Star Trek Discovery and the American Cult of Guilt and Redemption

Yes, there apparently was a new episode of Star Trek Discovery last Sunday, though it was easy to forget with the Superbowl and the most important thing about it, the ads and trailers. For previous posts on Star Trek Discovery, see here, by the way.

Though frankly, this episode of Star Trek Discovery also was rather forgettable. It didn’t even have shocking twists (TM), no matter how non-sensical, to keep us on the edges of our seats. Instead, all this episode of Star Trek Discovery dished up was unlikeable people (and aliens) being unlikeable and treating each other like shit. It did feel a bit more like Star Trek – moral dilemmas and people talking a lot – but unfortunately it only seemed to take all the bad aspects of Star Trek – the heavy-handed moralizing of episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and the fact that occasionally the solution to the moral dilemma du jour was “Be an arsehole, as long as you don’t violate the prime directive or maybe even if you do” – with none of the good. Camestros Felapton says in his review that it felt a little like an episode of Deep Space Nine, which may be why I didn’t like it, since I never cared for Deep Space Nine at all. Except for Tilly, pretty much everybody behaved like an arsehole in this episode and this includes Michael Burnham.

Yes, this is the episode that made me openly dislike Michael. Though I have to admit I didn’t like her all that much, since Michael was much too passive about accepting what happened to her. I merely sided with Michael almost reflexively, because she had been wronged and treated abominably and I tend to side with characters put in such a situation, even if they are not particularly likeable otherwise. But now it turns out that everybody in this version of Starfleet is an arsehole, including their scapegoat for everything bad that ever happened.

Warning! Spoilers beneath the cut!

So the Discovery made it back into the regular universe, only that the regular Star Trek universe (if that’s what it is, cause I’m still not convinced) is in dire trouble, since the Klingons have all but won the war, though they’re still squabbling among themselves, and the Federation has been driven to the brink of extinction, since the twenty-four different Klingon houses are all trying to one up each other by killing as many Federation citizens as possible. Meanwhile, the Federation is still too bloody incompetent to take advantage of the fact that their enemy is divided among themselves and allow themselves to be slaughtered. Coincidentally, there is also no way that such a massive war with millions of Federation citizens dead happened only ten years before the original series and yet Starfleet and the Federation seem to have completely recovered after having been brought to the brink of extinction and are already back to exploring the unknown and going where no man has gone before. What is more, no one ever mentions this devastating war beyond a vague “The Klingons killed many of our people” comment Kirk makes in “Errand of Mercy”. Looking at real world parallels, rebuilding after WWII happened relatively quickly, but in 1955 you would still have seen some wartime ruins in most German cities (a few of those ruins remained well into the 1980s and 1990s, though usually hidden behind billboards). Not to mention that rearmament as well as the return of the last German POWs only happened in 1955, ten years after the end of WWII. So there is no realistic way for the Federation to suffer a devastating nigh-defeat and extinction and be back to business as usual only ten years later. Which suggests that there is either a big red reset button at the end of the season or that Discovery is not set in the regular universe after all.

The Discovery crew and by extension we, the audience, learn everything that happened in the meantime from Admiral Cornwell (who somehow managed to survive both evil mirror Lorca and the Klingons, more the pity) and Sarek, who beam onto the Discovery bridge with the Admiral’s retinue and point guns at everybody. Turns out that the mirror Discovery under the command of Captain Killy was destroyed by the Klingons (kind of a pity, since I would have liked to see Mirror Tilly wrecking havoc) and now the Admiral and Sarek are understandably confused about the Discovery popping up again. And so, in order to assure themselves that the Discovery and her crew are not imposters (though considering that Admiral Cornwell and Sarek don’t know about either Lorca or Tyler, one wonders how they come to that conclusion), Sarek forcibly mind-melds with Saru. Never mind that we’ve been told by 50+ years of Star Trek that Vulcan mind-melds are an extremely intimate experience, almost like sex, and that a non-consensual mind-meld is like rape, Sarek – who has been established as a crappy father, but generally good man and fine diplomat – basically mind-rapes Saru on Admiral Cornwell’s say-so. He never asks for permission and he never considers mind-melding with Michael, who is standing right there on the bridge and has experienced a mind-meld with Sarek before. Though this is not even the worst or most out of character thing Sarek will do this episode.

