Yes, I know that I already wrote one long post and then a second to detail my issues with Star Trek Discovery, but I’m still not done. In fact, I haven’t been so angry about a TV show ever since the new Battlestar Galactica ruined a childhood favourite and Torchwood followed a flawed, but promising first season with three seasons of bad relationships, child murder and pointless character deaths. In fact, I’d thought that by now I’d become so used to pointless sequels and bad reboots of franchises I used to like that I no longer complain, I just roll my eyes and quit watching. Star Trek Discovery, however, makes me actively angry, so here is another post about why.
The fourth episode of Star Trek Discovery has been made available by now (IMO you cannot say “aired”, since Star Trek Discovery is a streaming video show) and it tells a story that actually looks vaguely like a Star Trek plot. All right, so it’s not an original Star Trek plot, but instead borrows elements from various previous Star Trek episodes, most notably the original series episode “The Devil in the Dark” and the Voyager episode “Equinox”. But then, the Star Trek franchise has been recycling story ideas and entire plots for a long time now and still managed to make some pretty good episodes from less than original ideas.
However, even though Star Trek Discovery has finally managed to find a Trek-like plot, the show still doesn’t look and feel like Star Trek. Instead, it feels as if the new Battlestar Galactica had accidentally happened upon a Star Trek plot. Except that even the characters of the new Battlestar Galactica were never quite that stupid.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
Captain Lorca seems determined to earn the nickname “Captain Tribble Abuser” that I gave him in my last post, since he engages in some more abuse of non-humanoid aliens, in this case the “monster” that ate a Discovery redshirt, the crew of the Discovery‘s sister ship and a Klingon landing party in the previous episode. Since the “monster” also happens to be impervious to phasers and to Klingon weaponry, Lorca orders Michael Burnham and the Discovery‘s security chief to examine the creature – nicknamed Ripper by the crew – and see if it can be weaponised somehow. Or rather, he orders Michael Burnham to examine the creature, since I’m pretty sure the security chief is only there to keep an eye on Burnham and keep her in her place, since this is the noxious woman who referred to Michael and her fellow prisoners as “garbage” and “animals” in the previous episode. Never mind that experimenting on a sentient alien lifeform to exploit it is so not what the Federation would do, if this were an actual Star Trek show.
At least, Michael Burnham still acts like a Star Trek character and theorises that maybe Ripper isn’t some kind of space monster after all, but that it only attacked because it was scared. The security chief, however, won’t hear any of it. And since Michael is working too slowly for her, she insists on letting Ripper out of its cage and sedating it (never mind that they know that Ripper is impervious to phasers and Klingon weapons). Michael Burnham even tries to warn her – though I honestly wonder why she’d help a woman who clearly despises her – but the security chief doesn’t listen, chops off a claw and is promptly killed by Ripper. Good riddance, since she was a horrible person, but I can’t help but notice that this is the second of three women of colour in the main cast killed. And unlike Michelle Yeoh’s character, the security chief doesn’t even get to die heroically. Instead she dies of terminal stupidity, literally.
After killing the security chief, Ripper escapes and rampages around the ship. Unfortunately, it does not proceed to kill the rest of the unpleasant jerks that make up the crew of the Discovery, because Michael Burnham figures out that Ripper is scared of bright lights and finally turns the lights aboard the Discovery up. A bonus is that this probably hurts Captain Lorca’s eyes – after all, he requires dim lighting. The ploy works, too, and Ripper returns to its cage. Unfortunately, it does not retreat to Lorca’s ready room and eat him, but I guess the security chief gave it indigestion. Besides, Burnham eventually figures out that Ripper is a herbivore and only kills in self-defence.
