Star Trek Discovery – The Anti Star Trek in the Mirror Universe

Yes, it’s the weekly ranting and rambling blog post about Star Trek Discovery. Though at this point, I’m only still doing this, because I started it and want to do the entire first season (Previous editions may be found here). Because frankly, I’m sick of this show. It’s just one awful and depressing thing happening after another in a failed attempt to be deep and relevant “quality” television. I’m no longer even angry at the travesty that is Star Trek Discovery. At this point, my main feelings about the show are basically, “When will this torture be finally over?”

I’m clearly not the only one who feels like this, because several of the people to whose episode by episode reviews I used to link over at the Speculative Fiction Showcase have stopped doing them by now, either because their subscription to the streaming service which is the only way to see Discovery in the US ran out or because they just got sick of the whole thing and stopped watching. By now, the episode by episode reviewers left are mostly the big pop culture sites like Tor.com, io9, Den of Geek or The AV Club, where someone presumably gets paid for watching Star Trek Discovery and writing about it. But the for the love reviewers at smaller sites and personal blogs are largely gone. I can’t even blame them, because Star Trek Discovery is just a depressing mess with occasional glimpses of the much better show it could have been.

Because – as Camestros Felapton points out in his review of the latest episodeStar Trek Discovery just isn’t Star Trek and will never be Star Trek. It’s not even not Star Trek in the way the J.J. Abrams movies are not Star Trek – since those movies are basically generic space action movies coated with a thin veneer of Star Trek. But Discovery doesn’t even have that. It almost seems as if the Discovery showrunners, whoever they are this week (I seem to have lost track, since there are so many producers and executive producers and they also change frequently), go out of their way to make a show that is the polar opposite of Star Trek. Which, as I said last week, is something you can do and that several books and TV shows have done rather well. But if you want to do the opposite of Star Trek, then don’t call it Star Trek.

Spoilers behind the cut!

So the Discovery is still stuck in the mirror universe and there is no sign of them escaping either, so I guess we’ll get at least one more episode of “Star Trek Discovery – At least, we’re not as bad as these mirror universe people”. Michael Burnham, Ash Tyler and Gabriel Lorca are still stuck aboard the mirror Shenzhou. Lorca spends most of the episode getting tortured, which is not nearly as upsetting as it should be, because Lorca is such an unpleasant person that I frankly don’t care what happens to him. Michael poses as the captain of the mirror Shenzhou and in that role she has to preside over executions, which trouble her deeply. On the plus side, she also gets a cool uniform, some sexy lingerie and Saru as a personal slave. The latter should probably be upsetting as well, though I basically viewed it as a character who has been a jerk most of the season (though regular universe Saru seems to have improved in recent episodes) gets his comeuppance. In fact, I was surprised that Michael lied to Saru, when he asked her if she’d met any of his species. Because if I were Michael and Saru had treated me like he treated her for much of the season, I would have rubbed it in his face.

Luckily, Michael isn’t alone aboard the mirror Shenzhou. Lorca isn’t much of a help and basically tells her to just play along and do whatever evil things are demanded of her. However, Michael finds some comfort in Ash, who should know a thing or two about subterfuge, pretending to be someone you’re not and losing yourself in your role. Though Ash seems to be back in human mode for now and even tells Michael that she is his tether and that he will be hers. It’s a sweet moment and Sonequa Martin-Green and Shazad Latif have so much chemistry with each other, which makes me even more angry that the showrunners decided to destroy this lovely relationship (both lovely relationships they had in the show, for that matter) for the sake of a cheap twist that everybody and their sister saw coming from a mile off.