Mind-melding with (or mind-raping) Saru quicky brings Sarek and via him Admiral Cornwell up to speed with regard to what happened in the past few episodes. Cornwell is understandably furious that she was taken in (and slept with) an imposter Lorca from a parallel universe (and she vents her fury by blasting the bowl of fortune cookies in Lorca’s office with her phaser in a moment that’s genuinely funny), though she also mourns her Lorca whom she presumes is dead (though that has never been confirmed). We’d like to mourn with her, except that the show never gave us a chance to get to know the real Gabriel Lorca. Personally, I’d like to think that he was like Jackson Brodie from Case Histories (also played by Jason Isaacs in one of his few sympathetic parts), only in space.

After kicking poor Saru out of the captain’s chair and assuming command of the Discovery herself, Cornwell, together with Sarek, also immediately decides to declare the existence of the mirror universe classified (which explains why the Enterprise crew had never heard of the mirror universe when they encountered it approx. ten years later – though Spock may have known via Sarek or Michael, explaining how he was able to catch on so quickly). The reason that Cornwell gives is that with so many Federation citizens dead at the hands of the Klingons, the temptation to go to the mirror universe and grab a replacement would be too great. No word on how the average Federation citizen is supposed to cross over into the mirror universe (since I suspect most Federation citizens don’t have a magic mushroom drive or a malfunctioning transporter at hand) or how they will even locate the counterpart of a dead loved one, once there. Instead, it seems as if Cornwell just drowned her sorrows about losing Lorca by binge-watching Fringe and came up with this explanation. Though coincidentally, couldn’t the Discovery have grabbed Mirror Culber and brought him back, provided he wasn’t evil?

But even though the average Federation citizen has no more chance of crossing over into the mirror universe than the average 21st century citizen has of building a nuclear bomb, the writers still inserted that explanation both to preserve canon with regards to “Mirror, Mirror” and to pile yet more grief and guilt upon Mikhail, who momentarily seems to have forgotten, in spite of plenty evidence to the contrary, that mirror universe people are not their counterparts, even if they look like them, and so grabbed the Empress Philippa the Merciless, as she was beamed from the exploding flagship. And now the Discovery is stuck with an evil Empress from an alternate universe who just happens to look exactly like a highly decorated dead Starfleet captain.

Empress Philippa isn’t the most pleasant guest either. Instead, she presents her haughtiest self and promptly points a gun at Saru – who is, for the moment, acting captain of the Discovery – and tries to order him around. When that doesn’t fly, she informs Saru that his sort are merely a slave species anyway and that they also taste really delicious, as Michael can confirm. Whereupon Saru promptly turns on Michael to accuse her of lying to him, when he asked whether she’d encountered other members of his species, and also to berate her for being so blinded by her emotions to bring Empress Philippa aboard. Looks like Saru still can’t resist having a go at Michael, even if he has otherwise become a much more likeable character. And yes, Michael lied to him, but what should she have told him? “Yes, I’ve met your mirror counterpart, he’s my slave and washes my back. And by the way, why did you never tell me that your threat ganglia are so tasty?”

Talking of Saru’s threat ganglia, it’s interesting that they react to Michael, who is not a threat, but don’t react to Lorca, Ash Tyler, Empress Philippa or Harry Mudd, all of whom are actually dangerous. Nor do they react to the magic mushroom drive, Lorca’s collection of murder weapons or the tardigrade, all of which are still more dangerous than Michael. Indeed, when I discussed this episode with a friend, we both looked at each other and said, “Saru is totally lying about what those things actually are, cause the truth would be much too embarrassing.” Cause the reason he reacts to Michael sure as hell isn’t cause she’s dangerous. In fact, I suspect poor Saru has an unrequited crush on Michael and expresses it by being rude to her. Hell, it makes as much sense as any other theory.

Instead of throwing Empress Philippa in the brig, perhaps into the same cell as L’Rell, she is instead given a guest cabin. Admiral Cornwell and Sarek even pay her a visit to pick her mind on how to defeat the Klingons, since Philippa the Merciless has defeated them in her own universe. What is more, Empress Philippa has also actually been to the Klingon homeworld Qo’noS, where no regular universe human has been since Captain Archer of the first Enterprise. And isn’t it fascinating how Discovery has absolutely no problem with playing fast and loose with established Trek canon, but for some reason slavishly adheres to Enterprise of all things? Of course, taking tactical advice from a monstrous tyrant is a really great strategy. And the Empress isn’t even the most qualified person onboard regarding the Klingon homeworld, since there are two actual Klingons aboard the Discovery, though one of them no longer looks like a Klingon. And L’Rell is at least on talking terms with Admiral Cornwell, since they bonded over their shared escape from the Ship of the Dead, though not exactly helpful. As for Ash/Voq, no one even bothers to ask him. But hey, let’s listen to the genocidal tyrant who’d like to have Saru for dinner.

