Sunday, August 1, 2021

Discovery, Season 3

In its third season, from October 2020 to January 2021, Star Trek: Discovery continued to anchor a rapidly proliferating Trek franchise, with first seasons of Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Short Treks already airing, new series Star Trek: Prodigy and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds in production, and at least one other spinoff – an as-yet untitled series focusing on former Terran Emperor Philippa Georgiou – apparently being developed. Not to mention on-and-off rumors of various Star Trek feature films being (at least nearly) greenlit, then canceled, one after another; the latest buzz has it that a fourth Kelvan Universe flick might be happening. And now, don't you know, Discovery has a fourth season in production. As I said in a previous post, it's a fine time to be a Star Trek fan.

I'll say this for Discovery, too: Its later seasons continue to improve on the hot mess of Season 1. Maybe I'm just getting used to it. All right, one might argue that the best parts of Season 2 departed to spin off into Strange New Worlds, and I'm not sure I'd call Season 3 a definite improvement on Season 2. But it's still a stronger series than it was at the outset, which is a good direction for a Trek series to go. And let's face it, other Trek shows have struggled during their early seaons (Next Generation, anyone?). Still, there are moments in Disco S3 that make me want to grab somebody by the shoulders and shake them. Not the cast or the visual effects people or any of the production and postproduction crew; they did an awesome job bringing a visually brilliant and well-acted show to life. I'm speaking more of the writers and producers who, despite giving us many vividly written scenes and strongly marked characters, nevertheless blundered with painful regularity in this year of the show.

For example, there are several situations in which everyone overlooks an obvious solution to a tragic problem. For just one example, in the episode "Die Trying" there's a Barzan guy (the same species as Enterprise security officer Nhan, who stayed with the Discovery at the end of S2 only to get written off five episodes into S3). The guy refuses to leave the spacefaring seed vault that carries the dead bodies of his wife and kids, even though Dr. Culber insists that he'll die within days if he doesn't receive medical treatment. The episode's tragic solution: Respect the guy's culture, let him stay with his family and die, and since he's going to die, say goodbye to Nhan, who elects to give up her career to watch seeds hibernate. Obvious alternatives that nobody in the story even considered: (1) Beam the Barzan guy's dead family to the Discovery so he can be with them while receiving lifesaving medical treatment. (2) Beam the medical supplies to the seed sheep and treat him there, then leave. (3) Aw heck, just bring the seed ship on board the Discovery. It looks like there'd be room for it somewhere.

It's a little thing, but there are several other little things like it, that leave me with a sense of frustration with the writers who dramatized a problem with multiple obvious solutions that weren't even discussed. Shades of season 2's tragic-death-of-an-admiral-when-no-sacrifice-of-life-was-remotely-necessary. The only explanation I can dream up is that the writers are uncomfortably aware that the transporters, like the eagles in The Lord of the Rings and the Time Turner in Harry Potter, could solve everything.

Another thing that frustrates me about the writing of this series is its kowtowing to the bleeding-edge gender politics of this exact moment in history. I foresee that it's going to age about as gracefully as the hippie episode of Original Trek. Like several other sci-fi/fantasy series of recent years, its scenes showcasing trans and non-binary characters come across like an incongruous element. One moment we're watching a futuristic, science fiction epic, and the next moment we're being receiving societal engineering indoctrination in the form of a present-day afterschool special, all penned and reviewed by the ideological sensors most intimately concerned with the issue. (The show's writers admittedly accepted guidance from GLAAD for those scenes.) And truly, unless your universe revolves around that issue, it's boring, irrelevant and pointless. It's interesting to watch strange, atypical and even sexually non-standard characters participating in a real and compelling story, without anyone even commenting on it (remember DS9's "Rejoined"?) but it rather lets the air out of the room when one of them pauses to declare their personal pronouns. And, as the series finale dramatizes, that's not a good thing in outer space.

A third and most systemically frustrating failing of this series – which is actually acknowledged in this season's dialogue – is the unbelievable portrayal of main character Michael Burnham as a promising officer when she is so chronically allergic to following orders. Over and over, her noncompliance, insubordination and acts of downright mutiny put other individuals, the ship and (at times) the galaxy in grave danger, and even though other people notice, she herself never learns from these errors. If anything, she's emboldened to continue disobeying orders when the discipline she endures gets less harsh every time. And yet, in the midst of it all, people tell her she's "the hope" and the one person Discovery couldn't do without – the best person at bringing the best out of people, etc. In a more realistic version of Starfleet/the Federation, her crisis of faith that she belongs there (climaxing in the scene where her own mother ruthlessly draws the truth out of her) would have ended differently. In fact, the one flaw of that brilliant scene is how lightly it lets Burnham off.

