“This is why fanservice sucks”: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

[Each week, Sarah Jaffe — a new Star Trek fan who came to the franchise through Discovery — and Adam Kotsko — a long-time obsessive who has spent way too much time thinking about Star Trek — have been chatting about their impressions of the newest episode. Since we fell behind again, this post covers “Perpetual Infinity” and “Through the Valley of Shadows.” A full archive can be found here.]

SJ: I was afraid they were gonna kill Tyler and then I was going to have to go on strike from the show
I guess. I have watched the last one and I have thoughts.
(largely that the solution makes no sense, wtf)

AK: Of how to get mom out?

SJ: Yeah and then that they just let her get zoomed out to space forever without the suit? Wtf

AK: I think it kind of makes sense, but they are relying too hard on the old Treknobabble.

SJ: Mom is tied to some weird point in space for some reason that is never explained. Which is apparently tied to her body and not the suit, so they can send the suit elsewhere but she will still get zapped back.
It makes no fucking sense

AK: They were going to use the dark matter to beam her out of the containment field.
It was keeping her there, but at great cost.

SJ: So they didn’t. But it still makes no sense.

AK: I think it’s probably because she got shot as she was first using the suit or something, but for whatever reason she’s anchored at a certain future moment.
And she can jump back in time, but only for a very limited timeframe before she is snatched back.
They thought they could circumvent that and get her out of the trap, but then Borg Leland came along and fucked it up.

SJ: idk man.

AK: The “time crystal” is a new thing in Trek lore, so they can make it work however it works.
I agree it’s not elegant.
This dark matter stash is promising all kinds of plot magic that never works.
Replacing Stamets on the spore drive, now plucking Dr. Burnham out of the future.

SJ: Yeah I don’t know, it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me episode-wise.
like I’m always interested in Mirror Giorgiou and her motivations but the rest of it was kind of a mess.
(well and Tyler, we all know that I let out a yelp that could be heard from space when he got stabbed)

AK: I thought they could really kill him.
I never thought they would dare to kill Saru, but Tyler maybe.

SJ: they caaaaan’t. I will die. he’s the only decent man in my life lol.

AK: Poor Daddy Pike!!!

SJ: Burnham really needs to learn to deal with her feelings.
Tig Notaro random relationship-therapying.
And also Burnham’s messiah complex would lead her to assume unquestioningly that someone from her past would turn up.

AK: They seem to be giving Tig random things to do

SJ: “be the other gay!”
with of course a tragically dead wife.
I just re-watched the previous episode and it still doesn’t make sense.

AK: Ouch

SJ: Why didn’t she just get in the suit?

AK: The dampening field was holding the suit there

SJ: It was also holding her there
why didn’t she get in the suit when they both presumably got sucked out to space/time, whatever

AK: It didn’t matter. She was going to get snapped back regardless

I am mad about it

AK: The suit is getting snapped back too!
All future originating stuff is going back.
The snap-back point is inhabitable.
She just can’t return to the past since Leland broke the crystal

It doesn’t make sense! Just admit it doesn’t make sense!
Even in-universe.

AK: I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t know where she went for sure, but I assume it’s where/when she always ends up

SJ: Right I get that part.
The “but now she’s stuck somewhere without the suit for some odd reason that is just bad writing” part doesn’t make sense.

AK: I actually hypothesize that the use of the time crystal doomed her to failure, because it locks in your future.
She has the suit but it’s useless bc the crystal is broken

SJ: Which also doesn’t make sense.
How does the time crystal lock in your future if it also gives you infinite tries at something?
remember the time crystal episode from season 1?
This is bugging me the way MMT bugs me lol

AK: Did it literally say Mudd had a crystal?

SJ: Yes!

AK: Interesting
Anyway, I theorize that now that it’s broken, all bets are off
They can escape mom’s fate but not Pike’s

SJ: But wouldn’t, if it locked in your fate, she know that from the jump?
Time travel plots are doomed to make no sense because they always have to have weird parameters.
because time travel isn’t actually possible so they have to have weird rules around why you can’t always deus ex machina everything.
Which is why this bugs me the same way MMT bugs me. I get the basic underpinning argument, what I don’t get is all the rules that are arbitrarily made up so you can’t do what you just said you could do.

