Star Trek: Discovery – Mid-Season One Assessment

“We have to win this war, but then –”
“– Then the journey continues.”

— Captain Gabriel Lorca and Lt. Paul Stamets

Warning: Spoilers Ahead for episodes 1-9:

We’ve reached the mid-season one break.  Nine episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are under the belt, with seven more to go when we return in January.  My opinions are now, hopefully, better informed after nine episodes, and since I promised I’d write up a more complete assessment at this point, here’s me following through on that promise.

Where to start?  Probably I should start with my initial reactions following the 2-part pilot episode.  If you haven’t read that post, start there because… some of my opinions expressed in that have evolved based on new information.  Having said that, I’ll try to start fresh here on some level and express what I’m seeing as the pros and cons of the series.  I suppose I’ll start with the characters that make an impression on me.

Our lead character, Michael Burnham, is the means by which we reframe this series to do what none of the previous iterations of Trek have done.  Sonequa Martin-Green is breaking ground as the first black female lead on Trek.  Good for her.  She’s a strong actress and doing her damnedest to carry this series.  She’s also being undermined by the nature of Burnham’s character.  Burnham is a problem.  She’s not the captain.  She’s not even holding rank.  She’s on temporary assignment, having been conscripted by Captain Lorca.  Presumably once the war is ended, she’ll go back to prison to continue serving her life sentence for mutiny (do we really believe this will happen?).  Good intentions or not, it is a strange decision to say the least to center the series around Starfleet’s only mutineer (up to this point).  It really does undermine the credibility of the series.  More than that, and I think this is by design, it undermines the credibility of Captain Lorca.  He’s a loose cannon, one of those “bad” captains you saw from time to time who would do anything in the name of protecting the Federation.  No line is too sacred to cross.  To offer a counterpoint in Burnham seems disingenuous at best.  Worse, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue character, especially given her connections to Spock and Sarek, and especially given that she apparently carries part of Sarek’s katra.  I’ve railed on this elsewhere, and honestly… it just pisses me off.  It still feels like incredibly sloppy fan fiction.  It’s too convenient, it’s too much, and it undermines the otherwise great legacies of both Mark Lenard and Leonard Nimoy.  Worse, it makes the Star Trek universe seem so much smaller by the need to have these connections.  The connection is Starfleet and its higher ideals, or should be.

Because Burnham is our POV character (when has Trek ever needed one?  Does that defeat the point of an ensemble?), we already know that whatever happens, no matter how many people they kill off around her, she will be safe.  For that matter, Capt. Lorca seems to be going out of his way to keep her safe.  I’m not certain if he feels he needs her expertise, or if he needs her as a scapegoat.  All I know is that she is working through the idea of personal redemption by winning this war, and she’s more than aware that she’s done when this assignment is done.

There is a thread with her adopted mother Amanda, that I do find curious.  Amanda is — rightfully so — interested in pushing her to keep her humanity in the flashback sequences we’ve seen.  Her gift to Burnham is a copy of Alice in Wonderland, a reminder that not everything is about logic.  References to this book have come up a couple of times, including the title of the mid-season finale, “Into the Forest I Go.”  I’ll discuss Discovery‘s idea of “Wonderland” a little later.

Cadet Tilly.  She’s one of those adorably cute characters that you’re supposed to like.  She’s impossibly optimistic, more in line with what Starfleet is supposed to be, but on this ship she’s clearly out of her element.  She’s the humor of the show, and by humor I mean she talks too much and makes things awkward.  I can’t blame actress Mary Wiseman for this.  She’s doing what she was asked.  This is a running theme for me in most elements of modern pop culture, which I’ve expressed repeatedly.  Awkward is not funny.  Funny is funny.  Awkward is awkward.  As much as I want to like this character, I just don’t like how she’s written.  I can’t stand awkward.  This is also why I don’t watch The Orville.  Seth McFarlane specializes in awkward.  It’s not my brand of comedy.  What’s interesting is that I’m pretty sure I’d like Tilly as a person in real life.  I could relate to her a little better than I can in TV reality.