To the credit of the series, it continues to develop in a more episodic direction, albeit with a serialized story thread running through the background. Each episode definitely tells its own story, with one focusing on the Trill, one on the post-Reunification Vulcans and Romulans, etc. As interesting as an experiment in serialized storytelling can be (cf. multiple examples in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), drawbacks include a lack of distinction between specific episodes, the difficulty of following the storyline if you've missed one or more segments, and (most relevant to Discovery) the risk that the large-scale story will prove to be a dud, making the entire multi-episode arc pointless.

I went into watching this season already aware, thanks to internet buzz, that this season is a case in point, the third point that is. I now see where that buzz is coming from. One of the things that hurts this season is that the big mystery that drives it all forward, leads to an underwhelming revelation. If anything saves it, it's the "other" serialized storyline – dealing with the Emerald Chain crime syndicate that has turned the Federation into a bad neighborhood by the late-middle 32nd century. The other saving grace, as I said, is the more episodic approach that tightens the focus on more discrete units of storytelling and character development.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. I'm telling you what I think of it first, and I haven't really said what it is. Disco S3 follows up on the previous year's big arc regarding the sentient sphere whose 100,000-year record of the universe was uploaded into Discovery's computer, and the threat of Control – an artificial intelligence used by the blackest of Starfleet's black ops organizations, Section 31, to predict threats to the United Federation of Planets. In order to keep Control and the sphere data from merging into an unstoppable force that would wipe out all organic life in the galaxy, the Discovery had to use a time crystal (don't ask) and a Red Angel suit (not taking questions) to create a wormhole 930 years into the future, where for some reason not entirely clear to me, this danger would be averted.

But Burnham, piloting the suit, arrived a year ahead of the rest of the Discoveries. She spends that year surviving by doing courier work in a dystopian era in which the Federation and Starfleet have been dispersed by a mysterious disaster called the Burn, which blew up every vessel traveling at warp all at one instant, about 150 years earlier. She also meets a new dude who calls himself Cleveland Booker, or just Book, played by David Ajala, who scores a mention in the opening credits but only in the episodes in which he appears. (The same goes for Michelle Yeoh as bizarro-Philippa Georgiou and Rachel Ancheril as Nhan, both of whom are written off the show during this season.) The cat on his shoulder is Grudge, his "queen," played by a pair of Maine coons named Leeu and Durban.

New recurring cast members include Blu del Barrio as Adira, a young human joined to a Trill symbiont; Ian Alexander as her (sorry, their) late, Trill boyfriend Gray, who continues to appear to her; Oded Fehr of "The Mummy" as Starfleet Admiral Vance; Noah Averbach-Katz, the husband of Mary "Tilly" Wiseman, as the maimed Andorian named Ryn; David Cronenberg, the director of Scanners, The Fly, Crash and Eastern Promises, as the old guy with glasses who studies Georgiou with fascination; Vanessa Jackson as Starfleet Security Chief Willa; Adil Husain as Sahil, the first representative of the Federation Burnham meets upon arrival in the future; and Janet Kidder as Orion syndicate leader Osyraa. Other well-known guests include Jake Weber, who played Patricia Arquette's husband on Medium; Christopher Heyerdahl of Sanctuary and Stargate: Atlantis; Kenneth Welsh of Twin Peaks; Jake Epstein of Degrassi: The Next Generation; comedian Bill Irwin, late of Sesame Street and recurring roles on CSI and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; Kenneth Mitchell, who previously played several Klingon characters on the show, in a role tailored to his advancing ALS diagnosis; and Paul Guilfoyle, best known as Lt. Brass on CSI. It also features archive footage of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from his guest appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Because, once again, the show is more episodic than the first season, I might bend a little and go back to my old habit of naming and briefly describing each episode. They are:
  • That Hope Is You, Part 1, an unusual instance of the words "Part 1" in a Trek episode title in that "Part 2" bookends the season rather than following immediately. It's the one in which Burnham lands in the 32nd century, meets Book and begins her search for the Discovery and the cause of the Burn.
  • Far from Home, in which the Discoveries arrive on a planet haunted by parasitic ice and a gangster who terrorizes the local mining colony.
  • People of Earth, in which a visit to the former capital of the Federation reveals that the planet is no longer a member, and has its own problems now.
  • Forget Me Not, in which the Discoveries take Adira to Trill, in the hope that she can recover her symbiont's previous hosts' memories and lead them to Starfleet.
  • Die Trying, in which the Discoveries finally find what's left of Starfleet, but have to prove themselves before they're welcomed into the fold.
  • Scavengers, in which Burnham goes AWOL to save Book from a junk planet, where he has found a black box recorder that could help solve the mystery of the Burn.
  • Unification III, another out-of-left-field title tying it to the Next Generation two-parter in which Spock (played at the time by Nimoy) tried to bring the Vulcans and Romulans back together as a single species. Most of a thousand years later, the society of the planet formerly known as Vulcan (now Ni'Var) is still in a delicate balance, as Burnham learns when she appeals for scientific cooperation with her Burn investigation.
  • The Sanctuary, in which Burnham and Book visit the latter's home planet and liberate it from Osyraa.
  • Terra Firma, Parts 1 and 2: Georgiou's swan song from this series, apparently meant to boost the development of her own series, this one has her go through a certain temporo-dimensional gateway (cough) in search of a cure for a temporo-dimensional flu that's killing her. She then gets to relive her darkest moments as the mirror universe's Terran Emperor, and see if she can't change them based on what she has learned in the prime universe.
  • Su'Kal reveals that a Kelpien brat caused the Burn, and while the Discoveries are coming to grips with this, Osyraa steals their ship.
  • There Is a Tide and That Hope Is You, Part 2, effectively a two-parter in which Burnham, Book and friends liberate the Discovery from Osyraa and work out how to restore the Federation to something more like its pre-Burn glory.
The last three episodes lose some of that episodic feel, reverting to a more serialized format like in Season 1, where it becomes a bit difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins – although an alert viewer will note that Su'Kal focuses mainly on the away team on the dilithium planet, "There Is a Tide" mostly on the Discovery side of things with Book's ship in pursuit, and the season finale on tying up both storylines.

