Star Trek Discovery: Choose Your Pain

"The name is Mudd. Harcourt Fenton Mudd, Harry for short."

Captain Lorca is captured, and Michael and Stamets have some trouble getting the spore drive working.

I've consistently enjoyed every episode of Star Trek: Discovery, which is an exciting, beautifully made, well-acted and character-driven show. My main issue with the series is that, to me, it simply doesn't feel at all like Star Trek. It follows an arc plot rather than telling individual stories (I've talked elsewhere about why I feel there's still a place for episodic story-telling on television), it follows an individual main character rather than using a bigger ensemble (even the Original Series followed all three of Kirk, Spock and McCoy) and it's dark, both literally and metaphorically.

Dealing with difficult topics is important and necessary and very much part of what Star Trek does, but in the past Star Trek has always been aspirational. The characters are more noble than real humans, they make better choices and they have amazing, clever ideas that get them out of impossible situations. In Discovery, however, they are more likely to make terrible choices, or understandable but morally dubious choices, because they have allowed the war to completely compromise their morals. It's certainly true that this is something that happens in war, but it's not something that usually happens on Star Trek, or not to such an extent anyway.

This episode, however, feels a lot more like Star Trek than the previous four. It has more of an ensemble feel to it, with storylines following Lorca, Saru, Stamets and Michael (with Tilly) more or less equally. This is the first Star Trek series to have a real 'Anyone Can Die (and not come back)' policy, which lends tension to any time anyone other than Michael is in danger, but a core cast is starting to emerge, with a Captain, First Officer, Chief Engineer and a member of the medical crew (and may have been completed with the arrival of Ash Tyler, credited as a regular). Stamets finds a truly Star Trek solution to an impossible dilemma (self-sacrifice) and the crew are determined to rescue their captain in true Star Trek style.

All this is helped, of course, by the fact this refers to Star Trek's history (much of which is in Discovery's future) more than any other episode so far. We've met Sarek, and encountered veiled references to Spock, but the love for other Star Trek series is much stronger here. Every one of the list of 'Starfleet's most decorated captains' is a familiar name: Robert April, Matthew Decker, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701's Captain before Kirk, Christopher Pike, Jonathan Archer from Star Trek: Enterprise and Discovery's own Philippa Georgiou. The plot also indirectly references the Next Generation's wonderful two-parter 'Chain of Command' particularly in Lorca's specific weakness and the form his torture takes.

And then, of course, there's Harry Mudd, first seen in 'Mudd's Women' as a con-man people seem to be inexplicably fond of, and reappearing in 'I, Mudd' which introduced an android replica of his wife, Stella. He also appeared in an episode of the animated series, 'Mudd's Passion.' Harry Mudd is a very interesting character to return to. The Original Series episodes in which he appears are among the most horrifying to modern eyes, particularly in their treatment of women, which in a way makes him a perfect character for an update. He's also a naturally dark, amoral character, which fits Discovery's tone. This episode takes the character more seriously than the original series did, which is certainly a positive thing, as the light-hearted tone of his 1960s and 1970s appearances does not, to modern eyes, fit with the awful things he does. He does still liven up any scene he's in thanks to his exuberant character, but is treated more seriously here, while also providing a connection with the original series that makes this, in a way, Discovery's first cross-over episode.

Discovery may also go some way towards explaining Harry's later attitude to Starfleet and Starfleet captains, considering how Lorca treats him here. Lorca is given a truly horrific back-story, carrying out the most un-Star Trek act he could have – not only refusing to go down with the ship, but deliberately murdering his own crew to "save" them. It's true that Captain Kirk once said the Klingons don't take prisoners (in The Wrath of Khan) but this should still have been their own choice (does Starfleet give out cyanide pills? Probably not). Over the course of the episode, it looks like Lorca might be starting to redeem himself, breaking both himself and Tyler out – but he needs Tyler (escaping is a two-man job) and he shuts Mudd up and leaves him behind.

We've seen Starfleet commanders like Lorca before (usually at Admiral level) but we've never seen an extended look at what it's like to serve under one of them. I'm torn on whether this is a really interesting direction to take the show, or whether I miss the more idealistic show I've always loved. Still, Tilly and Michael are growing on me and I now officially like Stamets thanks to his bravery here, so I'm going to continue enjoying the show, while hoping that maybe it's finding its way a little closer to the Star Trek I love.

Bits and pieces

 - The movies just pipped them to 'first regular Star Trek character who is definitely gay', but good on the series for making sure to drop that in. Though I was rather hoping for an actual kiss, considering how ground-breaking Star Trek once was in this area.

 - I haven't entirely followed the science, but deep down, I can't help finding the whole idea of a spore drive driven by a living being inherently silly, something that Doctor Who or Farscape might be able to pull off, in their different ways, but not Star Trek. Also, I'm just waiting for everyone to turn into giant lizards. Because honestly, even allowing for the possible human/animal/alien cost, why else does no one in the future know anything about it? There's a whole Star Trek series devoted to finding ways to travel faster, for crying out loud!

 - Also, how exactly do you indicate a black alert anyway? All I can think of every time I hear that is this scene.

 - I absolutely LOVE the costumes and ship design on Discovery, especially the costumes. These uniforms, clearly inspired primarily by Enterprise but with a sleeker, more military look, are absolutely gorgeous (and while the trademark colours have gone, there are still silver/gold distinctions).

