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.
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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,

Ed

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  
Tags: , , ,

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

Dis

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

STDIS1.8

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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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.7

Critic’s log, supplemental.

Call me picky, if you’re too lazy to use my real name, but isn’t momentum quite important in serialised storytelling? Watching “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” there was the faint suspicion the writers of Discovery didn’t have the impetus to push on. Last week we had an enticing cliffhanger, with some mirror universe audience-baiting chicanery and Lorca’s love interest imprisoned behind enemy lines (but in no danger of being rescued as she’d promise to terminate his command). What would a good follow up, designed to build on that tension, look like? An unexpected and wholly unwelcome rescue mission from Starfleet command? Lorca and Stamets acting with inexplicable menace, prompting Mick to suspect something’s amiss? Well fuck that, let’s have a Harry Mudd time-loop story instead.

“Magic…”, a poor man’s “Cause and Effect” (TNG, Season 5), felt initially like a superfluous bit of fan-placating conceptual masturbation – the kind of standalone high-concept Brannon Braga tribute that would have worked fine on episodic Trek, but here seemed like a course deviation. It didn’t help that the villain of the piece was Harry Mudd, a character who feels out of place in the prestige television landscape of psychological nuance and close character study.

Mudd’s a 1960’s stock character – fun but lacking the menace and storytelling potential of John De Lancie’s Q (whose bon mots he’s now appropriated), and weirdly defined by, what to modern eyes, is a curiously misogynist backstory – a man on the run from his nagging and overbearing wife. We didn’t blink when this was a feature of the 23rd century as imagined in the late ‘60s, but now? It’s a curious sort of nostalgia on a show determined to reinvent the space wheel.

Rainn Wilson’s clearly enjoying himself in what’s essentially a comic role, but would Discovery’s writers have benefited from creating an original character more in tune with the moral complexities they’re attempting to explore? If you were trying to tell a new story about attitudes to disability in this strange new world, you surely wouldn’t wheel out an immobile Christopher Pike in his bleep chair.

Mudd’s revenge on Lorca for leaving him in Space prison, meant invading Discovery on a loop, killing his nemesis many times over (it was admittedly fun to see Lorca beamed into outer space and choking), trying to find out what made the ship unique so he could sell it to the Klingons, then, when his time was up, destroying it. Was the destruction necessary to prompt the reset? He seemed to have an armband device that would do it anyway unless you opted for time to run on, but perhaps he just enjoyed the opportunity to mass murder the crew, consequence free. Also, in keeping with the character’s apparent lack of common sense, it was also a mystery why he didn’t just download a file on the Spore Drive and save himself 60 loops and multiple interrogations.

So the plot was hokey and the technobabble required to make it work, opaque, but “Magic…” gave the world what it wanted in a week when Anthony Rapp alleged he was molested by Kevin Spacey, namely an episode that put Paul Stamets front and centre. Okay, his opening line, “no need to apologise for close physical contact” was unfortunate under the circumstances, but his character’s ability to exist external to the loop and retain information, thanks to his Spore Drive interface, confirmed Stamet’s was now a meta-dimensional being – someone able to cross over space and time. The story might have been a hackneyed way to explore this, but at least now we know where we’re heading, beyond the confines of this world and maybe into one the fanfic community can’t complain about.

Still, credit to the scribes, they used the story to build a relationship between Mick and Klingon Spy Voq – I mean, Security Chief Tyler. Okay, it was heartbreaking to see them express their feelings at a party where musical tastes hadn’t moved on in 250 years, but at least Mick’s no longer just a sourpuss outsider and object of derision for her shipmates, many more of whom have now lost friends because of the war she started (death toll’s up to 10,000). Her relationship with Tyler feels organic and there’s real chemistry there, which I hope will make it all the more heartbreaking when she learns he’s nursing a deep hatred for everything she represents and is here to avenge the Klingon warlord he idolizes as a martyr.

Anomalous Readings:

  • Man alive, Tilly looked good at that party. Sure, she’d drive you mad with her scatty conversation and inability to focus, but when she flicked that hair at Mick I was ready to kill an endangered space whale to make the perfumed soap that I could present as a gift to secure a first date. I accept there would be the risk of a backlash.
  • I wonder what Admiral Cornwell was doing during the events of this episode? Probably wondering when the writers would pick up her story.
  • This episode had no teaser. Apparently the first since “Encounter at Farpoint” not to. Did they forget to write one? I think Mudd emerging from a whale, killing Lorca, failing to get what he wanted from Stamets then blowing up the ship, would have been a pretty fucking good opener, but maybe the editor got distracted by those Tilly party rushes and forgot to drop it into the right part of the timeline.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.4

Critic’s log, supplemental.