And now it's time to single out the Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) Unification III, which not only delivers a knock-out look at what has become of one of the founding member worlds of the Federation and one of its longest-standing enemies, but also reunites Burnham with her mom and re-introduces the Qowat Milat order of "absolute candor" (previously seen on Picard) in a single, brilliant gesture of character building and top-shelf writing. May I also say, Ni'Var politics are just wicked. (2) Forget Me Not, which does its bit to remedy the franchise's sad neglect of the species of Jadzia and Ezri Dax, with all its fascinating story possibilities. (3) The Terra Firma two-parter, which among the DVD extras included a couple of deleted scenes that (unlike others on this set of DVDs) actually would have improved the episode, maybe in an extended version or perhaps one with a little less self-indulgent valediction for Georgiou at the end. Still, apart from that blemish, I think it's a pretty cool episode, with the part of Carl standing out, the character arc of Georgiou receiving satisfying treatment and the kick-ass Terran/mirror universe always (well, usually – cough Enterprise cough) fun to see.

On a more micro scale, Three Things That Made It For Me include seeing Saru (Doug Jones) out of his Kelpien makeup – though I'm worried that it comes at a cost of his character being written out of the show; seeing more of the Dots (the maintenance droids), particularly as they become identified with Zora (the sentient subroutine merging the Discovery's computer with the ancient sphere data) and the finale's solution, albeit rushed, to the problem that Paul Stamets can't continue to be the only humanoid interface with the mycelial network.

Other DVD extras worth seeing included a touching featurette on Kenneth Mitchell, talking about the special way Star Trek came through for him in his struggle with ALS, and another focusing on the "bridge crew" – which on this particular show are a bunch of solid but minor characters. They include, by the way, Emily Coutts as pilot Keyla Dettmer, Patrick Kwok-Choon as tactical officer Gen Rhys, Kenyan actress Oyin Oladejo as ops officer Joann "Owo" Owosekun, Ronnie Rowe Jr. as comms officer Ronald Altman Bryce and Sarah Mitich, who was cast both as cybernetically enhanced officer Airiam in Season 1 and her replacement, an otherwise unnamed Lt. Nilsson, from Season 2 on. Both characters womanned the bridge controls for the Discovery's spore drive system. As a bonus, the Terran two-parter also brought back Hannah Cheesman, who played Airiam for Season 2 (including the episode in which Airiam was killed), and Rekha Sharma, who was Capt. Lorca's security chief, Ellen Larkin, until the tardigrade pwned her in Season 1.

Overall, once again, I think it's a successful season, though the show still has problems. One of the biggest of them, I think, is that the most attractive part of the show came and went with Season 2 and is warping off into its own universe as Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another part is that it's still hard to buy Burnham as being all that she's cracked up to be, given all the ways she has cracked up and continues to do so. Vulcan stoicism and logic-based pragmatism is supposed to be her thing, but it totally isn't. When someone reminds her, toward the end of Season 3, that she's a xenoanthropologist, she looks as shocked as you feel about it, considering that you've practically never seen her operating in that role. And again, with all her emo self-absorption and (at least) near-fatal tendency to disregard orders, her supporting cast's view of her as a born leader beggars belief – in much the same way Chris Pine's portrayal of Capt. James Kirk reduces the idea of Kirk as a great leader to the absurd. Fixing these issues in a 32nd Century Federation starting to heal from the (sorry) ridiculous scenario that blew it up in the 30th century, will be a tall order for Season 4. Perhaps we'll find that this show has run its course and it can fade away into subspace, leaving more room for (say) a Star Trek: Secion 31 series starring the asskicking Michelle Yeoh.

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