Empress Philippa happens to know that Qo’noS is riddled with caves, which are conveniently accessible via the Discovery‘s magic mushroom drive. Of course, last episode we learned that the Discovery can no longer use its magic mushroom drive, because all the spores died and besides, using the magic mushroom drive could destroy the multiverse. This week, however, this little obstacle is forgotten, when Stamets reveals that he still has an uninfected sample of the spores left and that he also has a convenient method of growing a whole lot more by terraforming an uninhabited moon via a sort of mini Genesis device. This is a typical example of the level of plotting on this show. “Hey, we seem to have written ourselves into a corner here.” – “No problem, we’ll just pull some never before mentioned ability or device out of our hats, that is vaguely based on something mentioned somewhere in the Star Trek franchise before.” Though Stamets terraforming the moon does make for a cool special effect.

The Federation at least only wants to destroy all military installations on Qo’noS (which considering how militaristic Klingons are, probably only leaves them with a few opera houses). Empress Philippa, however, has another proposition for Sarek, namely wipe out the Klingons forever. Sarek is willing to go along with it – which goes contrary to every other portrayal of the character we’ve seen, cause while Sarek may be a crappy father, he’s not a genocidal maniac. Michael, on whom Empress Philippa had tried her “Hey, let’s commit genocide” line before, is sceptical and tries to talk some sense to Sarek before he returns to Vulcan to work out details of the plan. Sarek deflects the question by pointing out that Michael isn’t exactly objective, since she happened to fall in love with a Klingon, though she had no way of knowing that, when she fell for Ash Tyler. Sarek also babbles something about how loving your enemy is a sign of grace and also potential source for peace and that Michael should never regret loving someone.

This is probably a clumsy attempt by Sarek to offer some emotional support to Michael, though it nonetheless doesn’t fit with how the character has been portrayed everywhere else. After all, Sarek is the guy who said, when asked why he married Amanda, that marrying her seemed like the logical thing to do. From that Sarek, I would have expected something more along the lines of “Well, since you were emotional enough to fall in love with this Klingon, it would be only logical to use this unfortunate lapse in logic to broker a peace between our races.” Okay, so maybe Amanda did coach Sarek on how to talk to Michael about emotional issues. At any rate, on the list of “things Sarek does in this episode that violate everything we know about Vulcans in general and this character in particular”, talking about love still ranks far below mind-raping Saru and suddenly thinking that genocide is a swell idea.

Coicidentally, I suspect that the whole “Hey, let’s commit genocide – after all, none of our other tactics have worked” plan is supposed to offer up yet another patented Star Trek moral dilemma, namely “Is it okay to abandon your core values and resort to horrible acts in desperate times of war?” This isn’t exactly a new moral dilemma, since every Star Trek series ever grappled with a version of this at some point (any parallels to the real world behaviour of the US military in times of war, whether WWII, Vietnam or Afghanistan and Iraq are total coincidence of course), but it can still be compelling. Hell, maybe “How can we remain true to our ideals in times of crisis and war?” is Star Trek‘s core dilemma, which is why the franchise keeps returning to this question again and again. There is just one problem here. The Federation as depicted in Star Trek Discovery is no longer the benign quasi-utopia presented in previous Star Trek shows (and yes, there is a case to be made that it never was that utopia in the first place). This version of the Federation has already given up most of its values, since it condones prisoner abuse, exploits slave labour and hands down ridiculously harsh sentences for fairly minor crimes. So the realisation that this Federation is willing to commit genocide to win a war isn’t nearly as shocking as it should be. And indeed a large part of the reason why the war between the Federation and the Klingons is so dull, in spite of ever increasing stakes and millions of dead, is that neither the Federation nor the Klingons bear any resemblance to way they have been portrayed in the past and that both are pretty horrible, so that I don’t really care what happens to them.

After biding Sarek good-bye, Michael says to Tilly that this time their good-bye felt different, more final somehow. This is probably supposed to be ominous foreshadowing, but for what exactly? After all, we know that Sarek won’t die and will still be around in Picard’s time decades later. Just as we know that the Empress Philippa’s Klingon genocide plan won’t work out, because the Klingon Empire will continue to be a frequent thorn in the side and occasional ally to the Federation for decades to come. So the ominous foreshadowing can only mean two things: a) Michael dies, which is something I wouldn’t put beyond the Discovery writers (plus, a lot of people seem to hate Michael, which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she is played by an actress of colour), even though they’re rapidly running out of castmembers at this point, or b) it is revealed that Discovery is not set in the regular Star Trek universe after all, but in yet another parallel universe, which means they can do whatever they want, including killing off Sarek and the entire Klingon race. Coincidentally, this would also take care of the many canon and continuity issues that have piled up. Of course, there’s also option c) namely that the ominous foreshadowing means nothing and is just as forgotten as the Tribble on Lorca’s desk, which totally fails to detect Ash/Voq.

