Star Trek: Discovery
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Osyraa the Terrible. Did she deserve death, objectively? Certainly. The Granny Smith Gotti was a monster who committed unspeakable atrocities, even against her own. Nevertheless, I feel it’s all I can do to mourn the loss of Star Trek: Discovery’s once-burgeoning appreciation for nuance, as well as its biggest wasted opportunity since killing off Captain Georgiou in the pilot. Because while none of our heroes die this week, this conclusion is a sudden death in itself, a bone-deep disappointment that betrays all the thoughtful, complex progress the series has made this season.
Last week, I posited that the series might be trying its hand in Deep Space Nine territory. It seemed like Osyraa was shaping up to be a Gul Dukat figure, an occasionally benevolent monster-turned-peacemaker our stars would be forced to tolerate through a tumultuous reconstruction period. She was untrustworthy, ruthless, brutal, and yet her organization only flourished in the vacuum the Federation left behind; she understood its limitations, its failures, better than perhaps anyone in the universe. I wanted her to pay for her crimes as much as Vance did — but then again, I also want a certain Senate majority leader to be consumed by Dinobulan flesh-eating bacteria. In both cases, I’d settle for Nuremberg.
Instead, we’ve chosen Hero Shoots Big Bad, Saves Day. (We’ve even replicated the exact same chaos of the season two finale: huge space battle, allies arriving at the last minute, thanks to a last-ditch S.O.S.) The wicked witch is dead, which, as we all know, means the vast, vertically integrated empire she spearheaded — the one whose mercantiles dominate half the galaxy — has immediately disintegrated, never to darken a door again. Time to look to the future and get busy reuniting! (Come on. Even the FBI knows it can’t simply kill the don and destroy the mafia. That’s not how organized crime works, even if this don fed her second to a trance worm.) In effect, Discovery has adopted the exact policy Osyraa herself was attempting to pull off, the one Admiral Vance refused to accept: wipe the whole slate clean and decline to reckon with our core flaws, the ones that got us into this mess in the first place.
I am all for presenting audiences with a better vision for the future. In many cases, I’m even a fan of wish fulfillment. But at this scale, the kind of clean victory Discovery has created undermines itself, because it comes at the expense of offering an honest look at solving huge, seemingly insurmountable problems — problems that cannot be extinguished by the pew-pew of a phaser rifle, any more than they can by an AR-15. To pithily suggest that “never give up” is the moral of the story here, as Michael Burnham does as she escapes a wall of programmable matter in the data core and blasts Osyraa into next week, borders on insulting. It is a simplistic, “one flaw in the Death Star” kind of victory, one that perpetuates the dangerous myth that there is an easy shortcut to defeating the cancer that is capitalist imperialism. (I’d say white supremacy, as well, but I don’t think Star Trek is ready to have the “humans are the white cishet men of the Federation” conversation just yet.) As I struggle to focus on this recap, we’re watching the fruits of that kind of generational magical thinking unfold in real time. We want to believe that a hero will save us, that simply voting a fascist out of office will end fascism. Discovery’s third season finale has tweeted, “We are better than this,” and then signed off. None of these platitudes are true. They are empty, and perpetuating their emptiness hurts us all.
Osyraa isn’t the only one being robbed of complexity in this conclusion. I so desperately want to celebrate Michael Burnham finally ending up in the captain’s chair, but I have to reiterate my question from last week: has she really grown, or has the context simply changed? All those searing indictments laid out by her mother, by Booker, by Saru — were we supposed to see those moments as mere haterade, to be ignored rather than reckoned with? Admittedly, Star Trek has never really taken insubordination seriously; the original Trek star, Captain James T. Kirk, makes Michael Burnham’s decision-making look like bureaucratic red tape by comparison. It’s possible I’m holding Discovery’s star to unreasonable standards, standards most white male action heroes get to bypass all the time in service of saving the day. For the Captain Kirks and Luke Skywalkers of history, triumph over evil has always been enough.
Yet that’s part of the problem. And I’m left hungry for even a crumb of acknowledgement, a tiny sign that she’s learned anything from the many tests she’s weathered. She is more confident now, sure. But she never stopped believing in the Federation. She never once changed her mind about how she’s handled any scenario, ever, let alone faced them again and made different choices. Those earth-shattering criticisms from the people who love her the most seem to have rolled right off her back, not impacting her decision-making process in any way. Vance may have agreed with Burnham’s decision to jettison Stamets, but it still makes her exactly the same person she was in the pilot: a crunch-time bully who makes choices without the consent of anyone involved, because above all, she believes she knows best.