Meanwhile, a Federation outpost is under attack by Klingons. Since this outpost also happens to be an important dilithium mine and one that apparently does not double as a prison camp (because if it did, I doubt anybody would have cared), Captain Lorca yells a lot at his bridge crew to get the Discovery there, since Starfleet apparently doesn’t have any other ships. Unfortunately, the magic mushroom drive doesn’t work without a supercomputer and the Discovery doesn’t have one of those (uhm, it’s a top secret research vessel and the Federation can’t even spare a supercomputer?). The jerky scientist guy argues with Lorca that they can’t make the jump, Lorca orders them to jump anyway and things promptly go wrong. The Discovery nearly ends up inside a star, some consoles explode and the jerky scientist guy bumps his head (oh, so satisfying to see unpleasant things happen to the jerks aboard the Discovery, too bad Rubberhead was spared), whereupon jerky scientist guy has to go to the sickbay and engages in a bit of verbal sparring with the Discovery‘s doctor. The jerky scientist guy insists that it doesn’t matter if his frontal lobe was injured, because frontal lobes are only for memory and emotions and both are useless. Never mind that it’s wrong, human frontal lobes do quite a bit more than that, it’s also a perfect illustration of the stereotype of the emotionally stunted male science fiction character.
However, jerky scientist guy’s frontal lobes still work well enough that he can point out that the Discovery‘s destroyed sister ship somehow managed to make the magic mushroom drive work without a supercomputer. Meanwhile, Michael Burnham has noticed that Ripper reacts to the magic mushrooms (no, not that way). So they connect Ripper to the magic mushroom drive and – voila! – it works. Ripper doesn’t look too happy about this, but no one except for Michael even seems to care.
The episode ends with Michael opening a box that had been delivered for her from her late captain and mentor Philippa Georgiou. The box contains a vintage telescope as well as a holographic message from Captain Georgiou, in which she tells Michael that she was always like a daughter to her and that she’s proud of her. Now it’s good to see that at least one person in Star Trek Discovery doesn’t treat Michael like dirt, even if that person is a hologram of the dead captain who might actually have a reason to be angry at Michael. Nonetheless, the whole thing makes little sense, because a) how did anybody know to deliver the box to the Discovery, when Michael Burnham’s presence there is supposed to be secret, cause she’s officially either dead or in prison? and b) how did the telescope end up in the box, when it was last seen in Captain Georgiou’s ready room aboard the Shenzhou, which was supposedly blown up along with the rest of the vessel?
This is just one of the many moments in Star Trek Discovery that make no sense whatsoever. Now I don’t expect one hundred percent accurate science from my science fiction, especially not from a space opera like Star Trek. However, there is a difference between handwavium and complete and utter nonsense and the magic mushroom drive complete with space monster controller falls into the latter category. What is more, I expect different levels of scientific accuracy from different franchises. I’m fairly lenient with regard to “complete and utter nonsense, but cool” in something like Guardians of the Galaxy or even Star Wars and I wouldn’t have blinked at a magic mushroom spacedrive with a plugged in space monster serving as the control unit, if this were a novel by China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer, but Star Trek has always sat on the harder end of the space opera spectrum. Yes, we know by now that matter teleportation and FTL travel is not possible, but most of the tech we see in the various Star Trek franchises over the years was plausible by 1960s to 1980s standards and quite a bit of Star Trek tech actually is reality now, e.g. Star Trek predicted tablets and smartphones (and automatic sliding doors, for that matter). In a franchise like Star Trek, the magic mushroom drive complete with monster controller sticks out like a sore thumb.
But the main problem with Star Trek Discovery is not that the plot makes no real sense and that the science is nonsense. After all, Star Trek has had nonsense science and silly plots before and I’ve still been able to forgive the franchise. However, Star Trek Discovery just doesn’t feel like Star Trek and considering that the first season is already approximately one third over (Star Trek seasons are shorter these days), I suspect it won’t start feeling like Star Trek before the end of the season, if ever (especially if the show doesn’t get more than one season). I’m not the only one who feels that way – even people who initially viewed Star Trek Discovery a lot more positively than I did are noting the same issues by now. See this post by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, in which she points out that Star Trek Discovery should quickly find its moral heart and maybe show us the crew bonding and having some downtime, while they’re at it.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is right, because Star Trek in any incarnation has always been a character-focussed show and so far, I want to chuck everybody aboard the Discovery except for Michael, her room mate, the Tribble, Ripper and maybe the doctor (at any rate, he’s easy on the eyes) out of the nearest airlock. Honestly, these people are horrible, easily some of the most unlikable characters in the history of Star Trek. Now I suspect that Lorca and jerky scientist guy are supposed to be unlikable (which is risky in itself, because people generally don’t like watching complete and utter jerks, unless they are extraordinarily smart – see Sherlock and House M.D.), but I doubt that goes for everybody aboard the Discovery.