Once Sarek leaves, he contacts Admiral Cornwell and tells her to proceed with the plan, as discussed. Whereupon Admiral Cornwell shows up with Empress Philippa in tow, now dressed in a Starfleet uniform, to present her to the Discovery crew as the long lost Captain Georgiou back from the dead. And, so Cornwell announces, Georgiou will now assume command of the Discovery and lead the attack on Qo’noS. So after accidentally handing over their flagship and super-secret weapon to a megalomaniac imposter from the mirror universe, Starfleet command now knowingly hands over the same ship to another megalomaniac imposter from the mirror universe. Because that makes complete sense… NOT.

All right, so this version of Starfleet is desperate, not to mention completely incompetent. And yes, Starfleet admirals have frequently been portrayed as dodgy, powerhungry or outright evil in Star Trek, but Cornwell is not just shady, but also completely incompetent. Of course, she may well be completely out of her depth here. After all, she’s a psychologist, so Admiral Cornwell commanding Starfleet is like Deanna Troi commanding Starfleet. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that Deanna Troi would not have handed over control of the Discovery to Empress Philippa the Merciless, because this is a horrible idea. Nor would Deanna Troi have agreed to commit genocide for that matter. Even if Cornwell and Sarek want to implement Empress Philippa’s genocide plan, why put her in command of the Discovery rather than letting Cornwell lead the mission herself? What is more, Admiral Cornwell also seems to think the Discovery crew is either stupid or has been asleep these past three episodes, if she expects them to buy that the Philippa Georgiou presented to them is the real one back from the dead. After all, the Discovery bridge crew was right there during the attack on the Charon. They know that the Mirror Empress is Georgiou and that Michael brought her back.

Coincidentally, putting evil mirror Georgiou in command of the Discovery is also a horrible thing to do to poor Saru, who against all odds is proving himself to be a pretty good captain. At any rate, the mood among the crew and the general atmosphere on board have improved significantly, since Saru took over, until the Discovery almost seems like a normal Starfleet vessel. Coincidentally, this also shows that the Discovery crew wasn’t actually made up of jerks, but that Lorca poisoned the atmosphere. But though Saru is doing a good job as captain, he gets kicked out of the captain’s chair first by Cornwell (who also orders Sarek to forcibly mind-meld with him) and now finds himself replaced with Empress Philippa, a woman he knows wants to eat him. This is just cruel. And though he was something of a jerk in the early episodes, Saru has done nothing to deserve this. But of course, Saru wouldn’t go along with genocide, so Starfleet puts someone in the captain’s chair who will. As for why not Cornwell herself, I suspect it’s a lame attempt at plausible deniability. “Oh, the heroic captain returned from the dead turned out to be a genocidal megalomaniac from a parallel universe – twice. Well, it’s clearly not my fault, how was I supposed to know that?”

However, the late Captain Lorca and Empress turned Captain Georgiou are not the only imposters aboard the Discovery. There’s also Ash Tyler a.k.a. Voq, the Klingon. Who, when last seen two episodes ago, was screaming out his lungs in a prison cell, until L’Rell put her hands onto his head and somehow managed to shut him up, apparently by exorcising one of the two warring personalities within him. But which personality remains, Voq or Tyler?

We had to wait for two episodes to find out that the answer is Ash Tyler. Who apparently was a real person whose personality and memories were grafted onto the surgically altered body of Voq. Why didn’t the Klingons just graft Voq’s personality and memories onto the real Tyler, which would have lowered the risk of detection and also would have kept the real Voq around to aid the war effort? Who knows? However, the Klingons are apparently just as incompetent as the Federation, since they thoroughly botched the procedure and ended up with a screaming half-Klingon/half-human personality. And L’Rell just as thoroughly botched the procedure to exorcise one of the two personalities and managed to kill off the personality of her ex-lover Voq for good. So now what’s left is Ash Tyler stuck in a surgically altered Klingon body with access to Voq’s memories, including those of him doing horrible things such as killing Dr. Culber and attacking Michael. But even though, Ash now has Voq’s memories, no one even considers picking his brain regarding the Klingon homeworld, Klingon military strategies, location of outposts and installations, weaknesses, etc… Instead, everybody is far more interested in listening to a genocidal maniac who isn’t even from the same universe and whose intelligence on the Klingon homeworld may just as well be wrong.

