Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Discovery, Season 1: Vaulting Ambition

http://www.treknobabble.net/p/rating-system.htmlDiscovery, Season 1
"Vaulting Ambition"
Airdate: January 21, 2018
12 of 16 produced
12 of 16 aired


Burnham confronts Emperor Georgiou and reveals her true origins. Lorca is revealed as a denizen of the Mirror Universe as well. Voq and Tyler come to a breaking point.

Ah, my beloved daughter. You trust me, right? I've given you reason to trust me, right? Like with the whole cannibalism thing?


This episode marks a real turning point in the series for me. I now no longer care about any of the characters or story lines. My initial investment is spent, in its entirety. Let me tell you why, by focusing on the three sort of big plots on display. First we have the Mirror Universe plot. Burnham confronts the Emperor. Fine. She has a tense conversation with her over braised Kelpian. Eew. Fine. Then she reveals that she is from the Prime (?) universe in order to save her life. OK. That was a little quick, I guess. It sure seems like a longer burn would have benefited this aspect of the tale, with Burnham developing actual feelings for Mirror Georgiou (god, I hate trying to remember the spelling on her name...). Then we get the SHOCKING TWIST REVEAL (the second in two episodes? The third in three? The twelfth in twelve?) that Gabriel Lorca has been Mirror Lorca all along. Burnham puts all of this together by... listening to Georgiou talking about Mirror Lorca grooming Mirror Burnham for a sexual relationship or something, and the fact that every human in this universe is extremely photosensitive (despite no other Mirror Humans exhibiting this attribute in any other Mirror story, but the USS Continuity has already left spacedock and smashed into Veridian III by now). To call this an unearned reveal is something of an understatement. The Burnham character simply cannot know enough to draw this conclusion. Also, how in the hell is every human in this universe photosensitive? Was Mirror Earth's sun dimmer or something? My eyes became very sensitive during this scene - sensitive to rolling so far into the back of my skull that I thought they might stick there.

Kevin: Yeah. Before I begin, I have to once again give credit/envy to Katharine Trendacosta at io9 for basically publishing all my thoughts first. Like down to the fine details. Get out of my head io9.

Anyway...The Lorca that was in the ready room in episode 3 was a grim pragmatist challenging starry-eyed scientists in the reality of war. In the vein of DS9, this can be a very fruitful exploration of the resiliency of Star Trek's core beliefs. I was on board. Then it shifted to a conversation of whether he was really a grim pragmatist or an actual psycho. I was not thrilled with that story and not entirely convinced that the writers really knew which one they would land on. But the actual solution is worse, and for the same reason the Voq/Tyler plot is annoying --- none of the character work I have spent the last eleven episodes investing in has been real. What kind of captain is Lorca has been retroactively voided as a plotline since he wasn't a captain at all. And yeah, when she says photosenstitivity is the One Difference...that just landed like a ton of bricks. It's only there to give Burnham the info she needs to connect the dots so quickly. Also, did your skin crawl when Georgiou used the word 'grooming' regarding mirror Lorca's relationship with mirror Burnham? She was clearly implying a sexual relationship, and that's just gross...in a really uninteresting way. I will say, one thing did make me smile unreservedly, and it was the conscious use of the Roman emperor-style title-stacking. I definitely heard Augustus in there, and I have decided that 'Regina Andor' is going to be my new drag name.

Matthew: As far as the Tyler story goes, we learn from L'Rell that he was created from harvested DNA, and that they "constructed his psyche" or some such, and then "grafted Voq's psyche" onto this replicant. Sigh. Are there interesting sci-fi questions that could be asked, here? Oh yeah. What makes a person? When does an intelligence become worthy of care? What is consciousness, and can it be removed from a body? So many interesting questions. Are any of them actually asked? Oh no. Instead, for some reason, L'Rell, who has spent months if not years hatching this Manchurian Candidate plan for her love, Voq, agrees to eradicate the Voq "psyche" from the "Tyler" brain in order to... make him feel less pain or something? And this after declaring flatly to Saru that pain is just part of being a good Klingon. And then they let her operate on him! Using Nintendo Power Gloves! Sigh. This story line has undergone so many twists and turns, and been suffused with so much stupid, that I just don't give a shit any more. But, apparently, according to L'Rell's death scream, Voq is gone now. So long, Voq, we hardly knew ye. Good thing, too, because I didn't have time to care.

