Editor’s note: Welcome to the first of several informal chats between Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko on Star Trek: Discovery. This first chat covers the first two episodes of the new seasons, as well as the shorts—but the first season inevitably comes up as well. Sarah is a new fan who came to Star Trek through Discovery, while Adam is a hardcore Trek completist who, unlike many longtime fans, is an ardent, though not uncritical, supporter of the new series. This conversation begins in the middle of a conversation about the “Short Treks” shorts. Unconventional punctuation and line-breaks are retained in the interest of authenticity.
SJ: also I have weird feelings about the short that was basically the star trek version of that joaquin phoenix movie where he falls in love with an ai
AK: That felt really random.
SJ: I feel like the shorts must all thread back up somehow? except maybe the Harry Mudd one which already does
which also may have been my favorite
AK: It was the most entertaining.
The Tilly one kind of made no sense? I think it should have been a full episode (or at least a b-plot) — it just moved too fast and felt slipshod to me.
SJ: yeah. I liked the character! I was intrigued! and then…
but I hope that one connects up the most I guess
AK: I hated the voiceover in Saru’s short — it felt like they didn’t trust the audience
SJ: I also liked Saru but like, wtf is this “you can never go back, you are a v v special kelpian, the rest of your people just have to go on being fucking oppressed” fals econsciousness shit
AK: They had to gerrymander the scenario so that Saru and only Saru could go — otherwise he’d be a monster for abandoning his sister
I guess it fits with Giorgiou following the rules to a fault — like when she spent the whole premier uselessly floating there.
Really, Saru should have mutineed and retreated.
What is the past participle of “to mutiny”? Mutinied?
SJ: I am not a trek person in that way that I don’t really get how deep-rooted some of this stuff is in the mythology
but also like, why couldn’t Saru have been “not the only one” like it makes the this-universe Kelpians basically the same as the mirror-universe ones
AK: Yeah, the mirroring effect is pretty inconsistent.
There’s a DS9 episode where a character kidn of mocks the concept — shouldn’t sweet things taste bitter, etc.?
I think they did the best job with the Mirror Universe concept they possibly could have, but it was still pretty insane to even try — especially to hang so much of the plot on it.
SJ: yeah I mean it’s bonkers.
and like there’s obviously a kernel of the real personality in the mirror people
which is of course a statement on “good” and “evil” as concepts
AK: Have you seen the original mirror episode?
SJ: yeah we watched it after the
Peter dug it up for memirror twist
and then the DS9 ones too
AK: I love how Spock is identical.
The DS9 Mirror episodes are stupid and pointless in my opinion, but they do add an interesting element — basically, the make the MU about regret. Obviously Discovery picks up on that hardcore.
SJ: and also how you can never go back
like everyone will always be different when you try
AK: I always enjoyed how they used Burnham’s hairstyle as a visual shorthand for flashbacks.
SJ: she is so good
like she’s such a still and subtle actress
AK: Definitely. Dignity, always dignity
SJ: yes. the way she holds her head and back says so much
Omg the death of the mansplainy white guy god I love this show
You can tell when shows listen to the women in the writers room
AK: I initially regretted that they didn’t do a two-episode premier, but these two episodes would not have worked well for that.
So far we do have the Spock/Angel arc as a unifying thing, but they are clearly trying to do more one-off episodes within that framework.
SJ: Yeah. And bringing in Daddy Pike is…interesting. Feels kind of fanservicey, honestly, I’m not sure what the point is otherwise other than, I guess, you need a white (hu)man to be captain?
AK: It was pretty well-executed fan service, at least from my perspective. When he first appeared on screen, he somehow “felt” very 60s — and they seamlessly transitioned into someone who felt at home in this setting, too. But I worry that he is displacing Saru as the moral center of the show, and potentially blunting the one interesting relationship they left standing at the end: Burnham and her REAL adopted brother, Saru.
They gave us the mentoring scene with Tilly, but it felt very stilted and awkward.
SJ: It felt like they were trying to fill the gap left by Lorca and this complicated relationship between Lorca and Burnham–lovers? parental?–resolved by the mirror universe twist.
AK: The very intentional callouts of Lorca make that clear. Like memorizing everyone’s names instantly (so jealous, as a professor) and also the echo of the quote “context is for kings.” Plus the fortune cookie
SJ: So now we have….I can’t stop thinking of him as “Daddy Pike” and it feels like fanservice on a couple of levels. Like sure it’s a nod to the original series but also Pike was barely there; more so it feels like a reassurance that you’re not going to rest this series on the back of a black woman and a guy in alien makeup.
