DISCOVERY’S fifth episode of season 2… far from perfection! (editorial review)

SPOILERS UP THE WAZOO!!!

Oh, well.

After four very positive reviews from the guy known for his generally critical reviews of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s first season, some of my readers were beginning to wonder if Jonathan had been replaced with an alternate universe doppelgänger.

Not this time, though. “Saints of Imperfection” was just that: imperfection. Now, it’s not that I expect every episode of Discovery to be” perfect”—that starship sailed long ago!—but this one was far from it. In fact, it regressed into a lot of what I used to complain about often in season one: sloppy and lazy writing, rushing to “hit the beats” without giving characters or viewers a chance to emotionally process all that’s hurtling at us, unbelievable plot contrivances, predictability, and a host of other annoyances (at least in my book).

Granted, this was the final episode produced under the supervision of former show-runners Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, who were reportedly fired because of cost overruns and also for mistreating the staff writers. Both reasons are very evident in this episode. Although the VFX looked gorgeous and could easily win an Emmy later this year, I can understand why the budget for Discovery was blown. And while I love watching exciting VFX, I much prefer a good story with characters I care about.

And that brings us to the writing, which surprised me because the writer, Kirsten Beyer, wrote the strongest episode of season one, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” (the one on the forest planet where Saru freaks out), and is also the only staff writer who has several published Star Trek (Voyager) novels. In other words, Kirsten knows her Trek and her writing. So what happened to so totally derail this episode and backslide into many of the old problems of season one?

Although it’s just a gut feeling, I blame the departing show-runners Berg and Harbert. It just feels like they have certain ways they want the episodes to be: BIG, FAST, NON-STOP, LOTS OF THEIR FAVORITE CHARACTERS (Georgiou and Ash Tyler), SECTION 31, PERIL, SQUEEZE IN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN!!!!!

As I said in one of my reviews for last season, “When you try to say everything, you end up saying nothing.” And that’s what this episode felt like. There were check boxes to check, and they hit them all:

  • continue the search for Spock (but don’t find him yet!)
  • get Mirror-Georgiou onto Discovery and show her being all sinister and sexy
  • get Tyler/Voq onto Discovery and show him all vampire-teen-flick mopey and sexy (with THAT beard???)
  • wrap up the Tilly/Mushroom-May story
  • reincarnate Culber so we can get the fan-favorite actor/character back onto the show
  • blow the VFX budget
  • make sure Section 31 is intertwined with our main storyline for the season.

That’s a LOT for one episode, dontcha think? Let’s unpack some the the densely-packed elements of this episode that (at least for me) didn’t quite work…

OH, BROTHER…WHERE ART THOU?

“Oh, brother” is right! Burnham has now been looking for her Vulcan adopted sibling for four episodes…although it’s beginning to feel like ten. I understand that if you show Spock, you actually have to pay the actor for the episode. And with all the money being funneled into VFX, maybe there isn’t much left for Ethan Gregory Peck (grandson of Gregory Peck) to appear on more than half the episodes of season two. After all, Anson Mount, Michelle Yeoh, and Tig Notaro aren’t cheap either.

But it just feels like Spock is so disconnected from everything that has been going on, despite the characters all talking about him like he’s in the center of the stage. Ever read Waiting for Godot? Godot never frickin’ shows up! Now, that won’t be the case with Spock. We know that Ethan Peck will appear in episode seven. And my prediction is that most of episode six will come and go, but we will FINALLY see our first glimpse of Spock in the very last moments of the episode. Let’s see if I’m right.

My real worry is that, with all of this build up, will the arrival of Spock on Discovery ultimately be a letdown? Spock is one of the most challenging characters to play in all of cinema and television simply because Leonard Nimoy so made the role his own. Others have tried with mixed results—from Zachary Quinto in the JJ movies to Chevy Chase on SNL to Todd Haberkorn and others in TOS fan films.

Despite this long Discovery search for Spock, I find myself almost dreading the end of the quest, as a part of me is convinced seeing Spock (and Peck’s performance) will just leave me frustrated and disappointed that it isn’t Leonard Nimoy…which I acknowledge is completely irrational and unrealistic. So sue me.

AND SPEAKING OF PREDICTIONS…

The best shows on television can send your brain into a tailspin with the unexpected plot twist. But some of the worst shows try soooooo hard and so clumsily to “surprise” the audience that many viewers see it coming a light-year away. This happened in season one when countless fans (including me) figured out that Captain Lorca was really from the Mirror Universe and that Ash Tyler was really Voq. When the “surprise reveal” finally happened weeks or months later, fans like me simply said, “Yep…took ’em long enough.”

