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Michael risks it all with little reason on Star Trek: Discovery

Photo: Michael Gibson (CBS)
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Last week, I praised Star Trek: Discovery for how it handled a crew member’s death. While not making up for the show’s frustrating reluctance to develop its secondary characters, “If Memory Serves” at least offered us a chance to care about Airiam before shooting her out of an airlock. Not everyone agreed with me, and I can see why. A few minutes of emotionally manipulative storytelling can easily be dismissed as too little too late if it doesn’t achieve its ends. It worked for me, though, because there was just enough cleverness, and just enough pay off, to make the hour feel like the people working behind the scenes were actually invested in telling a story and not just serving up the high points.

“The Red Angel” more or less tanks this approach in its opening minutes. While I understand that it’s appropriate to give Airiam a funeral scene, and while I appreciate the show at least attempting to acknowledge the consequences of an earlier twist, this moved from “quick but effective” to “forced” for me, as we spend the beginning of the hour listening to multiple characters give speeches about what a person who’s maybe had ten minutes of screen-time in two seasons (half of which happened last week) meant to them. Everyone freaking out in the heat of the moment last week? Fine. But this long, drawn-out grieving is borderline absurd, and really just serves to underline how little we knew about Airiam before she got tossed out an airlock.

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The rest of the episode finds the show back to its usual wow-first-questions-later approach, dropping multiple bombshells without pausing for breath, and climaxing with a self-inflicted crisis that’s so fundamentally absurd that there’s no surprise at all when it works. Call it a rule of narrative, like Roger Ebert’s economy of characters principle: if the heroes come up with an incredibly risky (and honestly kind of stupid) plan, it has to work, because if it fails, the plan’s shortcomings would make the heroes look like idiots. Deciding to put Michael in danger in order to draw out the Red Angel on the basis of a theory they just came up with that day is ridiculous. It generates suspense simply by how long it takes to pay off. But it also clearly has to work, because it so obviously shouldn’t.

Much of “The Red Angel” has the show focusing even more on this season’s overarching plot, with the threat from the future AI Control looming large in everyone’s minds. That this threat has to be dealt with is evident, but without any sense of immediate danger, it’s hard to understand the need for such rapid, poorly considered strategizing. There’s some quick hand-waving about the Federation dropping all charges against the Discovery (seriously, after making a big deal of them being fugitives, Admiral Cornwell undoes the whole thing in a single sentence; we don’t even have a sense of them having to do anything to prove their case), and then Leland and Georgiou show up to give us some backstory: apparently, there was a time travel arms race with the Klingons.

This is yet another in a long line of Discovery plot reveals that could’ve worked if the show had any interest in spending the time to make it work. As is, it’s dropped with the same casualness as a last name. Certain ideas need to carry weight with them if they’re going to have an impact, and you can’t treat “trying to discover time travel first” like it’s no big deal. As far as I can remember, we heard nothing about this last season during the actual, y’know, war, and hearing about it now in retrospect, it’s difficult to take with a straight face.

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Yes, it makes sense insofar as I can imagine both sides wanting to have this remarkable technology, but the idea that they were both far enough along that they could almost control it is a big jump that makes the concept seem more mundane than it should. It’s a bit like the Spore Drive, that faster-than-warp form of travel that they decided to throw into a prequel for reasons that still escape me, but at least that was treated as a big deal. Here, everyone just rolls with it and moves on.

The other big revelation is the backstory on Michael’s parents who, it turns out, were working with Section 31 on the time travel project. The Klingons killed them because of the arms race—which means that race to time travel has been going on for decades now, but whatever—and Leland is basically to blame because he got them a stolen time crystal. He tells this to Michael after it becomes clear that Section 31 will have to work with Discovery to catch the Angel, and Michael snaps, attacking him before yelling at Tyler (who has no idea what’s going on) and heading to the gym to beat up a dummy.

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Sonequa Martin-Green, who doesn’t always get challenged on this series, does some terrific work here, and her later conversation with Spock is very strong; as silly as I think the source of their initial combativeness was, seeing it repaired like this is extremely satisfying. (If you’d told me before this season started that Spock and Michael would be one of my favorite things about it, I would not have believed you.)

