Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.15 (End of Season Special)

Critic’s log, supplemental.

I know I mock Star Trek: Discovery but I feel privileged to have been watching TV at the moment a new idiom entered the language. Happy Days gave us “jump the shark”, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, “nuke the fridge”, Last Jedi “poppined the Leia”, and now, thanks to the Disco season finale, we have “showed the Enterprise”.

Oh no, they’ve showed the Enterprise. This series really has hit rock bottom.

Disco hacks, you never show the Enterprise. Not in a Star Trek prequel. Because THEN YOU’VE GOT TO FUCKING DO SOMETHING WITH IT.

But we’ll come back to that scene.

First, the ghastly wrapping up of this fifteen-episode fan fic serial, so crassly plotted it could have been written by you. “Will You Take My Hand?” had a lot to tie off and did its ugly business with machine-like efficiency, even pausing from time to time for a quiet character moment. Mick got to recount the murder (and implied rape) of her parents by the beast-like Klingons, Tyler regaled us with his childhood sailing obsession (yawn) and Voq’s penchant for gambling (which included taking a punt on being smashed to bits and re-sculpted as human), and Tilly got high with original series guest star Clint Howard, now playing an Orion gadabout, lounging in a Qo’noS ghetto stained with alien urine from species with multiple members. And all the while the existential threat to the Federation played out in low-key fashion, pivoting on Mirror Georgiou’s attempt to plant a hydro bomb in an active Klingon volcano. No, really.

This immediate threat to the Klingons, and the abstract one to Earth, were never felt because we knew, this being a prequel, that neither would come to anything. No, this was strictly an exercise in crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. The only intrigue came from whether the hacks behind this wrongheaded voyage had the nous to employ a little calligraphic finesse. In the end, dogged by their own miserable plot, and as anxious to wrap it up as we were to see it wrapped up, they could not.

Starfleet’s plan was to have Mirror Georgiou detonate the bomb, causing an ecological disaster (would this head of the snake strategy really work when the Empire, as constituted, was a hydra?). Mick essentially won the peace by convincing the Admiralty to install L’Rell as the Klingon’s unifying leader. The Discovery’s captive, so the easiest person in the universe to be stuck with the label of Federation stooge, would convince the twenty-four houses to back her by using the primed explosive as blackmail.

Yes, that’s right – L’Rell, rather than arguing the Empire has acted dishonourably and the Federation were not the true enemy, rather the divisions within their own society, convinced a race that only lives for war and conquest to abandon the fight, with Earth in sight of its warships, because she alone could give them a sense of shared identity, and if they thought differently, she’d explode the device nested under the planet’s surface and consign them all to suffocation.

Veteran Klingon watchers might have wondered if this principle free, culturally tin-eared solution was a good formula for long lasting peace. Wouldn’t the act of threatening genocide make L’Rell a seditious anarchist in the mind of most Klingons? Would she be sleeping with the clearly identifiable Starfleet-issue detonator and one eye open for the rest of her life, or did she hope that once her people got used to having their domestic extinction held over them, their despotic leader’s finger on the button, they’d knuckle down and show due deference? What would stop any one of millions of bloodthirsty vengeful warriors, denied the sweetest of victories by a Federation puppet, simply conspiring to kill her while she slept? If we meet her again in Season 2, will she be travelling around in a disruptor proof case, like the Klingon pope, the detonator manacled to her wrist, her eyes bloodshot from the stimulants required to keep her awake and alert 24 hours and 8 minutes a day?

Nothing became Discovery like the half-baked solution to its dull, inconsequential war. Like every story beat before it, the end of the conflict was a prisoner of the plot contortions planned out in those frenzied first months of production. If L’Rell was going to win over the Klingons the show’s focus would have to be on the Empire’s internal politics and manoeuvring her into position gradually. But no one, including the hacks in the writers’ room, wanted to watch that show, and having failed to give her the most obvious leverage, namely the Klingons starting to lose the war, because of their ideological in-fighting, as that would deny the Discovery crew their high stakes finish, they had to find a shortcut that would allow her to win over the warmongering tribes and restore the status quo in a single scene. It worked within the context of the lone episode but had no dramatic integrity overall. In this, it joined the Voq and Lorca reveals and Starfleet’s mystifying use of Mirror Georgiou. Discovery, more often than not, has looked like a show written in a game of Consequences.

What, we’re entitled to ask, was the point of this fucking war? The only Starfleet officer who thought it should be fought dirty was a Mirror Universe doppelgänger who didn’t give a shit about the outcome. Everyone else, even Admiral Cornwell, who only lost her nerve toward the end because she was desperate thanks to the machinations of said doppelgänger (who’d taken the victory solution out of play for 9 months) flouted their Starfleet credentials throughout, though in the most literal way possible. Discovery’s a show that wore its insecurities about its Star Trek credentials on its uniform sleeve, with pious speechifying making a return to the franchise for the first time since TNG season one. Ultimately, a war was fought and won to mature the sensibilities of one Michael Burnham – the fucking idiot who started the conflict in the first place.

Mick, who’d spent a lifetime brooding over the death of her parents, only had to start an interstellar conflict and broker a flippant and unstable peace, to realise that Federation values of tolerance and understanding worked best. Yeah, it was a pity about the broken bodies of all those men, women and children littering the galaxy, the collateral damage of her monumental hubris, but she’d pulled such a blinder for the Federation – acquiring a Mirror Universe tyrant to enable an attack on Qo’noS, coaching the Empire to accept an armistice based on the threat of genocide, that it was only right and proper that she be restored to full rank and returned to active duty on her dream assignment.

Given the body count, might retirement not have been a better face saving option for all parties? They always need people to help out on the Earth’s subaquatic bases, don’t they? If I’d lost a son, daughter or wife to the conflict, I’m not sure I’d feel good knowing that Mick was back as a ranking officer, wearing the Federation’s highest medal of honour. And she got it by saving the enemy from mass extinction and military collapse, so I can thank her for the next 70 years of cold war too.

So, moral victory secured, the crew of the Discovery warped to collect their new, as-yet-uncast Captain, who will be quantum scanned before being given their command codes. But, as we discussed last week, there was no way on Earth, or any other planet, that this fan service machine was going to end without a cliffhanger. If we were unsure what form it would take, we needed only imagine the stupidest thing the writers could come up with – the biggest stunt they could pull, remembering they’d have months to work out how to turn it into a viable piece of storytelling. The biggest of course would have been a peak into the Original Series’ universe; confirmation that Discovery had been set elsewhere all along. But in the event, this bunch of literal minded miscreants went for the next best thing – an actual look at Christopher Pike’s Enterprise, breaking warp, in distress, and naturally redesigned as a final fuck you to the audience.

This series has avoided, like the plague, confirming its Prime Universe credentials. It created an opt-out in the form of multiverse travel, teased us with the prospect of the Defiant, late of “The Tholian Web”, then declined to show it. We reasoned the writers had decided on the safe route of creative ambiguity, because they couldn’t decide themselves, keeping cast-iron identifiers off screen so we could argue it out indefinitely, or at least until we got bored asking. Now we know that baring an astonishing reversal, Season 2 will settle it (once the creative team work out what the fuck to do).

A ship that’s supposed to contain Spock (unless, God help us, next year’s story is centred on finding the missing Vulcan) now faces the one carrying his Father and adopted sister. When we return to this series, logic demands we get a look at the Enterprise Bridge and her crew. I’d like to believe the hacks that run this shithouse know exactly what we’ll see when screens are activated, but I suspect, and I think you do too, they have no idea. So why do it? Why show the Enterprise? Because this somewhat desperate end to the series was the only thing a show this reliant on fan service could do to sustain interest in the months ahead.

For me showing the Enterprise, teasing Pike and his Cage-era crew, was an admission of failure on Discovery’s part. It had failed to captivate on its own merits, failed to tell a story that resonated or chimed with the times, failed to introduce likable characters with great potential, and failed to make the case for itself as a prequel to the Original Series.

A serialised season, hamstrung by decisions taken early, when the writers had little sense of the show’s identity or purpose, made the kind of course corrections and character development possible in an episodic format, impossible. The Next Generation had a tumultuous first year, but good self-contained stories steadied the ship and settled stomachs turned by some of the worst. But when your entire series is an ill-conceived story, a story that uglifies your characters, it’s hard to change direction.

