ST:Discovery, Five Weeks Deep: Burnham and Lorca
Five episodes into Star Trek: Discovery. Burnham and Lorca have been firmly established as Discovery’s twin primary arcs, so, let’s talk about how those arcs are.
SPOILERS, up through S1E06.
Five weeks deep, six hours in, I think we can be confident of Discovery’s initial interest and focus. There are two things in the show’s spotlight: First, Michael Burnham’s fall from grace and shot at redemption. Second, the ruthless necessities of war, and how corruptive it can be to “do what’s necessary.”
So far, I don’t feel it does either of these well.
Let’s start with Burnham. I love Burnham; she’s an awesome and intriguing character. The problem is, Michael Burnham being written as 90% backstory, and only maybe 10% as someone interesting right now.
When she was a kid, her parents were killed. When she was a teen, she was raised as a lone human being held to Vulcan standards. When she was on the Shenzhou, she tried to mutiny and maaaaybe helped spark a war but mostly just failed to stop it from happening.
All that should result in a really interesting character.
What is she right now, though?
Here’s my problem: really interesting characters vs. really dull characters? They look pretty much the same when they’re running frantically from a ferocious tardigrade, or helplessly watching rash security officers win themselves a Darwin Award, or being a bystander to somebody else’s flashback where your only way to affect things is by Vulcan kung-fu. You don’t need personality for any of that, and the writers certainly don’t seem to be putting much weight on Burnham’s character during those scenes.
Burnham’s good scenes are the quiet, interpersonal ones. Re-encountering Saru, an old crewmate who still respects her, but considers her dangerous and unstable. Mentoring awkward, determined Tilly. On a routine mission on some desert planet with O Captain Her Captain. Receiving a bequest from Georgiou that’s much more painful than Georgiou could have ever imagined.
These arewhere we actually get to see what kind of a person Burnham is, not get more and more details of her backstory.
(oh, so as a kid she was literally targeted, assassinated and killed? that’s nice, but what’s really important right now is to hook her up to this neural transmitter and show that something hurts her but she still keeps on going! that’s how you know she’s got character)
But most of the time? We get either stoic, gritting-her-teeth-until-the-universe-surrenders Burnham, or flashbacks to angsty past Burnham’s traumas. Neither of those are character. In neither of those do I want to see what Burnham does next (I already know; she grits her teeth and/or suffers). There’s no range of options; no tension; no anticipation.
Alas. We deserve more. True story: for a brief 24 hours, I was really hoping “Lethe” would be the perfect name for an episode where due to [TECHNOBABBLE], everybody mysteriously forgets Burnham’s mutiny, and she suddenly needs to live amongst a crew who thinks she never did anything wrong. (Sorry, y’all, I don’t watch teasers :P ) It could have been glorious. Straight talk: I would x100 rather see Burnham try to go to a book club meeting, then pull off another Daring Impossible Foolhardy Mission. She’s got the chops; what she doesn’t have is the writing.
And then, well. And then there’s war.
- “I need someone I can trust. Someone that understands war. What it takes to survive, what it takes to win.”
- “I’m out there trying to win a war.”
- “War doesn’t provide too many opportunities for niceties.”
- “I’m in the front line, Kat. You gotta make decisions in a second, sometimes less.”
OK, we get it. Lorca is willing to do anything, anything, to win the war, and that’s a Bad Thing.
…ummm. so what?
I will tell you a secret: I do not care about the Klingon-Federation war.
If we are anywhere within a million light-years of Prime Timeline, you know what? The Federation does just fine.
If we’re not? You know what? I still don’t care. It’s a bunch of imaginary people and imaginary planets, none of which we’ve ever seen. I have no stakes in who wins this war, or what the cost is, as long as they keep it to “oh no X number of ships blew up, that’s bad” or “oh yay we saved the dilithium mines, that gives us 20 War Points”.
When DS9 went to war, they showed us an Earth seized by paranoia. They showed us characters we love tending the wounded on the battlefield. They tore couples we cared about apart, because, baby, we can get married, but first we have a war to win.
What Discovery has done so far is tell us, repeatedly, that war is very dangerous. That lots of people are killed. That everything is very important. But does it tell us an actual story about characters experiencing war? So far, not really.
That’s actually kind of OK. Because the war itself isn’t quite the focus. It’s not quite “who wins the war,” but more “how do you deal with the uncertainty, the extremism, and the desperation that war entails.”
Discovery has real potential here. I loved Admiral Cornwell’s line, “I hate that I can’t tell if this is really you” — a focused example of how war, or really all kinds of intense pressure, can makes it so you can’t trust anybody.
But again, the bulk of the storytelling just isn’t here. So much more of the episode went to the pointless back and forth, “You’re taking too many risks,” “No I’m not,” “This is dangerous,” “No but the war requires it,” “Holy heck Lorca you’re absolutely insane,” “OK but you NEED my kind of insanity,” back and forth and back and forth and on and on forever. Even when they’re ostensibly dealing with their theme, mostly what they’re doing is parroting it or having pointless, ungrounded arguments about it.
All in all, it’s like they’ve got a tiny bit of substance, and they need to spread it across a whole season of episodes. And the rest… the rest feels a lot like filler.
Discovery is not, so far, a good show. I wouldn’t say I’m suffering, but there’s precious little I’m actually enjoying, either. Glimpses and moments, and maybe the sparking of my imagination over plots and characters that might have been, but aren’t.
Figuring a series out takes time. It takes a while for a new show to find its feet. I’m OK with that; I’m not calling it quits, and it’s not a tragedy if I eventually do.
But this could have been stronger; this could have been a better start; this could have started with confidence and a clear direction, knowing its strengths and playing to them.