Four episodes in, and it’s become clear that the Star Trek: Discovery writers’ room is stocked with agitators. They know the rabid fanbase is watching, ready to eviscerate them for every wrongheaded choice. Bereft, they scanned social media during the series’ pre-production, watching helplessly as Trekkies tore into every cut of leaked information, labelling them everything under the Klingon sun, most notably a shower of bastards, a tureen of cunt soup, a fuck steak with moron wedges, a truckle of knob cheese.

So inevitably a siege mentality developed, plus a certain aggressive attitude towards fan baiting. It was much in evidence throughout “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” – not just an allusion to the interchangeable status of predators and victims in this particular show, and the shifting moral calculus that played out, but the writers’ motto when considering the pained and confused online community – the people Jason Issacs calls spacetards.

So we began with last week’s monster, now interned in Lorca’s zoo, where in time he’d subject it to unimaginable indignities under the cover of darkness he (and up to that point, it) so enjoys. We learned it was a giant Tardigrade – an interesting choice as it recast one of nature’s great survivors (they can flourish in almost any moist environment, including a Richard Curtis audience) as a killer; a rampaging grotesque that Lorca wanted exploited toot sweet. “Weaponise it!” he told Mick, not knowing what “it” was or what motivated it. Fortunately, our man – sorry, woman, is a lot less gung-ho than she used to be and made some fan pleasing noises about trying to understand it as Lorca left to sodomise a caged Horta.

To add to the impression this was going to be 50 torturous minutes of militaristic grandstanding, mocking Trek’s once treasured principles, for the creative team do enjoy their petty torments, security officer Landry, universally despised, grew bored of Burnham’s enlightened pitch about careful investigation and evaluation, and pulled a phaser on the beast to, er, better understand its responses – the 23rd century equivalent of kicking a bull’s low hanging fruit. Symptomatic of this cavalier approach to fortune, she’d named it “Ripper” (Mick preferred “Tard”), and it duly responded by brutally murdering her – a killing that instantly revealed the creature to be sympathetic as well as a great judge of character. Alas, poor Landry, we barely knew her and we didn’t want to.

So far, so awful – but the death of this gun toting dullard was the episode’s turning point – the moment the writers’ pulled back the confederate curtain and revealed it had all been good sport; they were on board with this Roddenberry thing after all. Stupidity would be punished not celebrated on this show. Sense and scientific reasoning could and would win out.

The upshot was that a little understood monster turned out, in the finest ”Devil in the Dark” tradition, to be a gentle giant that had no interest in ripping women, only nurturing its surroundings. It feasted not on flesh but the celestial magic fungal spores that powered the Discovery’s teleporter. Mick was finally enabled to utilise some of her expensive Vulcan education and deliver a result for the crew – namely the organic component that regulated the ecosystem on which the stability and accuracy of the spore drive depended. This allowed her to usurp on board fungi expert, Stamens (autocorrects to Stamets), who was weirdly sceptical of the entire endeavour, despite the relationship between forms of fungi and the natural world being his speciality, and save the besieged colonists on Corvan II at the expense of some worthless Klingon lives.

Thus, the depressing desecration of Trek’s hallowed high ground turned into something altogether more palatable and interesting. Speaking of palatable, the Klingon B-story revealed that T’Kuvma cultists L’Rell and Voq had eaten the remains of Georgiou. It was that or the last of the sarcophagus ship rations. There was no talk of flavours but one imagines Mick tasted bitterness when she learned she’d inherited the late Captain’s telescope. As her mind had been trained in the Vulcan way she wouldn’t attach sentiment to an inanimate object, and she was now on a ship that could, thanks to her, teleport to any star in the universe at will, rendering the scope useless. What a galaxy.

Anomalous readings

  • A power shift occurred at the back end of the dull Klingon B-story, with L’Rell and Voq exiled to the Shenzhou’s dead husk, with new swinging dick Kol now in charge of the war effort. This sets up the possibility of a change in the enemies’ objectives and the possibility that Discovery will pair up with the cultists to win the war using good old fashioned regime change – sorry, diplomacy.
  • So, Saru’s fear erection is attributable to his threat ganglia, huh? I suppose fear erection was unfriendly terminology.
  • Saru to Mick: “You will fit in perfectly with Captain Lorca.” Saucer of milk, table two.
  • It’s synthesis at this point in time, not replication. I wonder if Mick will be retconned as the one who coins the term we know and love, perhaps because she, like us, hates synthesis.
  • “They can blame whatever happens on my curiosity.” Writers, why not just show us Mick’s character, rather than composing clunkers like this? You don’t have to piss us off all the time…and please stop using the word “piss” when laying down Mick’s dialogue.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.3

Critic’s log, supplemental.

