Ground Control to Ensign Tilly: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

SJ: I have feels

AK: Even without Tyler?

SJ: really gonna need more of him but SARU
I was really convinced they were gonna kill him!

AK: That would have been a terrible mistake — but I wouldn’t put it past them at this point.

SJ: I mean I sort of hate the dynamic where they “almost” kill a beloved character but you know they won’t really
so I was impressed kinda that they sold it that well
but also THEN WE HAVE NEW REBELLIOUS SARU WHO WANTS TO GO LEAD THE LIBERATION OF HIS HOME WORLD
AK: One thing that disappointed me about Burnham and Saru’s Touching Moment was that they had to shoehorn Spock into it.
SJ: RIGHT?
AK: As though this whole character arc between them was all in the service of, well, fan service.
SJ: I just cannot bring myself to see the prime motivation for this season as The Search for Spock
like the whole bit with this giant sphere that is going to kill them and their main drive to get away from it is not “we’re all gonna die” it’s “WE MIGHT LOSE SPOCK’S SIGNAL”
AK: I want to lay down a prediction right now: obviously he didn’t kill his doctors. He was abducted by Section 31 and they killed them to avoid having witnesses or something.
SJ: It relies WAY too much on prior fan investment and look: I’m not that much of a prior fan
I am just as a matter of course more invested in these characters they spent a very good season building!
I do not need previously anointed heroes! we have had quite enough Spock!
Zachary Quinto plays a decent one if you really can’t get enough with Leonard Nimoy
I have also been finishing the Mark Fisher book and so thinking a lot about postmodernism as pastiche, reboot, and the end of anything original
AK: This might be the appropriate moment for me to mention my weekly “meta moment,” where the plot reflects the prequel problem.
The entity that stops them in their tracks and threatens to bog them down completely is the weight of past “canon.” And their decision to let down the shields is their promise to respect it — which they expect to save them as a show, just as the entity saves them while exploding.
All that weight of past canon threatens to keep them from getting to Spock, too, since it hems in what they can do with the character, etc. — hence the importance of keeping his signal (over above their own survival).
SJ: hahha I like it.
I mean there is definitely something about the fact that this orb thing basically just wanted to preserve its story
AK: I think the orb situation was a very TOS setup, too.
As was the fact that it had such ancient knowledge, etc. But I think this particular iteration — where it just wants to be remembered — is unique among those scenarios.
SJ: I’m just frustrated by the determination to hinge everything on Spock when we haven’t met Spock
like it is just so clearly About bringing the sad fans back in and I just don’t care at all.
AK: At the same time, they keep wanting to make Spock a means to the end of deciphering the signals — and I’ve already forgotten why we’re supposed to care about that.
SJ: You’re getting a whole new Picard series! Can’t we have ONE where we care about the new characters more than the ones who have been done a million times?
Because it’s Priority One!
Like there is so much I am interested in this season and it is basically all b-plots
sorry Pike not sorry don’t care
AK: This time I felt like Pike was acting more like a character from the 60s — it almost felt to me like he was emulating Don Draper at times.
SJ: Pike as warmed-over Kirk
AK: And Number One certainly looked very classically 60s — while also being badass.
…reportedly.
SJ:I mean
IDK.
like I think the episode was actually structured well and would have functioned just fine without this weird spock situation
AK: I agree. I actually think it was the best of the season so far.
SJ: like “we don’t wanna die” is a good enough motivation for needing to get away from this weird entity that has you trapped
the Tilly stuff is great
speaking of whether it’s body/mental horror
AK: The “Pike and Number One” thing was an appropriate pre-credit vignette that was basically left behind in the main plot.
SJ: I mean the moment where Tilly and Stamets are singing David Bowie before he literally drills into her skull
(And they brought back Tig Notaro whose character’s name is clearly a call-back to Janet fucking Reno, a name I had no need to ever remember)
AK: Tig and Stamets were great this episode!
SJ: yes!
and we’re clearly getting closer to “why we can’t use the spore drive”
frankly I think it all points to the fact that they expect this to be the last season of this show which makes me sad.
AK: I was interested to learn that Stamets can unilaterally close it off — and that he felt comfortable doing so without consulting anyone else. In fact, I think in this episode we partly get your wish — no one bothers to consult Pike about anything important.
From what I can tell from a quick search, they’re already starting work toward season 3, even though it hasn’t officially been announced.
SJ: Well, then what’s the point of all this Hurtling Toward TOS
whatever I’m just mad about the fanservice
AK: I’m not sure, but My Esteemed Partner pointed out that season 2 of many series seem a little aimless and confused, since they typically use up all their good ideas for season 1
SJ: I mean they have lots of good ideas this season, though!
AK: Like if you look at Mad Men season 2, it’s clear they don’t really know why they’re still doing this. It’s not till season 3 that it picks up momentum.
SJ: it’s just that they’re doing so much fucking fanservice that it gets in the way of much more interesting plots
I am super interested in this weird alien species that wants to eat/use Tilly
AK: Me too!
SJ: I want to know what’s going on with Mirror Giorgiou and Tyler
AK: Also interested because the Tilly subplot is arguably the only one that has been set up in a cohesive, well-paced way
SJ: Yes.
I mean imagine if they’d let that be the A-plot
AK: Now they are!
SJ: involved Burnham more
who cares about Spock and why does Burnham have to have a major guilt motivation each season
AK: I don’t know, the experience does seem to lend itself to Tilly being relatively isolated.
SJ: like season 1 she’s guilty about mutiny, now she’s been absolved of that, so now she has to feel guilty about Spock
AK: And I’m sure it’s going to turn out that it was really no big deal and she’s exaggerating her guilt
Spock is going to be like, “Come on, I was having disturbing supernatural visions and you think some encounter with you totally changed my life? Get over yourself!”
SJ: I just want to see her have some motivations other than guilt
AK: I agree.
SJ: she’s too good to have to paste on sad guilt face every episode
AK: … and that guilt itself is probably a meta-commentary on the prequel problem
SJ: hahha
I mean as you noted her real brother is Saru and this episode went hard on that
AK: Hopefully they will bond together through both reconnecting with their respective siblings — it will show them how much more meaningful their relationship is
SJ: I just want Saru to go home and lead the revolution
AK: Star Trek is all about chosen family, which makes the focus on literal family feel out of place.
SJ: and then it turns out that no more Kelpians in Starfleet was because they had a utopian society without fear on their planet
Interesting point.
AK: Burnham’s family is kind of chosen — but unilaterally from Sarek’s side. Kind of the worst of both worlds for her, especially because he tries to impose Vulcan standards on her.
I get the sense that he’s almost excited to have his own little human to experiment on.
SJ: I mean yeah, people make that point at him at a couple of points
“your human experiments”
and poor Amanda must feel so fetishized
(may I reiterate: wasting Mia Kirschner)