Saru.  I freaking love Doug Jones as a creature performer.  Saru as a character… not so much, and again, it’s the writing, not the performance, and again, I think he’d be a character I’d like better on my side of the screen than as part of fictional entertainment.  Saru is jealous, afraid of everything, and comes across as somewhat off-putting, all by design.  His species is more interesting to me than the character himself at this point, though that could certainly change, and has to some extent in the last couple of episodes.  Given the abilities we know he has now, I’m curious as to what the apex predator on his world looks like.  In the 8th episode, we’re given a look at exactly what it takes for him to cross some lines, and I can actually identify with him on this idea of a perfect peace.  Being one who deals with sensory processing disorder (SPD) myself, I know what it’s like to have your senses at high alert at all times.  Peace is a very rare and welcome commodity.  I would certainly fight for that.  So I am sympathetic to Saru.  I’m also wondering how he made it through Starfleet Academy.  He strikes me as the kind of personnel from Stargate: Universe where they were clearly the wrong people for the wrong job (as they kept saying themselves).  How did they get through the top level Air Force training to be attached to Stargate Command?  Makes no sense.  Saru is command trained.  This means he went through the Kobayashi Maru scenario.  Did he hide behind the captain’s chair?  Or did his threat ganglia tell him there was no threat because it was only a simulation?  The big issue I have right now with Saru deals with the aforementioned willingness to fight for that peace he discovered.  In the 8th episode, he disobeyed direct orders and was willing to do whatever it took to preserve what he’d found.  In the next episode, he’s back on the bridge, still fighting for the species that allowed him to touch peace, but no other ramifications.  Seems like there should be some ramifications there, especially after we’ve drawn the parallel with Burnham for such actions.

Paul Stamets.  Anthony Rapp is breaking some ground as our first openly gay character, and credit where it’s due, the whole thing is being played tastefully.  Downplayed, even.  That’s not my issue.  My issue is that Stamets is very obviously a guy who recognizes the danger that Lorca represents and is bucking that authority at all turns in his own way.  He’s belligerent, aggressive, and cops an attitude at virtually every turn, making him really unlikable.  He reminds me of… me.  This is exactly how I respond to authority.  Stamets also has the benefit of being hyper-intelligent, thus putting him in a position where he can talk down to everyone, making him basically the human incarnation of sandpaper.  It’s good acting, but is it good writing?  We were told there’s a character arc in here.  Well, now we know what it is.  He’s the substitution for the tardigrade, the biological component of the plot-onium powered spore drive that allows Discovery to pop in anywhere, anytime.  The drive itself is rather inhumane to its biological component, and while they’ve improved it with some cybernetic implants, the fact is that Stamets represents a eugenics experiment (a BIG no-no in Trek).  He has been enhanced far beyond human norm, and we suspect he’s not even operating on the same level of existence anymore.  It’s an interesting idea, I grant that.  My larger objection is that the spore drive really doesn’t make any logical sense, even taking quantum physics into account.  The idea is good, but the science behind it falls apart.  On the character level, I wasn’t given any reason at all to care about him simply because he’s that abrasive… until the 9th episode.  That quote at the top of this blog?  That entire scene made things a lot more nuanced and made me better appreciate Stamets as a character, as an explorer, and as a Starfleet officer.  A lot changed for Stamets after they hooked him up to the drive, and where they left off, Stamets is rapidly evolving a la Gary Mitchell due to the series of rapid jumps.  Where they take this character from here opens things up far beyond just the Mirror Universe.  The ramifications are staggering.  That’s one of the big carrots that’ll bring me back.  To discuss Lorca’s side of that exchange, I need to talk about him.  Let’s just do that now.

