Star Trek Discovery (DIS) Season 1

The Vulcan Hello / Battle at the Binary StarsContext is for KingsThe Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's CryChoose Your PainLetheMagic to Make the Sanest Man Go MadSi Vis Pacem, Para BellumInto the Forest I Go

 

The Vulcan Hello / Battle at the Binary Stars

Synopsis

Stardate 1207.3 (May 11th, 2256): Klingon leader T'Kuvma announces that he is going to reunite the different houses of his people, against a common enemy, the Federation. Captain Philippa Georgiou and Commander Michael Burnham of the USS Shenzhou are on a mission to help the non-humanoid Crepusculans, whose planet suffers from a drought. Almost unnoticed by the natives, the Starfleet officers open a well for them. A gathering storm prevents a transporter lock, so Georgiou orders Burnham to follow her on what seems to be a circle through the desert but is actually a big Starfleet emblem as a signal for the Shenzhou to beam them up. The Shenzhou proceeds to a damaged subspace relay at the edge of Federation space, near a binary star with intense radiation. The damage may have been caused on purpose by an object hidden inside a scattering field. Burnham takes an environmental suit to investigate the alien artifact. She is welcomed by what turns out to be a Klingon warrior that attacks her with a bat'leth. Burnham fires her thrusters and rams the bat'leth into the body of the Klingon. The dead warrior, the so-called Torchbearer, is recovered by his comrades, led by T'Kuvma. On the Shenzhou, Burnham wakes up in a medical pod but interrupts the procedure to heal her radiation burns, in order to warn Captain Georgiou of the arrival of the Klingons. Although there is no evidence, Georgiou trusts Burnham's words and calls for reinforcements. Meanwhile on the alien ship, an albino Klingon named Voq volunteers to become the new Torchbearer and to "light the beacon". T'Kuvma, who was once an outcast himself, accepts. On the Shenzhou, Burnham calls her foster father Sarek to seek his advice how to deal with the Klingons. Sarek adopted her after her parents had been killed in a Klingon raid on the research outpost Doctari Alpha. She comes back to the bridge with a quite unusual proposal: to fire first, in order to earn the respect of the enemy. Georgiou declines. In the captain's ready room, Burnham disables Georgiou with a Vulcan neck pinch and orders the bridge crew to prepare the attack. As Georgiou returns with a phaser, many Klingon vessels drop out of warp. -- Seven years ago, Captain Georgiou welcomed Michael Burnham, the only human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center and the Vulcan Science Academy, aboard her ship. She became Burnham's mentor. Now it is her sad duty to confine Burnham to the brig. As several more Starfleet ships appear in the area, Georgiou calls the Klingon leader and tells him that Starfleet comes in peace. T'Kuvma calls this a lie. He convinces the other house leaders that the Federation wants to assimilate the Klingons. The Klingons open fire. During the battle, the wounded and confused Ensign Connor comes to the brig to seek Burnham's advice, but he gets blown out into space when the hull breaches. Sarek appears in Burnham's mind, telling her that she carries part of his katra. Sarek actually saved Burnham with a mind meld when she was a child. The USS Europa with Admiral Anderson appears on the scene and tractors away the Shenzhou that is adrift in space. Anderson proposes a cease-fire to T'Kuvma. The Klingon leader agrees, but then rams the Federation ship with the cloaked vessel, upon which Anderson activates the self-destruct. The other Klingon ships warp away after their victory, leaving only T'Kuvma's vessel. While Burnham prepares her escape from the heavily damaged brig, Georgiou and Saru wonder how they can attack T'Kuvma's ship although the Shenzhou's weapons are down. They devise a plan to steer a work pod with a photon torpedo into the enemy vessel, a suicide mission for which Georgiou volunteers. Burnham appears and advises against killing T'Kuvma because this would make him a martyr in the eyes of his people. When the crew witnesses how the Klingons tractor in the bodies of dead warriors, they plant an antimatter charge into a body and detonate it inside the enemy ship. Georgiou and Burnham beam over to apprehend T'Kuvma. But T'Kuvma kills Georgiou, whereupon Burnham kills T'Kuvma. On the court martial, Burnham pleads guilty. She is stripped of rank and sentenced to imprisonment for life.

Commentary

Star Trek finally returns to the small screen, twelve years after the last Enterprise episode and almost two years after the first announcement of the then unnamed new series. Star Trek Discovery starts with a two-part episode that can be described as a prologue, rather than a pilot. "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars" explore Michael Burnham's past on Vulcan, her relationship to Captain Philippa Georgiou and the disastrous encounter with the Klingons. Neither the eponymous starship Discovery nor some of the later regular crew members appear in this prologue. I was a bit surprised when the second part ended somewhat abruptly with Burnham's conviction for mutiny, but perhaps I just have to get used to serialized television.

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is not only the lead character of the series. The whole story of "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars" is built around her. We learn many things about Burnham's childhood and youth, how Sarek took care of her, how Captain Georgiou became her mentor and how she and Saru use to disagree on many things. All pilot episodes since TNG explored the past histories of one or two of their principal characters to some extent, but never in such a depth. It was worth the effort. Burnham's unique two perspectives (the human heart and the Vulcan mind) are worked out very well, as well as her struggle to find the right answers and make the right decision. And although her logic and her instinct prove her right in retrospect, what she does is a huge stupid mistake. In many ways, Burnham's character is in the tradition of Spock and of Seven of Nine, and has a lot of potential. Sonequa Martin-Green's play is captivating, and is among the main reasons for me to tune in again.

I like Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) very much. She represents firm principles, wise leadership and unassuming kindness, key qualities that were sadly suppressed in the Abrams movies. Her occasional sarcasm is refreshing. Also, it is beneficial for the diversity of the series that Michelle Yeoh keeps her accent and doesn't try to come across as yet another American. In the dispute with Burnham, I am all with Georgiou. Even with the experience that the Klingons might attack or would usually attack, it still is wrong to fire first. It was obvious that Georgiou would not survive the episode. Only the way she would die was still open. I was sort of relieved when Georgiou's plan to go on the suicide mission with a photon torpedo was discarded. It was more appropriate for her to be killed trying to apprehend T'Kuvma, which also gave Burnham the opportunity to redeem herself in Georgiou's eyes. Overall, Captain Georgiou was a well-conceived and well-played character that I will miss.

T'Kuvma's (Chris Obi) demise, on the other hand, comes as a surprise. He was the arguably most advertised character besides Burnham in the promotion campaign for Discovery. The impression was created that T'Kuvma would be the Klingon leader in the war against the Federation, rather than some fanatic agitator who dies in the very first battle. T'Kuvma is not so great a character anyway, so it is not a big loss in my view. T'Kuvma is excellent in giving speeches, but that is about all he does in the two episodes. He has practically no interaction with Starfleet. In the promotion campaign it was made a big deal that the Klingons would not simply be enemies but would have a good cause to fight for, to preserve their way of life. However, there is nothing like a good cause in T'Kuvma's agenda. He laments that the Federation would come and destroy the "purity" of the Klingon race - although he has no reason to assume that, since his whole species has not really been in contact with the Federation for a hundred years, much less his secluded sect. T'Kuvma is a racist by all means, more like a Klingon Hitler than a reincarnation of Kahless. This is very unfortunate as it sort of annihilates the intent to depict T'Kuvma's house as an ancient and solemn sect and the preservers of the Klingon heritage. There is only one sign that T'Kuvma is more than an evil fascist leader. He accepts Voq, an albino, as the new Torchbearer, thereby overcoming the conventions and prejudices of his people. We don't know what role Voq will play in future episodes, but it may be something of further significance for the Klingons as a whole.

I watched "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars" with the intention to give the series a chance, although I loathe the extreme changes to the Klingon species, to their starships and to their styling. Discovery looks, sounds and feels decent as long as we move through the USS Shenzhou and follow the Starfleet crew. But as soon as the Klingons (or their ships) come into sight, it is outrageously hard to even accept them as Klingon, much less to like them. The elongated heads of the redesigned species are more visible in the episodes than in the trailers. No one can possibly claim they are the still same race as the familiar Klingons, only without hair. But it is not just the look. These Klingons are not capable of clear articulation, and I wonder whether it is a result of the heavy make-up and false teeth or of additional electronic distortion. It is very sad that the makers of Discovery have learned nothing from the mistake of the mumbling villain Krall in "Star Trek Beyond". Furthermore, TOS as well as TMP Klingons used to be agile. The new ones are cumbersome and sluggish under their thick armor and prosthetics. With the way they speak and move, not to mention their overblown attire, the Klingons and especially T'Kuvma appear as pompous and not as people we may be able to relate to, although exactly that was the clear intention of the producers. Overall, the alterations to the Klingons are still a bit worse than I anticipated, utterly disrespectful of the alien race that millions of fans love and arguably the biggest mistake ever made in Star Trek.