And so, as Spock’s shuttle was tractored into the hangar bay and the big build-up rose in excitement and anticipation, I already knew it wouldn’t be Spock coming out of that vessel. And as I wondered who it might be instead, my mind instantly said, “Oh, Empress Georgiou, of course!” After her “surprise” entrance on Qo’Nos two episodes earlier, I suddenly realized that Georgiou’s shtick is to pop up out of nowhere with a smirk and a slinky swagger and then quickly steal the scene. And so I will await Georgiou’s next “surprise” reveal the same way I await the light going on in the refrigerator when I open the door.

STOP THE EMPRESS, I WANNA GET OFF!

Quick quiz: when you go to the roulette table and bet half your money on black and the other half on red, what happens? You win…and you lose. Oh, you can also lose twice if the ball lands on either of the two green numbers (0 or 00). In other words, if you try to play both sides, you’ll never come out ahead.

What does this have to do with Empress (now Section 31 not-so-secret agent) Georgiou? Watch what the writers do in this scene…

Boo, hiss! Excellent sinister goading by Michelle Yeoh! We now know she’s the bad guy, right? She’s after Spock, and she’s toying with and mocking Burnham.

Now take a look at this scene from the end of the episode…

The writers are trying to have it both ways: Georgiou is a sinister villain AND an honorable hero. Huh? Now, it’s not unheard of for the bad guy to become a good guy…just look at Darth Vader or Gul Dukat (although the latter became a bad guy again) or any number of comic book characters like Hawkeye, Black Widow, or even Deadpool. But in each of those cases, something significant happens to turn them good, some kind of defining moment.

Georgiou doesn’t have that moment in this episode (or any other that I’ve seen). And so the writers are trying to play red AND black at the same time…and by doing that, we viewers are the ones getting played. In other words, Georgiou can now do anything the writers want—nefarious or noble—and it’ll be “in character.”

Sorry, guys; you can’t have it both ways. That’s just lazy writing, and it’s one of the reasons I can’t stand this character (despite Yeoh’s excellent acting).

I JUST DON’T GIVE A RAT’S ASH!

And speaking of characters I don’t like or care about…let’s give a shout out to Klingon-turned-human-sleeper-agent-turned-Torchbearer-turned-covert-operative-turned-Hassidic-rabbi Ash “don’t-call-me-Voq” Tyler! I mean, on paper, the concept must have seemed sound: boy meets Klingon girl with connections to advanced genetic engineering, boy has true Klingon identity buried in order to get onto Discovery, boy falls in love with the main character, boy reverts to murderous Klingon, murderous Klingon is purged by the invented human personality…

Ah, man, who am I kidding? This idea was doomed from day one! Now, maybe better writing and better acting and even a molecule of chemistry with Michael Burnham could have made this work. But instead, every time I see the guy, I wonder why Section 31 thinks he has any value and why in heck Captain Pike is even allowing him on the bridge!

Oh, and whose job was it give Stamets the heads-up that the guy who snapped the neck of Stamets’ lover had just come back on board? Whoever’s job that was totally dropped the ball!

SECTION 31, STARFLEET’S WORST-KEPT SECRET!

I won’t write much on this point because I’ve talked it up to death already. But seriously, if you’re a character in Star Trek: Discovery, raise you hand if you HAVEN’T heard of the super-secret Section 31? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

This is one of those cases where the writers and sh0w-runners and 47,000 different executive producers listed in the opening credits sequence simply don’t get it. Section 31 isn’t like James Bond’s MI6 where everyone knows about it. It’s more like Kingsman or the Impossible Mission Force. It can still do covert missions, but NO ONE IS SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT IT!!!

I feel like we should take the following clip and replace “SPACEBALLS” with “SECTION 31″…

Wait, I sense a fan parody coming on!!!

WHEN YOU WISH UPON A SPORE…

Each night at dinner, I read my son a chapter from Harry Potter (we’re up to book five). I accept magic as a part of that universe. But I don’t accept it as part of Star Trek.

Now, I understand that sometimes really advanced science can seem like magic. And I also know that there have been some super-powerful beings in Star Trek history who can seemingly do anything they want to: Trelane, Q, CBS Legal. But for the most part, Star Trek works best when there’s science and believable explanations for things.