Well, now the Enterprise is here, and we’re left hanging with the same anxiety we nursed going in – is this our Star Trek or an idiot’s reimagining? Now the showrunners have repeated the question they must answer it and the stakes, unlike those offered in the first season, are real. Get the answer wrong and with little else to recommend it, there may be no reason for real Trekkies to watch this show. And if some rage-quit the thing, incensed that their doubts about it have been obnoxiously reworked into a cliffhanger by writers desperate for their attention – well, I wouldn’t blame them. Would you?

Anomalous Readings

  • Having failed to just extract what they needed from her mind using a mind meld, Mirror Georgiou was given her freedom by the Federation. Given what Lorca did when loose in Discovery’s universe, that seemed like an unwarranted gamble.
  • Pet hate of the week: the way Mick holds her communicator. She handles it like Apprentice contestants hold their iPhones. Properly or not at all, fuck face.
  • Tellingly, the medal ceremony in Paris only really focused on Stamets, Tilly and Saru – the only three characters the season had any room for who weren’t dead. Even Culber got more screen time than the rest of the bridge crew, and he was represented by a medal in the palm of Stamet’s hand.
  • The Enterprise issued a distress call. Distressed because Pike had just met their Original Series universe selves? Well, why the fuck not? That’s the only way this fucking show can have it both ways.
  • Tilly looked sexy on Qo’noS. And who knew the planet was multicultural? One in the eye for Star Trek’s essentialism, though only if this is the Prime Universe, obviously.
  • So Tyler, though now essentially human, decided to remain with L’Rell? Good luck, man – you’re going to be fighting off a lot of assassins from now on.
  • Perhaps the most damning thing one can say about Discovery is that the most entertaining thing it’s produced in Year One are tweets from Jason Issacs.
  • The Discovery needs a captain. Does anyone have Denise Crosby’s number?
  • Maurice Hurley, the thorn in Gene Roddenberry’s crotch during the first season of TNG, was so pissed off with the production’s problems that he actually suggested scrapping the entire cast and starting afresh for Season 2. Seemed crazy then.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.14

Critic’s log, supplemental.

Discovery isn’t just a mechanical twist factory; a show where you can hear the cogs turning and smell the machine oil; it’s also, we learned in “The War Without, The War Within”, a liar. The Klingons have not been victorious as billed – it turns out Saru was catastrophizing. In fact, the bastards have occupied 20% of Federation territory using their cloaking advantage (thanks Lorca!) and are apparently engaged in a scrappy inter-house competition to see who can enslave more humans. So much for our immoral hope, the ISS Discovery, for which we were prepared to turn a blind eye as sexy Captain Tilly laid waste to entire Klingon colonies. It was destroyed on entry to the Prime Universe (or something like it). Who destroyed it with the Klingon sarcophagus ship just atomised? The writers would rather you didn’t ask and just enjoyed yourselves.

This adjustment was welcome because it meant the Discovery would not, as feared in the aftermath of last week, have to travel back in time to undo a hopeless situation. There will, apparently, be no cheating. If the Federation wants to win this boring war, they’re going to have to do real donkey work – nothing less than a full-blooded assault on Qo’noS, the enemy’s homeworld. All of which was fine, but this being Discovery, the beats to facilitate this finale were wrongheaded and devoid of internal logic.

One can imagine the writer’s room salivating at the prospect of ending the penultimate episode with the money shot of Mirror Georgiou bestriding the bridge, pretending to be her counterpart, leading the mission. Starfleet had no choice you see, because evil Philippa, genocidal conqueror in her own domain, had already subjugated the Klingons and decimated Qo’noS back home. She knew that charred planet like the back of her blooded hands. If they wanted to use her intel, and have the crew respond to a mass murderer’s commands, Admiral Cornwell and Mick had little choice but to put a Starfleet uniform on the Emperor and spin some bullshit about Prime Georgiou being alive and undercover all this time. So having just got rid of a Mirror Commander, everyone’s favourite organic starship now had another. And all this for that scene. Except, unfortunately, it was complete nonsense.

Mirror Georgiou might have been the big tits where she came from, but she was still just a human being – a woman with a nice, pliable brain if you happen to be Sarek and can perform a mind meld on a whim. Sarek was onboard for some time in this installment and even performed a meld on Saru – the crew member noted for his pacifism and caution. But when he was introduced to the Emperor of the Terran Empire, and told by this bloodthirsty tyrant that she conquered Klingons for breakfast, and for her this was all old news, Sarek – a towering intellect, and one of the Federation’s finest strategic minds, forgot to stick his hand on her face and extract the topographical and tactical information that could guarantee victory, thereafter consigning this monster to the brig where she belonged.

Why didn’t he do this? Spock didn’t hesitate in The Undiscovered Country when Valeris was outed as a conspirator. Did he forget? Instead, Discovery’s hacks decided that the crew, for no discernable reason, would indulge their guest despot, going as far as to ensure she was kept comfortable in quarters. If you found this weird you weren’t alone. Mick, doubling down on the moral confusion, even went as far as suggesting that Philippa should be granted political asylum, despite the likelihood that the Federation constitution doesn’t recognize parallel universes as legitimate jurisdictions. This was in stark contrast to her attitude toward Tyler – the Klingon who’d been brutalized and brainwashed, and was therefore demonstrably not responsible for his actions.

Mick couldn’t wait to spend time with Georgiou, the woman who looked like her mentor but was, in reality, a deranged fascist with zero respect for the sanctity of life. Tyler, a broken man who was just emerging from an identity crisis, having learned his entire personality was a neurological graft and his body the result of forced species reassignment, in which, amongst other indignities, his bones had been smashed and his heart incised, had to make do with lunch in the canteen and Tilly’s pity. Mick, it seems, can forgive tyranny but not an ex-boyfriend who tried to kill her when his alternate persona was activated. When she finally deigned to see him, he was essentially told he’d have to work through his issues alone, and that her sympathy for the mutilated man only went so far. Georgiou, at least, had murdered Klingons – Mick’s bête noir, whereas he’d been one, and her innate racism didn’t want to touch that. Not again.

So once again Discovery’s hacks put on their oven gloves and mishandled the fallout from their own predetermined plot twists. This, you felt, is what happens when you lay out the cliffhangers first, rather than deciding where you want to end up and what’s the best character-centered route to your destination. It’s almost as if they feared the audience would get bored if they didn’t tug the rug every week, and you can understand that when US viewers have already paid a subscription to view the entire series, so would be inclined to watch it to the end regardless.

Next week, we finally arrive at season one’s disappointing climax. Knowing the writers as we do, we’re anticipating a big twist to take us into the hiatus. What might the contrived stunt complication be? Well, after the war’s been tied up and L’Rell, newly acquainted with the Federation’s pluralism and inclusivity, unifies the Klingons and decides that cold war is preferable to the real thing – keeping an eye on Starfleet while demanding they stay within their restored borders (with perhaps a buffer to make things easier, you know, like a neutral zone), we’ll need something to rouse us going into those end credits. It’s a given Mick will get her commission restored, possibly installed as Discovery’s first officer (or, gulp, Captain), but what’s our cliffhanger? Introduce Prime Lorca? Have the spore that landed on Tilly give her a window into an all new universe – one with Cage-era uniforms and ‘60s tech? C’mon you fucks, you know you want to. We’ve stuck with you. Don’t we deserve a bit of happiness?

Anomalous Readings

  • Saru learned that Mick dined on his species. Despite this, there was no major fallout. I suppose there just wasn’t time to explore this idea.
  • Stamets bumped into Tyler and the two briefly discussed the latter murdering the former’s boyfriend while under the influence. Despite this, there was no major fallout. I suppose there just wasn’t time to explore this idea.
  • Next season, the writers really must learn the art of the concise teaser. I think this week’s was a fifth of the episode.
  • The Mirror Universe is classified. Mark that down for continuity.
  • I was disturbed that the comic scene I imagined last week, in which an Admiral visited the brig and was introduced to Mirror Georgiou, the captured despot, and given some half-baked explanation as to why she was there, actually happened in the very next episode.
  • The Saratoga was listed as one of the Federation ships destroyed by the Klingons. You’ll recall this was, in name, the same ship that gets probed in the opening of The Voyage Home. That ship’s insignia suggested it was the first of the modern line of starships with that moniker. Is this a hint we’re in a different universe? Yes, I know – clutching at space straws. With an episode to go, I’m desperate.
  • “Conquer us or we will never relent,” L’Rell told Cornwell. Okay, but if Discovery can’t win the war without adopting the values of the enemy, what has this series been about? Next week’s make or break, kids.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.13

Critic’s log, supplemental.

