From the Salt Mines: Star Trek: Discovery

From the Salt Mines: A new occasional series in which I will talk about the things that stick under my craw for various reasons. I have a lot of feelings, and not all of them are pleasant ones.


I can’t remember a time in my life before Star Trek. My parents watched the original series and I remember watching a lot of those episodes with them. I watched Next Generation and Voyager in high school and some of Deep Space Nine and like three episodes of Enterprise. I’ve been lukewarm on the reboot (though I did actually quite like Star Trek Beyond) and what I keep calling Kirk’s character assassination (who among you thinks that life in deep space isn’t Kirk living his best life ever?), but I am still happy to have new Star Trek content.

So I was just as excited as anyone when a new series was announced, and I’ve had to deal with a range of emotions since then. Especially once I heard that CBS was going to make it a stream-only show via their paid app. Admittedly, some of these feelings have been positive. And since this is Salt Mines, while we’re going to talk about all of them, we’re going to start with the things I don’t like.

There are a lot of spoilers in this post for the first half of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.

The first and most glaring: This is a prequel to the original series, and comes with all of the continuity issues you’d expect of a proposed prequel of a universe with fifty years of history. This series is set ten years before Kirk and Spock first set forth on their five-year mission, and very few of the things “discovered” by the Discovery are known to any of the previous iterations of Star Trek. Because thanks to the television show, we actually do know what Kirk and Spock did and did not have at their disposal

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To boldly go where perhaps a few may have gone before.

For instance, we’re already aware that the drive tech they’re working on doesn’t pan out. As is revealed in episode 3, “Context is for Kings,” while Discovery does have a warp drive (which we’re all used to), the experimental drive they’re working on is a spore drive. You’d assume, if it worked, that all future iterations of Star Trek would be taking advantage of instantaneous travel.

A spore drive is exactly as stupid as it sounds; it’s a drive that lets the ship move instantaneously between two points in space because of mushrooms. I’m oversimplifying, but the actual science doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, and it’s funnier to think of Discovery flying on mushrooms. But here’s the point: however this works, it’s not the drive they’re using in the future, not even the rebooted version of the future that Chris Pine’s version of Kirk exists in.

No matter how much they advance this drive in this show, it still doesn’t stick around. So I guess my point is, what’s the point? I actually burst out laughing when this was revealed in the episode. Laughed so hard I cried, and that’s not something that typically happens with Star Trek.

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Mushrooms.

It’s obvious by the end of the “Into the Forest I Go” what the problems with the technology are. Namely, the only way to utilize the drive is with a wetwired navigator, but wetwiring the navigator causes what could prove to be irreparable mental and physical damage, if the condition Anthony Rapp’s Lieutenant Stamets is in at the end of the last episode is anything to go by.

And let’s take a moment to talk about what happened to Stamets, because I really don’t understand why it happened. Stamets’ doctor husband was worried about the effects of jumping before Stamets took 133 jumps in 4 minutes, and he suffered health problems because of it. At the end of the episode, what we’ve already been told is a three-hour trip via warp is suddenly absolutely necessary to be done via jump because of the safety of the crew . . . when the Ship of the Dead has already been taken care of. The crew isn’t in any present danger, and until Star Trek Into Darkness, there wasn’t a way to track a ship in warp.

I don’t always ask that characters on TV shows behave logically, because lord knows I don’t, but I at least ask for some reasoning. But there’s nothing here. They’re stranded at the end of the show for what seems to be no good reason whatsoever.

Back to prequel problems, we also know, because this is a prequel, that Discovery is never able to get the cloaking information back to Starfleet, because it isn’t available to Kirk and crew later. Hell, Kirk and crew didn’t even know that a stealth drive existed at all, so like, the Klingons having it during this “war” with the Federation is, again, messing with previously established canon. Now, granted, it was going to take 11 hours to get the information transmitted to Starbase 46, and Discovery jumped out into undiscovered territory in the middle of transmission so it’s unlikely a useable amount of the data got through. So it’s fine that they didn’t know how to penetrate the cloak, but not knowing it exists at all? C’mon now.

And putting aside spore drives and cloaking technology, the rest of the tech in this is already miles beyond what they were using in the original series. I mean, obviously they weren’t going to go back to, like, blinking lights and flip switches, but they’re not even trying. At least Enterprise tried.