Things come to a head when Michael is ordered to bomb a rebel base. Michael clearly does not want to do this, so she asks Lorca for advice who basically tells her to just go along with it and get the intel they need. Michael, however, comes up with an excellent reason not to bomb the rebel base. For it turns out that in the mirror universe, Klingons – though xenophobic in the regular universe – can cooperate with other species, namely Vulcans, Andorians and Tellurites, just fine to overthrow the xenophobic Terran Empire. Michael now wants to find out just why the mirror Klingons are so much less xenophobic than their counterparts (apparently, “It’s the mirror universe and things are different here” doesn’t suffice as an answer), so Michael and Ash beam down to talk to the rebels, feeding them some bunk about how they are willing to betray their species (well, for Ash it’s true) and want peace. Inexplicably, the rebels buy this whole line and immediately take Michael and Ash to meet their leader, who is none other than – yes, you guessed it – mirror Voq. And since mirror Voq isn’t quite so willing to believe Michael that she is willing to turn against her superiors and let the rebels escape, he calls in the rebels’ spiritual leader and prophet to confirm that Michael is telling the truth. And this prophet turns out to be none other than – yes, you guessed it again – mirror Sarek wearing the patented mirror universe goatee.

Michael is understandably shocked to come face to face with Voq and particularly with her foster father. Sarek mindmelds with Michael and sees the truth about her origin. He proclaims that he sees a universe full of possibilities (“Sorry, Sarek, but you accidentally tuned in to the original series or Next Generation, not Discovery“), praises his own parenting skills (“Uhm, Sarek, I have no idea what universe that was, since you’re a crappy Dad in the regular Star Trek universe“) and declares that Michael is full of bottomless compassion. Well, compared to Lorca and the rest of the Discovery crew she may well be (at least, Michael feels bad about killing people, unlike Lorca), but Michael doesn’t strike me as particularly compassionate otherwise (but then Sarek is Vulcan and probably has different standards). As for how the hell mirror Spock could become first officer aboard the mirror Enterprise (as seen in the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”), when he is not just a half-Vulcan in the xenophobic Terran empire, but also the son of a prominent resistance leader I have no idea. But then, it’s not as if Discovery is even trying to fit into greater Star Trek continuity by this point.

Voq, when asked how he manages to cooperate with non-Klingons without breaking out in hives and whatever happened to “Make the Klingon Empire great again” anyway, responds that he is guided by the light of Kahless and that having a common enemy united them. Hearing his mirror self go so completely against the “Make the Klingon Empire great again” doctrine that the Klingon head honcho instilled in him causes Ash to suffer another outbreak of Voq. He snaps and promptly attacks his mirror self, yelling “Remain Klingon or die”. This behaviour completely blows the mission and nearly gets Michael and Ash killed, if not for mirror Sarek’s intervention.

Like much in this episode, Michael and Ash’s sidequest to the rebel base makes no real sense and actually endangers them, because it raises questions among the already suspicious crew of the mirror Shenzhou. And regardless of what Michael believes, talking to non-xenophobic Klingons in a parallel universe will not actually help them find a way to negotiate with the Klingons in the regular universe (and wasn’t Michael supposed to hate Klingons?) any more than Sarek’s experience with Michael and Ash from a somewhat less evil universe will help the rebels negotiate with the xenophobic humans of the Terran Empire. So if the sidequest to te rebel base makes no sense in the context of the episode, then why is it there at all? The answer is because the plot required it. Ash needed to come face to face with his Klingon mirror self in order to finally go full Voq and Michael needed to come face to face with mirror Sarek to pile on even more emotional drama. The whole thing is stupid and manipulative and doesn’t even make sense in the context of the plot.

After Ash has thoroughly pissed off his mirror self, Michael and Ash beam back to the mirror Shenzhou, where an understandably furious Michael orders Ash to her quarters and demands just what the fuck he was thinking. Ash replies that he was just following Lorca’s orders – even though Lorca obviously did not order Michael and Ash to provoke random mirror universe denizens and get themselves killed. And then Ash breaks down completely and remembers that he is Voq in a lengthy and entirely unnecessary flashback sequence, since everybody had already figured this out ages ago. Ash/Voq promptly confesses the truth to Michael – way to maintain your cover, Voq – and the two of them have a frank and mature discussion about what to do now and how they can end the war.

