So Star Trek: Discovery has finally come out and I’m happy to report that it was not the disaster I was expecting. After years of production problems, ousted showrunners, and what is probably the fatal flaw of appearing on a CBS streaming program, I was expecting a complete mess that would totally unwatchable. In fact my expectations were so low that I ended up enjoying the premier way more than I thought I would.
[I stand by this Tweet, however. Seriously, fire the Phaser sound effects guy.]
Unfortunately there was still enough mess that I was left confused as to what was happening most of the time. I want to emphasize that I’ll continue to watch, it wasn’t so bad that I’m going to abandon it. Every Star Trek series has had a pretty awful opening episode. I adore Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the premier, Encounter at Farpoint, is about 10 minutes of story stretched into a grueling 90-minute exercise in boredom.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to ask questions about Star Trek: Discovery‘s confusing premier.
Star Trek: Discovery
Wait… What’s Happening?
There were several things that Star Trek: Discovery introduced that I liked, that put a new spin on old themes. Character’s motivations seemed more complex and the Klingon political scene felt more nuanced. Yet only moments after these new elements were introduced they were seemingly contradicted by something completely different. In the end, Star Trek: Discovery’s premier had me asking too many questions.
What’s the Timeline?
I’m not referring to whether this is the JJ-verse or old universe Trek, though based on the visuals I’m guessing this is JJ-verse. However if this show is going to succeed it needs to know when stuff has happened and is happening. For instance when Michael tells the captain that she saw Klingons, the captain points out that no one has seen a Klingon in over 100 years. That scene comes only moments after a flashback sequence in which we find out that Michael’s parents were killed by Klingons… so is Michael supposed to be over a century old? Or do her parents just not count as anyone? Or did they technically not see the Klingons because they didn’t live to tell the tale?
Then there’s what Sarek describes as a “terror bombing” at the Vulcan school she was at, so again, when was that exactly? It sure didn’t look like it was a century ago.
This paradox is only compounded by the fact that Michael seems to have a lot of insider information about the Klingon Empire. When the other Klingon ships arrive Michael points out that there are twenty four of them, representing the Great Houses of High Council, and speculates that someone is trying to unite the Empire again.
How does she know that? We as the audience knows she’s correct because we’ve been seeing the Klingon side, but she hasn’t. More to the point, if it’s been 100 years since anyone has seen the Empire, how does she know it’s not already united? Kahless the 2nd might have already been born and united the Empire for all she knows. Hell, maybe they underwent a societal shift and now the Empire is an entirely agrarian society. In terms of cultural evolution, a century is a hell of a long time.
To be fair there’s a lot of contradicting information in Star Trek canon, but those mistakes came after decades of movies and television episodes spanning dozens of different writers and directors. Star Trek: Discovery contradicting its own backstory in the first half-hour of its premier is utterly unacceptable. This is something that should have been caught and removed because it’s utterly unneeded in the plot. Why did it have to be a century, you could have said 20 years and avoided this whole paradox.
Yet I’m not so hung up on timeline details that I couldn’t have still enjoyed the show. Unfortunately the only thing that clashes worse than the timeline is the character’s actions and motivations…
Who Are These People, and Why Are They Acting This Way?
At the beginning of the confrontation with the Klingons Michael suggests a first strike on the flagship, claiming that it’s the only way to avoid a war. To which I have only one response:
Forgive me, but how does that make any god damn sense? Launching an unprovoked assault is the title of the first chapter in So You Want to Start a War. What makes her think that the Klingons, who thrive on conflict, would back down because you blew up one ship? That’s throwing down the gauntlet in front of warrior race that loves fighting, there’s only one way that was going to go. Thanks to some clumsy exposition earlier, Michael tries to justify this by saying the Vulcans did it successfully.
However, if the Vulcans did it, then why are we not still at peace with the Klingons? Are they not part of the Federation yet? Or are they all extinct now? I’m seriously asking because, again, I have no idea what timeline this is.
Despite my confusion I was okay with this at first because I thought the show was going in the direction of Michael being blinded by hate. Which I guess they kind of ended up doing, but they also don’t want to fully commit to it. Later when the captain confronts Michael about her treason, she laments that she wasn’t able to bring Michael out of her Vulcan shell of logic. Which, again, makes no sense because if anything it seemed like Michael’s mutiny was a knee-jerk emotional reaction. If she’d stuck to cold Vulcan logic, I feel like this whole scenario would have gone much differently.
Perhaps this would have made sense and been a pivotal moment in the character’s arc… had we been given a chance to find out who the hell Michael is. Yet all we know of her is that she’s close with her captain and was raised by Vulcans. Yet both these characteristics are betrayed when she launches a mutiny against her captain, and without more knowledge of the character to justify this action, it comes off as the hysteric response of a maniac. Michael has been a first officer for 7 years, if she’s going to betray everything she’s ever believed in, we damn sure better understand why.
