Star Trek Discovery has reached the “barometer” stage…

The past two Discovery episodes feature a show that has found its groove and settled into being what it’s going to be, whether good or bad or in-between. How much you enjoy these two episodes will probably serve as a barometer for how well you enjoy most everything that will follow. The show was recently renewed for a second season; that’s not a shock considering CBS has been touting the 200% subscription increase for their All Access internetwork, and the fact that Netflix is footing the bill for the show almost entirely (and reaping the non-north American streaming rights as a result). It’s an easy renewal. But there are warning signs that must be mentioned, both internally and externally.

Externally, a 200% increase is a vague accomplishment since it doesn’t include the fact that the service barely had any subscribers to start with. In fact, they had barely more than a million just before Discovery premiered. A 200% increase means they now have about three million subscribers…or at least they did on the day Discovery premiered. For comparison, Netflix is inching closer to the 100 million subscriber mark. CBS is holding Trek hostage on its own homebrewed network when the more reasonable course of action would be to just put the thing on Netflix and let the 50 million USA subscribers enjoy it.

Whether Discovery sinks or floats is tethered to whether CBS All Access sinks or floats, and the opposite is true as well. They are linked just as Voyager and UPN were linked and just as Phase II and the PTC would have been in the mid-1970s.

And, as previously mentioned, whether or not you continue to subscribe and pay for the right to watch this show (commercials and all) is largely going to be decided by how you feel about these two episodes because they are the most traditional, Star Trek-like shows the series has had to date. They are predominately stand-alone in their stories, and have a clear-cut A/B plot-structure. The little things that make this show wholly unlike other Trek series’ (the ambiguous captain, the glorified extras of a bridge crew, the focus on a junior officer) are still there, but the structure of these episodes are Trekkian and familiar to everyone who grew up watching TNG or DS9.

EPISODE FIVE: CHOOSE YOUR PAIN

Are you uncomfortable with the power I’ve been given, admiral?

That’s a line Lorca asks of a superior officer earlier in the episode and, without reservation, my answer is “Yes! Very much so!” It is grossly un-Trek to have a Starfleet Captain fighting a war in such a unilateral way with the apparent blessing of Starfleet. At least Sisko had be deceptive and secretive when he acted unilaterally (in the seminal episode “In the Pale Moonlight”). Lorca is running around acting morally-agnostic in broad daylight and everyone in Starfleet seems at worst mildly annoyed by it. This is not—as far as we’ve been led to believe—some Kelvin/JJ Abrams-spinoff universe here; this is a prequel to the adventures of Kirk and Spock from The Original Series, and it only predates that show by ten years. Yet the Starfleet we see here is completely different from the one Kirk deals with in his show.

And if this series wanted to explore that and delve deeper into the idea of a rogue captain going too far to win a war then I’d be all for it. That would be a good use of science-fiction (a genre which needs a human story to tell or its just mindless lights and lasers and space monsters). Instead, we get a “story of the week” plot about Lorca getting kidnapped by Klingons and having to escape. It’s trite and safe. I don’t have a problem with a stand-alone story, but this is the wrong stand-alone story.

Now, about Harry Mudd:

He only appeared in two episodes of the Original Series but he left a lasting impression. Rainn Wilson’s take on the character is not in any way an homage to the way Roger Carmel played it. Instead of jovial and mischievous, he’s cynical and crass, self-serving in a spiteful way unlike the wink-and-nod approach of the original character. It’s also a little too over the top in the way Wilson delivers his lines, but a lot of that is the too-wordy dialogue that plagues the show in general. Overall, I didn’t hate the new version of Mudd, but I didn’t love it either (that’s a theme to the whole series by and large). It’s another reminder to me that I’d be so much more forgiving if this series was set in the post-Voyager future and these were all new characters and conflicts and not situations forced into the box of “ten years before Kirk and Spock.”