That hasn’t been the case with Discovery. I suppose it really started for Trek when JJ Abrams decided a drop of “red matter” could destroy a planet, or that Scotty could beam someone across dozens of light-years onto a starship at warp, or if you use some of Khan’s blood, you can cure death. Essentially, it’s a case of the writers wanting/needing to solve a plot challenging and just inventing something “impossible” and expecting the viewers to accept and believe it.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

The Mycelial Network is the writers’ infinite improbability drive. It’s their Wonderland, their “magic.” The spore drive lets their ship go anywhere in the universe in an instant. How? “It’s those trippy mushrooms, man! You gotta try ’em.” And now, with the writers ready to bring back Dr. Culber (feeling regret for killing him off in the first place perhaps?), they go back to the magic mushroom garden, and POOF! Stamets hears a Hugh. (OMG, did I just write that??) How did Culber come back to life again? With a magic tear and a link to the magic mushrooms that make the ship do magic things.

They can try to call it “science” (and they did!), but we all know it’s just magic because the writers are either lazy, stumped, or just in a hurry. Either way, I now have to believe TWO impossible things for the Mycelial Network. I guess I’ll be having mushrooms for breakfast!

WHAT PART OF “HURRY!” ARE YOU HAVING TROUBLE WITH???

One of the scenes from TOS that most annoyed me growing up (and still does) is this short segment in “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” when the Enterprise is slingshotting around the sun in order to return to its own time…

When Spock says “now,” one would assume he means at this exact moment and not “after you have a brief discussion with Scotty and then he walks leisurely over to the console on the other side of the room.”

So I was likewise irritated by the lack of alacrity of the “aMay team” (too much?) that had tripped into the Mycelial Network looking for Tilly in Mushroomland. I realize that the producers are trying to create a little suspense, but in order to do that (at least in films and on TV), it helps to show a little urgency on BOTH sides.

To illustrate my point, I decided to have a little fun and edit down the 11-minute climactic sequence into just 3 minutes to show how ridiculous it was that Burnham, Stamets, and Tilly seemed to be in absolutely no hurry despite Saru telling them to HURRY…!!!

Oh, and did anyone notice that engineer extraordinaire Jett Reno was nowhere to be found in this episode…where the engineers were probably the most essential crew members on the ship? Just sayin’.

BUT IT WASN’T ALL BAD…

For all of my cranky kvetching and painful punning this blog, the odd fact is that I didn’t really dislike this episode. Sure, things bothered me, but compared to season one, this episode was far superior…even as one of the weakest offerings of season two so far.

I liked that there was at least some banter (not much, but the little there was helped a lot). And the scene where Pike confronts Burnham about what she’s NOT telling him about Georgiou was masterful. It showed that Pike isn’t a clueless idiot, and it helped better define his relationship with Burnham. He trusts her, but it isn’t unconditional trust. He knows she’s hiding something, and she knows he knows. The fact that she confirms that without violating Starfleet orders speaks volumes about how they both view each other.

Also, despite the manic pace of the episode, my hope is that it’s followed by a little slowdown for people to process things—even if it means another Spockless episode. Stamets needs to figure out what happened to Dr. Culber and whether his pajama buddy is back to his old self or not. Pike and Burnham need to talk about Georgiou. Burnham needs to trim Tyler’s hair. Tilly needs to NOT save the day again (“Shut up, Wesley!”). And Reno just needs more screen time!

So once again, I am left with hope for the next episode. But unlike season one, it’s not desperate hope but rather confidently optimistic hope. Next episode is the first one produced under the guidance of CBS’s new Trek Tsar, Alex Kurtzman. Will he turn out to be the missing piece of the Discovery puzzle, finally inserted into the correct position?

We’ll know soon…

23 thoughts on “DISCOVERY’S fifth episode of season 2… far from perfection! (editorial review)”

  1. “Stamets hears a Hugh”? Excellent diversionary tactic! While DSE comes after you, David Gerrold can finally publish his book! You, sir, are a steely-eyed literary hero.

  2. Why doesn’t anyone in Discovery know how to hold a communicator!!! (That comments has been itching to be said since ST:D started). It’s like those that use the communicator see it as some foreign object that they’ve seen for the first (every time they use it!), and are afraid they’re going to get “cooties” form it. I mean come on, there is a natural way to hold the thing, and that was shown in TOS. Consider a 20th century flip phone… how many people did you see holding the way these people hold a communicator? They, in ST:D, all look so awkward with the thing.