But as convincing as Martin-Green is, the reaction as scripted is too simple, too straightforward, to really work. If the episode had given time to this revelation, which is clearly intended to pay off in the final scene, it might have had Michael’s birth parents come up before this season. As is, it’s just a writer settling on the most obvious reaction, instead of a character-specific one. Again, you can defend it—she’s under a lot of strain, she already has plenty of reasons to hate Leland (remember when he was going to rip Spock’s brain out?), etc. But it plays out in a way that feels like no one ever wrote a second draft. Hopefully having her mother show up in the final minutes will give Michael a chance to explore something more complex.

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Oh right, that’s the other twist. After discovering Michael’s biometric signature in the Red Angel (!), everyone decides that some future version of Michael is time-traveling to save the universe (!?!). As Spock points out, this is in character for her, but it’s still a ludicrous reveal that the episode rushes through in order to get to the actual answer. Everyone is immediately and completely committed to the idea of capturing the Angel—you know, the being who has saved multiple lives and who hasn’t ever been a threat and oh yeah it turns out might be a future version of one of our most devoted and brilliant crewmembers.

This is dumb. And, as ever, it’s the kind of dumb that could if work if they’d spent more than five minutes on it. Michael has a history of irrational behavior (remember when she more or less started the Klingon War in the pilot?), and while we know her intentions are pure, maybe not everyone trusts her. Maybe Michael doesn’t even trust herself. And while the Red Angel has so far been not a threat, this could’ve been played as a refusal to let someone else have all the answers; a criticism of how the Federation’s arrogance drives them to target the one person who might be able to stop the impending apocalypse. Or hell, maybe they don’t even believe an apocalypse is coming, and just want the Red Angel to stop lying to them. Maybe Section 31 believes she’s a Klingon from the future fucking with their heads.

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Any of this could have worked if it was in the actual episode. But instead, we just get twists and action without any effort to justify any of it. The presumption that we’ll accept our heroes behavior simply because they’re the heroes is immensely frustrating, especially from a show that initially suggested something richer and more conflicted. And again, there’s the problem of the inevitability of an absurd scheme. As soon as it’s suggested—oh, the Red Angel comes when it senses Michael’s in danger (which has happened what, twice?), let’s put Michael in danger—everyone decides it’s the right thing to do. Some of them have second thoughts, but only after the plan has been put into effect.

So now Discovery (and what’s left of Section 31—bye, Leland!) has the Red Angel, which, unless they’re very lucky, leaves them with no real protection against the future AI threat. Hopefully Mom has some answers and isn’t too upset about being interrupted in the middle of trying to save the universe to share them. Maybe Dr. Culber can find a way to interrupt her at the worst possible moment, because that seems to be his gift since coming back from the dead.

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Stray observations

  • Right, so Culber pops into engineering while Tilly, Stamets, and Georgiou are all neck deep in work, and he barely reads the temperature of the room before diving right the hell in. He’s looking for the Admiral (because, it turns out, she used to be a therapist; apparently there are no therapists on the Discovery and Culber assumes this would be a good use of her time), and Georgiou immediately starts getting off on the tension.
  • And I mean “getting off.” The weird sexual subtext of the Mirror Universe is underlined even more than usual here, with Georgiou complaining about how her Stamets was bisexual, which this Stamets assures us is definitely not the case. It’s very stupid and sort of funny, right down to Tilly’s last line, but has anyone dug into the weird assumption that “willing to fuck anything” is a pre-existing condition for the evil version of good characters?
  • “How did the Section 31 program designed to eliminate threats become the threat?” This is either an incredibly stupid line of dialogue or an absolutely brutal character critique, and for the life of me, I don’t have enough faith in the show to know which.
  • “You were saving your own life.” Yeah, I get it, time travel is confusing, but it would’ve been nice if anyone had been skeptical about any of this. If the Red Angel was Michael, having her go back in time to give a message to Spock to save her life is… confusing, to say the least.
  • Tyler continues to be a blank slate with a bad haircut.
  • I still think my dumb Borg theory has a chance to play out. 
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