Interestingly, quite a few people seem to like Rubberhead (apparently, the character’s name is Saru, but I can never remember it), but I find him just as awful as Lorca, jerky scientist guy and the terminally stupid security chief. Now Rubberhead has history with Michael Burnham, since they know each other from the Shenzhou, where she was his superior officer (and you can bet, Rubberhead resented her for it, because alien or not, he’s still a man). Now Michael Burnham is the despised convict and prisoner, while Rubberhead is first officer and boy, he’s not going to let her forget it. Of course, Rubberhead despises Lorca (well, who in his right mind wouldn’t?) and gleefully tells Michael that since she mutinied against a good captain, she deserves a bad one. Okay, so Michael is mean to Rubberhead and tries to use his biological danger response to determine if Ripper really is a threat, but considering how unpleasant Rubberhead is, I can’t feel sorry for him. It’s a pity, because Star Trek has always been good at humanising the Other and the non-human characters were usually among the most memorable, from Spock via Data and Whorf, Odo and Quark, Neelix, the Doctor and Seven of Nine to Doctor Phlox. Rubberhead could have stood in that tradition, but he doesn’t. Instead, he comes across as an unlikeable passive aggressive backstabber, because he’s too scared to confront Michael or Lorca or Captain Georgiou head-on. Also, considering the most notable characteristic of his species seems to be “scared of everything”, I wonder what this dude is doing in Starfleet at all. Weren’t there any nice and safe desk jobs available on the planet of the Rubberheads? Or are we literally seeing the most adventurous Rubberhead who ever lived? Which could actually be interesting, except that the show doesn’t do anything with it.
I’m increasingly convinced that Gene Roddenberry’s famous dictum that the members of a Star Trek crew should not portrayed negatively and that they shouldn’t be in conflict with each other beyond disagreements that are resolved in the course of an episode was absolutely right. This guideline was one of the first things the people behind Star Trek Discovery ditched, because it was supposedly too limiting, and what’s the result? A ship full of unpleasant characters squabbling among each other. That’s not what I want to see (in fact, the constant squabbling and angsting and guilt trips on The Flash are fast souring me on a show I used to like a whole lot) and it’s definitely not what I want from a Star Trek show.
On Twitter I came across the clickbaity headline “Star Trek Discovery cast wants President Trump to watch the show” and my first thought was, “So they made a bad Star Trek show just to punish Trump?” Not that I can’t understand the sentiment, but I never took Trump for a Trekkie and besides, I have the sneaking suspicion that Trump would actually like the dystopian Federation portrayed in Star Trek Discovery and he definitely would like the new Klingons. What is more, a lot of fans could use some hope for the future right now because of the mess Trump and his administration as well as similar politicians in other countries have made. In fact, I wonder if part of the reason why I’m reacting so very strongly to Star Trek Discovery is because the two-part pilot aired on the night of the German election, when I could really have used a bit of hope.
But of course, the article is not actually about the shocking reveal that Star Trek Discovery was specifically created to torture Donald Trump. Instead, it’s a report about a con panel where the cast and some of the crew of Star Trek Discovery talk about the show. The executive producer and the showrunner praise the diversity of the show and proclaim that the core message of Star Trek needs to be amplified after the 2016 US presidential election. Jason Isaacs, who plays Captain Lorca, hopes that Trump will watch, because he might learn something (How to abuse tribbles? Alternate uses of magic mushrooms?) and Sonequa Martin-Green who plays Michael Burnham declares that Star Trek Discovery offers a picture of hope and a representation of what is possible.
