Star Trek – Into Grimdarkness

Since I seem to be doing an episode by episode dissection of Star Trek Discovery anyway (previous posts may be found here), I might just as well do the last two episodes of the first half-season as well. Besides, the title pun was too good not to use.

So the seventh episode of Star Trek Discovery was made available (you can’t really use “air”, since it’s on one of these bloody streaming video services) a few days ago. It actually manages to look and feel like a Star Trek episode for much of the time, which is a big step forward. The plot also feels like a Star Trek plot, probably because it is. Now it’s something of a tradition for the various Star Trek series to recycle ideas and whole plots from other Star Trek series or even episodes of the same series. And for this episode, Star Trek Discovery borrowed one of the most venerable science fiction trops of them all, the time loop. Star Trek has used the time loop concept plenty of times, starting with the 1992 Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect”, which actually predated what is probably the best known implementation of the time loop concept, the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, by a year. In fact, “Cause and Effect” may be the earliest filmic treatment of the time loop idea in general, though someone claimed that there is an episode of the original 1950s Twilight Zone (which I’ve never seen) that also featured a time loop.

Warning! Spoilers underneath the cut.

The time loop in Star Trek Discovery is courtesy of Harry Mudd, last seen abandoned by Captain Lorca in a Klingon torture prison. Somehow, Mudd got out (via making a deal with the Klingons, it is implied) and is understandably pissed as hell at Starfleet in general and at Lorca, Ash Tyler and the rest of the Discovery crew in particular. Somehow, Mudd got his hands also on a crystal that allows him to rewind time by thirty minutes. So he infiltrates the Discovery via an endangered space whale creature he uses as a Trojan horse – because why settle for one SF cliché, when you can have two? And yes, I know that I have written a space whale story myself, but space whales are still a cliché. Once aboard, Mudd uses his time rewinding crystal to find out as much as possible about the magic mushroom drive and how it works and sell that knowledge and preferably the entire ship to the Klingons. And since he’s already there, Mudd also has some “fun” aboard the Discovery, mostly via killing Lorca 54 times in a row, while trying out Lorca’s own weapon collection (which was extremely satisfying to watch, a lot more satisfying then it should be). Mudd also kills several random Discovery crewmembers, when they get in his way, and also destroys the Discovery a couple of times. Though unfortunately, he fails to kill Saru a.k.a. Commander Rubberhead.

Talking of Saru, I recently came across this interview with Doug Jones, the actor who plays him. Turns out that Doug Jones not only had a lengthy career, mostly hidden under tons of prosthetic make-up, but that he also had another notable part this year, for Doug Jones plays the imprisoned underwater creature in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice film festival. So yes, Doug Jones played two rubberheaded alien creatures this year, one in a critically acclaimed and award winning movie and the other in Star Trek Discovery. The disconnect must be quite stunning. Coincidentally, Doug Jones claims that there is rivalry between Saru and Michael Burnham, but also a deep love and respect. Too bad we see none of that on screen. Jones also says that he is a long time Star Trek fan like several other members of the cast. Which means that the cast is probably aware how much Star Trek Discovery is not Star Trek.

Every time loop story requires its Bill Murray, the lone character who knows what’s going on and tries to find a way to break out of the loop, so everybody can get on with their lives. In this episode of Star Trek Discovery, that character is science officer Paul Stamets. Stamets is not only the guy who developed the magic mushroom drive, a few episodes ago he also injected himself with the DNA of the tardigrade creature and now serves as the navigator that persuades the magic mushroom drive to take the Discovery where it needs to go. Ever since injecting himself with tardigrade DNA, Stamets has been acting erratically, which in his case means that he actually became a likeable character. Pre-tardigrade Stamets was largely a jerk, to the point that I didn’t bother remembering the character’s name, but just referred to him as “jerky scientist guy”. However, in this episode I actually liked the mellower new Stamets. Of course, the fact that actor Anthony Rapp who plays Stamets talked about being sexually assaulted by Kevin Spacey at the age of fourteen just before this episode became available may also have influenced the way I view the character. Nonetheless, Stamets’ relationship with his partner, the cute doctor (who runs after Stamets and apologises, when Stamets randomly hugs people in the corridors), is very sweet. I also liked his interaction with Michael Burnham in this episode, which actually made them seem like people who like each other.

