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March 11, 2018

Saturday Evening Movie Thread (Sunday Edition) [Hosted By: TheJamesMadison]

Star Trek Discovery

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This show is wrong.

I don't mean morally (it's way too muddled for that kind of judgment), but wrong in terms of basic storytelling techniques. It's not that the show is poorly written, it's that the show's creative team doesn't seem to understand how to tell a story.

There are missed opportunities everywhere. There are the beginnings of interesting set ups that go nowhere. There are the seeds of fascinating character ideas that end up just getting spelled out explicitly in dialogue, killing any sense of subtlety. Characters seem to change from one minute to the next for completely inexplicable reasons.

And the show has a 90ish% on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, TV reviews are different from movie reviews. If you watch a movie you hate, it's over in 2 hours and you write your review. There's no further investment of your time after that. If you hate a TV show and are normal (as opposed to yours truly who is crazy), you're not going to revisit it, so those people reviewing a show towards its end tend to like it more than those who don't keep with it. Those who don't keep with it, don't review it.

That being said though, I see this show as being so inept at basic storytelling that I am flabbergasted that it has much of any body of defenders at all. I talk about this show with two friends of mine at work. One (call him Tim), is about my age and is full-on Trekkie. The other (call him Alan), is about a decade older than me and is more broadly a comic book fan with a Star Trek interest. Both like this show to some degree, although my constant complaining about the show has gotten Tim to admit that it's not good. Still, he defends it to a degree while Alan is happy to cheer it on. And I just do not understand. It's bad. It's terrible. It's…wrong.

An Introduction

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I grew up watching The Next Generation with my father. I've seen every hour of filmed canon Star Trek (including Discovery now), and I greatly appreciate it for what it is: techno-fantasy with a social aspect. After 700 hours, it's hard to define what that actually means. You have the weird fantasy origins of "The Cage" through the dirty war serial that was the later seasons of Deep Space Nine to the action-adventure Star Wars knock-off that was the J.J. Abrams movies, and I've quite enjoyed every incarnation of the property from beginning to end.

I'm not blind to the faults of certain parts of it, though. While my favorite single season of Star Trek is Voyager's fifth season, that show's first season is unwatchably bad. The show has strayed very far from its origins, but usually ends up being pretty good wherever it goes.

That being said, I wasn't particularly excited about Discovery when CBS first announced it. The show looked flashy and expensive, but the behind the scene's drama told me that something was wrong. But still, Dolley subscribes to CBS All-Access already, so I decided to check it out when it first aired. All it cost me was 90 minutes for the pilot. I knew something was deeply wrong with the show for sure then.

Main Characters

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Star Trek has a tradition of large casts (usually about 8) and about 24 episodes a season. That means that each character tends to get at least a couple of episodes a season where they are the main focus of the A story (with a B story playing out elsewhere because episodic television must follow the dumbest trope ever at all times, apparently). The shows did this in order to help fill out 24 hours of television a year. If each episode is just "major plot element outside of the ship is doing something", then it gets old fast, but by providing outlets for each character you create stories that have focus and can help illuminate something new about the world around it.

Discovery decided to use one main character, and everyone else is a supporting character. That means that literally every episode has Michael Burnham as the main lead, no matter how important she is to the actual plot of the story or whether there's anything interesting to add to her character.

The worst offender is Episode 5, titled "Choose Your Pain". You won't need the deep detail of the show to follow along, but I'll need to cover some general things. First, the USS Discovery is trying to get a new type of transportation to work that will automatically move the ship from one place to another. The crew has discovered that they need some kind of biological entity to make the drive work, but there are serious risks to whatever creature gets used. At the end of the fifth episode, the chief engineer decides to hook himself into the machine and gets the drive to work in a crisis situation.

It's a great moment of self-sacrifice for the chief engineer. That kind of decision should derive from a careful weighing of personal risk versus the needs of the ship. It's a moral dilemma (nothing new to Star Trek fans), and it should have a significant presence in the episode. The character who goes through this should be the focus of the episode, but the chief engineer is in roughly five minutes of it. This character, who should be at the front and center, is barely in it. Instead, we have the captain on a Klingon ship getting to know Harry Mudd (a wonderful Rainn Wilson, by the way) for the sole purpose of revealing a bit of his backstory and introducing a new character while Michael Burnham manages the engineer. We honestly spend more time with Burnham managing than with the engineer (named Stamets) actually doing it.