Just kidding, because Star Trek Discovery would never let its characters do something that’s actually constructive and does not involve the maximum amount of emotional drama. And so after his confession, Ash/Voq promptly attacks Michael and tries to kill her, because she killed his mentor. Yeah, Voq, and you killed and ate her mentor, so I guess you’re even. Michael’s and Ash/Voq’s fight is interrupted, when mirror Saru barges in (luckily, he didn’t mistake the noises from Michael’s cabin for foreplay – and considering what we know of Klingon sex, it might well have been foreplay) and takes out Ash/Voq. Whereupon Michael sentences Ash/Voq to death in pure mirror universe fashion and insists on beaming him out into space (the preferred mirror universe manner of execution, as we saw earlier) personally. Okay, so Michael has every reason to be really, really pissed at Ash/Voq, but somehow this doesn’t fit in with the “bottomless compassion” Sarek claims to have detected earlier (and for that matter, why doesn’t she try to save the redshirt prisoners who were executed earlier with a similar manoeuvre?). For a second or so, you hope that Michael has changed the transporter programming to beam Ash/Voq aboard the Discovery or somewhere else. But nope, Ash/Voq actually lands in the vacuum of space for a few seconds, before he is beamed back aboard the Discovery by Saru (whom Michael apparently contacted offscreen). Saru, always an arsehole, promptly informs Ash that even though Ash/Voq is a traitor, the Discovery is still a Starfleet vessel and that Ash/Voq will be kept alive until he can be put on trial for his crimes (even though they don’t know Ash/Voq killed the Doctor) and punished. I guess they’re running low on prison slave labour over in the Federation. Coincidentally, even though Ash/Voq is the clear villain in this scene, I still found myself disliking Saru more, because his smugness just grates on me.

Michael, completely distraught, goes to see Lorca once more. And Lorca takes time out of his busy schedule of getting tortured to tell Michael basically the same thing as before. They must remain undercover to gather intelligence on the Starfleet ship USS Defiant, which will go missing approximately ten years after the time of Discovery in the original series episode “The Tholian Web”. I have to confess I had to look up what the reason for the undercover mission was supposed to be, because I honestly didn’t remember. Nor does it really matter, because the sole reason for sending Michael, Ash and Lorca undercover is the same reason for that stupid sidequest to the rebel base, because it’s an excuse to pile yet more emotional pain on Michael, pile physical pain on Lorca and trigger another outbreak of Voqness in Ash. Star Trek Discovery has an almost sadistic joy in causing its characters (all of its characters with the possible exception of Tilly) physical and emotional pain, as Standback points out here. And the sheer amount of pain inflicted on the characters is also a large part of what makes Star Trek Discovery so very unpleasant to watch.

Michael tells Lorca about Ash and confesses that she doesn’t know how to hold on to who she is without him (well, maybe then you shouldn’t have first spaced him and then sent him back to Saru, Michael). Whereupon Lorca tells her that what happened to Ash doesn’t matter, because she still has him to rely on. Now if Lorca were a normal Starfleet captain, even one who’s not overly emotionally supportive like early Picard, this would be a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to say in such a situation. However, Lorca is not a normal Starfleet captain. And indeed the way he says that line is so dripping with sleaze that it literally sent a shudder down my spine. And indeed I yelled at the screen in that moment, “Oh for fuck’s sake, Michael, why don’t you just space him? And for that matter, why don’t you just stay in the mirror universe? At least, here you get to be captain and maybe you can find a way to make a change. Or maybe you could join the rebels or run away and become a space pirate?”

These are not things the audience should ever think when watching a Star Trek episode. We should not want to see a member of the crew, let alone the captain get spaced. We should not think for even a moment that the mirror universe is not so much worse than the regular one and the life of a certain character is better, so why not stay there? That I even had these thoughts at all shows how far Discovery has strayed from what Star Trek used to be.

