Thursday, September 28, 2017

Star Trek: Dystopia

It's really not my intent to turn this into a Star Trek blog, but we just happen to have hit the motherload in the last couple of weeks. Following the previous release of The Orville, on Saturday, the folks at Atomic Network released Renegades: The Requiem after a long wait; and Star Trek: Discovery was released the following night. So I have at least one more review after this one.

This one's for Star Trek: Discovery, and I'm kind of feeling as though I should wait until the next couple of episodes have aired, because I don't think any of us have really seen the show at all even though the first two episodes have aired. On second thought, damn the torpedoes: full speed ahead.

But first, a word from our spoilers.
Spoiler Alert: In my discussion here, I'm going to discuss details. This means spoilers. If you think such things "ruin the surprise", then you should go somewhere else. Don't read this. I'm also going to not only discuss the show itself, but also what other people have been saying about it, so if your sensibilities are fragile, don't read this. This is not a safe space. Seriously, go away. Or don't. And in all seriousness, if you just LOVE this show, you're going to HATE this review for all the reasons you've already imagined, so you might as well just skip it.

I'll give you my summary first.  ST:D is fine science fiction. I like it. I don't think it's especially good Star Trek.  And again, at this I have to limit this statement to the pilot, for reasons that should be very clear.

Able to spot tracks in the sand through thick cloud cover.
ST:D is fine science fiction. It's cinematic, it's grandiose, it's gritty, it's dark. It's pretty much what we all expected it was going to be in terms of production values. It's also the heir to the official Star Trek kingdom, so it gets to use all of the accompanying trappings.

But while it's what we expected, it's not really what we were promised. We were told that the show would respect canon, and it doesn't; not really. We were told that it takes place in the Prime Universe, and it doesn't; not really. And yet I watched with hopes that the creators were far more clever than they let on, and managed to cleverly maintain canon. They weren't, and didn't. This is clearly a reboot, straddling the line between the "Prime" (original) timeline and the "Kelvin" (J.J. Abrams reboot) timeline.

What I'm about to write might cause you to question my statement that I like it as science fiction; but I assure you, I do, and I'll tell you why. In the meantime, let's cast those doubts.

In this pilot, they kill almost everybody. They kill the captain. They kill the admiral. They kill the bad guy. They kill an entire fleet. That last one's not entirely true... they left the fleet in ruins to be "heralds of Klingon superiority". You basically get two speaking characters who survive into the series: a congenital coward and a mutineer. The writers spend two hours asking you to become emotionally involved with characters, all of which make a series of bad choices, and then kill them off. That's not a big issue if this were a feature film. In a film you can do that sort of thing. Boom! Finality. No problem. And judged that way, this is just fine. But it's not a feature film. It's a pilot of a television series. And judged that way, it's a lot of wasted time. This is time that could have been used to establish much more than one main character and a sidekick. I almost wish they had released this first bit as a feature film, in theaters, so that it is surely distinct from the rest of the series. As for the Discovery, we have yet to establish the ship, its crew, its captain, etc.; except in previews. All of that stuff is habitat. Ecosystem. The show isn't about them. It's about one person. And that one person is a Mary Sue.

More Vulcan than a Vulcan
The definition of what is or is not a Mary Sue may be arguable, but the character of Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) hits all the sweet spots. For that matter, she's Mary Sue and Tragic Hero rolled into one. That's a real trick, because they're not terribly compatible, and they fight for dominance. She has a tragic backstory, which gives her something to overcome. Orphaned as a very young girl in the last Klingon attack before their withdrawal, Burnham is rescued by Vulcan ambassador Sarek (father of Spock, who is never mentioned), who immediately implants her with a portion of his own katra (akin to a soul) -- something he never shared with his own son. He then makes her his ward instead of turning her over to Human caretakers as logic would dictate. Mary Sues are irresistibly attractive (not necessarily in a sexual way), and this is an early indication of her Mary Sue-ness. Burnham thus becomes the first Human to graduate the Vulcan Training Center and the Vulcan Science Academy. In flashback we see her dropped off aboard the starship Shenzhou to be met by Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). In this encounter Burnham displays a demeanor more Vulcan that Sarek's own. After a few vague disparaging remarks about the ship she's asked by Captain Georgiou if the ship is not up to Burnham's standards. Burnham states, "I have no standards when it comes to this ship. It has always been my intention to join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group". We know she's very smart because Georgiou tells us so.

Despite having arrived as a civilian, Burnham receives a commission off-camera at some point in the seven years of her residency aboard ship, and rises to First Officer. Unfortunately, during that time she does not manage to shake the air of snobbish disdain for her fellow creatures that one usually encounters in poorly home-schooled children with limited social interaction and no friends. In one scene she literally shoulders the Science Officer away from his station because she knows she can do a better job. And that's a hallmark of her character: no matter what your job is, she knows she can do a better job, even if that job is being the captain.

To the people who are as in love with this character as the writers would like them to be, here's a reminder: the very first calculation she makes in episode one is wrong. Her decisions go downhill from there.

Our crew's first mystery is an unknown artifact within an asteroid field. Since the ship's sensors cannot get clear readings, Burnham bravely volunteers to do a fly-by in a thruster suit despite dangerously high levels of radiation from the nearby binary stars. The captain agrees to a reconnaissance of short duration and issues unambiguous orders to do a fly-by only. About eight minutes into this task, Burnham disobeys orders by setting foot on the artifact, which promptly disgorges a Klingon warrior of great bulk, which Burnham promptly kills (by accident, of course). This sets into motion a sequence of events that quickly leads the Federation into open warfare.