AK: She didn’t have a decapitated baby to explain it

SJ: And this is why I’m a fuckin nerd


AK: Time to shatter the time crystal we’ve been trapped in.

SJ: ha. yes please

AK: These two episodes felt more like slices of soap opera than cohesive episodes to me.

SJ: I maintain that they make no fucking sense. The problem with time travel as I’ve said is that once you introduce it you have to immediately put all sorts of limitations on it.
Why you can’t just go back and fix everything.
So like: Michael’s mom can go back in time and fuck with everything and no one has apparently noticed the time stream changing
Last season when her life was repeatedly in danger her mom never showed up to save her, that only somehow happened when she was 12 and this season and…why?

AK: Right, time travel is impossible in our universe, but in the Star Trek universe, it’s TOO possible — there are dozens of different mechanisms.

SJ: Why wouldn’t her mom be like “hey you know that dude you think is your captain maybe he’s actually EVIL LORCA FROM A MIRROR UNIVERSE”

AK: I do like how this particular version is evolving, though. The notion that there is a “locked in” future that is the price for your time travel is cool — and also makes sense of why she can’t permanently change anything.
I’ve been pondering Star Trek time travel way too much for years now, so I get that I’m more inured to the inherent illogic.

SJ: But also then if that’s true it invalidates the whole point.
Like the episode in season 1 where Mudd has the time crystal and just keeps resetting the loop.
But if he had to lock in his future to get the time crystal then he would know it wouldn’t work so why try?

AK: I think that he saw the future where he seemed to have won and assumed it was inevitable — but didn’t see the next step where it was a trick.

SJ: And the same thing with the Red Angel, she would know that it wouldn’t work so why try?
Like: it doesn’t make any sense!

AK: Because she didn’t know how they worked!

SJ: Time travel plots never make sense! I am watching the Umbrella Academy which revolves around time travel and it doesn’t work.
Or like in Harry Potter where Hermione has a time turner that allows her to save one person (and a hippogriff) one time but somehow they can never get another one and just undo things.

AK: Pike has it explained to him. Maybe Mudd did, too. Both of them get a twist beyond that locked-in future that changes its implications.

SJ: It still makes no sense.
And it’s going to continue to irritate me

AK: You have to let it go or we will get nowhere.

SJ: I guess but how can I judge how I feel about the plot when I can’t get past the fact that it makes no sense? Like: The dominant feeling I have about these episodes is just WUT. It feels like a ham-handed retcon.
Where like the mirror universe unfolding just made me go OH COOL this makes me go…nah. you’ve lost me.

AK: I thought it provided a great character moment for Pike — making his nonsensical fate from “The Menagerie” actually meaningful.
It makes the “future” of 50-year-old episodes feel more open from the perspective of the present-tense of our characters.

SJ: It provides a great character moment only if you are a deep fan though.
Like, it means nothing to me.
Sure it’s sad but if I don’t have a particular attachment to one very old episode, meh.

AK: And honestly, I think the reveal that the time crystal locks in a certain outcome actually MAKES SENSE of why Dr. Burnham can’t just fix everything.
Maybe she did save Michael a dozen times during the Lorca arc, but it didn’t make any final difference.

SJ: The problem with Pike from the beginning is that his existence relies on you previously having given a shit that he existed.
This is why fanservice sucks.

AK: We are seeing her last “pass,” which culminates in the destruction of the crystal — which will re-open the future and let Pike avert her fate.

SJ: I got more emotional from five seconds of Tyler having been stabbed than this whole dramatic thing that is supposed to, I guess, make me have feelings about his eventual fate, because I’ve actually watched this show and built an investment in these characters.

AK: I will say, though, that I thought the addition of Pike was self-indulgent and dumb at first, but the character grew on me over time.

SJ: but if this requires all of this prior knowledge in order to be enjoyable–which it seems that it does because you don’t seem to be as annoyed by it as I am–then, meh.

AK: What about Tyler and L’Rell’s baby? They grow up so fast.

SJ: Again, just—WUT???
Like, it all felt really ham-handed to me. I don’t gaf about their baby.
Either make L’Rell a part of the season or let her go.
But stop yanking her in to try to shove 20 years worth of plot into five seconds.

AK: If that whole insane gesture of giving them a baby just to fake its death was all to set up this notion that “time works different on Boreth,” then – wow.