AK: I have to think that both Burnham and Amanda are exaggerating how bad they were toward Spock because of his present situation.
There is a scene in one of the previews where Spock yells at Burnham: “You think every burden is yours alone!” So I guess they really are siblings, because that seems to hit her character on the nose.
SJ: Hahahhahah yes.
But that’s how she’s been raised and trained
I think Tyler also makes that comment in season 1 somewhere?
In fact possibly on the episode where they go to rescue Sarek
AK: And though they have handled it pretty poorly, I think you can read the Spock stuff as being at the service of Burnham’s character — more about HER background than his, etc. But you are kind of a perfect test case for whether that is really coming across, and the answer seems to be no.
SJ: No.
I mean I hope that’s how it ends up coming across! But mostly I’m just like Hi, can I get more of all these other characters that I spent a season getting entirely too invested in
AK: You could even view Saru’s mention of Spock in that light — her situation with Spock is an analogy for his (more important) situation with his sister. I mean, in-universe, these characters don’t know Spock is of world-historical importance.
But it’s true that they could do more to show Spock simply as Burnham’s moody little brother who’s going through a Thing right now — the reverence and fan-service is a bit much. And tying him to this huge supernatural thing? My God. OVERKILL.
SJ: Right.
Again, as you said, it’s annoying that it all winds up being in service of these already-existing characters
because they don’t trust their fans to actually care about the new ones that they’ve actually done a good job creating!
And to be fair the gamergate-style fanboys are that bad.
But who cares?
AK: My hope for season 3 is that they feel like they have established themselves as “real Star Trek” sufficiently to trust the characters.
SJ: They clearly sold enough subscriptions to this utter rip-off service to make a second high-production-value season without the complainingest of complaining fans.
AK: Speaking of — I happened to catch the novelist NK Jemsin live tweeting episode one, and it strikes me that the action sequence may be the least successful pandering ever.
SJ: hahahhahah
the one where the white guy dies?