As we warp toward the unsatisfying conclusion to Discovery‘s inaugural season, we’ve made an unpleasant, er, discovery. Don’t shake your head, we fucking have! Your son’s Star Trek is a sausage factory, its singular focus: the production of plot twists. And when Mummy and Daddy only care about rugpulls the children suffer. Our characters must contort on command. The plot tells them what to do instead of the writers being guided by them. It’s the reverse of the approach taken on Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul, for example; a series that’s noted for taking its sweet time, privileging character development over conspicuous plot mechanics. That’s a serialised show to savour not to look back on and say, “Huh?”

Exhibit A, Gabriel Lorca – once the brooding, psychologically damaged Captain of the Discovery who, we were lead to believe, had been bludgeoned by the existential threat of war into adopting a morally relativistic approach to command. Later, when the hint dropped that he was not playing with a straight space bat, we were intrigued by his motives and what would happen when, inevitably, his agenda was revealed. But this form of bait and switch requires the careful setting up of character and a suitably emotional payoff. The writers on this voyage took a risk with Lorca’s story but they did not do the groundwork.

To be invested in Gabriel’s fate we had to know him as someone more than the detached commanding officer who made dubious decisions. He needed to be close to some members of his crew, preferably (again) people we gave a fuck about, perhaps someone vulnerable like Tilly – ditz in our universe, a monster in Lorca’s, so surely a point of fascination for him, and these relationships needed to showcase an insatiable, even intrusive curiosity on the Captain’s part, driven by the parallel biographies he held in his head.

Okay, the reveal of Mirror Lorca goes a long way to closing down our concerns about celestial coincidence, as he selected the Discovery‘s crew based on familiarity with their counterparts (Saru was obviously a private joke), and it explains his indifference to their deaths and/or bad treatment, but it does not explain why the writers chose not to set up a better showdown with his former shipmates once his deception was known.

The hope here was that Lorca and Mick would provide the emotional core of the confrontation, but this was hardly a Kirk/Spock bond, or even the mentor/aspiring commander dynamic of Picard/Riker. Like most of the relationships on this show, it was awkward and utilitarian. Ultimately, the writer’s room had no greater ambition for Lorca than a botched coup to take over the Terran Empire, played out in a single episode, while the outed Captain made an unlikely attempt at getting Mick to join his inner circle, culminating in his inconsequential death, all less than 43 mins after his true nature was discovered.

How much more interesting might this have been if, armed with those close bonds forged in battle, Lorca had wrestled with his brutalised values – exposure to Federation ideals having opened his mind to different possibilities. And armed with this vacillating conscience, we’d learned of his mirror universe status earlier, creating on board tension as the conflicted Captain tried to execute his plan while dancing around his inquisitive and savvy shipmates. Occasionally they’d get close to learning the truth and we’d have enjoyed watching them unravel the mystery, while aware of the enemy in their midst.

And when Lorca’s plan was known, and he’d been boxed in, perhaps we could have had a show down on Discovery, with the former Captain hunted by his crew, culminating in a desperate threat to destroy the ship – his phaser aimed at the warp core, his lover, the once naïve now heartbroken Tilly, trying to talk him down. “Gabriel,” she’d say, wanton, teary, dressed in a Starfleet issue negligée, “it’s not where you begin, it’s the destination that matters”. She could have reflected that the man she’d grown to love was always this mirror version, as she’d known no other, and whatever he’d done the good she’d seen in him was his own. And then, the poignant moment when she’s forced to kill him, to protect the ship and save the crew.

But instead Lorca, liberated by last week’s plot twist, became a two dimensional villain, dispatched by another evil character we don’t care about but who weirdly has been captured and retained. Mick was there of course, Lorca’s unlikely Mirror lover. Her great pitch to the Captain’s conscience? “We’d have helped you find a way home if you’d asked.” It was a solid Starfleet line and Gabriel’s dropped face suggested it had never occurred to him, but like everything on Discovery it was a dramatic shortcut. That dialogue and those quiet exchanges between Lorca and Mick tried to do the same job as our imaginary scenario without any of the psychological intrigue and emotional investment. Lorca, in the end, was killed like a guest character, not a man built over ten episodes.

So now he’s dead does his story make any sense? Well, we learned he’d pre-empted Kirk, arriving by transporter accident during an ion storm, and that he’d handpicked the crew most likely to help him, explaining the likes of Landry (a fascist in both realities), once he’d got over the incredible good fortune of being handed a ship with an experimental form of propulsion that could theoretically cross the borders between universes, but I still feel like I need Stamets, Tilly and a conference room for 250 hours to completely unpick the character’s journey. So he chose our Stamets, for example, not knowing that Mirror Stamets, in his absence, had been recruited to the ISS Discovery to work on mycelial technology? Or did he already know this so ensured the expertise was, er, mirrored in our universe? Does anyone have a wallchart I could borrow?

Creaky plot mechanics were also in evidence as the Discovery returned home on the back of a laden technobabble-rich solution that amounted to firing torpedoes and going to warp. Such was the pressure on plot, an aside, introduced to give the episode some stakes, namely that the infected mycelial network could destroy all life in all universes – that’s every living thing everywhere – was introduced and resolved in the space of twenty minutes. As a device to up tension, this catastrophic consequence of failing to save the network might have been introduced earlier; it may have added additional urgency to ending Lorca’s bid for imperial domination, but this is a writer’s room in a hurry, furiously bashing out each twist and action sequence to keep the story moving forward, whether it serves the characters or not.

And this was where we ended, with another stunt complication, namely the Discovery returned to her native universe, but nine months late and, would you believe it, to a time where the Klingons had won the war (remember the war?). That’s right, the mycelial network can traverse time as well as space. Did we know this before? I’m willing to concede we might have done; it’s hard to remember on this show; but this is contrivance from the bottom drawer.

If the Discovery can now travel through time, are we heading toward a climax where the events of the first season are reset and the war never happens? That, surely, would be the only logical move for Saru and Mick. If you could save all those lives (and Mick’s career), while perhaps convincing L’Rell not to launch a holy war, because you’ve shown her a bit of Federation compassion and shown some slides on inalienable humanoid rights, then wouldn’t you do that? What’s the case for returning to the point you left? And don’t give me any shit about the temporal prime directive. How else is Mick going to become Discovery’s Captain (or a reluctant second in command) if she can’t unravel the Battle at the Binary Stars? If you knew your entire mission to date had been guided by an evil doppelgänger, would you not be tempted to scrub those logs? “What’s Past Is Prologue”, indeed.

Anomalous Readings

  • When Discovery finally reaches Starbase, there’s going to be a hell of a tale to tell to the Admiral that visits the brig. “Sir, meet the former Emperor of the Terran Empire, responsible for the enslaving of billions and the murder of millions more. I brought her over as she’s the double of my dead colleague and old surrogate mother. Any chance we could keep her on, maybe as a consultant?”
  • So after weeks of teasing, the writers daring themselves to do it, cowardice prevailed and we won’t get to see the U.S.S Defiant after all. Can we blame Discovery’s hacks for taking the easy way out and not showing the ship? I suppose not. Had they had the guts to follow through, they’d have been forced to make a definitive declaration as to the ship’s universal origins – namely, was it late of TOS continuity, ‘60s interiors abound, or a reimagined vision of the future? Discovery seems to have settled on creative ambiguity when it comes to the “reboot” question – a show that entertains the fantasy it could be set in the Prime timeline, without offering definitive proof. Will we ever learn if there’s another realm out there with multi-coloured uniforms, ‘60’s tech and anatomically correct Klingons? I don’t know and I suspect the writers don’t either. Regardless, my dream end to the season is dead (probably). Two episodes remain.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.12

Critic’s log, supplemental.

When you call your episode “Vaulting Ambition” you better be prepared to deliver on that promise. Alright, no one’s obliged to do anything really; the title serves the motivation and machinations of the character invoked, Gabriel Lorca, well enough. Perhaps it was a silly point to make. I could have opened this review better. I could have been more ambitious. But so too could Discovery’s writers, so let’s not rush to judgement.

Before we get into that telegraphed twist – the one signposted millions of miles ago (see 1.6), a point about characterisation that takes us back to the good ol’ bright and optimistic days of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In its first two seasons, many wondered why a good series wasn’t great. I mean, the characters were likable in principle and sometimes in practice, the design and production of the show made it highly watchable, but something was missing. What was it? For Michael Piller, the man who took over at the start of Season 3 and realised the show’s potential, it was stories in service to character rather than plot. Episodes in the first and sophomore season were plot driven, the characters were bent in service to whatever concept or scenario drove the action. But in Season 3, writers were asked, first and foremost, to formulate plots that facilitated character development rather the converse. The result was the template used thereafter, with each show focusing on a member of the ensemble, giving them all a chance to shine and develop.