The Klingons are not the only continuity problem of Discovery. They are just the most obvious and most annoying one. Considering how the producers still insist on Discovery being set in the Prime Universe (the same as TOS) and adhering to canon, the logical conclusion is that canon, in their view, only consists of facts in the form of screenplay contents but not of visual facts, or only facultatively of visuals. This is not only an inappropriate principle in a visual medium by its very nature, it is also short-sighted. In traditional Star Trek the looks of characters, props and sets had a meaning not only in the very episode but also on a larger comparative scale. Such as the Klingons, whose different make-ups were an issue in DS9: "Trials and Tribble-ations" and ENT: "Divergence". Such as Starfleet's ship design lineage that shows an evolution from the simple shapes of the original Enterprise to the streamlined and more edgy designs of the 24th century. The lineage was retroactively extended to the NX-01, albeit not completely satisfactorily. The USS Shenzhou is a still bigger offender than the NX-01. The idea is absurd to place the 24th century design of the Shenzhou next to the original Enterprise and claim it is a couple of years older. Or to maintain the assertion that the Shenzhou is 140+ years older than the similar looking Enterprise-E. Even compared to the lead ship of the series, the Discovery, the "old" Shenzhou looks like a much more advanced design. And as already mentioned, this is one of the smaller problems compared to the Klingon dilemma.

Anyway, from now, we are supposed to ignore visual discontinuities, because the producers and designers decide arbitrarily what they are going to preserve, what should be reimagined and what can be recycled from the pool of Star Trek's many other eras and timelines, as an anachronism. Nitpicking is not endorsed any longer as the looks are concerned, and attempts to explain visual discrepancies are futile because we are silently expected to exercise doublethink. This is why I will treat Discovery as a reboot, a series set in a new continuity that generally does not have to comply with the previous Star Trek. Either that, or my brain will explode.

One further consequence of the lacking visual continuity is that Discovery so far looks and feels rather generic. We are on a Starfleet vessel. The time is ten years before TOS. But the only indicators of a time are the date mentioned by Burnham and Sarek's appearance. Otherwise, it doesn't give me the impression that it is specifically set in this era. The Shenzhou is a starship that looks "as usual" from the outside, and is full of all the usual futuristic technology. The crew wears previously unseen uniforms that could belong in any era. The ship then runs into some monstrous alien vessel. The enemies are identified as Klingons. They speak Klingon. They have Klingon symbols. They have heavily decorated swords resembling bat'leths But despite these very few things that were preserved they overall feel like a generic alien race, just with a bad taste of clothing and architecture. They could have been any other race, and it would have made a lot more sense. The series could have been set in the far future, and all it would have required was to abandon the character of Sarek. This is the fundamental problem with Discovery. It tries to shoehorn its story and its reimagined appearances into the existing Star Trek. The producers perceive Star Trek as a mere platform for "timeless" stories and designs, not as a timeline.

The story of the first two Discovery episodes is easily one of the darkest of Star Trek so far. It shows a mutiny on a Starfleet ship, a crusade with a racist motivation and the beginning of a war. This doesn't bode well for the episodes to come, at least not in the sense of relaying the message of a better future. The script tries to compensate for the sordid elements of the story with affirmations, especially by Captain Georgiou ("We come in peace.", "Starfleet doesn't fire first.") and Admiral Anderson, that almost break the fourth wall. I hope that the peaceful, benevolent and optimistic side of Star Trek will resurface in future episodes, but it is reduced to mere phrases in "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars".

Although the two episodes focus very much on the characters and particularly on Burnham, everything appears quite plot-driven in hindsight. T'Kuvma was going to war anyway, so the Shenzhou became the first victim of his crusade only by chance. At no point of the two episodes he is open to listening to anything else but his own sermons. Michael Burnham attempts a mutiny and will face reproaches of having started a war, but she doesn't actually shoot first as she wanted. And even if she had fired first, what would she have accomplished? I doubt T'Kuvma would have understood a "Vulcan hello". Ultimately neither the characters nor their interactions (as far as these take place at all) can change anything about what comes to pass. There are also several plot holes and unlikely twists, mostly on the Klingon side, to pave a way that inevitably leads into the war with the Federation.

Overall, the flow of the story is good in both episodes. Still, in "The Vulcan Hello" I had the impression that the suspenseful scenes on the bridge of the Shenzhou could have been somewhat more dynamic. It may be curious that such a criticism comes from me, considering that the fast pace of the Abrams movies almost made me nauseous. Anyway, what I would have liked to see is fewer camera pans, moves and tilts but more cuts, to indicate that a situation is exciting. In "Battle at the Binary Stars", on the other hand, the problem with the pace was that suspenseful moments were too often interrupted. They suffered a bit from too frequent cuts to a slow scene or to a flashback. Furthermore I find it bothersome that both episodes have placeholders for commercial breaks. It is clear that the episodes will be shown on free TV channels at a later date, but on a paid streaming service I just don't want to have such disruptive cuts.

Star Trek Discovery borrows visual effects such as the phaser pulses and the star streaks from the Abrams movies, rather than from previous TV series. It strives to be "cinematic", which apparently matters more than visual continuity. I am positively surprised, however, that the space scenes and the battle in "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars" were not the visual overkill that I expected from the trailers and from my Abramsverse experiences. "The Vulcan Hello" features a space ride similar to the ones in the two first Abrams movies but this one doesn't feel over the top, and it underlines that Burnham is only human and not a superhero. Overall, everything CGI was rather pleasant watching. Curiously, it is the rather calm scenes such as on the bridge of the Shenzhou that are annoying and almost cause nausea because of the tilted camera, apparently in an attempt to create "interesting" visuals to compensate for a lack of action. At times I felt reminded of the awful movie "Battlefield Earth" (don't worry, I endured only a small portion of it). The Discovery prologue episodes also have almost as many lens flares as an average Abrams movie. On a final note about the "cinematic" visuals of Discovery, the series is filmed in 2:1 aspect ratio, leaving black bars on the top and bottom of a usual 16:9 screen. While I still don't see the reason not to use the whole screen, at least it didn't feel uncomfortable.

One more thing on the visual side that I dislike about Discovery (or at least about the two first episodes) is the dim lighting. It may be appropriate in some situations, but the whole two episodes were overall too dark. And I'm not even talking about the courtroom scene in which the faces of the judges were not recognizable. Yes, this may have some symbolic meaning, but I just want to see more for my money.

Discovery comes with an unusual title sequence. For the first time in Star Trek the focus is not on space and starships, but on props and symbols. I like the visuals of the title, although the color choice of beige and red is still something I have to get used to. The title theme is traditional and unobtrusive but overall unremarkable. I may have to listen to it more often, but it's not something I'm likely to whistle in the shower.

I am fond of the sounds on the bridge of the Shenzhou, which are a mix of familiar TOS beeps and occasional more elaborate sounds from the 24th century. And contrary to common belief, I won't make it a continuity issue that sounds appear before their time.

Overall, Discovery has a promising start. The two first episodes give us a good blend of exciting and thoughtful moments, although they are a bit uneven as the directing is concerned. I don't know whether I can ever put up with the new Klingons. I don't know whether Discovery can prove to me that it is more than a generic Star Trek series with loose continuity. I don't know whether the series can still manage to show a positive vision of the future. In any case I look forward to finally seeing the USS Discovery (not at all my favorite design but still better than the anachronistic Shenzhou). And I look forward to the further adventures of Michael Burnham, who may become one of my favorite Star Trek characters.

Annotations

Rating: 7

 

Context is for Kings

Synopsis

6 months later: Michael Burnham is on a prisoner transport when spacebourne creatures drain the shuttle of its energy. The shuttle is rescued by the USS Discovery where the prisoners are given a cold welcome. Saru is also aboard the Discovery, as the ship's first officer. Burnham is called to the ready room where Captain Lorca enlists her help for his ship's mysterious mission, at least until the transport can continue its journey. She shares quarters with young Cadet Sylvia Tilly and witnesses strange occurrences during a so-called "black alert" that Tilly is not authorized to talk about. In engineering, Burnham gets tasked by Lieutenant Stamets with some number crunching, still without learning anything about the project. She decides to break into Stamets's top secret lab where she discovers a huge room full of plants and spores. Captain Lorca informs the engineering team that the whole crew of the Discovery's sister ship, the Glenn, including Stamets's colleague Straal, were lost. Burnham is ordered to join the team to explore the Glenn, which is now adrift in space. They discover that not only the crew but also a Klingon boarding party has been killed in a gruesome fashion by some creature. Thanks to Burnham distracting the creature, the survivors of the Discovery boarding party can escape. Captain Lorca wants Burnham to stay aboard. He tells her that the experiment with the spores is not about the development of a weapon but of a new propulsion system. Burnham eventually agrees, and the prisoner transport leaves without her. Lorca, however, still hides something - dead and living creatures in a room like a cabinet of horrors.

Commentary

The first regular episode of Discovery after the prologue doesn't feel like a pilot although it is effectively one. As we see everything through Michael Burnham's eyes, there is nothing such as "unnatural" exposition. On the downside, the unique perspective of the prisoner on the ship and its crew only adds to the overall cold, even depressive atmosphere of this episode. "Context is for Kings" also leaves more mysteries and open issues than any Star Trek pilot episode so far. Of course, this is mainly due to the fact that this pilot is only 48 minutes long and that Discovery is serialized.

