Star Trek Discovery: Saints of Imperfection

Pike: "Starfleet is a promise. I give my life for you, you give your life for me. And nobody gets left behind."

By nature I love brevity: This one was something of a mess. Half of it is manageable but clunky, the other half is rushed, barely comprehensible, and still clunky.

Watching 'Saints of Imperfection' for the first time is an experience roughly equivalent to skimming the screenplay of a movie you've never seen, then watching that movie on 2x speed. You know about where it's coming from and where it's going, and you have a general sense of the flow of events and the plot, but you don't quite get it completely and everything moves past too quickly to make sense of it anyway. The plot did make a kind of sense, and all the explanations seemed to fit, but the moment the dialogue finished leaving the characters' mouths, it was on to the next scene or concept.

Watching 'Saints' for the second time helps a lot, actually, so if you haven't seen it again, I would encourage you to give it a second viewing. The second go around, because I knew everything that was coming, I was able to focus on what was happening and it was significantly more comprehensible. It also clarified some of the general complaints I had from the first viewing, though, so it's not all sunshine and roses.

The first half of this episode moves rather slowly at first, compared to the other half. If you add it all up, the audience is probably presented with just about the same amount of information in the first half as in the second, but the first is far more manageable and far more comprehensible. This is because the first half deals mostly with setting up the characters' dynamics and perspectives as a result of this new situation. The writers have brought Section 31 firmly into the story, putting the Disco crew and Leland's 31 agents on the same mission to find Spock. This, of course, comes with each character's response to the new status quo, namely Tyler working aboard the ship again, as well as everyone's various different perspectives on Section 31.

The second half of the episode throws an obscene number of high science fiction concepts at the audience, spends very little time on each one, and then moves on, hoping you'll keep up. There are precious few moments where it stops to ponder or dwell on something, and it makes the episode very difficult to follow. For example, I didn't have almost any idea why Pike, Leland, and Tyler were yelling at each other until I watched the episode for the second time. The other byproduct of the sheer volume of conceptual mumbo-jumbo we're subjected to is that the story suffers from it. It's very hard to tell a story well when every scene must include two or three new ideas to explain to the audience. The characters and emotions are stifled because of it, and that shows here.

I'm not going to comment much on the sheer ridiculousness of these sci-fi concepts, other than to say that I don't really think Discovery's commitment to ground the show's technobabble in real science is helping at all. Because there's no way to make a show about a giant spaceship that can teleport anywhere in the universe truly scientifically accurate, there's really no benefit as far as how much sense it would make to someone who actually knows how physics works. All it does is cause the writers to explain their concepts in actual scientific terms, which doesn't help the audience to understand it any more. In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, David talks a little about his work on the Genesis Device. He explains that the reason Spock is alive is because the regenerative processes of the Genesis Effect rejuvenated his body, that because of this Spock is connected to the planet, and that the planet is breaking apart because he used dark matter in the Device to cut some corners. The writer has no interest whatsoever in explaining how the Genesis Effect rejuvenated Spock, it just did. We aren't told what type of connection links Spock with the planet, they're just linked. And we don't have any idea what dark matter is or why it's so unstable, we just know that it is unstable.

Compare this to the resurrection of Dr. Culber here in 'Saints.' The writers here wanted to communicate that Stamets brought Culber's life energy into the mycelial network when he was shifting in and out of dimensions. But rather than stop there, Stamets and Burnham talk about the laws of thermodynamics and how Dr. Culber's energy changed states. They also wanted May to send Culber back to our world using the cocoon that May used on Tilly. They explicitly said earlier that it was a kind of transporter, to move atoms from one place to another rather than destroying them. But instead of just putting Culber into the cocoon and moving him, May talks about how the atoms in the mycelial network aren't the same as the atoms in our world. The way they get around this is by converting the atoms in the cocoon, which are from our world, into a new body for Dr. Culber. The problem is that from a story perspective, there's absolutely no reason to say that May can't just transport him through the cocoon. The suspense aspect could be accomplished just by making May unsure if it will work. It was even intuitive enough that the group of people I watched this with were guessing that that would be the solution. But instead, there's another layer of problem and solution added that had no purpose other than a scientific one. It overcomplicated the scene, making it more difficult to understand.