Kevin: Yeah, all that happened. Even to the extent I am interested in Tyler surviving as a discrete being, none of the episode really happened with him, but around him. He was just screaming for a while and it's hard to connect to that. We've done implanted personalities before, and watching the character grapple with his identity is more interesting than what they did her. Not to harp unnecessarily on earlier iterations, but take Jadzia and Joran as an example. We watched a character have to deal with the fact that she was carrying around a murderer inside her. Hell, even Facets, which was...uneven...in places, felt like a more interested dive into what it must be like to have other personalities in you and how that alters the finished product. But of course there, the goal was to further develop and grow a character that the audience liked, not 'surprise' us with their cleverness, characterization be damned.

Matthew: And then we have Stamets and Culber. After a grand total of about 5 onscreen minutes of not mourning for the Stamets character, our long-awaited reunion of these characters after Culber's tragic(ally unnecessary) death is achieved! All hail the mycelial network! The mycelial network is conscious and gives people visions, like the Nexus! Oh, no... the Mycelial Network is in danger! It's been corrupted! By Mirror Stamets! Save it! It's just gibberish, and it's all happening so fast, with no interesting questions asked or answered, that it is impossible to care. Which is the overriding theme of all three of my takes on the three storylines here. The writers think they are clever, and they think they are creating an epic to last the ages. But they won't give any goddamned scene more than about 12 seconds to breathe, and no character, no matter how well acted, can possibly remain in my heart or mind when so much seemingly random shit happens to them so quickly.

Kevin: The scene of just Culber and Stamets was lovely, but it just underscored the stupidity of the decision. For all their "we're not done" nonsense, it appears the extra time was just to get a proper goodbye. Even if they magic him back, it's going to feel cheap. Separate from the acting, which I'll get to, the idea of these characters was interesting. I was excited to watch these two very human, relatable characters navigate their very human, relatable relationship in the fantastic world around them. That is orders of magnitude more interesting than the shock of Culber's death. I can't help but think back to the O'Briens, or the Sisko-Yates, or even Worf and Dax for all their other flaws. With those couples, we got to see what it is like to be a person in the world of Star Trek. What does a fight about whose career takes priority look like in this world? How do live a normal life when one or both you are constantly in danger? Can you bring a child into that? Those are questions normal humans have to ask themselves in this world. Stretching and inverting and playing with them in the ways science fiction allows is something I was looking forward to with Trek's first same sex couple. It almost kills me that the episode acknowledges that their best moments were brushing their teeth together. It's like they get it but they don't. In a vacuum, that scene was the perfect one to anchor a goodbye on. The easy, boring familiarity of watching a couple get ready for bed set against the pain of a final goodbye makes my heart hurt in a way that reminds me of The Visitor. But instead of something like that's episode's 43-minute mediation on fatherhood and loss, we get only a small respite against the cacophony of the rest of the episode. I suppose I'm asking this: did the writers ever stop and ask themselves why that scene made so much sense as the one to gravitate to? Did they ask why that, above any action sequence was the natural place to stage its goodbye? It's because real characters living their lives is interesting, and the vistas and problems presented by the science fiction setting are a forum for expanding on that relationship, not putting it under constant, explosive assault.

Matthew: The thought occurs to me - why do I care so much more about, say, K'Ehleyr, who only appeared in two episodes of TNG? It's because she got actual scenes of more than a minute with characters who had received actual development. Their interactions and their reactions to each other were consistent both within the scenes themselves as well as with prior scenes for their respective characters. That is not happening here. Instead of scenes, characters participate in "plot points," advancing the "story" at, if you'll excuse the phrase, break-neck speed, with no respect to timing, emotion, realism, or doing the hard work of establishing traits through scene after scene. We are told but not shown that character X is like this, and then he acts differently. Oooh, TWISTY!