Injecting himself with tardigrade DNA has not just given Stamets a much needed personality upgrade, but it has also made him the only person aboard the Discovery who is aware that they are caught in a timeloop. Stamets is also aware that he has to stop Mudd, but since he’s not actually the fighting type, he needs to help. The obvious course of action would be to inform Captain Lorca of the problem. However, Lorca doesn’t listen to Stamets or indeed anybody else. So Stamets needs to find help elsewhere. The next logical choice is Ash Tyler, former Klingon prisoner-of-war turned the Discovery‘s new security chief, after the last one died of terminal stupidity. Tyler is not only responsible for security aboard the Discovery, he also knows Harry Mudd from spending several months locked up in a cell with him. There is only one problem. Tyler isn’t particularly interested in talking to Stamets and listening to his story about time loops. However, Tyler is very interested in Michael Burnham.

So Stamets devises the plan of persuading Michael, who will then help him to persuade Ash Tyler, who in turn will either stop Mudd himself or persuade Lorca. However, there is another problem. For though Tyler is clearly interested in Michael, which is obvious to Stamets, Michael’s roommate Tilly and probably everybody else aboard the Discovery, Michael is not only oblivious to Tyler’s interest in her, she also has no idea how to react, since a Vulcan upbringing doesn’t include any lessons in flirting and dating.

The first time Stamets manages to persuade Michael that his story is true, he asks her to tell him a secret about her nobody else knows, so he can use it to shorten the persuasion phase on the next loop. Michael’s secret is that she’s never been in love. As secrets go, this one honestly isn’t that surprising, given Michael’s background and upbringing. In one of my previous posts about Star Trek Discovery, I even mentioned that the only thing that seems to be missing from Michael’s life by the start of the series is a romantic relationship (and as I said at the time, it’s not clear if she even wants one). In this episode, we learn that Michael indeed wants a romantic relationship, but has no idea how to go about it, since growing up among Vulcans didn’t actually offer her many positive role models along those lines. So Stamets takes it upon himself to fill these gaps in her education. He tells her about how he met and fell in love with the cute doctor and advises her to just be herself. He also teaches Michael to dance, since much of this episode takes place during a party aboard the Discovery, where Michael not just looks distinctly uncomfortable, but is also the only person in uniform, while everybody else is wearing civilian clothes. Considering Michael came aboard the Discovery straight from prison, she probably doesn’t have any civilian clothes. And come to think of it, the only time we have seen Michael not in uniform or prison clothes, she was wearing Vulcan robes, so she may not have any human civilian clothes at all. But couldn’t her roommate Tilly have lent her something, especially since Tilly is shown wearing a nice party dress?

The scenes where Stamets opens up and where he and to a lesser degree Tilly try to play matchmaker and push Michael and Tyler together are genuinely enjoyable. This was probably the first time I actually had fun watching Star Trek Discovery that did not involve bad things happening to Lorca or Saru (though Lorca did get killed 54 times in this episode). Coincidentally, this was also the first episode where I actually felt a sense of cameraderie among the Discovery crew as if these people actually like each other. Okay, so I still can’t stand Lorca (but then I don’t think we’re supposed to like him) and Saru (where I’m apparently in the minority for disliking him), but I actually like Michael, Tyler, Tilly, Stamets and the doctor now.

Stamets’ flirting and dancing lessons pay off, because Michael and Tyler dance and even share a kiss (which they won’t remember, because time is reset again not long thereafter). Now I’ve heard some complaints that the Michael/Tyler romance happens way too quickly and pretty much comes out of nowhere. And considering that romances between regular cast members in previous Star Trek incarnations were not just slow-burn, but developed at a positively glacial pace, two characters falling for each other by the seventh episode of the first season, two characters who have only known each other for two episodes at that, truly is a whirlwind romance by Star Trek standards.