Coincidentally, at least one reviewer, the otherwise sensible Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, questioned the morality of saving the grafted on personality of Ash Tyler rather than the personality of Voq, the original owner of the body they both share. I find this utterly baffling, because Ash Tyler, wherever his personality came from (the way I understood it, from an actual Starfleet POW) was a likeable and reasonably well developed character. Whereas Voq was a bland non-character, as instantly forgettable as the rest of the interchangable Klingon leaders. L’Rell is the only Klingon with an actual personality. What is more, like the rest of these Klingons, Voq is a horrible person and ruthless killer. Does anyone honestly wants him back over Ash? And by the way, I’m going to treat Ash Tyler like a real character in the following, even if he is a stolen or constructed personality stuck in a body that isn’t his. Because this is not about Voq, the one note Klingon villain, but Ash Tyler, who until five episodes ago, was one of the most likable characters in Star Trek Discovery.

So the whole stupid “Ash is Voq” subplot is dealt with in five episodes (and Ash/Voq didn’t even appear in one of them, so it was really four episodes) only to end up in almost the same place where they were before the big reveal, namely with a nice young man named Ash Tyler who has suffered some horrible experiences at the hand of the Klingons. Which begets the question, why have this stupid subplot at all, if it doesn’t change anything, beyond unnecessarily killing off poor Dr. Culber? And Culber only died for pure shock value, because the death of an anonymous redshirt wouldn’t have had the same impact. Okay, maybe Voq could have killed a semi-anonymous character like one of the bridge crew people who are recognizable, but about whom no one gives a shit, because they have no personality beyond looking cool. Finally, the “Ash is Voq” twist is also way too similar to the “Lorca is really from the mirror universe” twist that the show decided to dish out only two episodes after the “Ash is Voq” reveal.

The only reason for the pointless “Ash is Voq” subplot is to pile on yet more of the angst and emotional drama this show is addicted to. Though considering that – unlike Michael, who didn’t actually do anything beyond a nerve-pinch and a failed mutiny – Ash actually was a Klingon spy, albeit unknowingly, and actually did horrible things such as killing Dr. Culber and trying to kill Michael, he gets off lightly. Saru immediately agrees that Ash was not responsible for the things that he did, while Voq was in control, and therefore cannot be punished. Nor does he lock up Ash, though he does relieve him of his post as security chief and fits him with some kind of bracelet, which indicates where Ash is at all times, just in case he suffers another outbreak of Voqness. Considering how badly Michael was treated by everybody, including Saru, for much lesser sins, what happens to Ash is extremely lenient. Coincidentally, it’s also much more in line with what Starfleet and the Federation should be like. And indeed, there are plenty of precedents going all the way back to the original series of Starfleet personnel committing more or less horrible acts, while under the influence of some malign entity, without being punished for it. Picard’s turn as Locutus is probably the most high profile example.

Shortly after being released, Ash finds himself all alone in the cafeteria in a situation that mirrors Michael’s in the episode where she first came aboard the Discovery. Coincidentally, I wonder if the writers are aware how American these cafeteria scenes really are, because status inferred via who sits with whom in the school cafeteria is a very American thing. Cause elsewhere, even in countries that have school cafeterias (and in Germany they didn’t come in until long after I left school), the seating in the cafeteria isn’t necessarily a status indicator. For example, in all the schools where I worked, the cafeterias simply didn’t have enough tables so that outsiders would have to sit on their own. The worst case scenario would be having to sit with the teachers.

But while Michael is promptly assaulted in the cafeteria, Ash once again fares much better. Not only does no one try to kill him – no, Tilly even comes over to sit with him. And once Tilly sits down with Ash, the outcast, the scarred red-headed woman from the bridge crew (I think the character’s name is Dettmer) comes over to sit with him as well. It’s a nice moment and probably supposed to show how much the atmosphere aboard the Discovery has changed for the better, now that Lorca is gone. However, there is also something grating about it, simply because the scene mirrors the scene with Michael in the cafeteria so closely and we can’t help but notice how much worse Michael was treated, even though what Ash has done as Voq was much worse than anything Michael ever did. Worse, during the first cafeteria scene Dettmer, the scarred redhead from the bridge, was one of the people who blew off Michael and who hasn’t as much as talked to her ever since (though to be fair, Dettmer doesn’t talk to anybody, since she barely gets any lines). And while Tilly is generally the most likeable character aboard the Discovery and often the lone ray of sunshine in this show, she nonetheless also pulled a “You can’t sit here” routine on Michael in the lab during an early episode. To be fair, Tilly knows Ash and didn’t know Michael at that point and they quickly became good friends afterwards, but that “You can’t sit here” moment still happened. So while it’s nice to see that the Discovery crew is treating Ash pretty well, given what he did while under the control of Voq, the double standard regarding how Michael and Ash were treated in a similar situation is nonetheless infuriating. And yes, I know that the intention is probably to show how much the crew has bonded and how much better the atmosphere aboard the Discovery has become, since Lorca is gone, it still doesn’t quite work, if only because Lorca, though a horrible person, actually treated Michael better than the rest of the Discovery crew at the beginning, if only because she was the mirror image of his dead lover.

