Yeah, to a certain degree another post about Star Trek Discovery. For previous installments in the loose series “Let me tell you of all the ways in which Star Trek Discovery sucks”, see here, here and here.
Interestingly, by now even those who had previously viewed Star Trek Discovery positively to cautiously optimistic are beginning to have issues with the show. At The Daily Dot, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wonders whether Star Trek Discovery has gone too far in the latest episode. Meanwhile, over at io9, Katharine Trendacosta has entitled her review of the latest episode “And Now Star Trek: Discovery Has Lost Its Soul.” As I read that headline, my initial reaction was “That would presume the show ever had a soul in the first place.”
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
What has these and other reviewers so riled up is that reliable old standby for pissing off audiences, namely cruelty towards animals. The animal in this case is the so-called tardigrade a.k.a. Ripper, the alien creature the Discovery crew found rampaging aboard a crippled Starfleet ship and brought aboard the Discovery two episodes ago. Last episode, Michael Burnham figured out that Ripper is a) neither evil nor a threat, even though it kills Klingons and redshirts b) the missing component that can make the magic mushroom drive function and c) that plugging it into the magic mushroom drive actually hurts the creature. The tardigrade plot is actually the most Trek-like thing about Star Trek Discovery, since this is exactly the sort of story Star Trek used to tell. As I mentioned in my last post, this story is not exactly original, since it mixes elements of the original series episode “The Devil in the Dark” and the Voyager episode “Equinox”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since the Star Trek franchise has something of a tradition of reusing and recombining plot elements. However, due to the annoying serialised structure (which Katharine Trendacosta also criticises at io9), Star Trek Discovery needs two and a half episodes to tell a story that older Trek series would have told in one episode, two at most.
In spite of its obvious suffering, poor Ripper continues to be pressed into service as the navigation system for the magic mushroom drive, because it is just so damned useful and besides, there is a war going on. The Federation also wants to acquire more tardigrades, because hey, there is a war going on, and anyway, it’s just a dumb alien beast. Apparently, everybody in the Federation and Starfleet has forgotten the existence of the Prime Directive and their other laws and codes. Or they just conveniently ignore those laws and codes, because hey, there is a war going on and war requires extreme measures, don’t you know?
Even though everybody treats her as if she were the literally most horrible person in the entire Federation, Michael Burnham is not happy with the way Ripper is being treated, since she can tell it is suffering. After a while, even jerky scientist guy (apparently, the character’s name is Paul Stamets, named after this real life mykologist) comes around and begins to object to Ripper’s treatment. However, their objections come up against the brick wall that is – no, not Captain Lorca for once, cause he managed to get himself captured by Klingons – but his first officer Saru a.k.a. Commander Rubberhead.
Now the character of Saru seems to be something of a fan favourite, which is baffling to me, because I find him awful, both as a Starfleet officer and a person. I suspect the sniping between Saru and Michael Burnham is supposed to evoke the banter between Dr. McCoy and Michael’s foster brother Spock in the original series. However, this backfires badly. For starters, upon rewatching the original series today, the banter between Spock and McCoy isn’t all that funny and some of McCoy’s remarks come across as flat-out racist these days (and come to think of it, McCoy has always been my least favourite original series character along with Kirk). And Saru is no McCoy, he’s just a jerk.
Saru has been at odds with Michael Burnham from the very first episode on, where she was his superior aboard the Shenzhou. Now the tables have turned and Saru is first officer aboard the Discovery (Why? He’s about as qualified for the job as Bernd the Bread), while Michael Burnham is the convict everybody despises. And Saru is not going to let her forget that. Now I have seen several rationalisations for why Saru dislikes Michael so much and has disliked her since before she nerve-pinched Captain Georgiou, many of which involve that Michael triggers Saru’s physiological danger responses. Apparently, Saru’s species are prey animals – and considering how unpleasant he is, I hope that whatever used to prey on Saru’s people shows up and eats him. Besides, to me – and to many other female viewers as well, I suspect – it was always blindingly obvious why Saru dislikes Michael so much. He’s jealous, plain and simple, jealous that Michael nabbed the job he wanted and felt entitled to. He even says as much to Michael in the latest episode, that’s he’s angry and jealous, because Michael robbed him of the opportunity to be Captain Georgiou’s first officer and learn from her. In short, Saru is every mediocre white dude (hidden behind a rubberhead) who has ever felt threatened by a more qualified woman (a woman of colour in this case) getting the job he feels entitled to.
