I’ve been trying to cut back on my use of “fan fiction” as a pejorative. It’s the sort of vague, over-done descriptive term that can mean everything and nothing, like calling someone you don’t like a “hipster” and just assuming everyone agrees exactly what “hipster” means. So when I say Star Trek: Discovery is like fan fiction, what I mean is: It’s a show that uses the tropes of an established franchise without any real understanding of how those tropes work; and it’s written without the craft or patience necessary to tell a story that means something outside of our recognition of those tropes.

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To put it another way, if this was just called Discovery, if the serial numbers were filled off and this was just another science fiction show with aliens and parallel universes and FTL drives, I doubt we’d be talking about it. It would be significantly less annoying in some ways (my brain would appreciate not having to fit any of this into continuity, that’s for damn sure), but it would be far more forgettable—a pretty, messy piece of nonsense with some decent performances and occasionally unexpected story twists. Hell, maybe we’d like it more, if only because our standards would be lower and it would still be possible to convince ourselves that someday, this would all make sense.

But the show is called Star Trek: Discovery, which means we can’t ever forget the legacy behind it. Like the fact that this is supposed to be a franchise about hope, and instead we’re just getting a lot of flashy explosions and exciting new varieties of darkness. Oh, and quite a lot of death, in case you were worried about that. I can’t think of a Trek show that has lost this many main characters in its entire run, let alone one that lost this many in its first season. (Again, I haven’t seen Voyager or Enterprise, so if those have a ton of murder, my deepest apologies.) Really, though, to criticize the show for its grimness would be to allow it the benefit of actually having a consistent tone. The deaths existed solely to create an illusion of plot momentum in a serialized story that, so far at least, has no goddamn point at all.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: What the hell is Discovery about? Star Trek: Five-year mission to explore the universe. Next Generation: Same remit, without the time limit. Deep Space Nine: What happens if you stay in one place? Voyager: What happens if you get lost? Enterprise: What happens if we go back to where it all began, and also Scott Bakula needs a paycheck? Discovery: What happens when a protagonist betrays her captain and inadvertently helps start a war with the Klingons and gets sentenced to life imprisonment only to get saved by a captain who turns out to be a guy from another universe and also her boyfriend is a secret Klingon and right that war is still going on and spores!

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A serialized show doesn’t mean you can just throw in a series of plot twists without bothering to have a core narrative. If anything, the core is even more important; you need something holding all of this together so that the twists and turns have real stakes. On Discovery, we learned last week that the guy our hero has been calling Captain for most of the season is actually a doppelganger from the Mirror Universe with his own agenda; this week, he gets killed, and while his death is visually neat, it has no emotional weight at all. We’ve spent multiple episodes getting to know this character, building his relationships with the other leads, only to have all that erased with a shrug. No one on the Discovery seems particularly shocked by the news that their captain was lying to them all this time. They’re mildly piqued, and then they move on.

This is bad writing. The episode tries to hammer emotional beats in, and none of them land properly because this is the Mirror Universe and so it’s hard to understand why any of this matters. Commander Landry comes back, only to die again. (She was briefly the head of security on the Discovery.) For some reason, we’re supposed to be invested in Burnham’s relationship with with the Emperor, because… I dunno. Because the Emperor is played by the same actress as Burnham’s mentor? Remember the scene last week where the Emperor had Burnham select which sentient being would be that evening’s main course? Remember that the Emperor is the leader of the Terran Empire, a ruthless, monstrous inversion of the Federation whose sole mission is to conquer and subjugate all non-human life in the universe.

But hey, she looks like Phillip Georgiou, so she gets to live, for reasons. Look, there’s a way to do this that wouldn’t have been terrible, but that would’ve involved Michael Burnham having a character beyond “steely determination” (she was raised by Vulcans, surely this was not a logical choice?). It would’ve required a show whose writers understood how to build a tightly knit core ensemble whose needs and inadequacies we could care about, as opposed to just having a chart somewhere that says “Burnham Betrayed Georgiou: Regrets?”

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This is a well-directed episode. I keep praising the show’s pacing because it’s one of the few things I feel like I can praise, but even while the overall narrative construction and sense of coherent world aren’t great, the pacing here is good. The scene of Stamets trying to find his way back home through the spore drive was visually striking, and there were several moments in the hour when I just enjoyed the look of things. At times, it was possible to see glimpses of a show that might have been, if whatever went wrong with this one hadn’t gone wrong.

But then the Discovery gets back home and they learn they’re nine months in the future, and the Klingons have won the war—and I just started laughing. It’s the only card they have left to play, really. After this, maybe they’ll find some new parallel universe to muck about in. Or maybe we can find out that what we thought was the “real” universe was just another parallel all along. Or maybe Tyler will start a band. (Remember him?) If you’d told me that tonight’s episode was the result of some last minute retconning because Jason Isaacs suddenly decided he had to leave the show, I would not have been surprised. When your biggest story reveals reek of behind-the-scenes meddling, any universe you’re in is the wrong place to be.


Stray observations

  • Harry Mudd is going to be very sad that his nemesis got vaporized.
  • I’m impressed that the show found a way to make me unhappy that Michelle Yeoh is back.
  • Well, hopefully Jason Isaacs got a nice paycheck out of all this.
  • I have legitimately no idea how to grade this. As an individual episode, it was fun enough. But it’s like grading the architecture of a castle built in a swamp.
  • I still like Saru.

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