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A cluttered Star Trek: Discovery fails to make its case

Illustration for article titled A cluttered Star Trek: Discovery fails to make its case
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With the prologue officially over and Star Trek: Discovery well under way, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry” has got a lot riding on it. Beginnings pose their own set of challenges, but at least they have the benefit of built in urgency and structural need. Michael Burnham’s journey from First Officer to disgraced convict to new recruit provided a clear throughline, but now that we’ve got where we’re going, it’s important to establish a standard for what comes next.

As for whether “Knife” manages this… man, I hope this isn’t what we have to look forward to the rest of the season. Because if so, this show is in bad shape. This is a mess of an episode, full of subplots that don’t fit well together as the writers try to maintain serialization while still telling a coherent, standalone tale. We’ve got Michael befriending a beast, Lorca pushing Stamets to get the spore drive online so they can save a mining community, and off on the sidelines in a way that never immediately matters to anyone else, we’ve got squabbling Klingons. Oh, and Commander Landry dies for no damn good reason.

Remember Landry? She’s Lorca’s top security officer. Or at least she was until she decides to attack the creature (which she dubs “Ripper”) Lorca beamed aboard last week. It’s an ugly, stupid death with no dramatic weight that only serves to make the Discovery’s crew seem that much smaller. We need people on the ship we can care about, not just an assemblage of anonymous faces waiting to be cut down. “Knife” at least gives us Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz), who seems perfectly okay (and maybe he and Stamets have a thing going?), but killing off one of the only prominent female characters left after the bait and switch we had with Georgiou in the pilot is a ballsy move, to say the least.

What makes it doubly frustrating is that the story about “Ripper” (real name: tardigrade) could’ve worked. Its central theme, the importance of studying and learning from the unknown rather than immediately fearing it, is at the heart of Star Trek. But the execution is lousy, full of unsubtle, clunky dialogue and forced conflict. Landry’s urgency makes no sense, nor does Michael’s desperate measures to protect something that no one seems to care that much about. The fact that her discoveries can be used to navigate the spore drive (which is a stretch) helps to tie things together, but that knowledge doesn’t happen until the last fifteen minutes or so. Before then, we have people rushing and shouting at each other solely because if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any conflict at all.

Yes, Lorca is clearly a man who demands results. But most of Lorca’s time in “Knife” is spent worrying about a Klingon attack on mining colony. He needs the spore drive up and running so he can save the miners, but Stamets isn’t ready for longer jumps. Which, again, could’ve been a fine story on its own, with a ticking clock and high stakes. (Corvan 2 provides the Federation with forty percent of its dilithium. Maybe they should’ve guarded it better?) But it’s reduced here to its barest, corniest elements. There is a literally a scene post-rescue where a little girl looks up into the stars and asks who saved them, just in case you needed a button on the moment.

The problem here isn’t bad ideas, exactly—it’s bad structure, and the mistaken idea that in order for an episode to hold our interest, everything needs to happen in a rush. In a more thoughtful hour, there would’ve been time for to watch Michael come around on the creature she was studying, for her to discover the situation was more complicated, and then for that discovery to war against her need to produce something useful. Instead, she just decides out of the gate that the aggressive killer beast is actually not that aggressive at all. It’s like what someone who doesn’t really understand science would think science is like: deciding on a hypothesis and then ignoring contradictory evidence until that hypothesis is proven correct.


Of course she is proven correct, and of course the creature turns out to be incredibly useful, but that doesn’t excuse the bad character work that brings us to those final scenes. Little in the first three episodes of the show promised subtlety, but at least those episodes were well-paced and built to conflict in a way that made sense. (The big exception, Michael’s snap decision to neck-pinch her captain, worked because it was supposed to be a shock.) Here we have a script that’s been pared down almost into an outline, and it robs the episode of any nuance or texture beyond the most basic talking points.

Maybe this wouldn’t have been a problem if we didn’t have to pause every act to check in on the Klingons. T’Kuvma is still dead, and his acolyte Voq is struggling to hold his people together on a ship that won’t fly. He ends up on the Shenzhou by the episode’s end, exiled from his own ship by another Klingon who wants his cloaking device, and saved by his loyal second in command L’Rell.


Which, hey, is fine. It’s totally fine. The Klingons are clearly going to be an important part of the season, and Voq’s path will surely intersect with Michael’s again some day. But spending the time here on a story thread that has nothing immediately to do with anyone on the Discovery is the worst kind of serialization, robbing each individual plot of the time it needed to breathe. It doesn’t help that all the Klingon scenes are still in Klingon. While I respect the show’s efforts at authenticity, Klingon is a very slow language to speak, which adds even further insult to injury.

Is there still hope? Probably. It’s not unheard of for a show to stumble after coming strong out of the gate, and the performances are still good. I don’t hate any of the characters, and even the Klingon stuff could prove to be interesting long term. But this is disappointing.


Stray observations

  • I do like the title, though. Very old school.
  • Captain Georgiou left Michael a telescope and an inspirational hologram in her will. It’s a mawkish, manipulative moment that fails to answer how this material wasn’t delivered to Michael sooner, or what idiot salvaged the Shenzhou to snag an ancient telescope while leading a fully-functioning dilithium processor behind.
  • The Klingons ate Captain Georgiou’s corpse, so I guess she is definitely dead. Yeesh.
  • “Yes, less. Less extraneous words.” -Tilly
  • “My ganglia remain unconvinced.” -Saru
  • During his pep talk to convince Stamets to push forward on the spore drive, Lorca name checks the Wright Brothers, Zephram Cochrane, and—Elon Musk. Okay.
  • Michael lying to Saru to test out his death-sensing reaction to the creature accomplishes nothing beyond making Saru dislike her more. Another odd character choice that might have made sense, given better context. “You will fit in perfectly with Captain Lorca” is a good burn, though.