In "Context is for Kings", Michael Burnham is given the chance to leave her callous prison, only to end up on the most callous Starfleet ship ever. While we wouldn't expect the captain and crew of any Starfleet ship to welcome the mutineer with open arms and with a wide smile, the way it actually happens is still more unwilling and unfriendly than I had imagined. The writer's intent may have been to show the Discovery with its strange occurrences and secretiveness as mysterious above all. But the sentiment of it being a very cold place is the stronger one in this first episode taking place aboard the ship. Everyone only gives Burnham the impression that her presence is unwanted. This initially even includes Captain Lorca, who wanted her for his crew and arranged her "accidental" arrival on board.

Well, not quite everyone. Cadet Tilly is open-minded about her new roommate. She talks a lot; it seems she needs to talk in order to overcome her uncertainty, and she is glad to eventually have someone to listen. But even Tilly is not ready to accept Burnham at first. She tells Burnham to stay away from the neighboring console in engineering and wait until she is assigned one, although there is nothing like fix console assignments. She just doesn't want to be seen together with the mutineer, in order to make a good impression. Tilly later apologizes for her conduct, which is actually the first kind thing that anyone of the crew says to Michael Burnham. As much as Sylvia Tilly may be a pain as a roommate, she has the potential to become an interesting character - if she is given the chance to be more than what she is now, the only nice person on the ship.

The grumpy Lieutenant Stamets is quite the opposite of Cadet Tilly. It seems that he lives only for his research. He doesn't seem to be interested in people, much less in deviant people like Michael Burnham. He doesn't talk a lot, much less to subordinates whose task is to just perform calculations. A genuine asshole. This changes all of sudden when the team is on the shuttle and Burnham challenges Stamets's professional expertise. Now Stamets shows a different side of his character. In the absence of the captain, he complains about how his work is taken away from him and from his deceased colleague Straal, and is used for military purposes. The unexpected outburst of passion makes Stamets a bit likable again, but the blatant criticism of his captain (a "warmonger" in Stamets's words) sheds an even worse light on the team spirit and discipline on the Discovery.

Captain Lorca overall comes across as more agreeable than I expected. Well, he is only slightly more kind to Michael Burnham than most of his subordinates. But he remains fair. He gives Michael Burnham orders, but it becomes clear very soon that behind these orders there are options for Burnham. Lorca tries to gain Burnham's trust when he demonstrates his research, and perhaps even more so with the flattery that he needs an unconventional person like her. He still remains a mystery in her eyes though - sometimes too ostentatiously mysterious though, which is due to the camera showing him as an intangible figure, rather than being Jason Isaacs's fault. Anyway, in my view she agrees to his offer because it is the best option for her, not because she trusts or even likes the captain. I think Lorca still holds many secrets that Burnham will not like (and that I may not like either). The menagerie of strange creatures shown at the end of the episode that only his very unlikable watchdog Landry knows about doesn't bode well at all...

It is clear that Saru still resents Burnham's mutiny, which in his case is a personal issue. You don't forget when a crewmate suddenly points a phaser at you. And he never seemed to like her very much anyway. So Saru doesn't do anything either to make Burnham feel welcome on the Discovery. He hits the mark with his vitriolic statement, "I intend to do a better job protecting my Captain than you did yours." Still, although he thinks of her as unstable, Saru openly speaks in favor of Burnham when Lorca asks him. I wouldn't be surprised if he was also involved in getting Burnham aboard in the first place. Overall, Saru tries hard to keep apart his long-time professional (and personal) assessment of Burnham and his grudge against her because of the Klingon incident. He may be willing to give her a chance because of the former, although he conveniently hides behind the captain's orders in this regard. At least this is my impression. Saru belongs to a fearful species, and that may additionally obstruct his ability to trust her again. I don't know if Saru sits well with me. The character still seems to be somewhat indefinite.

Michael Burnham herself makes it clear at various points of the episode, practically until the end, that she wants nothing else but climb on that prisoner transport again. She has left her life in Starfleet behind. She thinks she can get atonement only without the privilege of being in something like active service again. Moreover, being around Starfleet people would only sadly remind her of what she has lost, and of the big mistake she made. Even more so as everyone seems to hate her. For her, life in a prison may be the easy way. But I think at this point of her life she doesn't even know what she wants, so Lorca has to push her. Sonequa Martin-Green is convincing as the prisoner whose mood is always between lethargic and defiant. But looking into her grim face becomes tiresome after a while. On another note about Burnham, as much as we may still sympathize with her, rather than with the cranky crew of the Discovery, we have to keep in mind that Burnham gets a chance she realistically wouldn't deserve. Yet, one thing that bothers me about the prisoners' as well as the officers' reactions on Michael Burnham is that they repeatedly (at least half a dozen times in the episode) blame her for the war with the Klingons, although it was the Klingons who fired first. I wonder whether the people, the media or even Starfleet use her as a scapegoat for their own failure to anticipate the large-scale Klingon aggression.

After watching the prologue, I was hoping for more Star Trek spirit in the next episodes. But "Context is for Kings" gives us still less. We have got prisoners who voice racial slurs against Andorians, Starfleet officers that refer to prisoners as "animals" and "waste", and a science officer who calls his captain a "warmonger". With its current atmosphere and wording, Discovery is far away from the optimistic, benevolent and cooperative Star Trek I know. I think I can put up with it for now but it has to change. This Discovery episode is also very graphic in the depiction of the disfigured bodies on the USS Glenn. And the horrible alien monster is a plot device I simply don't care for. Even rather than the monster itself, I find it annoying that no one seems to be bothered by it any longer, once the survivors of the boarding party have escaped from the Glenn, as if monsters are a common sight on Starfleet ships.

A part of the mystery about the USS Discovery and the research of Lt. Stamets is solved in "Context is for Kings". According to Captain Lorca it is all about a new propulsion system that is somehow based on fungal spores. This does not sound as if it could make any sense, neither in real physics nor within the established continuity, as I explain in my annotations. And considering how the producers of Discovery pride themselves to abstain from technobabble, this episode is as tech-heavy as nothing in Star Trek since the days of Voyager's various drives-of-the-week. As soon as in the pilot episode something goes awry that the makers of Discovery so desperately wanted to get right in the new series.

Discovery is conscious of its being different than previous Star Trek iterations in many regards, as the continuity and the style are concerned. It is noticeable how the script of "Context is for Kings" tries to ease some of the problems of the series preemptively by explicitly hinting at them, in an ironical fashion. And so Cadet Tilly says she never heard of a female named Michael, making the eccentric name choice a part of the story (because Tilly, who was not told who would join her room, then remembers Michael was the first name of that mutineer Burnham). In a similar way, Captain Lorca apologizes to Burnham for the lack of light that his injured eyes can't cope with, which may be aimed at criticism that the lighting of the sets is too dark.

Just like the Abramsverse films, Discovery just loves to create pseudo-continuity by the inclusion of all kinds of characters, species and other references that are believed to be fan favorites, no matter how unsuited they are in the context. Tribbles were a largely unknown species in 2266, but they appear frequently before their time, in all three Star Trek prequels/reboots so far. While not a hard continuity error, this kind of pointless "fan service" or "tradition" just doesn't sit well with me.

The visual effects of "Context is for Kings" were great, as already in the prologue. I have only two points of criticism. Space is overall a bit too colorful in Discovery, even though we may always excuse the colors with the vicinity of a nebula or of a star with a non-white spectrum. Also, the shuttles of the Discovery with their red "racing stripes" look a bit too toy-like.

Overall, "Context is for Kings" is decent at most. It leaves me considerably less impressed than the prologue. The story overall makes sense. It is very efficient to tell it from Burnham's perspective so it doesn't come across as heavy on exposition. I dig the mystery factor about the secret research, but that aspect could have been worked out still better. There is some action in the form of a "monster hunt" that I don't mind because it is very conventional. On the downside, there are the cold characters that I can't relate to (yet), the many animosities that should not exist in this form in Star Trek and the technology concepts that make no sense.

Annotations

Rating: 5

 

The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry

Synopsis

November 2256: Michael Burnham joins the crew of the Discovery, with no rank. Captain Lorca lets her in on the secret of the creature captured aboard the sister ship USS Glenn, apparently a macroscopic form of a tardigrade. He plans to investigate what makes the tardigrade that Landry names "Ripper" powerful, and how to turn this into a weapon against the Klingons. Landry, however, is killed when she attempts to sedate the creature. The Discovery receives a distress call from Corvan II, a dilithium mining facility that is attacked by the Klingons. The Discovery is the only ship that could reach the colony in time, using the spore drive. Against Stamets's objections, Lorca decides to use the drive, but the ship does not end up near Corvan II. Burnham observes that "Ripper" is attracted to the spores, which may have been the reason why the creature was on the Glenn with its mushroom storage in the first place. As she thinks the tardigrade only attacks when in danger, she approaches the creature with a container of spores. Stamets is impressed and works with Burnham on a way to use the tardigrade as the ship's "navigator". The Discovery arrives at Corvan II and destroys the attacking Klingon Birds-of-Prey. Despite the success, Burnham feels remorse about the mistreatment of the imprisoned creature. In the meantime, in the debris field at the binary stars, the Klingon survivors Voq and L'Rell plan to relaunch the damaged ship of T'Kuvma, with the help of the dilithium processing unit of the abandoned Shenzhou. Kol appears to help but actually bribes Voq's starving crew with food to pledge allegiance with him. L'Rell hands over the dilithium processor to Kol, who then exiles Voq to the Shenzhou and warps away. L'Rell, however, secretly beams over to Voq, apparently with a plan to regain control of the empire.