Now I like my science fiction (and indeed any genre) with a side order of romance. And one thing that I really like about the new golden age of quality television is that characters are no longer insolated loners (which the Star Trek casts of the 1990s still were – even the people who had kids still didn’t have partners, but were all widowed), but that they actually get to have relationships, families and friends. So I do like the relationship between Stamets and the doctor (and it’s great to see an established relationship in Star Trek, let alone an established gay relationship) and I also like the blossoming romance between Michael and Tyler, because if there is one character in Star Trek Discovery who deserves something good in her life after all the shit that happened to her, it’s Michael. And after spending months in prison being tortured and sexually abused by Klingons, Ash Tyler also deserves something good. And watching these two wounded and traumatised people help each other heal would indeed be lovely. However, that’s not going to happen, because this is still Star Trek Discovery, the modern gritty and grimdark take on Star Trek.

I’ve already mentioned the fan theory that Ash Tyler is really a Klingon spy or even the Klingon leader Voq surgically altered to appear human. There is some evidence supporting that theory, much of it hinging on the fact that the main cast of Star Trek Discovery includes two actors of Pakistani origin, one of whom has no previous credits. However, I wasn’t convinced of that theory, at least not until I saw this episode. For now I’m certain that the theory is true and that Ash Tyler really is a Klingon spy. After all, Michael is about to fall in love with Tyler and if there is one rule in Star Trek Discovery, it’s that Michael Burnham must suffer and that nothing good can happen to her ever. Hell, she’ll probably have to kill him in the end, just to twist the knife further.

Of course, it’s also possible that even if Tyler is revelaed to be a Klingon spy, Michael finds that she loves him anyway and forgives him and they run off together. But that’s not going to happen. Not because this is Star Trek Discovery, which is all gritty and grimdark and doesn’t allow its characters to be happy, but because two characters who love each other, but cannot be together never just elope, no matter how much sense that might make. Because running away from the plot to be happy together elsewhere is not something that happens in Anglo-American storytelling ever. Coincidentally, the In Love and War series was born out of my frustration with another space opera (and not the first one either, I’d read a couple of books with the same dynamic in fairly quick succession), where two people who loved each other and couldn’t be together because of reasons did not run off together, even when given the opportunity, because whatever threatened the fate of the galaxy this time was more important. However, I cared a lot more about the couple than about whatever galaxy-threatening obstacle kept them apart. So I thought, “Okay, none of these people ever do the logical thing and run off together, so why don’t I write a space opera story where two characters who fall in love do just that?” And this is how Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were born.

But I’m not writing Star Trek Discovery and so Ash Tyler will probably turn out to be a Klingon spy and he’ll probably die, especially given this show’s track record with actors of colour. Of course, Ash Tyler is one of the most likeable and most human characters in Star Trek Discovery, so if he turns out to be a Klingon in disguise, he is the most well adjusted (by human standards) Klingon ever. I mean, Tyler is charming, he flirts, he dances, he jokes. Even Worf and Belanna Torres weren’t that well adjusted and they were both raised by humans. But then, it’s not as if Star Trek Discovery makes a whole lot of sense.

Case in point: Once Stamets manages to successfully convince Michael and via her Tyler that the time loop is real, they set out to stop Mudd. However, Mudd kills Tyler, which upsets Michael. So she decides to persuade Mudd to reset time once more. She reveals to Mudd that she is much more valuable to the Klingons than the Discovery and her magic mushroom drive, because Michael was after all the one who killed the leader of the Klingon fanatics. And therefore the Klingons would certainly be willing to pay a lot for getting their hands on her. However, Mudd isn’t going to collect that bounty, for once Michael has dropped that bombshell, she kills herself. It’s a risky gamble, after all Mudd could have simply decided to take the money the Klingons are paying for the Discovery and run. But Mudd, being the greedy scumbag that he is, resets time once more, determined to nab both Michael and the Discovery this time around. So eager is Mudd to collect his paycheck that he even forgets to kill Lorca or anybody else on the final loop. Instead he simply makes his way to the bridge, takes over the ship and hails the Klingons, trusting them to finish the job. However, Michael and friends have manipulated the communication system, so instead of calling the Klingons, Mudd actually calls in his bride Stella (wearing a purple gown that looks very much like a party dress my Mom had in the 1980s) and Stella’s very angry father (who seems to have gotten his franchises confused and plundered the wardrobe of Commander Adama from the original Battlestar Galactica).

