Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Discovery Season 2 Recap

Discovery Season 2 Recap


And now, the "new and improved" season of Discovery has come to a close. Did it deliver on its creators' incessant promises to "square things with continuity" and "tell more Star Trek stories?" Um.....

But look! Captain Pike! The Enterprise! Pew Pew!
Matthew's Thoughts

Now that the full, glorious stupidity of the Red Angel plot is public, we can evaluate it as as whole. Trying to go back in time to alter history in order to achieve a preferred outcome is a worthwhile sci-fi story. I could think of dozens, perhaps hundreds of ways to make it interesting. This, however, was not one of them. For one thing, placing this story ten years prior to TOS creates innumerable problems. TOS shows Captain Kirk's Enterprise discovering time travel via slingshot maneuver by accident. This time travel suit (which also seems to be able to transport a person in three dimensional space upwards of 50,000 light years) seems orders of magnitude more advanced than anything in TOS, or for that matter the TNG-VOY time frame. It also kind of obviates the whole "traveling space in starships" aspect of the franchise.

It seems as though the story was changed mid-season. There are two largely unrelated plot threads that animate the stories, and they are treated differently in a rather jarring way. Initially, all 7 signals are detected, spread across 50,000 light years (which is impossible, but whatever). These signals indicate some mystery that the Starfleet brass seems very keen to solve. Why? We're never told. Is it that Control (we'll get there) is telling them to in order to achieve sentience? Jesus, who knows. This makes no sense of course, since the Sphere (we'll get there) hasn't even been discovered yet, and wanting sentience is a product of sentience. Eventually, it is "revealed" that the Red Angel who has laid the signals has been doing to avert a future catastrophe. In an ass pull to end all ass pulls, it turns out that Burnham's mom is actually the univrse's pre-eminent temporal scientist, and has created a time traveling suit that is perhaps 1,000 years ahead of anything the Federation currently has (because they are in a tech race with the Klingons, of all people). Mama Burnham's lab is attacked, her husband is killed, she she zips away in the time suit and discovers a far future in which the strategic AI computer "Control" has destroyed all life in the galaxy.

So look. AI run amok is also a decent story idea. It just really suffers from not having been established AT ALL in any previous story. Nobody in Season 1 uses Control to prosecute the Klingon war. Nobody in Season 2 mentions it until it needs to serve as a threat in the plot. It is also completely contradicted by TOS "The Ultimate Computer," in which a similar system is proposed and tested to ill effect (did Starfleet learn nothing from almost destroying all life in the galaxy?) And so it all just seems like something they're making up as they go.

But then, perhaps at the 2/3 mark of the story, it turns out that Mama Burnham isn't important at all to the plot. It was Michael Burnham all along, and she will be suiting up at some point to be the Red Angel. Wait - who left the signals? Then, they say that only 5 of the signals have been received, and that they're "waiting" for the other two. Huh?  The Season premiere very clearly stated that there were 7, and that was the animating idea behind the season story - Discovery would go investigate them.

It's just so sloppy, and it's a wasted opportunity. If you were to claim that 7 particular events were the hinges upon which either all life would end or the galaxy would proceed along its merry way, that could be very good. But these events? What does the survival of some people from World War III have to do with it? Who cares about the Kelpiens and the Ba'ul? Were they really that integral to the success or failure of the final fight? Why would a time traveler leave a signal at the "Sphere," when it should be obvious to someone with 900 years of hindsight that doing so was what precipitated the problem of "Control" gaining sentience int he first place? Why didn't Mama Burnham just go back and save her family, which would have obviated the whole "Control meets Sphere" disaster? Come to think of it, how did she know about all of this stuff at all?

There must have been a way to make this narrative clearer, and to give it actual emotional stakes. "All life in the Galaxy dying" is not something we can relate to or feel much about. Couldn't the time travel story be about Mama Burnham having to choose between saving her family and saving the galaxy, and having them be mutually exclusive goals? It's an interesting question, buuuuuut....... it was all wiped away anyway, because Michael Burnham ends up being the person who set the signals. Wait - how did SHE have any knowledge of these particular events being important? She hasn't been in the magic suit watching 900 years of history unfold. Why doesn't SHE just go back and stop her family from being blitzed, or stop the Sphere from being encountered at all?

To Go Where Multiple Series Have Gone Before...
Add to this the wretched retconning of Spock, and you've got a recipe for an incomprehensible, canon-insulting piece of drivel. Spock is key to this, you see, because his Vulcan Dyslexia makes him uniquely suited to receiving Mama Burnham's future information and acting on it. WHAAA?!?!?!?!? Let's take a step back and survey what has been added to the Spock story. You see... uh.... Vulcan Dyslexia? Oh, and a sister he will never mention again. I guess his parents won't, either? Oh, and Sarek adopted her in the first place in order to "teach Spock empathy." Now, lest you think I am conveniently forgetting Sybock, I am not. And while I will not defend the storytelling choice in STV, at the very least 1. a full Vulcan son makes sense as a narrative counterpoint to Spock, who is never Vulcan enough for his father; and 2. Kirk calls him out on it on screen. Here, Spock has an apparently deep and meaningful relationship with Burnham, as do both parents, but this relationship is utterly wiped from relevance by their shared desire to never speak of this again. We're  in Harman Tanzerian/Poochie territory here, folks. What was the point of this connection again?

