An underwhelming season finale for STAR TREK: DISCOVERY…except for STACEY ABRAMS! (editorial review)

TO THE WINNERS GO THE SPOILERS

I can’t start this review of the series finale of season four of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, “Coming Home,” without first commenting on the biggest news item stemming from it: the appearance of Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and progressive political activist STACEY ABRAMS as the President of United Earth.

Abrams’ appearance has been all over the media, from Variety to the Washington Post, as it’s being widely reported that she is a HUGE Star Trek fanatic. Indeed, it seems her one condition for appearing was that she be shown only her lines in the script and told nothing else about the episode or season…as she wanted to watch it all as a fan without spoilers!

Now, if you’re the kind of person who purposefully leaves the “ic” off of “Democratic” when using the word as an adjective for the party, it’s likely you were quite pissed off when you saw her…assuming you even recognized her (which, I admit, I didn’t at first). Many of the more outspoken conservative fans are already complaining of blatant “stunt casting,” although Star Trek is full of celebrity cameos—even political ones like the prince (now king) of the country of Jordan along with political activist Tom Morello (both of whom appeared on Voyager). Here’s a meme I got off of Facebook showing many of the famous faces who cameoed on Star Trek over the years…

Top row – Mae Carol Jemison (first Black woman in space), Joe Piscapo (comedian), Tom Morello (musician and activist), Iggy Pop (singer/songwriter), Christian Slater (son of the casting director for Star Trek VI). Bottom row – then-Crown Prince Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, Seth MacFarlane (creator of “Family Guy” and later “The Orville”), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Pr. Stephen W. Hawking, and Kelsey Grammer.

Of course, the arguments being given justifying complaints of “unfairness” are that none of the folks pictured above were actively running for political office when they appeared on Star Trek. As it happens, neither was Stacey Abrams at the time she was contacted by the production. In fact, her scene was filmed back in August of last year and she didn’t announce her second run for governor of Georgia until December. By then, the episode was long past being able to be re-shot, especially since Abrams appears with multiple other actors on screen.

So any way you slice it, there’s no way to legitimately criticize this without sounding like a redneck and/or a racist. And indeed, those complaining the loudest are mostly the same people who ridiculously insist that (don’t laugh) there is an underrepresentation of straight, white, male human characters on the show…without realizing how idiotic and ignorant that makes them sound! (Strange that these people never seem to have complained about there being an underrepresentation of Black, Asian, Latino, female, gay, or alternately-identified gender characters on other Star Trek shows before this, huh?)

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DISCOVERY’s “Species 10-C” episode was 37% intriguing, 45% annoying, and 18% frustrating… (editorial review)

SPOILERS ARE THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE!

I was originally going to title this blog “Close Encounters of the 10-C Kind,” but I felt it more appropriate to share my mix of reactions in the same way that Species 10-C communicated in ratios of their pheromone emotions. And if you don’t know WTF I’m talking about, then you haven’t watched the penultimate episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s fourth season, “Species 10-C.”

This episode was a true conundrum for me when it came time to try to think of how I felt about it. On the one hand: GREAT EPISODE! On the other hand: DREADFUL EPISODE!

You see my problem?

LET’S START WITH INTRIGUING

One of the most far-fetched aspects of Star Trek over the decades is just how convenient first contacts tend to be. Throughout the first four TV series, it seemed that, no matter where you traveled in the galaxy, everybody looked mostly human (just maybe a strange forehead or ears here and there), and they all either spoke colloquial English immediately or else could learn it quickly or have it universally translated. And it kinda spoiled us fans, didn’t it? Of course, without such tropes, we’d have to spend the majority of each episode just figuring out how to communicate, and that would leave little time to tell compelling sci-fi stories.

Granted, Star Trek did have a few episodes that focused on communicating when the universal translator wasn’t up to the task. Most notably, the excellent Next Generation episode “Darmok” devoted the entire storyline to Picard and the Tamarian captain trying to find a way to understand each other because the languages were just too different for the universal translator to figure out.

Unfortunately, if you think too hard, even a wonderful episode like “Darmok” collapses under the weight of strained credulity. Obviously the Children of Tama were able to communicate beyond simple metaphors. After all, how can you build a starship without saying something like, “Pass me that #3 hexagonal hyper-spanner…”? And in order to say, “Uzani, his army with fists closed,” you have to know the words “army,” “fists,” and “closed.” In other words, the universal translator should have been able to do better than it did.

But hey, it still made for a great episode dedicated to bridging a language barrier. And so it was for “Species 10-C.” It was fascinating watching the methodical process of trying to bridge such vastly different methods of communication. But again, you kind of have to turn off your brain to accept how far-fetched the concept is…

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PICARD soars while DISCOVERY snores (editorial review)

DOUBLE THE SPOILERS, DOUBLE THE FUN!