The episode also suffers from trying to do far too much on a personal level. While it's good that there's a different dynamic between each character and each other character, some of them are too complicated for their own good, and some of them didn't belong in this episode. Take the out-of-left-field 'connection' between Tilly and May. Though on second viewing, I noticed everything Mary Wiseman and Bahia Watson did to try and make it work, there was ultimately not enough setup to justify the level of emotion their parting had. The two characters have ranged from casually acquainted to borderline antagonistic, but there's not been anything resembling friendship between Tilly and May up until this episode. Even at the start of this one, Tilly is understandably quite angry with May for all the manipulative methods she employed in her efforts to communicate. While the sentiment of 'How many beings have lived inside one another before' makes sense on an intellectual level, there wasn't anything close to a positive relationship between Tilly and May up until now, and their sudden devastation at the prospect of leaving each other isn't in any way earned.

Another element that would have worked far better given more screen time is Pike and Leland. Again, the actors sold that they were old friends who have come down on different sides of an ideological divide, but there was precious little here about said divide. As near as I can figure it, it seems that Pike doesn't approve of Section 31, while Leland views it as a necessary evil in order to accomplish Starfleet's mission. The main reason I assume that this is their argument, though, is that these are the two basic positions on Section 31 that Star Trek has used before, and the only real sense I got from the actual episode was that Pike doesn't like 31, and Leland does.

The other thing that bothered me about it was the 'solution' to their argument. One of my fellow viewers pointed this out, and I think it needs to be said. I am sick and tired of scenes in television and movies where two men are having an argument, and a woman comes in and says something like, 'If you two are finished comparing your manliness/masculinity, etc.' Usually, both men then look surprised and then dejected, and probably walk away with a new respect for the woman. But in reality, this belittles men and their arguments. Pike and Leland, if they're having the debate I assume they are, are arguing a legitimate topic, and both have legitimate points. It's not about manliness or masculinity at all, it's a complex moral issue that they disagree on. To chalk it up to a contest of manliness makes men look foolish, and I'm not a fan of making female characters strong by making the men look foolish by comparison. It's like if two women were having a debate about a moral issue they were coming up against, and a man walked up and scolded them for 'having a catfight.' Of course that's not what's going on, they're having a reasonable debate, and you've just ridiculed them for it to make yourself look clever. That's a method of making your female characters seem strong that needs to stop.

I hope we see an improvement in the Section 31 material, since it seems it's here to stay, both on Discovery and in the new Michelle Yeoh-led series in development. All they really need to do is deepen and clarify the Section 31 moral debate, and offer some legitimate exploration of the topic, and I'll be a happy Star Trek fan. Speaking of Yeoh, a lot of people felt her performance in this episode, especially the hissing, was too over-the-top. I don't mind over-the-top villains, but there's a place where they work and a place where they don't. In Discovery, there isn't a whole lot of subtlety in any of the material. That's why I was happy when Section 31's involvement was announced, because 31 on DS9 brought lots of subtlety and moral grey whenever it showed up. I'm disappointed that it's lost a lot of that, and I'm not convinced Yeoh's 'I'm evil and I love it' performance really makes for the right villain for this show right now.

Strange New Worlds:

I'm not sure if it counts, but we spent a lot of time in what I guess you could call the 'ground level' of the mycelial network this time around. The network has been depicted a lot of different ways, and this isn't really better or worse than the others. It's just different, though I am glad they didn't try for the sense of 'space has no meaning' that they did when Stamets was lost there. It would've just made it even more confusing to watch.

New Life and New Civilizations:

We learned the primary function of the JahSepp: to break down matter and repurpose it for other uses. That's cool, I guess.

Pensees:

-This show really needs to get a handle on its definition of faith. So far it's been used to refer to religion and belief in the supernatural in 'New Eden,' faith in your legacy in 'An Obol for Charon,' and now faith that your friends will be there for you. The theme of faith as it pertains to science requires the former definition, and the latter ones have started to muddy the waters. The different meanings of faith could be an interesting theme, but you can't have it that way and also try to explore faith vs. science.

-We're only two episodes out from the first confirmed appearance of Ethan Peck as Mr. Spock. Hopefully we'll finally end the perhaps drawn out storyline that some fans are calling 'the New Search for Spock.'

-The dialogue, especially the exposition, was back to being clunky and stilted in this one. Please don't slip back into your old habits, DIS. Please.