So Mudd has destroyed the Discovery, killed Lorca 54 times and also killed plenty of other Discovery crew members including Ash Tyler, he has uncovered the secret of the magic mushroom drive, was collaborating with Klingons while the Federation is at war with the Klingon Empire and was willing to sell not just information but Starfleet’s most important ship to them and his punishment is a shotgun wedding to a woman he loathes? Sorry, but Mudd’s fate would have been harsher even in the Original Series, had he tried to pull off something like this back then. And in the dystopian Federation of Star Trek Discovery, which uses prisoners as slave labour and hands out life sentences for non-lethally nerve-pinching a superior officer, Mudd should find himself in the slave prison mines for the rest of his miserable life at the very least, if not on the wrong end of a firing squad. Okay, so he doesn’t actually kill anybody during the final loop, but he still infiltrated the ship and tried to sell vital information to the enemy and in this new dystopian Federation that is probably a capital crime. Not to mention that the Harry Mudd we saw in the original series was a slimeball and scumbag, but not actually a psychopathic murderer.

Mudd’s punishment or lack thereof is just one more in an ever increasing list of examples that show how completely inconsistent Star Trek Discovery is. We get another example earlier in the episode, when Michael and Stamets try to convince Lorca not to beam the space whale, which Mudd is using as a Trojan horse, aboard, whereupon Saru points out in his insufferable way that if Lorca fails to follow Federation law and doesn’t beam the endangered space whale aboard, he will be court-martialled. So blowing up your whole ship and killing your crew gets you handed another command, but not saving a space whale in order to protect your ship, now that is a serious crime. Honestly, the Federation’s justice system is not just backwards and downright barbaric for such a supposedly enlightened society, it’s also inconsistent as hell. Though I have no problem believing that the Federation would indeed value a bloody space whale higher than a spaceship crew, because the Federation always had a touch of the holier than thou attitude of certain cliché Greens who value an endangered species higher than human lives.

It’s this massive inconsistency that infuriates me more than anything. Because Mudd gets away scot-free with murder, espionage and treason. Lorca gets away scot-free with blowing up his ship and murdering his crew, torturing tribbles and tardigrades, abandoning Federation citizens to certain death and threatening to shoot Starfleet admirals, while having sex with them, but is threatened with court martial over not beaming aboard a space whale that he knows is boobytrapped and is threatened with being stripped of command for conscripting Michael Burnham into his crew. Saru is not just completely incompetent, but also orders a sentient creature tortured and possibly killed for the greater good. But Michael Burnham gets a life sentence in the prison mines for nerve-pinching Captain Georgiou and for failing to prevent the war with the Klingons. Yeah, that makes absolutely no sense at all.

Though some of the problems with Star Trek Discovery, also show up in some of the other TV shows producer Alex Kurtzman has worked on, most notably Scorpion and Hawaii Five-O. I gave up on Scorpion after two seasons or so, largely because it was completely inconsistent, but I’ve seen quite a bit of the new Hawaii Five-O, because my Mom watches it. Now Hawaii Five-O is better than Star Trek Discovery (and actually a lot more enjoyable than a show like that has any right to be), but it shares many of the same problems. In Hawaii Five-O, some characters, most notably Steve and to a lesser degree Danny, can literally get away with anything, up to and including murder. Steve McGarrett tortures and kills people, he gets involved in all sorts of illegal operations and nothing ever happens to him. There have been episodes where Steve arrested other people for crimes he himself has committed plenty of times. Meanwhile, Chin and Kono are punished for much lesser sins. Kono’s lover and later husband Adam Noshimuri even spends a whole season or so in prison for killing two Yakuza assassins who were trying to kill him, even though that was clearly self-defence. But Adam started out as an antagonist who had the misfortune of having the wrong father, so of course he has to suffer. The way different characters are treated in Hawaii Five-O makes about as much sense as in Star Trek Discovery, though I cannot help but notice that in both shows, a character’s chances of doing something awful and getting away with it rise proportionally to that character’s whiteness and maleness.