Star Trek: Discovery is still bleak. In chapter three we finally met the titular starship and her largely cynical and downbeat crew. Sure, there was levity in the form of Cadet Tilly – a special needs crewman who’s free to serve on board an experimental vessel during a mission that may determine the future of the Federation, despite an unspecified personality disorder and an allergy to polyurethane. It was hard to believe such allergies won’t be cured by the 23rd century (after all you can take a pill that clears up kidney dialysis) but there were other signs here that Discovery was at least one remove from the utopian future we’ve enjoyed in previous Treks, and I’m not just referring to “Black Alert” which insensitively went off when Mick sat on Tilly’s non-allergenic sheets.

“Context is for Kings”, an approximation of a real pilot episode, featuring as it did the principle ensemble cast and veiled allusions to their mission, was, in some respects, boilerplate Trek – an investigation into a disaster befalling another ship, Discovery’s sister the Glenn. The mystery involved an alien monster and/or scientific experiment gone wrong, two old favourites.

The Discovery’s captain, Lorca, played hardboiled by Jason Issacs, with an in-show excuse to only be lit for mood, namely some kind of optical affliction, captured the prowling creature of unknown origin at the close, adding it to his secret collection of zoological specimens (a pet Tribble betrayed a weakness for collecting aliens), suggesting a certain moral flexibility. Those desperately searching the new ship’s corridors and crew quarters for the enlightened, optimistic Starfleet officers of old, started to sense a pattern. The crew of the Discovery, bar sullen Saru and silly Tilly, look like the kind of gang the Enterprise used to meet when investigating wrongdoing – the sort of officers that could, and you sense, will, fuck that Tribble.

There was the brooding and joyless Landry, chief of security, who with absolute certainty had beaten a prisoner or two before breakfast. Lieutenant Stamets (autocorrects to Stamens), who appeared to be an autistic genius who shed not a tear when his BFF on the Glenn had his body warped by organic space travelling fire flies. And then of course there was Mick the mutineer, hated by all who’d been forced to give up a career charting nebulae to kill Klingons, and brought to the Discovery by Lorca to employ the brain we’re told she possesses but have yet to see at optimal efficiency; a mind that doesn’t do wit or cutting putdowns.

Her job was to help turn the ship’s defining, er, discovery, into humanity’s greatest innovation – an organic propulsion system with the means to cross a quadrant of the galaxy in just 1.3 seconds. Had this taken off, Voyager would have been back in the Alpha quadrant in less time than it takes for Usain Bolt to run the 100m. And therein, cried all of Trek fandom, alert at long last, was the problem.

If Discovery is canon, and not a dimensional variant, we know Starfleet’s secret project must come to nothing. Not only is the idea a potential series killer, for the ability to travel anywhere, instantly (Lorca’s demo allowed Mick to see Andoria and Romulus in less time than it took him to explain the technology) takes the Trek out of Star Trek, but it’s also conspicuously absent from all the sequel series. This is tech to make warp travel redundant – something like the Iconian gateway seen in ST:TNG’s “Contagion” (that, perhaps not coincidentally also featured the destruction of the series’ sister ship), so where is it later in the 23rd or indeed the 24th century?

We’re left with a plot device that powers the ship’s mission and series future direction – a wheeze that allows Lorca to collect species and plant samples from distance worlds to satisfy his deviant desires – that ultimately can’t be developed. Our hope at this early stage, is that this newly found intergalactic ecosystem will spin the story in a cautionary direction, a la the Federation’s foolhardy flirtation with the Genesis project, with similar galactic threatening implications. That, or it transports them to a universe where everything looks right.

In these first three episodes, Discovery’s teased us with the kernels of fascinating ideas such as these, while undermining its potential with dislikable characters and a gloomy tone. There’s a curious lack of optimism on this ship, something even the DS9 crew found time for when facing the existential treat of the Dominion. That’s right, the deaths of billions didn’t stop Miles and Julian enjoying a game of darts but 8,000 casualties in six months (tiny by space standards) left the Discovery crew looking like they’d been issued with ration cards.

