Yes, I know, it’s not a book. But I’ve (finally) finished watching it and I have Thoughts. These Thoughts will contain spoilers. But tbh I am already late to the party on this, so if you care and you’re still not there, why did you even click this link?
My thoughts run as follows:
- Thought number 1 – the whole Culber thing
- Thought number 2 – the Klingon arc
- Relatedly, thought number 3 – Ash Tyler, the chinless wonder
- Thought number 4 – Mirror Universe? Please fuck off now
- Thought number 5 – the best way to make this TV show better is for it to be more like traditional Star Trek and shut up let me explain I’m not just being a sulky nerd here
- Thought number 6 – what does it mean to be Star Trek?
- Additional Thought – that theme tune though
- Additional Thought 2 – episode titles
- Concluding Thought – maybe it’s not all bad
There may exist other thoughts.
Thought Number 1 – Medical Officer Hugh Culber, of whom we were cruelly robbed
I didn’t like this when it happened, but a small part of me was holding out on 100% judgment just in case they used it to do something relevant. But no. No, he died to further the character development of Ash Tyler. Ugh. See Thought 3. It was such a fucking waste, when it looked like he and Stamets were going to just… be awesome. And continue to be awesome.
One of the issues I had with the series early on was how cheaply death came. It was messing with my sense of how the narrative ought to be because it was very… un-Trek. I don’t mean redshirts. I mean the security chief! And that… kept on. Death came lightly, without much regard, and that felt so deeply wrong, so Culber is not only a case of “should have had any awareness of the Bury Your Gays trope and why it would be a thing to not”, which is plenty on its own, but also just a culmination of a trend of wasting the lives they’ve spent time developing on momentary developments and shock value. It doesn’t speak to good long term planning of character arcs and general developments. If they’re going to chuck away people I’ve spent several hours learning to care about, and it’s not going to mean anything… why should I spend those hours caring?
Also just come fucking on Hugh was glorious. Even if he did kind look like my old boss’ boss. Which was a bit weird.
Thought number 2 – I’m sorry, where did the Klingons go?
It looked at the beginning like we were going to see this whole thing from two angles – we’d spend time on the Klingon perspective, gain a deeper understanding of the conflict, maybe start feeling that Starfleet wasn’t totally right after all, maybe there was middle ground.
But no, that all just petered out into, once again, the Saddest Tale of Ash Tyler, about whom we do not care.
And like, I get that having that one guy you’re meant to care about is easier than selling us a whole alien civilisation. And likewise, I get that we needed to pull back from the Klingons to sell the “Ash is a secret Klingon” bullshit plot twist. But it just meant that we suddenly felt completely cut off from what had been an important part of the narrative. And that yawning gap was never going to be filled by one dude and his secret surgery. To try to fill it with one really useless and pathetic dude and his secret surgery (plus bonus murdering of a Good and Well-Acted character)… it’s just stupid. The pay-off is never going to be worth all those episodes you spent wondering where that stuff had all gone. There has to be some satisfaction, or you have to leave us hanging for less time.
Reducing the entire Klingon plot to being about Ash (and L’Rell a bit) also feels like it really trivialises the whole concept of the war. If it could be resolved with individual action like it was… well… that was a really silly thing to have wasted thousands or more lives on. It renders it Silly, and that very much didn’t seem like the tone they were going for with their war.
Thought number 3 – Ash Tyler, the chinless wonder
Yeah, no, this guy was ridiculous.
I mean, I could leave it there? I think it’s a pretty uncontroversial statement, but may as well elaborate.
So in channeling the whole Klingon plot into this dude, they required him to carry the weight of a big section of the show’s entire drive. Just this one guy. Now, Burnham also has that going on, and Sonequa Martin-Green seems like a pretty great actress so no big, and also Michael’s character is actually compelling on a fundamental level. You’ve got the whole growth and acceptance of emotions thing, the lingering regrets over her actions, her mourning of her captain and friend’s death, her desire for redemption, her now struggling to find her place amid a crew who mix old colleagues and also… Lorca… who is… well. There’s a lot going on, so she can carry the weight of about half the plot on her own. She makes it work. Ash Tyler on the other hand… what does he actually bring to the party?
No, really. I don’t know.
The actor, for a start, is Not Great. This is obviously a fairly big issue. But also in terms of character he’s just not given enough to work with. Prior to Woe Is Ash, what did we have? He was a competent security man and apparently fancied Michael. And hated the Klingons. That’s not really a character, or not enough to build your whole tv show on. Then we learn his secret woe (and were desperately disappointed by it, at least in this flat), and he is supposed to take on the mantle of Tormented Soul wracked by Conflict and Angst. And… he doesn’t carry it. How are we supposed to sympathise with him when he killed Culber? Oh, no but he’s sad about it. And now his girlfriend doesn’t love him because he tried to kill her too. Awww, the poor thing. And now he’s human again but has to live with his Klingon memories. And the boyfriend of the man he murdered won’t forgive him, very politely. Truly, his suffering is the greatest of all.