However, the episode is not quite done with piling emotional drama onto Michael yet, because all of a sudden another ship of the Terran Empire appears and bombs the rebel base that Michael so far managed not to bomb. And it’s not any ship of the Terran Empire either, but the flagship of the so-called faceless Emperor. Who turns out not to be so faceless after all, when the ship hails that mirror Shenzhou. On the contrary, the faceless Emperor wears a very familiar face, namely that of Philippa Georgiou, Michael’s dead mentor, in full Ming the Merciless get-up. As with the “Ash is Voq” revelation, this twist surprised exactly nobody, because you could see it coming from the mile off. Philippa Georgiou is nowhere in sight in the mirror universe, nor do we learn what happened to her (like “Mirror, Mirror” revealed what became of Christopher Pike). And of course, the Emperor had to be revealed as someone who will cause Michael the maximum amount of emotional anguish. And with Sarek out of the picture (literally, because Georgiou just blew him to bits), Georgiou was the only logical choice. Of course, withholding the identity of the Emperor made no sense in the context of the story. And the Emperor obviously isn’t faceless, since she projects herself as a hologram in full Ming the Merciless regalia onto the bridge of the Shenzhou. Once again, the reveal is merely played for cheap shock value, for the umpteenth time this episode. Though at least Michelle Yeoh looks like she’s having fun, hamming it up in that outrageous outfit.

With all the awful things happening to Michael this episode, it’s easy to forget the other Discovery crewmember who is having a really horrible day, namely Paul Stamets. When we last saw Stamets, he was in a coma following that disastrous last jump into the mirror universe and only woke up for occasional violent outbursts and doom laden ramblings. Worse, Stamets also just lost his life partner, when Ash/Voq snapped Dr. Culber’s neck, while a helpless Stamets was lying in bed in the background. Since Starfleet apparently does not believe in CCTV cameras, Culber’s death is only discovered when a crewmember stumbles upon Stamets cradling his partner’s dead body. Since Stamets is not himself and prone to violent outbursts and there is no other suspect in sight, since Ash is on the mirror Shenzhou with Michael and Lorca, everybody assumes that Stamets had another outburst and accidentally killed his partner. Tilly alone is sceptical and tries to cure Stamets via the same method they cured the tardigrade, when it succumbed to too many jumps via the magic mushroom drive, namely by exposing Stamets to magic mushroom spores. It’s not even that bad a plan. Unfortunately, the treatment seems to kill poor Stamets or at least kill his body (but then something similar happened to the Tardigrade and it got better). Meanwhile, inside Stamets’ mind we see him venturing into the magic mushroom network that looks like a psychedelic forrest, where he meets his own mirror universe counterpart. Now parts of the original series may well have been written under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs – it was the 1960s, after all – but the original series never went as far as showing us the drug-induced psychedelic visions of its characters.

Oddly enough, those people who still reviews the series episode by episode seem to have liked this episode quite a bit, which baffles me, because I flat out hated pretty much everything about it from the sloppy plotting via the cheap twists and forced emotional drama to the fact that it pretty much killed off any sympathy or interest I ever had in any of the characters. But then, it seems to me that the people who actually seem to like Discovery prefer darker stories, since they usually also proclaim their undying love for Deep Space Nine, which was my least favourite Star Trek show until Discovery came along.

Now I could forgive the predictable twists, the sloppy plotting and the many discrepancies with established Star Trek continuity, because I mainly watch Star Trek (and pretty much every other TV show) for the characters. And at this point, Star Trek Discovery has done everything in its power to make me dislike every single character still left alive. Philippa Georgiou, killed off only to return first as a hologram and then as Empress Philippa the Merciless. Lorca and Saru – never liked them. Lorca is sleazy and behaves like a villain, while Saru is unbearably smug and condescending and basically just one huge missed opportunity. Ash Tyler never existed and is in fact Voq, the Klingon, whom I never gave the slightest fuck about. And in fact, I can’t even tell the various Klingons apart, except that L’Rell is the female one. I also strongly predict that Ash/Voq won’t survive this season. Dr. Culber is dead. Stamets is a character I disliked a lot at first, but then slowly came around to liking him, when his relationship with the Doctor was revealed and Stamets injected himself with the tardigrade DNA and got a personality transplant in the bargain. Besides, at around the same time, Anthony Rapp, who plays Stamets, spoke up about having been sexually assaulted by Kevin Spacey as a 14-year-old, so my sympathy for Anthony Rapp, the sexual assault survivor, influenced my feelings about the character he is playing. So that leaves Tilly as the sole likable character still left standing. And yes, I would watch the adventures of Captain Tilly and the Discovery‘s bridge crew, once they developed actual personalities.

