Sunday, January 7, 2018

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - The Discovery Explores a Surprising and Mysterious New World in 'Despite Yourself'

CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 1.10 "Despite Yourself"

While in unfamiliar territory, the U.S.S Discovery crew is forced to get creative in their next efforts to survive opposing and unprecedented forces and return home.

When Star Trek: Discovery ended its fall run of episodes, it did so by posing a couple of questions. First of all, where was the U.S.S. Discovery and her crew? When Stamets went into the chamber to do one last job for the ship, the system broke down and sent the Discovery into an unknown area. And second, what is going on with Ash Tyler? He was being plagued by new visions of his torturous time with L'Rell and that hinted at something much more sinister going on in his psyche. Now, "Despite Yourself" does address both of these questions. It deals with the first almost immediately. It was heavily suggested that the Discovery had entered a parallel universe. That idea was introduced by Lorca moments before Stamets went back into the chamber. It would present new lands to discover while also explaining how the spore technology doesn't completely revolutionize Starfleet in the subsequent time eras depicted in the previous shows. And now, it is confirmed right before the cut to the title sequence that the Discovery is indeed in a parallel universe. It was an exciting tease that offered a new sense of direction for the series. The swift confirmation of such allows this return episode to be very exciting and engaging with an exploration of a new world. But it's also a frustrating premiere because it's delaying the official answer to the Tyler question even though it seems so painfully obvious. I won't discuss what is clearly going on with him until the show actually reveals it. But it's going to be so lame if the show treats it as some big reveal meant to stun the audience when it actually does it.

And that's not the only unfortunate problem in "Despite Yourself." When this show was officially announced, it came with the distinction that it was going to be the most diverse and serialized show in the Star Trek franchise. The latter is still technically true. It would appear that the show is done with the Klingon war in order to move forward with this exploration of a parallel universe. But it's still heavily defined by the actions the crew have made up to this point. And yes, it's much more exciting to see the show deal with an alternate take on a familiar reality after how lame and inconsequential the majority of the Klingon war turned out to be. It never seemed like the show itself was all that engaged with the war. It wasn't personal despite how much the characters talked about that exact concept. The stakes of the war were never important to the plot. Battles were always happening offscreen or in brief cutaways. There was no reason to care about the Klingons the Discovery was fighting either. Their motivation was one-note and lacking. As such, it's exciting to see the show forge ahead with a new identity for itself. But it's lame and uninspired to see yet another science fiction show explore the concept of a parallel universe by introducing alternate versions of the main characters who are over-the-top evil and dressed in leather. It's not a bold or original idea. It may still be an exciting concept. But the show really hasn't established its characters well enough for it to be enjoyable seeing the actors take on these completely different personas for the pleasure of the viewer.

And then, there is the tragedy that happens to Dr. Culber. He dies this week. He's killed by Tyler after Culber is trying to explain what's been going on with him and why he needs to be quarantined immediately. His death isn't something that the hour is naturally building to. Culber is largely dealing with Stamets in his new semi-comatose stasis. Stamets only awakens on certain occasions sporting almost completely white eyes and talking nonsense. It's clear by the end of the hour that he sees things the other characters cannot. He's trying to warn Culber about Tyler to no avail. Meanwhile, Tyler continues to be counted on for sensitive and dangerous missions even though he's clearly suffering from some major psychological problems. Lorca and Michael continuing to count on him for these situations basically proves that the show has no interest in showing the rest of the officers actually working aboard the Discovery. Seriously though, this ship appears to be so empty most of the time. There is enough of a crew on the bridge. There are some always just wandering around the halls. But then, the medical bay seems completely empty. Lorca makes a big deal about Stamets being treated by another doctor because of Culber's personal connection to him. But there doesn't appear to be anyone else working as a doctor or a nurse. That makes that moment seem especially pointless while making the one later on with Tyler physically possible.