We know all this, it’s ancient future history, so why mention it now? Because, as “Vaulting Ambition” so nakedly exposed, conspicuous plot that’s secondary to character, particularly when the hard work of establishing a thick and recognised baseline for said characters has not yet been done, leaves an audience feeling exposed and manipulated as opposed to nourished and surprised. Gabriel Lorca was, as hinted, his mirror universe counterpart all along. But we’ve never known anyone but this version and now we’re left wondering, okay, but how the fuck…?

Yes, how the fuck did Lorca enter the Discoveryverse (I’m not ready to call it Prime just yet, I’m still hoping for a miracle)? When? Did the doppelgänger kill Old Lorca’s crew on arrival? Was it luck that he was assigned to the Discovery, test ship for the new spore drive? Once in this incredibly fortuitous position, with the ability to potentially return to his universe using the mycelial network, was it always his plan to procure Mick, the spit of his lover, and return home with her in a bid to infiltrate the Emperor’s ship and cut the head off the snake? How could he be sure of getting Burnham, given she’s a war criminal? Did he have a plan b? And did he have advanced knowledge of spore technology (as Mirror Stamets has) or, stroking his tribble one evening, laugh out loud at the sheer, astonishing, cosmic good fortune that gave him access to a technology with universe hopping potential?

Thinking about Lorca’s backstory, armed with this new snippet of his biography, is enough to make your brain bleed, and it means Discovery’s inaugural season has pivoted on the covert identities and motivations of two characters – Lorca and Tyler, the originals of whom we’ve never known and may never see. So what you say? Well, I’m going to place my space cock on the chopping board and argue that their betrayals and duplicity would have far more emotional and psychological weight if they’d been men we’d been groomed to like as honourable, virtuous and signed up to the Federation constitution. But these are characters built in service to the plot, so they have no life independent of it. In that they are one with the show.

It’s not that Discovery’s soap opera-like contortions aren’t involving – there was some dramatic red meat in this episode, mainly Stamets exploring the mycelial netherworld, encountering Culber therein, and Mick’s problematic and headfucking encounter with Mirror Georgiou, who we learned had adopted her, à la Sarek, literalising the mother figure glimpsed in “Battle at the Binary Stars”, but where is this rug pull machine heading?

With three episodes to go, the story of Discovery’s first season has been the editors’ decision to cut using Occam’s razor. We hope for imaginative twists and turns that run counter to the hints laid down in early episodes, because, not unreasonably, if we can map it out as lay viewers, we’re inclined to believe a dedicated writing staff has something far more interesting and bold up their space sleeves. Yet, time after time, the simplest explanation has, in the best traditions of the Steven Moffat school, proven to the right one.

In the triple bill to come we’ll tussle with Lorca and Mick’s situation and how it relates to the (nearly forgotten) war, but truthfully there’s only one big question to be settled now, and it isn’t whether the Discovery crew can beat the Klingons by de-radicalising and liberalising the likes of L’Rell and Voq, it’s which universe did that U.S.S Defiant come from? Only then we will know if this Trek’s written by real franchise aficionados or their evil doubles.

Anomalous readings

  • If you’re Mick, the oddest aspect of your mirror universe experience must be contact with Kelpians. First you’re bathed by one, then saved by one, then you’re picking one out to be slaughtered and prepared for your evening meal. If there was tension between Mick and Saru before…
  • Lorca’s no war torn, morally ambiguous challenge to the Roddenberry rule on humanity then, just a bastard from an evil dimension. It’s all very disappointing.
  • Did anyone else get lost when listening to L’Rell’s explanation of Tyler/Voq’s transformation? So there was an original Tyler but they grafted his brain onto Voq’s then transformed Voq’s body? Why not just reprogram Tyler? Because a scan would reveal it, you say. But what’s likely to more conspicuous, effective mind control or full-body surgical construction? The Klingons can do that but they can’t brainwash a human and make him think his actions are his own idea, thereby fooling a medical examiner? Perhaps they are stupid after all.
  • So a sensitivity to light is a generic characteristic of all Mirror humans? Perhaps the same genes make them predisposed to fascism. Still, at least they’re not sexist.
Published in: on January 23, 2018 at 17:02  Comments (1)  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.11

Critic’s log, supplemental.

It’s a small world on Star Trek: Discovery. Small worlds, actually. Here’s a series that teases the mind bending possibilities of exploring strange new universes and yet, when we’re trapped in one of them, we learn everyone you meet is either part of your social circle or an antagonist from the conflict you left behind; a situation hitherto imagined to be unique and conditioned by a distinct set of political forces, causing paths to cross at random.

But when your writer’s room manifesto is to explore the conflict within characters literally, rather than doing so using time honoured techniques like the morality play, then you’ve little choice but to shrink your mirror universe and get the band back together. Thus Tyler is brought out of himself by himself – conveniently encountering, as his identity crisis reaches its apex, mirror Voq, who would you believe it, is the leader of the resistance; a leader that’s been forced to embrace, in contrast to the surgically altered essentialist and zealot, a confederation of species committed to tolerance and liberty. You can hear the cogs turning in the scribe’s brains in such moments and you’re struck by the realisation that the universe you’ve entered is actually the clockwork one.

Was there a more organic way to out Voq/Tyler? Surely. And did the resistance prophet improbably have to be Sarek (with beard, naturally)? And what manner of circumstance led Georgiou to become Emperor of the Terran Empire, projecting her space image onto the bridge of the ISS Shenzhou? What’s next, Lorca’s tribble as the Emperor’s deputy? The Tardigrade as her fixer?

What’s highlighted by all this is the danger that rears its ugly space head when you hang a serialised plot on a throwaway gag like the Mirror Universe. In previous visits we accepted the contrivance and convenience because these infrequent trips were a digression from whatever was going on in those respective series. These were holidays from the prime universe so it didn’t really matter if Kira had slaves or Archer was a genocidal racist. But the more time you spend in the Mirror Universe, in a series where the crew’s presence there is integral to the main story and the fate of those characters, the more conspicuous the silliness becomes, and suddenly, almost without warning, a show has been derailed by the malevolent spectre of fan service (powered by nostalgia TM).

As “The Wolf Inside” went through its predictable paces, I reflected the writers had the right idea in principle – namely holding a mirror up to the crew and having them learn from different iterations of their reality; information they could take home to make a difference – while making the execution cock shrivellingly obvious. And once again, so help me, I was left hoping that these baby twists were but appetisers for a truly momentous rug pull – perhaps the only one that matters, involving the soon to be found USS Defiant.

There were many horrific images in this episode – traitors beamed into space, the rebel encampment destroyed by orbital bombardment, Saru washing Mick’s feet – but what kept me up afterwards was the thought that Defiant’s bridge and data banks will confirm Disco’s native universe IS the prime universe, visual and species continuity be fucked, and the show’s building to nothing more than the resolution of a war we don’t care about, fought for reasons that are not easily or naturally reconciled with the political situation that informs the original series.

Do Disco’s hacks know that for many fans their version of reality is a parallel universe – fun to visit, interesting to explore, but in no way licensed to replace the timeline we know and love? If your fears are growing that they don’t, you’re not alone.

Anomalous Readings

  • No radical redesign for the Andorians and Tellerites then. Just the alien race with the most history and greatest on screen presence in the franchise.
  • Mirror Saru’s job is to wash a naked Mick. You can’t blame her for keeping that quiet when her version came asking.
  • Tilly suggested Stamets’ brain could be rebooted, which was good news. But who was that other Stamets waiting for him in the mycelial mind forest? And if he can interact with versions of other characters, might this be how he gets a final scene with Culber? Might he reconstitute him somehow?
  • The “Characters I like” count after 11 episodes: 3. Lorca, Stamets and of course Tilly. I recall being sold on most if not all the cast of previous Treks by this point but don’t, Discovery writers, read too much into that. No, actually do. 25 years on I’m still making my mind up about Sisko. But, you know, Avery Brooks doesn’t make it easy.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.10

Critic’s log, supplemental.

It’s been a while since we saw the crew of the U.S.S Discovery and some of us had started to wonder if the first half of the season had been a dream. Did we really hear Tilly and Stamets say fuck, glimpse bare Klingon mams, and watch those ridgeheads feasting on a dead Captain’s corpse? Well reader, it happened, and now the show’s back and ready to conclude its inaugural season’s business with or without our consent.