AK: Though Pike — who claims to have a hard time with women on the bridge — is definitely outnumbered across every demographic axis.
And they finally gave one of the co-pilots something else to do — but this raises the question of whether they should have spent more time developing the original, criminally underdeveloped cast rather than throwing in a totally new character who is proving so dominant.
SJ: Yes! I know.
I’m literally just like: why is he here.
f you’re going to center this season on The Search For Spock Part 2, do we need MORE fanservice?
AK: And as if introducing Pike in episode 1 wasn’t enough, they also give us Tig Notaro.
SJ: And then she just disappeared???
They have so much to do just to shore up their own concept in the wake of last season’s bizarre, rushed ending — and they are trying to do 20 different things each episode.
SJ: Yeah. Like I really enjoyed them but also found a lot about them forgettable
AK: I felt like episode 1 was about 1.2 episodes crammed into one, and episode 2 was closer to 1.5.
The seams showed more on episode 2, where the b-plots just didn’t make a lot of sense. And while I loved the very TOS setup of a lost colony of humans, the execution there often felt very wooden.
Like why do the primitive humans so easily accept that there are strangers who need the origin story explained to them?!
SJ: Yeah that was definitely weird.
Like, if you’re going to go hard on Prime Directive shit, which the short seemed to imply that they would…
it needs to make more sense.
AK: I have no idea why he would give the guy the power cell after being so hardcore about it. I almost felt like the whole point of the scenario was for Burnham to say on-screen that a captain in the field has authority to override the Prime Directive
SJ: Yeah, which again I feel like the short was maybe hinting to as well by making the whole thing feel SO fucked?
That this is going to be a plot thread that will recur.
AK: They’re saying we will visit Saru’s planet
SJ: Like in the first season, Burnham going against Starfleet ends up being a defense of the ideals of Starfleet by the end.
AK: And I guess here we’re starting off with the problem of violating Starfleet ideals in the service of expediency, like at the beginning of season 1.…
SJ: I don’t think this was quite about expediency–the power cell anyway. I think it was Burnham wanting that guy to not feel like he’d just been massively gaslit.
The power cell gave Pike an excuse but I don’t really care about Pike as a character even if he is our new daddy
AK: Pike permitted it because he needed the camera footage or whatever (though why hadn’t they already copied it by that point?!).
So my theory of the show is that Burnham is basically in charge in every room she enters, regardless of her rank.
And I do think they’re continuing that — the audience, and the crew, needs to see that Burnham trusts Pike before they will trust him.
There are some fans who are suggesting he could be Mirror Pike! Which, my God.…
SJ: Ugh, please no.
But yes. The show revolves around Burnham both emotionally and in terms of power. It’s why Martin-Green’s acting and posture are always so telling.
Rewatching the first season, I’d forgotten the bit where she beats the shit out of three other prisoners and then gets taken to Lorca
AK: Maybe we get an echo of that where the random science officer guy who defies her winds up dead.
SJ: OH MY GOD
If Pike is fanservice for the bros who can’t quite grok a show without a white male lead, that whole segment was fanservice aimed squarely at me.
Like that guy was so obviously awful, and so obviously doomed, and hell why not say it so obviously a stand-in FOR the guys who can’t quite grok a show that revolves around a black woman.
AK: Even his pallor and unattractiveness send that message — while also making him seem plausible as a TOS-era random lieutenant.
It was perfect.
I wrote a thing about the pleasures of watching Agent Carter (sadly cancelled) on this same front
AK: Other humor: Tilly’s awkwardness continues to enchant. The part where she runs out of sickbay, then a beat later she runs back the opposite direction – classic.
SJ: Oh, Tilly. Tilly is possibly the best character on the show but we haven’t gotten to Stamets, who I also love, and Tyler hasn’t even shown back up yet.
(Like the more I list off the characters the more it’s like: oh wait the show REALLY DIDN’T have a Star Trekky white guy on it)
AK: I don’t know — I don’t think they know what to do with Stamets. He’s so all over the place. Partly understandably, since he was driven spore-mad, but partly it seems like uncertain writing.
SJ: But some of the best episodes last season were where they did figure out what to do with him.
The time-loop one in particular.
And obviously Tilly seeing her dead friend is foreshadowing him finding Culber in the spores or something
AK: I wonder if the ghost aspect is ultimately why they will have to shut down the spore drive.
My Esteemed Partner and I agreed that when the friend first appeared, it seemed like an illusion, and that cast a pall over Saru’s interaction with Tilly — I felt like he was fake, too. I think that could have been better executed.