Commentary

The fourth episode of Discovery is the first one that doesn't have to establish a new setting and to introduce several new characters. The story is told in a more traditional fashion, from different perspectives than only Burnham's, which helps to warm up a bit with the other characters, at least with those on the Discovery.

Lorca loses his aura of being mysterious to some extent, as he is willing to share his secret about the weapon developments with Burnham and as we understand his plans better. Lorca has a passion for the war, as indicated by his "weapon museum". We don't know yet whether his main motivation is to be the best soldier with the best weapons, or to be just good enough in his field and only long enough to bring the war to an end. When he plays the recordings of the Klingon attack on Corvan II over the ship's comm system, he clearly tries to evoke an emotional reaction in his crew to work harder to help these people. But I'm not sure if the cries for help would motivate himself just as much.

Stamets is still cold as ice for much of the time. But I like his astonishment and his curiosity when Burnham presents her theory about how the tardigrade may be the key to mastering spore propulsion. Landry, on the other hand, remains as one-dimensional as she was in the pilot. She gets killed simply because she is reckless and imprudent. Overall, she was a very inefficient character, other than in the function of showing how different the crew of the Discovery is compared to traditional Starfleet ships. Tilly is a bit like Burnham's sidekick in this story, while Saru remains her nemesis. I don't understand Saru when he says to her, "I was wrong. You will fit in just fine here.", referring to Burnham's lack of loyalty and morality that he obviously attributes to his own captain and crew as well but that does not seem to be a problem for him. The Discovery's chief medical officer, Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), appears for the first time, albeit only briefly.

Michael Burnham has rediscovered her spirit that made her pursue a career in science and that made her want to explore the unknown. When Lorca presents the unknown creature in his menagerie, Burnham is rather fascinated than appalled. Overall, she remains comparably impassionate for much of the episode, but that may be attributed to her Vulcan education as well as to her being on probation. In any case I'm glad that she eventually comes across as someone with a conscience (regarding the captured creature) and with remorse (regarding the testament of the mentor whom she failed). Michael Burnham represents the type of Starfleet characters that were prevalent in the five old series. The principal characters of TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY and ENT were all driven by the motivation to make the galaxy a better place. They occasionally made mistakes, but these mistakes were usually neither glossed over nor excused with something like "extreme measures in extreme situations". Whenever someone in traditional Star Trek used such a reasoning, it was the explicit exception to the rule, and it soon became obvious that the person was a jerk. Just like Admiral Dougherty in "Star Trek Insurrection".

On the Discovery, however, Burnham is so far the only Starfleet character that acts and reflects on actions the way we should expect from Starfleet. We could argue that we simply haven't seen how benevolent, how thoughtful Lorca or Stamets are in peacetime. But does the war with its missing story opportunity to show a peaceful spirit and a positive vision of the future exonerate Discovery? Is it sufficient for the producers to evoke the legacy of Star Trek in interviews, without actually continuing it in the series? Is it so important for Discovery to be "modern" and to comment on the sad state of our present world that it doesn't show a bright future any longer? We have not seen very much of the series at this point, so I just ask these questions and I will reserve my judgment whether Discovery has the spirit of Star Trek until the end of the season. And yes, I am aware that DS9 had a much longer war and more dark stories in terms of episode runtime. But DS9 was firmly embedded into the overall optimistic world of the 24th century, whereas Discovery currently rewrites the 23rd century to a dark era.

The Klingons are just as little interesting as they were in the prologue, cumbersome in the way they move, talk and maybe even think. Voq is a prisoner of his own fanaticism and lacks practically everything that a leader needs. It remains a mystery why L'Rell remains loyal to him, although that may be the interesting part of the story. Kol is smarter and a bit more like the Klingons we know but still not a formidable enemy by a long shot.

"The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry" comes with just as much technobabble as last week's episode. The spore drive is a bit less enigmatic now, so some of the concepts seem to make more sense simply because they have been mentioned before. The episode is also rather heavy on funny or sarcastic quotes. As much as I appreciate occasional comic relief, I think there is too much of it in the episode.

I was glad that I would never have to see the anachronistic Shenzhou again. But due the inexplicable failure of the self destruct the ship still exists. On the other hand, I don't know if I really like the Discovery much better. Detractors of Starfleet ships love to refer to the design as "pizza cutters". Someone in the art department must hate Starfleet designs so much that he turned the saucer in something that doesn't only look but even works like a pizza cutter (cutting through an interstellar pizza funghi I suppose).

"The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry" is the Discovery episode with the best "Star Trek feel" so far. The story brings to mind TOS: "The Devil in the Dark" as far as Burnham's interaction with "Ripper" is concerned. On the downside, the use of captured alien creatures for the purpose of propulsion is rather reminiscent of VOY: "Equinox". I like the action sequences of the Discovery saving the colony. It is a pity that the story about this rescue mission and the tardigrade was sidetracked in many ways, because I would have liked to see more of it. I still don't care at all for the Klingons.

Annotations

Rating: 6

 

Choose Your Pain

Synopsis

December 2256: Captain Lorca is called to a starbase where Admiral Cornwell orders him to limit the use of the spore drive of the Discovery, in order not to risk losing the only prototype. On the way back to his ship, Lorca's shuttle is boarded by the Klingons, and his pilot is killed. Lorca is taken to a prison cell with the criminal Harry Mudd and Starfleet Lieutenant Ash Tyler. On the Discovery, Michael Burnham is concerned that the condition of the tardigrade deteriorates with each jump. Acting Captain Saru, however, orders her to carry on regardless, in order to find the missing captain. Burnham convinces Stamets to work out an alternative solution, incorporating DNA of the tardigrade to another living organism, such as a human. When Saru notices that the spore drive is down, he confines Burnham to her quarters and tells Stamets to activate the drive again. After jumping to the position of the Klingon prisoner transport, deep in Klingon space, the tardigrade's condition is so bad that the creature goes into stasis. Meanwhile, on the Klingon vessel, Lorca finds out that Mudd has been spying on the Starfleet officers for the Klingons. When the guards appear again, to take one prisoner to be tortured, Lorca and Tyler attack them. They manage to escape from the Klingon vessel in a raider. Saru recognizes that one of the raiders approaching the Discovery is being pursued by the other Klingon ships, and he arranges for Lorca and Tyler to be beamed out. He then orders the jump back into Federation territory. Since the tardigrade is disabled, Stamets gave himself an injection of its DNA and performed the jump in its place. Saru orders Burnham to help the supposedly sentient tardigrade, whereupon Burnham decides to release the creature into freedom.

Commentary

We may almost call this a "reconciliation story". At least, "Choose Your Pain" is the first Star Trek Discovery episode that resolves or eases more conflicts than it creates. Also, it evokes the qualities of the old Star Trek on more occasions than previously in the series, in particular forgiveness, compassion and confidence. It is the first time in the series that the spirit of collaboration prevails on the Discovery in the end. On the downside, the story is once again a dark one, both in its action and in the references.

Michael Burnham is not so much in the focus as she used to be in the first four episodes. But she wins several small victories, just by sticking to her judgment and to her ethical principles. She can convince Stamets that the ship needs a backup or a replacement for "Ripper", which appeals to his scientific curiosity and ambition. Dr. Hugh Culber, who initially saw "Ripper" as an inferior creature that can't experience pain, accepts her objections and comes to the conclusion that the tardigrade may be sentient. And even Saru, who only seemed to be afraid that Burnham could fail him again (his threat ganglia extend at one point when she enters the bridge), confesses that he is angry and jealous of her having been Captain Georgiou's first officer. Burnham decides to give him the telescope that she inherited. I only wonder how Saru will react on Burnham's release of the tardigrade...

Stamets is the perhaps most interesting character of this episode because we can see how excited and passionate he is about his work, and how much he cares for at least some of the people around him. We already know from the last episode that he would listen to Michael Burnham, just because he has filed her under "very intelligent and resourceful". And so he agrees to working out an alternative solution for the ship's navigator when she tells him that "Ripper" will deteriorate. He concurs with Tilly that the idea to incorporate tardigrade DNA into another lifeform is "fucking cool". Yet, Stamets remains silent when Saru comes to engineering and confines Michael Burnham to her quarters for deactivating the spore drive. Stamets should speak out in this situation for two important reasons. Firstly, he is in charge of engineering, and if the drive is taken down, he is the one to be held responsible for it. Secondly, even though it may be convenient that Saru only blames Burnham, they both agreed it would be useful to do it. I would have expected more of a spine from Stamets. But he makes up for his mistake when he further works on what Burnham suggested and eventually saves the ship, almost in self-sacrifice. Stamets may still not be a likable character and not the best team worker or superior officer, but he is invaluable. And there is at least one crew member who more than only likes Stamets. It is great how casually the episode introduces the relationship of Stamets and Culber.

Saru is rather disappointing as the acting captain in this episode. This is exemplified best when he consults the computer what a good captain would need. He thinks he has to be a captain by the book. He tries to align himself with the best captains of the fleet. He would have wanted to be Philippa Georgiou's first officer more than anything else, to learn what it takes to be a captain. But how could this help in the current crisis? Why doesn't Saru rather listen to the capable people around him, to Stamets, to Culber, maybe even to Burnham?