Kevin: The A.V. Club had a much more measured review than io9, but something they said resonated with me, even interpreting the episode in the best light. "Judged on its own merits, “Vaulting Ambition” is strong. In sticking to the show’s strengths—rapid story development, a willingness to make big choices—it manages to downplay the weaknesses, and the result is a suspenseful, occasionally moving entry whose shallowness is easy to overlook for the sake of its scope." Let me be clear, I agree with the formulation of, but not the conclusion about Discovery's structure. The show does do rapid story development and 'big choices' at the cost of making that story shallow. I do not view those things as strengths, however. Even in the light most favorable to the show, this is a shallow show. And I think that's the core problem, one I have been charitably giving plenty of room to for several weeks now, but really can't anymore. 'Twists' are just not an interesting form of storytelling for me. If nothing else, it means I was following the wrong story. I wasn't getting information, or at least the correct information, and the whiplash is supposed to be entertaining, but it's not. Game of Thrones at least had novelty on its side when it killed the apparent protagonist and broke the rule about the good guys always making it out in the nick of time. By now, making your main cast list a killing field has lapped from novel to cliche again. If nothing else, I do not like feeling like I'm being punished or mocked for forming the assumptions and attachments that the story clearly invited and instructed me to make. They're in charge of the story. If I am missing a piece, it's because they withheld it, not because I'm not smart enough to get it. Imagine, instead of the show we got, if they confirmed either (and they really should have only done one of the two anyway) Lorca or Voq as their alter-selves within an episode of being intoduced. Then as the viewer, I know not to bother forming the attachment to Tyler. Instead, I am anxious on Burnham's behalf knowing there's a danger she keeps getting closer to, and wondering when the shoe will drop. The dramatic tension comes from my concern and attachment to Burnham, rather than how impressed I am with the twist. It also means my concern for this story survives the reveal.

And that's the other thing about twists...they're kind of useless nowadays. Dan Harmon (and I'm too tired to find the link) had a good interview where he said you can't fool the audience anymore. Fans will pick apart the trailer, let alone the show, and everyone will come up with their pet theory. By sheer brute force guessing, someone will get it right and each new breadcrumb simply becomes confirmation. Both Voq and Lorca's reveals were clocked by the internet well before the Christmas break. Voq's was aided by some serious unforced errors in the casting announcements, but Lorca's wasn't exactly hard to predict. It's the worst of both worlds. I get the whiplash of twist after twist, without even the chance to be genuinely surprised. Hoping your fans don't talk to each other is not exactly a business model, especially for Star Trek.

And in terms of some clean up comments, I just want to go on record this one more time and point out that between eating a Kelpian, the guy getting injected with whatever, and the...I guess you'd call it a ninja star boomerang, Discovery is really going to town with its TV-MA rating. Hell, we even got those damn Klingon nipples in the "previouslies" again. Star Trek has depicted violence before, but it was usually to explore the issue of violence, not merely to display it. There was a lesson about the horrors or ultimate futility of violence in those episodes that made the shock worth something. Not so here. Without banging on the drum too many times, Star Trek is something we came to as children, and I know at least both Matt and I credit it for having a pretty large and positive impact on us. That first f-bomb made this a show I couldn't watch with my kids. Episodes like this make it one I wouldn't want to anyway.


Sonequa Martin-Green was typically good. I believed her when her gorge was rising during the meal. I believed her inner conflict over her relationship with Georgiou. I thought she had nice chemistry with Jason Isaacs. Isaacs was also good, and it's a shame that he will be wasted, now. All the conflict and subtlety was apparently an incredibly consistent and effective ruse on the part of the character. Too bad, because he could have given us so much more of interest.

Kevin: Yeah. It's a shame that we're down to three characters that she can have an actual relationship with. She really sells everything with tiny muscle movements in her eyes. I said it last week, but it bears repeating. She's really right up there with Nimoy on the ability to do a lot with a little. If only the show would give her a relationship longer than half a season to really play off of...

Matthew: Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz are perfect together. Their chemistry is superb and their warmth for each other is palpable. Good thing they are being separated by the dum-dum network, then! I thought Rapp did a nice job shading his two characters, which is doubly impressive since he had to act against either a stand-in, or no one, for the doubling.