AK: I think the same thing could happen with the fanservice, though — do fans really feel serviced?
They’re doing so much running away from what they are, but the most compelling parts are the things that connect to what’s distinctive in Discovery — not just the characters, but also the spore drive issue
SJ: I would like to know how many people who didn’t watch season 1 are coming back for season 2
Yes.
AK: This episode probably came closest to what I would want — mostly one-off episodes with some serialization in the B-plots, centered on our characters.
At least they’re on an ostensibly scientific mission to investigate the signal phenomenon, rather than being in a war, etc.
That seems to lend itself more to good one-offs.
SJ: I am fine with the overarching plot but I do think my favorites from season 1 were where they combined the unique one-off with the ongoing character development
like the time-loop episode which we should all just accept is the best ever
AK: Definitely.
A one-off plot that develops character — which this episode was as well!
SJ: that’s it, peak Trek, you can never reach that height again
hahaha
but this one was not as much fun
AK: As was the one where Saru was driven mad by the Peace Tree or whatever
SJ: yes!
they had all the things I loved: Saru and Burnham’s complicated relationship, Tyler and Burnham exploring her feelings, an actual sense of urgency, the spore drive as some sort of plot device
and TILLY
being Tilly
AK: There is a widespread view that every Trek series has a character who “must suffer.”
SJ: I mean everyone on this show must suffer
except Pike who seems curiously immune
AK: In TOS, it’s obviously Kirk. In DS9, it was O’Brien. And I think here it’s Tilly. I mean — DRILLING A HOLE IN HER SKULL?!
SJ: but Saru also suffers quite a lot, as does Burnham though mostly emotionally
and Stamets for fuck’s sake!
literally plugged into the spore drive! losing his husband and then being haunted by it!
AK: Okay, this theory is falling apart. But still — the skull drilling felt a bit gratuitous
SJ: like that bit with Stamets and her singing worked though because he’s been through so much
she would trust him whereas if it was like Pike it would be like YEAH FUCK NO
AK: Yeah, I guess it was a good character moment.
Plus it gave us Tig’s weird “engineering plus medicine” schtick
SJ: yeah
which is an interesting point actually! like I have often said re: Ben Carson that like assuming a great brain surgeon would be a good politician makes no more intrinsic sense than assuming a great car mechanic would
they might! they also might not!
but they are classed differently
and considering what Stamets does with the spore drive is basically also engineering plus biology…
AK: Do you think they will shut down the spore drive next episode?
I am really not convinced that it makes sense that Stamets can “cut off access” by typing something on his little console.
SJ: well I feel like they’re gonna need to chase Tilly into the spore network or something?
who knows
that’s what I mean by feeling like this season is setting up the end
AK: And then setting it up for future seasons where it’s just generic Star Trek comfort food with planets-of-the-week or something
SJ: how boring.
like I realize I am not the desired fan for this series, but whatever
AK: I did a poll on Twitter as to which character from Enterprise should be randomly brought back as captain, and T’Pol won (obviously). She’s an alienated Vulcan, similar to Burnham, and she’s the “must suffer” character.
Someone suggested that if they brought her back, then she and Burnham could be tasked with dealing with the Vulcan “logic extremists,” which could be interesting.
SJ: hmm
I mean once again I just have no feelings about any of that

