Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Discovery, Season 1: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

http://www.treknobabble.net/p/rating-system.htmlDiscovery, Season 1
"Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"
Airdate: November 5, 2017
8 of 15 produced
8 of 15 aired

Introduction

Burnham, Tyler, and Saru are sent on a mission with implications for the entire war effort. Meanwhile, Admiral Cornwell is still imprisoned by the Klingons.

Saru lets a bit blue bovine one rip.





Writing

Kevin: So this is another is a string of episodes for me where the A-plot is some straight forward, actually pretty high grade, Star Trek that feels completely of a piece with TOS in particular that gets compressed and abbreviated to serve a B-plot that annoys the hell out of me. Part of what made last week's Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad was that there was one story --- and no fucking Klingons. Here, we have two (and a half-ish?) stories and lots of fucking Klingons. But let's start with the good stuff. The Pahvo plot is a story that could have been easily told in TOS. Three crew members alone on seemingly uninhabited alien world? Check. Non-corporeal beings whose idyllic life carries some as yet undisclosed consequences? Check. Same non-corporeal beings interfering in intergalactic politics? Oooh, big check. The problem is none of the beats of the story got the space they needed to breathe. Part of this was a design choice for the Pahvans, but I never got a real sense of what this Gaia-like world was like. We've seen Saru use his unique perspective as a benefit back in Choose Your Pain, so it's not that I think it's impossible he feels burdened by the same skills and experience, that's good drama, it's that we never see him feel burdened by them. Had there been no B plot, the extra 10-15 minutes could have breathed life into the mechanics of the Pahvans and thus given some logic to their appeal to Saru. I liked the idea behind the line "You won't take this from me too." Saru has some well earned resentment and fear of Burnham and if the plot would stop rushing by it, it could be one of the most interesting character pairs in the franchise, a personal redemption arc to mirror the professional one Burnham is on. But as it stands, it's the telescope all over again. Arriving too quickly at a conclusion and hoping the acting papers over the shortcomings.

Matthew: I agree that the Pahvo stuff worked best in this episode, because it tended to allow the characters to reveal themselves in their reactions. I also agree that it was undercut by the fractured nature of the story. But the Pahvo stuff didn't work all that well, even on its own terms. So this is the most important thing that Starfleet can be doing, right? The thing that will undo the decisive tactical advantage the Klingons have? Then why are only three crew members working on it, on foot no less? Come to think of it, how in the hell did anyone notice that the "planetary music" that Pahvo puts out uncloaks Klingon ships? And further, does this music travel at superluminal speeds? Because if not, it won't be very much use until a few hundred years from now. All in all, this plot line suffered greatly from the "we must put the thing in the thing because the script says so" syndrome. I didn't really know why they were doing things. I didn't feel the urgency that they felt, because I did not witness the setup to the plot requirements. It was just all stuff on a page.

Kevin: So is it even a question that Tyler is a Klingon? I mean, that speech about Home and the Thing He Will Do When He Gets Back From the War that has been given in every single war movie ever right before the kid gets hit by a sniper is almost painful in that context. It feels like the writers setting up the twist. You can practically hear Burnham parrot Zap Brannigan's line "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" in the forthcoming finale. (Credit where it's due, Katharine Trendacosta in the io9 review made that joke first, but it was so on point, I had to use it.) The Klingon stuff with L'Rell actually bolsters the idea that they are working to both destroy the Federation but also get vengeance on Kol, so Tyler working faithfully with Discovery until Kol is defeated even makes sense.

Matthew: If there is not a science fiction mechanism in place to explain how Voq has such detailed, in depth knowledge of human culture, custom, and idiom, I don't know if I can continue to watch this show. Potential mechanisms could be: mind transference into another body (rife with philosophical problems though it may be), or some sort of Tuvix-style hybrid, with its attendant ethical quandaries. There is so much bad science, pseudoscience, and outright magic already in place here, that making Tyler be Voq in disguise without such a mechanism will just break my willingness to go along with the story. But in a larger sense, this apparent trend of developing characters just to kill them or change them on a dime is somewhat distressing, and not in the good Game of Thrones kind of way. Game of Thrones worked even when it killed main characters because the world was so compelling and realistic. This world is not that - it is a mess, rife with problems caused by the inane decision to place it ten years before TOS. So the characters are all we have. To spend screen time on one who will just be killed does a huge disservice to the other characters in the show, and weakens the whole.