SJ: Right? Like what the fuck was the point of that?
It’s like the show wants to give them 40 years of relationship history but also not.

AK: So L’Rell and Tyler could have closure because their baby is grown up and fine?
Yeah, I feel like part of why they brought the Klingons in this season was frankly so they could show them with hair and say, “See, they aren’t that radical a departure!” Fan service, again.
I feel like at this point, I’m more invested in speculating about how this is going to play out than in the actual stakes for the characters.
Like it seems clear they’re going to tie in the Calypso short somehow, in a way that will presumably piss you off deeply

SJ: hahahha
I mean: I liked season one because it gave us all new characters, it didn’t require me to have been a Star Trek fan.
This one seems to be taking a lot of that and shoving it aside in order to focus on Pike and Spock and I just don’t care.
We had some great Tilly earlier in this season.

AK: The value-add of Spock’s sibling banter with Burnham is running out for me.

SJ: I find zero value add in Spock.
Sure the actor is fine but like whatever, what has he done that Saru couldn’t do?

AK: She and Saru are too sweet and nice to each other now.

SJ: Since Spock only knew her as a child how well would he REALLY know her as opposed to someone who worked with her for a large chunk of her adult life?

AK: It’s true.
We are also not getting nearly enough info on his post-ganglia lifestyle.

SJ: Right. We got like a second of him saying “I am a different kind of captain now” before sending Burnham off to do something CLEARLY STUPID.

AK: Some eagle-eyed fan says that the name of the planet Tilly’s invisible friend from the short was from appears on the Enterprise viewscreen in the preview, so presumably we will get some follow up on Tilly in connection with that short.

SJ: I did like the little tweak of Burnham’s messiah complex where the dude from the Shenzhou or however you spell it was there and she was just like “obviously!”
But it was immediately obvious that that dude was going to be Control.

AK: It felt like too much of a callback to when she had to kill the mirror version of that kid who looked up to her so much.

SJ: And I can’t believe how easily Tyler gave up the “I had a weird Klingon baby with L’Rell” and Burnham was just like “Cool, sorry ur sad.” Like that should have been drawn out all episode or something at least.

AK: It was his past identity.

I would still have some feelings about it.

AK: Though I wonder when exactly she could have had it, logistically?

SJ: And he was like WE CAN NEVER TELL ANYONE oops.
I don’t know how long Klingon gestation is. please don’t tell me you do.

AK: I guess that’s their get out of jail free card.
Ha, no!
So I do think that some of the Red Angel stuff is, weirdly, providing an in-universe perspective on why events are so Michael-centric.
A future agency is systematically altering the timeline to make it so — which is my favorite thing, a meta-reference to the prequel problem!
See, because people from the future really ARE rewriting the Star Trek timeline to include Michael and make her important, etc.
I wonder if the destruction of Dr. Burnham’s crystal will open a path for them to make a less Burnham-heavy version of the show.

SJ: noooooooooooo
I mean they already have downplayed all the best characters.

AK: But I mean, all the TOS characters are pegged to making Burnham more important.
I mean making it more of an ensemble show focused on the actual Discovery characters.

SJ: But also taking up space that was already too tight for the other characters.
Like it just feels all shoehorned in.

AK: Definitely.

SJ: Random moment of Tig Notaro trying to talk Culber into going back to Stamets. Never enough time to let the emotional beats play out. It was getting better for a minute there and then worse again.

AK: I wonder if they are going to volunteer to be trapped on the ship when they maroon it in anticipation of Dr. Burnham discovering it a millennium later, after the ship flirts with some guy.
They need Stamets to jump it.
Culber can say, “I suddenly love you again through sheer force of will and will sacrifice my miraculously restored life to keep you company in BFE!”
And as they part, Stamets and Tilly will share another precious moment singing “Ground Control to Major Tom”

SJ: hahahhaahah god I hope not

AK: I do think they need to replace out the theme music with that song for one episode.

SJ: I mean

AK: If Major Tom’s life was anything like Burnham, no wonder he turns out to be a junkie.
Anyway, yes, it’s too fan-servicey right now.
What I think is interesting about the reception this season is how much it feels like the discussion of a streaming/binge-era show.
People are taking great joy in speculating — so to that extent, they seem to have solved the prequel problem of making the future feel genuinely open.