Now these would be lovely sentiments – and mind you, I’m not blaming the cast here, though I am blaming the showrunners – if that was actually the show we got. However, the actual Star Trek Discovery offers neither hope nor escape. Instead, it gives us a dystopian Federation, which hands out life sentences for comparatively minor offenses, has labour camps and tolerates prisoner abuse, as well as a crew that largely consists of a collection of arseholes and jerks. As for diversity, look at that cast photo at the top of the article. Now that must be the whitest Star Trek cast I’ve ever seen. Except for Michelle Yeoh (who’s dead and was eaten by Klingons, though she reappears as a hologram) and Sonequa Martin-Green (who’s a constantly abused prisoner) and the guy in the back (Is that the doctor? Cause he looked different in this episode), every person in the photo is white. Well, there is Rubberhead whose race cannot be determined, but I’m tending towards white based on the general skintone (and googling the actor reveals that he is indeed white). Honestly, the original series and Next Generation has more diverse casts fifty or respectively thirty years ago, let alone Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.
Okay, so apparently there are gay people in Star Trek now, which is long overdue. Jerky scientist guy, who is apparently gay, is gay in the way that Steven Carrington in Dynasty or Doug Savant’s character in Melrose Place were gay 25 to 30 years ago, characters who were supposedly gay, even though you’d never know it, because they didn’t have relationships with men (and in the case of Steven actually had more sex with Heather Locklear than with any male character). In short, Star Trek had finally reached the point regarding LGBT representation that mainstream soaps like Dynasty and Melrose Place had reached while Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the air, which is not something to celebrate. Coincidentally, the other Star Trek show currently on the air (even if it doesn’t have the official stamp of approval) The Orville recently tackled the issue of forced sex-assignment surgery performed on non-consenting babies (and coincidentally, they have a same-sex couple among the regular cast, too), so even the supposed Star Trek parody The Orville is ahead of Star Trek proper on LGBT representation, which is frankly shameful. Okay, so it’s possible that jerky scientist dude is asexual, but given what we’ve seen of him so far, I doubt it. And Star Trek Discovery doing what The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine should have done 25 years ago is not actually a win for diversity.
To be fair, the Discovery‘s bridge crew is highly diverse and includes several women, people of colour and even aliens, but these characters have hardly any lines and their roles mostly seem to consist of looking scared when Lorca yells at them (and Lorca yells a lot). The various redshirts in the background are a diverse bunch as well, but they’re redshirts for a reason. In general, Star Trek Discovery still feels like a terrible bait and switch, where fans were promised two strong women of colour in command positions, only to have one of them killed in the pilot and her remains eaten by Klingons (Yes, Star Trek Discovery is the show that had Michelle Yeoh eaten by Klingons), while the other is first given a life sentence in a labour camp and then abused by a bunch of mostly white people aboard a rogue Federation starship. Then another actress of colour who played the Discovery‘s security chief dies of terminal stupidity in the fourth episode. Okay, she was a really unpleasant character and I suspect no one is sad to see her go, but it’s still another actress of colour unceremoniously killed off. This is not diversity, it’s a slap in the face.
Let’s repeat this: Star Trek Discovery is the show that thought it was a good idea to cast Michelle Yeoh as a starship captain, only to kill her off at the end of the pilot and have her body eaten by Klingons.
Now cannibalism is not a strong trigger for me at all, nonetheless, I nearly puked when I first heard about the cannibalism thing. And yes, I will call it cannibalism, even though Philippa Georgiou and the Klingons aren’t the same species, because no earthly language that I know of has a word for eating a member of an intelligent, sentient species that is not human and besides, I would no more consider eating a Klingon, a Vulcan, a Romulan or even a Ferengi than I would consider eating a fellow human.