Kevin: And...the Klingon stuff. Ugh. I'm still not actually certain what the hell happened. The only piece of data they got out of Cornwell was that the Discovery is the linchpin of the Federation's war effort, but didn't they already know that, and that was the reason they kidnapped Lorca, either to get info from him or plant their operative on the ship? What was that escape plan? Was that fight staged? Is Cornwell really dead? I mean, even if they both decided to abandon the plan and Cornwell was just making a break for it, what was the goal? Even if she killed L'Rell, she would still be trapped. If the fight was staged, why not follow through with the original plan and blow up the ship? What was with all the other Klingon corpses? Didn't L'Rell already hate Kol? It was like that episode of the Simpsons where Bob rigs the election and when Lisa finds out her beloved deceased cat Snowball was on the roll declares "This time it's personal," to which Bart replies, "You know, he has tried to kill me several times." Wasn't it already personal, L'Rell?

And on a point so important, I am giving it its own paragraph: STOP FUCKING KILLING THE INTERESTING FEMALE CHARACTERS ON THIS SHOW. WOMEN MAKE UP MORE THAN 50% OF THE POPULATION. I CAN HANDLE HAVING MORE THAN TWO ON A CAST OF 10.

Sorry. I got carried away, but come on. I get you probably couldn't afford Michelle Yeoh indefinitely. I appreciate that. Landry's death was just plain dumb, but I was willing to overlook it in the name of trying. But if Cornwell is really dead and for no reason at all that I can discern from the plot, I am almost done with the show. It's getting to the point that you are clearly just giving into every dumb plot device of serialized dramas that I watch Star Trek to get away from. That said, it appears that a theory I saw floating around that Cornwell would become Lethe, the numbed psychiatrist and former patient of the Tantalus facility in Dagger of the Mind is not true, and thank fucking God, as that is the only twist I would hate more than Tyler is a Klingon.

Matthew: I don't know where we stand after the Klingon stuff. I kind of don't even know what happened. During the scenes, I was like "ooh, this could be interesting, what if L'Rell is a defector?" But then every potentially interesting development was undercut by confusion of backtracking. And yes, in re: Cornwell, please see my comments immediately prior to this set above. I don't think it is clear yet that she is dead (since nothing in the Klingon scenes was clear at all), but if she is, that is another crime against my ability to invest in this show.

Kevin: And last but most certainly least, the stuff with Stamets and Tilly was...what? What was that? I'll tell you what it was. It was time that could have been better spent on the A plot. We really learned nothing too new, as we already knew that Stamets was experience some personality changes as a result of the jumps. Pointing out the conflict for Hugh is precisely why doctors do not treat family members. It's just fake drama to me. I mean, as just an officer on the ship, isn't Tilly under the same obligation to report that the chief engineer is losing his marbles? I have and continue to champion the opportunities that serialized stories can tell and I think DS9 mined them well. But this kind of stuff is the least effective use, where it is more making sure that boxes get ticked to set up season long stuff at the cost of making this episode less entertaining.

Matthew: There were just too many story threads being jammed into this episode. Perhaps this is a function of the serialized nature of the show. Last episode was by far the best because it developed one plot and one character, and allowed those stories to breathe. Here, we have four different threads competing for screen time, and they all suffer as a result.

Acting

Kevin: I hope they sent Doug Jones a muffin basket or maybe a gift certificate for a day spa or something because they owe him for working the fuck out of a script that wasn't giving him everything he needed. In a vacuum, his almost crying "You won't take this away from me too" is heartbreaking. He is really turning it in every week on this show.

Matthew: Agreed on Jones, and I liked Sonequa Martin-Green's delivery on Federation principles. As muddled as the Pahvo plot line was, their performances made me almost forgive the inorganic nature of it all.

Kevin: Maybe because it comes so close on the heels of last week's abortive attempts at dancing, the kiss felt a little rushed, but I believed the chemistry from Martin-Green and Latif. They weren't given much beyond that to do, but what little they had, they certainly did okay with it. I really like Jayne Brook as Cornwell, but again, she was just marking time through the script. I will say I liked Tilly this time around. She was just the right amount of pushy to show her concern was genuine without tripping in caricature.

