Most of these points are not exactly new and have been done by other versions of Star Trek, usually better. Besides, very little of what the production team assures us the show is about actually shows up on screen. Ten episodes in, I have no idea what Star Trek Discovery is trying to do and what sort of show it wants to be beyond dark and gritty and a bit like Game of Thrones with shocking twists and lots of characters deaths.

There’s just one problem: If I want to watch Game of Thrones, I will. If I want dark and gritty and twisty and shocking, there are plenty of good SFF shows and mainstream shows I can watch, most of them better than Discovery. But what I expect from something labeled Star Trek is very different from what I expect from Game of Thrones or Outlander or Westworld or The Expanse or The Handmaid’s Tale or Hard Sun or [insert prestigious SFF show here]. A franchise like Star Trek evokes certain expectations, expectations that Discovery not just consistently fails to meet, but that it also goes out of its way to violate. Indeed, it seems to me as if the producers are trying very hard to make a show that’s the opposite of Star Trek. This is of course something you can do and indeed plenty of fine science fiction shows have tried to make “the opposite of Star Trek” with varying success. But if you want to make the opposite of Star Trek, then maybe don’t call it Star Trek.

Can Star Trek Discovery be salvaged? Well, never say never, but at this point I think very little next to a total reset can save this show. They had their chance to hit a reset button of sorts with the excursion into a different universe, but in typical Discovery fashion, they blew it.

In fact, by this point, I’m so angry with the show that I’m not even sure if I’m going to continue watching. If I do, it will only be because now I started with these dissections/reviews/recaps, I want to continue to the bitter end. And it is only five more episodes

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