SPOILERS! GET YER SPOILERS HERE!
I was going to title this blog “Now, THAT’S a Star Trek!” But I wasn’t certain that most of my readers would get the reference to the “Spocko/Lost Episode” skit from Saturday Night Live from 2017. And also, the more that I thought about it, the latest episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, “Forget Me Not,” wasn’t just Star Trek. In many ways, it was also very much like the 1970’s TV series M*A*S*H, and it was just what I’ve been wanting—praying!—to see out of this show.
Okay, a LOT to unpack there…
Let’s first talk about what “today’s” Star Trek is and isn’t, and what it can and cannot be. Gone are the good ol’ days of TOS and TNG where Kirk could talk a computer into committing suicide and everyone always got along swimmingly. In fact, the days of perfect people and perfect relationships had already disappeared by the time Deep Space 9 started airing. And that’s fine. I like seeing folks with frictions and problems and then watching how they deal with themselves and each other. I certainly don’t want to follow a completely dysfunctional cast or crew each week, but I’m happy to see realistic people with realistic issues.
Even folks who say that The Orville is what Star Trek should be right now need to remember that Bortus is having marital problems, Ed Mercer has been struggling with his feelings about Kelly Grayson, and Isaac’s people are a threat to the entire galaxy. The Orville ain’t your daddy’s Star Trek either. (“Oh, I am my daddy. Wait…huh?”)
So the Star Trek of today cannot be the Star Trek of yesterday. The world has changed too much. Audience’s tastes have changed too much. Television has changed too much. But that doesn’t mean that any piece of crappola can be thrown at fans and still be considered Star Trek. Yes, Star Trek needs to evolve to suit the ever-changing viewer landscape. But the question remains: has Star Trek been evolving in the right way?
Fans are divided on the answer to this question. Heck, even I’m divided on the answer to this question! I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Discovery since the very first episode. And I’ve been very specific about my issues with the show—and not just “it violates canon.” I’ve provided very detailed critiques about character development, pacing, plausibility of plot elements, lack of banter, etc. You guys should all know Jonathan’s airing of the Discovery grievances by now!
But this latest episode not only addressed nearly all of my issues with the series, but it served to demonstrate—maybe—what Star Trek, and more specifically Discovery, could evolve into in order to still be Star Trek but ALSO resonate with today’s more discerning, more demanding, and more fickle streaming TV audience.
Star Trek could become…well…M*A*S*H.
Oh, not literally, of course! But think about where Discovery (the ship AND the show) is right now and where the doctors and nurses of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital were during the eleven seasons of that 3-year war on the Korean peninsula.
Despite having begun its television existence as a sit-com with a ridiculously out-of-place laugh track, “zany” characters, and lots of quick-zinger site gags, M*A*S*H subtly but inexorably became a very mature, thinking-person’s show with complex and dramatic depth, intellectually intriguingly characters, and emotionally challenging themes….sometimes even making the audience cry. It was smart, funny, sad, introspective, thoughtful, and always engaging….something I would LOVE to be able to say about Star Trek: Discovery.
Granted, I’m pretty sure that Discovery‘s writers weren’t consciously thinking about ANY connection to M*A*S*H, but the similarities screamed out at me as I watched this fourth episode of season four. Both groups of characters are under almost constant stress and are expected to “hold it together” and do their jobs at peak efficiencies and precision…often with lives in the balance! Both groups of characters are “far from home,” pretty much isolated, and forced to keep their morale bolstered by small, very localized victories often against the longest of odds.
And most of all, both groups of characters, for all of their earnestness and determination, are NOT the ones in control of an overall bad situation. The American doctors and soldiers in Korea simply participated in the war; they did not declare it and had no authority or ability to end it. The Discovery crew wasn’t responsible for the “Burn” and has no real ability to “fix” the galaxy…although in their case, admittedly, they are trying. But just like the 1978 M*A*S*H episode “Peace on Us“—where a furious Hawkeye Pierce drives to the peace talks in Panmunjom to try to stop the war (and ultimately fails)—viewers understand just how little control the Discovery crew has here in the year 3189 to set right what once went wrong.