Captain Lorca.  My respect for actor Jason Isaacs is on record, and that’s even without Harry Potter.  I’m not a Potter fan.  Back in the day, I wanted this guy to play 007.  Missed opportunity.  At any rate, that same Bond-level intensity is on display here.  I think Isaacs is one of the finest actors in entertainment today, and the fact is he was one of the reasons I’ve stuck with this series this long.  His character is a piece of work, and I think it requires someone like Isaacs to pull this off.  Lorca is not a character to be trusted.  He’s not a character to be liked.  Thing is, I do like him as a character.  He’s got a charisma that the other characters feel too.  He can manipulate them through both respect and fear.  Through him, we get inside “the ends justifies the means” that makes him a bad captain as defined by previous Trek series and the higher ideals of the Federation.  But because he does have this guarded sense of wonder about him that obviously brought him to Starfleet in the first place, he’s an interesting character to watch because even that sense of wonder will serve the higher purposes of his mission to protect the Federation.  From him comes most of the dynamic of the series, I think.  I truly think that his command style is what makes everyone else on this series so unlikable in turn, as they’re all positioned directly under his thumb in a situation they don’t want to be in.  And he’s one manipulative SOB, going so far as to keep his command by sending a former lover / commanding officer to her doom at the hands of the Klingons.  That’s cold.  See what I mean?  Perfect for Bond.  Not so much for Trek, but that’s also the point as Discovery explores alternate power dynamics of a Starfleet with good intentions, but driven to do questionable things in the name of survival.  It’s the larger view of “when you fight an enemy, be certain you don’t become the enemy.”  Lorca’s dynamic is exactly what has to be overcome for the Trek we know to come into play, and worse still… I think he knows it too on some level.  Lorca has a good heart in there somewhere, but it’s in direct contrast to his action.  It’s the kind of patriotism that can become fascism really fast. This is why he’s safeguarding Burnham.  Through his manipulation of Stamets, we can see he’s been tracking all of the information the Discovery‘s jumps have been granting him.  He talks Stamets into “one last jump” after 133 rapid succession jumps.  Why?  Specifically to use the new information for a much larger scale victory.  My personal theory is that his objective is to find an alternate timeline where the Klingons were defeated, find the means used to defeat them, bring that weapon back, and end the war.  Failing that, it gets him the hell away from the Starfleet that will very soon prosecute him and remove him from command once his acts are revealed.  And thanks to the spore drive and the information he’s gained from it, we now have overlapping parallel universes to choose from, the “Wonderland” alluded to with the Alice references.  When we get that cliffhanger, we’re in an alternate universe, Saru can’t tell where, and the ship is surrounded by the wreckage of Klingon vessels.  I think it’s safe to say that after all that back there, Lorca knew exactly where he was going.  The question remaining is how he knew.  Even Kirk’s not that lucky to guess on the first shot.

Regardless, to my mind the power dynamic of Lorca is the pinnacle aspect of this series, apart from the exemplary display we get from Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou.  She is one of the characters I truly like on this series, and we know what happened to her.  *shudder*  I know the show’s all about Burnham, but I just don’t feel it.  She may be the POV, and she may be the lead, but this is still very much the captain’s show for the time being.

Ash Tyler was brought in at episode six, which also introduced Harry Mudd.  He’s been tortured by the Klingons for months, and he wants revenge.  He’s quite possibly the most well-adjusted torture victim I’ve ever seen in fiction.  Fan theories abound that he’s possibly a Klingon sleeper agent, maybe even Voq himself.  Shazad Latif has a good presence on the series, and potentially one of the more likable ones.  But he’s also the love interest for Burnham, so… yawn.  I’m not against a romance, but it doesn’t really do much for me either.  Maybe because I don’t really care about either character involved, maybe because it seems rushed and/or shoehorned in.  That said… I think they’ve done all this to up the ante because based on some things in the 9th episode, it’s really looking like he is Voq and has no clue.  The timeline doesn’t match, and neither do the lack of any potential scars based on the nightmares Tyler is having.  Our female Klingon, L’Rell, has had relations with him that for her are clearly heartfelt and passionate, but without his memories intact (assuming he’s Voq), look like rape from his perspective.  This is a Star Trek first, balancing that negativity in the same episode as Star Trek‘s first homosexual kiss.  Before Voq disappeared and Tyler showed up, L’Rell told Voq that to unite the Klingons and do what must be done, he was going to go to some matriarchal witches to learn, and to achieve he was going to have to lose everything.  At this point, it looks that this includes his very identity and free will.  So now we know why Lorca has that tribble on his desk.  It really is a Klingon detector.  So Lorca “rescuing” this guy from Klingon prison was all part of the plan to get Voq on board in the first place.  The player got played.

Another character I truly like on this series is Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd.  I wasn’t entirely certain how this was going to come across.  He’s a lot more sinister than his TOS counterpart, but at the same time, he’s… better.  Less goofy.  And the Mudd I know is still in there too.  He puts up a facade, and it comes across as too much somehow, and then that gets peeled away to see the Mudd we still know underneath.  Especially in his second appearance, where he comes to claim his vengeance on Lorca… that is without doubt Discovery‘s finest hour in terms of storytelling.  The only downside to the episode is that disco-rap hybrid that they kept playing.  Wyclef Jean sampling the Bee Gees?  My ears have not stopped bleeding since.  Seriously, just kill me and be done with it.

