Monday, November 20, 2017

Discovery, Season 1: Into the Forest I Go

Discovery, Season 1
"Into the Forest I Go"
Airdate: November 12, 2017
9 of 15 produced
9 of 15 aired

Introduction

Discovery makes a stand at Pahvo for some reason. Tyler is brought back into contact with his former captor L'Rell for some reason. Captain Lorca strands the ship in a far-off place for some reason. Want to know the reasons? Tune back in during January, maybe.

In this image, the Klingons are not killing Burnham for some reason.

Writing

Matthew: I'll just say at the outset that I wasn't a huge fan of this episode, which sounds like it puts me in the minority. My explanation, such as it is, is that I feel like a lot of stupid, disjointed, almost incomprehensible stuff has to happen for this plot to progress, while the emotional aspects of the episode basically work. So let's start with the mechanics of Discovery versus the Barge of the Dead or whatever they're calling it. Discovery is ordered back to safety so that the Federation's "best minds" can regroup and maybe find an answer to this cloaking device advantage. But then the Discovery bridge crew figures it out in about ten onscreen seconds. And so they hatch a plan: we're going to circle around the Klingon ship while it is cloaked and take 133 readings which will somehow tech the tech in order to give us tech about the tech. Umm, isn't that a problem when you don't know where the ship is? And doesn't the plan depend entirely on the Klingons cloaking precisely when you need them to? Then, they have to beam people onto the ship in order to place the sensors that will allow this plan to take place. Don't worry, there will be an infinitesimal window as the ship decloaks in which we can do this. Well, I counted. It took thirty onscreen seconds from the point at which the ship began to decloak for Tyler and Burnham to initiate their transport. If their shields were down for thirty seconds, why wasn't the ship just a smoldering ruin? Come to think of it, if Discovery (or any ship) has a good enough idea during this jump operation where the ship is, couldn't they just fire torpedoes at it at any point while cloaked? How is the cloak an advantage at all if you know where the ship is? It's all just sloppy, lazy, and ultimately a nonsensical means of getting Tyler on the Klingon ship in order to meet up with L'Rell.

Kevin: I'm certainly not going to suggest this is a perfect episode, far from it. And it's not that I will say any of the problems you identify aren't there, I just individually and collectively weighted them as less damaging to the episode. As for the cloak break, I wasn't bothered. They explained that the cloak is not perfect but tracking the minute imperfections in real time is impossible, so the sensors provided additional data that cumulatively allows them to identify whatever emissions the ship still makes on a usable time scale. As technobabble solutions go, that's in the fat part of the bell curve right next to reversing everything's polarity. And it's not like the ship's engineer hasn't solved for the cloaking device in real time before, as LaForge did in TNG's Redemption. At it's core, I think episode has a lot in common structurally with Magic to Make the Sanest Men Go Mad. The episode is obviously an action one, but the drama is propelled by character interactions. Burnham, Tyler, and Stamets' emotional arc undergird the episode, and that will compensate for a multitude of sins. I ultimately agree (again) with Gizmodo's review "Last Night's Star Trek: Discovery Was a Great Climax to a Show We Never Got" and I tip my hat once again to Katherine Trendacosta for a line I wish I came up with first. Especially for a line like Lorca's "You were scientists pressed into war," that is a great thesis statement for a show. It's even a timely one, thinking about how starry-eyed liberals choose to navigate a world that apparently disagrees with their outlook. The problem is that nuanced conflict wasn't what we watched for the half season. Lorca flipped back and forth between tortured idealist or scheming madman. Like I've been saying all season, the show has kernels of stuff I love, it's just hidden under a lot of stuff I don't.