 - Mudd was an unrecognisable Rainn Wilson, of The Office and Galaxy Quest, and I do mean that literally – I had no idea it was him!

 - I have a theory that Trek fans whose favourite series is Deep Space Nine are probably loving Discovery, while those of us whose favourite series is the Original Series, the Next Generation or Voyager are probably more hesitant (and maybe even preferring The Orville!). With Enterprise fans in the middle depending on which bits of Enterprise they prefer. Am I right?

Quotes

Tilly: You guys, this is so f***ing cool! Sorry.

Good stuff even if I still have some reservations. Three out of four classic Star Trek references.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

10 comments:

shd said...

My favorite Trek shows are TOS and DS9, with very select parts of Voyager and TNG. I've no idea where I fit on your scale, but I really enjoy Discovery so far (and don't care for The Orville whatsoever) and consider it very much "Star Trek".

Anonymous said...

Personally my favorite Star Trek show is Enterprise (I'm one of the 5 or 6 people on planet earth who will make that claim, I know), and I loathe the fact that this show has drained all of Star Trek's intrinsic optimism away for some Grimdark posturing. Lorca is obviously meant to be the show's Big Bad, so I can excuse terrible behavior from him as all part of the show's arc, but the stuff from Burnham, Saru, and Stamets is all unacceptable. Everyone on this show seems to just act like an asshole most of the time, with zero team players and everyone wanting to do things their way. That's not what Starfleet is supposed to be. In 2017 with so much ugliness showing itself in humanity, we need optimistic Star Trek back to show us something we can aspire to, not this stuff. The Orville is capturing Trek's spirit as of now.

TJ said...

My fave Star Trek show is Voyager because of the Borgs - or is it because I feel like a Borg sometimes at work? Close second is DS9.

I am loving Discovery so far!! A bit disappointed that it is Borg-free, and the not-so-up-to-date Klingons are there instead. Can't understand the criticism of the show though...but I guess to each his own.

And I am really enjoying The Orville as well.

PS. Doux-ers - why not change the "I'm not a robot" below to "not a Borg"?

Phyllis Strickland said...

I have been a big fan of Star Trek from the beginning - I watched TOS on the air with my Dad. I was young enough to think it was scary, so at times I would leave the room and peek around the doorway. But I still loved it! I have loved every series, especially DS9. I do like Discovery, but it doesn't exactly seem like Star Trek. It has been "modernized" so much that the style and technology are much more advanced than the other series, and it doesn't seem to fit the timeline. Example: IMHO the spore drive is way more advanced than ANY of the other series. I can fix that by choosing to ignore it and not even trying to fit it in with the other series.

It is harder to accept that Discovery reflects our world as it is instead of showing us a better world. It feels "off" to me because I associate Star Trek series with showing us a society that has evolved and giving us hope for a better mankind in the future. I'm not so sure I can overlook these deeply flawed, selfish, and possibly evil, not very likeable Star Fleet characters.

Chewie we're home said...

What do you think about the fan theory that Star Trek Discovery takes place in the mirror universe? It explains a lot of the continuity errors.

JohnR said...

Enterprise fans? Is there a single person aside from the cast members who would list Enterprise as their favorite series?

Which I write as a raving Enterprise fan, relatively speaking, since I prefer most of its episodes to most TNG episodes. (Yeah I do.) But still ...

I agree with you, this is not really Trek as I think of it, but I am OK with that. We all draw the line in the different place. Spock's comic-book hero fight with Khan in the second Star Trek reboot movie made me want to walk out of the theater -- that is not only not Spock, but I don't even want to be around that sort of thing. This series, yeah I can take it. We're not int he Sixties any more.

JohnR said...

Sorry, I just now read Anonymous's post. Is that you, Scott?

Just teasing, good for you, I can defend Enterprise too.

Mark Greig said...

DS9 is my favourite Trek series, but I also love TOS and TNG. I'm indifferent about ENT and you don't even want to get me started on everything I think was wrong with VOY.

I'm enjoying Discovery so far, but do think there is room for improvement. I don't find it really unTrekian, although I'm well aware that my idea of what makes something Star Trek isn't the same as everyone else's. This is what happens when your franchise last for 51 years and goes through half a dozen variations. There is no longer a single version you can call definitive.

Billie Doux said...

I'm a Next Gen and Original Series fan, and I absolutely despise The Orville. But the again, I always hated Galaxy Quest, too.

I'm liking Discovery so far, although I don't yet love it. As has been said by another agent of DOUX, Star Trek got stale and cancelled by refusing to change. Discovery is certainly giving us change with a capital C, and arc with a capital A. If they had given us someone lesser than Jason Isaacs, I don't know that I'd be liking Lorca so much -- but I do. I'm also liking Sonequa Martin-Green's Michael and Doug Jones' Saru.

And this episode made me like Stamets, although that mirror scene at the end freaked me out. (The reflection thing, not the boyfriend thing! The boyfriend thing was awesome. :)

Excellent review, Juliette.

Patryk said...

My favorite trek was defiantely DS9 and I do like this iteration of Trek so I support your theory. Of course I loved Babylon 5 a lot more then any of the Treks.

The show suprises me in the pacing, here we got a almost a monthly time-skip and the creature was already written out of the show. I was expecting things to slow down after the transition to the Discovery, but looks like they won't.

Klingons speaking English, that's more like it. :)