By Gerry CanavanFebruary 17, 2018
“You instigate valiantly, and then second guess. … You know your problem? No follow-through.” Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) hisses these words to Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in the final episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, in a moment so meta it nearly leaps off the screen. What has happened to the series that, when it ended its midseason finale last November, was not only the best opening season of any Trek series, but easily the best run of back-to-back episodes the Star Trek franchise has ever produced? What went wrong? How did the promise of those early episodes land us here? Discovery, like Star Trek: Beyond before it, is fine, I guess — but when Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) typed those bogus coordinates and hijacked the ship last November, he hijacked the series too. Nothing has been quite right since.
The problem truly is follow-through. Since November, Discovery has careened from one ill-advised “shocking” plot twist to another — Mirror Universe! Secret Klingons! Neck Snap! Evil Captain! Another Evil Captain! Oops, Genocide! Uh, Nevermind! — without doing the deeper work necessary to make each twist sensible either on its own terms or in terms of the larger Star Trek mythos of which this is, ostensibly, an important but heretofore hidden chapter. In fact, what has typically happened is that the Big Twist has served as the opportunity to summarily eject a previously established plot line from the series. The discovery that Ash Tyler is really Voq, or that Lorca is really Mirror Lorca, or that Emperor Georgiou’s plan is to destroy the Klingon home world — each of these revelations serves not as the springboard for new narrative developments but rather as that story arc’s unnaturally abrupt conclusion.
What are we left with then, when the season ends, is a series that “slams the reset button with both fists and never stops winding back the clock.” By the end of Episode 15, Burnham (now two times a mutineer!) is improbably reinstated as a Starfleet officer at her previous rank and sent with Commander Saru (Doug Jones) and their beloved support staff of nonspeaking extras to get a new captain and start over as if the entire first season had never happened, this time without any of the dynamic and fascinating characters (especially the devilish, beguiling Lorca) who had made those early episodes so incredibly compelling. It looks for all the world like someone, somewhere got a look at what Discovery was doing to Star Trek and second-guessed. They flinched.
When watching film and television, I think often of Robin Wood’s description of “that most striking and persistent of all classical Hollywood phenomena, the happy ending: often a mere ‘emergency exit’ […] for the spectator, a barely plausible pretense that the problems the film has raised are now resolved.” “Will You Take My Hand?” ends with an especially well-worn version, the awards ceremony, where Burnham, Saru, “and the rest” all get medals honoring their service intercut with Burnham’s uplifting speech about the Federation’s timeless values. Talk about an emergency exit! This is a crew that was under the spell of an impostor captain from the Mirror Universe for months (if not years), a figure whose inverted morality and total lack of compunction or restraint actually jibed so perfectly with Starfleet’s mission that it made him a war hero beyond reproach; upon returning from their own visit to the Mirror Universe, they were promptly put under the command of another impostor, this time knowingly and deliberately by Starfleet brass, so that they could better perpetuate a horrific war crime upon the Klingon home world. They got their medals for refusing to do it, from the very same admiral who had initially ordered them to — an admiral who remains a major military leader of the Federation, alongside the civilian leadership (including Spock and Burnham’s bad dad, Sarek) that expressly signed off on the genocidal plan. In context, the medals and promotions they receive look less like duly earned commendations so much as bribes to keep quiet. I hardly think Burnham’s fierce moral clarity is on the menu.
Even this brief summary undersells the sheer level of narrative incoherence on display in these final episodes, as it omits the utterly convoluted situation involving L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), who inexplicably calls off the Klingon War despite the Federation volunteering to hand over its one and only piece of leverage at the start of negotiations. Here, too, we simply hit the ejector seat rather than sticking around to figure out how any of this fits with anything we’ve seen before, even L’Rell’s own scenes from earlier in the same episode. “Hooray, the war is over!” Well, alright.
In retrospect, perhaps, the warning signs were always there: the series never really decided whether Michael Burnham’s initial mutiny in the pilot was supposed to be “good” or “bad” in the first place, and it seems to finally settle on “bad” only because the series needs to assert that she has grown or changed in some way since the beginning. (That mutiny must be bad, so this mutiny can be good.) Would the “Vulcan Hello” have saved lives? Would it have made any difference? Who knows? Who cares? Discovery has somehow gone 15 episodes now without ever giving Lieutenant Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) her own episode or even any substantial lines of dialogue, despite her character having served with Saru and Burnham on the Shenzhou during the mutiny, having apparently been permanently disabled in the ensuing battle, and apparently holding a grudge against Burnham as a result; her ongoing, inexplicably mute presence on the bridge (despite being the physical embodiment of the mutiny’s unexamined consequences) is by itself the proof that this series is not interested in following through on any of its provocations. In much the same way, the series formalistically namechecks its “bury your gays” victim Dr. Culber in the last episodes while actually pushing the grieving Stamets further and further off-screen, and stops caring about Lorca the moment he’s revealed to be an impostor; as soon as the Big Twist is over, the series doesn’t want to look at the mess it’s made.