Matthew: So let's talk Tyler. Why is he on this mission again? Lorca, who suffers from PTSD himself (see post-coital strangulation and under-pillow phaser threatening), decides to send Tyler on this absolutely critical mission, while for some reason forbidding Burnham to do the same. Why? Then, Burnham chews him out on the bridge, which instead of getting her thrown in the brig, gets him to relent. Huh? Once on the Klingon ship, they place two EXTREMELY LOUD secret, hidden devices, and Tyler predictably wigs the fuck out over his seven months of torture. Look - were the scenes interesting from a character standpoint? Sure. But it took the dum-dums to get us there. Then, after Cornwell tells Burnham that Tyler will be no good to anyone for a long time, she basically cures him by talking to him for two minutes, and the catalyst seems to be her mentioning Burnham. Look, guys, if you just love your significant other enough, you should be able to shake off this silly PTSD stuff, OK? Burnham has it out with the main Klingon baddie, basically in order to keep him from taking the ship out of orbit. OK, fine. Was the duel fun to watch? Yes. But the whole setup of that scene made no sense. She starts shooting Klingons (on stun) in an attempt to... talk to them about human decency and attempts to communicate via universal translator? As soon as she stood up from cover with her hands in the air, she should have been a cloud of vapor. Aaaaanyway, when Tyler meets up with L'Rell, we are given indications that there is some sci-fi mechanism by which he is a sleeper agent. Which, in one sense, is a good thing, because Voq just being able to pass as a human would have been show-killingly dumb. But isn't this level of deep cover simply too deep to be useful? He almost dies multiple times, kills dozens of Klingons, and is a complete and total mess. He also hates his handler with a burning passion, because of the repeated sexual assault he was subject to. On the one hand, I like that we are portraying men and prisoners as being legitimate victims of rape. But on the other, just what the hell is her motivation? Is she having sex with Voq and not Tyler? If so, why does it hurt him so much? Tyler seems to have clear memories of it, which indicates that he was not Voq at the time.

Kevin: The whole idea that Tyler should go but Burnham shouldn't was a weird idea, and we've certainly clocked Trek for using main casts on missions that cry out for a dedicated specialist, but again, I'm not as mad at it. Star Trek's relationship with mental health and trauma is a bit....inconsistent, but in the four walls of Tyler's (understandable) freak out, I think everything works. The problem of PTSD is that a person suffering it can't differentiate a memory of a thing from the experience of it, and that was there. We even got Cornwell being at least briefly a competent mental health professional. I agree that the beats move too quickly to be as great as the actors would let them be, but I'm happy enough that they did it at all, that I'm willing to round up instead of down. I also think they did a good job handling Tyler's portrayal of trauma after the climax of the story. I think it was handled with a surprisingly and refreshingly light hand. It felt like someone on staff either had the experience with or did the homework on this issue. I particularly think they nailed the sense of guilt that survivors of abusive relationships feel about the things they did to survive that relationship. From the outside, any overt consent or encouragement by Tyler is completely void. He was doing what he needed to to survive and the threat to his life makes consent quite literally impossible. But that doesn't stop him from feeling guilty about what he now feels is his complicity in his own abuse. That's a nuanced fucking point. I was also thrilled, THRILLED that Burnham and Tyler didn't sleep together. It would have been wildly out of character for her, and a stupid piece of writing for him. When they cut to the scene of them both dressed and sleeping on opposite ends of the couch, I almost cheered. I'm almost impressed a television show writer can contemplate a heterosexual couple providing support and comfort without having them have sex. So, again, while I agree a lot of the set up was fairly forced, the emotional beats and payoffs that produced felt worth it to me. And I have certainly gone on record hating the Voq as Tyler plot, but whatever they appear to be doing, it certainly seems that the person of Tyler exists in some way separate from Voq in a way that makes my investment in his character are thus far valid. For threading that needle alone, I'm almost thrilled with this episode.

Matthew: This show has a Lorca problem. Do you know what the problem is? His decisions and his motivations make no sense, and they careen back and forth episode by episode. Either he is grossly manipulative and indifferent to human suffering, or the writers just haven't decided what to do with him. I think it's the latter, based on comments from the show runner like this:

“Every couple of episodes, right around the time the audience feels like, ‘Oh, I know what you’re doing,’ we switch it up. It became a natural rhythm for the show, and it makes it really fun for us, the writers, everybody, really. Because it’s a way to keep it lively.” 