If you might have noticed, it seems like a lot happens in this episode, and it does. It's overstuffed with junk. Harry Mudd, new character, established character's backstory, stuff about flashes of torture from Klingons, new Klingon character, more stuff about the war, and then all the stuff with the spore drive on Discovery. It can't settle to just actually tell a story.

Mirror, Mirror

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Do you happen to remember how previous incarnations of Star Trek dealt with the Mirror universe? In the six previous series, it appeared in only three: The Original Series, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. Well, Discovery decided to jump in with both feet for a four episode arc in its second half, and it did it completely wrong.

Just taking five seconds to think about the Mirror Universe shows how completely silly the whole idea is. An alternate universe where everyone in a given show exists in pretty much the same place as the regular universe, but everything is completely different. Go back to the original episode, "Mirror, Mirror" and the setup is ridiculous. In two universes, the same ship is orbiting the same planet while the same away team is beaming up from the same spot through the same ion storm at the same time. It beggars belief, but The Original Series is campy and filled with silly things, so the setup of this particular episode being silly isn't debilitating.

Look at the other iterations of the Mirror Universe, and it's obvious what the purpose of it is: To provide the actors a way to act against type and chew scenery. In Deep Space Nine it was to put Nana Visitor into a skin tight leather suit and have her act like a vamp while in Enterprise it was to give Scott Bakula a scar on his face as he growled every line. The DS9 episodes are amusing, but it's obvious none of the creative team took it that seriously, and the Enterprise episode is completely self-contained and purely designed to be fun (it also happens to be the series' best episode).

And then comes Discovery…For the first episode in the Universe, it seems like they could be doing it right. There's a minor character named Tilly who is a shy and awkward cadet in engineering. In the Mirror Universe, she's a murderous psychopath of a Terran Empire captain, and our version of Tilly has to act like the Mirror Universe version. It's getting her to play against type, and it's some of the most fun the show ever has.

Any hope of that take on the Mirror Universe dies with the very next episode, though. That episode begins with a 15 minute (yes…15 minute) introduction as Michael Burnham flatly explains her mental state as she acts like a Terran captain. She should be playing against type to some degree, but she's still playing the role as flatly as ever, and the tone of the whole enterprise is so dour to suck any sense of fun that could have been had at any point.

To combine the show's mishandling of the Mirror Universe with its complete inability to understand character, we discovery that Jason Isaacs' character [SPOILERS] is actually the Mirror Universe version of the character who found his way into the regular universe. That prospect seems to elicit great possibilities. We've seen this guy for about 10 episodes by this point. He's obviously a hard ass, doesn't quite fit in the regular universe, and the idea that he could completely hide who he is as a man from his crew who've been with him for months is kind of stupid. Except…that's exactly what he did.

The second (literally, the second) we find out that he's a Mirror Universe character, he changes on a dime. Any sense of decency is lost completely. He becomes generic Mirror Universe character who's got the exact same goals as every other Mirror Universe character (rise in the ranks and possibly become Emperor). It kills any interesting possibilities to be had with the character in favor of some poorly filmed gun fight down a hallway. [END SPOILERS]

Arc Fail

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The larger story of the series might be its biggest failure in terms of mere scale. The series begins with the opening of the Klingon War and ends with the ending of the Klingon War. In terms of basic storytelling technique, if you have a beginning and an end, you should know how to get from beginning to end, and the journey should follow logically.

After all this, what do you think that Discovery does?

If you guessed, "It fills the journey with logical holes, and inexplicable nonsense," then collect your prize.

First of all, long form storytelling is not new to Star Trek. DS9 did it, and it did it quite well. Discovery wants to be prestige television like Game of Thrones, but it doesn't have the focus or dedication to storytelling ideas necessary to pull it off.

When telling long-form stories, you don't have to use every episode to push the plot along. You can have individual, or even small multi-episode arcs that don't do anything for the overall story, as long as when you return to the large arc, you pick up where you left off.

At the end of the first half of season, the Discovery has cracked Klingon cloaking technology, allowing them to detect cloaked ships. There's a sense of finality to the action. We've been told and seen that the Klingons and the Federation aren't dominating each other in the war, although the Klingons have a decided advantage stemming from their cloak. Cracking that cloak, we're told and can intuit will lead to at least parity between the two sides of the war if not the Federation being able to win outright. At the very end of that first half's final episode, the ship jumps to a new place that's unrecognizable (turns out to be the Mirror Universe).