At first I was kinda dreading having to blog TWO reviews this week because we’ve got both STAR TREK: DISCOVERY and STAR TREK: PICARD each premiering new episodes on the same day (for the next three weeks, no less). And lord knows it takes me long enough to write just ONE blog review!

But this week’s episode of Discovery was such a nothing-burger that I have relatively little to say about it. On the other hand, the season two premiere of Picard completely blew me away, and I can’t stop thinking about how awesome it was. And if what I’ve read of reviews and reactions on social media, I’m far from alone in my reaction.

So I’ve decided to combine the two reviews into a single blog and see if I can cover both episodes in less than 3,100 words.

I actually wondered which episode to watch first and ultimately decided to begin with Discovery. I suspected that Picard would be the stronger of the two (although I had no idea how much stronger), and I wanted to end the evening on what I hoped would be the higher note.

Following that same logic, I’m going to start this blog with a little bit about Discovery‘s 11th episode of season four, “Rosetta,” and then move on to Picard‘s lead-off episode of season two, “The Star Gazer.” Buckle up, grab a Saurian brandy from behind the bar, and let’s do this thing…

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DISCOVERY’s “The Great Barrier” was a lot to get through… (editorial review)

THE GREAT WALL OF SPOILERS

Perhaps I should have realized it when I heard Dr. Kovich reference Gilligan’s Island in the opening scene of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s tenth episode of season four, “The Great Barrier.” Realized what? Well, those castaways set out on a “three hour tour” and ended up spending a LOT more time stuck in the same place. And that’s kind of what’s been happening with Discovery this season.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the decision to have season-long story arcs—as Discovery has done since season two and arguably since season one)—it does present a challenge for properly pacing out the general plot line. Thirteen hours (give or take) is a massive of time to fill locked into the same overall narrative. It’s certainly not impossible to keep a storyline going for that long, but it often takes a little bit of “padding” to stretch things out a bit. And a little bit is good. It gives the creators a chance to develop the characters, something that was frustratingly absent with the manic pace of the first two seasons. So, yeah, a little bit is good. A…little…bit.

For the first half of season four, the pacing of the overall story arc was decent. The anomaly (DMA) wasn’t even introduced until the end of the first episode, and it kind of took a back seat over the course of the next few episodes, although the second episode dealt with the trying to collect data on the distortion while spotlighting Book’s emotional devastation. But then we had episodes dealing with (in this order) finding a rogue Romulan ninja nun, Tilly leading a group of Starfleet cadets (and Adira) to safety after a shuttle crash while Burnham and Saru try to talk Ni’Var into rejoining the Federation, and then freeing trapped prisoners in the path of the DMA’s destruction while an experiment on board Discovery nearly destroys the ship (and introduces Ruon Tarka).

Five episodes in, and there was a steady build-up of the DMA in importance. That led to episode six, where Discovery has to actually enter the subspace rift to collect otherwise irretrievable data on the DMA. And now the main story arc had taken center stage, exactly when it should have, building to a big clash in episode seven (just before the holiday hiatus). Michael and Book lock horns over what to do about the device generating the DMA: destroy it or try to contact Unknown Species 10-C and ask them politely to turn it off. Both arguments sounded reasonable, something which has been a part of Trek since TOS.

Perfect pacing so far. The first half of the season ended with a strong cliffhanger and the promise of even more revelations and action in the final six episodes.

And then Star Trek: Discovery kinda got stuck…

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ST: DISCOVERY’s “Rubicon” was the perfect episode with one major flaw: PREDICTABILITY! (editorial review)

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…

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STAR TREK: DISCOVERY meets OCEAN’S ELEVEN…but does it work? (editorial review)

I’LL SEE YOUR BET AND RAISE YOU SPOILERS!

“All In” won’t go down as the best STAR TREK: DISCOVERY ever made, but it succeeded on a number of levels. It also failed on a number of levels. Let’s take a look at both sides now, win and lose, and still, somehow

In many ways, “All In” was the “A Fistful of Datas“/”Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang“/”Bride of Chaotica” episode of Discovery. What each of these stories has in common is a sense of “fun and games” where the cast and production crew can just kinda let themselves go in an episode that’s lighthearted and funny, has a little pizzazz, and isn’t simply filled with melodrama, angst , tension, and gravitas. The first three of those episodes took place mainly on the holodeck/holosuite in settings far removed from the path that Star Trek usually treads. “All In” does essentially the same thing…just without the holoemitters.