The Red Angel framework could have been used to tell individual stories that eventually interlock into the greater narrative. Twice, it almost seemed like this was going to happen, in the Terralysium story and the Kelpien story. It was still wholly unclear how those places relate even in the slightest to the grand BigBad, but at least they were interesting stories in their own rights. Unfortunately, the worst of the Disco Showrunners' tendencies was evident in every story - feeling the need to keep us updated on every single dangling plot thread in every episode. Time for the Culber/Stamets Minute! Have we found Spock yet? What have the Klingons been up to? Have we found Spock yet? How's Tyler doing? No really, have we found Spock yet? Tilly is seeing Dead People or something! Hey, we've almost found Spock!

It results in practically every single thing besides Burnham crying about stuff (we got hours of that, it seemed) feeling woefully under-developed. The Mushroom Universe resurrection of Culber felt cheap and pro forma. The Sphere is completely unexplained - I had hardly any idea what was even going on in the episode it was introduced in, and only an exposition dump in a later episode indicated why it was apparently important. The change to Kelpien society was really quick and did not feel earned. Control was an afterthought, until it wasn't.

And then we have Pike and the Enterprise. Setting aside for the moment that Anson Mount's performance was one of the rare joys of the season (and it was), his presence looms over the whole season as a WHY??? Why would you do this? If you wanted to tell his story, why not give him his own show on the Enterprise? It takes away from all the things we're already struggling to care about, given how underdeveloped they are. We learn next to nothing about all of these Discovery crew members who, by the end of the season, apparently have deep, caring relationships and shared personal histories with each other. But we never saw it! There wasn't time!

It's such a frustrating mess. There were germs of good stories, and good characters here. But, like in Idiocracy, these seeds never sprouted and took root, because instead of watering them, the show runners poured Brawndo on them, assuming that the Thirst Mutilator was the obvious solution to making something exciting and involving. Discovery... the Plot Mutilator!!!

Kevin's Thoughts

I saw an article pop up in my newsfeed: The Best 26 Shocking Twists and Turns of Discovery. There have only been 29 episodes. And that's not even all the shocking twists and turns, just the best according to the author. Conservatively, that's still more than one Twist and Turn per episode. I'll get to other more detailed critiques, but I think what it boils down to is that in the mad rush to always be surprising, the show never let a status quo (either for the narrative or a character) settle long enough for even a well executed twist to feel like a change. The end result is just a cacophony of shocked faces with nothing to connect them to the story.

The season actually started out somewhat optimistically for me. The discrete episodes about discrete events were a sea change in the first half of the season, and while we criticized them for giving over too much time to the arc story, there was at least a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end with consequences I might care about. Then they stopped doing that and it was all Red Angel all the time. Meh.

None of the decisions felt thought out and all of them felt like they think that I will feel whatever emotion the music tells me to. Why give Airiam a backstory at the same time you kill her off? Why kill Culber for no reason just to bring him back for no reason? I was getting to really like the slightly more seasoned Tilly by the end of season one, and again, she just reverted to an awkward joke machine, again for no reason.

I mean I suppose I should be happy Control was not a retcon of the Borg. But that is cold comfort, let me tell you...



Kevin: Highlight is a comparative term. I think "New Eden" and "Sound of Thunder" come closest, since they were discreet packets of story whose outcomes were at least superficially tied to characters I understood and liked. They both ultimately fall short of 'great' because of the time wasted on the season arc, but if I squint, I can see extremely good, extremely Trek stories in there.

And I'll give a shoutout to Anson Mount's scream in Through the Valley of Shadows. That was some topnotch acting, and again, detached from the terrible storytelling around it, is actually a pretty clever inversion of the prequel problem. Rather than ignore the fact that we know what happens to this character and thus have no stakes in what risks he takes here and now, we show that character that future and see how it impacts the character emotionally. I'm always more interested in emotional arcs anyway, so again, without any regard to the stupid way we got there and or the stupid things they did with it, that was a novel solution to a familiar problem, acted to the hilt by a good actor portraying a cognizable, consistently realized character. That's about all the bumpers for me. More of that please.

Matthew: "New Eden" was by far the best episode of the season. Was it basically a straight re-do of"Terra Nova" from Enterprise? Sure. But it was a self-contained story (with only minor Red Angel involvement) with an actual central ethical question - should a group of refugees from the past be told about the world they have been taken from, or shouldn't they? And while the episode chose the wrong answer, at least it asked the question.


