Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Star Trek Discovery tests its limits in Episodes 2 and 3

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This week, we’re playing a little bit of catch-up (yes I should have done episodes 1 and 2 last week, I’ve learned my lesson). We’ll be covering Star Trek: Discovery episodes 2 and 3, with general thoughts after thorough recaps.

Episode 2: The Battle at the Binary Stars

Seven years ago, Sarek beams aboard the USS Shenzhou to entrust his ward and new crew-member Michael Burnham to Captain Georgiou. The two women walk the ship’s halls, discussing Burnham’s reliability in relation to her young age, and her history as the first human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center and Science Academy. Georgiou remarks that Burnham has been away from humans long, that she is overly confident but that that confidence is well-earned. Burnham agrees, thus beginning their long friendship and mutual respect.

In the present, Burnham tries to convince Georgiou of the threat. She notes the number of Klingon ships drawn by the beacon—twenty-four —and deduces that someone is trying to reunite the scattered Klingon ancestral houses under one banner again, against the Federation. Georgiou dismisses her, citing her treason and endangerment of the crew. She sends Burnham to the brig.

Aboard the Klingon vessel, T’Kuvma speaks to the leaders of the twenty-four houses. They are outraged at his use of the beacon, a sacred item prophesied to unite the Empire which they responded to out of respect for tradition. One of the leaders, Kor, reveals that  T’Kuvma is of a disgraced house—one not seated on the council any longer–and is also accepting of outcasts like Voq Son of None. T’Kuvma explains the appropriateness of his place as prophet and restorer of a unified Empire. As a child, he was touched by the light of Kahless, his destiny revealed to him. He found his father’s abandoned ship and chased away—or tried to—those who disrespected it. Kor refuses to listen further, but the other Klingon leaders are interested in his story and beliefs and let him continue speaking.

T’Kuvma asks the leaders to join him against the Federation, reminding them of their ancestral purity and the threat the Federation poses: mixing them with other races, robbing them of their distinct identity. The leaders question what threat one Federation ship poses, but just then Federation vessels appear to support the Shenzhou.

Captain Georgiou hails the Klingon vessel. She relays a message of peace and hopeful communication, asking the Klingons to either retreat from Federation space or allow an open dialogue—“So we can prove to you that now, as always, we come in peace.” T’Kuvma flies into a rage urging the other leaders to attack this lie. They do not come in peace, he insists; they come to destroy Klingons and their identity in the universe. The house leaders join T’Kuvma’s “Remain Klingon” cause and attack the Federation.

The Federation vessels sustain heavy fire and casualties. In the brig, Burnham tries to get her bearings and discern the ship’s status. The computer ignores her. An injured crewman, Connor, comes to Burnham, declaring that she should be on the bridge. Immediately after he asks why are they, Starfleet, are fighting, a Klingon attack rips the brig in two, sending him into space.

Burnham flashes back to an attack on a learning center, where, in the wreckage, Sarek mind-melded with her.

The Shenzhou is nearly destroyed. In the ruined brig, Burnham communicates with Sarek. Years ago, he shared his katra with her, which now allows him to communicate with her over distances otherwise impossible. He encourages her to escape, to do better, to serve. Elsewhere, Admiral Brett Anderson and his ship the USS Europa rescue the Shenzhou before it can be completed obliterated. He negotiates a ceasefire with T’Kuvma, who then orchestrates the destruction of the Europa by having it rammed by a large, hidden vessel.

T’Kuvma names himself Kahless reborn. He orders the remaining Federation ships to spread the news across the universe. He then turns his attention to gathering and tending to the Klingon dead.

Fully conscious again, Burnham convinces the computer to free her by activating its ethics protocol. She seeks out Georgiou, who is planning a final assault against the Klingons using photons torpedoes and a small “worker bee” vessel. Burnham convinces her against the suicide mission, reminding her that killing T’Kuvma will make him a martyr. She convinces Georgiou to capture him instead. The two of them beam aboard the Klingon vessel after bombs attached to Federation dead injure the ship. Georgiou and Burnham engage with T’Kuvma and Voq. While Voq attempts to crush Burnham’s skull, T’Kuvma stabs Georgiou, killing her.