But not everybody forgives Ash quite so easily. Paul Stamets is understandably still furious – after all, Ash killed his life partner Dr. Culber in an outbreak of Voqness. And Stamets lets Ash know exactly how he feels, when Ash tries to apologise to him for what he did as Voq. And in fact, the loss of Dr. Culber and with him, the only happy established couple we’ve seen in Star Trek Discovery (and the first gay couple in Star Trek ever) is the most infuriating consequence of that stupid “Ash is Voq” subplot, which went exactly nowhere and had no real bearing on the overall plot arc. So why again was this stupid plot twist even necessary?

And then there is Michael, who’d just begun to fall in love with Ash, when he was revealed as Voq and assaulted and tried to kill her. Whereupon Michael tried to kill him and actually beamed him out into the vaccuum of space, before Saru beamed him aboard the Discovery. Now that Ash is himself again, albeit with a few bad memories more than before, Michael, who has never been good with emotions, flat out refuses to see him. Tilly, once more playing matchmaker, tries to convince Michael to talk to Ash, because Ash could really use a friend right now.

Now remember that Ash was the only person aboard the Discovery who was nice to Michael from day one on. Everybody else, Saru, Stamets, even Tilly, treated Michael like crap initially, while Lorca just tried to manipulate her. Ash, however, always treated her with kindness. Yes, he clearly was interested in Michael, but unlike Lorca he wasn’t sleazy about it. What is more, Ash was always supportive, even when it became clear that Ash was every bit as broken as Michael. In fact, this was what I liked about the Ash/Michael pairing (beyond the fact that the actors have a lot of chemistry), that these were two deeply traumatised people who could find support and strength in each other.

So what does Star Trek Discovery do, when it unexpectedly finds itself with a romantic relationship that works? Well, just as with Stamets and Culber, they break it up, of course. Because now that the shoe is on the other foot and Ash Tyler is the despised outcast (though not quite as despised as Michael was) in need of a supportive friend, Michael rejects him. Even though both Tilly and Sarek try to persuade Michael to give Ash and their relationship a chance (okay, so Sarek probably has an ulterior motive a la “Make love, not genocide”, but Tilly doesn’t), Michael still rejects him. First by refusing to see him and later, when she cannot avoid him any longer, she basically throws him out, because she can’t trust him any longer, since he didn’t confide in her, when he started noticing that something was wrong. Okay, so Ash should have confided in Michael, when the first symptoms of Voqness started appearing. But remember that Ash also pretended that he was totally fine after several months of Klingon captivity with constant torture, abuse and rape, until he wound up nigh catatonic when coming face to face with his rapist and abuser L’Rell aboard the Klingon flagship. So Ash is no more someone who likes to talk about his painful experiences than Michael is. And coincidentally, Ash did open up to Michael about his rape and abuse at the hands of L’Rell. And knowing how often male rape is ignored or minimised, talking about what happened to him with his girlfriend was a big step. By the way, I presume that the torture and the rape really did happen, whether to the real Ash Tyler or to Ash’s personality stuck in Voq’s surgically altered body. And talking of which, since Ash now has Voq’s memories, he probably has some additional memories of Voq having (consensual) sex with L’Rell, whom Ash still views as his rapist. Not to mention memories of killing Dr. Culber and trying to kill Michael and whatever other horrible things Voq did. So Ash is understandably a mess. And unlike Voq, who volunteered for the procedure that turned him into Ash, Ash Tyler did not ask for any of this.

So how does Michael react, when Ash finally gets her to even talk to him? She rejects him, brutally. Ash asks if it’s because he’s a Klingon, albeit altered to look human, and accuses Michael of dumping him, now things are complicated (which is exactly what she is doing). To which Michael replies that Ash needs to suffer to redeem himself, just like she did after her oh so horrible crimes. What she exactly says, is this:

“I had to work through it. I had to crawl my way back. I’m still not there, but I’m trying. That kind of work, reclaiming life, it’s punishing. And it’s relentless. And it’s solitary.”