As a result, Saru suddenly finding himself in the position of acting captain, when Lorca manages to get himself captured, is about as disastrous as you’d expect, because Saru is flat out unqualified for anything but a desk job. In order to prepare himself for the position he fell into, he asks the computer for a list of the most highly decorated captains in Starfleet history, a list that’s pure fan service BTW and includes Jonathan Archer from Star Trek Enterprise, Christopher Pike, who preceded Kirk as captain of the Enterprise and can be seen in “The Cage” and “The Menagerie”, Matt Decker from “The Doomsday Machine”, Robert April, who appeared in one episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and – because there should be a woman and/or person of colour somewhere on that list – Philippa Georgiou. Saru then orders the computer to grade his performance against those legendary figures. Uhm, Saru, I can spare you that effort and tell you right away that you don’t measure up. You not just don’t measure up, no, you’re probably the least qualified person aboard the Discovery. Even Lorca’s pet tribble would make a better captain than you (actually, the tribble would make a better captain than Lorca as well). Coincidentally, Saru never gets his answer, because he withdraws the order, probably because he knew he wouldn’t measure up.
Also, why would you call a new character Saru in a franchise that already has two established characters named Sulu and Sarek, one of whom turned up in this very series? Now I’m not a proponent of the “never have two characters whose names start with the same letter of the alphabet” dictum, but those names are way too similar. And since we’ve never seen Saru’s species before, there is no established naming pattern for them.
When Captain Lorca gets himself captured by the Klingons (which is in itself a moment of incredible idiocy – why would he fly alone in an unarmed shuttle through hostile territory, when he has a fully armed starship with an experimental magic mushroom drive at his disposal?), Saru suddenly becomes extremely eager to get him back. Of course, Saru doesn’t even like Lorca (he said as much to Michael), so I have no idea why he or anybody else aboard the Discovery would be so eager to rescue him. In fact, considering what a horrible person Lorca is (and he becomes even more horrible in this episode, if that’s even possible), I would have understood if the entire crew of the Discovery had quietly agreed to totally fail at rescuing Lorca. But for some reason, Saru is very intent on rescuing Lorca and therefore overrides Michael’s and everybody else’s concerns regarding the health of Ripper the tardigrade and orders the creature plugged into the magic mushroom drive again and again, even after the creature goes into some kind of catatonic state. In fact, Saru clearly orders that they should plug Ripper into the drive, even if the effort kills it. Yes, Starfleet’s second-worst officer orders the crew to kill a clearly sentient and likely intelligent alien lifeform in order to rescue Starfleet’s worst officer. Honestly, it’s as if everybody up to and including the writers has completely forgotten the prime directive and the other codes and laws of the Federation.
Though it’s telling that the screenwriters and the characters suddenly remember that the Federation in general and Earth in particular have laws, when one of those laws is needed as a plot obstacle. And so Stamets figures out that injecting Ripper’s DNA into a crew member capable of consenting to being used as a navigator for the magic mushroom drives will solve the problem of exploiting a non-consenting and clearly suffering creature. The tardigrade DNA must be injected into a human because of reasons. However, altering human DNA is strictly forbidden because of the eugenics wars of the 1990s (I must have missed that bit of real world history), which gave the universe Khan Noonian Singh. So the Federation is willing to ignore its own laws regarding the exploitation of a non-humanoid, but clearly sentient alien lifeform, but is willing to uphold a law arising out of a conflict that took place on one planet approx. 250 years before the time where Star Trek Discovery is set. That’s as if the modern EU would care about laws passed in revolutionary France.
