YOU JUST KNOW THERE ARE GONNA BE SPOILERS!
Oh, man! They were SO close…SO close to having a perfect episode! And considering how many times I have found at least one thing to criticize about each episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, a truly flawless episode has still eluded them.
Granted, is there really such a thing as a “perfect” Star Trek episode? Fans could probably find nits to pick for some of Trek‘s greatest triumphs like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “The Best of Both Worlds,” “The Inner Light,” “The Visitor,”…and I could go on. But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. What I mean by “perfect” is an episode where even the little flaws don’t bother you (or me). And the latest episode of Discovery, “Rubicon,” COULD have been that most coveted of episodes. It was gorgeous to look at, exciting, well-acted, well-paced, dramatic, and it had some really good action sequences (especially the scenes with all the jumps). It even featured some minor bridge characters getting a chance to actually LEAVE the bridge. It could have been a “perfect” episode except for one not-so-small problem…
It was WAY too predictable.
Part of the problem is that I knew, before the episode began, the title: “Rubicon.” Now, technically, Discovery episodes don’t display their titles to viewers (unlike most of the other Trek series), so I’m not sure this is a completely valid criticism. But I’m still counting it. Titling the episode “Rubicon” would be like titling “The City on the Edge of Forever” instead “The Tragic Death of Edith Keeler.”
For anyone not familiar with the Rubicon River in Italy or the phrase “Crossing the Rubicon,” it comes from ancient Roman times. Before Julius Caesar conquered Rome, he was the governor of a neighboring province and the general of that province’s army. When his term ended, the Senate ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. He returned to Rome, all right, but he didn’t disband his army. In fact, he took his soldiers with him, which was a HUGE no-no (like, treason and insurrection illegal), and once those soldiers crossed the Rubicon River, the die was cast. Caesar’s army had entered the Rome province, and civil war ensued.
For the past few episodes of Discovery, the decision facing the Federation (with Michael and Book on opposite sides of the issue) was whether to try to make peaceful first contact with Unknown Species 10-C or risk a war with them by striking first at their DMA generator and preemptively destroying it. With a title like “Rubicon,” I pretty much knew from the first moment that the episode would end with the action that would lead to war.
Of course, there were other “tells” in this episode (and the ones leading up to it) that also cemented that inevitability…
MICHAEL IS ALWAYS RIGHT…AND BOOK NEEDS TO REALIZE THAT
If there is one constant in the Discovery universe, it is this: Michael Burnham is always right. And even in the rare instance that she is wrong, it is only there to be a humbling learning experience for her to rethink the situation, figure things out once again, and return to the previous state of universal truth that Michael Burnham is always right.
I say this a bit sarcastically, but it actually serves an important purpose in the storytelling…believe it or not. Like most sci-fi, there needs to be a hero whom we trust and root for, who has a moral compass that they and we can count on. And because of that, our hero needs to be right, even if there’s every reason for others in the story to think they’re wrong. Kirk is right to steal the Enterprise and try to find Spock’s body on the forbidden Genesis planet…or to go back in time to find whales. Luke Skywalker is right to go to Bespin to save Han, Leia, Chewy, and the droids…even though Yoda and Ben don’t want him to.
But when you have “heroes” who aren’t always right, like Boba Fett in his recent Disney+ series, who make questionable decisions or just seem to be winging it, it makes for a different (and not always worse or better…just different) viewing experience. That’s the case with series like LOWER DECKS and PRODIGY, where the main characters can often be clueless bunglers, although we still root for them.
But Discovery isn’t that kind of show. It needs a solid, “infallible” hero—its own Kirk or Luke or Gandalf or Harry Potter. And for better or worse, that’s Michael Burnham.
So when Michael and Book have an argument where they just can’t see eye to eye, Michael WILL be right. So we just have to wait for the inevitable moment when Book realizes that. And the only way for that to happen—especially when one partner is as dug in as Book (or Michael)—is for them to see the failed outcome of their way and have it explode in their face (in this case, literally).
So the end of this episode had been telegraphed for weeks. The only question was how long until Book saw that Michael was right all along, and how bad will things need to be in order for that to happen? This episode answered both questions without much of a surprise. A true surprise would have been Book being right and Michael being wrong, but that was never in the cards for a show like this one.
TARKA NEEDED A DOSE OF REALITY AND HUMILITY
The other collision course you probably saw coming a light-year away was the arrogant Ruon Tarka finally having to eat some crow. Another trope of TV (and movie) storytelling is if someone gets TOO sure of themselves, they’re probably headed for a fall and a hard hit. Only a healthy amount of uncertainty about a plan (or saying, “I know you think this won’t work, but please trust me…”) is the guarantee for success. Cockiness will lead to eventual failure nearly every time.