The series started with Burnham at the bottom, a disgraced mutineer, as far away from the captaincy as possible. She was operating on a “by any means necessary” basis, but that’s the job description of a secret agent, a lone wolf — a “cowboy,” to use Picard’s term from “Unification.” Was this show not supposed to be a redemption story? In many ways, both implicit and explicit, this finale indicates that Discovery has been about how everyone else had to change for Burnham to finally come out on top. If that’s the case, score one for tenacity, I suppose; Burnham never quits, and that’s not a bad message to send. Still, leaving it at that robs Burnham of the opportunity to evolve, to become a better, wiser person — and we, in turn, are robbed of the opportunity to watch that happen.
Meanwhile, the people who did experience the most growth this season don’t get much for their trouble. Following a frankly heroic crusade to knock the Discovery out of warp by detonating a bomb and busting up the magnetic field keeping the ship’s nacelle attached — admittedly thanks to an idea from Michael — First Officer Sylvia Tilly not only immediately relinquishes her command to Burnham, but also doesn’t appear to even get promoted from ensign. (Is she still first officer? Who can say?) Mister Cleveland Booker fares a bit better; transformed from loner rogue into one half of a righteous power couple, he gets ruthlessly tortured, jacked up on adrenaline to fight a bunch of thugs on an open turbolift, then turned into a deus ex mycelia whose empathic gift, Aurellio sticks around to reveal, makes him an organic alternative to Stamets’ unique spore-driving DNA.
And then there’s Saru. Anyone who has been reading these recaps for any length of time knows how I feel about the show’s treatment of the U.S.S. Discovery’s now-erstwhile captain. For a moment, it really seemed as though the first Kelpien in Starfleet (and the first in centuries to survive vahar’ai!) was on his way toward being one of the franchise’s great leaders. Uncomfortable and unsure in the beginning, he was just beginning to evolve into a compassionate and decisive statesman, one who could nudge the president of Ni’Var toward reconciliation simply by offering to listen. Yet at the same time Saru was growing, the show was dropping little hints that he was going to be unseated, with suggestions either that Michael should be captain or he was too emotionally compromised or distracted by what befell his people to lead. It came as absolutely no surprise when, after shepherding Su’Kal toward the epiphany that he caused the Burn when he watched his mother die, Saru “asks for time” to “consider next steps” and help the younger Kelpien adjust to his new life on Kaminar. It makes perfect sense, because we were force-fed the spotty narrative that Saru wasn’t all that interested in being Discovery’s captain anymore anyway. In any case, if he was meant to follow in Commander Nhan’s footsteps, to step away from a critical, interplanetary leadership position to go back to where he came from, why build him an upward path, devoting precious screentime to scenes like the one where Vance mentors him, without giving him even one line of deep, personal doubt? It would have been as easy as, “I am unsure of my place here; I seem to be making all the wrong calls, and I’m homesick all the time.”
(Speaking of Vance, after today’s inspirational speech about his daughter’s hieroglyphic approach to math, I literally have no idea who this guy is anymore. It’s not character growth so much as character transplant: he began as a gruff hardass with the weight of hundreds of worlds on his shoulders and ended up a mushy, starry-eyed patriarch making speeches about how great Michael Burnham is? Stubborn, begrudging stuffiness is what made Vance interesting, charming even. But the show’s insistence on saddling everyone with the exact same emotional range has flattened him, too, in the end.)
The finale’s shining exception, by a mile, is the tangible future it carves out for Gray and Adira. Down on the dilithium planet, Gray is granted both a Vulcan makeover and a corporeal one, thanks to the holoprogram “recognizing” his presence. (Adira themself is made Xahean, which I love, because it means this holo clearly also recognizes baby geniuses.) Gray saying, “I’d forgotten what — hi,” as he hugs Culber is maybe the most understated, heartbreaking moment of the episode, followed closely by his panic when the holo is about to be shut down, isolating him again. If any storyline calls for Discovery’s signature Feelings™ treatment, it’s the one about lost, lonely ghost kids finding a family, and they get it in spades, with Culber vowing that they will “find a way to help [Gray] be seen, truly be seen, by everyone.” If the 21st century gave us holographic dead pop stars, why couldn’t the 32nd offer holographic consciousness?
We do also get a nice heroic moment for Joanna Owosekun, courtesy of another of the lieutenant’s childhood’s quirks: she grew up cliff-diving for abalone, which means she can hold her breath for a crazy-long time, which means she’s uniquely qualified to complete the bridge crew’s suicide mission to drag that bomb into the nacelle chamber. (She’s saved at the last moment by one of the Zora/Sphere-data droids, whose sacrifice is framed as a weirdly big deal for one of what looks like twenty identical droids, all containing the same simultaneous operating system.) Owo is now, far and away, the bridge crewmember we know the most about. It would be nice to know at least this much about Detmer, Rhys, and Bryce, too. Eventually.
