AND JONATHAN SAID: “LET THERE BE SPOILERS…”
I remember one of my biggest pet peeve scenes from Star Trek TOS happened during the episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday.” The Enterprise had just done a slingshot around Earth’s sun and is traveling back to the future. They’ve beamed Captain Christopher and the Air Force MP back into themselves (whatever the heck that was), restoring the past, and just as they cross the orbit of Pluto, Spock says, “Braking should begin…now.”
Growing up on nearly constant nightly reruns of Star Trek, I had always thought of “now” as meaning “this very moment.” Spock’s a pretty precise guy! He wouldn’t say “now”—especially with that slight pause before saying it—unless the Vulcan meant, “You should start braking the exact moment you hear me saying this.”
Instead, Captain Kirk slowly turns in his captain’s chair, nonchalantly pushes one of the buttons on his armrest, and says, “Bridge to engineering…begin full braking power.” Now, why Sulu couldn’t do it from the helm as soon as Spock said “now” or Kirk said “do it” or something, I never quite understood. Years later, I realized that the writers wanted one more opportunity for Scotty to remind Kirk of the danger. And indeed, we cut to Scotty in Engineering saying, “Pulling away from the sun weakened ’em, sir. They may blow apart if I reverse…”
Um, what part of “now” are they having a problem with? Scotty knows the situation: they’re in a time warp flying at ludicrous speed through decades, even centuries. You either start braking “now” or else you’re gonna overshoot the 23rd century and wind up in the 32nd…and that century already has another time-displaced starship from your era!
But rather than saying, “WTF, Scotty, cut the damn engines NOW!!!” Kirk responds casually, “No choice, Mr. Scott…” at which point Scotty takes a leisurely stroll over to the back of engineering and nods to two crewmen who start—nearly 18 full seconds AFTER Spock said “now”—to finally begin stopping the ship.
It was one of the few times in Star Trek that I would yell at my TV screen.
I still really like that TOS episode, and of course, I understand that the writer, the director, and the film editor simply wanted to wring as much tension and suspense out of the scene as possible. But even years and decades later, it still bothers me enough that I’ve just spent 400 frickin’ words of a STAR TREK: DISCOVERY review kvetching about it!
But that’s my lead-in to discussing the fifth episode of Discovery‘s fourth season, “The Examples.” Like “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” it’s a decent enough episode…not my favorite, not awful. But also like “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” it left me yelling at the screen—although in this case, it was multiple times!
OVERALL, A “MEH” EPISODE (OR MEHPISODE, IF YOU WILL)…
Last week, I felt that “All Is Possible” was one of the best episodes of Discovery over its three-and-a-third season run thus far. “The Examples,” I felt, was nowhere near as good. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t get some praise for doing many things right, and I’ll start by giving credit where it’s due:
- Only three stories – Like last episode, “The Examples” didn’t try to squeeze too much into their 48 minutes. The “action” A-story was Michael and Book once again risking their lives, this time to rescue trapped prisoners from potential death-by-anomaly. The “technoBabble” B-story was Stamets helping an obnoxious super-genius nearly destroy the ship for an experiment on said anomaly. And finally, because C is the first letter of “Culber,” Dr. Hugh once again gets the C-story along with DAVID CRONENBERG’s (another C!) wonderful character of Kovich (almost another C!).
- Feels like Star Trek – It seems somehow odd that I’d give points to a show with Star Trek in the title for feeling like Star Trek, but welcome to the era of CBS-produced Trek. However, this whole season is CBS finally discovering that it CAN do Star Trek and that isn’t such a horrendous thing after all—so let’s be encouraging, shall we? That said, this wasn’t really “fresh” Star Trek. The moral dilemma of over-sentenced prisoners was a little basic as Trek plots go, and the “arrogant scientist” guest star can trace its ancestry to Dr. Richard Daystrom on TOS, Federation strategist Sirna Kolrami and the real Dr. Leah Brahms on Next Gen, and Odo’s “father” Dr. Mora Pol on DS9…to name just a few.
- Bringing back Jett Reno – TIG NOTARO is like that really awesome hors d’oeuvre at a swanky party where caterers are carrying food samples around. The canapés on the other trays are fine, but there’s that one item that’s so amazing. And you keep looking for any of the servers carrying a plate of it, and each time you find them, there’s only one sample left. So you grab it, enjoy it for all it’s worth, and desperately hope and wait for someone to bring out another tray of it. And you wonder why they can’t just put all the darn appetizers out on a big buffet table so you can stack your plate with a huge pile of that delicious canapé and pig out. That’s the way I feel about the character of Jett Reno…and so do you.
Okay, that was the good. Time to discuss the not-so-good…
THE CLOCK IS TICKING, Y’ALL!!!!!
Okay, let’s pretend you’re a fireman or a policeman, and someone has just called in a bomb scare at a huge office building. It might be a prank, but of course, you can’t take that risk. The building needs to be evacuated as quickly as possible. What’s the first thing you do? You get in your police car or firetruck, turn on the siren, and get to the building as fast as you can, right?