SJ: Weirdly, by introducing more characters whose fates we already know

AK: Right.
I really hope they’ve gotten this out of their system and we can get a season that’s just about the present-day lives of these characters.

SJ: That would be nice.
Want more Tilly, more Tyler, more Stamets, fuck I would even actually like more L’Rell.
sorry Pike sorry Spock not sorry.

AK: I’m with you in principle, but I think the cost of more L’Rell is too high.
I would be happy if Star Trek never touched the Klingons again, frankly.
SO sick of them.

SJ: Once again, different position from having been a Star Trek fan.

AK: And it does give them a chance to do more Game of Thrones-style stuff — since you can’t really do complex internal politics with Starfleet or the Federation.
I felt weird that the Klingon monastery felt so much like a human church.
Though I guess it’s interesting that they have monks at all, etc.
Truly, a rich and diverse culture.

SJ: Meh.
Moments with Tyler aside.
There’s a lot of playing on emotional heartstrings that either require prior fandom or investment in the idea of family and neither of them are working for me.
There’s no real buildup to Dr. Burnham, no flashbacks, no nothing, just SURPRISE YR MOM.

AK: Right, they’re sacrificing plot development to plot twists.
We can’t see Burnham’s mom beforehand because that would blunt the impact of the big reveal — and ONLY SLIGHTLY, honestly!

SJ: Yes exactly.
The thing about the mirror-Lorca twist that was so good is that when you realized it it made all these things click into place. They invested so much in developing it. Which rewards rewatching, etc.
This time it’s like…the rewatch just makes it more WUT.

AK: I rewatched up until the Airiam episode, and it did all at least make more sense.
But the Mirror Lorca thing was near genius. His performance was retrospectively amazing

SJ: See I liked the Airiam episode even if it did do that thing I hate of giving a background character a backstory just in time to kill them.

AK: I liked it too.

SJ: possibly because so much of it rested on Tilly selling her emotional connection and Tilly is the best.
AK: Hopefully the preview is indicating we will in fact get more Tilly next episode.

SJ: I need more Tilly soon or I’m gonna quit

AK: Noooooooooooo! I will go back and change the timeline to prevent it!

SJ: I’m not gonna quit but I am grumpy

AK: Wow, I already did change the timeline. Disaster averted

SJ: You’d make an excellent Red Angel.
Also wait we haven’t talked about Burnham’s REAL mom, Mirror Giorgiou.
I probably enjoyed her and her plotting with Tyler more than anything in these two episodes.

AK: I wonder why she is adapting more “morally” to the Prime universe than Lorca did.

SJ: she loves Burnham duh.
Also the prime universe is still full of assholes.
And I mean Lorca passed just fine.

AK: Yeah. I think Lorca also had this bizarre sense of destiny, where Georgiou knows it’s a crazy fluke.

SJ: Well and also she knows her universe is fucked and she can’t go back where Lorca wanted to go back and take over.

AK: It’s like it’s a game to her — can I play by the moral rules of this universe and win, too?

SJ: But she’s not really playing by the rules of this universe, she’s still playing by her own.
That doesn’t mean of course that she wants the destruction of everything.
AK: Which are partly shared by this universe, as shown by the very existence of Section 31.

SJ: Exactly.
That’s kind of the best bit of the mirror universe shtick, that it actually isn’t all THAT different.

AK: Just a smidge more cannibalism.
Speaking of which — I always thought that Ba’ul ate the Kelpiens.
But I guess I was just extrapolating from the Terrans.

SJ: Would assume?

AK: The Klingons also talk big about eating Regular Georgiou, but we know that they were absolutely starving.

SJ: I mean is it technically cannibalism if you eat another species?
even if they are sentient?
AK: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

SJ: We have!
Burnham ate her Kelpian!

AK: I mean we as a real-life species.
Anyway, we are super off-book for this particular pair of episodes.

SJ: Mirror Giorgiou is obvs going to end up in charge of Section 31

AK: Right, since she is set to headline the show.
I assume Tyler will be on her team. Leading to some Buffy/Angel-style crossovers.

SJ: ughghghghhghg
Designed to rip my heart out.
Just like Buffy/Angel

AK: And meanwhile, the first scene of Star Trek: Old Picard will be him reading a history book about well-known Starfleet historical figure Michael Burnham.