My M*A*S*H “revelation” hit early on in the latest Discovery episode…in fact, almost as soon as I saw that Dr. Hugh Culber was trying to play ship’s counselor. And indeed, I don’t think Deanna Troi ever had it this tough! But as I listened to him talking about the emotional struggles of the crew in an extended introductory medical log, I thought to myself: “This is like a Sidney Friedman episode of M*A*S*H!”
(For those unfamiliar with M*A*S*H and the character, Dr. Sidney Friedman—played by the late actor ALLAN ARBUS—was an army psychiatrist who visited the 4077th about a dozen times over the course of the series…including in the powerful 2-hour finale episode “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”)
Like Dr. Hugh, Dr. Friedman’s help wasn’t always sought or welcome, but it was oh-so-often desperately needed by these haggard men and women struggling to hold in the almost daily stresses of their traumatic and soul-crushing lives treating the wounded…and even by the shattered psyches of the wounded themselves. At the end of this latest episode of Discovery, with the entire crew gathering to laugh at a black-and-white BUSTER KEATON movie in the shuttle bay, I again thought of multiple M*A*S*H episodes where the 4077th would watch old black-and-white movies. (Maybe the writers were thinking of M*A*S*H after all!)
Again, for those of you who know my litany of Discovery gripes by heart, one of my most fervent laments was an almost complete absence of seeing these characters REACT to all of the challenges and setbacks constantly thrown at them. My favorite example was when Captain Lorca betrayed the crew and tried to obliterate them. They had followed this man for months/years with blind, unquestioning loyalty only to discover that he was a psychopathic megalomaniac. And what is the crew’s reaction to Lorca’s treachery upon returning from the Mirror Universe? We don’t see their reaction!!! The one scene that shows us anything has Admiral Cornwell phasering an innocent bowl of Lorca’s fortune cookies…and then it’s time to move on to the exciting season finale! (Man, if only the Germans could have forgotten Hitler and the Holocaust as easily!)
Anyway, as I watched Dr. Hugh’s introduction, in addition to getting a M*A*S*H vibe, I also thought (not even for the first time this season), “Have they been reading my blogs???” THIS! This is exactly what I’ve been asking for!
That is not to say that every episode has to be psychologically therapeutic. M*A*S*H didn’t typically feature Sidney Friedman more than once or at most twice a season (kinda like Q). But every so often, the writers need to let the crew (and viewers) breathe a little! This episode was “quiet”—nobody was shooting at space ships or trying to stop evil sentient computers, and even the one “fight” was over in seconds because 1) Trill aren’t exactly badass, and 2) Michael Burnham version 2.0 IS totally badass.
Speaking of Michael (I’m finally going to call her “Michael” because I am softening on the new direction of this character), I did cringe a little watching the writers jump through hoop after hoop trying to explain why Michael and not Dr. Culber should accompany Adira down to the surface. After all, a doctor would make infinitely more sense to send down than Michael…and even the writers seemed to realize that as Hugh tried to convince Michael to go in his place. Meanwhile, I just thought to myself: “Fine…then why don’t you BOTH go with her???” And I resigned myself that yet again—sigh—Michael would be the one to save the day because, well, that’s the show. Just accept it.
Later on, I realized why it was necessary to get Michael off the ship. What happened at Saru’s “dinner party” wouldn’t have worked with Michael Burnham there. The character would have dominated the scene, given one of her annoying pep talks, and smoothed everything over. But that’s not what the crew needed. They needed this catharsis, this “family Thanksgiving from hell” experience to truly yell at each other and get things out in the open.
The entire dinner party sequence was brilliant from beginning to end—from Saru’s “Aye” (“So say we all?”) toast/mantra to the spontaneous haiku-fest to Detmer’s breakdown. This was emotional and dramatic and very character-advancing. They took Paul Stamets down a much-needed peg; had Detmer realize that no, she’s not okay; heard Tilly use the word “asshole” (at least that’s a small step up from her usual swear word choices), and watched as Saru discovered that being Captain Pike isn’t as easy as it looks.
Star Trek episodes (and most TV episodes, in fact) usually have a main “A” story plot and a secondary “B” story…and sometimes a tertiary “C” and/or “D” story. This episode certainly had all four. The “C” and “D” stories were Detmer’s demons and Stamets’ and Tilly’s frictions. Higher up on the storyline ladder, we had the aforementioned crew stress—with Saru and Dr. Hugh trying hard to fix everyone—along with the Adrira-returns-to-Trill-for-the-first-time storyline. But for the life of me, folks, I can’t figure out which of those two plot lines to award the coveted “A” story honor to!