It left me hoping that Tilly’s dream to become Captain comes true quicker than she dared hope. That kooky redhead may have somehow got past the tutors at Starfleet Academy but at least she’s fun to be around. Remember fun, kids?

Anomalous readings:

  • I’m glad someone pointed out that a barely discernable difference in the colour of uniform stripes denotes department. I just wish I could tell a person’s rank. Alas, it was so much simpler once…and will be again, I’ve seen the future.
  • I think the world’s now pretty clear on why CBS sued Axanar Productions, and it wasn’t because of copyright infringement. Those mad canon loving fools had inadvertently stumbled on the exact period in Trek history this mob are determined to reimagine. No wonder they lawyered up. Can you imagine a feature length alternative pilot to the official series free to view online? CBS certainly could.
  • “Shit, that worked.” What a very Vulcan thing to say, Mick.
  • Burnham’s jumpsuit looked a little like the Cage-era uniforms this series doesn’t recreate. What a tease. Go on, Discovery writers’ room – tell us the colour’s adopted at series end in tribute to Mick’s successful contribution to saving the Federation, make our day.
  • Starfleet must be wary of Lorca – the bastards didn’t even put a chair in his ready room.
Published in: on October 2, 2017 at 21:40  Comments (1)  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.1/1.2

Critic’s log, supplemental.

Since the death of Gene Roddenberry from a rare venereal disease that originated on Betazed, I’ve never trusted Star Trek showrunners and I never will. I can never forgive them for seven insipid seasons of Voyager – particularly the episode where Seven of Nine fought The Rock, though it’s better than you remember. I can never forgive them for firing Ron Jones, the John Williams of episodic television, because Rick Berman thought, in a foretaste of the madness that would eventually kill movies, that his grand orchestrations were too conspicuous – they gave episodes too much personality. I can never forgive them for “These are the Voyages…” until this week, Trek’s TV goodbye and Enterprise’s finale – the most Cronenberged hour of television ever made. Fuck, even Voyager’s turgid, weightless, technobabble ridden last hour didn’t turn out to be a lost episode from a different series.

Yes, since the Great Bird of the Galaxy was brought in by the cat, it’s been a rocky road for Trekkies. Half of them are so traumatised, they deny Deep Space Nine’s greatness, treating it like a black sheep, so they can rationalise not watching it back when, opting instead to ogle Jeri Ryan’s conspicuous Borg implants.

Now, 12 years after that Enterprise episode, 42 minutes of TV that left even die-hard fans saying, “maybe the show needs a rest”, we have Star Trek: Discovery. Debuting 30 years after The Next Generation, with considerable suspicion, given its aesthetic debt to J.J Abrams’ polished but hollow counterfactual Kirk flicks; the buzz pre-transmission that co-runner Alex Kurtzman (autocorrects to Colonel Kuntz), perhaps due to some unresolved rights issues, would contrive to diverge from the Holy Canon; it’s a show the internet declared stillborn without going through the rigmarole of watching.

This wasn’t the journey into the franchise’s future many wanted but a return to its hallowed past, and there were ominous drum beats foretelling a Trek that had little ambition to provide the joyful escapism we associate with the show’s colourful future, rather serve as a heavy-handed allegory for today’s conflict between a less than benevolent, morally confused America, and its cack-handed war on religious extremism.

Fine, we said. But don’t make our new Trek bleak. In a world of Donald Trump and suicide attacks from medieval-minded miscreants looking for absolute moral certainty in a world of nuance, what would really pull back our foreskin was the old franchise’s winning brand of progressive, upbeat characters, trying to impose sanity on an otherwise irrational and sinister galaxy.

Well, pour me a large glass of Romulan ale, Discovery’s bleak. That’s not to say it’s bad – there’s plenty of interesting ideas crowning in these first two episodes, but “Please Stick with It, Parts I & II” might have been a better title than “The Vulcan Hello/Battle at the Binary Stars”. Because despite a great deal of production value and committed performances from the principle cast members it deigned to feature – bar Michelle Yeoh who’s stiff as a Klingon stand up comedian, but thankfully dispatched by pilot’s end – plot trumps character in this opener, which is just as well because said characters are not yet inspiring confidence.

This is a good moment to pause and emphasise that this was not a traditional Star Trek pilot. Back in the episodic, non-serialised days of yore, a Trek opener’s principle function was to introduce the ensemble, basic relationships and all, and establish both setting and set up. By episode’s end you knew who you were dealing with, where and why, and were ready for those first adventures.

