SPOILERS BE SPOILIN’, BRUH!
After I watched the third episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s fourth season, “Choose to Live,” I was torn about what to focus on in this blog. There were so many possibilities going through my mind! So before I get to paying off the headline that got you here (feel free to skip to the end to read about the how I think there is a “not so secret” message for the Kurtzman haters embedded at the end of the episode), let me tell you a few other thoughts that I had about this one…
Before I begin, let me say in ALL CAPS and bold italics: THIS WAS A VERY ENJOYABLE EPISODE!!!! Each of the three episodes this season have been superior to most of what Discovery has done before. People keep reading my blogs and complaining that I hate Discovery and just want to find reasons to trash it. No, no, no! I want to DISCUSS it—both the good and the bad. If the show was perfect each week, I’d have nothing interesting to say other than, “Hey, wasn’t that a great episode???” If all I ever did was bash the show, then why am I still watching it each week? Instead, I try to call balls and strikes as I see them as a starting point for thinking about the series and analyzing what’s working and not working. If that’s not your thing, then don’t bother with my blog. No need for insults on Facebook.
Okay, NOW for my thoughts on this episode…
JUGGLING TOO MANY SUB-PLOTS?
Last week I discussed how many things were going on simultaneously in the second episode: 1) Book’s emotional devastation over the destruction of his planet and loss of his family, 2) Michael’s struggles balancing command with personal feelings, 3) Saru’s return to Discovery, 4) Tilly’s problems adjusting to her new normal, 5) Adira’s uncertainty about Gray getting a new Soong-synth body, 6) Stamets’ feeling of inadequacy and struggles relating to Book…plus there was the anomaly to learn about and the fact that flames and rocks are spontaneously erupting onto the bridge during red alert!
Well, if I (or you) were hoping for a few less spinning plates this episode, that didn’t happen. This episode juggled the following plot lines: 1) Michael’s relationship with her mother, 2) Tilly is still having her existential crisis, 3) Book is still dealing with his pain, 4) Stamets is trying to figure out the anomaly but can’t find those darn tachyons, 5) Gray’s consciousness is now in the new synth body, but he’s not waking up…all of this while dealing with a rogue Romulan ninja nun with an ends-justify-the-means mentality (and a badass sword).
Well, I suppose the good news is that that’s one less ball in the air than last week AND nothing was spitting out flames at the bridge crew…!
SERIALIZED SPACE SOAP OPERA EVOLVES INTO EPISODIC ELEGANCE
For the first three seasons of Discovery, nearly every episode seemed to flow from the last and continue into the next. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Heck, I enjoyed Game of Thrones and The Expanse and a ton of other cutting-edge shows (The Boys, The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, WandaVision and the other Marvel series on Disney+, the list goes on and on…) that do the exact same thing. They tell ongoing serialized stories where plots slowly unfold over multiple episodes and seasons. It is now the way of things.
But it’s a NEW thing for Star Trek, isn’t it?
The closest that Trek got previously to a serialized show was Deep Space Nine, and indeed, the final ten episodes of the last season were essentially Trek‘s first-ever 10-part episode. And I suppose the third season of Enterprise was one long story arc, but most of the episodes were still stand-alone.
Now, however, each season of Discovery feels like a 13-part episode, and it’s a little exhausting. So I’ve actually appreciated the fact that the first three episodes of Discovery‘s latest season have been mostly stand-alone stories…at least the main A-story. In the first episode, Discovery needs to save the people on the damaged space station. In the second episode, Discovery needs to collect sensor data on the anomaly. In the third episode, Discovery needs to capture the badass ninja nun.
Granted, Discovery is still a space opera with ongoing character arcs, continuing storylines (the Red Angel, the Burn), characters coming back from the dead (Dr. Culber, Gray), evil twins (Georgiou and the Mirror Universe gang), long-lost relatives coming back into characters’ lives (Michael’s mother, Saru’s sister, Spock), characters acting strangely (Ash Tyler/Voq, aggressive Saru), “imaginary” friends/ghosts (Mushroom May, Gray), struggles against “evil” authority figures (Lorca, Starfleet Admirals and Section 31, possibly the new Federation President), and overly-contrived plot elements (more on that in a moment).
So it’s no big surprise that this episode, despite being “self-contained,” was filled with scenes that advanced the character arcs for many in the cast. Book is now getting better (much better by the end). Michael and her mom are good (weren’t they before?). Tilly is going to choose to live. Gray’s consciousness is back in a physical body and there are hugs all around. And of course, they caught the “bad guy” who, it seems, wasn’t so bad after all (despite killing a Starfleet officer in cold blood).
