Why I loved the M*A*S*H episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY! (editorial review)


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.”)

Dr. Sidney Friedman, US Army and Dr. Hugh Culber, Starfleet.

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.

No monk in a robe is gettin’ the drop on me!

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.

10 thoughts on “Why I loved the M*A*S*H episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY! (editorial review)”

  1. Nice review! I think your run down of the episode was great. I, too, thought this was one of the better episodes of STD so far for all the reasons you outlined. I did like the focus on humanity and I thought that Culber really came into his own, regarding his concern for the well being of the crew. It also followed two stories that, although they didn’t really weave together, shared some themes. Still, I had some major issues with the episode that come down to writers who just don’t seem to have concern for the intelligence of their audience. I’ll limit it to my big three.

    1) Although I’m not a stickler for canon, I don’t understand why the writers continue to break from established tradition on a regular basis, especially when they do not have to. The Adira Tal story was fine, but there was no reason that she had to be human. I realize that we are in the 31st Century and maybe there have been advances in Trill symbionts living inside a human body, but–really? Did we need this as part of a subplot? And if this happened in the emergent way it is described how the heck did they find the clever and talented xenobiologist-surgeon that could figure out on the fly how to make the Symbiont-Human connection permanent, without damage to the human host, when the Trill themselves didn’t know this was possible? (Barring the unlikely possibility that only some humans, as with Trill, are capable of the symbiosis.) Ummm… they could have made Adira half Trill and solved the problem right there and used the traumatic events surrounding the transfer as the reason for her amnesia, but I guess they just didn’t think about that. This is yet another example of the writers asking a great actor (Blu Del Bario) to do impossible things.

    2) The fated dinner. This was absolutely nice in concept, but I have real problems with how it went down. I know the Discovery crew was really enormous stress, but, lets face it, we’ve all been to work holiday parties and we all know that you are on a different level of behavior, even if the situation is ‘relaxed.’ There may be that person at the table that gets a little too tipsy and says some inappropriate things and has some colleagues fuming, but really? To top it off, the Discovery crew are supposed to be military and disciplined. It really was beyond the pale the way that everyone broke down and that they would do this in front of their captain. We’ve seen glimpses of how unbelievably unprofessional the Discovery crew can be, but this takes the cake and makes me wonder whether any of them even went to basic training, let alone Starfleet Academy. Worse, they tried to play it for comedy. Grrr…. The resolution was also a bit too pat, with everything all hunky dory in the end and no emotional loose ends.

    3) The episode in the Caves of Mak’ala started out just fine but then fell back into vision-quest bathos–kind of like Culber’s trippy existence in micelia-land. It was okay when it was just Adira but when Burnham jumped into the pool and they had their little psychodrama it was just a little too much for me. And the scene just kept going on and on becoming more filler than anything else. The meet and greet with all the past hosts accepting Adira had an unfortunate, mawkish, Disney-type vibe and topping it off with Adira now having an invisible friend is another awful contrivance. I didn’t like the Tilly/May Ahern thing either because it seems, again, like a mix of bad science fiction mixed with bad fantasy. It’s also a lazy writers way of: 1) getting a character out of a bind (they are warned by their imaginary friend); 2) giving us a glimpse of what a character is thinking (e.g. devil on the left shoulder/angel on the right), 3) a cheap way to generate comedy (see Fred Flinstone and the Great Gazoo). At best, Gray may serve as Adira’s Jiminy Cricket–oh, no. Back to Disney again.

    1. Replying to your three issues, JL…

      1) I think the writers wanted to have Adira’s reveal at Admiral Tal be a surprise at the end. Had they made her noticeably a Trill, that surprise would have been telegraphed for many viewers. Also, by making her human, it accomplishes two things. First, it opens up the character to more unexpected elements that we didn’t see with the Dax’s…such as Adira’s “imaginary friend” as well as working as a way to open up the closed minds of the Trill themselves. We’ve seen a Trill…twice (Jadzia and Ezri). No need to do yet another Trill. Shake things up a little. And second, it controls costs a bit by not requiring Blu del Barrio to spend 2-3 hours each morning in the make-up chair. 🙂

      2) The message of this episode is “No, they are NOT okay.” The scene you describe where everyone acts proper because of their Starfleet training is the opposite of what the writers needed to convey. When there’s a bright yellow penguin in the middle of the rookery, you tend not to pay attention to the thousands of black-and-white ones. This was the “yellow penguin” scene. Someone had to scream. Someone had to have the nervous breakdown and open the floodgates for the others to share their truths. Discovery is no longer the military starship it used to be, but that is the one thin thread holding them all together…their training. But it can’t hold them together forever. Last week, I said that I would have stayed on Earth. I’m surprised many members of the crew didn’t desert and do just that. Who’s to stop them? Starfleet is lost, and Earth is a sanctuary. But even though the crew all stayed aboard, that thin thread can’t hold back the rip forever. And that was the point of the dinner party scene. This is the “check engine” light, the loud klaxon on the impulse manifold readout panel. This scene needed to happen the way it did.

      3) Personally, I had no problem with the cave scenes. They moved slowly until they didn’t. This wasn’t meant to be the spectacle of the season two finale…any more than the DS9 “Equilibrium” was meant to be fast. That DS9 episode was slow, as well. But it was slow and satisfying. And I don’t mind a Disney ending every now and then. Discovery has had almost no Disney endings, so I welcome one from time to time.