I mean, sure, the episode is titled “Forget Me Not”—obviously referring to Adira’s suppression of the symbiont’s memories because she fears having to confront the death of her lover, Gray, the previous host. But for me, I was torn because, thanks to a combination of amazing writing, directing, acting, and even music, the scenes of the emotional strife and eventual healing for the crew captivated me. In my mind, that was as much an “A” story as Adira. Heck, I even cried a little when Stamets hugged Detmer during the Buster Keaton movie scene. This show has NEVER made me cry before!
By the way, I don’t mean to give the Adira storyline a short shrift. That was the “Star Trek” part of this episode…and an awesome “sequel” to the Deep Space Nine episode “Equilibrium” when Jadzia Dax returns to Trill. And let’s hear it for the set department on making the Caves of Mak’ala look exactly as they did 26 years ago when we first saw them.
(Yes, if you just fainted a little, that Trill episode of DS9 DID indeed premiere 26 years years ago! That was half a lifetime for me.)
I loved everything about the Adira plot line, starting with the Trills still being nice but then suddenly also still being stubbornly close-minded and traditional to the point of imperiling their very existence. That kind of extreme societal conservatism has been a staple of the Star Trek heavies since the earliest days of TOS.
And while my inner Trekkie did cringe a little at Michael Burnham’s quick-to-stun reaction to the belligerent Trill trio (would you call that a Trillogy?—ouch, sorry) of antagonists, I found myself actually kind of satisfied with Michael’s “Fine…”—*PTEW* immediate dispatching of the lead Trill baddie when he refused to divulge the location of the caves. I’m actually somewhat looking forward to exploring her very non-Starfleet new way of doing things. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of Kirk’s “cowboy diplomacy”—although perhaps one or two steps beyond what should be acceptable. On the other hand, the galaxy is now a very different place.
Anyway, total A+ for all the Adira Tal stuff that followed. As an actor, it must be a real treat to play a Trill both before and after being joined. You get to create a character at one level and then elevate them to another level. This was particularly evident in the before-and-after comparison of Adira’s boyfriend Gray/Gray Tal, but it was also subtly noticeable in BLU DEL BARRIO’s shift from playing Adira before entering the birthing pools to after emerging from them as Adira Tal.
I also like that fact that this season is not being stretched out (not yet, at least). The “quest for the Federation” is a plot that could easily have dragged on for half the season or longer. Instead, the U.S.S. Discovery goes immediately to Earth, finds out the Federation is no longer on that planet, they get Adira but she can’t access Admiral Tal’s memories, they take her directly to Trill in the next episode, unlock those hidden memories, and next week we’ll go visit the Federation. Three weeks total—some states aren’t even counting election ballots that fast!
Oh, and a quick shout out to banter among the crew (even in this traumatic episode, it took a little of the edge off…heck, M*A*S*H always had banter), seeing a STAR TREK: PICARD-era uniform on one of Tal’s previous hosts, and also to the both jarring-yet-subtle transition of the Discovery computer to the sentient Zora we were first introduced to in the early SHORT TREKS episode “Calyspo.” Red Dwarf-ing Discovery? Perhaps…but in a good way, in my opinion.
I’d like to end this blog with an update on my best friend, who decided last week to stop watching Discovery from here on. I emailed him and said he’d gotten off the bus one stop too early and begged him to watch this latest episode—no spoilers, just watch it. Here was his response…
Where’s this Trek been??!! I’m getting choked up! I almost would want to join this crew if the good feelings and sense of connectedness lasts!
And I might watch the next episode….if you think I would like it after you watch it! This gives me more hope about the new Pike series though. Good camaraderie in the scene watching the movie and OMG the chief hugged the woman he fought with at dinner! And good ending with Saru and the doctor!
THIS is Star Trek. NOT Star Wars.
Nice to see characters supporting each other and showing affection and just being nice, likable people! Jon, I am HAPPY to admit it….You were right!
It’s nice to be right for a change.