In spite of my complaints, this was the first episode of Star Trek Discovery I actually enjoyed (okay, last week’s wasn’t bad either), even if I gritted my teeth at the ending and the general inconsistency of it all. But Lorca and Saru were largely sidelined (plus we got the satisfaction of seeing Lorca get killed a whole lot of times), Stamets actually grew a likeable personality, the interplay between the characters was nice and the story packed a bit of an emotional punch as well. I even liked the mass murdering Mudd. Okay, so this version of Harry Mudd is not at all consistent with the Harry Mudd we saw in the original series, but he is deliciously evil and makes for a memorable villain, a lot more memorable than the various Klingons, in fact.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Here is a post by astrophysicist and Star Trek fan Ethan Siegel who also declares that this was the first episode of Star Trek Discovery he really enjoyed. So is it possible that Star Trek Discovery is actually improving? At the moment, it certainly seems that way. Okay, so the show is still inconsistent as hell and a lot of things don’t fit with anything we’ve ever seen in Star Trek, but this episode actually felt like Star Trek for much of the time. This also fits in with the rumours that there was some retooling done after the show was already in production.

On File 770, I came across a link to this report about a Star Trek Discovery panel at New York Comic Con, where producers Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman begged audiences to give Discovery a chance, because the show is canon, it will get lighter and more optimitic and that no, they haven’t forgotten what Star Trek is supposed to be about. And indeed the show seems to be getting better. However, I’m wondering if it’s not too little too late. For while, Kurtzman and Goldsman ask viewers to be patient, I find that I’m a lot less patient these days than I used to be. The reason I’m still watching Star Trek Discovery is largely because it’s like gawking at a train wreck – you watch and wonder how much worse it’s going to get and are pleasantly surprised when it’s actually decent. But hate-watching doesn’t get you loyal audiences. And in fact, I suspect I would have stopped watching already, if the last two episodes hadn’t been a notable improvement.

Now Star Trek is notorious for wobbly starts and inconsistent first seasons. Every Star Trek show needed a while to find its feet and indeed it took three or four seasons for Next Generation to go from a show I watched when there was nothing better on, but where I didn’t mind missing an episode, to must watch. However, adult me is no longer as patient as I was as a teenager and is no longer willing to continue watching in the hope that it will get better. Adult me also has a lot less time to waste on bad TV. I stopped watching Deep Space Nine when it took a turn into grimdarkness. And though I stuck with Enterprise through the awful third season with its lame war on terror analogy, because I’d been promised that season 4 was better, I stopped watching once the first episode of season 4 was yet more of the same, only with added Nazis. And while Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or indeed most later Star Trek series weren’t exactly good in the first two seasons or so, they were also rarely as infuriating as the first few episodes of Star Trek Discovery.

I also think this is where the serialized structure, which is apparently de rigeur in modern “quality television” really hurts Star Trek Discovery. Because with the old Star Trek shows and indeed any non-serialized show it was perfectly possible to skip the bad or dull early episodes and only start watching once the show got good without really missing anything. But Star Trek Discovery pretty much requires you to sit through the infuriating first three or four episodes to get to the later ones which are decent. Okay, I guess you could make do with recaps and summaries. A dedicated Star Trek fan might be willing to do so, but how many casual viewers watch several bad episodes of a show hoping that it will get better?

So I guess I should hold off my final verdict on Star Trek Discovery till the end of the first season, provided the show continues to improve and I don’t give up in frustration beforehand.

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3 Responses to Star Trek – Into Grimdarkness

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part II: The 2018 Hugos | Cora Buhlert

  2. Gary Farber says:

    “In fact, ‘Cause and Effect’ may be the earliest filmic treatment of the time loop idea in general”

    Or not.

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