The second most glaring: This show was sold to me (and all of the pasty white boys who spent months complaining about it) as a feminist’s dream of two strong female leads who are best friends and explore the galaxy together. Or at least, that’s what the previews made me (and the previously mentioned male complainers) believe. Instead, the first two episodes are really like two halves of an introductory TV movie and, in what is possibly the most egregious sin Discovery commits in its first nine episodes, Michelle Yeoh dies at the end of the second episode.

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Me, not realizing this was a set up episode of the rest of the series: “she comes back from this, right?”

And thus also died my dream of the feminist revolution in space. Instead of two strong, female, POC leads who regularly smash the patriarchy and support each other through their sometimes terrible and sometimes brilliant life choices, one of them dies. The other is convicted of mutiny and stripped of rank before being coerced (go back and watch, she was absolutely coerced) into serving on a ship for a middle aged white man. Wow. How revolutionary.

Like, no disrespect to Jason Isaacs meant here, he’s doing what he can with the role, and I’m really impressed with his American accent (although . . . why?), but I didn’t sign on to this show to watch a white dude force an incarcerated female POC into pandering to his wishes.

Third most glaring: It’s too much. Every single episode feels like they’re trying to pack every single item on the space-faring buffet into one hour long episode. There’s too much going on all the time, asking people to go on these emotional journeys with these characters that we barely know. Best example: the mutiny in the first episode. It just didn’t make sense. Or at least, it didn’t read well for me. How did Michael get from where she began the episode to “my only solution is mutiny” in the span of ten minutes?

Sure, there’s a path you can follow that the episode writers wrote out, but I still couldn’t buy it as a viewer, and even in the first episode when I was determined to like the show (because I didn’t know that Yeoh’s character was already doomed), I just couldn’t get behind this action.

Michael’s relationship with Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) is firmly established in the first few scenes together. Background for Michael’s character and her relationship with Georgiou is given in short scenes woven into the present narrative, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t but here just felt like more clutter. In the present, Michael is shown to be able to convince Georgiou to change her mind. Michael calls Georgiou by her first name in the middle of the bridge. Five minutes later, due to some advice from Sarek, her foster father (making her Spock’s foster sister), Michael Vulcan-pinches Georgiou and tries to take over the bridge.

Second example? Michael’s lightning fast relationship with Tyler. Now, I like Tyler. I even like this relationship. But it unfolded over three episodes to a point where he’s confessing some twisted stuff that happened while being tortured on a Klingon vessel and she’s crying over how happy she is to be here with him in this moment and I’m just sitting on my couch like . . . slow down, y’all. Take a breather and give me a little more UST before you just fall all over each other.

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Nothing about this is going to go well.

I mean, clearly there’s a rocky road ahead for them, given his reaction to the Klingon in the brig and him kneeling at her feet. Was all of this just to get Tyler back? I don’t know, but I’m not sure that I care.

Here’s something I didn’t know I would be complaining about: all of the reading. The show producers made the brave decision to have all of the Klingons speaking Klingon at every opportunity. I call it brave because that’s a lot of spitting for actors wearing rubber faces and fake teeth to do in close quarters. But it’s also a kind of annoying choice after the first minute or so, especially given how much we see the Klingons. I was so happy when Michael took the universal translator onto the bridge in the last episode and I could finally stop reading half of the dialogue.

This is probably a personal pet peeve, but I find it really hard to only read dialogue once. I read it when it pops up on screen. Then I read it again to make sure I read it right. Then I read it a third time because it’s still there. And then it switches to the next line, and I realize I didn’t actually watch anything else that was happening on screen that entire time. So your mileage may vary on Klingons speaking Klingon. It could actually be an attraction for some, but definitely isn’t for me.

Follow up: why are all of the Klingons hairless? I’m not even going to bring up the fact that in the original series they looked like this:

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Except I’m totally bringing it up. Are we retconning their appearance again? What we’ve got now looks more like the creature that Krall mutated into in Star Trek Beyond and a lot less like anything we’ve been seeing since Next Generation debuted.

And finally: I’m sharing login information with a friend, so I’m not actually paying extra for this content, but CBS is sure trying to make me. This, despite the fact that I already have a cable subscription and am paying them for content, and despite the fact that even though they are being paid extra for this content, I’m still forced to sit through commercials that I can’t fast forward because I’m not paying them MORE for the content. All of this is rage inducing.