We learn that Captain Lorca has a big stain on his record because he did not go down with his ship, and even seems to have killed his crew in order not to let them fall into Klingon hands. This may be shocking news, but it remains only a side note in a story that shows Lorca as a steadfast Starfleet officer, who does everything to save himself and his people, even under the most adverse conditions. It is wonderful how he and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) work together to escape from their Klingon prison. Well, it all seems too easy, and although this will likely be explained in a later episode, it lets the Klingons appear as weak enemies. And the decision to leave Mudd behind remains controversial, considering that it may have more to do with him being an unlikable fellow than with him being a Klingon spy.

I am relieved that the new Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) is more like the TOS character than I would have expected. His mannerisms occasionally remind me of Roger C. Carmel's character. And I am glad that the new Mudd turns out to be the swindler and con man that we know, and not some mad movie villain. While it may be true that he would betray anyone for his own profit or welfare, he has a clear attitude when he refers to the "little guys below", who have to bear the consequences of Starfleet's actions. Whether this is true or not, Mudd challenges Starfleet in a similar way as it happened especially on DS9.

We see a ship that is identified as a Klingon "D7-class battlecruiser" but that has absolutely nothing in common with the iconic ship design by Matt Jefferies. This is not only a total disregard of the existing continuity but also blatant disrespect of the man who shaped much of the look of the old Star Trek. The "dragonfly" raiders are just as unconvincing and un-Klingon. Other than the ships, the Klingon design of this episode in terms of uniforms and interiors is a little bit more reminiscent of what we know and what we should expect. But although L'Rell temporarily gains the upper hand and still pursues a plan, the Klingons appear as one-dimensional and dumb. I only like the concept of the catchphrase "Choose your pain." that the producers were obviously fond of too and they made it into the episode title.

Something that bothers me in all Discovery episodes so far is that space in general, and particularly ships in space, are always colorfully illuminated is some fashion. This may be realistic in the vicinity of a star with an according spectrum (we already saw "red" and "yellow" ships with that rationale). But in Discovery there is always a colorful nebula or something like that, or the ships illuminate themselves in color (which in the case of the tractor beam of the "D7" makes sense but fits the cliché). Self-lighting is a concept that Andrew Probert devised for TMP, but it should remain "neutral" so the ships feel real, and not like some sort of color change lamps in space.

The story of "Choose Your Pain" is well-written and well-paced. There is an excellent balance between the parts on the Discovery and on the Klingon prison ship. Also, it is the Discovery episode with the most of the old Star Trek spirit and atmosphere so far. The series seems to gear towards a crew that works together instead of fighting out all kinds of conflicts. On the other hand, with the explicit violence (cracking Klingon necks), the mention of sexual mistreatment of prisoners and Lorca's disreputable past the series further proceeds into a dark territory that I am afraid of. Harry Mudd is a positive surprise, whereas the Klingons remain stupid and their ship designs horrible.

Annotations

Rating: 8

 

Lethe

Synopsis

One week later: Sarek and his aide V'latak depart from Vulcan for a secret meeting with two independent Klingon houses on the neutral planet Cancri IV, in order to forge an alliance with them and end the war. But V'latak is a Vulcan extremist, opposed to Sarek's policy of dealing with other species. He uses himself as a bomb, leaving the shuttle with the heavily injured ambassador adrift in a nebula near Yridia. Michael Burnham, who shares part of Sarek's katra, senses that he is in danger. Upon her request, Lorca sets a course for the nebula. Burnham and Stamets devise a neural enhancer that may allow Burnham to intensify her connection to Sarek and find the ambassador. Designated Chief of Security Ash Tyler, Cadet Tilly and Michael Burnham take a shuttle into the nebula. But Sarek's mind actively fights the link. Ash Tyler insinuates that the ambassador is trying to hide something shameful from her. Burnham finds out that Sarek once had to make a choice whether to send her to the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, or rather his son Spock. He chose Spock and never told her this was the actual reason for her rejection. Sarek activates the emergency transmitter that allows to beam him out. In the meantime, Admiral Cornwell has arrived on the Discovery. The admiral has doubts about Lorca's ability to command. When the two are in bed and Lorca suddenly points a phaser at her, she decides that he has to take a break. Cornwell sets course for Cancri IV to attend the meeting in place of the injured Sarek. But after her arrival the Klingons kill her two officers and capture her. Kol promised the two other houses the secret of cloaking in exchange for their loyalty. Lorca learns of Cornwell's capture but decides to wait for Starfleet's orders.

Commentary

At first, "Lethe" seems to be an episode about Burnham trying to find the badly injured Sarek. But in the following, everything about them boils down to one specific event in their past and to something that Sarek conceals from her while the two are linked. I think the story overextends the idea of Burnham's visit to Sarek's katra. The scenes on Vulcan are so long and so numerous that they disrupt the flow of the rest of the story, of what's going on in the present, of what arguably matters more. Also, the katra is some kind of soul, of mental essence. It is not the same as a conscious mind, and perhaps not even an unconscious mind. In this regard, the depicted degree of interaction in the mind meld is too high, everything is too definite, as already in "Battle at the Binary Stars". And the whole concept ultimately appears as absurd when Sarek and Burnham begin to fight against each other inside the katra. Bust most importantly, it is anticlimactic for the story that the outcome of the whole mumbo-jumbo is nothing more than that Sarek tried to conceal the truth about Burnham's declined admission to the Expeditionary Group.

Stamets appears in just one scene but in a quite memorable one. After his exposure to the "spore highway", Stamets is more than only lightened up. We could already notice the change last week, when he agreed with Tilly that they were working on something "fucking cool", and that was even before he hooked himself up to the ship's spore drive. Stamets now speaks in youth slang (of the late 20th century!?) all the time, he uses "colorful metaphors" and echoism. It's like he is on speed. I don't know how long his trip will go on, and if it's a great idea for him to serve as comic relief. But on a serious note about Stamets's behavior change, it somehow appears like a relapse to the teenage nerd days he definitely had. I can imagine he really was like this in his younger days, until a big disappointment led him on the path to callousness.

It doesn't come as a big surprise that Cornwell is more than only a superior officer to Lorca. Cornwell speaks out what has been obvious since the first time Lorca appeared. He is pathologically relentless towards others and most of all towards himself. He may have passed the psychological tests after the loss of the Buran. Perhaps he knew how to trick the people examining him, but he is not fit for command. Lorca probably knows that. He always pushed the boundaries, he could rely on Cornwell backing him to some extent. But he knew he couldn't carry on like this forever. When Lorca pulls the phaser and Cornwell announces to relieve him of duty, Lorca is unprepared though - helpless like a little boy who begs his mother not to take away his favorite toy from him. This moment of truth may have been a chance in the story to let Lorca recognize that he suffers from PTSD and needs help. But his lamentation only reinforces the impression of him being obsessed with being a captain and a warrior. What's worse, Lorca does nothing to save the admiral who wants him off the captain's chair. It almost looks like he speculates that she may not survive without his help. And even if he just has learned a lesson not to overstep his authority and to consult Starfleet before mounting a rescue mission single-handedly, his timing leaves a bad taste (and leaves Saru accordingly baffled).

Discovery is a series of red herrings and other forms of deception and obfuscation that are kept up for longer than only one episode. Regarding the true identity of Ash Tyler, we may be mistaken if we think he really is the capable and empathic Starfleet officer that he appears to be in this episode. But then again, maybe the doubts about him (Ash is not from Seattle as he says, but 24 kilometers away, as Lorca notes) are the red herring, and he is just the man he pretends to be. The writing of Discovery is very skilled in this regard, but it may overextend its own credibility if it plays around with the characters like "He may be a spy or not. Who knows. We may not even know ourselves." There has to be a bigger picture of the series and its characters and some degree of reliability about what is true and what isn't. So far Burnham is still the only one in whom we can trust in this regard.

Speaking of deception and obfuscation, I always took it for granted that the Klingon raid on the research outpost Doctari Alpha, in which Michael Burnham's parents were killed (mentioned in "The Vulcan Hello"), and the attack on the Vulcan Learning Center, in which Sarek had to save her life through the katra transfer (shown in "Battle at the Binary Stars"), were the same event. It just didn't make sense that Michael Burnham would be the victim of attacks twice in her early childhood. I think there is no evidence that Doctari Alpha is not identical to the Vulcan Learning Center, other than that the latter is more likely located on Vulcan. It is a deception that the attacks are indeed meant to be two separate events at two different places. Either that, or bad writing that overburdens a character with two childhood traumas and even introduces them in the same double episode so they just beg to be mixed up. When I watched "Lethe", I was annoyed that suddenly Vulcan extremists are responsible for an attack previously ascribed to the Klingons. Only after the episode I was notified that I got it all wrong and that I should have looked it up at startrek.com or Memory Alpha, rather than just watching the series.

I was hoping that Star Trek, after the last season of DS9, after Enterprise and after the first Abrams film, finally had its share of "evil Vulcans". But Discovery is another disappointment in this regard, although for once the series can claim to respect the established continuity. It introduces a xenophobic movement that is responsible for the bombing of the Vulcan Learning Center, as well as for the attempted assassination of Ambassador Sarek. In "Star Trek (2009)", which undeniably inspired this episode, the Vulcan xenophobia was limited to fellow pupils taunting young Spock for being half-human, and the High Council being skeptical about him. In Discovery, this becomes a fully-fledged terrorist movement that attacks aliens, just as well as Vulcan proponents of interplanetary collaboration. I had hoped for Discovery to be the notable exception in recent Star Trek series, and to depict a Vulcan society that is appropriately alien but as peaceful as it was in a time before writers had the idea how cool frequent appearances of abnormal Vulcans could be.