The A-plot features Lorca and Mudd trapped in the Klingon ship where we meet a “Lieutenant Ash,” a supposed POW from the Binary Stars Battle (episode two). There’s either more than meets the eye to this guy or he’s a giant red-herring, it’s not yet clear. He’s played by the same actor who plays Voq, who we last saw in episode four being told that he’d need to make some big sacrifice in order to win the war with the Federation. Is “genetically altering your physique to look human” the big sacrifice? We’ll find out.

The B-plot is a standard “Trekkian” story about seeing the humanity in non-human things. The tardigrade is being wounded with every Spore-Warp-Jump-Thing and Michael leads an ethical re-evaluation about whether it is right to punish a sentient life-form for a more convenient (and faster) mode of transportation. Of course it isn’t and so we’re forced to watch everyone else slowly come to that conclusion half an hour after we do. On the surface that’s okay; the Original Series was filled with such “human condition” stories, but they managed to explore the dilemma. Here there is no dilemma, it’s just a matter of wanting everyone to hurry up and do the right thing. It’s all superficial discussions on why using the tardigrade is convenient but bad. Its exposition en lieu of a plot.

Now, about that F-bomb:

It was pointless and juvenile “look what we can do” pandering. But I’m sure some people loved it. To me, it’s not what Star Trek is about. Sure the show always had profanity—McCoy hardly let a hour go by without dropping a “dammit, Jim”—but it’s never felt so obvious and stuck-out. It’s also an R-rated word on a franchise that was always supposed to be PG or occasionally PG-13 so that it might be accessible to younger people who look up at the stars and wonder, optimistically, about the future.

Random Thoughts:

This week’s commercial complaint: Ads occurred (as always, in a block of four) right in the middle of a scene, like a badly placed YouTube ad.

Three bridge crewmen were given names and a couple lines but I’m no closer to knowing who they are or caring about them. You don’t need a clunky “The Naked Time/Now” episode that introduces us to the personalities of everyone, but…are we just not going to get to know the bridge crew? Was that sacrificed too in the name of modernizing Trek? That’s sad if so. Not even Dr. Culber (who isn’t even the chief medical officer) is very fleshed out, and “the doctor” is one of the most-well-developed characters on all the previous Trek shows.

We learn a little about Lorca’s backstory: He apparently “murdered” (though you might not use that word) his first crew from his ship before Discovery, in order to spare them from klingon capture and torture. That’s a heck a backstory. I don’t know if I like it or not, but I appreciate the balls to tell it.

That final scene is interesting. Stamets used the spore-drive himself, to spare the tardigrade, and the side-effect is…some kind of evil mirror version of himself. Is Stamets going to pull an “Enemy Within?” Was that a literal “mirror” universe teaser? Star Trek Enterprise had a two-parter devoted to the mirror universe but never actually featured anyone crossing over. So this might be the earliest in-canon move from one universe to the other.

What if this whole show has been in the mirror universe so far? That would explain why everyone is so unlike what you’d expect from a Trek cast.

6/10 – It’s a stand-alone episode and thus a throwback to old Trek, but it lacks the subtext in the storyline to rise above the superficial drama with the tardigrade and the clunky Klingon ship scenes.

Those Klingon scenes may end up having big ramifications in later episodes but as an hour-long story, there wasn’t much worth re-watching.

EPISODE SIX: LETHE

Lethe (from the Greek, meaning “forgetfulness” or even “to hide something”) begins with a quasi-holodeck scene. I get wanting to show the future as we see it in 2017 but continuity is a thing too. The show constantly shows off casual technology that was simply not available in the 23rd century as established by the Original Series. It’s one thing to take the tech used in TOS and modernize the way it’s visualized (like the way the show uses food replicators), but to introduce new tech that was clearly not available ten years in the future (in the show’s timeline) is frustrating. Not to beat a dead tribble but it’s just one more reason why this show should have been set in the post-Voyager future.

Anyway, Lorca and Lt. Ash train on the holodeck in a “fight Klingon invaders” simulation. Ash impresses and even is told “you fight as well as a Klingon” which is either a blatant and blunt bit of foreshadowing or it’s a whale of a red-herring. We’ll see. If it’s the latter the show will earn some bonus points; if it’s the former…I can’t even begin to imagine a show being that badly written.