It’s very hard to sympathise with his plight, is what I’m saying. And then the crew (led by Tilly, who still irritates me), decide to forgive him like that and suddenly it’s supposed to be ok? Michael of course can still be upset with him, but the rest of the crew? Nah, fine. It’s all cool. It just doesn’t work.
And if we can’t sympathise with him… he can’t really function in the role he’s cast for… and well, there’s about a third of your show that can’t work. Not ideal.
Thought number 4 – in which many things are rushed, except the mirror universe for some fucking reason
I have never liked Mirror Universe episodes. There is a fleeting joy in seeing the caricatured evil version of your favourite characters, but it lasts about five seconds and then it gets simultaneously very dull and incredibly cringeworthy. Luckily, previous Trek has understood this, and rarely gives you more than one episode on the trot of goateed shenanigans. It gets that it’s a gimmick, and gimmicks like that need to be used sparingly.
Which is why I was unprepared for that part of Disco. I kept expecting it to end, so it took a while to recalibrate and deal with it on its own terms – which, hey, that’s on me, sure. Maybe I shouldn’t judge it all by the old Trek yardstick*. But I did. And it comes up short. Because for all they tried to make the Mirror Universe Terran Empire legitimately scary Nazi/Romans… it’s still inherently a caricature. It’s not funny, but it is ridiculous. And in what is clearly trying to be a serious tv show? Yeah, no, dragging out your overblown evil empire thing is going to undermine your serious tv show plaudits.
Yes, yes, I know we needed the grounding to get the evil-Lorca twist. I know. But that was a shitty setup too. The “Terrans are sensitive to light” reveal was so contrived. It would have been shit with only one episode of work, sure… but it was already shit. Maybe if they’d accepted that, made it a two-parter and then gone back to some serious plot, we could all have just put it behind us.
More seriously, I do think Mirror Universe stuff works much better if your context is more Monster of the Week. If you frequently have episodes that rely on one gimmick or context, then throwing this one in, alongside time travel, Nazi planets and energy beings… well it becomes part of the style of your show. But I think you have to be willing to be more subtle if you want to extend it – you have to take it as seriously as you take the rest of the plot – and if you’re drawing from existing Trek, it’s really hard to take the Mirror Universe (which gave us goatee-Spock, hyper-sexy Kira and a host of impractical outfits) any amount of seriously at all.
Basically, Disco put themselves in a position that made this impossible. I’m just not sure the Mirror Universe as Trek presents it to us is compatible with a modern, serious tv show. Either you have to change the Mirror or change your scope. But as they both are? They just don’t work.
The Mirror Universe, by its predetermined nature from previous Trek, is also incredibly predictable. You could see Emperor Georgiou coming a mile away (I have the chat conversation transcripts to prove it if need be), for instance. And again, that level of almost comedic obviousness just doesn’t sit well with making a proper, serious tv show.
Every episode, I was hoping we were done with it. And, it felt like, every episode… oh god there’s still more. I really hope they abandon it firmly for season two (just not in favour of time travel episodes please because I like those even less).
Thought number 5 – Why they should strive to be More Trek
Ok, so, genuinely, I think this series would have been made better if they went back to the format of e.g. TNG, Voyager and DS9 – the 26 episode series.
It would have given them the scope – scope they clearly wanted – to explore some of the bits of the series which really did work. My favourite moment of the entire thing is, in the final episode, when Burnham comes full circle and threatens to mutiny again, this time flipping sides and holding true to the morals of Star Fleet against Admiral Cornwell’s pragmatism. That, for me, is an affirmation of what I love about this franchise. But it got no space. It was rushed, and so lacked the weight it would have got, the drama, had the crew had to ponder in silence whether they would stand with Burnham. Had there just been that time for doubt, for longer talk, for more conflict, it would have been a better moment – it would have earned the stirring reprise of the theme music it gave us.
As it was, I still enjoyed it, but it did feel sped along. They had a lot of ground to cover in the last episode and did it at a heck of a pace, at the expense of weight, drama and just… everything feeling right.
But that’s not the only reason.
One of the other things I love about Trek is the big ensemble casts, whom you slowly come to know through the episodes that focus on different people. Think TNG – you’ll have the main plot where Picard is dealing with a diplomatic incident with the Andorians… meanwhile Data and Geordie have to rescue a cat from a plasma conduit. Or Worf is stranded with Wesley on a Tellarite ski resort and they have a bonding moment. Or it’s a Reg episode, and everyone has the joy of the shared trauma. But having twenty-six episodes gives you the space to do that – to spend some of your screen time exploring characters at a forgiving pace, so that when you have your big, important moments, the people involved in them really mean something to you. When I watch TNG, I do genuinely care about a lot of the characters. I love Guinan – who’s a really small character, when you think about it (presumably because getting Whoopi Goldberg to shoot was logistically difficult? Or probably she commanded quite a hefty rate of pay? I have no idea)… but she gets a couple of episodes over the course of the whole show that really do focus on her closely, as well as moments scattered throughout where she reveals herself through brief interactions with the rest of the crew.