The visualization of space in Discovery continues to be disappointing. The flight through the nebula with its red, green and blue neon lights looks like from a video game of the early 90s. After a continuous improvement of the visual effects in the first 40 years of Star Trek it is a throwback (rather than a homage to TOS) that space consists of colorful lights in Discovery. The very irregular, flashy warp streak effect is another nuisance. It must make warp travelers dizzy or even drive them insane, looking through the windows at warp, especially on a shuttle.

"Lethe" is my least favorite Discovery episode so far because of several annoyances, most of which even have little to do with the lack of continuity that I generally criticize. It doesn't feel realistic and becomes boring after a while how Michael and Sarek interact in his katra. I don't like Stamets on speed. And I hate that Discovery writers couldn't abstain from the "evil Vulcan" theme, and even further expanded the idea. The rest of the story isn't interesting enough to make up for these weaknesses, especially since the bigger picture (Lorca is about to lose his command, Cornwell is captured, the Klingons may be stronger than ever) appears only in a side plot.

Annotations

Rating: 4

 

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

Synopsis

Stardate 2136.8: Burnham is at a party and feels uncomfortable there. On Tilly's suggestion, she is just trying to have a conversation with Tyler, when the two are called to the bridge. Sensors have discovered a gormagander, an endangered space-dwelling species, and regulations require to beam it aboard for the transfer to a sanctuary. When the creature is in the shuttlebay, a man emerges - Harry Mudd. He shoots several crew members but is eventually confined. However, that doesn't seem to bother him. An explosive device destroys the Discovery. Time is reset. Burnham is at the party again, but when she and Tyler leave for the bridge, Stamets already knows that something will happen because of the gormagander. Owing to the tardigrade DNA injected into his body, he exists out of normal space-time. In this loop, Mudd beams out of the creature. He confines himself in engineering to find out the secret about the ship's drive but is shot by Stamets just before time is reset again. This time, Stamets rushes to the party to warn Burnham and Tyler in time, but they are already gone. He finds Burnham and asks her to tell him a secret to make it easier for him in the next loop. Mudd manages to take Captain Lorca hostage. He says he has already killed Lorca 53 times and does it again. Time is reset yet again. Stamets tells Burnham of the secret she revealed to him, that she has never been in love. Instead of trying to stop Mudd, he asks her to dance with him. In the following loop, Burnham is at the party again, and Stamets arranges for her to dance with Tyler. Burnham and Tyler talk about Mudd and find out what kind technology he is using. They rush to the bridge, where Mudd has already taken over the ship and only waits for someone to reveal the secret about its drive. He kills Tyler with a capsule of weaponized dark matter. Stamets finally tells Mudd that he himself is the secret component of the spore drive. Mudd now has everything he wanted. He contacts the Klingons to hand over the ship. But Burnham has an even more tempting offer for him - herself. She tells him the Klingons would pay an even higher reward for her than for the ship because she shot T'Kuvma, upon which she kills herself with a dark matter bullet. Mudd resets time and is surprised that the crew hands over the ship to him without resistance. He contacts the Klingons and proceeds to the transporter room to welcome them. But he was tricked. Tyler managed to lock him out from the ship's systems, and Mudd actually called his father-in-law, the father of his "beloved" Stella, that he was hiding from.

Commentary

It is clear that this episode was made in the spirit of TNG: "Cause and Effect". The theme is much the same. The principal difference between the plots is that in the TNG episode each loop repeated with the exact same pattern, whereas in DIS Mudd works against the crew and their efforts to prevent the disaster. He is always one step ahead of them, even though Stamets does his best to keep up. Using a time loop for a perfect crime is an interesting new twist, at least in Star Trek, and the story works well for me. I enjoy seeing the many opposing efforts of Mudd and the crew, in their many iterations and variations. In this regard, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" is the so far most successful episode to invoke the spirit of the old Star Trek.

Something of note, however, is that the way the characters deal with the temporal loop dilemma is very different than it would have been shown in a TNG episode, for instance. The crew members of the Discovery obviously have not yet developed the same level of mutual trust. On the Enterprise-D, the whole crew would work together and did work together in "Cause and Effect", as soon as someone suspected something was wrong. On the Discovery, Lorca simply brushes aside Burnham's and Tyler's objections to beaming aboard the creature. They may have tried again in later loops, and Stamets too may have attempted to prevent Lorca from enabling Mudd to board the ship, but they were obviously unsuccessful. So it takes quite a while on the Discovery until the single crew members' actions finally lead to a coordinated effort to defeat Mudd. Well, TNG: "Cause and Effect" may not be a fair yardstick, considering that the whole crew had premonitions, rather than just one person. Still, on the Enterprise-D the crew very often worked together with one mind, for example when Picard signaled to Riker to confine the aliens in TNG: "Allegiance", without saying a word. The Discovery crew is still a far cry from such a spirit of collaboration. That's not meant as criticism of the series but as an appraisal of the state of the crew.

In the mindset of Lt. Stamets, love seems to be the key to the mutual trust that is needed to master a critical situation. At least, that is what I read into his efforts to pair off Burnham with Tyler, after learning that Burnham has never been in love with someone. It is curious because Stamets just asks for a secret that would make it easier for him to convince Burnham of his findings in the next loop, more like a password. But then he more or less understands it as an obligation to change something about this deficiency, perhaps also because she reminds him of how he was like when he first met Hugh Culber. Stamets wants to accomplish too much as a character, and the whole story eventually overextends the idea of bringing Burnham and Tyler together. Instead of his playing Chinese whispers (he talks to Burnham so she can talk with Tyler), why doesn't Stamets simply approach the two, saying "I need to talk with you. It's urgent." In order to make sure they would listen, he should have asked both of them for a secret to share. Why the connotation that Burnham's appreciation for Tyler or vice versa must have any relevance for the effort to defeat Mudd? I really like the idea of Burnham and Tyler's romance, and it is a cute detail that it only comes to fruition in a timeline that doesn't exist any longer and that only Stamets knows about. This may be another nod to TNG, thinking about Troi and Worf. Still, it feels out of place in the story context.

That said, I like both Burnham and Tyler very much in this episode. Their chemistry works well. In many ways the stubborn Burnham and the charming Tyler mirror the other odd couple on the ship, Stamets and Culber. The depiction of Stamets in the episode, on the other hand, suffers a bit from the character's double trouble. In addition to the trip that he is on since his connection to the spores, he also experiences the many time loops. It must drive him additionally crazy. We never really know what Stamets' behavior is about in this episode, especially since he is not so much in the focus as a character as he should perhaps be, considering he is the only one who always knows what is going on.

I enjoyed the appearance of Harry Mudd in "Choose Your Pain", where he was a sneaky con man, close to the original portrayal of the character in the two TOS episodes. Mudd was a highlight of the episode. There is, however, not much left of this character in "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad". The piece of dialogue "You're mad." - "No, I'm Mudd." that was already known from the series trailers is telling in this regard. The new Mudd is corrupted by his absolute power, he has become a merciless serial killer who just can't stop. Mudd remains playful and comical the whole time, but that hardly exonerates him. On the contrary, these traits left over from the old Mudd let his crimes appear even more frightening, and reminiscent of other psychopathic killers on TV and in movies.

It was foreseeable that the crew would eventually con the con man. But after the numerous temporal loops (at least 56), the crew finally defeats the intruder with a swift idea and a huge deal of luck, rather than in a common effort that profits from the accumulated knowledge of all loops. Stamets unwisely reveals the secret of the spore drive to Mudd, although Tyler has just been killed, and the chance to win in the next loop may be better than ever. But Stamets is excused because he is the one among the crew who went through all those loops and who may have thought that now would be as good as any time to end it. With Mudd being in control of all systems, there are no options left for the crew to avert the capture of the ship by the Klingons, except to offer him something even better. It is not a well-considered plan but a very desperate last resort that Burnham reveals who she is and that the Klingons would pay a fortune for her, only to commit suicide in the next moment. She speculates on Mudd's greed, and that he would sacrifice what he has gained for the chance to get an even higher reward. I don't know whether Mudd knows about the bird in the hand that is worth two in the bush. In any case, he is extremely stupid when he rewinds time yet again.

The clear intention of the writer was to lighten up the story again in the final loop, after all the killing that has been going on in the previous ones. This is also necessary to exonerate the "con man", who will not be known as a murderer by the time of TOS. And it was probably also deemed a good opportunity to show Stella, for the sake of additional comic relief, and to pull off a similar ending as in TOS: "I, Mudd". So the final loop is very plot- and continuity-driven, but it utterly fails in being light-hearted, much less realistic. The story makes a big deal of Mudd's claim that he lost Stella because of the war, although in fact he ran away with her dowry. Well, the crew confronts Mudd with his lie to distract him and take his phaser. Still, since they bothered to look it up in his record and even called his father-in-law to that end, does this very minor offense have any relevance to his repeated takeover of the ship in coincidence with mass murder? It is so incredibly stupid that Mudd is released into the custody of his "beloved" Stella and her father that it hurts.