Thus far Discovery’s been a show about doubling and duplicity and a lot of that shit started to hit the fanboy in “Despite Yourself”, the show’s long teased voyage into the mirror universe, appropriately helmed by a man with a beard, namely Jonathan Frakes. The mirror setting alone signaled an intense outing, full of murder, brutality and other family favourites, but what we also got in a pretty satisfying, if nostalgia driven instalment, was a lot of pay off – the slow release of dread following a long buildup, in respect of two key characters – Lorca and Tyler.

Lorca, we know, is far from a model officer – a man who almost certainly fucked that captured Horta, who once blew up his own crew. He’s not a conventional Starfleet captain and his interest in the possibilities of inter-dimensional travel have always seemed more important than the war effort. It’s almost as if he’s been paying lip service to the latter while pressing ahead with the former; ostensibly because his inner explorer can’t resist, but maybe, we’re beginning to suspect, because he knows something about the universe we don’t.

Early in “Despite Yourself”, our suspicions deepened when Saru speculated that 133 jumps, the number commanded of a violated Stamets by everyone’s favourite cavalier helmsman, just happened to be the exact amount needed to complete Lorca’s dimensional map. Having already sabotaged the Discovery’s attempt at jumping to safety and blocking its ability to transmit its Klingon cloak data (a revelation that upped the stakes for the lost ship while showing Lorca’s true priorities), we’re now convinced that Gabriel may not be who he says he is. This makes him the rule rather the exception on this ship of proxies.

“The enemy’s here!” proclaimed a delirious all-seeing Stamets (autocorrects to mushroom farm). With much of the focus on the worst secret in the universe, namely Voq re-emerging from a conflicted Tyler, we had every reason to imagine he meant the Klingon fanatic. When Tyler, his surgical alterations belatedly discovered by Culber, responded by snapping the enlightened Doctor’s neck (a murder that made sense plot wise but brutally truncated Trek’s first on screen gay relationship), the warning felt pertinent indeed.

Mick’s sleeping with the killer in their midst, after all, so is now careering toward the terrible moment she must eject him into space to get justice for her shipmate and save Discovery from its on board zealots. But, because this show’s all about doubling down on threats as well as character motivations, “the enemy”, we realise, could also refer to Lorca – a man who at last count has recruited an enemy spy, got two of his crew members brutally killed, and has consigned a third to pan-universal purgatory.

Perhaps it’s just a symptom of the paranoia this show engenders, and Gabriel may yet surprise us – perhaps as a refugee from the Prime Universe we all desperately hope we’ll end up in and have not already visited – but if this season doesn’t end with Mick commanding the Discovery I’ll take Tilly to bed for some evil Captain role play.

Anomalous readings:

  • What might the ISS Discovery do in our universe? I suppose given enough time a ruthless fascist Terran crew could destroy the Klingons and win the war, thereby removing our Discovery’s reason for needing to go back, but that would be an unethical victory. Better yet, might their conduct make the Discovery crew so despised that they have no choice but to seek asylum in a more benevolent, more colourful alternate plain of existence?
  • Poor Gabriel, though alive, so more fortunate than Culber, whose corpse may be lying just feet from his boyfriend, ended the episode in a mirror universe agoniser booth. Placed there by the alternate of Mick’s Shenzhou colleague (disobeying Mick’s direct order on the basis he was about to kill her and assume her evil captaincy), Lorca had to endure the worst pain imaginable indefinitely, but that seemed just desserts for the man who’d brought the crew to this terrible place and unleashed his Scottish accent. One imagined he started to question his agenda as his nervous system lit up like Stamets on black alert.
  • The episode’s massive moment and giant cocktease was – no, not Tilly, the revelation that Discovery had traced the U.S.S Defiant (NCC-1764), late of a Prime Universe it still claims to belong to. The crew knew of it because of the still canonical events of Enterprise‘s “In a Mirror, Darkly”, that established the 1701’s sister ship, seen in TOS episode “The Tholian Web”, ended up in the Mirror Universe’s past. This is huge because here we have a bona fide artefact from the original series, last seen on Enterprise in its original form – 1960’s bridge et al. What will the Defiant look like when the Discovery crew find it? If this relic from the future, stuck in the past, has been redesigned and is now aesthetically aligned with the look and feel of the show, we’ll know that the beloved Prime Universe has indeed been overwritten and we can whistle for gold uniforms, switches and bright coloured data tapes. But, if the aged hulk of the old constitution class ship hones into view and on beaming onto the bridge we’re confronted by some good old fashioned 23rd century design, we’ll know we’ve been the victims of a mighty TV confidence trick, and that Discovery’s universe is indeed just one of many variants (albeit one where history diverged after the events in Enterprise but before the start of the original series). If the showrunners are brave enough to go down this route, they’ll be faced with a big dilemma for season 2. Return to Discovery’s universe and continue the story there, or drop anchor in the one we know and love? I know where I’d rather be but then I’m still at a point with this show where my primary motive for watching is the slim and fading hope it’ll become something else entirely.

(The Last Ever) Dear Steven Moffat: Twice Upon a Time

Dear Steven,

When the moment came to let you go I broke down. “Twice Upon a Time” – your goodbye to all that and mine, left me teary and tired. Not because it was your final contribution to Doctor Who you understand, I was desperate to see you go for reasons I’ll be reprising shortly; no, it was the death of promise; the moment your era passed into history and any hopes we once held for it turned to Jodie Whittaker.

Peter Capaldi was a fine Doctor but he looked a broken man as he staggered round the console room, searching for profundities, only to realise his God was the writer of Chalk. The crags in his face, the shadows under his eyes, told the story of a man who’d dreamt he was a Time Lord, his childhood hero, and loved it. But now he was awake and conscious of the audience for the first time, though he’d sensed them often if your scripts are anything to go by. For the first time he knew he’d been the Doctor during a period of creative bankruptcy.

When you took over from Russell T. Davis I was one of many people who breathed a sigh of relief. You were going to adjust the tone, we thought; making it more reminiscent of the original series; a show that (usually) took itself seriously. And under your watch we fully expected, and for a short time received, a version imbued with the wit conspicuously lacking from the Davis run.

But, as we’ve discussed to the point of mutual disregard, your occasional contributions to the Davis era flattered your understanding of the series while hiding one crucial piece of information: you can’t write drama. That’s pretty fucking important on a show that needed to mature now it had gone through the pain of being re-established. It was like discovering my murder defence at the Old Bailey hinged on someone with no legal training but an encyclopaedic knowledge of Rumpole.

On your watch the show had better jokes but was loose and dispiritingly light, disinterested in dramatic payoffs that would lend weight and consequence to its best setups. Everybody lived, no-one we cared about died, and the reset button was pressed many thousands of times. Fuck, you even did it at the death, with Clara’s memorygram appearing to Capaldi’s Doctor despite a recollection of their adventures being detrimental for reasons both you and the audience have forgotten. Nothing mattered in your Doctor Who.

But most egregiously, your era double downed on tiresome self-awareness. How appropriate then, that your final story was closer in tone and content to your very first Who script, the Comic Relief spoof, “The Curse of the Fatal Death”.

The prospect of Capaldi’s Doctor meeting the First was tantalising but perhaps we should have known a real story, something plotted, perhaps with a memorable adversary who inadvertently made the importance of the Doctors’ role clear to both as each struggled to find confidence and purpose, was never really on the cards. Instead, “Twice Upon a Time” went with a comic conceit that embraced self-parody.

The First Doctor, an import from the 1960s in your brain, was saddled with archaic social attitudes, particularly toward women, that signalled he was to be remade as a vessel for playful nostalgia. The Twelfth Doctor, meanwhile, like some product of 2017, was embarrassed, and a fully paid up member of contemporary society. He dropped all the usual clangers – “spoilers” (in reference to there being a World War 2; perhaps the glibbest introduction to that conflict ever filmed), referred to his predecessor as “Mary Berry”, and name checked Dad’s Army. He even acknowledged that on your watch the whole show had become wearingly meta, noting in response to an alien compilation of his greatest grandstanding moments, “they cut out all the jokes”.

It was all very lip curling while being an absolute betrayal of both characters.

