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Adira looks within and Saru shares his dinner on a too-easy Star Trek: Discovery

Illustration for article titled Adira looks within and Saru shares his dinner on a too-easy iStar Trek: Discovery/i
Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS
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The Trill were first introduced to the Star Trek franchise in the Next Generation episode “The Host.” In that episode, Beverly Crusher falls in love with a Trill ambassador named Odan, only to struggle when Odan is killed, and the symbiont is temporarily passed over to Riker until a new host can arrive. To be honest, while I remember the existence of the episode, I have a hard time remembering much about the quality of it—I’d also somehow forgotten the Riker section entirely (a section which helps lend at least some plausibility to “Forget Me Not”’s main storyline). I doubt it was a classic, but the grade I gave it back when I reviewed it was a B+, which doesn’t sound too bad. But that’s not the point. The point is, one of the key points of the episode is that while the Federation knows about the Trill, Beverly has no idea about the symbiont until a crisis forces her to operate on her lover. It’s not a species that everyone is familiar with, and while Deep Space Nine would fill in a lot of the gaps, it’s still supposed to be something of a mystery.

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“Forget Me Not” hinges on Adira’s relationship with her symbiont, a Trill named Tal. Adira knows that Tal was part of the Starfleet admiral who sent out the message Discovery has been chasing down, but she’s unable to access those memories in order to tell Discovery where they need to go next. As far as plot motivators go, this is perfectly reasonable. It has a certain video game-y quality to it—go here for the next quest that will help you move further along in the main questline—but Adira is an interesting character, and it’s not unreasonable for her to want to get some answers. What gets to me is how everyone on Discovery seems to know about the Trill. This isn’t a thing that came up on the original series, but everyone chats about it like it’s no big thing. Sure, Saru is briefly worried when a scan of Adira’s body reveals that the symbiont is covering her heart, but in general, the characters on the show respond to her condition the way the writers clearly expect the audience to respond to it. We’re Trek fans, so clearly we already know what’s going on, so why bother getting bogged down in the weeds?

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This is one of the problems with doing a prequel, and while Discovery solved a lot of my issues with its premise by jumping forward 932 years, it can’t quite seem to shed itself of its lazy world-building habits. I’m not even sure why they decided to reuse the Trill at all. It’s almost a millennium into the future, for god’s sake. Make up a new weird symbiotic alien race. As is, I kept trying to remember if anything we saw here contradicted information from earlier series, and then getting annoyed because that’s not the point, but not really being able to help myself. Really, though, the issue isn’t about maintaining continuity. It’s about using familiar Trek concepts without bothering to ground them or make them feel distinctive to the show. It’s about saying “Hey, remember this,” and then assuming that will be enough shorthand that they don’t have to bother creating the illusion of a coherent universe.

“Forget Me Not” has two storylines, both of which work just fine in the wireframe. In the first, Adira and Michael beam down to the Trill homeworld; Adira learns that she’s viewed by most of the Trill leaders as an abomination (symbionts aren’t supposed to join with humans); after a quick fight, she and Michael are led to the special magic caves were the symbionts swim in Playboy grotto pools, where Adira can go swimming and get in touch with her past lives. Meanwhile, on Discovery, Dr. Hugh tells Stamets that everyone on board is struggling psychologically, and Saru tries to ease tensions, first with a super awkward dinner, and then with a fun movie night.

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This is, as mentioned, fine. They even find time to throw in a sad/sweet story explaining why Adira is struggling with her symbiont: her lover, Gray, was a Trill, and she was chose to take on his symbiont after an accident left him near death, in order to prevent the symbiont from dying. I appreciate that Saru showed everyone a Buster Keaton movie (Sherlock Jr, which absolutely rules), and the plot moves forward like clockwork, ending the episode with a star chart leading to the location of the Federation’s current headquarters.

It’s just the execution that kind of sucks. Well, “sucks” is too much, and honestly, I can see the appeal here—it’s all very warm and friendly, and it’s legitimately very cool to see a Trek series without a straight white male in a leading, or indeed any, major role. That feels new and interesting, and I’m relieved that the show didn’t immediately find a replacement for Pike (I liked Pike, but he so quickly slotted into the space Lorca left behind that it felt like no one behind the scenes was terrified of not having a square-jawed Kirk-type around to shout orders); Saru makes a good captain, and at its best, Discovery has an energy and perspective that feels unique for a Trek show.