    Now, regarding this specific episode: Jonathan, I agree that in minute steps ST:D is attempting to approach “real” Star Trek. But there are still many, many, things that are just wrong and constantly rip one away from placing ST:D into the Star Trek “look” and, especially, “feel”.

    I could name them, but I have in the various Star Trek FB forums before, and, for better or worse, am getting exhausted in providing the list of “grievances” I have with this show.

      1. Okay… Mr. Costanza. 😉

        Note that I have watched every episode of ST:D–I might not have done so if it were on a paid service in Canada; but Space airs it here at no cost–in hopes that a recognizable show that fits into the mold of Gene’s vision will come through. I believe that it is possible to achieve, to some extent, that outlook. But, some of what is now ingrained into the DNA of ST:D will make that impossible, or to do so will require trashing the underpinnings of ST:D that are currently present.

        One issue that I haven’t mentioned before, and I find most distracting now, is Burnham’s character. It bothers me that even Captain Pike defers to Burnham. The Captain is the heart, soul and leader of his ship and crew, but whichever captain is the Captain of Discovery is, necessarily by way of show design, a “second banana” to a lower ranking officer. Heck, in this case a convicted mutineer!

        Oooppss.. sorry Mr Costanza… I slipped some grievances in before the next Festivus (…for the rest of us). 🙂

        1. I agree that Burnham is a little too “in command,” but I think that’s a feature and not simply a bug. Remember that Kirk very often deferred to Spock’s counsel. Granted, Spock was much more subtle than his sister. but remember that, because of Lorca being a villain in disguise, the first season of Discovery really HAD to be about Michael Burnham. I think Pike is doing a better job of being his own man, but he is listening to his crew, which includes Burnham.

  3. There’s a certain irony at play for me. Having been left decidedly neutral with regard to my feelings about season 1 and, with no blog to write, I felt no sense of urgency to pounce on season 2. But I read the encouraging titles of your blogs and thought, hey, I’m missing out! I’ve been playing catchup and, yes, apart from ep 3 they were enjoyable and I concur with pretty much all you wrote. Come episode 5 I was there, ready to go, and yep, I feel much the same way as you do. In fact, I’m glad you wrote what you did, I was wondering if I was missing something.

    So, in case I fall behind again, here’s my 2 pence/cents or whatever denomination you prefer. I stand by my own opinion that we’re not use to story arcs running through a series when it comes to star trek. Add that to the fact that they’re pretty clumsily handled and you get a lack of focus to an episode. By and large, we want a problem to appear before the opening titles and everything to be right with the galaxy before the end credits. It’s a pity, SG1 managed this just fine, lots of discrete adventures around an ongoing problem. Eps 2 and 4 managed this, the others fell short for me by varying degrees.

    I agree with you about the lack of character development entirely. I realised I’d forgotten about half the bridge crew, I can’t believe I failed to remember that there was a robot onboard! As you say, why can’t they centre stories on each of them in turn and get us more invested?

    On the technology front, I’d wish they’d been brave enough to set this after all the other series. It would have given them much more free reign. It’s really quite laughable how they’re trying to backtrack on some of the stuff they’ve introduced. An added problem is if they stay too true to TOS they also look ridiculous, I’m waiting for Pike to say he doesn’t trust flatscreens and to insist that CRT monitors be bought back with immediate effect. 🙂 Technology has moved on, like it or not.

    Still, overall, i have to say, it is an improvement. I do like banter too and it’s good to see (more would be even better). It looks amazing, some of the stories have been excellent and I can forgive a few duds. Dare I say it, there have been plenty of turkeys amongst the ST series of yester year.

    I pose one question. More ST Discovery or another ST Beyond? Much as I admire Simon Pegg, I know which one I’d vote for.

    1. “I pose one question. More ST Discovery or another ST Beyond? Much as I admire Simon Pegg, I know which one I’d vote for.”

      That’s a rather odd choice to pose, like asking would you like another slice of cold pizza or another plate of cold french fries (I believe you call them chips). Neither is inherently bad and can be reheated and still be decent. But why be forced to choose in the first place? Obviously, there are more fries (chips) on the plate–as there are more episodes of Discovery–so that choice will likely fill your stomach more or last longer. But pizza can be more interesting. If I had to pick, I’d opt for the quantity and go for more Discovery, as I wasn’t really thrilled with Beyond. 🙂

      1. My only point being be grateful for what you do have. Cold pizza or cold fries, better than no food at all (yes, there’s the fan films, but you know what I mean). The new ST films (Kelvinverse?) don’t break any new ground, just chew up the existing stuff. I had reached a point with the 3rd one where I was thinking I’m not sure I want to see anymore of these (although I probably would), which is a pity because I was happy with the first film as a good bit of fun. Discovery is trying to something a bit different, it is trying improve, and, yes as it’s a series, there’s always hope that next week is better. All in all, we’re in a better situation than we were. Even if it’s not where we want to be.