AK: Do we have anything to say about the translator problems?
SJ: Ahhhhh.
That one alien dude recurring after sneezing in Terrible White Dude’s face was a thing I guess?
I mean I am always a little unclear about how the universal translator works, I guess I assume that Starfleet would have a standard language but…that’s not the case?
AK: Yeah, I do wonder what the role of Linus is, other than random comic relief.
I actually have an elaborate theory about how this whole incident was an attempt to “explain” how the translator works.
And as is usually the case with that kind of thing, no explanation is going to work, because ultimately the translator works by magic. And attempting to double down on the idea that it makes sense only causes people to reflect more on its impossibility.
SJ: yeah well all of these things work by magic
although I guess one of the things this season that they have done is gesture at that
in episode 2 with Pike saying something about “no sufficiently advanced technology” etc.
AK: That reminded me of the time Stamets was geeking out about the mind-meld amplifier, and Lorca said, “Okay, we don’t have time to get into the metaphysical implications right now…”
SJ: Because all white straight captains are the same
OK but aside from that: yes. The whole “angel” thing this season is clearly hinting toward magic/religion
which I hope doesn’t end up in a weird Battlestar Galactica mess
AK: Although we’ve already completely forgotten about it, they did establish a providential role for it when it rescued that church full of WW3 humans.
And it’s apparently doing ongoing maintenance if it summoned Discovery to rescue them.
SJ: Right.
And it was when Burnham was injured and stuck on the…what was it, a meteorite? a planet? Tig Notaro’s ship? that she saw it
AK: Right.
There’s a trend in Star Trek where gods are real — they just aren’t the kind of thing the worshippers think.
SJ: Yeah. So who knows what it will be.
But the whole “it’s actually magic just accept it” thing…idk the difference between “hard” sci-fi and fantasy always feels so gendered to me anyway
even though like worlds full of wizards and orcs and shit are such masculine fantasy, there’s still this thing where one is more “serious”
(I weirdly feel this now reading old Ursula Le Guin for the first time–like, her sci-fi is so masculinized and it feels like she’s stretching to be “serious” even when she’s doing things like playing with gender)
AK: If you admitted that you connected with the characters rather than being primarily interested in how warp drives work, that might be a sign that you’re gay.
One of the most popular Star Trek characters — who I totally, unreservedly despise — is Q, who is basically a 100% magical being. They don’t even attempt to explain how he works.
He just shows up, does crazy stuff, then mostly undoes it by the end of the episode.
They sometimes present him as a god watching over humanity’s development.
…leading some fans to think the Red Angels will be somehow connected, because of course…
SJ: Sigh.
Yeah. I mean, we shall see I suppose
the Red Angel is watching over the series to make sure it doesn’t fuck things up too much for Kirk and Spock!
hah
AK: Thank God.
SJ: I think the most interesting thing about the language stuff was that Saru was the one who spoke the most languages
AK: Maybe they’ll explain that the Red Angel made Spock’s brain detachable…
Yes, and the fact that he was ashamed to use his own language.
SJ: Exactly.
AK: The upwardly mobile colonial subject!
SJ: (I was kind of hoping we’d hear it!)
HA
yes
but the fact that he was the one to figure out the object just wanted to share its story
(dream of a common language, thanks Adrienne Rich)
that it was Saru who could see the thing not as a threat
AK: Even though it was literally killing him!
SJ: and Burnham too kinda which is a thing about her since the Tardigrade
AK: And setting off all his threat warnings!
SJ: but it wasn’t killing him at all! he just thought it was because he’s oppressed!
letting go of the threat response is liberation!
AK: I wonder how the loss of the ganglia will actually affect the character — or has he already outgrown them?
SJ: I think both in a way
like he had to be able not to fear the thing in order to understand it and save everyone, which led to him shedding the ganglia and not being afraid at all
AK: I like that he still kind of believed in the Kelpian system, though — that he was shocked it could be a lie.
SJ: internalized racism!
AK: The “inertia” of old beliefs is something I definitely know as someone raised in an evangelical Christian environment.
I like to share a story with my students about how I read a ton of “historical Jesus” literature in college and was coming to increasingly radical conclusions — maybe he isn’t even the Son of God? Maybe he didn’t even really claim to be?
And then one book said, “And of course this story about how they had to go to Bethlehem is ludicrous and didn’t happen” — and I was SHOCKED.
SJ: Yeah.
There’s a lot to do there! I am just pleased that my initial reaction to the short–FUCK THAT–seems to be the one the series is moving toward.
AK: The return to Saru’s planet certainly has the potential to be the most satisfying element in the season — and that’s “Discovery native,” not fan service!
And what encourages me is that I get the sense that they know viewers are invested in Saru.
SJ: Yes.