I just love temporal anomaly episodes, and this is a really intelligent one. I enjoy how everything in "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" unfolds, although I don't mind Lt. Stamets's matchmaking efforts. The story is great, the best of the series so far, until the point towards the end when it sacrifices its credibility. The producers of the series should have been aware that the huge damage to the continuity was already done, and that keeping minor facts in line, like Mudd's criminal record, is no reason to write such an outrageously dumb ending for the episode. For all the above reasons and the ones in the annotations below, Mudd wasn't the right choice for the villain of this episode anyway.

Annotations

Rating: 6

 

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

Synopsis

Stardate 1308.9: The Discovery arrives to aid the USS Gagarin in a battle against Klingon ships that are equipped with the new invisibility screens based on the "Ship of the Dead". The Gagarin, however, is destroyed, just like the Hoover and the Muroc briefly before. Saru, Tyler and Burnham explore the planet Pahvo with its unique natural communication network that extends into space. They hope that the planetary transmitter can be tuned in a way to render cloaked Klingon ships visible. On the "Ship of the Dead", L'Rell vows allegiance to Kol, the new leader of the Klingons. She proposes to help interrogate an obstinate prisoner, Admiral Cornwell. L'Rell, however, reveals to Cornwell that she is going to defect. The two proceed towards the shuttlebay but run into Kol. L'Rell claims that Cornwell took her weapon and tried to escape. She fights with Cornwell and wins, telling Kol she would dispose of the dead body. L'Rell, however, discovers the desecrated bodies of warriors she knew, and swears revenge to Kol. On Pahvo, Saru contacts the planets' non-corporeal inhabitants, and learns that the whole planet is one lifeform. Under the influence of the Pahvans, Saru destroys Tyler's and Burnham's communicators and tells them that he has found his peace on the planet and wishes to stay. Tyler distracts Saru so Burnham can proceed to the natural transmitter in order to contact Discovery. Saru catches up with her and attempts to destroy the Starfleet transmitter that Burnham has connected to the structure. The Pahvans interfere, sending Ash Tyler to stop the violent Saru. The three officers are beamed up to the Discovery. On the Klingon ship, Kol pretends to accept L'Rell's pledge for allegiance but then his people come and drag her away for her attempt to deceive Kol. Although Burnham was under the impression that the transmitter on Pahvo was set to disrupt the Klingon invisibility screens, the Pahvans send out a massive signal to the Federation and the Klingons. Under the assumption that the Klingons see this as an invitation to attack the defenseless planet, the Discovery prepares for a fight.

Commentary

Welcome to Pahvo, the planet that breathes as one! I suspected there was an analogy to Pandora the moment that the landing party spoke of the unique communication network on Pahvo. So it didn't come as a surprise at all when it turned out that the whole planet is a single organism. It was also clear that one of the three Discovery crew members would somehow be transformed or otherwise manipulated by the planet, and that this person would be Saru, the one who suffered the most from the noise level on Pahvo. Discovery finally explores a strange new world in "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum". Yet, this world is neither very original nor very credible. I care more for the various other aspects of the story, such as the exciting space battle and the character interaction of the landing party on Pahvo.

I like Saru in this episode because in a way he is still the same person even under the influence of the planet Pahvo. He is not simply mind-controlled but essentially loses an aspect of his personality or of his Kelpien nature that he always considered a burden. As Saru says himself, he was born afraid, and for the first time in his life he is without fear, thanks to his being connected to the planet. But Saru also loses his ability to judge and his skepticism, which apparently are firmly linked to his species' role as prey on their home planet. In a way, he is like a human being on LSD, or like Stamets on spores. Only Saru's readiness to resort to violence to defend his paradise does not fit with the image. It does not seem to find the approval of the Pahvans either. If the writer's intention was to show what a Kelpien without fear would be like, rather than a mind-controlled instrument of the planet Pahvo, it would have been more favorable not to let Saru become violent. On the other hand, this may be just what Saru is without his caution, a bit like the "bad Kirk" in "The Enemy Within".

In a side plot, Cadet Tilly notices that Lt. Stamets is confused after his latest jump, addressing her as "captain". When she notifies him of his disorientation, Stamets is the old petulant person all over again and reprimands her. Tilly later takes the courage to speak to Stamets again. Stamets now admits that at times he is not sure of where he is and who everyone else is. But he wouldn't let Dr. Culber examine him because the doctor would have to send him to a medical facility of Starfleet, and if he didn't and his superiors found out, it would ruin Culber's career. While the reasoning that Stamets makes up regarding his friend Hugh Culber seems a bit melodramatic, it makes sense for Stamets to remain silent about his occasional confusion, as long as it doesn't jeopardize the ship's mission. On the other hand, maybe it is time to think of someone else as a backup for him? When I try to summarize my impression of the "old" grumpy man, the temporary Stamets "on drugs" and the rather objective one that Tilly talks to, I never really know which one is the true person and whether there is something like a "true Stamets" at all. His character is written as very uneven and remains accordingly hard to grasp. Well, unless we are dealing with genuinely different versions of Stamets.

Speaking of uneven characters, if there is one figure in Discovery that is even less comprehensible, it is L'Rell. Well, her basic behavioral pattern seems to be very simple. She is quick to pledge allegiance with any new leader that seems apt, first with T'Kuvma, then with Voq, then briefly with Kol, then once more with Voq and now with Kol again. Her story so far is cheesy like a Klingon soap opera. But she is just as quick to renounce her loyalty for no apparent reason, and much of her previous servility may have been only pretense anyway. The dilemma is we can't tell what is genuine about her statements and actions, if anything. This was a problem in her mysterious conspiracy with Voq in "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry", and once again in "Choose Your Pain". What L'Rell is doing can be only partially explained with the fan theory about Voq's whereabouts that exists at this point of the series. L'Rell's behavior in "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" once again raises the question whether her initial pledge for allegiance to Kol was genuine, or rather her attempt to defect with the help of Admiral Cornwell. Both interpretations are equally valid. Only when she is horrified about the desecrated dead warriors and swears revenge to Kol, we can see the real L'Rell, quite possibly for the first time in the whole series. For all I can remember, it is the first time she is alone and hence does not have to pretend anything. It remains to be seen how her latest intrigue will be resolved, and I hope there will soon be more clarity about and more depth to L'Rell (well, and Voq anyway), assuming that she survives. Is she a cunning person who has a big plan, is she an awkward intriguer who always needs to switch to a new plan, or is she just a minion who only knows to jump on the bandwagon?

This takes me to Ash Tyler. The more I get to know him, the more I like him, and the more I want him to be just the person he appears to be. Tyler and Burnham are the perhaps most believable lovers in the history of Star Trek. The chemistry between them is wonderful; the romance doesn't feel contrived at all. However, we also learn that the apparently so confident and composed lieutenant holds a deep-seated grudge against the Klingons. It makes me wonder what his next confrontation with them will be like, or if we are up for a somehow expected surprise. The series currently portrays Tyler to be both as human as possible and as likable as possible. And if there is something wrong with him, it becomes harder every week to make this potential revelation plausible.

This is the first episode of the series with a real cliffhanger, considering that the two parts making up the prologue were released on the same day. "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What are the Pahvans up to? Are they trying to forge a peace treaty, in a similar fashion as the Organians in TOS? What happens to L'Rell? It seems unlikely that she will simply be killed, although Kol appears to have no reason to spare her life. Is Admiral Cornwell really dead? This is unlikely because otherwise it wouldn't have been shown how L'Rell takes the effort of dragging her away, with an eventual close-up on Cornwell. So although "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" is not a great episode by itself, I find it quite appetizing.

Annotations

Rating: 5

 

Into the Forest I Go

Synopsis

Admiral Terral orders Captain Lorca to withdraw from Pahvo. Lorca, however, does not want to leave the planet with its peaceful civilization unprotected. He orders a course to Starbase 46 at Warp 5, rather than using the spore drive, to give his crew the opportunity to devise a method to detect the cloaked Klingon "Ship of the Dead". Saru, Burnham and Tyler propose to beam aboard the Klingon ship to install transmitters. When the ship is cloaked, the transmitters would send the position to the Discovery, allowing to relate these data to imperfections of the cloak. In order to get the Klingons to drop their cloak, the Discovery would act as a bait. Lorca asks Stamets to perform as many as 133 microjumps around the Klingon ship, in order to get the required 3D data. Stamets is reluctant but eventually agrees when Lorca demonstrates that he is interested in more than only the military side of Stamets' research, and that it could be used to explore parallel universes. Lorca does not want Burnham to beam over to the Klingon ship with Tyler, but Burnham reminds him of his own words that she is only aboard Discovery to help end the war. The Discovery jumps to Pahvo, right as the Klingon "Ship of the Dead" has arrived. Kol orders to decloak in order to be able to attack, whereupon Tyler and Burnham beam aboard, masked by pattern simulators that let them appear as Klingons. They place one transmitter near the ship's stern but then discover a human lifesign in the burial chamber. It is Admiral Cornwell. While Burnham tends to the admiral, Tyler discovers someone he knows: It is L'Rell, who was dumped here by Kol. Memories of his torture resurface in his mind, and he is unable to act. Burnham stuns L'Rell and proceeds to the bridge alone to place the second transmitter. Once she has activated the device, the Discovery jumps away. The Klingon vessel goes to cloak again, giving the Discovery crew the opportunity to perform the microjumps and to gather the data necessary to detect the cloaked vessel. Kol's people, however, discover the sabotage to the ship. In order to gain time, Burnham gives up her cover, reveals her identity as the one who killed T'Kuvma and challenges Kol to a fight. After the completion of the scan, the three Starfleet officers are beamed out of the Klingon vessel, but also a Klingon prisoner, L'Rell. The algorithm to detect the cloaked vessel is put together, and Lorca orders to fire photon torpedoes, destroying the defenseless "Ship of the Dead". Apparently plagued by his PTSD, Tyler goes to the brig to see L'Rell, who insinuates that the two have a common plan. Lorca promises that Stamets would have to perform just one last jump, to get the Discovery out of the range of the Klingons. But this jump goes awry. Stamets collapses, and the ship ends up in unknown territory, surrounded by Klingon wreckage.