Matthew: As much as I hated the Klingon scenes, I really liked Mary Chieffo as L'Rell. She was the first Klingon character here whose emotions I could read in her face and identify with. I was consistently interested by her stance on things, and her chemistry with Jayne Brook was excellent. I wish they had gotten off the ship and had an "Enemy Mine" sort of journey in a shuttle or something. But you know what kind of show we'd need for that to work? An episodic one.

Production Values

Kevin: There was too much blue. I'm just gonna say it. Literally everything in this episode not on a Klingon ship was saturated in blue. It's just not interesting. I liked whatever work they did to make the forest appear to have blue leaves. They did some great outdoor work with some of the long shots, but in the magic blue yurt, everything was just kind of completely sparkly blue. The Pahvans also look like the spore drive to the point I have to wonder if there will be a connection. I question that a needle thing spire of any material could ascend that far unsupported, but I did like the physical object in the close-ups. It had an aura of a TOS set piece, in a good way.

Matthew: I liked the forest locations, too. I felt the same way about the crystal spire - it shoudl be at least stated in dialogue that this must be some serious Future Shit to be able to ascent to neaer-orbital distances. I too immediately thought the Pahvans were mushroom people, which might explain how and why the muschroom drive will be erased from continuity (using sentient spores as fuel or something, a big no-no).

Kevin: The Klingon stuff is the same as always. I was almost thrilled at the scar on L'Rell since it meant I immediately knew who I was looking at.  The corpse room (I can't believe I have to type that) was not my favorite. The half Klingon corpse was another in those "we're TV-MA so we can" that never quite rises to the level of "we should."

Matthew: The corpses were gratuitous and did not really advance any story, either. Who are these Klingons, and why should we care? L'Rell seems to care, but then, she already hated the guy, anyway. Were they going to be eaten? Who the hell knows.

Conclusion

Kevin: Once again, I think there is the skeleton of a spot-on TOS-style story here, with some entertaining enough changes to keep it fresh. All that gets crowded out by the still impenetrable Klingon story. I maybe retroactively knock this down to a 2 if Cornwell is really dead, but for the moment, I think the strength of Doug Jones' acting just pushes this episode into 3 territory. I was engaged by him, even when the story wasn't lifting the weight it should. I really hope as the show embarks on its second season, they realize that Saru's emotional journey is about an order of magnitude more interesting that anything they have done with the Klingons and course correct accordingly.

Matthew: I'm stuck on a 2 here, for a total of 5. I've reached the end of my ability to be patient with half-baked, too fast story lines. Like a mediocre salad, some parts of this work alone. But there isn't enough of the good stuff, and there is no dressing to tie it all together. It's less than the sum of its parts. Who knows, maybe the next episode will answer all of my nagging questions and put on screen the sorts of motivations that would make me care about the scenes that took place in this episode. I seriously doubt it at this point, though. I kind of feel like this is what we're going to get. Quick cut scenes that occasionally feel like Star Trek, but deliver none of the depth or substance we are accustomed to.

Podcast

9 comments:

  1. I too was so confused about all the Klingon scenes. At first I assumed that L’Rell was trying to trick Cornwell, probably by “helping” her escape, getting Discovery’s location in order to “defect,” and then selling that back to Kol. I wasn’t sure whether Cornwell and L’Rell actually fought all that hard, or whether the fight was a ruse to get Kol off their backs. But then Cornwell was so still, and L’Rell just left her in the ship as though she didn’t expect Cornwell to do anything. So maybe Cornwell attacked L’Rell because she had my same wariness toward L’Rell’s intentions and thought that was her best chance at escaping the Klingons altogether? All that was unclear, but in a way I was ok with, since I assumed their plans would be explained. But then they weren’t, and L’Rell’s dealings with Kol made no sense to me. Like y’all said, she already has plenty of reason to hate Kol, so in terms of character motivation, killing her crew seemed overkill (heh). And why would she then go back to Kol, knowing that he knows that she knows that he killed her crew? He’s already signaled his mistrust and enmity! Don’t put yourself in his power, lady! Now is the time to either try to leave on her ship full of corpses, or just blow everyone up in a blaze of glorious revenge. Basically, I had no idea what was going on or why in any of the Klingon scenes. At least the Klingons seem to be speaking more quickly and have slightly less lumpen dialog.