what bugs me is they don’t seem to have this confidence in Burnham
AK: Okay, so since we’re back on this — I found Burnham’s acting his episode a bit overwrought
I know it was a super serious situation, etc., but still. Something felt off to me.
SJ: we’re so used to her being so restrained
even though the main thread of her character is this tension between her emotions and Vulcan logic
AK: Maybe just as Saru’s letting himself be brave, she’s letting herself be emotional.
Perhaps I was just uncomfortable with it because it seemed “unlike her.”
SJ: I think the writing was too heavy
AK: Her unflappability is one of the most appealing parts about her character, I think — but for it to work, it has to have the emotional intensity underlying it.
SJ: “you’re my FAMILY”
yes even the thickest fan has picked up on that now
AK: Yeah, both of them were doing their best with some pretty wooden writing.
SJ: there’s also the perpetual and very Star Treky question of whether bravery is facing your death or fighting it (not accepting the no-win scenario etc)
AK: And the biggest instance of that is Spock’s death and resurrection in the films — hence positioning Saru as the Spock character in this series. Which is awkward since the literal Spock is going to be on soon! But, like, young emo Spock or something.
Conveniently, Saru was “resurrected” immediately
SJ: Yeah well. I’m still bored by that
I’m supposed to be anticipating it excitedly etc but really I just want to know what’s going to happen to Tilly inside the spores
and when I get more Tyler
AK: It looks like the gang might get back together next episode.
Really hoping they let Tilly be the A-plot
SJ: I don’t know how much longer they can drag out the Search for Spock but I’m kind of hoping the entire first half of the season because I just don’t care
AK: I assume the mid-season finale will be when he finally appears.
And maybe we’ll finally get some clarity on why the signals are a big deal.
SJ: yeah
this is I suppose the problem with making the first season about actual war
figuring out a way to make the stakes as high in the next season is hard!
which is frustrating to me honestly, why must war always be the thing that gives us meaning etc.
(sorry not sorry chris hedges)
AK: Yes, anything they did would seem like a comedown.
And the personal stakes for Burnham have to be less, too — because she got out of a life prison sentence!
And now she’s kind of stressed that she was mean to her little brother that one time.
SJ: right.
and she doesn’t yet know that her ex-boyfriend knocked up a Klingon and has a creepy white baby
/terrible
AK: At least they retconned why the Enterprise doesn’t have the holographic communication system, though.
SJ: heh
Pike is old school
but it also just frustrates me on a political level: why IS war the highest stakes thing we can think of
there are plenty of high-stakes moments in the season where they’re all about to die for various other reasons
they keep hinting at the spores as “clean” energy
the fight between Reno and Stamets etc
AK: And Stamets of course turns on a dime and realizes it’s a destructive form of energy — based on the testimony of this thing that kidnapped his friend?
Maybe they won’t shut down the spores — maybe May is lying about the damage.
SJ: well to be fair he’s also been being damaged by it for a full season
he was going to go to Vulcan and quit remember?
it had already been decommissioned
AK: Is there any reason to keep him without the spores? I could see the season finale being a dramatic moment where they are reassigned to a purely scientific mission, etc., and he decides to stay with his Work Family.
SJ: right
this is why again it feels like the end of the spore drive is the end of discovery as a show
AK: Or at least the end of it as a distinctive show.
Instead of just Star Trek comfort food with a different cast.
SJ: Right.
AK: Which, I mean, I’d watch.
SJ: So that’s why the idea of decommissioning the spore stuff feels like the end of the show to me
AK: Fans would probably like it better, too, but fans are dicks.
SJ: like it seems like it would be the way they end the series: this is how this ship gets decommissioned which, again, that short gestures at
AK: I think they still don’t know what this show is supposed to be.
They have some great characters — produced mainly by much higher quality actors than they usually have — with some intense relationships. But the concept of the actual show seems to be ever shifting
SJ: Yeah. I mean, I suppose I don’t really know what the concepts of the other ones were besides “we explore, in space”
AK: That was definitely the case for TOS and TNG.
The rest seemed to want to be more defined — though VOY wound up being “we explore, in space” despite having the premise that they were stranded far from home and trying to get back, etc.
SJ: well discovery did that too
AK: The only one where the core concept seemed to work out was DS9.
SJ: yeah.
I mean at some point I think the shows revolve around a captain, right?
in this case it doesn’t, it revolves around Burnham but the captain-focus is partly why this feels lost
AK: I did love that they didn’t even bother informing Pike about the Tilly situation — they just went straight to Burnham.
Maybe season 3 they’ll just give up and make Burnham captain.
Or Saru.
Or they can be unprecedented co-captains
SJ: oooh

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