Whereas if your series is what… fifteen episodes? Maybe you don’t have time to do that. Maybe you have to let some of your characters be more background. Which is a shame, because I want to know more about Detmer. I want to see Saru being more than a foil for Burnham. I want to see Stamets and Culber have more than just their moment together brushing their teeth. I want to know the other bridge crew whose names I don’t currently remember, if I’ve ever been told at all. Airiam and Owosekun, Rhys and Bryce. I don’t know anything about the tactical officer or helm. This feels… wasted.
And then you combine this with what I said above, about how cheaply they throw away the characters?
They make it really hard for me to find something to invest in.
So yes, what I would have loved to see, is a full length, proper Trek series, where we do have that major plot drive that carried the Disco we had… but also some measured pacing, giving that plot drive space to breathe, and interspersed Monster of the Week episodes that let us connect with the broader cast and get a feel for who the people we’re supposed to care enough to watch week after week actually are.
Thought number 6 – the matter of morals (or “Why Discovery is aiming for better than DS9 ever managed”)
Dark does not have to be gritty. Optimism makes the difference. And Disco has that optimism, when you peel away the dark and serious veneer. It revealed itself, at the beginning and at the end, to be striving to be the Trek I love. Because the message we had, the message that mattered and carried from Georgiou through to Burnham was that morality and upholding decent principles matter. To quote another bit of Trek – survival is insufficient. This is the Trek of Picard and of Janeway**, the one where we do not compromise to make life easier, and where the ethical captain may be dragged through a thorny problem but will, in the end, come out on top. They may lose a lot in the process, they may be forced to make hard decisions, but they will, with those morals, eventually prevail. It is Star Trek that envisions a future in which we are fundamentally Good, and that being Good is not a detriment. A future in which our protagonists fight to retain equality, diversity and prosperity for everyone, where people aren’t left behind, where they put their trust in others to be Good People too, and that trust is rewarded with peace.
It didn’t always succeed. It did leave some people behind, and let some die who should never have been killed. It clung to close to a need to be dark in order to be relevant, or serious. It is not perfect, and needs to Do Better. But in what it actually wanted to be, the core underneath all of it? It is the Trek that believes in an optimistic future… and that’s what I want, most of all.
Additional Thought – the intro
Also, not gonna lie, I loved the theme music. But I like the Enterprise theme music so I am clearly irredeemably wrong. But… but… stirring strings. Optimistic noises. Pretty but meaningless images dissolving around a tiny starship. Unrepentant reference to TOS music. It has it all. And it’s very, very hummable. I am absolutely sold on that decision, and I’m honestly glad that didn’t return wholeheartedly to the original style. After Enterprise broke away completely, I think sticking with the different style was necessary, but they improved on it.
Additional Thought 2 – episode titles
Pretentious episode titles are where it’s at. If you’re not going to give me “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”, “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”, “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” or “Requiem For Methusaleh”, you are not trying hard enough. Admittedly, Disco doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it does give it a fair try. It’s even got some Latin, throwing us “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” – admittedly, this is from a more hipster choice of author (Vegetius) than “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” (Cicero), but given it’s a fairly well-known phrase in English, it still has some way to go in comparison. Nice try, in any case, though the English ones don’t quite reach TOS series 3 levels of self-regard. 8/10.
Conclusion – tentative optimism
So there’s a lot wrong with Disco. Genuinely quite a lot. It has made some egregious mistakes, both in terms of actual plot decisions and also just in general stuff like pacing and structure. It’s not up there with my favourites or anything.
But the thing is, it’s done some stupid shit, but its heart is in the right place. If it can calm down, care more about its characters and maybe take the space to pause, slow down and give us time to care about what it’s showing us… I think it might be really really good. I haven’t spoken about a lot of the thing I like, but there were plenty. Burnham is a well-cast and complex but sympathetic lead, and the decision to follow not the captain was a sound one. Georgiou in the first episode was hardcore the captain I want to see in Trek forever. She was meant to be the ideal of a Starfleet captain and she achieved. The set design was lovely, and generally just the look of the show (apart from maybe their costume/make up decisions for the Klingons). Some of the supporting cast are also really promising – Stamets, Saru and, yeah, even Tilly. Given time, I really think they could be characters I’m heavily invested in. Stamets particularly I want to have episodes of his own, development, plot arcs, just… more. Sarek was used a lot better than I originally expected of what seemed like a flagrant name drop at the start. Real, believable relationships were pushed to the forefront at least some of the time and made valuable.
There’s a lot there. It doesn’t balance out the bad and the stupid, not yet. But it could. And I hope it does. I hold out a lot of hope for a calmer, better series two, with that continued feeling of optimism that makes Star Trek a show I want to watch.
*Should? No. Will? Absolutely.
**This may or may not be controversial view. I am aware different opinions exist on this one.