In short order we're treated to Burnham being able to get a clear connection to Ambassador Sarek on a private channel though communications are disrupted; Burnham demanding that the Federation fire first; Burnham being openly insubordinate to her captain; Burnham physically assaulting her captain; Burnham issuing orders countermanding those of the captain; and Burnham getting her ass locked in the brig for mutiny.

Now, all of this might have you shaking your head, saying that this couldn't possibly be a Mary Sue... Mary Sues aren't that stupid. But Tragic Heroes are. Besides, Burnham does all of this because she's actually smarter than everyone. And only she can save them all. You the audience can see that of course she must be right! If only they would just listen to her! But they lock up the mutineer instead. And this is her second tragic backstory. Because the show that we're watching -- this two-hour movie disguised as two episodes -- is not even part of the series. It's a prequel: it's backstory for the series, which starts in episode three with the arrival of the Discovery. But we're not done.

Star Chamber, Federation style
While in the brig, she displays her unique specialness by conducting an eloquent telepathic conversation with Sarek over a distance of many light-years. Although she is imprisoned, and although a Klingon weapon blast has left her surrounded by airless void, Burnham manages to 'logic' the ship's computer into assisting her escape by appealing to its "ethical protocols". Even computers love Mary Sues. And upon rejoining her curiously unsurprised captain on the bridge, the two of them hatch a plan to capture the Klingon Bad Guy. Of course, it goes horribly awry, culminating in the death of the captain and the martyrdom of the Klingon Bad Guy. The episode ends with Burnham facing a horribly clichÄ—d shadowy tribunal, complete with darkened faceless judges and her standing in a lone pool of light. In her final plea she shamelessly bullshits the judges by telling them that since she was a child she dreamed of furthering the noble purpose of Starfleet, etc. etc., although we know she aspired to the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. She is then sentenced to life in prison.


In short (too late!) this is just about the worst character you can possibly write. But I still say it's bloody good science fiction as a movie, because it ends by subverting the Mary Sue trope and having her fail miserably at everything of import that she attempts. With her final speech, the audience is rewarded with the knowledge that she is reaping the just consequences of her own hubris and actions.

Oh, if only they had left it there! The sweet justice of it! And if only they had done it on purpose! But this is not a movie, it's a television series, and it comes with previews of things to come. We know that she has a whole new arc coming with this tragic backstory, and Mary Sue will not let the Tragic Hero win. She will be shuttled onto the Discovery, where she will be set free, as she is Far Too Smart and Far Too Important to serve the life sentence that was decreed by the legal system. We are handed the unsolicited hope that she will Mary Sue her way to eventual exoneration. As if we needed that.

Trek, it ain't. I could pick all kinds of nits, all day long. In watching the show, they come rapid-fire, at a rate of about one per minute, from the tech to the iconography to previously unevidenced alien superpowers to a blatant disdain for basic real-world physics; so I'm not even going to bother here. I might make a list for my own enjoyment later. But something that won't be on the list is what the Klingons look like. They look different here. They've looked different before. Big woop.


Watching this, it became clear to me why CBS came down so hard on Axanar. Like ST:D, Axanar portrays the events of a Federation/Klingon war, and in the same specific time period. Whereas ST:D breaks canon in major respects (attempting as it does to please all people by verbally claiming both Kelvin and Prime canonization while actually rebooting the whole franchise), Axanar is clearly respectful of Prime canon. And frankly, it looks to me as though Axanar has the better take on this particular period of Federation history, irrespective of timeline. Axanar is a clear threat and competitor to ST:D. Sadly for CBS, I'd rather see Axanar. Seriously, I'd rather see CBS just distribute Axanar and confiscate the damned profits than watch the thing they themselves created.

Of course, I'm not one of the fans that they give a shit about. I watched Star Trek for the first time on September 8th, 1966. I've been a faithful fan until now. But now I'm faced with a new lead actor who flatly doesn't care about longtime fans. Insulting the people who pay your rent for you is hardly a way to break the ice.

I'm also unconcerned with the smattering of trolls who have made sexist and/or racist comments about the show. If they're doing so, they're probably not long-time Star Trek fans, as the people who are well-versed in IDIC have spent their lives aspiring to the 23rd century inclusiveness envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. To those of us who grew up on Star Trek, these complaints are non-issues, as the society of the United Federation of Planets would have long since discarded such outmoded notions. You could put an aboriginal Tellarite in charge and it would be fine with me. In point of fact, there is nothing in this script that even hints at the sex or race (other than Human) of the lead character, Michael Burnham. You could have cast anyone in the part without changing a word other than perhaps a pronoun. It's as asexual and aracial a part as can be written. Unfortunately, it's also a badly written character. I wish that last part weren't true. But I've watched both parts twice now, and it was more tedious the second time through. Meanwhile, I can watch Prelude to Axanar, or even The Orville, multiple times and still smile. It's pretty sad when a comedy parody out-Treks "the real thing".

Images copyright CBS/Paramount/whoever's asserting the copyright this week. Used without permission in accordance with Fair Use for the purpose of editorial comment.


  1. *Happy sighs*. Youa re such a good writer. I wish that the producers and writers of the show were forced to read this and correct their mistakes!


  2. UPDATE: a correspondent on Facebook points out that Burnham's actions in this prelude are basically irrelevant. The Klingons wanted to fight, and they got the fight they wanted. The fly-by is meaningless, the mutiny accomplished nothing, and the captain's initial plan would have killed the leader too.

  3. I should probably mention as well that I have no quibbles with the cast and crew. They admirably delivered on the script they were handed. Kudos to them.