Now, far be it from me to complain when a show as traditionally dark as Discovery wraps up (nearly) every storyline with a pretty bow and a happy ending. Just as I found a self-contained episode to be refreshing, it was also nice to have almost everyone smiling by the end. And yet…
Perhaps at least one of the many sub-plots could have gone somewhere beyond being wrapped up with a pretty bow? Considering how emotionally raw he was last episode, Book seems to be almost fully recovered by the end of this episode. Tilly’s spiritual quest might continue, but it appears that she’s likewise going in a good direction. And everything’s coming up roses for Gray and Adira. But what if the following plot twist had been inserted…
Gray used to be Gray Tal. Now he’s not. Adira is now Adira Tal. What if the Trill want their symbiont back in a Trill body (or the synth equivalent)? Won’t removing it kill Adira? Well, it’s the future, and they’re a human. Humans (like Riker) have survived the removal of a symbiont before. So the writers could establish that removing the Tal symbiont safely and giving it back to Gray is possible…and also that it could live inside a synth. But giving up a symbiont is huge and life-changing. Would Adira do it? Probably. But it would forever alter them and the way they see Gray, who now has something precious that they can never have again. (I have to say, I’m not loving the whole personal pronoun thing, but I’ll do it.) And what about Gray? Now that he’s in a synth body, he is completely separated from Tal in a way he wasn’t while his consciousness was still in Adira’s mind and body. How it Gray going to handle this separation from Tal?
Granted, all of this could potentially be the plot of the next episode…I have no idea! Although that does bring up a follow-up point I’d like to make about juggling so many A-, B-, C-, D-, and E-stories. With that many plots and sub-plots happening simultaneously, it’s hard to develop any one of them thoroughly without the other ones suffering. So the Adira and Gray story was limited to the mind-transfer while Adira throws darts in the new Quarks Bar set (did you notice the Ferengi bartender and Morn sitting in the corner?) waiting for Gray to wake up. The dramatic tension was limited to simply not knowing if the transfer worked…although we all knew where that story was headed: HUGS!!! Had the writers held off on getting Gray back into a body until next episode, maybe there would have been an opportunity to do more with them (in this case “them” means both Gray and Adira, not just Adira…damn you, personal pronouns!).
Of course, some of this is limited by the fact that only 13 episodes are produced each season. We’re already 23% of the way through the season after only 3 episodes! That’s not a lot of time or opportunity to develop may storylines or character arcs. So is the solution wanting them to do fewer stories and character arcs or just appreciating that they’re trying to do so many simultaneously to make up for focusing almost exclusively on Michael Burnham’s character arc again and again and again for the past three years?
Contrivance is often a necessary part of any decent story. If the U.S.S. Reliant didn’t happen to be sent to the Ceti Alpha system and if Kirk didn’t just happen to be close-by on a ship full of trainees, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would have been a very BORING movie! But that film never felt contrived to me. This episode, on the other hand, felt very contrived.
Let’s shift from Adira and Gray to Book and Michael. First, with Book, if he were still moping like last episode, he would never have gone to Ni’Var. But he felt like he needed to do something to help, so Stamets brings him to Ni’Var. While Book is there, it turns out that his memory of the event that destroyed his planet just happens to be critical to determining if there were tachyons, and Vulcans (Ni’Variants?) just happen to be able to mind-meld. Book agrees to it, and during the meld, he opens himself up to looking at and accepting a memory that he previously thought was too painful. And thanks to this, Book is able to start healing.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with all of that. In fact, it flows smoothly and doesn’t leave me feeling like anything was forced down my throat plot-wise. But I can’t say the same about the Michael/Mom/ninja-nun storyline.
I was fine with bringing in Gabrielle Burnham, Ni’Var, and the Qowat Milat. In fact, I applaud that whole development as it helps to create and add to a new mythos for Star Trek: Discovery, and Star Trek does best when it builds on a mythos.
But then the “no phasers” rule is introduced. That, my friends, is contrivance of the highest order!
A phaser creates many plot problems because it has a stun setting. If J’Vini the ninja nun had used a phaser, she wouldn’t have needed to kill that Starfleet officer. If Michael and Tilly had phasers, J’Vini could have been dispatched quickly and cleanly without killing her. So the writers worked hard to convince Michael (who was in command of the mission and seldom if ever gives in) to agree to the Qowat Milat “no phasers” rule. But I wasn’t buying it.
Later on, we learn that J’Vini had found her lost cause, but the Federation would not give dilithium to individuals, only to a species. But she couldn’t risk revealing the Abronians’ existence because they couldn’t defend themselves if someone not as nice as the Federation found out about them. So she had to steal dilitium to get their moon-ship working so she could get them out of danger just in case the anomaly threatened them. Got all that? It’s actually pretty airtight…MUCH more than Star Trek: V when, if Starfleet had only sent a ship with a working transporter to Nimbus III, none of the rest of the movie would have happened.