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But. There’s a reluctance to really engage with anything more complicated than “these are the bad guys, these are the good guys, let’s hug.” The writing is frustratingly lazy in its complete lack of trust in the audience, racing to happy conclusions without bothering to really explore the problems that led to them. For instance: Saru goes to Engineering and asks Stamets to come up with a way to use the spore drive that doesn’t require direct human (or otherwise) intervention. Tilly suggests they try something with dark matter, and Stamets immediately jumps down her throat. Because, of course, it’s Stamets and he’s super defensive, but it seems more complicated than that. Later, at Saru’s awkward dinner, things get even more heated. And then five minutes later, Stamets is apologizing and they’re hugging it out and everything is fine.

I promise you, I don’t hate hugs. I am, in general, very much pro-hug. And there’s arguably some value in showing interpersonal conflicts flare up and then burn out without needing to make everything intensely dramatic. But I don’t really know why Stamets decided to apologize, just like I don’t really know why he was defensive to begin with. I can speculate, and I’m sure it has something to do with the tension the whole crew is experiencing, but everything on the show is so centered on making sure we understand everyone loves each other and it’s all fine that any sort of rapprochement feels as meaningless as it is inevitable.

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Or hell, take Adira’s time on the Trill planet. At first, it looks like there will be some drama here. Most of the Trill high council freaks out when they learn Adira is human, and while the conflict is overly simplistic, it’s at least an indication that these are different people with different intentions and views of the world. But then Adira goes into the mystic pool, and Michael dives in to save her—which, by the way, is pretty odd considering the pools are supposed to be sacred and Michael is surrounded by half a dozen Trill. It’s pretty forced that Michael is even there in the first place, given that Adira was supposed to make the trip with Dr. Hugh; Hugh sent Michael down because he decided Adira needed emotional support, and somehow Michael was best equipped to provide that, because god knows, we can’t have a major storyline move forward without Michael being there to fix everything.

That’s not what I’m driving at—Michael’s involvement is more or less assumed at this point, and it’s not like the original Trek ever gave a compelling argument for why Kirk had to be a part of every mission. What’s frustrating here is that once Michael forces Adira to confront her past, we get a simplistic, and saccharine, love story, one without any real twists and turns beyond “they were really into one another and they were very nice, and then one of them died.” (There’s a feint towards making Adira jealous of Gray’s newfound Trill abilities, but it’s immediately resolved in the same flashback where it’s introduced.) Once Adira is able to accept this admittedly sad but dramatically inert piece of her backstory, she gets access to the symbionts; and all of a sudden all the Trill who considered her an abomination are now firmly on her side.

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This is all weightless. We get no sense of Trill culture beyond the vague mysticism Trek has decided indicates “peaceful culture,” and no sense of Adira having to learn or develop in any way beyond accepting that sad memories are sad. If the scenes between Adira and Gray were moving to you, I don’t want to mock that reaction or try and take it away (I couldn’t), but I do think we can ask for a bit more than a Hallmark commercial. Like the way the show hand waves bringing in the Trill in the first place, this is writing that wants so much to get to the resolution that it can’t bear to let anything complicated or difficult or thoughtful sit on its own. Everything is shortcuts and simplification. It’s not always ineffective; the crew is growing on me, and the hangout vibe that the secondary story in this episode leans into is charming and good. But it’s entirely possible to have likable characters and conflict without sacrificing the impact of either, and that’s something Discovery continues to struggle with.

Stray observations

  • So, as speculated last week, it turns out that both the non-binary and the transgender characters promoted before the season premiered are Trill. Ian Alexander plays Gray, Adira’s love interest; Gray is identified as male without being explicitly transgender. I’m not sure that having both Adira (who is still identified as “she” on the show) and Gray be Trill is as progressive as we were lead to believe, but it’s probably not my place to make that call.
  • We finally get our long awaited Detmer freak out, as she lashes out at Stamets (of all people) during Saru’s dinner. It’s nifty, creepy little moment, but we still know so little about Detmer that I’ll be massively disappointed if this all there is to all those hints the show has been setting up.
  • “The symbionts are a gift to everyone, not just the Trill.” -Adira. I’m not really sure what this means? A simple “I’m going to stick with Discovery for a bit, just ‘cause” would’ve been fine.
  • Any show that uses Buster Keaton and Sherlock, Jr. as an expression of pure joy can’t be all bad. (This almost makes up for that horrible line about Elon Musk a couple seasons back.)
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