Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I Will Take You By the Hand, with Reservations


The season finale of Star Trek: Discovery opens with a lovely sequence of two worlds in opposition: our lovely blue marble, Earth, and its grey sister, Luna, threatened by an approaching Klingon fleet; and Qo'nos, shrouded in green mist, home of the enemy. This short sequence heralds the end of the main story arc of the show's first season, the Federation-Klingon war. We know from other shows that the war must end without either side being destroyed, but how exactly does it end, and will that ending bring redemption for poor Michael Burnham? We find out the answer in "Will You Take Me By the Hand?"

The End is Near
As you might expect--this is, after all, a utopian vision--Michael is indeed redeemed, but I'm sorry to say that her arc, and that of the war itself, ends on a note so puzzling that it undermines the good work of the season thus far.

Last episode, Admiral Cornwell made a deal with Mirror Georgiou: her freedom and temporary command of the Discovery in exchange for her experience exterminating the Klingons in the Mirror Universe. While Michael, Saru, and the other Discovery crew suspect that trusting Georgiou with this task isn't the best idea, they reluctantly obey her orders; with the Federation on the brink of defeat, they have little choice.

Georgiou and company use the spore drive to jump the ship into the porous crust of Qo'nos, where they can stay hidden while assessing the planet's defences. Meanwhile, Michael, Georgiou, Ash Tyler, and Sylvia Tilly meet in the transporter room; there's a cute moment where Tilly, figuring out that Georgiou is the Empress and not "their" Georgiou, starts to offer the Terran Empire salute.

"Don't do that," Burnham mutters, pushing Tilly's arm down.

These Little People Went to Market
The quartet beam up to the surface of Qo'nos, to an Orion market. I fully accept that Qo'nos is cosmopolitan enough to have communities of offworlders, but it seems a little strange that the Klingons at the market don't care that humans are walking around openly. They are, after all, at war...

At the market, each member of the landing party searches for information about a shrine to Molor, which they've previously determined would be the best place to release a drone to locate military targets for a Starfleet assault. Tilly, who seems to get a lot of the best scenes (and more power to her), tries to ply information from an Orion trader played by Clint Howard, a lovely cameo from the actor who famously appeared as Balok in "The Corbomite Maneuver." After getting high with Clint, Tilly discovers to her horror that the drone she's carrying is in fact a doomsday bomb, but doesn't have time to tell Burnham and Tyler before Mirror Georgiou, having slept with a pair of comely Orions to find the shrine's location, knocks Tilly out, takes the bomb, and makes her way into the planet's crust.

While all this is happening, Michael Burnham and Ash Tyler take a different approach to finding the necessary information; Ash draws upon his Voq persona to ingratiate himself to a group of gambling Klingons. I must say I was impressed with the character's portrayal here, so much so that I believed in this character more as Voq than I do as Tyler; he really makes a quite natural Klingon, and clearly Michael feels the same way; she's visibly disturbed by Ash's all-too-easy transformation. And here we learn the exact, horrifying circumstances of Michael's central life trauma, the loss of her parents; they were killed by Klingons while she hid in a cupboard. To his credit, Ash Tyler is genuinely disturbed and shamed by this revelation.

Tilly arrives at this point to explain what Georgiou has done, and, fearing the worst, they beam back to Discovery to simulate the effect of the bomb: it would wreak massive destruction, probably killing most of the population and forcing the rest to evacuate. Burnham asks Saru to open a channel to Admiral Cornwell, who confirms that Georgiou's plan is endorsed by the desperate Federation Council.

Burnham threatens mutiny, this time to end a war rather than to start it. Cornwell asks what Burnham would suggest...

What if They Started a War and Nobody Came? 
This is where the episode goes completely off the rails. Burnham makes her way to the shrine and confronts Georgiou, who has already dropped the bomb-carrying drown down a well into the planet's depths. Burnham begs Georgiou not to detonate the bomb, and gives her proof that the Federation will still give her her freedom even if she doesn't destroy Qo'nos. Instead, she must hand over the detonator to...L'Rell, who arrives with Ash Tyler. Smirking, Georgiou agrees, heading off to wreak havoc in season two, one presumes.