Kevin: Well, since I don't want to be here all day, I'm going to stick to two episodes to make some larger points. "If Memory Serves" fails because it completely misunderstands what fan service is. And the finale was just a soup of explosions and trying to take credit for coming up with hamfisted solutions to problems they created. This season is a lowlight and I don't have much else to say about it.

Matthew: The season as a whole has been an incoherent mess. But two episodes stick out to me as twin nadirs - "Saints of Imperfection" and "Point of Light." Now, the latter was just an interminable continuation of the televised abortion that is the "Klingon" story line. So there is not much to add. But the former.... ooooh, it makes my blood boil. The show made a boo-boo in the first season. IT seems clear to me that the decision to kill Culber in order to "raise the stakes" was made by people who are cheap and lazy storytellers. Then, the public backlash against "fridging" one of the only gay characters in sci-fi took them aback. And so the Season 2 show running staff decided to "fix" things. But of the myriad ways they could have chosen, because they are still crap writers who don't understand the ethos of the franchise they've inherited, they chose the following: to claim that Culber's immortal soul transmigrated through the openings in Stamets' arms into the mushroom universe, and then could be reincarnated in our realm with some sort of mushroom replicator. In addition to being dumb, this notion also steps on 700 episodes' worth of secular humanism and scrupulous avoidance of coming down on the side of any particular religious belief system. The Prophets were "wormhole aliens." The afterlife of "Coda" was a hallucination devised by a malevolent entity to harvest brain energy. B'Elanna's journey to Sto'vo'Kor was probably a near-death experience dream. The Vulcan Katra was some sort of mental energy, and could only be reincarnated via an extraordinarily rare set of circumstances (and even then to incomplete effect). But every time, there was always a sense of "that's just one interpretation, and there is a scientific explanation that would serve equally as an alternative." But not here. This is straight up soul energy escaping the body, a la the pseudoscientific 21 Grams Experiment of 1907. AAAAARRRGGHHHH it pissed me off so much.



Matthew: Nearly every week that this show is on, I try to ask myself: Am I just being a sour, shriveled curmudgeon with no room for joy in his heart? And the answer is.... I don't think so. Last night, Kevin and I watched the DS9 documentary "What You Leave Behind" in the theater. It featured cast and production members reading fan emails railing against DS9 as "too dark" or "not real Star Trek." Oh, you poor, dumb bastards. If only you knew what was coming...

DS9 was always real Star Trek. It was a change of pace in terms of settings and story focus, but at its core it was still the secular humanist utopian universe which many of us have come to love and cherish as a tonic against the horrors of our present age. It just pushed some of those ideas with new challenges and questions.

Discovery is.... not that. Discovery is, while not a tonic, the perfect emblem of our age.

We live in a time of late-stage corporate capitalism. It has given us many comforts, beautiful objects and shiny gew-gaws that distract us more efficiently than ever before. And the incessant drive to deliver dividends to shareholders has created intense pressure to monetize everything. Everything now is a transaction - from meeting someone for a first date, to "influencing" others with one's opinions of the appetizers at a new restaurant, to consuming "content." And there will never be enough "content" to monetize. More, more, MORE! Late-stage corporate capitalism excels at selling us distractions. But it is an utter failure at providing context, depth, meaning to our lives.

Discovery is what happens when a corporation demands monetization of intellectual property, and chooses people to do it who have demonstrated monetizing skills in past "content" projects.

It is slick, shiny, and distracting, but it is ultimately spiritually and intellectually moribund. No time! We have to attract subscribers! So many second screen competitors! More explosions! We need shocking Twists that can be Tweeted about!

I have also struggled to understand where praise for this show comes from. I think it is because the Internet functions on the basis of commenting about content. Content Commentary drives clicks, and clicks drive cash. Now, people don't want to be told that the content they consume is trash, because that feels bad. Bad feelings suppress clicks. And so everything is good. The worst of anything is merely good, and the best of everything is AMAZING and DEVASTATING and THRILLING and EVERYBODY IS TWEETING ABOUT IT. And we all become slowly but surely deadened to things like narrative and structure and ethical questions and character development.

Perhaps this is why zombie narratives remain so prevalent in our fiction. On some level, people must know that we have become vapid drones, shuffling from one alluring content nourishment nexus to another, but without soul, without any impetus except to keep consuming.

Discovery is Zombie Star Trek. It's a vacant piece of shit.

Kevin: I continue to be not as mad as Matt at the...everything...of it all, but I have cemented this kind of emotionless detachment to the show, and while I might not be rage quitting the show, I'm certainly not making a priority of watching it when it comes back.  And the pit in my stomach about the Picard show grows ever larger....

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