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Sunday, February 04, 2018

What's Passed is Prologue?


Here's a little extra spoiler space for those who see this on Google Plus...

And so the U.S.S. Discovery's excursion to the Mirror Universe ends as I was afraid it would: serviceably, and not without considerable entertainment value, but stopping short of excellence. 

Holding Up a Mirror to Ourselves
"What's Past is Prologue" concludes the Mirror Universe arc with Gabriel Lorca plays his final hand: unleashing a violent coup to take over the I.S.S. Charon and overthrow Emperor Georgiou. The action is well-orchestrated and effectively violent; people are exposed to biological weapons, knifed to death, and vaporized by phaser fire; it's all as awful and ugly as it should be. It is also, however, somewhat contrived. The plot is constructed in such a way as to give Michael Burnham victory despite overwhelming odds: she wins over the Emperor and they essentially win out with fisticuffs and swordfighting. It's a little tough to swallow. 

That being said, the scenes aboard the Discovery, with Saru taking command of the ship, were extremely well done; Doug Jones really shines as Saru in this episode, throwing shade at Lorca and delivering a truly inclusive and inspiring speech to the crew before they head into battle to rescue Burnham, destroy the Charon, and make the jump back to their home universe. The climactic sequence is well-staged, exciting, and comes with a surprise twist that had me leaning forward in my chair...only to slump back, disappointed, in the final moments. More on that below. 

With the conclusion of the Mirror Universe arc and the upcoming (one assumes) end of the Klingon War in the episodes to come, it's transparently clear that this first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been intended to serve as commentary on the world's currently upside-down political realities, with the rule of law, secular pluralism, and scientific rationalism under threat more openly than it has been for quite some time. (None of these threats are new, and one could argue that freedom, prosperity and democracy have long been somewhat illusory or at least unevenly distributed, but it's been a while since it's been at the forefront of public consciousness.) The allegory has been somewhat ham-handed, but then Star Trek has never been subtle; in fact, some might say that ham-handed allegory is the series' stock in trade. And while getting older has made me more cynical, the show gives me hope for the future despite its failings. In this case, it's that scene with Saru motivating the Discovery's crew, and Michael Burnham's anguished sincerity in believing in the angels of our better natures. She even rescues Emperor Georgiou, despite knowing she's a murderous cannibal--that's how much she believes in redemption and in the value of life, even evil life. (Of course, it's also true she has selfish emotional motives in play; but characters in Star Trek have always been imperfect.) 
Reflections on Mirror Lorca
I had hoped that Captain Lorca, once revealed as a native of the Mirror Universe, would turn out to be supporting the coalition of rebels fighting the Terran Empire, which might have added some shades of grey to the story; imagine what an endorsement of Federation values it could have been if Lorca changed his original plan and forswore his imperial ambitions? 

But no, Lorca was a wannabe dictator all along. There is a great moment, though, just before Lorca dies, when Burnham, confronting him, says that if he had just asked, the Federation would have helped Lorca get home. Jason Isaacs' reaction to this news is great; you can see on Lorca's face that asking simply never occurred to him, but given his experiences in the Federation, he realizes that Burnham is telling the truth. He doesn't say so (nor does he have much chance to, as he's killed by the Emperor moments later), but Isaacs' performance speaks volumes here. I'm going to miss him, and I hope we get to see him return as the yet-unseen original universe Lorca. 

A digression: I want to commend the sound designers of this episode for mixing in some old-school sound effects from the original series--a nice, nostalgic touch. 

Back Through the Looking Glass
When Discovery returns to the prime universe, they discover that they've overshot the mark...arriving much later than they had anticipated. This is when I leaned forward in my seat; I knew that Bryan Fuller's original plan had been to produce an anthology show that visited the various Star Trek eras, and I thought maybe Discovery had jumped forward 10 years, to the time of the original series, which would have utterly blown my mind. Unfortunately, they only missed nine months, and so the last two episodes of the first season will doubtlessly conclude with the wrap-up of the war with the Klingons. 

I know my initial hopes were unrealistic, but just imagine how cool it would have been if the writers had developed a strategy to make a Trek anthology work. Handled properly, it could have tapped into the powerful nostalgia that helps make the show work, while also using our current reality as a lens through which to re-evaluate that nostalgia and the Trek shows that preceded Discovery

I suppose, though, that would have broken the show's budget, and it may have failed utterly. But it could have been cool...

Here's where I tie this review back to the pun in the title. You can guess where this is leading: what we've seen so far from Star Trek: Discovery this year--what's passed--may or may not foreshadow what we can expect to see in season two. Depending on your response to the show, that may be (in my case) good television that falls just short of greatness, or more disappointment if you think the series has fallen short this initial season. The show may not be perfect, but it's trying to bring something new to a series with literally hundreds of episodes. I applaud the showrunners for their efforts thus far, even if they sometimes miss the mark. 

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