I fully expected that Michael would inject herself with the tardigrade DNA, since she is biologically human but identifies as Vulcan rather than an Earth person, so the law does not apply to her. But in the end, Stamets is willing to ignore the law and injects himself with tardigrade DNA. He suffers no immediately notable ill effects and can now send the Discovery to where it’s supposed to go just like Ripper could. The Discovery rescues Lorca, Michael Burnham sets Ripper free (by spacing it, but apparently that’s just what Ripper needed). She also apologises to Saru (why?) and even gives him the telescope (why, for goodness’ sake?) that Captain Georgiou has explicitly willed to her. And all ends well? Or does it?
Now I have to admit that I really hated Stamets in the first two episodes we saw him, but by this episode I’m beginning to tolerate him. Hell, I’m even making a effort to remember his name rather than calling him “jerky scientist dude”. Coincidentally, I was also wrong in declaring that Stamets was gay in the way that Steven Carrington from Dynasty and Doug Savant’s character from Melrose Place were gay 25 to 30 years ago, namely nominally gay man who never had a relationship with another man on screen or if they did, it was doomed anyway. Because as the latest episode reveals, Stamets actually is in a relationship with the cute ship’s doctor (and coincidentally, both actors are gay in real life, though not a couple). The reveal is nicely done, when we see them casually brushing their teeth in matching pyjamas. Okay, so the true point of the scene is that Stamets reflection now lingers in the mirror, after he leaves the bathroom, which is a really cliched signpost (and copied from Twin Peaks of all things) that something ominous is happening and that injecting himself with the tardigrade DNA will come back to bite him at some point. Nonetheless, it’s a nice scene and coincidentally, also the first indication that not all people aboard the Discovery dislike each other and that there are actually relationships on board that are not antagonistic.
The plot aboard the Discovery, however, makes up only half of the episode. The rest is devoted to Captain’s Lorca’s “adventures” among the Klingons. And since this is a gritty and grimdark take on Star Trek, these adventures consist mostly of Lorca and his fellow prisoners, a Starfleet officer named Ash Tyler and Harry Mudd, last seen in two episodes of the original series, getting tortured. That is, Tyler and Lorca get tortured (and Tyler apparently is raped by the female Klingon captain as well) , because the Klingons let their prisoners decide which one of them will get tortured and Harry Mudd keeps voting for Tyler and Lorca. Which is exactly the sort of behaviour you’d expect from a self-serving narcissist like Mudd. Though Mudd does tell off Lorca and the arrogance of Starfleet in general, which was a nice touch. Never thought I’d ever agree with Harry Mudd on anything.
Now Lorca (and Tyler) are far from the first Starfleet officers to get themselves tortured. Picard famously spent a whole episode getting tortured in “Chain of Command” (an episode I hate, as I’ve said before) and even Kirk and Spock got themselved stripped and whipped – to the joy of slashers and shippers everywhere – in “Patterns of Force”. Outside the franchise, Commander Sheridan spent a whole episode getting tortured in Babylon 5, which may or may not have been inspired by “Chain of Command”, but was as unwatchable, at any rate. And shows like the travesty that is the new Battlestar Galactica thrived on extensive torture sequences, including one where the victim was a visibly pregnant actress. So there is absolutely nothing here that we haven’t seen before.