That’s actually a microcosm of the entire series so far.  For every cool thing they give me, they give me something more, sometimes multiple somethings, that tear it back down to “meh” status.  For example, we have this uber-cool spore drive.  Great idea.  Fantastic idea, light years ahead of anything they’ve done before.  Incredibly BAD science.  Worse visual effects.  We have a couple of scenes where Burnham pulls a communicator and says it’s a universal translator.  These are two very different pieces of equipment.  I grant you, it makes more sense to have the translator in the communicator instead of as a separate piece of equipment, but that’s now how it was defined previously.  And we have updated Klingons, which are so overblown visually as to overshadow their own acting.  The makeup is so heavy as to render the acting almost non-existent and bland.  Except for Kol, who is now presumed dead.  He was a Klingon of the old school, saying everything with passion and vigor, instead of gazing into the middle distance as though calmly and deliberately reading from a teleprompter.  I trust things will improve, though, as things proceed forward.  The armor, the ships… everything visually about who they are seems so outlandish as to make them boring.  It used to be that when someone said a Klingon vessel was approaching, you’d get that little tingle on the back of your neck that said the situation just got real.  Now it’s… well, “meh.”  And this war with the Klingons is the entire point of the series, or so we’re led to believe.  When facing down the Ship of the Dead in this 9th episode, the tingle didn’t come from that, it came from the sacrifice Stamets was having to make to pull off the mission.

Which brings me to war itself.  I’ve discussed this a few times, but I’ll stress it again.  I see the political mirror this is setting up.  The idea is very much in the spirit of Trek, and the point is to get us past this to the bright, shiny future that Trek represents.  This war is an anomaly in the canon.  It’s supposed to be.  And I have no problem with the idea.  The execution of it is the issue.  I don’t want to follow the bad captain.  I want to follow someone like Georgiou.  I get the idea is to overcome people like Lorca.  I do see the long game in play.  I see how the spore drive isn’t going to be a lasting idea because of the ethical ramifications, to say nothing of the mutations it caused within Stamets.  I see how this war leads to the cold war we get in Kirk’s time, and eventually to the peace we have by Picard’s era.  I see it, and I want to care more than I do.  We know Pike’s out there.  I’d rather follow his crew through this, to be quite honest.  I think the seven episodes we’ll get to finish out the season will help me to get to the point where I care more.  But honestly… I don’t even know the names of half the bridge crew yet.  That bugs me because it confirms for me that they’re basically part of the scenery right now.  Since we have a POV character, that’s likely not to change much.

Between not caring about the majority of the characters, hating the visual style of the Kelvin-verse films, the near-constant breaches of canon and scientific plausibility, and the very fact that this series seems to delight in twisting the knife a couple of times for every point of good it offers, I just don’t care for this series… yet.  It dangles the carrot well, especially in this last episode.  I respect the actors.  I want that known.  I respect what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.  I just don’t like how the series is being delivered.  I’ll come right out and say it: after eight episodes, I was going to say I was done.  The 9th episode cliffhanger gave me enough to renew my interest in spite of some truly horrific lapses in plot logic.

I’m all for doing something new and forging ahead.  That has to be.  At the same time, I want it to feel like Star Trek at all levels too instead of being an idea that somebody slips in a lame reference here and there so as to give it lip service.  I think if Discovery goes the distance, it might get there eventually.  Given how much love and understanding there is in the writer’s room, I think it’s inevitable the end game will point us directly at the idea of the Five-Year Mission and all that we’ve come to understand.  It’s not there yet.  It has a very long way to go.  Every other series found a way to be Trek right out of the gate before finding their own identities within the franchise.  This series has its own identity.  It’s just not Trek.  Not yet.  If the Kelvin-verse is anything to judge by, it never will be in my book.  I truly hope I’m wrong.  Right now it reminds me of Smallville.  In the ten years of that series, they skated on the ice around Superman, taking three steps backwards for every step forward, and essentially doing everything except giving us the Man of Steel until the final episode.  By that point, everything of importance in the Superman mythos had already been done.  With Discovery, I don’t think that’ll be the problem.  The larger Star Trek universe is already out there and established, and it’s not like we’re monkeying around badly with Kirk and crew like the Kelvin films did.  We’re seeing one nearly-rogue ship with one barely-sanctioned captain and one crew that are clearly not the best of the best.  They want to be, but their ideals are sacrificed here and there in the name of survival.