But “Please Stick with It, Parts I & II” are the opening chapters in a TV novel, and consequently, emboldened by format and brazenly confident of holding onto a fickle audience for the duration of the remaining 13 hours, the inaugural ninety minutes bets the space house on setting up the show’s central pillar, excluding all else. This is a redemption arc for insubordinate hothead and diplomacy disaster area, Michael “genderfluid” Burnham (“Mick” to her friends). Her mission will be to help the crew of the Discovery (reserved for Chapter 3) tame the Klingon religious extremists – advocates of racial purity, who see the Federation as a mongrel imperialist cabal, that she inadvertently spurred on to war when carelessly martyring leader T’Kuvma, despite being the only Starfleet officer to recognise the cultural implications of doing so.

Critic’s log, this is an intriguing setup. The new, old Klingons have never looked and sounded so alien, or been so strongly drawn – not the snarling, head butting, blood wine swigging bores of old for this show, rather something altogether more grounded, malevolent, yet with motives well defined enough to illicit some small measure of sympathy (the idea of a religious Klingon sect, roaming the galaxy in isolation, blindly following scripture, is something co-creator Bryan Fuller has lifted from a Voyager episode called “Prophesy” which fortunately no one saw). But the initial misstep here is a failure to contrast this unfolding threat to the 23rd century with equally engaging Starfleet characters.

The trouble with Mick is that she’s, well, lacking dynamism. That doesn’t mean she won’t endear herself to us later, but for now Sonequa Martin-Green struggles to make her Klingon-hating, Vulcan trained xenoanthropologist, more than the sum of her narrative parts. I think I preferred the cold logician who arrived on the Shenzhou to the competitive, Saru-baiting showpony that faced the Klingon fleet seven years later. Of course, the fact she’s an impulsive know-it-all is what leads both her and the Federation to the edge of ruin by pilot’s end, but it’s a nigh on kamikaze gambit to tell this part of the story in near-linear fashion, risking the casual alienation of viewers who might have hoped to meet a character haunted by her flaws but driven by Federation principles to do better next time, rather than a cavalier fuckwit who declares herself the enemy at episode’s end.

Would a dedicated flashback structure have worked better here? Then at least the Discovery and her crew might have featured in their own fucking pilot episode. But if you’re feeling generous you can say it’s a bold and unapologetically serialised approach to telling the story, that says to viewers, “there’s upfront pain but payoff aplenty, trust us – and besides, if you want a Star Trek pilot where you meet all the characters and tour the new ship and everyone learns something at the end, you’ve got all the others. So, fuck you Trekkies. Fuck you and your Rick Berman-trained mind.”

So, Discovery’s a mixed bag on her first journey out of space dock. I was intrigued by Saru, the Kelpian scaredy-cat that Burham patronised and undermined for most of the first two episodes (one hopes setting up an antagonistic relationship to come). And I liked the cut of returning character Sarek’s jib, even if James Frain’s performance isn’t a patch on Mark Lenard’s (he’s very much Zachary Quinto’s father, rather than Leonard Nimoy’s). But the opening couplet’s central relationship, that between Burnham and Captain Georgiou was somewhat undermined by the latter character’s marked blandness.

Had the interplay between Martin-Green and Yeoh been electrifying, heartbreaking – then maybe it would have been possible to give a shit about their seven-year relationship and Burnham’s (apparently) uncharacteristic betrayal. But I felt nothing but relief when the would-be Vulcan neck pinched her, nothing by irritation when she came to, and nothing but adulation when T’Kuvma buried a blade in her chest. It was, apparently, a key moment in Federation and Klingon history but one didn’t feel it, such was the lack of human interest.

Beyond all that, and those early (and maybe still to be realised) fears that Discovery would diverge from canon, it was reassuring to hear the right stardate convention used, and little details that suggested shared DNA with the original series – a computer that prefixes operations with “working”, familiar sound FX on the bridge. But this is also a show that liberally borrows from the J.J Abrams’ movies – it straddles new and old, spreading its bets, suggesting, maybe threatening us, with the divergence to come.

That “we’re fucking with you” vibe is the real story of these opening episodes. Space, thanks to a bit of NASA-style mission control patter, feels dangerous and foreboding here (as it is). The show, from its prestige titles to the moral ambiguity hotwired into its plot twists, seems styled to agitate rather than entertain. We’re a long way from Q’s simple test of virtue and adrift without heroes. If they emerge over the next 13 weeks we’ll say it was a worthwhile experiment. If not, Star Trek Discovery will be added to Donald Trump’s long list of crimes against liberals. First he killed our politics, then our utopia.