No. That's not what it is at all. It's not "lively." It's confusing and irritating. Look. Mystery is great. I love mystery. But there is good mystery and bad mystery. Do you know why good mysteries work? Because they give astute members of the audience just enough consistent information to figure things out on their own, but not quite enough information to eliminate all surprises. Bad mysteries engage in the "ass pull," in which things are sprung on the viewer without preamble, often near the end of a story. Sound familiar? It should, because this series has been a long running sequence of ass pulls. In this particular episode, Lorca manipulates Stamets into jumping for the sake of exploration, using evidence gathered over the past 9 episodes to show him all the new frontiers they might explore. Wait, which is it? Is he invested in the science, and that's why he has the info? Or doesn't he care about Stamets at all, which is why he sabotages the final jump and lands them, at great physical cost to Stamets, in what presumably is the Mirror Universe. I don't think it can be both, at least not without a hell of a lot more development. Lorca commits gross insubordination (for which Burnham received a LIFE SENTENCE) in violating his orders to return the ship, and is rewarded for it with the Legion of Honor. Huh? If Starfleet is just stringing him along in order to get the ship back, I suppose that's one thing, but it seems an awfully duplicitous means of luring him back.

Kevin: Here, I agree, it does seem like they are just hedging their bets and letting themselves leave questions open long past the point where the writers at least should know what they are doing. I read scenes like all of Stamets' scenes with Lorca as naked manipulation. I'm also assuming that Lorca interfered with the jump to prevent himself from being brought before Cornwell and having his balls handed to him. The thing is I don't mind a bad captain. Plenty of TOS in particular has revolved around the bad captain in charge of a big Starfleet asset. They just needed to connect the dots between the Lorca we see in Context is for Kings and the one who almost choked an admiral to death. The jumps are scattershot and feel like the merely serve the goal of "shocking" rather than telling a complete story.

Matthew: This is just a general writing criticism, as we are at the "mid season finale" stage of things (which is stupid). This show doesn't seem to know what it is. Is it a war story? Is it an exploration story? Is it a "Starfleet's ideals don't hold up in the real world" story? Is it a "diversity is cool!" story? Because it seems to shift back and forth between one or more of these themes at a time, usually quite inelegantly (e.g. completely abandoning the Pahvans after spending an episode telling us but not showing us how alien and interesting and cool they are) and some of them don't really fit with each other. My hope going forward is that the show will lean harder into the "mycelial network" thing and go in a more Doctor Who-style direction, flitting between alternate realities or something. While this approach is problematic (and having to type "mycelial network" makes my science-brain cry), it at least obviates most of the issues involved in trying to cram yet another TOS prequel into the Trek narrative.

Kevin: Not to sound like a broken record here, but I think you're lowering the boom a tad early on this issue. Both TNG and DS9 went through some pretty significant tonal shifts in the substance and style of the stories they were telling by the third season. Now, I agree that on your sixth series, you should be able to hit the ground running a little more easily, but I'm happy to give the show at least the rest of its first season to find its voice. I think even analyzing the other shows for the consistency of their voice is a little self defeating. I know that TNG finds a clear style and voice later on, and in fact watched most of those before I saw early TNG, so I think, even subconsciously, I probably paper over a little of the numerous flaws in early TNG because I know (can't un-know) that it gets better. So I'm not saying the show has landed on a consistent theme, but I think they get the back 7 to try and figure it out a little more. In the end, I think the character work is strong, and I think there are many things to recommend both this episode and a trend in the series to date. If nothing else, Kol is dead and the sarcophagus ship is gone. L'Rell is the only Klingon left, and she is closest to interesting, and they cut the rest of the dead weight of a plot. It took Voyager two seasons to jettison the Kazon. Drawing some trend lines between the story set up in the premier and the story they are focusing on here, I think you see them moving in an encouraging direction.

Acting

Matthew: I like Jason Isaacs. Really, I do. But when he is hiding his motivations (as seems necessary when the writers themselves don't seem to know what they are), he needs to give us more facially to show that there is a hidden life, a thought process that we aren't gaining access to. And he is rather stone-faced here, for me. Sonequa Martin-Green gives us more in this way, and I love her performance for it. To be fair, she is given better dialogue, as well. But I know Isaacs is capable of more nuance, given his turn as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies.

Kevin: I think my favorite parts of the episode were the quiet scenes between Martin-Green and Latif. They have chemistry but they can both let a scene breath without having to portray it all as hormones. They have a kindred spirit rapport and I really have liked watching them navigate each other's damage. I also think the gold star goes to Rapp this episode. Both his conversation had the bright eyed earnestness of a textbook Starfleet officer. It's a shame the series hasn't quite decided whether to play that straight or for some other purpose, but I can't fault him in his performance. I also liked the relationship scenes between Rapp and Cruz. There were the complicated layers of a real relationship and being able to hold the simultaneous emotions of love and frustration. Also, I love that they kiss on the mouth and it's the right amount of genuine.

