A review of Star Trek: Discovery‘s return from hiatus, and where the show stands creatively at this point, coming up just as soon as I cut out your tongue and use it to lick my boots…
The first half of Discovery season one was a mixed bag. In Michael and Captain Lorca, the show had a couple of strong characters (played by strong actors) at the center, the supporting cast was promising (albeit fairly small and insular for a modern Trek show), and despite the primary focus on the Klingon war, the show still managed to touch on lots of classic Trek-y ideas about science, exploration, and first contact with other species. But the second Harry Mudd episode — a clever take on the familiar trope of the ship being caught in a time loop — was the only real standout hour, and the reimagined Klingons are an utter disaster, with every scene featuring them feeling like it lasts 12 hours, because the extensive makeup forces the actors to speeeeeak verrrrrry slowwwwwly (and stiffly, too) in a made-up language with subtitles.
Now, every Trek spinoff had its bump in season one; even Deep Space Nine, the most consistently good of all of them, was still mostly figuring itself out in that first year. I’ve grown accustomed by now to looking at this stage of things as a shakedown cruise, rather than the mission itself. Bryan Fuller’s original plan for things before he and CBS parted ways was an anthology miniseries approach, with each season featuring a different crew in a different era. On the one hand, it feels like the series is now stuck in a limited setting — had Fuller known going in that the anthology approach would be scrapped, I can’t imagine he’d have chosen something set just right before the events of the original show, rather than something set after Voyager (and Star Trek: Nemesis, I suppose) — but on the other, the fundamentally glitchy nature of the franchise means that the bugs would just start getting fixed right before we were going to abandon these characters to start over elsewhere.
“Despite Yourself,” directed by series vet (and former Next Generation co-star) Jonathan Frakes, shows progress in some areas, while reflecting Discovery‘s ongoing flaws in others.
We’ve tabled the Klingon conflict for now in favor of an arc where the ship is trapped in the “Mirror Mirror” universe for the bit after a spore drive malfunction and the physical toll it takes on Lt. Stamets. Anything to limit the number of scenes spoken in Klingon is a good thing — though L’Rell is a prisoner on the ship, and does converse with Ash Tyler in her own language in one scene — and the dark Mirror universe, somewhat ironically, tends to bring out the lighter side of the Trek shows featuring it, which is only to the good for what’s been a too-dour series at times. In particular, Tilly having to channel a cold and ruthless personality while impersonating her Mirror counterpart is the exact sort of reason this franchise (and sci-fi saga in general) so often do parallel universe stories.
But “Despite Yourself” took much too long actually getting to that idea, simply letting the ship float aimlessly in space for a while as the crew tried to figure out where they were and various personal problems — particularly the deteriorating conditions of both Tyler and Stamets — could be advanced ever so slowly. The downside of Discovery aiming to be more serialized than most previous Treks (Deep Space Nine excepted) is that it can create a license to meander with both ongoing arcs and the plot of any given hour. And Tilly aside, the episode mostly played things a bit straighter than is probably tonally appropriate for this kind of story; it would help if we actually got to meet any of the doppelgangers, though I’m guessing that’s coming for Michael and/or Lorca.
And Tyler being turned into a Klingon sleeper agent — or perhaps, based on Dr. Culber’s diagnosis, another person altogether (Voq, maybe) being transformed to believe that he’s Tyler? — not only means we’re stuck with Klingon material even in episodes that should otherwise be free of them, it makes Michael and the rest of the crew seem like dummies for not recognizing just how not okay this guy is, when everyone should be on alert at all times given his background. And the brainwashed Tyler (or whatever he is) murdering Culber both robs a show with a very thin bench of an interesting supporting character, and sells out most of the creative team’s talk about what a bold step they’ve taken for the franchise in featuring an openly gay regular in an ongoing same-sex relationship. Characters die on series all the time — death has actually become a pretty overused tactic these days thanks to the success of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead — but the show had barely done anything with Stamets and Culber as a couple, and you don’t get to brag about inclusivity and then fridge your gay character’s partner after a handful of appearances(*).
(*) This being sci-fi in general, and part of a story set in a parallel reality, there are ways to unring this bell to varying degrees — maybe Culber’s doppelganger isn’t particularly evil, and he somehow joins the crew, falls in love with Stamets, blah blah blah — but even if it gets completely undone, the whole thing reeks of self-congratulatory three-card monte. It’s trolling no matter where it goes from here.
There remains strong raw material, and periodic bursts of inspired execution, like Michael turning off the gravity in the turbolift to win the fight against the Mirror version of Connors. But Discovery remains, for the moment, still on a shaky course, albeit not quite as adrift as its eponymous starship.
What did everybody else think of this episode? And how are you feeling about Discovery at this stage of things?