SJ: yeah it was a little rushed.
Again, just get rid of Pike already god.
Give us more time with these great characters! But the show is just too ambivalent about hanging it all on a bunch of black and brown folks, queers and women.
(And an alien who does not, whatever else he does, read as straight)
AK: Perhaps due in part to the amazing way he walks.
I don’t think there has ever been a Star Trek regular who had to imagine the alien habitus of his character so thoroughly.
SJ: I mean the physicality of all of these people is so fascinating
well Star Trek has never had actors of this caliber before with the total exception of Patrick Stewart.
AK: I would add Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine), but yes.
I wonder if they are almost trying to send a message of “white men can be cool sometimes too,” to make up for the reported intention to make Lorca and the MU symbols for Trump, etc.
SJ: Calling them Trump symbols is so…bad.
AK: Which is not to take away from what you’re saying about putting a white man in charge for reassurance purposes — Star Trek’s “progressive” politics have always been incoherent and ill thought-through at best.
SJ: They were much more interesting than that! ha.
Though it says something about how liberalism sees Trump.
I am just going to continue to call him Daddy Pike because.
AK: Yes, I think they basically pulled off the impossible by making the MU interesting and plausible as a scary place to be. The TOS episode is campy, and the DS9 episodes are weirdly boring and pointless.
They were clearly trying to do something similar with other weird bits of Trek lore — World War 3 and the tendency to stumble on planets full of actual humans — but they didn’t really pull it off.
SJ: Yeah I just don’t know enough about that stuff to have any interesting commentary on it.
AK: I am interested and weirdly invested in its role as a prequel and their clear attempts to fold TOS — which had weirdly become an “orphan” series within the franchise — back into the universe. But I’ll try to keep that stuff to a minimum!
SJ: I think the thing I find most interesting about it is knowing the things that are going to have to be doomed eventually.
The spore drive, Saru’s species…
it gives an added layer of tension to all the spore drive stuff.
AK: I don’t think Saru’s species has to be doomed! They’re such a small population. They can be saved but mostly keep to themselves to rebuild a culture not centered on being eaten.
SJ: I mean I hope the short implies that we are going to his planet! I want them to rebel (shocking)
AK: I think the Calypso short also suggests that Discovery is ultimately doomed to get lost and forgotten in some obscure corner of the galaxy.
SJ: yeah that’s true I didn’t even think about it that way
AK: The spore drive is a major center for fan complaints, because surely they would be using this super powerful technology in the future if it was known, etc.
So the tension is — there must be a really, really good reason! I just wonder if they can deliver. In any case, it points to the issue that Discovery has basically constrained itself to write itself out of existence at the end of the day.
Yet at the same time they’re knitting these other beloved characters back in
AK: On the one hand, they want to make a difference (to our understanding of TOS characters and events), but everything that is truly unique to them has to go away.
I find it really interesting as a phenomenon — that kind of storytelling under constraints. And I’m glad they aren’t giving up too easily and that they fired up the spore drive again.
SJ: Yes! I think it’s a great set of constraints honestly–they could have been so lazy and they weren’t.
It does give us that problem you mentioned about not knowing what to do with Stamets–he IS the spore drive, in obvious and not-obvious ways, which probably means he too is literally doomed.
AK: But getting back to your recurring theme — it takes the most diverse Trek yet and says, “Don’t worry, this is all at the service of your old beloved white dudes of yore!”
But so: thematically, last season was about duality. What would you say is the theme of these first few episodes (and maybe including the shorts/)
AK: And weird that the first gay character is so obviously doomed, after the gratuitous death of his lover, in a franchise where there have been no visibly gay characters.
I think family is the obvious theme here.
SJ: hahah I keep saying Daddy Pike and didn’t even say that
AK: Spock is recast as Burnham’s vulnerable younger brother, parallel to Saru’s abandoned sister — and Burnham blames herself for the break with Spock, furthering the parallel.
SJ: I think we see a little of the “you can’t go back” that I mentioned before when talking about the last season. Burnham wanting to repair her relationship with Spock but also the dead girl that Tilly’s seeing.
AK: Relatedly, maybe — there’s a clear theme of destiny or providence, tied up with issues of religious faith, which is pretty new to Star Trek (other than the use of the de-mystified Bajoran religion, where the Prophets really existed but were just weird aliens).