    Stamets called Tilly “captain” and talked about knowing different things in some moments compared to others. I don’t think he’s having mood swings or mental problems, I think he’s seeing between different realities (and in one of them, Tilly is already a captain, wooo!) and getting confused about which is which. Or maybe he himself is actually switching between realities. I’m excited to see where that plot goes. Particularly since we all know the spore drive doesn’t last for much longer, since it’s not around in TOS, so I wonder if the side effects Stamets experiences are why the spore drive idea isn’t used ever again.

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  2. I loved the A plot. There have been a few times that the war felt a little distant, but between Ash’s toast to fallen or wounded comrades at the party in “Sane Man” and the tense and tragic opening scene in this episode, I really got a feel for what this war is costing the Federation as a whole and the Discovery’s crew in particular. The battle to save the ship at the start of this episode was a powerful illustration of how necessary a method of decloaking Klingon ships would be.
    Trek has visited so many utopian-society-with-a-hidden-danger planets, but this was by far the most beautiful world, and I really liked the way the Pahvans’ interest in harmony was actually real, but also harmful to the Federation. In most sf stories the twist or hidden danger would be something like mind control or murder of dissidents, and that’s where I expected this to go. But instead, the Pahvans truly do believe in harmonious co-existence and really do want to help, so the actual problem is not that the Pahvans want to hurt anyone, but that they so completely don’t understand what conflict is. I thought it was great to see Michael and the Pahvans both think they’d reached a common accord, only to realize later that cultural differences had led to a huge misunderstanding. (I think this also answers Matthew’s question of the speed of Pahvo’s musical output, since their message immediately reaches Klingon ships that are so far away they will have to warp to get to Pahvo.)
    Plus it was such a rich episode for the characters. Saru has talked about his people living through fear since the very first episode. He says it’s a survival mechanism, and seems almost proud of it. But since he’s never lived without that constant fear, he didn’t realize how much it weighed on him, just like someone experiencing depression doesn’t realize how muddled their view has become until the depression lifts. So not having seen Saru feel burdened by his fear before this makes perfect sense to me. Acting wise, he certainly delivered in this episode. So did everyone! Michael’s face shone with wonder and scientific curiosity when she realized the Pahvans might be communicated with. And she’s come a long way from her introductory episode, in which she was so sure she knew best and so fearful of losing her crew to the Klingons that she’d attack her own captain. Now she takes Tyler’s order without discussion. And I loved seeing yet another instead of Tyler subtly socially manipulating the people around him. In “Choose Your Pain” we saw him effortlessly trick Mudd, in “Lethe” he attempted to ingratiate himself with Lorca about killing fewer Klingons, and in this one he easily distracts Saru. It’s nice to see this skill consistently displayed without ever having someone explicitly call attention to it.

    Speaking of which, if Ash Tyler is actually Voq, then I presume the sf mechanism is the Matriarchs of House Mo’Kai that L’Rell mentioned a few episodes ago. The way she referred to them made me think of the Bene Gesserit or something similar. And L’Rell told Voq that he’d need to sacrifice everything in order for them to help him—that could easily be referring to sacrificing his very body and mind to assuming a captured human’s identity. We have seen other instances where a character assumes someone else’s identity without even knowing that they’re a doppleganger, for instance in DS9’s “Whispers.”
    I don’t think it’s fair to criticize this show for “this apparent trend of developing characters just to kill them or change them on a dime” when only one developed character has died (Captain Georgiou) and none have changed on a dime (Stamets was really happy for a couple episodes, but who wouldn’t after getting to achieve their greatest lifelong ambition?). I think it’s pretty premature to say we’re wasting time “on one who will just be killed” when we don’t even know if Tyler is Voq, let alone what plot that character will be involved in over the rest of the season.