Here’s the thing.  Discovery doesn’t have 20+ episodes per season with multiple seasons to impress the audience.  They’re doing this pay for play, which means paying customers are going to be less patient.  Audiences get bored faster.  That means they have to ramp things up.  The ship herself is a metaphor for the new style of entertainment.  She’s not much to look at on first blush, the pieces really don’t fit together, and the new drive system makes zero logical sense to actual science.  But it’s uselessly flashy, gets us there in a hurry, and then they can dazzle us with fight scenes while ramping up the stakes to cross that threshold from not caring to caring in a matter of moments.  And then over time you just get used to how things are going to be.  You either accept it, or you don’t.  I don’t personally know anyone else who has watched this series past the first free episode, save for my kid sister.  Aside from the people at the Official Star Trek Podcast,  I don’t know of anyone else at all who’s gone past episode two or three.  I know these people are out there, but I don’t interact with them or follow them.  Every other reviewer I’ve followed bailed for a wide variety of reasons, none of which I can fault them for.  There’s too much out there vying for our attention, and the brand name alone is not enough to secure the future of Star Trek.  Identity is everything.

But I’ve seen actual Star Trek in here.  It’s hiding, between the cracks.  If they need to break it to rebuild it, if that’s the story they’re telling here, so be it.  I trust they can get there.  I worry only that they’ll take too long to do so and frustrate me to no end in the process.  This is not something they can just keep doing, however.  Whatever comes next after this series needs to be as much familiar Trek as it is new.  That’s ever the balance: you need to do new and exciting things and go in different directions, but it still has to maintain a foot in the familiar at all times to maintain that identity.  It’s the ideal of Trek that makes it what it is.  We need Star Trek.  From a philosophical standpoint, we need them to set the higher example.  If I’d stopped watching at episode seven or eight, as I almost did, I’d have told you there wasn’t enough Trek here to matter.  That’s not entirely true.  All of the Trek was embodied in Capt. Georgiou, whom they killed early.  The mid-season finale pivoted on its heel and showed us the Trek in the intentions.  And then they headed off into… whatever it is they set up for the remainder of the season.  Is it too little too late?  Not necessarily, but I do fear it won’t be enough until they get to their endgame.  That was the mistake Enterprise made for three seasons, and it cost them their series.  When they got cancelled and opted for one final season, that final season was so much Trek that it was the best we’d ever gotten since Kirk left the bridge.  In hindsight now, I’m able to better appreciate those earlier seasons because I see the roads.  Whatever they’re pulling for Discovery, if they’re allowed to pull it, I think it’ll be a lot like that.

As of this point, I’m on board for the remainder of season one when it comes back from break.  I see the potential for this series.  The Next Generation and Voyager each took three seasons to really ramp up before they found their footing.  Deep Space Nine and Enterprise likewise did the dance of wanting to do a little different and still fit in, though in the case of Deep Space Nine, they actually sacrificed Star Trek in the name of competing with Babylon 5.  In the end, they got there too.  In all cases, it’s easier to forgive in hindsight precisely because they did get there.  But if the journey is more important than the destination, then the powers that be have been telling Star Trek wrong for 25 of the last 50 years, at least in the beginnings of each series.

And as much as I hate to say this… much as it was for TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT,.. it’ll likely drive viewers mad for the wrong reasons to watch it week to week until they do find their footing.  I think ultimately this will play out better as a binge watch when it’s over.

My fervent wish is to tune in each week and see Star Trek that I can embrace as Star TrekDiscovery may yet surprise me on that front and pull out of the tailspin the same way the previous installments did.  I hope they do.  In the previous cases, the foundations were rocky, but I could still see Star Trek.  The foundations here are… Kelvin-verse.  This will remain my fear going forward until they prove to me it’s not a fear at all.  I have a lot of issues with characters, and I have a lot more with aesthetics and modern storytelling shortcuts as I’ve now outlined ad nauseum,

Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve lost so many of my favorite stories to bad writing and unnecessary reboots.  Too many.  I’ve reclaimed a couple here and there, but the field is littered with the corpses of bad ideas.  With the Kelvin-verse films, I thought I’d lost Star Trek as well.  Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t.  Trust… but verify.  I’m not going to be the fan that gives them a pass just because this is better than those films.  I’m going to be the voice that demands better at every turn.  So long as they keep putting some meat on the bone and prove to me it’s Trek, I’m in.  I am more than willing to let them go where no one has gone before, so long as they don’t leave their identity behind.  It has to be consistent both backwards and forwards, and forwards is more important to the longevity of the series.

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