Like the previous episode this is another largely-stand-alone tale with a clear A/B plot structure. In the A-plot Sarek is attacked by a rogue Vulcan who believes his people are too cozy with non-Vulcans. He attacks Sarek, who survives but is injured and dying in the middle of a nebula. Somehow he’s able to telepathically project part of his Katra onto Michael, his adopted human daughter/ward. Michael then enters that part of Sarek’s Katra in a Search for Sarek, dealing with an antagonistic other-Katra-half and trying to reason with him to let her find him.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The story succeeds in giving the character of Sarek some depth, but what’s the point? Yes he’s an important legacy character in the whole franchise, but he’s a guest star on Discovery. Michael comes to a realization that she is as disappointed in her father as her father is in her. That’s the message. That’s what we learned this week. Alright.

The B-plot explores the darkside of Lorca. Admiral Cornwell visits the ship and we learn that she and Lorca had prior romantic feelings for each other. We also learn that Lorca is dealing with a kind of PTSD over the way his first command ended (remember he killed his crew to spare them from Klingon torture). Cornwell realizes he’s not fit for command and promises to take Discovery away from him until he can get over what happened with his first crew.

The two plots tie together better than in the previous episode: Sarek’s disappearance throws a wrench in a planned diplomatic meeting between the Federation and the Klingons. Without Sarek, Lorca suggests that Cornwell go instead. She does and is promptly kidnapped. Was that Lorca’s plan? When Discovery learns the Admiral has been taken the usually gung-ho captain decides to go by the book and contact Starfleet command for instructions…which gives Cornwell more time to die or at least become harder to find. Did he set her up to eat it so that he wouldn’t lose his command?

If so holy cow that’s a dark turn for a Star Trek captain.

Random Thoughts:

People on Discovery wear shirts that say “DISCO” on it. That’s a much better shorthand for the show than STD. Let’s make that the official call-sign, mkay?

If Ash really is Voq then I will feel incredibly insulted as a viewer. If that’s the plan they should have revealed it to the audience immediately the way Battlestar Galactica told you Boomer was a cylon at the end of the premiere miniseries. If they drag this out with their obvious clues and then reveal the obvious with a silly “ah ha!” moment, it’s going to be a show-killer.

The episode ends much like the previous, with a character looking at his reflection only for a different version of him looking back. In this case I’m sure there’s more to the story waiting to be unveiled, but I don’t know if that’s always the case with Discovery.

This week’s commercial complaint is that there isn’t one: All Access crashed for half of America on Sunday and after half an hour trying to get it to work, I shamelessly searched out a pirated stream. It was HD. It was commercial free. It loaded fast. It’s what CBS deserves for being greedy and cheap. If they want to prop up their network like a mob-built Las Vegas casino, then I’m going to find “alternative” methods of watching the show.

The dialogue in this series, across the board, continues to be a problem. The actual sentences being spoken are too long and unnatural, spoken in fast-paced, single-breath takes. It doesn’t feel real; it feels like characters dispensing plot-information…long-worded plot information.

Lorca is the most compelling character on the show. The writers clearly felt they could make him like this (dark and unethical, driven and myopic) because the actual star of the show (Michael) is more traditional (despite her mutiny). But if Lorca was the star, front and center in the storylines, the show would be a lot better.  If they had done something like Breaking Bad, where the star is conflicted, dark, unethical, highly driven and occasionally amoral, yet still compelling and fascinating (Lorca is all of those things to me), it’d make for some strong drama. Instead he’s a side-character while Michael continues to be uninteresting, despite being played by a good actress. She reads her too-long lines of exposition-heavy dialogue with the flat, wooden delivery of someone pretending to be a Vulcan.

It’s frustrating, like the rest of the show.

7/10 – The Lorca storyline is compelling enough to keep me watching, and hopefully they stick the landing with Voq and Ash. Michael continues to do very little for me despite the bulk of screen-time she’s given each week.

Next week’s preview looks like Disco’s take on a Brannon Braga “high concept” episode. I am excited to see how they do.

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