So why did the cannibalism thing upset me so much, even though it’s not a particularly strong trigger for me (and coincidentally, isn’t it strange being triggered by something you thought wouldn’t trigger you?)? Largely, because there is no reason at all for that throwaway line during the lengthy scenes of Klingons sitting around and monologuing on their crippled battleship (Apparently, the Klingon Empire was not that keen on being made pure again after all and just abandoned that bunch in space. Good riddance, too.). First of all, even though Klingons like their food still squirming, they don’t have a history of cannibalism. That is, apparently a Klingon threatens to cut out and eat an enemy’s heart in a Next Generation or Deep Space Nine episode, which either refers to a previously unseen ritual or might have been intended metaphorically. But apart from this one line, there has never been any indication that Klingons eat their fallen enemies. What is more, having the Klingons commit cannibalism only further adds to the unfortunate stereotypes of the Klingons as “savages” that the new show has already piled up. Of course, one could argue that the Klingons only resort to cannibalism, because they’re starving – indeed, the lack of food aboard the Klingon vessel is explicitly addressed in the dialogue. However, even if the Klingons are starving and have to resort to eating dead Starfleet personnel, there is still no reason to mention this in dialogue. Viewers have got imaginations, after all. For example, it’s widely assumed that the Ewoks are serving roasted Stormtroopers at the big feast at the end of Return of the Jedi, even though there isn’t a single line of dialogue about this in the actual movie. Because viewers have got imaginations.
No, there is only one reason that the line about the Klingons eating Captain Georgiou is in the episode at all and that’s for shock value. Indeed, a lot of the illogical bits of Star Trek Discovery that don’t make a whole lot of sense (Michael Burnham suddenly deciding to commit a completely futile mutiny, Captain Georgiou getting killed, Michael getting sentenced to life in prison, the security chief dying of terminal stupidity) are mainly intended for shock value. Star Trek Discovery isn’t trying to be Deep Space Nine 2.0. or even Battlestar Galactica 3.0. (and the original Battlestar Galactica is pretty much a master class in shocking the audience), it’s trying to be the next Game of Thrones. But unlike Game of Thrones, which offered a calculated series of steadily escalating shocks, at least in its first few seasons, and used them to forward the plot, Star Trek Discovery is just throwing out random shocks for their own sake. And by the time Game of Thrones resorted to cannibalism (in the form of the red-bearded Wildling gnawing on a human leg) the show was already losing its way. It’s probably no coincidence that I stopped watching for good a few episodes later.
What is more, even though Game of Thrones is currently the most successful TV show on the planet, not every TV show or even every speculative TV show needs to be Game of Thrones. And what I want from Game of Thrones is very different to what I want from The Handmaid’s Tale is very different to what I want from Supergirl or Legends of Tomorrow is very different to what I want from Doctor Who is very different to what I want from Star Trek.
One of the most harmful effects of the so-called “Golden Age of Television” (which I don’t consider golden at all, as I’ve repeatedly explained over the years) is the constant focus on dark and gritty stories full of unpleasant characters, because everybody is trying to emulate whatever the latest must-see quality drama is. Hence, you get “Like The Wire, but in space” or “Like Mad Men, but with serial killers” (actual description of a new Netflix drama), a copy of a copy of a copy. SFF TV was largely spared the HBO-fication of US television with the exception of the new Battlestar Galactica, which apparently wanted to be “The West Wing cum Band of Brothers, but in space”, and Lost, which was one of the many 24 wannabes that sprung up around 2004/05. But then HBO started to turn away from gazing at the navel of the white American middle class, turned towards speculative fiction instead and made first True Blood and then Game of Thrones. With the massive success of both shows (and a lot of people these days seem to have forgotten that True Blood was a huge success in its time), the floodgates opened and by now we’re being drowned in SFF versions of “Peak TV” quality drama. The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, The Walking Dead, Sense8, The Man in the High Castle, American Gods, Outlander, The Expanse, Preacher, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Orphan Black, Stranger Things, Mr. Robot – it’s an endless stream of well-produced big budget SFF drama. It should be TV heaven for me, peak TV indeed. And don’t get me wrong, I do like some of those shows (Outlander, Jessica Jones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Preacher) a whole lot. Nonetheless, I find the SFF version of “peak TV” as frustrating as the white middle class version.