Sadly, for the character of Tarka, this was a huge step backward after a couple of episodes with big strides forward for the character. The super-genius who started off as a complete jerk to everyone began to gain some depth and complexity (thanks to the brilliance of actor SHAWN DOYLE) over his past two appearances as we saw some of the layers of his onion begin to peel away. I even started to feel a little sympathy for him and began to hope that he might be redeemed a bit (which, by the way, has also been strongly telegraphed).
But in this episode, the script (and the tropes of TV) required a “heavy,” a bad guy to root against. And since Book absolutely 100% needs to come to his senses and be redeemed, someone else had to take over the mantle of mustache-twirling villain. And since Tarka already had the “I’m a total a-hole” pedigree, the writers decided to run with it. And so, Tarka has installed a deadly defensive system into the ship behind Book’s back (and right under his nose, it seems) that even Tarka can’t deactivate, and it almost kills four members of the Discovery crew (including Book’s bud, Hugh Culber). So yeah, this $&*#’s gettin’ real, people! And that’s when Book begins his long journey back to Michael.
And hey, if that wasn’t enough to get you rooting against ol’ Ruon Tarka, later on he rushes to the weapons console to fire a whole slew of quantum torpedoes at Discovery…and again, the fun little game of cat and mouse has now turned into lion and wildebeest (or some other brilliant metaphor—I’m writing this late at night, folks) with some very real danger…all thanks to Tarka.
And so, just as the music is turning calm at the end because Book has agreed to Michael’s compromise of waiting a week to try it her way first, Tarka fires the weapon. Was anyone really fooled? Well, I supposed some fans might have thought, “Oh, thank goodness! Michael and Book can get back together, the Federation can try diplomacy, and all Tarka has to do is wait a week. Perfect ending!” Yeah, right. Caesar didn’t wait for a week before crossing the Rubicon.
And that brings us to…
FIRST CONTACTS ARE BORING—WARS ARE EXCITING!
Just because I’m pointing out the predictability of the episode doesn’t mean it was wrong of the show-runners to do it that way. Yeah, it’s nice to have a series like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead or The Boys (to name but a few!) where you never know what to expect, who’s going to live or die, and surprises are the only thing about the show you can be sure will happen. But that doesn’t diminish other shows where the plots are more formulaic and predictable. There’s room for both kinds of TV series in the universe.
And it’s not as though Star Trek has been full of surprises over its five and a half decade history. When Kirk “died” on Vulcan during Spock’s pon farr, did anyone really think Jim would stay dead? It’s the rare and very memorable exception to the rule when a Borgified Picard walks out and introduces himself as Locutus, and Riker says, “Fire…” and you’re left spending the next three months wondering, “Holy crap, what’s gonna happen next!?!?!?”
So while I’m kvetching a bit about the predictability of “Rubicon,” what really was the alternative? Imagine an episode focused solely on first contact, shaking the hands of 10-C (or tentacles or whatever), and saying, “Um, can you please stop mining all of your energy using that DMA thingie? It’s kinda destroying the galaxy.” We need something a bit more dramatic. And let face it, the ending of this episode, telegraphed or not, was very dramatic and predictably satisfying. Book and Michael pull back from DefCon One, and then smug Tarka does NOT get what he wants, despite all his planning and treachery. He’s left with no way to crossover to another universe and he’s just started World War C….or 10-C…or whatever. Man, does HE look dumb! Very satisfying…albeit predictable.
And to top it all off, Species 10-C seems to just shrug. Oh, the device stopped working? Just send in another…like changing a dead battery. And suddenly, the Federation begins to realize, “Uh, oh. I think we’re the ants in this conflict.”
Of course, the writers have to be careful here. There’s always a push in Trek to create a bigger, badder, more unbeatable foe. The Borg…then the Dominion (they destroyed a Galaxy-class starship easily in their first encounter with Starfleet), then Species 8472, then the Xindi, and even Control from Discovery and the mechanical uber-synth “kraken” from the season one finale of PICARD. And each time, the enemy had to eventually be “powered down” a little bit (like the Dominion, Xindi, and Species 8572) or else just close the portal before the uber-synths or whatever can wipe out all organic life in the galaxy.
Hopefully, Unknown Species 10-C won’t be too O.P.! (As my 11-year0-old son has explained, “O.P.” stands for “over-powered.”)
IT WAS ALSO PRETTY CLEAR WHAT WOULD HAPPEN WITH COMMANDER NHAN
RACHAEL ANCHERIL’s return as Commander Nhan gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was nice to have her back. She’s a strong character with a lot of backstory to fill in. And toning down the breather gives the actress more opportunity to play with her facial expressions. So I certainly wouldn’t mind her returning to the series.