This is what we won’t miss, Steven – a lead writer who doesn’t understand the difference between the information the characters have and the knowledge the audience brings to them. The First Doctor is not a product of 1963 or indeed any period in Earth’s history, any more than the Twelfth. Both men travel extensively throughout time, come from an alien culture and have a perspective and understanding that transcends transient social attitudes. So it makes no sense that either should represent the eras in which their adventures were transmitted in our world.

You could, for example, have chosen to focus on the different temperaments of both versions (or indeed their similarities) but instead, for the sake of some easy gags, put a highlighter over anything that might casually differentiate two eras of television; something that makes no sense in-universe. I was half-expecting the Twelfth Doctor to explain the difference in TARDIS sizes to Bill by talking about aspect ratios. There is no question in my mind that this joke appeared in the first draft script.

Watching this reprise of Hartnell’s Doctor did indeed make me nostalgic, but only for a time when the internal logic of the series fashioned dialogue and forged plots, even if the character’s ignorance of the contemporary TV landscape was now, thanks to you, an affectation.

I’d love to talk about the story but once again, and hopefully for the very last time, there wasn’t one. The two Doctors (“snap!”) met, discovered a futuristic memory archive that gave form to its files, deposited a solider (inevitably a Lethbridge-Stewart) from Ypres who’d fallen through time back to the 1914 battle, so you could tick the Christmas blue box and have a depiction of the armistice, agreed life had meaning, so on balance they should probably go on, and the show ended.

And that, Steven, is all. All from you and all from me. I wish, following all those years of vigorous conceptual masturbation with Matt Smith – a period that must have left you feeling like a rusk, you’d hired someone like Jack Thorne to write a few meaty screenplays for Calpadi which could have been broken into parts. Instead, you broke him with Doctor Who fan fiction – often funny, sometimes fun, but rarely storytelling of quality that will stand up to repeat viewings. In short, you gave your audience of YouTubers too much of what you thought they wanted and not nearly enough of what the show needed.

Your legacy? A failure to instil storytelling principles that a future showrunner would find hard to reverse. In short, your stewardship has made Chris Chibnall both possible and (if internal BBC reports are to believed) desirable. Can you imagine Netflix or HBO hiring Chibnall to spearhead their most popular exports? No, me neither and that’s the heartbreaking point.

Chris and Ms Whittaker will continue without us, Steven – new blood splashing into the open mouths of an audience that’s forgotten more than we ever knew about what made Doctor Who great.

I hope one day, despite the acrimony between us, and me rubbishing your work for the past 7 years, you’ll accept my invitation to invite me to your place, and we can put the past behind us and watch the show together; maybe bond over a mutual contempt for Chibnall’s broad tastes, while indulging the lie that it was all so much better when you were in charge and Who was funny, if meandering and meaningless.

I’ve been asked what I’ll do now. Truthfully, I don’t know. There’s Star Trek: Discovery to sneer at of course, but what we had – well, that was special. Still, I’ll find purpose somewhere.

You see Steven, there are shows out there where creativity’s burning; where writers sleep and critics dream. Stories made of smoke and characters made of straw. Somewhere there’s a writer reappraising the work of John Nathan-Turner. Somewhere there’s incomprehension. Somewhere else, the tea’s getting cold.

Now if you’ll fuck off Steven, I have work to do.

Yours forever in time and cyberspace,


P.S: You don’t have Chris Chibnall’s address, do you?

The Complete Adventures in Space and Time Wasting

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Published in: on December 26, 2017 at 13:54  Leave a Comment  
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The Missing Article on The Last Jedi

You’ve seen The Last Jedi and all is not well. You went online to validate your half-formed opinions, only to read, in stark contrast to your ambivalence, it was a lore ruining franchise killer. Forget raping childhoods, Rian Johnson had battered them with a spade and buried them under the fallen detritus from broken fan theories. Episode VIII told them to grow up. You were shocked to read they didn’t want to grow up. Regressing to a time when life was simple and movies provided simple solutions to seemingly intractable problems is what Star Wars used to be about.

Now you’re wondering, aren’t you? You enjoyed it, with a few grave reservations – the jokes, Adrian Edmondson, the vegan critique of the character’s dietary habits – but you’re struggling to see how this well-made sequel with its thought provoking themes and the powerful one-two of Mark Hamill and Adam Driver; the men (sorry Daisy) who imbue it with the moody blues and some psychological intrigue; could be worse regarded by fans than The Phantom Menace.

That’s right, according to Rotten Tomatoes, who insist they haven’t been hacked by an imperial aggregator droid, Johnson’s movie has an audience appreciation score of 52%. That’s against 55% for the first prequel. There’s an eye-widening 40-point gap (imagine Yoda at his most exasperated) between the critics who said yes to Johnson’s middle-chapter riff on The Empire Strikes Back (the movie, boxed in by J.J Abrams’ New Hope reprise, relies on inverting the main plot points of Episode V to surprise the audience) and the crowd with blue milk smeared on their lips, who think Jar Jar and company pip it at the line.

You think of Menace and you say, this can’t be right, can it? The movie that began the slow ruination of Darth Vader’s backstory, demystified the Jedi by turning them into a group of boorish, pious know-it-alls, junked the universe’s aesthetic and was stocked with bland one dimensional characters – surely Rian Johnson, director of Looper, couldn’t have fucked up on that scale? And of course he hasn’t. He made a movie full of dynamism, emotion and human interest. But half the audience didn’t like it. Maybe you were one of them. So once again I’m forced to charge in on my space horse and settle the matter. Is The Last Jedi the movie Star Wars needed or a pop cultural calamity that’s killed the sequel trilogy stone dead with a movie to spare? Well, I’ll tell you if you stop asking questions.

I admit, as I crawled out of my first screening, Last Jedi to me, felt like a bit of a downer. Johnson, apparently nursing a quiet hatred of J.J Abram’s mystery box approach (shared by many), had gleefully tied off his dangling threads and decided to make a movie that was largely self-contained. There’d be another of course, but Johnson wasn’t going to set up it for them beyond leaving the characters in a place that could be picked up and developed in twenty different ways. In other words, whereas Abrams, showcasing some of that old Jedi vanity and hubris Luke likes to talk about, had handed over the franchise imagining Johnson would have little choice but to develop his ideas (can you imagine the fan reaction if he didn’t?), Johnson had nodded along at those story conferences knowing he had no intention of doing so. He’d do what he liked, thank you very much, and he wasn’t going to let the internet write the movie for him, or indeed be influenced by the caked on expectation that comes with four decades of rabid fandom.

Still, great all that was, the movie, like this piece, was too long and had a weak through line. The First Order’s slow pursuit of the rebel fleet consumes Act Two (not to be confused with Luke’s island). But, in contrast with Empire’s bulk, that coincidentally also had the rebellion on the run from the imperial fleet (while also cutting away to Luke elsewhere), Johnson’s variation on a theme (and there are a lot of those) lacked the fun of a group of characters we love at loggerheads, at close quarters, improvising their way out of trouble.

Hang on, you say, isn’t that what Johnson was going for with Finn and Rose and their visit to Canto Bight, and Poe staging his mini-mutiny against an intransigent Vice Admiral Holdo? Possibly, but not licenced (nor inclined) to copy the simplicity of that Falcon flight of long ago, Johnson’s workaround was built on some technical and not wholly convincing bullshit (we miss the scene where Hux explains to Snoke how he attached the “string” to the rebel fleet; a question Rose doesn’t clear up later when hypothesising about the tracker’s power source). Empire was great, because in the midst of Vader’s pursuit of Han and Leia, the bait to trap his wayward son, we never had to stop to ask, ‘hang on, why doesn’t he just…?’ It was exciting, straight forward and everyone’s motivation was clear and made sense.

Does Johnson do interesting things with his sagging middle? Yes, absolutely. The heroism of Finn and Rose in Space Monte Carlo is an opportunity for Johnson to comment on the politics of the Star Wars universe, without recourse to the dry technocratic dialogue of the prequels. Bight’s a place built on blood money; the profit from the perpetual conflict raging above and beyond. Dealers, cheered by the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm, have got rich selling weapons to both sides. We learn there’s a tier of this galaxy’s society that continues to enjoy its privilege regardless of who’s governing and how.

Star Wars has always been a binary universe, good versus evil, so it’s refreshing, if depressing, to learn that in this more nuanced snapshot there’s ambiguity. This of course is one of the movie’s big themes. While on Canto Bight we’re encouraged by the interminably righteous Rose (if she lived in our time and galaxy she’d have a campaigning twitter account for sure) to “look closer” and we do. If what you took from this section was an overreliance on CG creatures; a certain prequel-like artificiality; you’d already Poppined the Leia.