For starters, the most discussed and most highly acclaimed SFF TV shows of today – Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld and The Walking Dead – are all very dark. The only exception is Stranger Things, which mainly seems to appeal to the nostalgia of those of us who were kids during the 1980s. SFF television is practically a drowning in grimdark thanks to the HBO-fication of speculative television.
Let me quote something from this post I wrote in 2011 about my issues with US “quality television”:
However, this discussion […] highlights a trend I find troubling, namely the tendency to use a small number of highly acclaimed TV dramas broadcast on US pay-TV channels such as HBO as the benchmark of television quality. It’s good to see television productions finally gaining critical recognition, after decades of television having been dismissed as the Nullmedium (zero medium). However, critical discussions of television these days are determined by the following dichotomy: If it looks like West Wing/The Sopranos/The Wire/Six Feet Under/Mad Men/Breaking Bad/whatever the latest must-see show is, it is quality television. If it doesn’t emulate those shows, it’s trash entertainment for the masses.
This dichotomy completely disregards one important point, namely that there is more than one way of making good television. The HBO-style (for lack of a better term, since HBO seems to have become synonymous with that kind of show) of taking an unflinching look at the uglier sides of America, particularly the dark underbelly of the suburban middle class family, but also the social issues and hypocricies at the heart of American society in general, with a strong focus on crime, sex, violence, swearing and an odd obsession with psychotherapy and drugs*, is just one way of making good drama. It’s not the way.
The references might be a bit dated by now, but the point still stands. Even though some of the “peak TV” era grimdark SFF shows may be good, it’s not the only way of making good SFF drama. And while no one familiar with the source material expects Game of Thrones or The Handmaid’s Tale to be cheery escapism (and there is still more comraderie between the handmaids than between the crew of the Discovery), I expect something very different from Star Trek. Because at its core, Star Trek has always been about building a better future. And anybody who says that today’s world is dark and troubled, that the US has been steadily at war for sixteen years now, that racial tensions are on the rise, that there is a war on women, that the hard-won rights of LGBT people are under threat, that Neo-Nazis are marching in the streets, etc… should remember that the late 1960s, when Star Trek was first conceived, weren’t exactly a cheery time either. At the time, the original series first aired, there was also a war going on (a hot war in Vietnam and a cold war in general), there were also racial tensions, people of colour, women and LGBT people were fighting for their rights, there were widespread student protests, etc… Yet in spite of everything that was going on in the US and around the world at the time, Gene Roddenberry still managed to give us a vision for a better future, where many of the issues that so troubled the late 1960s have been resolved or where at least a solution seems possible. 1960s Star Trek gave us a a black woman, a Japanese man, a Russian man and an alien-human hybrid on the bridge of the Enterprise. In 2017, Star Trek Discovery gives us a villainous white Captain, a black woman convict, a gay man without any relationships, abused aliens and evil Klingons, it feeds one Asian woman to the Klingons and has the other die of terminal stupidity.
What makes the predominance of grimdark in US speculative television so frustrating is that the grimdark trend in written SFF has been fading for a while now and counter-movements like hopepunk and noblebright fantasy are on the rise. SFF television, however, remains mired in grimdark and it’s beginning to infact even programs that weren’t originally supposed to be grimdark.
Let’s return to the article about the comments made by the Star Trek Discovery cast that I linked to above and the comment by Sonequa Martin-Green that Star Trek can offer a much needed message of hope in troubled times.
In 1966, Star Trek delivered that message of hope. In 2017, Star Trek Discovery gives everybody looking for a bit of hope a slap in the face.