And destiny does tie into the predicament of the prequel — in fact, Enterprise had something similar, as time travelers from the future were constantly meddling in their affairs, echoing the fact that story events really were determined by the “future” events from the previous shows
Destiny also showed up in the first season–the question of T’Kuvma, right? And also Saru’s resentment of Burnham “taking away” his future as Giorgiou’s first officer.
(Who also was clearly Mommy)
(To further your sibling rivalry)
AK: Oh my God, even the relationship between Burnham and Spock echoes the prequel set-up — Burnham is “older” (set earlier in the timeline), and her blaming herself for the rift could refer to the fact that DSC supposedly breaks continuity, etc.
I saw a similar dynamic with the first season set-up — Burnham’s mutiny could also represent the “betrayal” of all the changes they made that seemed to break with TOS, and the show needed to “earn its way back” with her. Even the fact that her mutiny seems so weirdly superfluous and unnecessary fits.…
SJ: Haha you have to write that prequels book
Anyway! Yes. So family, spirituality. The dualism seems kind of gone though maybe it’ll return when we see Tyler COME ON TYLER
I also miss L’Rell so I am looking forward to Klingons
AK: Yet another thing to cram in! Hurray!
SJ: but they’re characters we already care about
again, just get rid of Pike damnit
WHO NEEDS HIM
I am more deeply invested in the well-being of Ash Tyler than is healthy
I mean he was so many Metaphors the fact that he actually came across is, again, a testimony to the caliber of acting on this show.
AK: Yes, and the fact that the PTSD/Klingon-clone-or-whatever angle was genuinely ambiguous for so long
SJ: and read as sexual assault.
and while I suppose I should be mad that that was kind of retconned out I’m really not, I honestly think that it was a useful way to connect different kinds of trauma.
You would have expected Badass Hero Tyler who can fight his way off a Klingon ship to have like, battle-related PTSD maybe
but that it’s all related to bodily invasion even if not the type we originally thought…
AK: It also fits in the best Star Trek tradition where the right hand giveth (the progressive theme of sexual assault trauma) and the left hand taketh away (turns out to be not a real rape, or he really wanted it, or….). In my view, Star Trek is precisely liberal in the sense that it wants to present both the conservative and progressive option at the same time, always.
SJ: But something in me rebels at the idea that a sexual assault storyline is “progressive”
To be fair in a lot of the places where it’s depicted it’s the rape of a woman and it’s deeply eroticized and so that’s the furthest thing from “progressive.”
What we get here is shown to us in a way that’s supposed to evoke abjection–the visual of Klingon and human man, and she’s even on top
(I Know I’m going back into last season whatev)
But then we have to ask: WHY is that abject?
Also what’s interesting is that it was never shown to us as like violent rape, it’s almost more akin to survival sex work.
Which he obviously was deeply embarrassed by when, as Tyler, he thought that’s what was happening, but he also had on some level some agency in, you know?
AK: We’re supposed to think the sex is the problem, when really it’s the radical reconstructive surgery that left behind almost literally none of his body.
It’s the fact that he’s literally had another person implanted in him
it’s a much deeper and more personal violation
AK: Anyway, now he — as the Tyler personality — is with L’Rell.
SJ: Right, but how? I want to know!
AK: I guess he now has the Voq memories, integrated
SJ: Right, that was the only useful thing the final episode showed us
But I want to know like, what is their relationship now
We saw a teaser of him kissing Burnham
(Which made me have SO MANY FEELINGS)
AK: My Esteemed Partner hates the Klingon parts, because of the language and the stilted acting in the costumes.
On rewatch, I found them more subtle and interesting, but it is still an obstacle.
SJ: It also depends.
Like the woman who plays L’Rell, I forget her name, and Shazad Latif were so much better than everyone else
T’Kuvma and Kol were just…meh
AK: They didn’t need to be much.
SJ: acutally thinking about it, the religious storyline sort of parallels the T’kuvma-as-savior throughline in the first season, I wonder how that will be connected
AK: Such a weird gesture to create T’Kuvma and his whole cult only to kill him off almost immediately.
OMG — the solution is staring us in the face. BRING IN MIRROR T’KUVMA!!!
SJ: HA oh no please no
AK: See, he would be a good peacemaker, because it’s, like, BACKWARDS
SJ: I think the risk in returning to the mirror universe is way too much
though I am here for the return of Mirror Giorgiou because once again, MICHELLE YEOH
AK: Much as I enjoyed season 1 and am optimistic for season 2, a “normal” show with Michelle Yeoh as captain would have been really cool. Bringing her back as an evil person seems suboptimal.In fact, I’m ready to start a fan petition for a prequel TO Discovery, showing the seven years on the Giorgiou!