But the idea of having her there only to countermand Michael’s orders if she hesitated to destroy Book’s ship and save the lives of billions…that just seemed forced and unnecessary. I mean, the most obvious outcome—and even Vance could probably see it coming—is that Nhan would relieve Michael of duty, issue the order, and the crew would disobey because Michael Burnham is their captain, Book is their shipmate, and a double-dumbass on you! So that is kinda what I expected until Michael says to the bridge crew: I order you to follow her order if I’m not doing what I should do. Okay, so now we’re locked in.
And that’s when I knew exactly what would happen. Obviously, we would get to the point where Michael had to make the choice whether or not to fire at her love. And she would hesitate. And just as Nhan was about to give the fateful order, something would happen at the last instant…and it did! Stamets comes through with the data, and—BOO-YAH!—they’ve got a week. Yay.
From a dramatic standpoint, having Nhan be there saved Saru from having to be the bad cop, which would have been much more logical for Vance to order. It also saved Saru from being the one to argue with Michael during all of those scenes where the writers needed to point out that Michael is not infallible (keep her humble, unlike Tarka). But in many ways, this did a HUGE disservice to Saru’s character…who has been all-but-wasted this season. While I enjoy seeing his budding-but-hesitant romance with Vulcan President T’Rina develop, what else has Saru done this season? This could have been his opportunity to grow some Kelpien kajones and be more than just the loyal first officer and/or the person who is “concerned” that Commander Nhan might be right. But no.
Or what if it was Admiral Vance who went along instead of Nhan? MUCH harder to disobey his order! Yeah, it’s certainly dangerous for the commanding admiral—although from the trailer for next week’s episode, it looks like Starfleet President Rillak will be going along for first contact with 10-C next week. But just imagine if it was Admiral Vance, rather than Commander Nhan, standing on the bridge debating with Captain Burnham. And maybe that was the problem. Giving a commander (who has never commanded a starship) from 900 years in the past authority over a captain (also from 900 years in the past) doesn’t really make sense to anyone other than the writer and casting director. So while it was nice seeing Nhan, her role in the episode just didn’t feel right to me.
AND FINALLY, I DON’T REALLY MISS TILLY, ADIRA, OR GRAY…
Last week, we got to see Owosekun get off the bridge. This week, it was Rhys and Bryce. Granted, they were there on the shuttle solely to openly argue with each other (in front of their superior officer, no less!) to show the audience that not everyone is on “Team Burnham” when it comes to the decision to ask questions first and shoot later. Some of the crew thinks that Book and Tarka might have the better solution, and so Bryce and Rhys nearly get into a fistfight in front of Saru and Culber (which is totally unprofessional, of course, but the conflict needed to be displayed for the viewers). And of course, after almost dying and just making it back to Discovery in the nick of time, Bryce helps Rhys get up off the floor, Rhys smiles, and the two dudes are back are back to bromance mode. Yay.
But it was at that moment that I realized: I don’t miss Tilly, Adira, or Gray…at all.
With the revelation of the new STARFLEET ACADEMY series, many fans expect that MARY WISEMAN’s character of Sylvia Tilly will find a new home on that series, even though Tilly will appear later this season, as well. As for Adira and Gray, the last we saw of them, they were off to Trill, where apparently Gray will go on to become a Guardian (“I am Groot?”) and Adira will come back.
But what I realized as I saw Bryce and Rhys making nice to each other is that neither of these characters is “quirky.” Neither is Owosekun or Detmer. Neither is Nilsson. They are all quite focused on doing their jobs well and don’t bring their baggage to the bridge with them (usually). In other words, they’re just like Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura. Sure, you can still have some fun with main characters. Not every bridge officer has to be Tuvok. Some can be Tom Paris. But they don’t have to overshoot into being Neelix.
And that was the thing about Tilly. While she was good for comedy relief, that came to be her “schtick,” and it affected what the show was and could become simply because Tilly was part of the equation. She wasn’t a “bad” character, necessarily, but she was “quirky.” And so, with her, Discovery would always—always—be locked into being a little quirky, too.
Adira has now become quirky, as well. And remember that they never went to Starfeet Academy (although their past hosts have). And while Gray isn’t necessarily quirky, he isn’t Starfleet either (although again, past hosts have been). And Book isn’t Starfleet. That’s a lot of characters who technically shouldn’t be serving full-time on a starship as anything other than family members/loved ones.
But just imagine Star Trek: Discovery without Tilly, Adira, and Gray…where Saru is more of a confident first officer, and the rest of the bridge crew is given MUCH more screen time (the way Tilly and Adira and Gray currently do). As we saw this episode and last, each of these background characters are played by very strong actors. Think of what the series would be like if the only “quirky” people left were Jett Reno and Linus. Totally different show.
I doubt it’ll will happen, but it’s been nice (these past two episodes) to see what the show COULD be like with the quirk toned down a bit. And I definitely like it.