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    1. I think all of your ideas are interesting, especially about the Pahvans. I just think almost none of them were actually on the screen. And personally, I think this is what's behind most of the good feeling Trekkies have for this show. We're filling in the blanks, which are legion, with actual "Trek stuff." But it's not there. Maybe it will be at some point, maybe the magical episode 9 that the show runners are hyping will tie it all together. But can it possibly, in 45 minutes? There are so many muddled and confused balls in the air, it will take a feat of extraordinarily deft writing to explain all that has heretofore gone unexplained, and to actually move the plot forward.

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  3. Hmm, I'm not sure what you think I'm filling in. Between the Klingons, who describe the invitation as "a massive signal" and the Discovery crew, who call it an electromagnetic wave that can operate on subspace bands (Pahvo even controls which channels it uses), I think we got enough technobabble about how their signal worked. Same for the planet--Michael says each part of the planet operates on harmonic frequencies, and Saru talks at length about what he's increasingly understanding about Pahvo and its sense of harmony and peace. That's at least as much as we got for most away team missions I can remember from TOS, TNG, or Voyager. We've always had to go along with cool alien planets, tech, or cultures without exhaustive explanations or explorations. And away missions pretty much always start with a captain's log talking about how they've been ordered to some location for some mission that we're only hearing about for the first time that episode. If anything, getting the battle at the start and then Lorca's talk with the Vulcan Admiral about the Pahvo signal potentially helping identify "invisible" Klingon ships was more background than I usually remember getting.

    What was it that felt blank you about the planet that you'd have liked more explanation of?

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    1. It seemed to me that the motivations of the Pahvans were completely opaque. Saru mentioned them, but didn't expound, and then the scene got cut short by action.

      Perhaps I should watch it again, but I remember this being my feeling at the time.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, and keep doing so! We love it when we can explore our opinions further.

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    2. For me, I just would have liked a little more explicit exploration of the Pahvans and how they feel and stuff. I agree with your description that the Pahvans aren't evil but simply don't understand how humanoid conflict works. I would have liked it a little more laid out, and even just a little more screen time.

      I also agree that the McGuffin nature of the spire didn't bother me. There are plenty of episodes that are "We need X from Y because Z."

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    3. MsGoblinPants is a friend of mine in real life and we were talking about the show and how much she enjoys it, so I asked her to comment and am thrilled she did.

      I think I fall somewhere between the two of you on balancing my plot problems with just enjoying the show for itself, and I'm glad she commented because I have this niggling fear that I am overthinking myself out of enjoying something I've said I've wanted for years.

      I think even stipulating to the presence and severity of the problems as Matt (and to a lesser extent I) identiify in last week's episode, the show is still Star Trek, almost without question. That away mission is classic TOS away mission, we just think its underbaked and want more of that story, not a different one.

      Also, I wonder if we are overlooking or have rose colored glasses for TOS. Matt, you, mentioned Return of the Archons in the podcast as a better example of the deceptively peaceful society, we gave that a 4.

      Something I said to MsGoblinPants was that I *like* the show, and I want to *love* the show. I am at least doing my due diligence in making sure my lack of more enthusiasm is well founded, and not some knee jerk response to a show not creating the same sense of wonder and fulfillment it did when I was 9, and thus more easily fulfilled.

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    4. Here's the thing. No matter how strong the idea, it still lives or dies in the execution. TOS had several plots focused on atrophied societies controlled centrally, non-corporeal beings who were above our petty conflicts, and the like.

      Now, those episodes succeeded or failed based on how well they developed these ideas on screen and in dialogue between characters. If the writers effectively dramatized the difference between X and Y, the episode could be good. If it was just a pro forma inclusion of such an idea with no development or dramatization, then it failed.

      I think this is an example of the latter. Now, it could be that the serialized nature of the show is just delaying the exploration of the ideas hinted at. But prior instances (e.g. the tardigrade story line) do not make me hopeful.

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  4. Ahh, I see both your points now regarding the Pahvo's pov. We only hear what they and their society is like through Saru, and him waxing poetic about how harmonious and conflict free they are might be more about him than them. I wonder if we'll see more about Pahvo in the next episode, or if it'll be entirely focused on Klingons v Federation.

    Anyway, thank you both for your reviews on this show--I love reading other people's thoughts!

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