That’s a truly horrible thing to say to someone in that situation. And indeed, this was the first time where I truly disliked Michael. I understand that she’s damaged and that she has a martyrdom complex. And in fact, the one thing about Michael that always grated on me was her passivity in the face of what happened to her. Michael was treated horribly, by Starfleet and the Federation, by her friends and comrades, even by her own family (since Sarek, Spock or Amanda were nowhere in sight, when Michael was given an undeserved life sentence – and coincidentally, not trying to save Michael is totally out of character for the Spock we’ve known for 51 years). She should be fucking angry, but instead she just passively accepts all the things that are done to her, because she apparently believes that she needs to be punished, though I’m still not sure for what, since Michael neither started the war – the Klingons did – nor got Philippa Georgiou killed – Georgiou got herself killed – nor got 8000 members of Starfleet or however many there were killed – they died because of their own incompetence. And then after all the abuse heaped upon Michael from every corner, she rejects the only person who did not treat her like crap by telling him that since she suffered alone for her crimes, he has to suffer, too.

The scene between Michael and Ash is well acted, but otherwise a stellar example of the Discovery writers creating emotional drama for its own sake and coincidentally also making their protagonist really unlikable. Which is why I was stunned to see that most of the reviewers still covering Star Trek Discovery were pleased with Michael’s rejection of Ash Tyler, including those who usually hate the show. I’ve seen reviews comparing Ash to a domestic abuser who’s really sorry after hitting his partner (domestic abusers don’t – as a rule – share their body with an evil Klingon), reviews calling Ash emotionally manipulative (methinks you have him confused with Lorca), reviews insisting that Michael was right to reject Ash because she needs to deal with her own trauma first (Michael has been traumatised since she was a little kid and she actually got better, since she was with Ash) and reviews insisting that Michael is totally right, because grief and trauma “work” (Oh, how I hate dealing with trauma or grief “work”. Worst sort of psycho-speak ever) must always be done alone without any help. The only reviewers who did not fully agree with Michael rejecting Ash are Gavia Baker-Whitelaw and Zack Handlen. And this is where I realised that the whole Michael and Ash plot arc examplifies a stew of highly toxic and very American attitudes.

First, there is this whole “tough love” approach of interventions and rejecting those who need help and support. I’ve always viewed “tough love” as nothing more than emotional abuse and the first time I saw an intervention, in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the first one I ever watched, too, which negatively coloured my view of the show ever after) I was utterly horrified. Hell, American based treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous even advice people to reject family and loved ones in need of help, so they hit rock-bottom. And afterwards, the person on the receiving end of this “tough love” approach most also apologise to those who have rejected them. It’s a horrible ideology. Oh, and by the way, it’s been proven that Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs have an extremely low success rate (I personally know someone who has been failed by them), which is why I’m always furious whenever I see another book or movie or TV show extolling the virtues of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

Several reviewers also called Ash Tyler whiny, emo or a self-pitying mess, which goes neatly hand in hand with the fact that any character who is even remotely introspective or emotional or reacts to trauma and pain with anything other than stoic self-discipline is inevitably called whiny by American reviewers. Coincidentally, this goes doubly if the character in question is male. Hell, I’ve seen plenty of writing advice that particularly male characters should not talk about their feelings or even think about them or indeed talk very much at all, because otherwise they would be considered whiny. Because men aren’t allowed to be vulnerable or show emotions. It’s toxic masculinity writ large.

Finally, there is this whole redemption arc bullshit. Now I’m on record that I hate most redemption arcs, because they inevitably involve shovelling pain and humiliation on some poor character deemed in need of redemption and I hate seeing people humiliated. On a related note, I also hate the so-called “grovel” in many older romance novels, where the hero must apologise to the heroine for treating her like crap. My reaction to these grovels is either cringing at the humiliation involved or – in case of rapist heroes and the like – the fervent wish that the heroine will send the hero packing, no matter how much he grovels. Besides, most of the characters subjected to redemption arcs haven’t actually done anything to deserve the pain and humiliation heaped upon them. Michael and Ash certainly don’t. And those who truly have done horrible things are usually such awful people that I don’t care what happens to them (many grovellers, particularly in older romance novels, fall into this category). There are redemption arcs that work – the Marvel movies have several good redemption arcs and the new Hawaii Five-O of all things also has a couple that work – but they are rare. Because crafting a redemption arc that works means walking a tightrope. And if Discovery really wanted to do a redemption arc, why not try to redeem Lorca? Cause that would actually have been a worthwhile challenge and a far better use for his character than turning him into a ranting one-note villain before killing him off.