Kevin: It just makes the decisions they've made even more staggeringly stupid. Even if their goal from day one was to put Culber in the fridge, when you're sitting around watching the dailies, you take one look at the two of them and realize the actors' chemistry has gifted you something far more interesting. So goodbye, Wilson Cruz at least for now, I'll always remember you in your adorable red space jammies brushing your teeth, just like Stamets will.

Also, I'm calling it now just so I get credit in case it happens: the Stametses are in each other's universes. Something about the way Stamets was acting when he first woke up on the Charon made me think "This is our guy" before the camera pulled back. I'm not saying they definitely did it, I am saying I can see them doing it. Not that I care, but being right is all I have left, so I'll take it where I can get it.

Production Values

Matthew: The Charon and the throne room were nice enough, if kind of silly in their obvious Evil Architecture (tm) design sense. Will we learn something about the mini-star at the ship's core? Will we care? Who the hell knows. I am only writing one section in production values because there are just no more ways to say "they spent a lot of money and polished this turd to an albedo approaching 1."

Kevin: Yeah, the Charon was fun, if not a little predictable. I liked Georgiou's uniform in person in a way I didn't in the hologram communication. And Michelle Yeoh apparently designed her own sword, and yeah, it looked cool.


Matthew: On one level, the story is almost ridiculously complex and convoluted. But it also discourages you from trying to remember all of its complications, because any thread, any twist, is dispensed with practically in the next available scene (Georgiou, T'Kuvma, Culber, Tyler, Lorca, Cornwell, Voq, etc.). Nothing sticks. Nothing is permanent. Nothing breathes. Nothing lives in the mind after the show is done. It's just a bunch of glossy shit happening on a 16:9 rectangle in front of my body, and I don't care any more. I'm over it. Star Trek is not coming back, folks. The best we can hope for is a Trek skin stretched like a serial killer's trophy over the skulls of crap shows like Lost and Fringe. That will probably be enough for most people. It isn't for me. This is a 2. The acting pulls it up enough to get there. But the story is dumb, dumb, dumb.

Kevin: I've rewritten this conclusion like three times because it keeps turning into an even longer essay on Discovery I should really save for the season wrap up. I will part ways with Matt's analysis only to say that the skull metaphor might still be a bridge too far for me. This is a glossy, high-end drama wearing a Starfleet uniform. That somewhat less grisly metaphor allows for what I still enjoy in the show for itself, most of the time when I am watching the show. Since the beginning really, all of my complaints are about how this show fits into the larger Trek universe, both literally and philosophically. It's clear by this point that Discovery has more in common with, say, Shonda Rhimes shows than Star Trek. And don't get me wrong, I love --- love --- How to Get Away with Murder, another show with ridiculous, frenetic plotting anchored by a black woman whose too good for them. In a way I'm kind of surprised that I can enjoy this show for what it is, for what it truly is, and what it has doubled (tripled?) down on in the last few weeks. Sure, there are moments that echo the Star Trek I love, but they rarely get the space to really breathe and thus feel like a contribution to the Star Trek story rather than just a derivative of it. Still, inside the four walls of the episode and choosing to not ask the Trek questions, I enjoy myself, sometimes quite a bit.

So, in the end, Star Trek and I are now in a companionate marriage.We like each other, and have great affection for our longstanding relationship, but there's really no intimacy anymore. We don't fight, and it really wouldn't be worth the hit to our retirement accounts to get the divorce at this late stage. But the spark is gone. I know that now. I'll keep watching, but I know this show isn't for me. And I don't say that in the absurd, angry, misogynistic way that the people who felt abandoned by the Last Jedi felt. I just acknowledge that contemplative, quiet morality plays that I loved when I came to Star Trek are no longer what they apparently have either the interest or aptitude to tell. I will say that there remain many things to recommend this show. Much like I happily watch even the bad episodes of HTGAWM for Viola Davis, I can hang on indefinitely for Sonequa Martin-Green. It's just that I can't pretend there's more of the Trek storytelling I liked hiding somewhere. What I've gotten is what I'm going to get.

And, so, yeah. I agree with the 2. Even by HTGAWM's standards this was too much. That's a total of 4, and God help us all next week.


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