For me, despite other obvious weaknesses of the episode, the humor and lightheartedness were the most welcome and refreshing aspect this time around. Admittedly, there’s still some serious shat going down in the galaxy, as billions, if not trillions, of lives are at risk. And worse than that, Michael and Book aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. But maybe that’s why we need a little vacation on a floating barge hidden behind a holographic sea serpent (hey, maybe this episode DOES have holoemitters!) to do some relaxing gambling and mixed martial arts ring-fighting.

But seriously, folks, let’s start with what, I believe, was the inherent strength of the episode…

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Is STAR TREK: DISCOVERY really “WOKE”? What does “WOKE” even mean??? (editorial, part 2)

Last time, we began by taking a brief look at the history of the word “woke.” (You can read the full history here.) Although “woke” began as a positive word connoting being aware of racial injustice, in the last half-decade, “woke” has been co-opted into a toxic, negative insult, implying (from conservatives) an overly liberal and progressive view of race relations and inequality and (from liberals) an overcompensation to try to mitigate implied social injustice.

Whatever the meaning, some detractors of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY have begun to deploy the word “woke” in criticizing the show. But what exactly are they talking about? Is it the diversity of characters of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities? Or is there something about the plots or the storytelling that is supposedly “woke”?

In order to get a better understanding of what the critics mean when they call Discovery “woke,” I reached out to fans on four different large-size Star Trek Facebook groups(this group, this group, this group, and this group) and asked for examples of what they consider “woke” beyond just the characters themselves.

Unfortunately, almost no one offered specific examples—only broad brush strokes which didn’t help define (for me, at least) what it was about Discovery (beyond the characters) that was “woke.” Indeed, the only specific complaints I received were a bit absurd: one person who thought there was way too much kissing and another who assumed, from watching the third season Discovery episode “People of Earth,” that “Africans took over Earth and do not welcome non-Africans home.” And among his proof was that Earth ships resembled elephants. (Seriously, I screen capped the comment!)

Yeah, they do kinda look like elephants…

Anyway, with nothing else that I could take seriously as an example of what made Discovery “woke,” I could only assume it was indeed some combination of the races/ethnicities of the actors and/or the sexual orientations/gender identities of the characters.

So I took a closer look at the actors themselves. There is a general perception out there among certain fans that Discovery portrays an overly diverse cast in terms of race and ethnicity. The bridge crew is certainly “colorful,” and the current main cast features two Blacks, one Hispanic, and one half-Asian. Of course, it also features four white actors (I still consider Tilly part of the main cast). That’s 50% white.

But I took it a step further and looked at the casting of ALL actors who’ve appeared with significant speaking roles in at least two episodes dating back to the start of the series. The results were staggeringly skewed toward white actors and actresses (35 total) versus Black actors (8 total) and those of Latino, Asian and other/unknown ethnicities (also 8 total).

So with 2/3 of the total actors on the show being white, why it is that so many viewers mistakenly believe that the Discovery cast is so much more diverse than it actually is…?

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Is STAR TREK: DISCOVERY really “WOKE”? What does “WOKE” even mean??? (editorial, part 1)

How many times have you seen someone on social media complaining that STAR TREK: DISCOVERY is too “woke”? People seem to use “woke” as though it were some kind of four-letter word!

But what does “woke” actually mean, and more importantly, is Discovery truly “woke”…or do certain people just think that it is?

The word “woke” first came to prominence within the Black community in the 1940s, an African-American slang term that initially meant being informed about systemic racism in America. It was a positive word, indicating awareness of things that tended to be “off the radar” for many Americans at the time.

By 2016, the newly-formed Black Lives Matter movement began to use the phrase and hashtag #StayWoke as a way calling attention to what they maintained was widespread mistreatment of Black suspects by law enforcement. By 2017, the word “woke” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “being ‘aware’ or ‘well-informed’ in a political or cultural sense.”

So far, so good. Nothing wrong with being “woke”…yet.

However, like other terms that started out as positive—such as “politically correct” and “social justice warrior”—the word “woke” was eventually corrupted and turned into something derogatory and toxic…specifically by the alt-right and other conservative groups. It became a crass insult directed primarily at liberals and progressives who were ridiculed for everything from “cancel culture” to “critical race theory” in their desire to stand up for what they believed were marginalized and persecuted groups and minorities both within America and beyond.

Gradually, those on the left stopped using “woke” as a positive. Today, even liberals and progressives employ “woke” to call out actions that are mocked for overcompensating in trying to provide fairness and equal representation beyond what seems reasonable and appropriate. One example is the recent trend by the left to introduce the plural word “Latinx” into common usage because because the plural “Latinos” leaves out women (even though Spanish speakers actually prefer the original plural since that’s the way the Spanish language works).