Poe’s mutiny is also designed to pull the slumbering fanboy’s balls. Again, both milking and slaughtering one of Star Wars’s cows – if not sacred then an old grazer – the fly boy’s arc is designed to challenge the series’ simple preconception of heroism; the idea, as dramatized in previous episodes, that courage is a straightforward matter – you take wild risks, you fight. If our heroes aren’t fighting how can they be winning?

But Last Jedi says, hold the fuck on – maybe there are other types of heroism – self-sacrifice, survival, inspiring others. A good blaster’s fine, but Holdo decides that it’s better to look like an arsehole and buy time to smuggle the remnants of the resistance to safety than adopt Poe’s testosteronic (read: heroic) solution – which is pick up any weapon you can and twat the enemy.

Her sacrifice, hyperdriving into Snoke’s dreadnought, allows the rebels to escape and regroup on Crait, while Luke, another disciple of the clockwork God running the show, comes to the exact same conclusion, deciding to end his life so Leia and what’s left of the rebellion can live to fight another day. Rose and Finn’s efforts initially look to be for nought, as the fleet doesn’t escape as planned – instead reduced to a rump and eventually, following a lot of death and destruction, able to be accommodated by the Falcon with room to spare. But cataclysmic though that ending is on paper, the final scene, with a force sensitive Canto Bight slave boy, angling his broom like a lightsabre, inspired by his fleeting contact with the rebellion, suggests that once Rey’s read her stolen Jedi texts, she’ll have plenty of wannabe padawans to choose from (subject to a good guerrilla recruitment campaign).

In this way Last Jedi manages to move beyond the narrow focus of Lucas’s Skywalker lineage, which is a bold and welcome development when you consider Force Awakens had no such ambition. In fact, Abrams’ movie was set up to deliver precisely the reassuring arc for Rey that fans, acclimatised to everything in Star Wars being built on fate/coincidence, had come to expect.

Little wonder that George Lucas, who did so much to box in the saga with the prequels, damned Johnson’s movie with faint praise, calling it “beautifully made”. It is, but one imagines he, like the fortysomethings with Darth Maul alarm clocks, was seething at the diminution in status of both Luke Skywalker – no longer the talisman that restored balance to the Force, and the Jedi, who Luke rightly marks as hubristic miscreants whose vanity ultimately condemned the universe’s ordinary citizens to war and penury. It’s as if he’s seen the prequels and has realised that restoring that order, would be ignoring the lesson of history. Johnson’s movie calls for a new orthodoxy and a new understanding of the Force and its practitioners, which, if you see past your geek rage, is the spark that allows new Star Wars movies to be made, rather than remaking those we already have.

And this “the supreme leader is dead, long live the supreme leader” approach is what Luke’s embittered, introspective, ultimately self-negating story is all about.

Johnson knows that Skywalker is the personification of Star Wars – he’s its original hero and the character we most associate with its simple good versus evil derring-do. One imagines Mark Hamill quite enjoyed embodying that archetype; the memory of it has been getting him laid for decades; so shares the fan-horror at the character’s swing toward psychological realism. Old Luke joins the rest of us in realising, as we get older, that the world is a complicated and nuanced place; that old assumptions have to be questioned, and sometimes we have to refight the same battles, only win better.

Johnson’s version of Luke Skywalker is enlightened enough not to believe his own legend; he’s the first self-aware character in Star Wars, and that’s not the hero man-children of a certain age wanted to be and hoped to see again. The equivalent would be an 80 year-old Indiana Jones saying, “you know what? I got a lot of nice pieces for the museum but I desecrated a lot of sites, got a lot of good people killed, and encouraged today’s Hooray Henrys to do the same, which is why there’s so much corruption and violence in the game now. If I could have my time again I’d have taught respect and restraint, and stayed at home”. Is it surprising fans are angry? No. Do Lucasfilm deserve credit for letting Johnson do this; short-term pain for long term gain? Yes.

If they hold their nerve and don’t try to reverse it all in Episode IX, haunted by the memory of that Rotten Tomatoes audience score, they’ve accepted that breaking the formula and laying the preconditions for new stories is the only way to avoid stagnation. Alright, they’ve done this in a movie that follows the Empire story beat template very closely – it’s evolution not revolution – but nor it is a lazy retread of what’s come before, rather an attempt to forge ahead within certain self-imposed constraints, the legacy of Episode VII’s risk aversion.

Close your eyes and use the force to drain the mind of the average Star Wars fan, and you can understand why Last Jedi’s soft iconoclasm has left them bereft and angry. Their priorities were not Johnson’s priorities, he did not share their vision for the characters. Their path to the next movie, based on the assumption it will all end with Rey, Ben Solo, Poe, Finn and Chewie around a camp fire, feasting on Porg while Luke’s force ghost gives an approving smirk, has been bricked up.

It could still end that way of course, but J.J Abrams has been gifted a better hand than he gave to Johnson. The ending of Last Jedi may be too open for some (“what the fuck now?”) but having burnt through and inverted much of Empire and Return of the Jedi’s story beats, Johnson’s forced Abrams to conjure up a new story (and resolve it by movie’s end).

Only the most cynical plagiarist would be thinking about a fourth Death Star right now. Episode IX, which one imagines will leap forward significantly in order to allow the rebellion to rebuild and reshape itself, offers the tantalising prospect of an irredeemable Kylo Ren and his disciples facing off against Rey’s reimagined Jedis, and the democratisation of the Force. It may not be the movie you had in your head but if Johnson’s middle-chapter means that a trilogy that began with a disguised remake ends in a new and interesting place, Last Jedi may yet be regarded as the antithesis of the Phantom Menace – the instalment that opened up the saga rather than hemming it in.

Published in: on December 24, 2017 at 16:30  Comments (1)  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.9


Critic’s log, supplemental.

We did it, spaceheads, we made it to mid-season break; a time for taking stock, packing away your spores, returning your Stamets (autocorrects to Schizoid) to its upright position, and trying not to worry you’ve damaged the delicate multi-universal honeycomb that compartmentalises realities, just so you could plot an algorithm to bust a cloaking device. In the TNG era they’d safely and simply link up with a few ships and employ a tachyon detection grid or similar – you know, some technobabble that didn’t risk the fabric of reality, but I suppose Discovery’s set in a less advanced era – the space faring equivalent of an old sawdust and ether surgical theatre in the days before anaesthetic.

Still, we made it, but before we can put our feet up and visit Tilly’s quarters with a large twig of mistletoe and a bottle of Chateau Picard 2252 (the ’49’s better but there’s no way this ditz is going to know that), some serious shit went down in this episode and it would be remiss not to discuss it.

”Into the Forest I Go” ended with a decisive, plot cauterizing victory for the Discovery. Kol and the ship of the dead became space dust, the threat to the Federation was tied off, and all it took was a one minute staff conference, 133 micro-jumps, and a data dump to the fleet, mapping the Klingon’s cloaking technology. Somehow.

This was an intriguing development as it shifted the villainous focus to L’Rell, now in the ship’s brig. Tyler’s unreliable memories inferred she’d done terrible things to him, including subjecting his fragile frame to Klingon intercourse (though it’s still likely he’s Voq, surgically altered and reprogrammed as a sleeper agent whom L’Rell can now “activate” for whatever purpose was intended). Having L’Rell on board sets this Hunt for Red October’s cook gambit in motion, while the return of a living (damn it) Admiral Cornwell, means there’s plenty of fresh blame heading Lorca’s way.

So the episode acted as a deck clearance, shifting from a broader (and not especially involving) war backdrop to something more personal and high-concept, namely a dysfunctional, perhaps duplicitous crew, beholden to Lorca’s new pet obsession, the multi-verse. And we all know what Lorca does to his pets.

The big question during “Chapter one” of Discovery’s inaugural season, has always been, what would the show be about once the war was over and the spore drive outed as an unethical and unsustainable technology? Unethical because it can only work if you can find a receptacle who’s prepared to be genetically altered and subjected to life-endangering neurological and physiological stress; unsustainable, because health risks aside, the tech has you dangerously skimming over alternate plains of reality. The peril’s obvious. You could be marooned in a matriarchal universe, or some such nightmare, or worse, bring something back you can’t control.

Lorca’s eyes narrowed when Stamets proclaimed he’d jumped his last. 133 slides in four minutes had drained both him and the effects budget. He was ready to quit and let the secrets of the multiverse, and their inherent dangers, remain the subject of a late night philosophical debate featuring a drunk hologram of Oliver Reed. But our chief engineer had forgotten that Lorca has been outlining the contours of the new territory with each jump and was talking about a new era of exploration, a signal he had no intension of leaving it there.