I am now going to share with you text captions of my verbal commentary as I watched the following 4-minute sequence in the opening teaser of this weeks episode…
As you can see, my frustration and urgency steadily escalated to the point where I was, quite literally, yelling at the screen. I kid you not; I do this when Star Trek gets so unbelievable that I actually start resenting how unbelievably unbelievable it is at that moment.
I wasn’t done yelling. Later in the episode, Burnham and Book go to rescue these six prisoners because the colony government doesn’t give a space crap about them. Of course, it turns out that they committed petty crimes (all but one of them) and were imprisoned as “The Examples.” Fine, I get that’s the moral high ground the episode takes. It’s not the first time a Starfleet crew has encountered an alien government doing things in a way we don’t approve of.
But when Burnham and Book finally break into the prison, the prisoners are in no rush to be rescued and don’t want to trade their jail cells for brig cells on her starship. At one point, Michael even says that she can just stun them with her phaser and rescue them while they’re unconscious. “Yes, do it!” I shouted as the scene dragged on. “Stun their asses and sort this all out later…you’re running out of time!!!” Instead, the discussions and negotiations continue. At one point, Michael even begins studying the finer points of Federation political asylum law in order to better put the prisoners’ minds at ease. “STUN THEM ALREADY, MIKE!!!!”
Now, I totally get why all of these scenes happened. Without them, there would be no real A-story. And it was a decent A-story. The colonial government was obviously in the wrong, locking people away forever for petty crimes like stealing a loaf of bread. (“Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean! 24601!”) The prisoners were ultimately noble souls, undeserving of such harsh punishments. And in the end, Michael gets a very smug and satisfying opportunity to put the colonial magistrate in his place.
My problem, just as it had been earlier this season, lies in having to suspend my disbelief in order to enjoy the story. Of course, I already have to suspend disbelief that three starships were close enough to show up at this colony in a matter of minutes and that Discovery uses mushrooms to jump to any point in the galaxy in the blink of an eye. I also have to now suspend my disbelief that the entire Federation Council isn’t shatting in their pants over Michael Burnham—the only thing keeping Ni’Var in the Federation—putting herself at risk AGAIN, this time trying to break into a prison while the anomaly could be just hours or minutes away from wiping out this colony and Discovery.
However, now I also have to suspend my disbelief that prisoners wouldn’t just be happy not to be left to die, or that Michael would take the time to earn a law degree rather than just carry a bunch of unconscious prisoners 1,000 feet past a defense shield to beam them out. I don’t have a solution to how the writers could have had it both ways (good episode AND believable episode), and as I said, it didn’t “ruin” the episode for me. It was decent. But when I don’t believe in what I’m seeing on the screen so much that I’m actually yelling at the characters (which, I will admit, is pretty dumb on my part), them that keeps the episode from being anything more than “meh” in my mind.
CAN’T YOUR LITTLE EXPERIMENT WAIT JUST THREE MORE HOURS????
Speaking of suspension of disbelief, my biggest problem with the episode wasn’t the lack of urgency when the clock was ticking down from four hours. My biggest problem was just the opposite, in fact. The experiment that Stamets and a-hole super-genius scientist Ruon Tarka were running was apparently so urgent that they couldn’t wait the three hours until they could reroute transporter power into helping enhance the containment filed.
I mean, I understand that there’s a certain urgency to understand this destructive anomaly before it can do more damage, but we’re just talking a few hours here. And hey, despite the improvements, Discovery is still a one-thousand-year-old starship. How about running the experiment on board the U.S.S. Janeway or the U.S.S. Armstrong or even on a starbase with a much more ample power supply? Why risk blowing up Discovery in the middle of a rescue mission when you can just go and have a quick lunch, grab a shower, and come back and do the experiment then? It’s not like the entire galaxy is going to be destroyed in the meantime…just a tiny piece of it.
To add insult to injury, Stamets and Tarka wind up totally bummed that Saru shut down their experiment before they could collect the last of their data. Well, kids, why not just run it AGAIN now that the rescue mission is over? Or just run the experiment once you’re back at Starfleet HQ. This kind of mind-blowing obviousness was another thing that kept the episode from rising above “meh,” no matter how intense the drama between Stamets, Saru, Jett, and Tarka was.
YOU REALIZE THAT ACTUAL PSYCHOTHERAPY TAKES MORE THAN FOUR MINUTES, RIGHT?
Arguably the most powerfully written and acted pieces of drama in television history was the series finale of M*A*S*H, a two-hour episode titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” If you’ve never seen it, it’s been nearly 40 years, so consider yourself spoiler-warned. In this bittersweet episode, Dr. “Hawkeye” Pierce, after nearly three years as a surgeon treating casualties in the Korean War, has had a mental breakdown and is currently institutionalized. He has no idea why he’s there, and neither do we at first. He’s been receiving treatment for more than a week by army psychiatrist and friend Dr. Sidney Friedman. Hawkeye seems a little off, but not so much that he’d need to be kept in the looney bin. So what happened?