Overall, it's just problematic that Culber dies. It's just the latest instance of actors of color being killed on this show. Again, the series started with the perception of diversity. And now, it feels like the show mostly just pats itself on the back for having Sonequa Martin-Green in the lead role. That's clearly not enough. Yes, it's been special to have the visibility of Michael and Tyler's romance. But it's been more groundbreaking and important to see the dynamic between Stamets and Culber. Those two dynamics are the show's only attempts at romance. And now, this episode puts an end to both of them. Well, it only officially ends one by killing off Culber. But that action pushes Tyler past the point of no return in seeing him as a viable romantic option for Michael. Plus, it just makes it seem pointless for the show to include a gay romance like this only to cut it down at this point of the season. Yes, the show has introduced a parallel universe with the potential to bring back familiar faces. That makes it seem incredibly likely that blasts from the past will emerge in this new story arc. Plus, the show never really spent a lot of time focusing on its characters and establishing them in a world where they have to make difficult choices. It's been a narrative mostly focused on reacting to new information with plot complications keeping things as tense as possible for an hour a week. But the visual of the Stamets-Culber relationship was important. And now, it's been tossed aside as a trivial thing in order to escalate the tension. The show needed to kill off someone to make this moment land with Tyler. Culber was one of the few familiar faces of merit on the ship. It just confirms the claustrophobic sense of the ship at large to the detriment of the narrative.

And yet, there is some really nice tension throughout this episode as well. This review so far has been very critical. It mostly plays as a reaction to the show taking the expected approach to telling its story. I still want the show to challenge itself by doing something that isn't so predictable. I want to appreciate new and bold storytelling. Right now, the audience basically has to settle for that awesome and intimate fight scene in the elevator with Michael. In this reality, the Shenzhou was never destroyed. Michael was its captain who is now presumed dead. It makes it all completely convenient for Michael, Tyler and Lorca to sneak onto the ship in order to collect the information required for them to return home. It's a stealth mission that immediately plays as a story where time is incredibly important. They need to get in and out as quickly as possible. Lorca is literally being tortured as long as he's on this ship. That's not behavior that Michael can condone for a long time. She still needs to protect her captain. But right now, everyone on the ship is looking at her. That's because she is the captain who has returned from the dead who had to kill the man who replaced her at the helm. She wants to take some of the pressure off before she makes her move. But the show mostly uses that time to push Michael and Tyler even further into romance. The show lingers on this moment effectively to highlight how Michael is falling in love with someone who is a murderer and will compromise the mission. He is not the man she believes him to be. That's only going to get worse. It all adds the appearance of tragedy in the story. Michael is revealing herself in new ways only for it to eventually come back to hunt her.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Despite Yourself" was written by Sean Cochran and directed by Jonathan Frakes.
  • The way I understand it is that this isn't the first time the Star Trek universe has explored parallel universes. Nor is it the first show to explore this particular universe with the Terran Empire. That's fascinating. The concept certainly has implications for life in 2018 that should be duly noted. But it also makes me a little relieved not to know those previous versions of this story because then I would probably be even more irritated with this one.
  • This season has been teasing Tilly in the captain's chair. And now, that has become an actual reality. She does that solely because her counterpart from this universe is in charge of the Discovery. She's the one clearly asked to take a huge swing with a different personality. And yet, it's also clear that she has fun making that transition as well.
  • The Discovery crew speculates that the Discovery ship from this new universe was swapped with them. And so, they are here while the ship from this universe was sent back to their regular universe. That could be a fascinating complication in this story. It mostly just establishes a reason why the majority of these characters won't be running into their counterparts in this world though.
  • So, the show is clearly shrouding the emperor's identity for a reason. That means it's going to be a surprising yet familiar face. The easy guess would be Philippa Georgiou. In fact, I would be stunned and disappointed if it isn't her. Mostly, I just want to see Michelle Yeoh back in this world even knowing how terrible and oppressive this emperor is going to be.
  • Okay, time for some potential SPOILER SPECULATION! So if you don't want to hear my thoughts on the Tyler situation, then stop reading right now. But Tyler is totally Voq, right? If not, then Voq would have been a complete story thread that the show just dropped entirely. It's a theory I've heard online that is basically all but confirmed here. L'Rell tries to awaken his past identity but it doesn't work. Culber notes the physical transformation and the idea of placing memories on top of an existing personality. It's just unfortunate that the show is dragging this out despite it seeming particularly obvious right now.