Star Trek #1455: Context is for Kings

FORMULA: Learning Curve + In the Pale Moonlight + Empok Nor + (This Side of Paradise x Contagion)

WHY WE LIKE IT: Lorca. Tilly. Tribble sightings.

WHY WE DON'T: Bonkers science.

REVIEW: So now Star Trek: Discovery begins for real. That is to say, the show now takes place on that ship (and I still don't love the design, mostly because of its triangular engineering section, the wheel-like saucer is okay) with at least some of its regular cast. We're told it normally can service 300 scientific missions at once, a record, and so it's filled with all manner of laboratories, but much of it has been co-opted for the war effort. At to end of one of these poles, we have Captain Lorca, a man who really will do anything to win the war, and has apparently been given the latitude to do so. Why him? That's a story that still needs to be told. But he's exactly the kind of "cowboy" who sees Burnham's criminal acts as the right thing to do in the circumstances, and though he's not building an illegal biological weapon as Burnham fears, he's still shown to be rather ruthless and underhanded. The script fails to make Burnham register his approach as an insult to Georgiou, but it totally is. At the other end, we have Stamets, the kind of arrogant, obsessed scientist we've often seen in guest roles, but never as a member of the cast. He's not easy to like because he's a jerk to our hero, but we should also understand his situation. He's been press-ganged into working for the military, just as Burnham has, and judging from the tension between him and Lorca, he's been asked to betray his principles, which are peace-time Starfleet's.

The two other new characters are also opposites. Commander Landry is a cold and hard security officer who lets the convicts attack Burnham in the mess, apparently just to see what would happen (it's very bad security regardless), and she's the captain's yes-man. That makes her dangerous, and she's thoroughly unlikable. Quite the reverse is Cadet Sylvia Tilly, an awkward but ever so sweet character who some immediately thought might have been the first in Star Trek explicitly on the autism spectrum. If her "special needs" are merely a polyester allergy and chronic snoring, that would be disappointing. Regardless of the intent there, she's the "real person" on the show, with the kind of insecurities and reactions characters in so-called normal dramas have. Again, while such characters are not unknown on the show, they've usually been non-Starfleet, guest stars, or at most, recurring elements like Reginald Barclay. Her foot perpetually in her mouth, but at least honest about her flaws, she's quite endearing.

Two supporting characters made it out of the Shengzhou alive to join the Discovery's crew as well. One is Keyla Detmer, but she only just avoids Burnham. Since last we saw her, she may have been wounded, because part of her head is shaved and she now wears one of those implant things (what is that, anyway?) and a cybernetic eye. The other is Saru, now a First Officer, more gracious than one might expect. While he feels Burnham is dangerous, he also gives her the credit she is due. Perhaps his attitude is mitigated by the belief her presence is merely temporary. That's going to change.

And Burnham, six months after her court-martial? She's let her natural frizz into her hair, a symbolic move from the Vulcan in her to the human, and also indicative of the unkempt depression that has taken hold. She feels the weight of every life lost at the Battle of the Binary Stars, and only wants to get on with her punishment. Might even welcome death when she thinks the prison shuttle might be adrift. But Lorca knows her number. By giving her limited access to a top secret mission, surrounded by tight-lipped officers who resent her, he inflames her curiosity, and it's through that emotion that he brings her back from the brink. Once again, she proves herself extremely smart and resourceful, as well as physically equal to the tasks she's assigned. If audience members are going to have a problem with Burnham, it may be because she talks too much. In the prologue episodes, we heard her log and her descriptive mission monologue. Here, she insists on telling the other characters what she thinks she's guessed about the mission, and even in an action scene, is heard to recite from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (a reference to Amanda, Spock's mother, that goes back to The Animated Series, in case you really thought the showrunners didn't care about continuity). So Burnham is a little over-written in those moments. I've noted it, but not yet judged it.

And of course, there's the plot. A partial one - we're seeing pieces of one mission over the course of many episodes - so it's going to be difficult judging individual episodes. First is the understanding that the real mission is trying to make a "spore drive" work so the ship can instantaneously teleport to anywhere... uhm... the spores have been? It's complete hogwash. As is the scene where Burnham is somehow sent to Romulus etc., sort of, while standing in the lab. They trot out a lot of technobabble to make this seem reasonable, but the more I think about it, the less it is. But it's the MacGuffin for a number of episodes, and is so silly (and apparently dangerous), that it at least makes sense we never see spore drives in Star Trek history. After the Discovery's sister ship, the Glenn, is scuttled by its own spore drive experiments, the episode's second act requires a small complement (including Burnham, of course) to get its proprietary tech out, and they wind up fighting a giant tardigrade that can rip through metal with its claws. Monster stories, especially those that don't end with our understanding the creature (like we do the Horta in The Devil in Darkness), are not the best use of Trek real estate (even if the tradition goes back to The Man Trap). And since Lorca has secretly taken the creature aboard, its story isn't over (as long as it doesn't end up dissected like his other projects - Lorca's lab includes Cardassian voles and a Gorn skeleton, and his office a hopefully-hungry Tribble).

LESSON: Lewis Carroll readings make space monsters aggro!

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: But only because it's introducing key characters. The monster-fighting plot doesn't yet resolve into Trekism, and the science behind the show turns out to be monumentally silly.


snell said...

Is the spore drive really more technobabble than warp drive itself, or transporters? We've grown so used to the latter concepts, we don't really think about them any more. I can kinda sorta see how "quantum entanglement" theorems might tie into the spore drive idea. And we've seen enough alien races use instantaneous teleportation over vast distances. Maybe Qs and Metrons and Caretakers use some variation of it...

The bigger problem with the spore drive is one common to all prequels. Even though it's obvious it will inevitably fail, no doubt disastrously, it's inconceivable that any such quantum leap in technology would never have been mentioned in "later" series, at the very least name-dropped or rejected as a possible emergency option by Geordi or Data or B'Lanna, or that other races wouldn't have been working on it, or...

Anonymous said...

We have a fungal network here on Earth that spans the planet. Extrapolate that, and you have a fungal network spanning the cosmos.

If we take science at face value, then the mycelium network doesn't jibe. The spores would have to exist at the Big Bang to cover the universe. However, there's no SF reason why panspermic spores couldn't eventually cover most of the universe by networking with existing spore networks or with help from spacefaring organisms.

The Paul Stamets character is named for the real-life mycologist, who spoke with producer Bryan Fuller and the writing staff about his work and ideas. His TEDMED talk is interesting (and relatively short):

Some have speculated spore travel (or some variation thereof) being the method that Sloan used to seemingly appear out of nowhere to chat with Dr. Bashir.


Siskoid said...

Earth is a closed system though.

They explain it several times on the show, but it fails to make sense every time. I think yes it IS less believable than warp drive or transporters (if probably equally outside our reach, like time travel). Those are at least extrapolated from actual physics.

Getting ahead of the reviews a bit here, but fungus that spreads roots through subspace, and creates spores with DNA that holds coordinates to which we can jump if only we can share DNA strands with said spores... It's completely nuts. Warp drive can be explained with a simple hand wave using armchair knowledge of sci-fi tropes. Spore drive requires too many new ridiculous concepts to work. In a universe that already has transwarp, wormholes, long-distance transport, slipstream drive, time travel, a psionic network (see Lethe, later), etc. you'd think there was a novel application of ONE of these that could have been at the heart of Discovery's experiments. It's like they so wanted to avoid anything the shows had already done that they stretched too far.


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