Commentary

I would have expected this episode to resolve the mystery about the Pahvans, who sent out a signal in "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum", with the possible intention to get the Federation and the Klingons to talk. The resolution in "Into the Forest I Go" is more conventional, however. The Pahvans don't even show up again. Still, "Into the Forest I Go" is the most intense Discovery episode so far. The story thrives on the carefully executed plan to expose the cloaked enemy vessel, the spirit of collaboration among the Starfleet crew, the excitement about the space battle but also on the human drama of Ash Tyler's PTSD. However, the story consists of many more elements, not all of which work so well for me. Some of them come with a bad aftertaste and even cast doubt on the things I like about the episode.

Captain Lorca is my favorite character in "Into the Forest I Go". Well, his shipwide announcement that the crew of the Discovery used to consist of scientists who have become warriors doesn't resonate with me. But it is the kind of statement that the crew may have expected from him in this situation. Other than that, Lorca has become a commendable captain who is well aware of his duties. He disobeys his orders in much the same fashion as Picard would have done under the same circumstances, in order to save the peaceful Pahvans. This is remarkable because so far we knew Lorca as a warrior who would only protect the Federation and its citizens. He has just learned of the peaceful civilization on Pahvo and never met anyone of them in person, and still he is ready to fight for them. It almost seems to be a bit out of character that Lorca would want to defend the Pahvans without the need to persuade him, but then again it is the first time in the series that he is in such a situation. His stance that officers shouldn't advertise the fact that they disobey orders is wise, and is a nice contrast to other Starfleet commanders who used to make their moral or tactical superiority a big deal.

Lorca motivates the crew, and especially Stamets, who is reluctant to perform so many jumps in rapid succession. We could argue that Lorca only exploits Stamets' driving force of being a scientist, that he entices Stamets to risk his life with the prospect of making a revolutionary discovery. But realistically, what could Stamets achieve if the ship has to stay in a safe harbor, or if the Klingons win the war? I think Lorca does the right thing when he assures Stamets of his support for the scientific mission ("Captain, I didn't know you cared"), after the war, for which a further sacrifice may be necessary. Regarding Burnham, on the other hand, the captain is very cautious, if not to say overprotective. He does not want her to go on the dangerous mission aboard the Klingon ship. He thinks of her as a very valuable crew member, so in his view it would be better to send Ensign Expendable. Burnham reminds him that he released her from prison to help end the war in the first place, that she has no other purpose on the Discovery and that she would be the most qualified person because she has been on that ship before. Lorca listens to her, unlike he did on previous occasions, and ultimately has to agree with her logic.

Dr. Culber and Cadet Tilly have no obvious purpose in this episode. We can see Culber as he examines Stamets on Lorca's orders, to find some reason why he shouldn't perform further spore drive jumps. But the thorough examination is pointless because it takes just as long as Burnham and Saru need to devise the plan to detect the cloaked Klingon ship. It would have made a lot more sense for Stamets to help them. Culber later accompanies Stamets to the chamber to monitor his lifesigns during the jumps (which he should have done on previous occasions too). Tilly, who obviously doesn't know that Culber has examined him, thinks that Stamets told his friend about the side effects of the jumps (which he could and should have done at latest during the medical test). She embarrasses Stamets with her knowledge of something that the lieutenant didn't reveal to his friend. But that's all what the involvement of Tilly and Culber is about.

Michael Burnham and Ash Tyler are the heart of this story. It first seems they would subordinate their mutual feelings to their mission, but at latest when Tyler opens himself to Burnham it becomes clear that the two are willing to share more than only the bright moments of their lives. It almost brought a tear to my eyes when Ash spoke of how being on the Discovery with Michael was worth all the months of torture.

However, we always have to keep in mind that the sword of Damocles is hanging above Tyler's character. L'Rell's remark that she has plans with him is telling and is a further hint that Tyler is actually Voq in human disguise. If this is true, it will entail several huge problems. The more we see of Tyler and of his very human behavior and emotional life, the less plausible it is that he may be a surgically altered Klingon, or a human with an implanted parasitic Klingon personality. Even if a fake person of the latter type may still have genuine loyalty for the Federation and affection for Burnham, the visualization of his being tortured and raped would have to be rated as an illicit deception of the viewers. Furthermore, exposing Tyler as a Klingon spy would not only destroy one of the most popular characters of Discovery, which is something we may be expected to put up with in modern-day serial television. It would also show someone as a liar, who so far exemplifies PTSD in an unprecedented fashion in Star Trek. A series that otherwise prides itself in being diverse and inclusive would disparage war veterans, victims of torture and sexual abuse, and other people with traumatic experiences. I hate to think about the consequences.

L'Rell's statements and actions make less sense in every episode she appears in. So far she has done everything to weaken her own position and that of her people. She has lost everything, and survived the last episode only with a big deal of luck. Kol might just as well have killed her on the spot instead of leaving her in the burial chamber. It is totally incredible that she could have a bigger plan, one that takes into account that the Klingons don't get hold of the spore drive, lose the advantage of cloaking and eventually lose the war, not to mention her own degradation to an outcast who is captured by the enemy. This all makes absolutely no sense. If she really has an agenda, it relies on so many coincidences that is makes Kirk's unlikely maneuvers to snatch the Romulan cloaking device in "The Enterprise Incident" appear like a well-considered plan.

As a sort of summary of the first chapter with Discovery's all-new Klingons, they never appeared to me like the endangered civilization that T'Kuvma spoke of, or like the alien race that has good reasons to go to war against the Federation as insinuated in the promotion campaign. The Discovery Klingons have just one principal enemy: themselves. They are hampered by their their own immobility, figuratively and literally. They like to hear themselves talk, but hesitate when it comes to acting. They may be great in scheming and possibly in gathering intelligence but don't manage to use it. They are never consequential in what they are doing. Overall, the Klingons are disappointing as the antagonists of the series. And the mere intention that they should become very alien and accordingly incomprehensible does not justify the total alteration of every aspect of their culture, not only the visual ones. I can only speak for myself, but I sorely miss the look and feel of the old Klingons. In this regard, I like how Kol accepts Burnham's challenge to a duel, although he would have no reason to even listen to her. Their fight evokes the old, more vivid Klingon spirit that is otherwise missing from the series.

We don't know at this time what happens to the Discovery when Stamets's last jump goes awry. But there are a few cues in the episode. The first is when Stamets mentions the possibility to enter parallel universes. The second is that the Discovery isn't seen jumping in just one direction as usual, but also in the opposite one. This is reminiscent of the visualization of the Mirror Universe in TOS: "Mirror, Mirror". On another note, we can see in the jump log that jump #133 was overridden by Lorca, leading to a jump to an "unknown" position. Lorca says, "Let's go home", which seems to support another popular fan theory, that he is from a parallel universe. Jump #133, however, is not the upcoming one but was the last of the 133 jumps that Stamets performed to locate the cloaked ship and that already appeared as successful on Tilly's display earlier in the episode. Would Lorca have any reason to sabotage the very jump that would lead to the destruction of the "Ship of the Dead"? Was the enemy ship destroyed in a parallel universe (in his one?), and Lorca now wants to take the ship "home" to "our" universe? It is a total conundrum what he is up to.

"Into the Forest I Go" is the so far most exciting and most revealing installment of the series, and a worthy mid-season finale in almost every respect. It evokes the spirit of the old Star Trek, with a crew that is of one mind and works towards a common goal. There are some characters that don't work so well and we don't learn why the Pahvans sent out the signal, but that doesn't detract from the story. However, I have misgivings about the continued secret-mongering about L'Rell and Tyler, especially as the story gives rise to new mysteries about Lorca and Stamets. I just hate that every second character is under suspicion to have a hidden agenda or even to be a completely different person. It may be a stylistic device of modern serialized television and it may be deemed useful to keep the fans talking (and possibly to distract from other issues of Discovery). But I think that the mystery factor about characters is neither realistic nor desirable, considering that the viewer needs to be able to relate to their motivations, thoughts and actions to some extent. Discovery carelessly plays around with its assets. The series will have a very hard time to resolve the mess it creates, regarding Star Trek's continuity but also regarding its very own characters.

Annotations

Rating: 8

 


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