-I thought the sequence at the beginning of Burnham running through the corridors of the ship was quite effective.

-I'm not quite so sure about the opening and closing narration, though. I have no idea what the heck they were trying to say.

-I don't know if it was Kirsten Beyer's script or director David Barrett that was responsible for the pacing issues. It's one of the two, though. Perhaps a bit of both.

-We were informed here that Commander Nhan is the new chief of security for the Disco. That might have been useful to know last episode, when I wondered what she was supposed to be doing here.

-There was precious little to convince the audience that the intersection between our world and the mycelial network was dangerous. Even just having one of the bridge crew brush against it and find it painful to the touch would've sold it.

-I did like the pinky swear scene, even if it was a poor excuse for a connection between the characters.

-The place where Stamets connects with the spore drive finally got a name - the reaction cube. Or have they been calling it that all along, and I just haven't noticed?

-My group of viewers guessed a lot of the developments in this episode. We knew Georgiou was in the shuttle, we figured Dr. Culber was the 'monster,' I assumed Culber wouldn't be able to pass through the intersection wall into our world, and somebody else guessed that the cocoon would be the final solution.

-So... Section 31 uses cloaking devices and TNG-style communicators? Sure, why not?

-That was a neat visual when the rings of the Disco started to spin and half of it had been eaten by the spores.

-While it was nice to see Jayne Brook as Admiral Cornwell again, why exactly did she need to be there? Her 'new information' really wasn't all that revelatory.

Quotes:

Burnham: "I want to have faith. In its absence, only duty remains."

Georgiou: "You're the one who brought me to this insufferable place. You don't get to be surprised I'm here."

Tilly: "Fall in. That's soldier for 'get behind me.'"

Tilly: "Whatever you are, I am holding a Type 3 phaser rifle. Which is more powerful and generally larger than the Type 1 or the Type 2. I guess that's why they call it a 3."

Culber: "You're devoted to creation, to life. And there are a million reasons to love you, but that's mine."

Georgiou: "I've had your life in my hands dozens of times. You're going to have to start trusting me."
Burnham: "Said the scorpion to the frog."

2 out of 6 bucketloads of concepts.

--
CoramDeo is a skilled metal-worker. Of course, he did not know that before.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm getting a bit tired of Michael being the narrator at the end of the episode with her "wise commentary". It was appropriate in the season 1 finale (especially since some of it could have been part of her speech at Star Fleet), but in this episode it just dragged things out. It also reminded me of the end of each Doogie Howser episode where Doogie is making an entry into his typewritten journal. In Doogie, it was a stylistic device that worked, in Discovery it seemed forced and unnecessary.

Billie Doux said...

I find the mycelial network confusing and weird, but I'm glad they wrote Dr. Culber back in. And Pike made me laugh out loud three times.

Does everyone else like Georgiou? To be honest, I'm not that interested in a series written around her.

Patrick said...

Billie - My liking of Georgiou is mostly due to my really liking Michelle Yeoh in general. What I'm wary about is what they actually intend to do with her. Having her go from being a monster who ruled the Terran Empire to a Federation black-ops agent seems like quite a leap. It would have been nice to see more of her making that transition. Or see ANY of it, to be honest. And they've been trying to drop hints that she has her own agenda, which could be interesting, but all they've done is have people who don't trust her tell her... they don't trust her. I hope they give her more to do than stand around being snarky. Michelle Yeoh proved last season that she can still sell a fight scene better than most, after all.

I'm a bit confused about the way Section 31 is portrayed in this series. My recollections of them on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise was that most people in Starfleet weren't even aware of their existence. In 1x03, the prisoners being brought aboard Discovery wondered what the black badges represented, but later in the show it seemed like Section 31's existence was fairly well-known at least among Starfleet personnel. I've got no problem with the concept of a group like them existing in the Trek universe, it creates the potential for interesting stories and moral quandries. I just wish the writers would be more consistent about them.

CoramDeo said...

Patrick, the writers have made it clear previously that they are aware that 31 is very different in this show than they were in DS9 and Enterprise. Their idea is that they will develop into the organization we've seen before by that time. I'm not sure I buy that they'll be so secret it's near-impossible to get any information about them in that amount of time, especially given how overt they are in Disco. But at least the writers are aware, and have a plan, even if I'm not a huge fan of that plan.