Nevertheless, it’s a lot of plot contrivance to get to the final scene where J’Vini is handed off to the Ni’Varish (like Amish?) rather than facing punishment from the Federation for the killing of a Starfleet officer. It’s not necessarily a complaint on my part so much as an observation. As I said, I still enjoyed the episode, contrivances and all.
It’s interesting that I’ve seen a lot of people on Facebook complaining recently about other people on Facebook fat-shaming actress MARY WISEMAN (who plays Sylvia Tilly), but I haven’t personally seen an actual Tilly fat-shaming post yet. I’m sure they’re out there, as some fans can bash just about anyone and anything like the cyberbullies they are.
Now, it’s obvious that Mary has gained quite a bit of weight since season one (so have I…the last 20 pounds during the stay-at-home lockdown!), and she’s probably struggling with losing the weight just as I am. And let’s face it, Star Trek costume designers have never been particularly kind to plus-sized people when designing Starfleet duty uniforms. So I have immense empathy for Mary, and I respect her courage for performing scenes in a uniform that isn’t very forgiving.
But that’s why I did a double-take when I saw the scene in the mess hall with Tilly and Saru where she’s gulping down (or trying to) a heaping forkful of macaroni and cheese. We seldom see anyone on this show actively eating, and the writers make TILLY do it? And it’s not casual eating either—she is rushing to get that huge bite into her mouth.
At first, I thought the writers were going to try to explain Tilly’s recent weight gain as stress-eating because of her recent emotional turmoil. Of course, it turns out that the hurry to get the food into her mouth is the set-up for her immediately spitting it out because she doesn’t like cheese and was trying to get out of her comfort zone. But for me, the whole scene felt very unnecessary (as opposed to contrived) and a little tone-deaf to Mary’s weight gain. Could the writers really not come up with any other way to show Tilly forcing herself to do something she wouldn’t normally do?
Sorry to step on this third-rail issue, folks. But the scene really bothered me and I wanted to discuss it.
IS ADMIRAL VANCE SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT ALEX KURTZMAN?
And now the moment you’ve probably been waiting for (unless you skipped directly to this last part)…
The thing about analogies is that they’re not literal and so are left up to interoperation. As such, I am probably going to get a whole gaggle of folks telling me that I am WAAAAAAAY off, that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and to stop trying to read so much into a scene that had nothing to do with what I thought it had to do with.
Fine, have at it. But let’s watch the scene first…
In case the video isn’t working for you, here’s what Admiral Vance says to Michael about their relationship to the Federation president: “Think of us as an orchestra. You’re first-chair violin, with the showy, challenging solos. I’m the drum section, setting the pace, providing backbone. She’s the conductor. When she signals us, we play. It’s not our job to know if the cellist is drunk or the winds and brass are at war. We each have a part, and we must all trust that she knows the symphony.”
Now, assuming that this IS a “hidden” message to irritated fans (and Kurtzman and CBS are very likely quite aware of the bashing some fans throw at them), some might ask: “Hey, why don’t you think Kurtzman sees himself as the Federation president and not the commanding admiral?” It’s possible, but I think that the analogy actually gives the president role to the executives at CBS Studios and ViacomCBS.
Let me ‘splain…
In this analogy (according to my interpretation), the first-chair violin is Star Trek: Discovery. Likewise STAR TREK: PICARD might be a first-chair flautist with a (Ressikan) flute solo. LOWER DECKS might be first-chair clarinet…and so on. Each Star Trek series gets its turn to solo in front of the audience while the rest of the orchestra—the cast and crew and writers and producers of the various series—keep the music going.
While you could argue Kurtzman oversees all of the productions as a conductor might, he also participates in the creation and production of the episodes to varying extents, much the same way that GENE RODDENBERRY (for the first two seasons of TOS, at least) and RICK BERMAN were actively involved in approving scripts, watching dailies and reviewing edits, even overseeing the VFX and background music for the series they produced.
In other words, Kurtzman is in the trenches helping get these episodes made. But his guidance affects everyone, much like the drummer who keeps the timing that all of the other musicians hear and follow on their individual instruments.
CBS, on the other hand, sees the bigger picture. They tell the orchestra what to play and when (i.e. which series are funded, when they will be aired and therefore when they need to be completed). They have determined which songs they believe the audience will most want to hear and in which order. And if the conductor has guessed incorrectly, people will stop buying tickets for the performances and the orchestra will play for smaller and smaller crowds.
But it’s not the drummer’s decision which songs to play, nor is it the audience’s. All of the musicians simply follow the conductor’s lead, trusting that she (or they) know the symphony.
It was a very powerful analogy for me, and (I thought) one of the most powerful scenes in any of the new Star Trek series so far. So if you’re one of the people who hates the very air that Alex Kurtzman breathes, you’re hating on the drummer. And maybe you hate the music. And maybe you hate the conductor, too. But please don’t ruin the performance for the rest of us who paid for our tickets to hear the orchestra.
Let the music play on…