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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A new Star Trek: Discovery finds the show struggling to go forward

Illustration for article titled A new Star Trek: Discovery finds the show struggling to go forward

When last we left the U.S.S. Discovery, they were lost. Excessive use of the spore drive had battered poor Stamets’ brain, and the final jump—the jump that was supposed to take the ship to the nearest star base—was one jump too many. The Chief Engineer collapsed, his eyes gone nearly white, and the Discovery found itself somwhere it wasn’t supposed to be, surrounded by the wreckage of a Klingon fleet. Given the show’s frenetic pacing and bombastic plotting, this felt like, at best, the four or fifth most interesting thing to happen to our heroes this week.


“Despite Yourself” picks up immediately where we left off. The episode focuses on the crew’s efforts to figure out just what the hell happened and where they are, while making time for Tyler’s increasingly deranged efforts to find out the truth about himself, and Dr. Culber’s efforts to help the vaguely comatose Stamets. By the end of the hour, we know the ship is in the fabled Mirror Universe, and Dr. Culber is dead, his neck snapped after he makes some startling discoveries about Tyler’s physiognomy. So at the very least, the show hasn’t lost its momentum.

That said… there are some choices here, and I’m not sure they’re good ones. The initial marketing push for Discovery focused heavily on progressivism (a female lead! A woman captain! A diverse cast!), and while a show shouldn’t be judged by how its sold, there’s still something immensely frustrating in seeing Culber get fridged this early in. We’re halfway through the first season, and, in terms of major characters, we’ve lost the aforementioned woman captain and an openly gay man, one half of the show’s only non-heterosexual relationship.

Both of these deaths have some narrative justification (I’d defend Georgiou’s, at least), but the way they stand out speaks to the struggle at the heart of the show. Namely, what in the hell is all of this about? At least progressivism is a form of identity; it’s probably too restrictive to be effective for an ongoing series, but if this really was a Trek dedicated to featuring genders and sexualities that earlier entries in the franchise had either marginalized or outright ignored, it would have some purpose going forward. As is, the writers are making choices that wouldn’t have been out of place in the ‘90s (or the ‘80s), but without the strong sense of place or character that would’ve made us willing to grit our teeth to get through the questionable bits.

Yes, Tyler murdering someone makes sense in terms of plotting. It’s an escalation and a point-of-no-return for the character, and those always generate a lot of story energy. It also makes more sense for him to take out someone we actually know and like. And hey, they did introduce the concept of parallel universes this week (more on that shortly), so maybe they’ll find some way to bring Culber back. But it still doesn’t play well. For a show that was supposedly about finding new things to say in a familiar universe, it’s hard to shake the impression that we’re sacrificing the few touches that made Discovery unique in order to find more room for the same olc crap.

Case in point: the Mirror Universe. The one with the Terran Empire and Agonizer Booths, and meeting your double and finding out he or she is just a total asshole. The first Mirror Universe episode, 1967’s “Mirror, Mirror,” is a hoot; the s&m vibe fits in nicely with the original series’ borderline camp aesthetic, and there was novelty in seeing the stalwart Federation transformed into a bunch of fascistic, murderous buffoons. Later attempts to recapture the magic were intermittently successful, largely because it’s a concept that only really works as a one off. The more you explore and justify the “evil” reality, the less convincing it becomes.


It doesn’t help that Discovery still hasn’t managed to build a convincing sense of place in its real reality. “Mirror, Mirror” is from TOS’s second season. By the time it aired, viewers knew enough about the main characters and the universe they inhabited to be able to appreciate the differences. (It also helped that TOS’s morality tended to be pretty black and white, which makes an “evil” universe more tenable.) With “Despite Yourself,” we’re still midway through season one, and there’s not enough of a contrast between the dark and violent reality our heroes find themselves in, and the dark and violent reality they’re trying to get back to.

Really, it’s just a different iteration of the same problem as before, that fundamental lack of identity. The Mirror Universe isn’t a concept that allows for nuance. In order for it to work, it needs to be a negative reflection, one so extreme that it’s exciting just seeing the writers getting a chance to indulge their inner assholes for a change. There’s some of that here—Burnham has to kill a former crewmate while she’s undercover—but little of this feels particularly distinct from the places we’ve already been. The closest we get is finding out that Mirror Universe Tilly is actually an evil queen (of sorts). It’s almost absurd enough to break plausibility, but it’s also one of the few times the episode manages to fully embrace its own concept.


Is this any fun at all? (Or: “why the hell Zack gave this a B.”) I won’t lie: it was neat to hear the Terran Empire mentioned again even if it is a bad idea, and if nothing else, this thing still moves. As lousy as Culber’s death is, the fact that it feels like we’re right on the edge of finally understanding the deal with Tyler is good (what we see tonight pretty much confirms the big twist, but I’ll leave that for Stray Observations), and there’s something to be said for how the show manages to balance serialization and concept episodes. There are also funny lines, and even though I think it’s a mistake to set multiple episodes in the Mirror Universe, the story is going forward fast enough that I’m curious to see what happens next. It’s just a disappointment that the show keeps using any chance to tell new stories as an excuse to bring back old ones. All the parallel universes in the world, and we have to end up in this one.

Stray observations

  • Jonathan Frakes directed “Despite Yourself,” and it looks nice.
  • Lorca’s decision to assign a new doctor to Stamets is supposed to create more tension between him and Culber, and once again have us question Lorca’s motives. But I was mostly just shocked that there were other doctors on the ship. (I don’t know if it’s a function of budget or bad writing, but while we see lots of extras on the Discovery, I still don’t have a sense of it as ship with a functioning crew beyond the small handful of regular leads.) The fact that Tyler snaps Culber’s neck and manages to escape without anyone noticing suggests that sick bay is just this room where sometimes people show up.
  • On that note: so, they have a brig, but no one guards it, and Tyler is able to temporarily release a prisoner without anyone noticing?
  • The only U.S.S. Defiant in Trek history is the one from Deep Space Nine, which doesn’t fit the timeline. (EDITED TO ADD: I stand corrected! Multiple times! Apologies for the error. Apparently there was a Defiant in an episode of the original series which was also featured on Enterprise.)
  • “‘Captain Killy.’ Well that’s not very clever.” -Saru
  • SPOILER THEORY SPECULATION: I’ve been avoiding anything online that tried to guess the Tyler twist in advance, but things seem obvious even to me after tonight’s episode. Tyler has to be Voq, the Klingon who intended to follow in T’Kuvma’s footsteps before he was betrayed. It’s a clever twist, albeit one that would be more effective if we had any emotional investment in the Klingons at all. Really, if the show just forgot the Klingon War, would anyone mind?