As for Michael, I know that I defend her a lot, but I don’t actually like her character all that much. Her guilt complex and her stoic determination to suffer and suffer some more really grate on me. And in fact, I often find myself yelling at the screen, “Wake up, Michael. Fight back! Do something! The fucking Federation is not your friend.” Yes, I know that suffering a lot is important for a redemption arc, but I still don’t think Michael needs redemption from anything. And besides – as I pointed out here – all of the pain and suffering piled on Michael is part of why I hate redemption arcs. In fact, with its focus on enduring pain and suffering and winning by endurance, Star Trek Discovery reminds me of some very unsavoury, late Nazi era sort of propaganda films which placed an extreme focus on suffering, pain and endurance (because by that point in WWII, it was obvious that the Third Reich was not going to win, so they had to deploy movies about noble suffering and endurance to keep the population in check). I don’t think that anybody involved with Star Trek Discovery ever had the misfortune of watching movies like Immensee, Opfergang or Kolberg, since few people except for film students and historians have seen those. Nonetheless, Star Trek Discovery sometimes feels like Veit Harlan‘s take on Star Trek* with more people of colour. And this is not a compliment.

Besides, I liked the relationship between Michael and Ash a whole lot, even though I felt it was rushed, so I hate to see it broken up just for the sake of cheap emotional drama and yet more suffering. Because Michael and Ash were good for each other. Just as Stamets and Culber were good for each other. And of course, the Discovery showrunners had to break up that relationship, too, in the cruellest way possible. Because we obviously can’t have a happy couple on Star Trek Discovery.

Coincidentally, I also realise that the older I get, the less tolerance I have for drama for the sake of drama and for anything grimdark at all (and in fact, my taste for grimdark largely evaporated by my late 20s). Besides, if I wanted to watch a dark and depressing SFF show, I’d watch The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a lot better made, more topical and more prestigious than Star Trek Discovery. Not to mention that The Handmaid’s Tale also manages to be more hopeful, because we know from the book that Offred/June or at least her story gets out and that Gilead falls. And yes, if even the fucking Handmaid’s Tale manages to be more hopeful than Star Trek Discovery, you have a problem.

What is more, my tolerance for emotional drama and contrived “We can’t be together because of reasons” plots has pretty much dropped to zero by now. Because let’s face it, those reasons usually aren’t the unsurmountable obstacles they are made to look like. And she’s a Vulcan-raised Starfleet mutineer with a life sentence on her head and he’s a Klingon spy surgically altered to look human and besides they killed each other’s mentors and their respective governments are at war is a better reason than most. Nonetheless, it’s not an unsurmountable obstacle and in fact I really hoped that Ash and Michael would talk to each other, instead of immediately jumping at each other’s throats. And that maybe they’d just decide to run away together and become space pirates or something and the Federation and the Klingon Empire be damned.

But of course, that was never going to happen, if only because characters in science fiction franchises and indeed everywhere else are never allowed to run away from the plot (indeed, The Last Jedi goes out of its way to stop several characters from running away from the plot), no matter how much sense that would make. And indeed, I explicitly wrote the In Love and War series (which will have new installments coming out very soon – nearly done with the editing), because after the third or fourth time of running into a science fiction plot featuring a couple that couldn’t be together because of reasons, I got very sick of the whole thing and wished they’d all just run away to become space pirates or mercenaries or open a restaurant on a far away planet or something. But then I realised that these characters would never run away from the plot, never mind that I usually cared a lot less about whatever crisis threatened the galaxy this week than I cared about the characters and their relationship. And so I thought, “Why don’t I write a story where the central couple actually does run away together to become space pirates or mercenaries or something?” And yes, Mikhail and Anjali both get to suffer a lot of physical and emotional pain, but at least they will be in a better place at the end of it all and not just find some hollow redemption, whatever that might be, either.

*Coincidentally, I now wonder what Veit Harlan’s Star Trek Discovery would have looked like. We’d probably have had Kristina Söderbaum (Harlan’s wife whom he cast as the suffering heroine in every single one of his movies) as Michael, Heinrich George as Lorca (now that I’d love to see), Ferdinand Marian as Ash and Franz Scharfheitlin as Saru. No idea who’d play Stamets, Culber, Tilly and Georgiou.

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