Burnham escapes Voq, permanently scarring his eye. She grabs her phaser, switches from stun, and kills him in anger and vengeance. The Shenzhou beams her aboard before she can reclaim Georgiou’s body.

Before the admiralty, Burnham pleads guilty to charges of dereliction, assault and mutiny. She is sentenced to life imprisonment.

Episode 3: Context is for Kings

Six months after the death of Captain Phillipa Georgiou and her sentencing, Michael Burnham sits aboard a prison shuttle for an unexpected transfer. Traveling with three other prisoners—one of whom lost family on the Europa—their shuttle suddenly shudders. A microorganism is stealing the shuttle’s power, threatening to strand them. The pilot goes out to handle the infestation, but is killed. The distressed shuttle is beamed aboard a Starfleet vessel.

On-board the USS Discovery, the head of security takes the four prisoners to the mess hall before the brig. Burnham sees Kayla, a former fellow crew-member. Scarred from the Shenzhou incident, she refuses to acknowledge Burnham. Burnham sits with the other prisoners only to be assaulted. She beats them in the mess hall before being taken to the Discovery’s captain.

Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) introduces himself to Burnham in his darkened cabin, citing a recent injury to account for the bad lighting. He repeatedly reminds her of her role in the current war against the Klingons before informing Burnham she will be serving on Discovery. Despite her protests, Lorca assigns her to engineering and a project he refuses to detail to her.

Burnham quickly learns that the Discovery is unlike any Federation vessel she has been on or heard of. After meeting her quarters-mate, Cadet Sylvia Tilley (Mary Wiseman), Burnham experiences a “black” alert: the lights dim and water behaves strangely, droplet-ing before disappearing. Tilley will not answer her questions about what’s going on.

First Officer Saru takes Burnham to her new assignment. As Burnham congratulates him on his promotion and apologizes for everything that occurred before, Saru accepts her apology but warns her that he doesn’t trust her, and assures her that he will protect Captain Lorca much better than she did Captain Georgiou.

In engineering, Burnham meets Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapps) who rudely dismisses her  as a “temp coder” and sets her to work on reconciling code. He contacts his friend and colleague, Straal on the USS Glenn to discuss the progress of a project. The Glenn has exceeded expectations and are going to push it even further. Stamets expresses concern about Straal’s and the ship’s safety but his friend waves of his concerns. Stamets dismisses Burnham when, after eavesdropping, she then points out that part of his coding was incorrect.

Frustrated at being locked out and uninformed, Burnham steals DNA from Tilly while she sleeps and uses it to gain access. She sees part of Stamets’ research: beautiful and meticulously cared-for flora in the ship’s hold.

Lorca later informs Engineering that the USS Glenn suffered an incident during black alert maneuvers, which lead to the deaths of the entire crew. He orders Stamets, Burnham and a small away team go to the ship and retrieve unspecified materials and technology. After learning more about Stamets’ project—physics as biology—and himself, Burnham and the team investigate the Glenn. The team is immediately concerned about the damage to the ship and the horrific injuries to the crew. As they try to ascertain the exact nature of the damage and failure, something moves about in the dark.

At first they think it is a Klingon, who comes out at Tilly’s hailing and shushes them. But then he is devoured by a monster. It pursues them through the ship to engineering.

While Tilly and Stamets gather the technology, Burnham distracts and enrages the beast, buying them time to escape through sealed bay doors to their shuttle. Burnham takes to the vents, quoting Alice in Wonderland to focus before dropping down into the shuttle. They escape the beast.

After the incident, Lorca invites Burnham to remain on the Discovery, an invitation she initially tries to refuse. She knows Lorca wants her on the ship, and she dislikes his testing of her as well as the technology he hopes to create. She speculates he hopes that a mutineer would do anything to get out of a life sentence, including illicit weapons-development, and vehemently refuses, stating that she is, and always will be, a first officer. Lorca takes her to the engineering lab and exposes her to the technology he is trying to develop: organic propulsion, an intergalactic ecosystem-based highway. The source and goal of the black alerts. The new propulsion system could be the tipping-point in the war against the Klingons, and then become the way of the future for Federation exploratory missions.

Having seen the possibilities, and knowing her role in starting a war that has cost 8,176 lives, Burnham agrees to join him on the Discovery, hoping to help him end it.