However, what distinguishes the torture of Captain Lorca and Ash Tyler from the torture that Picard, Kirk and Spock, Commander Sheridan in Babylon 5 and Grace Park’s and Tricia Helfer’s characters and others in the new Battlestar Galactica experienced is that by the time they were extensively tortured on screen, the viewer was attached to these characters and cared what happened to them (I never liked Picard all that much, always found him stiff, but I didn’t want to see him hurt). However, I find that I cannot bring myself to give a fuck about what happens to Gabriel Lorca, because we’ve only known the character for three episodes and he’s been a horrible person and outright arsehole for those three episodes. As for Ash Tyler, he’s a brand-new character, so we’re not attached to him at all. So the torture scenes come across as both gratuitous* and meaningless. Indeed, when I saw an animated GIF online of Lorca getting punched in the face by the Klingon captain over and over again, while strapped into some Clockwork Orange like torture chair (they also did something to his damaged eyes), I found the sight strangely satisfying, just like the animated GIFs of Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face over and over again. Because Lorca is so unpleasant, I don’t give a fuck what happens to him.
And while this episode was an excellent opportunity to make us care about Lorca by showing us another side of the man rather than the Machiavellian arsehole we’ve all come to loathe, the episode squanders that opportunity by offering up even more evidence that Lorca is a monster. For while he’s in prison and being tortured, we also learn what happened to Lorca’s previous ship, courtesy of Harry Mudd of all people. Turns out that Lorca blew up his previous ship along with the crew to prevent the Klingons from capturing the ship and torturing and/or publiucly executing the crew. Yes, Lorca killed his own crew and somehow managed to escape (rather than kill himself – and coincidentally, he fails to kill himself again, when captured by the Klingons, even though being taken prisoner by them is supposedly worse than death), though he received his eye condition in the process. Amazingly, Lorca is still captain after what he did and was even given another ship to command, while Michael Burnham was given a life sentence in a labour camp for the much lesser sin of nerve-pinching Captain Georgiou, from which Georgiou promptly recovered. I guess being a white man (or a white rubberhead) has its advantages even in the post-sexist future of Star Trek.
Also, does Starfleet not have any psych evaluations for its personnel at all? Because if they did, Lorca, Saru and even Michael Burnham should not be in Starfleet at all, let alone in high command positions. Lorca is a ruthless monster, Saru is useless and completed unsuited to command and Michael is badly traumatised due to her childhood experiences. Being raised by emotionally distant Vulcans didn’t help either. Is the reason why Starfleet has counsellors aboard ever starship during the Next Generation era because they used to recruit all sorts of unsuitable people during the original series era and just before?
In the end, Lorca manages to escape from the Klingon ship and takes Ash Tyler along. They leave Harry Mudd behind, because Lorca believes Mudd is a Klingon spy. Of course, he has no real evidence that Mudd really is a spy and indeed Ash Tyler is just as likely a suspect, considering he is still in remarkably good shape after six months in Klingon captivity and has sex with the Klingon captain. There is even a fan theory that Ash Tyler might be a Klingon surgically altered to pass as human (in which case I suspect Lorca’s poor little abused Tribble will get a chance to shine). I hope that theory is not true BTW, because it would mean that another actor of colour in an already very white cast is either killed or revealed as a villain.
The Klingons, coincidentally, still don’t look or act even remotely like the Klingons we’ve seen between 1966 and 2005. Instead, they’re used as all-purpose metaphors for whatever real world evil the writers want to tackle this week, ranging from Trump voters to ISIS. Not that Star Trek has ever been shy about using alien races as a metaphor for whatever, but they usually came up with new aliens rather than using an established species with an established history and culture. All right, so most of what we do know about Klingons comes from Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, i.e. more than a hundred years after Discovery, but nonetheless nothing shown in Discovery fits the Klingons we know. I can accept isolationist and racial purity obsessed Klingons, but Klingons do not perform some bizarre cult around the dead bodies of their fallen, they are not cannibalistic and while they might torture prisoners (though I don’t recall ever seeing any evidence for that), they are not into public torture and execution, since we’ve seen the Klingon justice system in action in The Undiscovered Country, which is set maybe thirty to forty years after Discovery. Oh yes, Klingons and humans are also sexually compatible, since we’ve seen Klingon-human hybrids (Belana Torres most notably, but also the mother of Whorf’s son). Because there is a throwaway line in this episode suggesting that Klingons might have two sex organs. Yes, Doctor Who made the same joke ten years ago, but the implications are still interesting. Looks like Deanna Troi and Jadzia Dax have been keeping secrets from us.