We then do our incredibly mishandled Mirror Universe adventure, ending with a return to the regular universe where, surprise!, the war has gone way wrong. The Klingons are on the warpath and are within reach of Earth and wiping out the Federation completely. Also…we've skipped ahead nine months.

Why did Discovery skip ahead nine months so that the crew of our ship hasn't experienced the deterioration of the war only to hear about the atrocities of the Klingons second hand? Bad writing, really. You see, because the people left in the regular universe have seen the atrocities of the war firsthand, they are desperate in a way that the crew of the Discovery are not, so the Federation's decision to use outrageous means to end the war makes sense logically (although there's no real sense of emotion to it). The way this all wraps up is Michael gives a sanctimonious speech about how genocide is not in the Federation's spirit. To be honest, she's right, but the sanctimony from her, someone who hasn't experienced the atrocities of the war, felt shockingly hollow.

"Yes, I know you've had a hard time that I did not share in, but stick to your principles. I know I am."

I heard that (paraphrased) and just wanted to punch her in the face.

The final two episodes of the season reminded me of a specific major flaw with the reboot of Doctor Who especially while being run by Russell T. Davies. Davies was great at building up a major conflict/disaster and then absolutely terrible at finding a satisfying resolution. The Doctor would find himself up against a major apocalyptic event that threatened the world/universe/the entirety of all space and time, and then undo it all with love. You think I'm exaggerating? I'm sorry to say that I'm not. At all.

We pretty much got the same thing from the end of Discovery. The Mirror Universe version of Burnham's mentor (it's not worth explaining) is about to blow up Qo'nos, the Klingon homeworld. Burnham then gives a speech, the mentor gives up the bomb, and Burnham hands the bomb to another Klingon who is expected to use this bomb to unite the 24 Klingon houses under her leadership. Does any of that even come close to making sense? One thing is for sure, though, it sounds like it needs a lot of time to play out, not the 5 minutes or so it actually gets.

To Canon, or not to Canon?

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I've written almost 2400 words about what's wrong with Star Trek Discovery and not once have I mentioned the fact that it's terrible with pre-established canon. Having read everything I've written so far, does it sound like I'm consumed by the presence of holograms pre-TOS? I should hope not.

If the show were well-written and entertaining, I'd be completely dismissive of complaints about the show's lack of adherence to canon. Where we are now, though, I have to bring it up. My problems with the show aren't that canon isn't kept close to, but that the show can't seem to decide whether it's adhering to canon or intentionally breaking from it. The show is filled with dumb little references to things that would put it in line with canon, but then consistently makes choices that break from it.
The show includes Sarek? Sounds canon-like to me. Oh, but the main character is the never mentioned before step-daughter of Sarek? That's an intentional break. The Mirror Universe? That's from canon, not an original idea, except that Enterprise never had the Mirror Universe and the regular one meet intentionally in order to preserve the canon that "Mirror, Mirror" in TOS was the first meeting of the two. So, putting Discovery there is a break from canon.

In a show that's so utterly incompetent, the canon issue is just one more major frustration.

One Genuinely Good Episode

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For all that I've written complaining about the show, I don't want to forget the one good episode the series had: Episode 7, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad". This is the second and last appearance of Harry Mudd in the season. In it, he has some tech thing that controls time to a limited extent. He's using it to try to figure out the secrets of the ship's special engines, destroying the ship and killing the crew repeatedly.

It's far from an original idea (it's been done a couple of different ways in Star Trek before), but the show loses its self-importance, moralizing, and DARK! qualities in order to provide a fun adventure of an episode. Honestly, I think it could be viewed completely independently of the rest of the show and enjoyed.

I don't think the entire series was worth it to get one good episode, but at least I got that out of it.

To Continue or Not?

Continue making the series? That's not my call, but it's already been renewed, so there's that.

I'll probably continue watching it though for three reasons.

1) We already subscribe to CBS All Access as a household because of Dolley's viewing habits

2) I'm a Star Trek completist. I've seen every hour of the franchise, and I might as well keep going.


3) Alan and Tim keep liking it to certain degrees, and it's nice to talk to them about it, even when we rarely agree.

You probably consider me an idiot, and I'm not going to put up a fight about that. I think it's stupid of me to do so, but then I won't be able to write ridiculously long missives about how awful it is anymore. And that would make me sad.

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posted by OregonMuse at 07:22 PM

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