Over the course of the first hour, Hawkeye has multiple sessions with Sidney, slowly delving into an incident where doctors and nurses from the 4077th M*A*S*H unit returned on a bus from some much-needed R&R at the beach. On the way back, something happened…something, we learn later, that eventually caused Hawkeye to freak out in the operating room and attack another doctor who was putting an anesthesia mask onto a patient. The missing pieces of the puzzle slowly come together over the course of the next few days as Hawkeye is forced to remember the traumatic events of that bus ride and how he was indirectly responsible for the death of an innocent infant. Even now, I still tear up just writing what I just did…the scene of Hawkeye’s final revelation was that powerful.
While I don’t expect that level of intensity from a show like Discovery, I do have to say that the four-minute scene between Dr. Hugh and Kovich seemed a bit too brief for what it was trying to accomplish and, once again, not very believable. Having graduated college with a B.A. in psychology, I understand that real breakthroughs in therapy don’t come from a psychiatrist/psychologist telling a patient their problem in a four-minute session and then moving onto their next appointment.
What the Discovery writers are relying on is, once again, absolute candor (in this case from a medical colleague and not a ninja nun) to replace countless hours of slow psychological progress. This is one of the constraints of having only 13 episodes in a season and lots of soap opera-like character development pushed to the forefront this season.
Not that I’m complaining about developing the many characters on this show. That’s a change that’s been badly needed. But that change has brought with it a very predictable formula that takes the characters on 3-episode story arcs as if they were riding a conveyor belt. A few examples:
- After losing his planet, Book hits a low in the next episode, gets help the following episode, and by the third episode is close to resolution.
- Tilly reveals in an episode that she’s having doubts about herself. The next episode she reaches emotional depths dealing with it and gets help, and the final episode shows her reaching a resolution.
- Adira had her 3-episode arc. Michael had hers (she seems to be over her command issues now), Saru and Stamets seem to be “on deck” for their arcs, and I suspect we’ll see Zora in the spotlight next episode, as there have now been hints in two episodes in a row that the ship’s computer is starting to experience emotions. Cue the third episode.
Anyway, Culber seems to now be in “physician, heal thyself” territory. Again, I appreciate the writers dealing with his comng-back-from-the-dead trauma—and without destroying Hugh’s relationship with Paul Stamets this time! But one session with Kovich should not be all we see of Hugh’s “treatment.” That’s just chickening out by the writers.
OH, POOR RHYS…YOU COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER!
Lieutenant Commander Rhys finally gets a chance to do something beyond standing on the bridge with one or two lines. This time, he steps up to lead the evacuation of the colonists. And suddenly, I was all excited to see a “minor” member of the bridge crew get some decent screen time! I’m sure that actor PATRICK KWOK-CHOON was equally excited when he read that line in the script.
And now we switch to football. Every so often, the star quarterback will get injured on the play, and the back-up quarterback is sent in. This is their big chance to show the coach and the fans what they can do! And all too often, the starting quarterback only sits out one play and then is cleared to return to the game. The back-up takes a single snap, hands off the ball to a running back, and maybe gains a couple of yards. Ho-hum. Then he heads back to the bench to watch the star quarterback finish out the game with big, exciting plays.
That’s pretty much what happened to Rhys this episode. He appears once more to briefly check in with Burnham and share that his town was wiped out by a hurricane when he was five. A Starfleet crew rescued them. Okay, that was his one snap, he held the football for a few seconds, and handed it off back to Burnham. Ho-hum. Sorry, Rhys.
I WANT TO KNOW WHERE HE HID THAT ORB!!!
One last thing. Canadian actor MICHAEL GREYEYES is a Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, and he gave a mesmerizing performance as the prisoner who actually committed a serious crime, cold-blooded murder, while stealing a family heirloom (among other things). The heirloom was an Akaali “Lalogi” orb, essentially a holographic family tree. He has kept it all these years, having smuggled it into prison with him and hiding it beneath his mattress (where no prisoner has ever hidden anything ever, so guards never search there). By making sure that Michael takes the orb back to Discovery and returns it to the victim’s daughter, it makes for a beautifully touching ending.
Except for some obvious questions…
First, why didn’t the murderer just return the orb BEFORE going to prison (and likely never getting let out again)? That way, at least the little girl wouldn’t have needed to grow up without such an important part of her identity. Heck, he could have given it to a guard at any point and said, “Please return this. It won’t mean anything to you, but it will to that little girl.” After all, he never expected to be released, so how else other than a guard did he expect that orb to be returned?
And second, even on alien colonies, one assumes that arriving inmates are thoroughly searched for weapons or tools they could potentially use to escape. So as the title of this sub-section implies, how the heck did he sneak that thing INTO prison???
Actually, never mind…I do NOT want to know!