Of course no one else’s actions make much sense either. At first I liked T’Kuvma’s motivations because a fear of losing their culture felt justifiable and relatable. The Federation is wonderful, but you can’t deny there’s a certain homogeneity to it. All Starfleet ships share similar designs and bear human names, they all wear the same uniform, and they all live under a single governing body. In the face of that, I can see T’Kuvma fearing that the culture of his people would be subsumed by the Federation.
Unfortunately Star Trek Discovery does nothing with this. T’Kuvma’s plan makes no sense and the Klingon high council siding with him makes even less sense.
T’Kuvma lights his beacon of Kahless, whatever the hell that is, and the High Council arrives. He gives them a quick speech about how the Federation wants to destroy Klingon culture, and one of the Klingons says she’ll hear more… but then T’Kuvma never actually says more. He does nothing to convince them that the Federation is a threat. He then waits for the Federation to hail them and when the captain says they come in peace, all the Klingons suddenly agree to attack.
Why? What is it about Starfleet’s proclamation of peace that threatens the Klingons so much? If it had been an invitation to a treaty of nonagression and friendship then I could see it, because at least that would have fed into the Klingons fear of losing themselves. I’m not saying there’s not a case to be made that “we come in peace” would anger the Klingons, but it was Discovery‘s to make that case. And it didn’t. Making a case for Klingons to resort to violence is literally the easiest problem you will ever have to tackle in Star Trek… and they somehow failed.
So given all these wild swings from one extreme to another it’s almost fitting that the finale features a very confusing, and honestly, ill-conceived plan. The captain, her ship disabled and most of her crew injured or dead, decides to take one last shot at attacking the Klingon flagship. Despite quoting The Art of War it’s clear that the captain, and the writers, either didn’t fully read it or didn’t understand it.
“Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Klingons are collecting their dead and ambushing an army at this point has been, historically, a huge dick move. Even humanity’s most vicious wars viewed this as grossly dishonorable (though that didn’t stop us from doing it constantly), and I can only imagine how the honor-bound Klingons are going to react to this. That alone will only escalate the conflict, yet the captain also seems to forget all the wounded and helpless Starfleet personnel floating helplessly in their escape pods and damaged ships. If something had gone wrong, she was putting all of their lives at risk to satisfy her pride. She’s human though, so let’s assume she’s not thinking straight.
After reverting back to Vulcan logic, Michael correctly points out that killing T’Kuvma would only make him a martyr and suggests capturing him. Now this was a good idea that was completely botched in its execution. Attacking a physically stronger opponent on his home ground with exhausted and injured personnel is pretty much the exact opposite of Sun Tzu’s teachings. Their shields were down, did it not occur to anyone to just beam the handful of Klingon survivors onto their ship? Even assuming they don’t have the TNG ability to disable weapons in transport, you could still have surrounded them with a dozen phaser-stun wielding officers.
Whatever though, they wanted a tense hand-to-hand battle, fine, but then Michael abandons the plan she had only moments earlier and kills T’Kuvma. I get what they were going for, that Michael loses her temper in the face of her captain’s death, I get it. However the way its filmed it doesn’t make a lot of sense because even I barely had time to acknowledge the death blow, and from the entry wound (pictured above) she was directly behind him. How does she even see the killing blow? And if she thinks her captain is immediate danger, which is believable, why switch to kill mode? Seems like Stun knocked them Klingons out much faster.
Honestly though, the worst part is the final few moments. Now mutiny is a huge deal, as is attacking a superior officer, but life in prison? Really? In the Federation that famously has no capital punishment? I mean they didn’t even sentence Michael Eddington to that and he was a full-blown terrorist who killed people. Worse than that, is the bizarre dystopian tribunal that sentences her. I’m okay taking Star Trek to darker places, Deep Space 9 did it successfully, but not that dark. I mean, overreact much, Starfleet?
Again, just like the “100 years since we’ve seen a Klingon”, this piece of dialogue does absolutely nothing positive for the story and could have been easily changed. Sentence her to 30 years, or 40, anything short of a life sentence that we normally reserve for actual murderers.
Still despite all these problems, there is one very important question that Star Trek: Discovery actually answered rather than raised.
The Why of the Universal Translator
A point in Star Trek: Discovery‘s favor, except not really, is that it’s an excellent example of why Star Trek canon includes a universal translator: yes, it’s unrealistic, but the alternative is having an actor’s performance crippled by speaking gibberish. Between the gibberish language and the just stupid amounts of dental prosthetics being used, watching those actors struggle with the dialogue was painful to watch. I felt sorry for Chris Obi, who played the Klingon leader T’Kuvma, because he’s a fine actor but I could feel his frustration in those scenes. Trying to spit out the already guttural Klingon language out from between that many false teeth must have been maddening.
Had they just allowed their Klingons to speak English we could have had much better performances, as evidenced by T’Kuvma’s brief stint in English as he gloats over his victory. His charisma and intimidation values shoot up significantly when he doesn’t sound like he suffers from a speech impediment.
So next time someone you know sarcastically says “Oh, how convenient that all those aliens speak English!” like he’s being clever, show him this episode of Star Trek: Discovery. I guarantee they’ll never ask that question again.
And seriously, make-up guys, tone it down a few notches next time. Sheesh.