WHAT SPECIFICALLY IS “WOKE” ABOUT ST: DISCOVERY?

Back in May of 2018, as CBS was pushing for Emmy consideration for the premiere season of Star Trek: Discovery, Entertainment Weekly called the new prequel show the “…boldest and most woke series yet.” CBS quickly plastered that pull quote as a headline on Discovery‘s media press kit. Obviously, the word “woke” hadn’t yet fallen from grace.

That was then…

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Did I just watch an episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY that was 90% just people STANDING AROUND AND TALKING???? (editorial review)

I’ve gotta hand it to the folks at STAR TREK: DISCOVERY…this episode took chutzpah!

We’re going into the mid-season hiatus—six weeks without new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery—and one might have expected a “big” episode with lots of action sequences and suspense and drama building to a huge cliffhanger ending that would leave the viewers shouting for “more!” And while we did get that aforementioned cliffhanger, the rest of episode—I’d estimate 90% or more—was just people literally standing around and talking. Just…talking. Okay, a few were sitting. But just talking, talking, and talking some more.

Heck, they didn’t even leave the room! Nearly the whole episode took place entirely on just two sets…and neither was even the bridge! If last week’s “Stormy Weather” was a bottle episode, then this week’s “…But To Connect” was a thimble episode.

And yet, as God is my witness…

It somehow worked!

It would have been easy to simply dismiss this episode as a misfire. After all, “all talk, no action” is a valid criticism for most shows. And don’t even get me started on the amount of heavy exposition in this episode! At times, the dialogue bordered on science lecture—or maybe law lecture…or both—and at other times felt a little like watching CSPAN. (For those readers outside of the U.S., we have TV channels that air nothing other than proceedings in our Senate and House of Representatives. Most times, watching CSPAN and CSPAN2 is orders of magnitude LESS interesting than watching paint dry.)

So why did this quiet, no-action, potentially even “boring” episode work for me? What left me wanting to write a positive review rather than tearing it apart? Let’s dive in…

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Even ST: DISCOVERY “haters” would LOVE the most recent episode “STORMY WEATHER”! (editorial review)

SPOILIN’ FOR A SPOILER? WE GOT ‘EM!

I literally have zero complaints about this episode! Well, that’s not entirely true…I found Book’s dad to be a very annoying hallucination. On the other hand, so did Book, and I think he was supposed to be grating. So can I really complain about something I’m meant to complain about? Interesting question!

But what’s not up for questioning is how much I absolutely LOVED this episode. And that’s saying something because “Stormy Weather,” STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s sixth episode of season 4, was forced to do more with less. Budget-wise, this episode was about as inexpensive as they come. First of all, it was a “bottle” episode…which means it took place entirely on the ship and/or on existing sets. No new sets had to be built, no one had to create virtual backgrounds for the AR Wall, few extras were used (the bridge almost felt kinda empty, and the ship’s bar definitely was), outside of the ship was just blackness (saving on VFX shots), and even make-up costs were minimized by having the alien Linus off-screen all episode in his quarters “under a heat lamp.”

Low budget episodes like this often happen mid-season (we’re just about halfway through season four now), allowing money to be reserved for the BIG final episodes with all of the action and huge VFX sequences…which is a fact of life for nearly every show on TV these days. With low budgets and limited sets, “bottle” episodes can be hit and miss. But some have been quite excellent—TNG‘s “Ship in a Bottle” (the ultimate “bottle” episode where holodeck Moriarty returns) and “Disaster” are two that come to mind.

And speaking of TNG, perhaps the main reason this particular episode came out so well is because it was directed by a person who is no stranger to TNG-style “bottle” episodes: JONATHAN “Commander William T. Riker” FRAKES.

Frakes knows what makes Star Trek “feel” like Star Trek, and he brought that knowledge to this episode. When done properly, a ship-gets-trapped-and-crew-needs-to-find-a-way-out story is really just a tool for spotlighting the abilities of characters whom we care about. On TNG, we cared about all of them—Picard, Riker, Data, Beverly, Deanna, Worf, Geordi, even Wesley when he wasn’t saving the ship in some annoying way. Do we care as much about the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery as we did about the crew of the Enterprise-D? Well, if anyone can make us care, it’s Jonathan Frakes.

Believe it or not, this was Frakes’ SEVENTH(!) time directing Discovery. He’s also directed 17 additional episodes of other Star Trek series along with two of the feature films. So…y’know…wow! The guy’s about as “veteran” as it gets behind a Star Trek camera.

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