Much of the time, redemption arcs and grovelling scenes are actively painful for me to watch or read. They’re also incredibly common, particularly in US media (as I said before, both “redemption” and “grovel” are words that don’t even have an exact German translation), because plenty of people seem to enjoy them, as this post on redemption arcs and this two part post on romance grovels shows. And indeed, one reviewer who has since stopped reviewing Star Trek Discovery, was practically slavering at the prospect of seeing Michael humiliated and abused. So apparently, there are people for whom this whole redemption shit, which so infuriates me, is total catnip. But why are redemption arcs and grovels so popular, particularly among Americans (since you don’t see a lot of this stuff in German works and most German readers and viewers hate this stuff)? Given the focus on guilt and shame and having to atone for ones sins, real or imagined, and having to earn redemption – all of which are very religious concepts – I would suspect that the answer lies with some American variation of Christianity. And it has to be an American variation, because Lutheran Protestantism, the strain of Christianity most prominent where I come from, does not have this focus on suffering and redemption. Hell, we don’t even have a word for redemption and the closest translation is the word for forgiveness. Nor does a focus on guilt and redemption show up in the German version of Catholicism, though in the US Catholicism is apparently associated with guilt, which always baffled me, because that’s not an association I would make at all. But whichever American strain of Christianity this creepy focus on guilt and shame comes from, it has infected even such explicitly non-religious works as Star Trek, where Jason Isaacs had to reshoot a scene for adlibbing “For God’s sake”.

I actually do have a redemption arc of sorts in the In Love and War series. Because when they first meet – in a story I still haven’t been able to finish, because it’s so fucking painful and emotionally exhausting to write – Mikhail explicitly lies to Anjali and poses as someone he’s not in order to capture her for his commanders. And though Mikhail is uncomfortable with his mission, he still goes along with it and even agrees to hand Anjali over to his superiors, knowing that she will be abused and killed. He grapples with this for a long time – they both find themselves isolated, so Mikhail can’t hand her over right away – until something happens that shows him once and for all that what his superiors are doing is wrong and he decides to let Anjali go, regardless of what this will mean for him. And yes, there is some grovelling involved, because Mikhail actually has done things that he needs to apologise for. But once he has apologised, Anjali forgives him pretty quickly and they start working together, even though it still takes her some time to admit that she loves him. Because I’d rather see characters working together as partners and supporting each other through their various traumas (and both Mikhail and Anjali are traumatised people) than suffering alone, just because someone’s idea of redemption requires it. And in fact, a lot of what I write is a direct reaction to tropes that I hate, countering bad narratives by writing better stories. And the In Love and War series in particular is a reaction to a lot of problematic and downright toxic tropes.

Michael’s horrible comment to Ash pretty much encapsulates why I hate redemption arcs. The insistence that one has to hit rock bottom and claw one’s way back, that one has to suffer and be punished and do it alone, all this is a perfect description of why redemption arcs are awful. And besides, Discovery‘s own plot arc, what there was of it, refutes this whole insistence on solitary suffering. Because the atmosphere aboard the Discovery became better, comradery and morale improved, after Lorca and his fear-based style of command were gone. And the Discovery crew were always at their best, when they all worked together, even during Lorca’s time. And Michael seemed happier and more like herself and actually started smiling on occasion, once she started to bond with the crew in general and Ash in particularly. This is another reason why I hate that Michael dumped Ash, because they were good for each other. Even Sarek, who’s not exactly an expert in matters of the heart, says so. So while Michael insists that solitary suffering and punishment are necessary for redemption, the narrative itself actually says something completely different, namely that everything is better with a little help from your friends and loved ones (which is coincidentally the one message that every Star Trek series since the very first one has had in common).

I suspect that Michael and Ash will eventually get back together, once Ash has suffered in solitude enough, provided both characters survive the season finale, which is by no means certain. And in fact, I fear that one or both of them will die, probably in the process of pressing the big red reset button that will restore the Star Trek universe back to the state it should be in at this point in time. Because it’s pretty obvious that the reset button must be pushed, if they want to salvage this utter mess of a show. Though when they push the reset button, I hope that they save all the characters still alive and hopefully bring back Culber, too. Maybe they’ll even manage to bring back the real Philippa Georgiou or the real Gabriel Lorca, whom we’ve never even met.

So can Star Trek Discovery still redeem itself? I’d say it can, though it will probably involve jettisoning this entire mess of a season.

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