      My too sense. 🙂

      1. I do see your point of view, but just changing things to mix things up is a mistake, I think. They then have to search for an explanation for how things happen–probably one we will never get. (It will allow for an ST fiction writer to fill in the gaps.) She could still be half trill without the makeup job….

        Still not convinced about the dinner scene. The thing is, that scene is very much aligned with the way they played the characters in the first season–fast, loose, and very argumentative. I rewatched the scene because I respect your opinion and wanted to see what I missed.

        On the second go round the blow up, I didn’t see anything much different. They seemed to try to play the scene both for laughs and awkwardness and probably should have chosen just one vibe. Part of the problem is that they haven’t really developed Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys, or Bryce very much at all. Other than knowing that Detmer gets headaches, we don’t have a lot invested in her–for example, apart from her responses on the bridge, what is she really like? What is her personality? What is really her relationship with Stamets? This is similar to when they killed off Ariam. It was hard to feel all that much about her because we never really knew her.

        So when Detmer started her haiku about Stamets, it was strange but I wasn’t specifically embarrassed for the character. And when the meal collapsed, the attempt to mix humor with embarrassment just felt wrong.

        What I did appreciate, however, was that the writers were at least trying to show the strain on the crew and they did it through showing rather than exposition. The fact that they could get together in the end was heartening, but too pat for me. I would have preferred if some conflicts still had to be resolved.

        I do think that the writers have a penchant for making ‘scene’ rather than letting the writing flow more organically from the characters. They are getting much more on track with both plot and character development and that has produced much better episodes this go round. However, they have to stop thinking about ‘needing’ a specific scene to show some aspect of character rather than letting the scenes develop from the characters themselves.

        Characters are at their best when we see who they are by how they react to situations. You don’t need to know a lot about them, you get a vibe through the writing. Compare Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Obi Wan Kenobi from early Star Wars to Anakin Skywalker, Queen Amadala, and Qui-gon Ginn in Episodes 1-2-3. Think of adjectives to describe them. For the first three, you knew exactly who they were from the moment they showed up on camera–you got just enough information to put a name to the face, but the short expository scenes told you everything you needed to know. You ‘got’ who they were. With the second set, it’s harder because you were fed gobs of information about who they were but they ended up more as cardboard cutouts because you didn’t see them play out their characters through action. You can tell me who they are but it’s much harder to describe who they are with adjectives.

        We have the same problem with Discovery. We know a lot of background about the characters but we don’t see them play it out so readily on screen. It took Burnham 1 1/2 seasons to get fleshed out enough to know who she was. Saru is finally coming out of his shell–both because he has evolved but also because we understand him through actions. Georgiou has always been better that way, in that it was crystal clear who she was because she is constantly in motion. Lorca was well done this way too, although it’s pretty clear to me that they changed their mind mid-season about him being the mirror Lorca (a real mirror Lorca could never have hidden in plain sight the way he did in the first half of the first season). This is why Pike was a good character–he was simply positioned to be who he was and acted accordingly.

        I do see your point of view, I just don’t think it all fell together for me the way it did for you. That said, this is far better than the first two seasons and I totally agree–this is Star Trek with a twist, but it is much more Trek like and makes me much more excited for the rest of the season.

        1. You might be holding the bar a bit higher than I am, Jonathan. I’m choosing to see the dilithium chamber as half full rather than half empty. In other words, I see the dinner party scene as a step in the right direction, not the culmination of a successful transition of the series. They’ve still got a long way to go, but we now have a much better grasp of Detmer than we had before. And we’ve also seen a slight softening of Stamets (who has been all over the map, to be honest–from arrogant to a-hole to sweet teddy bear). But the important thing is that the show just proved that it’s possible for the writers to do something like this…and for me, that’s a very good sign.

  2. To me, this was the second best “Discovery” episode so far (I give the first place to “New Eden”). It still bothers me that everything is always VERY DRAMATIC, but I liked both plots, and they get a bit creative when showing Adira visualizing the previous hosts.

  3. I must give credit where it’s due – this was largely a fine episode, reminiscent in parts of TNG. It’s as if the producers suddenly remembered to care about their characters – and also managed to pen a script that involved a strange new world without relying on legacy characters. The show actually stood up without being held up, which is probably overdue after two-and-a-bit seasons.

    It wasn’t perfect – I’m really not sure how Burnham managed to survive being submerged in a pool of goop to reach the Underworld in order to witness Adira’s Trill bonding, but we’ll put that one down to artistic licence.

    And I do think that ‘The Burn’ has been remarkably (improbably, fantastically) fortuitous for the Disco, whose supply of dilithium and MagicZap (™) drive presumably makes them a force to be reckoned with. If a Viking longboat were transported through time to present day Pearl Harbour, I can’t see the fight lasting very long. However by handicapping the distant future with an energy crisis, the producers can conveniently ensure that the Disco doesn’t go the same way as the horned-helmet pillagers of old.

    1. About the MagicZap drive of the Discovery, I wonder if the potential damage that using again the spore drive could do to the mycelial continuum will bite them in the ass later, or if it just will become just a forgotten plot from previous seasons.

Comments are closed.