As for leaving Harry Mudd behind to be tortured and possibly killed (okay, so we know he survives, but Lorca has no way of knowing that), it’s not out of character for Captain Lorca, but it’s very much out of character for Starfleet as they used to be portrayed. Criminal and jerk or not, Harry Mudd is still a Federation citizen and Lorca more or less condemns him to torture and very likely death. This is not something the contemporary US would do (since “Don’t leave anybody behind” is a very important rule in the US and not just there) and it’s certainly not what the supposedly so highly evolved Federation would do. And yes, Kirk did leave Harry Mudd behind on a planet full of androids together with umpteen android replicas of his wife Stella, but Mudd was not in immediate risk of death on the planet of the androids and indeed the androids would take good care of him. He did not abandon Mudd in a prison full of torture happy aliens. Coincidentally, considering we’ve seen Lorca abuse a Tribble, a Gorn and now Mudd, I wonder whether all the characters who bothered Kirk and co in the original series only did so, because they’d previously run into Lorca and were therefore justifiably pissed off at Starfleet and the Federation.
The many call-backs to other Star Treks, most notably the original series, but also the animated series and Enterprise (Sarek, the Tribble, the Gorn skeleton, the list of captains, Harry Mudd), only serve to heighten the impression that Discovery has nothing whatsoever in common philosophically with anything that used to be called Star Trek. As for Harry Mudd, this is a character who should never have been brought back in the first place. Okay, so Mudd is one of the most recognisable villains of the original series along with Khan Noonian Singh. And Khan’s infamy is mainly due to The Wrath of Khan. My copy of the Starlog Photo Guidebook of Science Fiction Villains, published in 1980 (i.e. before Wrath of Khan came out) lists only Gorn, the Romulan commander from “Balance of Terror” and Harry Mudd as notable Star Trek villains with only a single paragraph devoted to the Klingons (and a photo of a ridged forehead Klingon, which had only been seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture at that point).
However, though he is recognisable, Harry Mudd is also one of the most dated characters in the original series. Harry, the boasting, lying, unscrupulous cad, and his permanently nagging wife Stella (namechecked in Discovery) are 1960s sitcom stereotypes that really haven’t aged well. I don’t think we were ever supposed to like Mudd, but to modern audiences he looks a lot more despicable than he was probably supposed to be, as Emily Asher-Perrin explains here. Mudd basically engages in human trafficking, he’s grossly misogynist and an all around slimeball. I actually liked the Discovery version of Harry Mudd better than I ever liked the original series version (which isn’t saying much, since Mudd is scum), but his inclusion still feels like pointless fan service, especially since any other civilian Federation citizen of questionable morals would have done just as well.
Oh yes, and the word “fucking” was uttered in Star Trek Discovery, when Michael’s roommate remarks “That’s so fucking cool” about the magic mushroom drive. I have to admit that I barely noticed the line and took it as “Hey, she’s enthusiastic about science. Now that at least feels like Star Trek“. But apparently, this was the first time a variation of the word “fuck” was uttered in any Star Trek show. And this single line including the word “fucking” as a modifier for “cool” is apparently highly controversial, because – well, I honestly have no idea, but it has something to do with Star Trek no longer being family-friendly. Of all the many reasons to be upset about Star Trek Discovery, it’s telling that certain people pick the fact that someone said “fucking” and that there are gay people doing something as shocking as brushing teeth to be angry about. Never mind torture, cannibalism, graphic physical violence, sexual violence, prisoner abuse, slave labour, mutilated corpses in close-up, abuse of alien lifeforms – someone said “fuck” and a gay couple engages in dental hygiene, now that is shocking.