To my eternal saltiness, it seems that this route has paid off for CBS and they won’t be changing this up any time soon. According to Variety, CBS doubled its subscription numbers with Discovery. On the other hand, EW.com reported the day after the premiere that the pilot episode was #11 on Pirate Bay’s top downloaded episodes list, and had already climbed up from #15 in several hours. I haven’t seen an update as to whether it ever broke top ten. And that, by the way, was the first episode, which was offered free on CBS as a preview. The second episode, which was not offered free, had only hit #17, so there’s no telling if it’s just that people hadn’t gotten to it or no one liked the first episode enough to keep going.

So that’s many words of things I don’t like about the show. And I’m delighted to report that the list of things I do like is much, much shorter. It’s basically every female character on show and also Anthony Rapp. So let’s just go a little more in depth on a few of them.

Sonequa Martin-Green has been a source of delight, even when I haven’t especially loved what they’re doing with her character. And I guess it follows that I do actually like Michael Burnham, even when I don’t particularly understand what she’s doing. It’s not Michael’s fault. She is funny, smart, determined, passionate, and loyal, even when it looks like she’s mutinying. What she’s not always excellent at doing is accounting for other people’s reactions to her actions, hence the problem with the mutiny. But still, despite my saltiness about this show, I’m somewhat invested in finding out what happens to Michael and where Discovery takes her.

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So supportive at the disco.

Her roommate, Tilly, is played by Mary Wiseman, who is also a delight. She’s awkward and shy and probably the most unassuming person on the entire ship, but she’s fierce when she knows she’s right about something, and she sticks up for her friends. I really love how she’s bonded with Michael, and even if it’s not the Michelle Yeoh/Sonequa Martin-Green buddy space dramedy of my dreams, it’s nice to see Michael and Tilly support each other.

And then there’s Anthony Rapp, who everyone first fell in love with as Mark in Rent. (I mean probably, he’s been acting since he was a child so I’m sure there are people out there who knew him in his pre-Rent days. But I fell in love with him in Rent.) He’s done things since then, and I keep pointing him out in the background of episodes of my favorite TV shows, like the guide in “Detour,” one of my favorite episodes of The X-Files. His character arc has been the most interesting, in my opinion, of all of them. He starts as the irascible engineer in charge of the spore drive, swings through a free love phase as he transitions into being the navigator hooked up to the drive, and back into the incredibly grumpy scientist we first met as he realizes what the drive is doing to his mind.

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Sometimes he’s a gruff a-hole, and sometimes he dances with Michael in the middle of the hallway. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of in-between.

Speaking of Anthony Rapp and his character arc, some of his finest moments in the first half come in the Groundhog Day inspired episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” In 9 episodes that are almost entirely about a war, this episode stands out as a “problem of the week” kind of episode about getting stuck in a time loop orchestrated by a young Harry Mudd (fans of TOS should recognize that name) played perfectly by Rainn Wilson.

So where is Discovery going from here? One can only guess. They’ve jumped into the middle of nowhere, their navigator appears to have been blinded and is almost certainly not able to jump them anymore, they never finished transmitting the data to Starfleet, but at least the Ship of the Dead has been destroyed? Maybe they’re mining their own history for plot devices and will have to make the journey back to Federation space like Voyager?

I’m in for the rest of the first season because I don’t like to leave things half-finished, but also because it’s harder to mine for salt when I don’t watch things I don’t like.


Pictures of Star Trek: The Original Series cast and Klingons is from the Wikipedia article about that show and alien race. Screencaps of Star Trek: Discovery are from KissThemGoodbye’s Gallery.

2 Comments

  • steelvictory November 21, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Do yourself a favor and watch the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise. Season 4 actually explains the ridgeless Klingons in TOS and why Worf doesn’t want to talk about it in “Trials and Tribble-ations,” because season 4 of Enterpise is the writers knowing that they are being cancelled, saying “Fuck it,” and doing what they can to explain a lot of cool stuff that happens later in the Star Trek universe.

    I’m also disappointed that we didn’t get two female POC characters smashing patriarchy across the universe. I keep enjoying the episodes of Discovery individually, then looking back and despairing over the inconsistent writing choices and lost opportunities. I’m doing a panel at a convention this Friday night on “What You Should Be Watching on TV” and I think Discovery is going to be an interesting and contentious topic for that.

    Reply
    • Merrin November 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      Does it explain the hairless Klingons now? I am planning on watching all of Enterprise as I truck along in my rewatch of DS9 and Voyager, so I’ll get there eventually. 🙂

      Basically, I feel like I was lied to and got excited about what I thought I was getting, and am eternally disappointed by what I am getting because of it.

      Reply

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