Lorca didn’t build a new car and hire a track just to see it rust in the hanger, and in the episode’s final moments it’s safe to assume he overrode the ship’s computer and flipped the chaos switch, sending his crew into the pan universal unknown. “I don’t know where we are” said a nervous Saru. Lorca didn’t know either but he couldn’t wait for find out.

It’s hard to blame him for this. The war is as good as won, the Discovery has shared its intel with an ungrateful command, and with Cornwell alive and on board, there’s little incentive to return to starbase and let the Admiral report on his conduct, so why not roll the dice and make a little history? It’s not a bad gambit for a Captain on the edge, who’s pressed his luck to breaking point. Not a bad gambit for a writer’s room that need a lot more road, either.

Expanding the show’s scope was what this mid-season finale’s secret mission. The crew may have landed in the Mirror universe on this occasion (we know such an episode’s coming down the pipe) but beyond that we have a situation where Lorca, reluctant to return home and face the music, sanctions a voyage into Trek variants on the pretext of fulfilling Starfleet’s ultimate remit, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Here it’s possible to see how the series could reconcile the CBS sanctioned single ship and crew directive with Bryan Fuller’s original anthology concept. If the game plan all along was that Discovery would start in one reality before exploring others, perhaps realms including established continuity and the future of said canon, then that’s a fresh and exciting spin on the formula that could, potentially, mark Discovery out from its predecessors in terms of conceptual complexity and human interest.

Previous Treks tested the characters’ moral chops using allegorical scenarios on alien worlds, designed to project and reinforce values. But perhaps after several decades of such adventures the only voyage left is one into the nascent self. Duality and hybridisation has been a strong theme in these first nine episodes, and if the future has the titular ship challenging the characters’ assumptions in run-ins with alternate versions of themselves and universes governed by different ideas and political scenarios, some of which inform a new attitude to the troubles back home, that’s not a bad premise for a series.

It would be hilarious if, after all the furore over canon deviations and aesthetic continuity, it transpired Discovery had been set in an alternate reality all along; funnier still if the familiar and reassuring Original Series universe is the ultimate destination. Where’s the Discovery? Maybe even the writers don’t know, but they’ve just painted an open door on their corner.

Anomalous Readings

  • The first two-thirds of the season have been uneven, the plague on all first seasons of Trek, but as Discovery’s gone on and the relationships between characters have started to bed down, it’s become more confident and coherent, suggesting that after a troubled birth, all concerned know where they’re going and why.
  • The multi-verse conceit is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to reversing decisions that have proved unpopular with viewers. Don’t like this version of Starfleet and its attendant aesthetic and level of technological sophistication? Have another. Fine. But a series has to be rooted somewhere, so hate it or really hate it, we’ll expect the good ship Discovery to return to her native-verse soon, preferably with a lot of psychological baggage picked up from elsewhere, not to mention some weird ideas about different coloured uniforms.
  • Discovery was telegraphed as a series about war – a specific incident with universe shaping consequences. Well, if the war was just the spur for the spore drive and an experimental ship’s unethical and dangerous voyage, I’m on board. But where does that leave L’Rell and her fanatical vision for the Klingon Empire?
  • As the characters grow and change, might we like some of them? At this stage I could happily get into a shuttlecraft with Lorca and Tilly, abandoning the rest, but I can see the potential in the likes of Stamets, Tyler and yes, even Mick.
  • Initially I thought this episode might have inadvertently closed Mick’s arc, but I expect and hope that her relationship with Tyler, and a weird, battle for his soul (and rationalism) with L’Rell, will become pivotal. Yes, all in all, despite the show’s stuttering momentum and the passive transition between episodes, I’m intrigued, maybe even a little excited ahead of January. I just hope Tilly likes champagne.
Published in: on November 14, 2017 at 12:03  Leave a Comment  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.8


Critic’s log, supplemental.

As we career toward the mid-season break, like an out of control spore drive powered starship plugged into Paul Stamet’s mangland vein, Starfleet has a vision problem. No, not an identity crisis built on the compromises of war, but cloaking technology – that great strategic advantage wielded by both Klingons and Romulans, that inexplicably never translated into military dominance in the Alpha Quadrant.

In the opening of “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” (Latin for “Don’t leave me alone with him, I’ll explain later”), we saw the USS Gagarin atomised in an enemy attack, the decisive factor: the Klingon’s “invisibility screens”. Kol, the Empire’s chief bastard, had franchised out his house’s cloaking tech in return for their blind loyalty. We didn’t learn what competing houses had offered wavering warriors, but it’s hard to imagine they had anything worth peddling. A larger bat’leth? Hair? Smooth foreheads? Kol’s kit was the only game in town.

So the Discovery was charged with finding a solution to the cloaking issue and somehow knew to visit the planet Pahvo, a musical world if you please, with a transmitter that, if tweaked, could conveniently become a cloak detecting sonar array. We missed the scene in Kirsten Beyer’s script, of the kind we all used to enjoy, when the crew put their heads together and worked out this was the right planet with the right natural resources – perhaps based on a chance encounter and some studious research. No, they just knew to go there, which made you wonder why they hadn’t done so earlier. Why wait for the Klingons to wise up to the benefits of a cloaking device before developing a deterrent? Instead, Mick, Tyler and Saru arrived and got straight to work, a narrative shortcut that employed on previous Treks, might have shortened the length of episodes by two thirds.

Beyer, it seems, thought the meat of the story, namely Saru turning into a maniac on a tranquil planet, was more important than the whys and wherefores – despite the latter being an intrinsic part of Trek’s appeal. The Kelpien, perma-fearful, found peace amongst Pahvo’s sonic wisps, who imbued him with the calm and internal harmony he’d craved all his life. Unfortunately, we instantly learned this mindful state of relaxation was contingent on the total absence of competing interests. The moment Mick suggested carrying on with the mission, work that would culminate in a return to Discovery and, yawn, the war, Saru turned into a madman, hand crushing communicators and galloping to the transmitter site to smash Mick’s uplink before Starfleet could get the signal (though they knew exactly where they were and could, presumably, just keep sending down more crew and kit until the mission was completed).

There was something distinctly Original Series about this story – lunacy in paradise, that combined with Discovery’s blunt storytelling approach (the show at present lacks a certain finesse) made for an oddball instalment. Saru’s madness seemed like a good proxy for an audience who’d surely have enjoyed the story’s planet-bound trappings but dreaded a return to the serialised conflict raging above.

“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” recovered at the close, when it transpired the Pahvans, having garnered the details of the war from Saru’s brain, had hailed the Klingons in a bid to force an entente. Perhaps they’d skipped over the part when Mick, who’d be part of the crew representing the Federation, had started the war, and couldn’t know that a crazed Kol, now warping to their location, had a vested interest in prosecuting the war to the bitter end. This made the two vessels selected perhaps the worst possible choices, but the Pahvans hearts were in the right place, not that they had hearts. Demanding space peace from an enlightened position (literally in their case) was a very Original Series alien thing to do. It’s just a pity the initiative is a) doomed and b) will result in the location of the Federation’s two great hopes – the Discovery and the Transmitter, being revealed to the enemy. Still.

Anomalous readings:

  • The episode’s B-story brought a sad end to the life of neglected Admiral Cornwell, whose blood is now on Lorca’s hands. L’Rell, we learned, regarded Kol as the bad kind of fanatic, one motivated by power and bloodlust, rather than racism and religion, so was inclined to save Cornwell and defect in order to topple him. Sadly, she was forced to murder the Admiral to keep up appearances, which turned out to be a waste of time when Kol revealed he’d been on to her in the first place. The days when an Admiral could sit behind a desk at Starfleet command and take it easy while starship crews took all the risks look long gone.
  • L’Rell brushed off talk of Voq, saying he’d run away, or something. The vagueness of it all suggests the Voq/Tyler thing may be real enough.
  • Stamets talked about the deleterious effect of the Spore Drive. Sometimes his plain of reality would shift, he said – he’d be somewhere else entirely. Kevin Spacey’s house?
  • Given the budget per episode is reported $8m, the production should take another look at that Saru running effect. When he’s heading toward you at 80kph you want to be inawed not wondering why he looks like a badly animated stop-motion figure.
Published in: on November 7, 2017 at 16:33  Comments (1)  
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