Burnham offers the detonator to L'Rell, saying that the Klingon can consolidate power by holding the doomsday weapon as a trump card against the divided Klingon houses. To my shock, L'Rell agrees, and she and Ash Tyler go off to unite the fractured Klingon Empire. With a metaphorical shrug, the Klingons on Earth's doorstep turn around and head home.

This development might have been believable if L'Rell hadn't been presented as a war-mongering xenophobe from the first episode. Why in the world wouldn't L'Rell just keep the detonator and continue the war, wiping out humanity for good and then disabling the bomb? Failing that, why didn't the writers have Ash Tyler/Voq convince L'Rell to end the war by offering to stay with her? L'Rell clearly adored Voq, and I can believe that she would do anything for him, even this. This would also have been a nice resolution for Tyler--a way to pay the price for the acts he committed in the Voq persona. And it would have taken all of 30 seconds' worth of dialogue.

The war ends, Discovery heads home to Earth, and Michael Burnham gets her rank restored while everyone else on the ship gets medals. This was a nice scene--it's always great to see how the showrunners visualize future Earth--but for some reason, Michael makes an inspirational speech, when really you think the Admiral or Saru (poor, disrespected, best character Saru) would be the more logical choice in this context.

The show almost saves itself with an eleventh-hour cliffhanger that's pure high-octane fan service, but the war's resolution is so distracting and nonsensical that I really wasn't in the mood for the tease. And that's too bad, because it sets up some pretty interesting possibilities for season two.

Final Frontier Thoughts
While some of this first season's twists and turns have annoyed me--the war's resolution, the inability of the writers to pin down what they were trying to do with Tyler, and Lorca's heel-turn chief among them--there's still a lot to like about this opening storyline. I genuinely like most of the characters, with Saru and Tilly being my favourites, followed by Stamets, Tyler (despite reservations about his arc), and Burnham...though I don't like her as much as I feel I should, considering she's the lead. I don't blame Sonequa Martin-Green for this; she's a fine actress, but the writers have made her deliberately unsympathetic for much of the first season, and playing a human raised by Vulcans, she comes off as pretty cold; colder, even, than Leonard Nimoy's Spock, who somehow managed to express his character's humour and humanity from his second appearance onward. (He feels a bit stilted in "The Cage.")

I'm also finding that it's difficult to name truly standout episodes that work outside the context of the season's arc. I can name two dozen or more classic episodes from the other Star Trek shows, but nothing in this first season really works unless you sit down and watch the whole thing. That's the nature of television these days, of course, so I don't blame the showrunners for it; but I do feel that something has been lost.

None of my friends will be surprised that I'll keep watching--I made it through Voyager's seven mediocre seasons, after all--but I'm not watching out of duty; I think this could become a great show, with more careful forethought on the part of the writers and producers, and perhaps - please - the infusion of some more science-fictional ideas. Star Trek works very well as a mirror for our present-day foibles, but it should also spend time living up to its initial premise, exploring the final frontier and simply asking us to marvel at whatever scientifically plausible marvels await our descendants. Maybe they can explore why future humanity hasn't lost itself to VR or runaway nanotech or artificial intelligence, or why people still get bald or grow fat; there has to be a sociological or scientific reason for that. Or show us a quasar, or the birth of a solar system, or just visit a geologically interesting moon. Something. I love space opera, but let's see some giant space amoebas or sentient rocks from time to time, you know? 

Maybe the writers will surprise us. See you next season! 


Paul said...

Yep, you're right when you say that they need to explore more story-lines, sci-fi or otherwise. The best thing they could do is ban backwards time travel - the lamest and laziest of all sci-fi techniques. Couldn't watch Voyager because of it.

Totty said...

I was tempted to give up on this series many times, especially the first two episodes. Not just the storytelling, but also the cinematography pissed me off. A lot of unnecessary "Dutch angles" and other tricks which feel like distractions rather than additions. I've been watching too many cinema channels on YouTube, like Every Scene a Painting, and these feel more like the worst of the JJ Abrams Star Trek visuals. Also, 2 out of 3 of those movies sucked very hard.

But, as you point out, for a first season of Star Trek it's actually not bad. I gave up on Next Generation initially too, only to return to it after seeing the improvements in the later seasons.

Cautiously optimistic, but still worried they'll spend too much time with the cliches and the fan service (like the cliffhanger).