Tilly and Burnham make amends and bond over mutual respect for Georgiou, and Burnham shares some of her history and love for her foster mother, Amanda, who helped her adjust to life on Vulcan. Elsewhere, Lorca stands in a lab, surrounding by skeletons and intergalactic species parts. In a cell, he observes the beast from the USS Glenn.

Episode Impressions

Well so much for our female Starfleet captain.

I know I had misgivings regarding Captain Georgiou’s longevity on Discovery, but Michelle Yeoh’s death was just unfortunate. It’s a fine example of fridging, although at least the emotional pain and character growth is geared toward a woman. But Burnham had plenty of other reasons to hate the Klingons and forget her own insistence on bringing T’Kuvma in alive: the death of her parents, the destruction of the learning center and the children’s lives lost, Ensign Connor and his bewildered concerns before being horribly yanked into the cold horror of space. Take your pick.

Considering their last conversation—where Georgiou all but says that her Vulcan upbringing was a mistake she needed to fix, her humanity the only thing that could make Burnham capable of being a competent captain—I guess it makes sense. Even with that passive prejudice towards Vulcan and that insistence on human excellence, Burnham still respects and cares for Georgiou in a way she doesn’t have words for. She’s a woman Burnham would shove the logic aside for.

Hence, the fridging.

Episode 3 continues Discovery’s trend of fantastic casting choices and acting. Jason Isaac as Captain Gabriel Lorca does a wonderful job of being the absolute perfect kind of suspicious-sleazy, while Tilly is oddly delightful in her nervous energy and discomfiting but relatable curiosity about Burnham and her relationship with Captain Georgiou.

Episode 3 also introduces Lieutenant Paul Stamets, Star Trek’s first openly-gay character and good god do I hate him. Stamets embodies many subtle but grossly-stereotypical  “gay man” tropes: comically fastidious (brushing off his shoulders from bare dust), painfully rude, horribly jealous, and just this side of the sassy white gay friend. There’s no real declaration of his sexual orientation, but I’m betting ten-to-one that his “friend” and research-partner Straal on the USS Glenn is more than a friend, and if that’s all we get, it’s even worse than Sulu’s ten seconds with his husband and daughter.

Stamets’ rudeness and anger are more understandable after he explains how he was essentially forced into Starfleet because of his research, but it doesn’t forgive the stereotypes that he’s being shoehorned into right now. Hopefully, his character evolves beyond them.

Episode 3 sees a massive shift in the Discovery narrative, shifting away from the cinema-quality action and adventure of the pilot episodes and into a conspiracy-laden, character-growth and narrative-driven story more reminiscent of earlier Star Trek series and arcs. It’s a little disheartening to see Discovery moving in the same direction as AOS—the Federation as war-machine—but it isn’t unheard of. It’s also refreshing to see that movement openly questioned, and early on. Stamets’ voice of concern and immediate, vocal dislike of Lorca and his tactics is going to be an interesting, and probably deadly, counterpoint in this series about war and the Federation’s internal struggle of ideal versus reality.

A few things didn’t mesh quite as well as the series would probably have liked: the turn into sci-fi horror was a little heavy-handed, and the Alice in Wonderland recitation and allusions probably would have been more effective with a slightly-earlier introduction of Burnham’s possession and love of the book (and how exactly did that stay in her possession through 6 months in prison?).

Oddly enough, the fortune cookies were the most distressing. It was a kind of gross homage to the loss of Georgiou and the appropriation of her place by a middle-aged white man. This is unfortunately unsurprisig, as the US and Hollywood have appropriated much of Asian culture through the years, and fortune cookies were an American invention, devised by Japanese immigrants in the 19th or earth 20th century.

For all its confusions and frustrations, Discovery has introduced characters and mysteries strong and alluring enough to keep the audience—and your resident Trekker—hooked, and done so in a way that is still refreshingly Star Trek.

Are we looking at more about section 31 in the canon timeline? Or something else entirely?

When will the militant Discovery and the fervent Klingons meet? And what will happen to both sides before that fateful clash?

How far down the rabbit hole is Burnham going to fall, and will she even survive it?

Image(s) courtesy of CBS Productions

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