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Monday, January 08, 2018

Enjoying "Despite Yourself" Despite Myself


Star Trek: Discovery returned this week by paying off two of the worst-kept secrets about the show: Ash Tyler's reveal as a Klingon Manchurian Candidate, and the appearance of the infamous Mirror Universe. One of these developments was handled with great panache; the other presents viewers with some troublesome subtext. 

First, the good. Following the events of "Into the Forest We Go," the Discovery finds herself lost in space, jumping not to Starbase 46 as intended, but into a field of starship debris. Captain Lorca orders Ash Tyler to retrieve a data core from one of the stricken ships, and the intelligence in the core reveals that they've jumped to a parallel universe, specifically one longtime viewers are familiar with: the dreaded Mirror Universe, home to the fascistic Terran Empire. Realizing their peril, Lorca and company react with commendable logic, reskinning the ship and manufacturing uniforms to make themselves indistinguishable from the I.S.S. Discovery they have inadvertently displaced (into the prime Star Trek universe, they theorize; who knows what mischief that crew will perpetrate in "our" universe?) 

My highest commendation goes to the costuming department this time around - the Mirror Universe uniforms are amazing, with a corruptive allure that it's difficult (but necessary) to resist. It's also fun to see Sylvia Tilly being forced to act against her nature by playing the Discovery's captain, as she apparently is in this universe, having backstabbed her way up the chain of command. The dreaded agony booths of the original "Mirror, Mirror" also appear in this episode, and they are genuinely terrifying. 

I was surprised and delighted most, though, by the reference to the U.S.S. Defiant, which as Star Trek: Enterprise viewers will remember, was captured by the evil versions of Jonathan Archer and Hoshi Sato in that series' fourth (and best) season. Naturally the ship's appearance confuses Lorca, Burnham, and company, since from their perspective the Defiant is currently still on normal duty back in their home universe. They don't know what the audience knows, namely that the Defiant was thrown back in time and into the Mirror Universe some dozen years in the future (from their perspective). These are the kind of wacky hijinks that are only possible in science fiction, and only then in long-form storytelling like this. At this point, Star Trek has become a period piece, in a sense, a setting with a reasonably consistent history, look, and feel. Continuity callbacks are important because they acknowledge the established reality of the setting, and respecting continuity gives writers the obstacles and complications that are often necessary to create good material. Yes, it's also shameless fan service, but it works for me here. 

As for Ash Tyler's story, I'm somewhat disappointed because the reveal does, in my mind, undercut the PTSD storyline that was so essential to his character. Now, given that we still don't know the exact nature of Tyler/Voq's...existence...perhaps this reveal can still remain thematically satisfying. It really depends on how the writers develop the character from this point forward. It appears as though Tyler/Voq's body is Klingon, surgically altered to appear human, with Ash Tyler's memory engrams/personality/soul overlaid on top of the original Voq personality. Depending on your spiritual point of view, you could argue that this person is really the Klingon Voq, with a ghost imprinted on his brain; or, you could argue that Tyler is, in a sense, still alive, only living in Voq's altered body. 

If Voq is written as the real person, then Tyler's story becomes even more tragic, since we never really met him. On the other hand, if Tyler's engrams/personality/soul/whatever are presented as "real," then Tyler's story...becomes even more tragic, since he suffered all that torture and was also ripped from his physical body and stuck in a Klingon. 

I imagine the two personalities will fight over who gets to keep the physical meatspace, but philosophically this is a hugely complicated mess, to put it mildly. But again, this is the sort of story that science fiction was designed to handle. 

Sadly, when Dr. Culber realizes something is up, Tyler promptly snaps his neck - a surprising shock moment, to be sure, but one that brings to an abrupt end the notion of whether or not his relationship with Stamets can be sensitively handled in a satisfying way. 

Or does it? I immediately thought of the "kill your gays" trope when Culber died, but according to actor Wilson Cruz and writer Aaroc Harberts, there's more to Culber's death than meets the eye, and Harberts and Cruz, both gay men themselves, were quick to say that this isn't what's happening, and furthermore, that Cruz will return. They're not going to replace Culber with a Mirror Culber, so maybe he's not dead and his neck is just broken? Hmmm. 

This is the first episode of Discovery to be directed by Jonathan Frakes, AKA Will Riker, who started directing episodes way back during the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Frakes has a reputation for adding a dark sort of flair to his episodes, and he was clearly well-suited to "Despite Yourself." The episode manages to be campy fun and loomingly creepy at the same time - no mean feat. 

So, despite my reservations, I feel like this was another surprisingly solid outing for Star Trek: Discovery. If the Empress of the Terran Empire turns out to be a descendant of evil Hoshi Sato, well, I'll be pretty darn impressed. 

1 comment:

Jeff Shyluk said...

And here we agree on this episode, a very handsome spectacle.

The Mirror Universe, I think, is becoming over-used. Even so, Captain Lorca appears to be a big believer in destiny, something which has always struck me as perhaps the strongest core tenet of Star Trek. So many Trek characters fight to shape and mold destiny, going so far as to inhabit parallel lives: sometimes in the Mirror Universe and sometimes it seems through biological manipulation. Yet destiny is destiny, as certainly as Sisko finds the bomb in the tribble, so to does every frame of every Star Trek character's lives play out on DVD, blu-ray, or Netflix, unchanging and immutable. Well, maybe not Netfix, since they paid for a "more accurate" translation of the Klingon subtitles in Star Trek III, pulled the movie from their library, and replaced it with their own proprietary version.

The Mirror universe is the one where humans get whatever they want as long as they maintain their will to power. Greed supercedes all else, yet somehow that greed never becomes self-destructive. Well, many, many, many minor characters die horribly in the Mirror universe, but the major ones don't seem to. The humans fight cataclysimic wars, but not ones that end up wiping out our own species. And it's not like there isn't an Arlington filled with redshirts in the prime Universe.

What I mean is that in the Mirror universe, self-service projects humankind to the peak of galactic power. Star Trek has always positioned itself as a cultural mirror to the the events that are contemporary to the viewers, and now perhaps maybe (is it possible?) that Discovery is finally getting around to some of that in this half of the season? That Discovery might have something to say about narcissism and nuclear war? Or will the show continue to be just another distraction from all of that?