In promotional interviews, the writers and actors of the series have repeatedly claimed that that Season One of Discovery is the “first chapter” of a much longer story, but it is hard to imagine the narrative arc for which all this has served as prologue. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, but Discovery is all beginnings, constantly rebooting itself over and over again without allowing its narrative to develop or to reach an organic conclusion. In that sense it is the exemplary Star Trek series for our time, the latest in a series of prequels and reboots that continually retell the beginning of the story and then peter out before they find their own identity or a way to put a unique spin on the franchise. From Enterprise to the Abramsverse films to Discovery, Star Trek seems paralyzed by the idea of doing the one thing the fans of the series actually want: telling new stories that take place in the Prime Universe after the end of Voyager. My one hope for Discovery during the overlong Mirror Universe arc — dashed, of course — was that the Discovery would actually never return to its own time; let them materialize instead a few decades after “Endgame,” bringing in some of the cast from TNG, DS9, and VOY for cameos if they’re not too busy. That second season would not only give the fans some true fan service, it would also solve the problem that has hung over Discovery from the beginning: how does a ship this significant, with novel technology so obviously useful, have no impact on anything that happens later? A Discovery that is declared lost with all hands explains, to a point, why we never heard about any of this before. A Discovery that is by far the most significant ship of its era, not only singlehandedly prosecuting the Klingon War but singlehandedly securing its peace — in the process perfecting a cheap, safe, and easily scalable instant-teleportation technology and proving the existence of hostile alternative universes containing exact-but-evil duplicates of basically everyone alive — would be absolutely legendary, totally transformative of the Federation, its values, and its future well beyond the cowboy antics of Captain Kirk and his crew. That one of the major actors on the ship is Spock’s secret sister is just gravy. Instead of taking that franchise megatext seriously, though, and thinking through the consequences, someone quickly barks that “listen, just so you know, this is all classified” and the credits roll, and we move on instead to another set of stories we’ve seen dozens of times before, whose outcomes we all already know in advance.
Like Star Wars in The Last Jedi, Star Trek finds itself at an inflection point: it knows it needs to tell new stories that revise and interrogate the assumptions that have undergirded the franchise since its inception, about new types of people who have been previously left out of its vision of the future, but it can’t commit, and tries to have it both ways. Thus we have a wartime Federation whose values are pushed to the ultimate brink — but which doesn’t have to live with the consequences of any of its choices, or even think too long about what actually separates the Federation from the Terran Empire, and after the war just goes back to doing the same things it has always done. While an entire season of Star Trek: Truth and Reconciliation might be a bit too much to ask from mass entertainment that is supposed to be fun and make money (if not precisely in that order), I hope the showrunners of the series are able to take a hard look at the end of Season One and think a bit more about follow-through for Season Two. For everything that was (truly) great about Season One — Burnham, Lorca, Saru, Captain Georgiou, Mary Wiseman as Cadet Tilly, Anthony Rapp as Paul Stamets, Wilson Cruz as Dr. Culber, even Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd (God help me) — the series now needs to consider what all this is actually supposed to add up to. Why are we going through the motions of telling a story that will never be allowed to do anything new? If the point is that Starfleet is inherently corrupt and built on a foundation of pretty lies, tell that story; if the point is that dark times expose the weakness in our institutions and we need to confront that challenge with moral courage and personal integrity, tell that story; if the point is that history writes out the figures it can’t incorporate into its narrative of boundless optimism and ceaseless progress, tell that story. But stop trying to tell stories that have to fold themselves up at the end and file themselves neatly away into the Star Trek equivalent of that top-secret warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Stop crafting stories whose payoff is, and can only ever be, “and so, you see, none of it really mattered in the end.” No more minimally invasive storytelling; in Season Two of Discovery, let’s really commit to all this, let’s follow-through.
Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century literature at Marquette University and the author of Octavia E. Butler (University of Illinois Press, 2016).
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