So the crew survives their brush with oxygen-deprived brain damage to become the vanguard of the revived Federation’s diplomatic attaché. Starfleet immediately starts mining the unstable planet in the middle of a chaotic nebula, which I’m sure is perfectly safe, and they have a laundry list of new planets to whom they’ll start delivering shipments of dilithium, whenever season four returns. There will be gelato on one of them. (It’s intimated that Discovery will be the only ship that can do this job — didn’t Book just prove that technically, they simply need another couple spore drives and a few Kwejian empaths to multiply their numbers?) Stamets, for his part, hasn’t forgiven his new captain for what she’s done. After waiting a season and a half to see whether Georgiou was going to have to answer for literally eating Saru’s people, I’m thankful, at least, for the signal that Michael’s sins haven’t been entirely washed away.
Look, Star Trek isn’t a successful fantasy world because it gives us easy solutions. It’s not really about a shiny future where we solved inequality and got rid of money. Star Trek is at its best when it tells us the truth, that even unified under a vision of a better future, the road to get there will be messy and unpleasant — and even when we get there, it’s not like these problems completely disappear. Those jagged edges are even more essential to Trek than the utopia. They remind us that “better” is actually achievable.
Burnham’s monologue at the end of the episode tells us that “there is a lot of work to do,” and “it will take time.” But the larger series is showing us something different. Whatever work is being done to dismantle a corrupt, semi-legitimate oligarchy, one that has addicted huge swathes of the galaxy to its brand of capitalism — including entire global economies operating on literal slavery — is currently in danger of being swept under the rug, in favor of expensive action sequences, overindulgent pathos, and cardboard “just trust us, it’s happening” resolutions that don’t jibe with the thrilling uncertainty and fascinating moral gray areas we were thrust into at the outset of this season. I want to believe Star Trek: Discovery will find and bare its whole truth, the one that can’t be resolved into a neat, comforting package. It’s a truth we desperately need, and I do believe its creators are trying to fill that role. But for now, I’m still waiting.
(Forever and ever, amen.)
Personal Log, Supplemental
• That giant flying fish I noticed here last week was actually a Gormagander! Silly me.
• Still absolutely no clue who that one rando bridge crew woman was.
• Zareh died as he lived, having one job, and fucking it up by doing the one thing he shouldn’t: threaten the cat of the guy who kills people for threatening his cat.
• Please, someone, make a GIF out of the Su’Kal/Saru exchange “Outside can be challenging—” “Dangerousssssss!!!” for me to use ad infinitum.
• Seriously, how did Aurellio manage to stay on the ship? And why was David Cronenberg’s character just, like…there, with Vance, in the middle of the situation room?
• And how did that holo-program work, exactly? The radiation meds become functionally inaccessible when you bring them in a bag, but they’re still attainable if you hold onto them in your mouth? Even though your physiology is being transformed?
• Love a good warp-core ejection, and this one did not disappoint — the Veridian’s tentacles were cool, but the way it exploded was way cooler.
• Speaking of tentacles, I kind of want an entire horror film about Su’Kal’s haunting Ghost of Christmas Past? And a whole cyberpunk movie starring Vulcan Ian Alexander walking through the Matrix? Those effects were dynamite.
• I’ll end with a bit of science: Culber posits that Su’Kal is a polyploid. In real life, polyploidy is simply the term for the condition of having more than two sets of chromosomes. Polyploidy can occur naturally, in species like ferns and salamanders; it can also show up randomly in species that are typically diploid — for example, sometimes human liver tissue can end up polyploid. The accidental kind of polyploidy — i.e., the kind that gives Su’Kal his unusual power over dilithium — is caused by abnormalities during meiosis (reproductive cell division) or mitosis (regular cell division). I’m no biologist, but I believe the story is that Su’Kal’s environment induced the abnormal meiosis/mitosis that led to polyploidy, and that polyploidy then created the opportunity for his cells to start vibing with the dilithium planet in utero. In sci-fi terms, it seems like a “mutant X-gene” scenario. Epigenetics are a real thing; the long-term environmental impact on our parents’ bodies has already been shown to have a cascading impact on our own growth in utero. And then, of course, there’s a medical reason pregnant people aren’t allowed to smoke or drink. Difference is, dilithium isn’t real, and while exposure to radiation in utero can cause mutations in humans, those mutations are definitely never cool powers.