Matthew: Shazad Latif had a real big episode, here. I think he convincingly portrayed a PTSD attack, as well as more protracted anguish over repeated sexual assault. More than that, I think his conflicted portrayal of a "Manchurian Candidate" style sleeper agent really worked, too. He has steadily become one of my favorite people to watch on this show, and I hope the writers don't sell him out with something stupid. Jayne Brook, whose character is thankfully not dead, also did a fine job in her scenes with Latif.

Kevin: More than ever, I am hoping that even if it turns out Tyler is a creation, it's one that takes on a life of its own.

Production Values

Matthew: I will just stipulate to all the visual effects being competent at a very high level. What I want to point out is some of the nearly episode-killing mistakes, which fall under Production problems. The way the beam-in played out, with thirty seconds transpiring between decloak and transport, was unforgivable from a directorial standpoint. It completely undercut the drama of the scene and it called into question everything that happened afterward in the episode. Then, the sensor pod things were ridiculous. How did anyone expect a device that repeatedly beeps and announces "Connected With Discovery!!!" to remain hidden ON THE BRIDGE of the Klingon ship? Are Klingons deaf because of their outrageous makeup appliances?

Kevin: I agree fully that the uncloaking and beam out scenes just went on too long to the point that they broke the story. And it literally just felt like editing, not even dialogue per se. A few snips here and there would have allowed us to round up into the standard allowances for how ten seconds on a clock never equals ten seconds of screen time. I also agree the sensors were hilariously obvious. No way around that. In the plus column, as impossible as they are for detecting rank, I kind of like the badges apparent use as dog tags.

Matthew: WHY ARE THE KLINGONS SPEAKING ENGLISH NOW? Apparently, communicators had a UT ten years before TOS. Sigh. Now, having the Klingons speaking English makes all of their scenes SOOOOOOO much more enjoyable. But making us suffer through 8.5 episodes to get here is just awful. Speaking of needless Klingon things, I could have gone the rest of my life without a gratuitous sex scene showing H.R. Giger Klingon nipple action. I shouldn't have to type that.

Kevin: See, I'm not mystified by it, but I think it is a missed opportunity. When she comes out holding the communicator, she says something about having it because of Starfleet's goal of exploration and Kol counters its more co-opting of Klingon identity. In there, I think is the actual conflict they hinted at in the premiere. The Federation is by its nature open and respectful to other cultures. The Klingons find such a view offensive per se. The attempt to automate translation to the Federation is their philosophy applied, but Kol apparently views as some form of inappropriate cultural appropriation. There's a neat discussion in there. Could a culture meaningfully object to others speaking or learning or digitizing their language? Could there be a more anti-Federation view? I think the scene rather being inexplicable is just more evidence that the show is skipping from A to B without doing as much work as I would like to develop the kernels of ideas.

Conclusion

Matthew: I'm at a 2. The more I think about this episode, the more I dislike it. I watched it twice to make sure I didn't miss the things other reviewers are praising. I didn't. I think one or both of the following is happening - people want to like this show so much that they are filling in the cavernous blanks in their heads, and are enjoying what their heads are producing; people are being dazzled by great effects and solid acting to the point that they just forget plot problems. This episode made no sense on its face. It had nice character dynamics, and it was pretty. But that's not enough for me.

Discovery needs to hire some better writers. Writers who are accustomed to identifying theme and character, and fruitfully and consistently developing them over the course of a season of television. These writers aren't that. And I'm sick of it.

Kevin: Like I said, it's not that I disagree per se with any one problem you identify. I do wish the show would make some of the Starfleet ideas they have been feeding to Stamets or Burnham take center stage and I wish the show would find its voice more clearly, and find a way to tell more self contained episodes that still serve the arc. That said, the character work is solid to very good this time, the effects are good, and whatever holes are in the plot, they don't feel fatal to me. The episode is fast paced without being an Abrams confusion, and in addition to the character focused work discussed above, they trimmed a couple of major plot elements I found to be the worst. More than anything, I think the episode did its job in making me happier than I was when I started watching at the prospect of watching the show again in January. I think this makes into a 4, for a rare 2 point differential for us. That makes a total of 6.

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