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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Discovery brings perspective to a future that may not need it

Illustration for article titled iStar Trek: Discovery/i brings perspective to a future that may not need it
Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS
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At the end of last season, we learned that the then-present day Federation was preparing to pull an Armin Tamzarian with Discovery and its crew. After Michael and the others jumped to the future (which is now the show’s present, keep up), the people they left behind who knew them covered every trace of the ship’s departure, with orders that it would never be spoken of again. This was the show’s way of “fixing” the continuity problems it had established in its first two seasons of life as a prequel, playing largely straight a bit that The Simpsons did entirely for laughs. But I’ll give the Discovery writers credit: They didn’t forget this happened. When our heroes finally show up at the new Federation headquarters, they’re overjoyed, and then crushed when the people in charge don’t immediately welcome them with open arms. But why would they? According to their records, Discovery, and all aboard her, were destroyed almost a thousand years ago.

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Conceptually, this isn’t a bad dynamic. It would’ve been dramatically flat if Discovery had arrived at its destination and everything had gone exactly as planned. But the way the show presents this tension is odd, and I can’t decide exactly what the intent is here. Michael comes across very badly in her initial meeting with Admiral Charles Vance; she’s now officially serving as Saru’s Number Two, and the two of them are beamed over to the Federation base (along with Adira) early in the episode for a debriefing. Vance is polite but skeptical, which seems like a reasonable approach under the circumstances, but Michael has apparently no ability to read a room. When she and Saru find out about a sickness that the Federation is trying to cure, Michael immediately insists that Discovery should be sent back out to locate a cure, and is frustrated and seemingly confused when Vance doesn’t accept the request.

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I don’t know how this is supposed to play for the audience. That’s unusual for Discovery, which has never been a subtle show; hell, it’s unusual for this episode, which continues the tradition of over-scoring every scene to the point of absurdity. On some level, I think we’re definitely supposed to read Michael as being over the line. It fits in with the suggestions in previous episodes that her year away from Discovery has made her less willing to follow protocol and more willing to take risks. As well, while she’s upset when Vance doesn’t instantly take her suggestion (which is more like a demand), she doesn’t actually break the rules to get what she wants—Saru asks her to calm down a bit, and Michael does (sort of), so while I’m sure this conflict will come back, I don’t think the show is trying to present the new Federation as completely corrupt.

The issue for me is more that it makes Michael look like an insensitive idiot. So much of the show is set up behind the idea of her being especially gifted at inspiring others (to the point where one character literally says that this week) that it’s odd for her to be so completely oblivious to how others might see her. Bad enough that she feels the need to blurt out her plans as soon as they occur to her; worse that she doesn’t even seem to understand why the current Federation might have trouble trusting Discovery’s intentions. Michael’s self-confidence and determination to make choices she believes are important regardless of protocol is something that was introduced in the pilot, and it’s absolutely a valid character trait that the show can and should explore. But having her assume that everyone will automatically agree with her despite many episodes to the contrary, even as the show repeatedly congratulates her for her insight and directness, is awkward and bad.

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This is true to a lesser extent of Discovery’s entire crew, who act like teenagers at a summer camp when they learn the horrible possibility that reporting for duty might mean actual duty, ie doing things they don’t want to do. As with Michael, there is an element to this that’s not hard to sympathize with. These folks are, after all, orphans out of time; the relationships they’ve built with one another are the most important thing they have left, and the idea of getting separated to different ships and jobs with strangers in a future they still don’t completely grasp is legitimately unsettling. (I’m on Admiral Vance’s side for most of the episode, but the casualness with which he initially makes this decision isn’t great, and seems designed more to create a problem to be solved than anything practical.) But the way they all assumed they’d be welcomed with open arms is painfully naïve. Everyone acts like Tilly is the baby of the ship, but nearly every character on the show (with a few exceptions) approaches every situation with Tilly’s wide-eyed optimism.

But I’m getting bogged down over a single point. A fair amount happens in “Die Trying,” most of it circling around Discovery arriving at Federation headquarters and subsequently trying to make a case for themselves as a valuable team asset. Michael, after some sloppiness, does manage to convince Vance to let her take the ship to go recover a Federation vessel from her era that has plant samples needed to cure a deadly virus. They locate the said vessel inside an ion storm, and discover the last inhabitants were Bazan, which just so happens to be Commander Nahn’s race. So Nahn, Michael, and Culber beam aboard to explore, and find a tragic short story about a Barzan family and a father who went mad trying to save his sick children and wife.

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As is often the case with Discovery, moments of this land, but it’s mostly just surfaces, exploiting the imagery of grief and sadness without spending any time with the people involved. There’s a quick, tantalizing hint of something deeper when Nahn explains that “My species is known for two things: diligence and poverty,” explaining how important children were in her culture, but it’s just a fleeting bit of texture in an otherwise largely straight putt. And again, there’s that weird insistence in making Michael the constant focus. When it’s time to explain to the survivor that his family is dead, Nahn tries to talk to him, which makes sense; they have similar cultural experiences, or at least more similar than anyone else on board the Discovery. But Culber takes Michael aside and says she has to be the one who tells the man the hard truths. Is this going to be a thing all season? Is Culber just going to interrupt any time another character does something and tell Michael she should take over?

Worse, this turns out to be Nahn’s farewell episode, as she ultimately decides to stay behind on the ship. I was never a huge Nahn fan, but it seems ignominious to bring her all the way to the future and then ditch her at the first opportunity, after teasing us with a character-centric storyline that never delivers on its promise. (And oh yeah, she’s the one who tells Michael that she has an incredible gift to inspire people.) Everything works out for our heroes, as their mission is successful enough to convince Vance to let them stay together as a crew, but it’s hard to be too excited about that, given how quickly it’s resolved. It’s also strange how fast we went from “the Federation is gone” to “here’s the Federation!” Vance et. al are clearly underpowered (and have no idea what caused The Burn), but the organization isn’t the barely existing mess it seemed like the season was building towards. There’s potential drama in that, as Discovery has to move from believing they were the heroes in a doomed future, to them being small cogs in a big machine. But then Saru gives a speech that basically argues Discovery is going to bring about the Renaissance, so I guess that’s not going to be an issue after all.

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Stray observations

  • I get that Saru’s arguing Discovery can use its status as a temporal anomaly to bring perspective to the future, but it’s still a huge swing of a speech.
  • There’s a blonde lady on Discoverys bridge crew that I didn’t recognize from an earlier episode. Is she new? Sounds like her name is Nilson. (Only reason I mention here is that the episode cuts to her a few times during a scene and I couldn’t understand why.)
  • Saru and Nahn’s homeworlds are both new additions to the Federation in the future, which is a very nice touch. It’s something the show could use more of; given that the technology all still looks exactly the same (even with those portable teleporters), there needs to be more indications of just how much has changed in the near millennium our heroes were absent.
  • Detmer struggles a bit piloting in the ion storm. I still wonder if this is PTSD, or if some Control shenanigans.
  • The fact that Saru and Michael tell Vance their story and don’t offer corroborating evidence is pretty funny. And the cute sequence where various characters talk about all the wild things that have happened to them over the course of the series is also funny.
  • Georgiou talks with David Cronenberg and finds out that there’s been no contact with the Terran universe in over five hundred years. Fun to see the two of them chatting, and I expect this will have ramifications for Georgiou down the line.
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