        Does that make any sense? Not to worry if it doesn’t. I guess it’s my own confused way of looking on the bright side and appreciating things when they’re here, not when they’ve gone! 🙂

        P.S. Chips/fries or crisps/chips. That I can handle. Churros are where it gets tricky for me 😉

        1. Yep, it makes total sense, Alastair. In general, I feel more of a connection to Discovery simply because there have been over 20 hours of it versus only six or seven hours of JJ Trek. There’s more to “sink my teeth into” with Discovery.

  4. Tilly gets the best line. “Fall in.” [beat] “That’s military for ‘get behind me’.”

    And from a purely personal, and aesthetic PoV, I *really* think the uniform jackets look better with that weird asymmetrical collar unfastened.

  5. I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now, and for the first time I think I might have something interesting to comment on.
    So, there was a line in this episode made my ears perk up. It was just a sort of throw away line, but it rather blatantly didn’t fit canon or character. I wouldn’t even bring it up, but I haven’t heard it mentioned anywhere else. Pike said something along the lines of, “dealing with the alligators on Cestus III”. Now yeah, It’s a canon breaker. I’m pretty sure no one knew what the Gorn looked like some 10-ish years before “Arena”, so who would call them alligators? The other part of it though, is it would be a bit like saying, “the coons in Atlanta”. Somehow I don’t think its the sort of thing Pike or most members of Star Fleet would say, even in this time period,
    Maybe I’m just splitting hairs, but it did make me wonder why they’d drop something in like that. Just to see if we’re paying attention? Just plain trolling? Chumming for controversy? Or the Occam’s razor answer, they just don’t know what they’re doing.
    Well anyway, cheers to your ongoing blog!

    1. I heard the line and recognized Cestus III. But when I heard “alligators,” I thought Pike was taking about actual alligators and not Gorn. Then I started wondering what alligators would be doing in that kind of a habitat. Then I stopped thinking about it completely. 🙂

      If they were talking about Gorn, then that was a total canon-fail.

  6. “But for the most part, Star Trek works best when there’s science and believable explanations for things.”

    My wife and I were watching another TV show recently when she uttered the three words which are the perfect anti-magic which destroys magic: “Deus ex machina”

  7. Yes, it’s all beginning to get a little strange, as if the show doesn’t quite know where to go or what to do with its characters. The return to familiar Trek tropes is not unwelcome – strange new worlds and new civilisations on a weekly basis, and some welcome improvement in writin – yet it’s simultaneously hamstrung by the endless Search For Spock, and other sub-plots that fail to go anywhere.

    I also share some of the distaste at seeing Pike reduced to a hapless bystander while others engage in technobabble or exposition before taking action without any further orders from him (especially after ‘Sounds of Thunder’). Pike seems quite happy to keep Tyler in his place, but can’t get a word in edgeways between Burnham, Tilly and Stamets (I think I preferred Stamets when he was supremely grumpy. Now he just wanders around looking like a wet blanket).

    IMHO it’s Pike’s introduction that has given the show a sense of gravitas, but we already know his fate. He’s the captain of the Enterprise, and can’t hang around the Disco forever. The writers can’t rely on this credibility bump forever and need a post-Pike strategy if the show is going to continue into another season.

    As for plot theories, here’s my two cents for what it’s worth: the Red Angel and red stars are connected to the Red Matter from the awful movie reboot, and that the Red Angel is in fact Spock. The red matter events in the movie that caused him to go back in time have somehow affected younger Prime Spock, and he’s on some kind of instinctive mission to restore a timeline, even if he’s not entirely sure what he’s doing or in control of it. In the writers’ eyes, this would a) explain why this period looks so different to pre-existing canon, and b) enable the writers to fulfil their promise of sorting it all out and restoring some credibility to a 50+ year franchise.

    Yet despite these grumbles, I’m still generally encouraged. It’s the little touches that make the difference. I have no idea what Weapons Guy’s name is, but his casual flicking of *actual switches* to power up the torpedoes was cool…

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