Watching last night’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “What’s Past is Prologue,” I couldn’t help but think about another Trek episode—The Next Generation’s “.”
It’s a famous episode, one of the first great outings from TNG. The story centers on Data, the android operations officer. Starfleet considers him a machine, and therefore property of the Federation, but the USS Enterprise and its Captain Jean-Luc Picard see Data as a living being, entitled with all the rights endowed as such. Within 45 minutes, the episodes tackles themes of ownership, free will, and examines the basic question of what constitutes life.
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
Moments of this episode kept reappearing in my mind, uninvited, while I watched people being obliterated, executed, manipulated, maimed, and murdered in Star Trek: Discovery. And I couldn’t help but wonder: “Why?”
For basically the entire runtime of “What’s Past is Prologue,” people are dying. Sometimes it’s Lorca’s compatriots, head-scratchingly kept prisoner on the Emperor’s flagship, sometimes it’s Philippa’s crew, who die in front of a barrage of phaser fire. But the violence is gratuitous, just nameless grunts dying for a cause we don't even understand.
We’re told Lorca wants to overthrown Philippa because she’s weak—even though audiences have lots of evidence to the contrary. This woman bombarded an entire planet, ate a Klepian, and executed a dozen people last week just so word of the Federation wouldn’t leave the room. But Lorca has a nuanced understanding of his universe's space politics after being absent for two years, so I guess we’ll just have to take his word for it.
Somehow Lorca is able to take control of the entire ship, which is the size of a city, with just a couple dozen people, and that somehow equates to the collapse of the entire Empire. None of it make sense. Don’t even bother.
All you need to know is Lorca, who was always kind of bad at being a good guy, is now a full-on bad guy and he’s going to stress the point with more executions, murders, and a dash of fascism to add some spice. Unfortunately for Jason Isaacs, who created a really memorable captain in Lorca throughout the series, it's classic character assassination.
A Dying Multiverse
Last week, after Stamets had a run-in with mirror Stamets in the spore world, he tries to discover what’s eating away at the network. Turns out, the ISS Charon runs on the very core of the network. Where the Discovery rides the network like an inter-dimensional hitchhiker, the Charon draws power directly, killing the spore ecosystem from within. The show tells us this is bad—multiverse extinction-level bad.
But for all the chaos happening on the Charon, the Discovery feels like a safe haven. “Prologue” has a couple great moments that really make you wish we’d wrap up this Mirror Universe nonsense and get back to our own universe and our own crew.
Saru in command is one of the bright lights of this episode—and he’s damn good at it. When all hope seems lost, as the chances of a ultimate annihilation becomes ever more imminent, Saru delivers a rising speech to his crew. He reminds them how his species can sense death approaching, and how he does not sense it today. It was a moment of true leadership, something that’s been sorely lacking throughout the entire show.
But great moments like these only frustrate viewers wanting more than brainless action. As soon as we catch a glimpse of character development or a scene of some emotional weight not motivated by violence, we’re taken back into the blood, gore, and strange obsession with plot twists that fills the rest of this series. Discovery consistently shows flashes of brilliance, only to bury them under tons of cinematic mediocrity.
More Battles, More Blood
Nowhere is this more clear than Discovery’s insistence on being as violent as possible. Back on the ISS Charon, Emperor Georgiou and Burnham hatch a plan to catch Lorca off guard and kill him once and for all. As usual, it's an absolutely terrible plan, but Burnham uses Discovery’s surprise attack in order to gain the upper hand, allowing a way-too-long battle to ensue.
Commander Landry, who returns to the show as her Mirror Universe self, gets killed again and finally it becomes a showdown among Burnham, Georgiou, and Lorca. With predictable results, Lorca, who’s gone full-on fascist, gets a sword directly through the heart and his dying body is dumped into the core of the spore network, shredded to pieces.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the fast-paced excitement of the show. After all, this is the best-looking Star Trek show ever made. But looks only get you so far, eventually you’re going to need substance.
Week after week, I keep waiting for that substance to appear and for the show to return, even slightly, to its more philosophical roots, to ask the big questions that need asking. What does humanity’s place in the universe look like? Is there a way to live peacefully with others? What is life and what should be sacrificed in order to preserve it? Compare Roddenberry’s original vision of Star Trek to the needlessly empty-headed bloodbath that is “Prologue,” and you truly see just how far things have fallen.
Lorca’s death does bring with it at least some good news—Discovery is ready to leave the Mirror Universe. After some tricky space maneuvering that allows the Charon’s core to deliver the 1.21 gigawatts the Discovery needs to get back its own universe, Stamets navigates the ship back through a visually impressive first-person view of spore navigation.
However, as is often the case with timey-wimey stuff, the Discovery over shoots its return date by nine months and the Alpha Quadrant looks much different than the way they left it. In their absence, the Klingons have won the war.
Although it’s certainly nice to be back in our timeline, the time-hopping nine months into the future isn’t exactly head-spinning stuff. If Discovery would have jumped, say, a century into the future, it might’ve captured my interest. Instead Discovery traded war in the Mirror Universe for more war in the Prime Universe. Fun.
Of course war has its place in Star Trek, I just don’t trust Discovery’s writers to handle such a complex topic with any measure of grace or subtly, like in The Original Series’ episode “Balance of Terror” or the equally great TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” or even Deep Space Nine’s “Necessary Evil.” For example, having xenophobic Lorca say “make the Empire glorious again” is about as subtle as a shovel to the face.
In the end, Discovery is just a weekly, 45 minutes of escapism. It’s an intergalactic war drama with no nonsense about the human condition interrupting all the space karate. It’s action-packed. It’s entertainment. It’s bloodsport.
But at its heart, it’s nothing at all.
- Discovery keeps making its universe feel smaller and smaller. Somehow one guy and like a dozen other people overthrow a galaxy. That can’t even begin to make sense.
- The tension between Emperor Georgiou and Lorca feels forced since we really don’t understand the depth of his betrayal. It all feels empty.
- Captain Saru. Make it happen.
- The Lorca/Trump moment doesn’t really work when you set it in the universe of the Terran empire—where literally every human is evil—but nice try.
- Great to see that Burnham can disobey Georgiou in two universes.
- I might not like where Lorca's character eventually ended up, but Jason Isaacs did a great job creating some depth to a kind of captain we've never seen before.
- The show is still having problems dealing with character emotions. Stamets is joking and smirking with Tilly in this episode after just learning his significant other died in his arms. Do humans lose the ability to feel emotion in the future?
- If I have to watch Burnham surrender to a dozen heavily-armed people, quickly kick someone’s phaser, and escape a hail of fire one more time, I’m going to lose my mind.
- I think the best thing we can hope for is chalking season one up as a terrible origin story for the Discovery crew and hope season two can turn things around.
- “What’s Past is Prologue?” Discovery, stop. Shakespeare, you are not.