In many ways, the uproar about Michael’s roommate saying “fuck” reminds me of the uproar in the early 1980s about Götz George as Horst Schimanski frequently swearing in the German crime drama Tatort. There was a lot of “Won’t someone think of the children?” handwringing back then, which was utterly baffling to me – who was after all a child myself – since everybody I knew at school knew those words and sometimes used them. Coincidentally, contrary to popular assumption, Horst Schimanski’s debut in the Tatort episode “Duisburg Ruhrort” in 1981 was not the first time the word “Scheiße” was uttered on German TV to the shrieks of the sensitive, though it’s probably the best remembered, because it’s literally the first line Schimanski ever says on screen (see it here – still brilliant 36 years later). However, the first time that the word “Scheiße” was uttered on German TV (that I know of) was fifteen years earlier in 1966, when Commander Cliff Allister MacLane said it in an episode of Raumpatrouille Orion, the German SF show which premiered within a few weeks of Star Trek. So Star Trek Discovery is finally boldly going where Raumpatrouille Orion already was fifty-one years ago.
I’ve sometimes said that early exposure to Raumpatrouille Orion (it was literally one of the first works of science fiction I encountered along with the original Star Trek, Time Tunnel and Space 1999) has permanently ruined me for military science fiction. However, I’m beginning to realise that Raumpatrouille Orion is actually the yardstick against which I measure all other science fiction TV, particularly televised space opera. Whenever a character in another TV space opera series does something inexcusable, my first thought is not, “Kirk would never do that” or “Picard would never do that” or “Apollo would never do that” or “Commander Adama would never do that”, but “Commander MacLane would never do that”. Indeed, some of the awful things Lorca did in Discovery prompted that very reaction from me, “Commander MacLane would never do that and neither would any Star Trek captain, not even Sisko who did some horrible things of his own.”
And come to think of it, Star Trek Discovery is a lot closer in concept to Raumpatrouille Orion than it is to anything that was ever labeled Star Trek. Both shows are set in an utopia with cracks (and coincidentally, one of the cracks in Orion‘s utopia is the way they deal with criminals and dissidents) and feature a generally pacifistic society suddenly thrown into a war with a very alien enemy. Both deal with conflicts between following orders and doing the right thing. Both have a senior female commander and both feature a maverick captain who interprets the rules very losely and has the tendency to lose his ship (though MacLane would never endanger his crew) and give him an awesome logic-driven woman as a foil. Star Trek Discovery is actually Star Trek trying to do Raumpatrouille Orion, while The Orville is Seth MacFarlane trying to do Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Now Raumpatrouille Orion has often been called Germany’s answer to Star Trek, which is wrong, because both shows debuted within eight days of each other in September 1966, much too close together for them to have influenced each other. Nor do I have any evidence that the production team behind Star Trek Discovery is even aware that Raumpatrouille Orion exists, let alone that they have seen it. Instead, both the original Star Trek and Raumpatrouille Orion draw on the same mid 1960s zeitgeist mixed with pulp science fiction of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which explains why they seem superficially similar. However, Raumpatrouille Orion has always been more military-oriented (though the show did not glorify the military, as some contemporary critics claimed, but is indeed quite critical of the military), whereas the original Star Trek focussed more on space exploration. So it’s probably no surprised that a new TV show that tries to portray the original series era Federation at war would end up being a little reminiscent of Raumpatrouille Orion
However, noticing the parallels – intentional or not – between Star Trek Discovery and Raumpatrouille Orion makes the shortcomings of Discovery even more notable, since Raumpatrouille Orion did much of what Star Trek Discovery tries to do today fifty years ago and they did it better, too.
If anything, it makes me mourn even more what Star Trek Discovery could have been.
*Yes, I know that’s strange coming from me, considering I have written some pretty extensive torture scenes. However, I don’t cross the line into gratuitousness and I make the readers care about the characters first.