Star Trek: Discovery (in space, everyone can hear you whitemansplain)

By coincidence, Stephanie and I started streaming Discovery within three minutes of each other. I said I wasn’t going to text her about it, but my emotions were too much for me. We texted. A lot.

This post is less a review than a series of spoilery reactions and feelpinions, of which we have many.

Liz:

I saw a lot of people (men) writing Discovery off in the first ten minutes. And, yeah, the pre-credits sequence had immensely expository and awkward dialogue.

But every single Star Trek sequel and spin-off has had an average-to-above-average pilot, heavy with exposition, followed by immensely uneven first seasons. Discovery shakes it off after ten minutes. So if you sat through “Encounter at Farpoint”, “Emissary” and “Caretaker”, but gave up on Discovery after ten minutes, maybe you should ask yourself why that is.

Because, for me, it was tremendously powerful and exciting to see a woman as captain, mentoring another woman, and having dialogue about exploration and ideals and Starfleet.

It took me back to when I was thirteen years old, watching “Caretaker” for the first time, and realising that the ship’s captain was a woman, just like me. That was an extraordinary feeling.

The thing about “Caretaker” is that there was a lot of behind the scenes discomfort with having a woman in command, and that comes through loud and clear on screen. And Janeway barely interacted with other female characters for that whole two-part pilot.

But here, we start out with two women, alone together — and neither are white, one is neither American nor a native English-speaker, and Burnham’s Vulcan-influenced dialogue is initially strange. But Discovery has the confidence to just let it play out, and for that I’m immensely grateful.

Or, as I wrote elsewhere:

And, as much as I might wish the dialogue had been smoother, WoC mentoring and supporting each other IN STARFLEET is something that, for some reason (we know why) we’ve never had before.

And it established that, for all the Klingon political shenanigans to come, this is still Star Trek, and it’s about ideals and humanism (and also interrogating the concept of “humanism” in a universe where we’re not all human).

Stephanie texted:

MICHELLE’S WALL HAS WAYANG PUPPETS

According to Wikipedia, Michelle Yeoh chose the decorations for her ready room, including the puppets and a bottle of Chateau Picard.

Stephanie says now:

That Michelle Yeoh kept her Chinese-Malaysian accent (SHE SPEAKS LIKE MY MUM) and is clearly coded as Malaysian is so exciting, is such a delight. She’s the Malaysian Space Auntie that we deserve, and Malaysian twitter was freaking out about it when this episode screened.

Wayang kulit is a form of Southeast Asian theatre involving shadows puppets. In my life I’ve experienced a lot of people who think the puppets are creepy but they’re wrong, they’re comforting and expressive and their shadows are so great. I’m having a lot of thoughts right now about how wayang kulit has informed my love of shadows in art and design actually.

Captain Space Auntie Michelle specifically chose a Malaysian-coded ready room and that is the best. Southeast Asians in space!

Liz:

I was ready for Georgiou to fill the Beifong-shaped hole in my life, and she did not disappoint.

I especially appreciated having a major character with a thick accent — not just on the bridge, but in command of a starship. (Chekov doesn’t count.) 

I think a lot about how accents appear in media, how they’re used to other characters who don’t conform to the “norm” — whether that’s through a phonetically-written regional or working class accent, to the absence of characters who speak imperfect English because it’s their second (or third, or fourth, etc) language. And how imperfect English is treated as a weakness, or even a moral failing.

So Yeoh’s choice to play Georgiou with her own accent means a lot to me, and I would like to hope it signals a turning point in terms of language diversity in popular media.

I mean, think about this: a lot of the dialogue “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” is subtitled Klingon — but getting white, western audiences to consume subtitled media in a human language is a challenge.

Stephanie:

I feel like I should have a more indepth exploration to share about Captain Space Auntie Michelle using her Malaysian accent, but I don’t. It’s just very comforting because Malaysians in Space ❤ ❤ . Let’s hope it leads to more Aussies using their Aussie accents on popular media (and also Kiwis).

The following texts were sent simultaneously:

Liz:

Not comfortable with how fuckable Sarek is.

Stephanie:

All sareks are a bitch, but this sarek is definitely a bitch
HAHAH
AHAHAHAHAH

Liz says now:

I JUST REALLY LOVE SAREK, OKAY? “Journey to Babel” is one of the few TOS episodes I really enjoy rewatching.

Stephanie:

Okay, but I’m just not sure that Sarek should be doing a very UST space mind meld with his adopted daughter that includes words that boil down to you have a piece of me inside you.

Liz:

Mind melds are always a bit intimate, though. I just rewatched “Sarek”, the TNG episode about Sarek having Vulcan!Alzheimers, and at the end, after he’s melded with Picard for a few hours, he’s all, “We shall always carry a piece of the other inside of us.”

(I hope this means Picard has a head!Burnham now.)

We texted back and forth about how much we dislike the AV Club’s review, and think that people complaining about the new Klingon design and other visual elements are missing the point. So as to not get murdered by our readers, we expanded that conversation into a more readable format with fewer autocorrect errors.

Liz:

When we first saw the new Klingon design, my only concern was that we might lose the lore and culture created by Ronald D. Moore for TNG. The second T’Kuvma said “Kahless”, I knew we were fine. There was an interesting debate in my Facebook comments about whether Klingons draw inspiration from Vikings or Egyptians, and which is a better fit for the established stories, and that is the kind of Klingon canon wank I’m here for.

(From some angles the Klingons look a lot like the Narn from Babylon 5, which distracted me. That’s my only real complaint. Well, that and there weren’t enough women, although the few present didn’t have giant boob windows, which is a nice change.)

Stephanie:

As a person who doesn’t care about about Star Trek continuity at all, I am super into the Klingon clothes, every cultural thing we saw in the new episodes, and all the fun new tech. I don’t think it’s super important that the tech is more advanced in these episodes than in any episode to come before it? It’s still campy and ridiculous and also completely non-existent, and I’m delighted. To be a person that complains that the costumes are wrong, the bridge is too dark, and the tech is too advanced, is to be a person who has missed (what I, a Star Wars person, think is) the point of Star Trek. Which is boldly going. If that means boldly going into new technology, then so be it.  

How much of this sort of commentary, though, is about gatekeeping? Am I going to get in trouble from these reviewers because I don’t know the minute details? (That’s what I have Liz for.)

Liz:

I think it’s very much about gatekeeping — not just in terms of telling new fans (who came on board with the recent movies or Discovery itself) that they’re doing it wrong, but also because the retrofuturistic stylings for which some reviewers yearn would be off-putting to new viewers. And I do think there is often a feeling in fandom that SFF is too accessible, too appealing to outsiders and non-obsessives. It’s tied up in dismissal of “casual fans” and “fake geek girls”.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that a lot of the (male) people I’ve seen dismissing Discovery have instead talked up The Orville, Seth Macfarlane’s retrofuturistically-styled parody. And I don’t know a single woman who is watching that, because Macfarlane has such a long history of sexism in his work, and The Orville looks like it’s cheerfully replicating the gross bits of Trek history.

Stephanie:

AN ASIDE: I came to popular Science Fiction quite late in my life – well, relatively so. I got home from a sleepover at the age of 14 to discover my Meimei watching the last 30 minutes of Return of the Jedi, which she had taped off the tv the night before (our bedtime was early enough that she couldn’t watch the end of it). So I entered Star Wars watching VI before any other movie (and loving Ewoks first and always), but also, there are so many pop culture touchstones that I have never known, or never really understood. If I was to hold back on enjoying a thing because it wasn’t timeline accurate, I would never bother knowing a thing. There’s too much I’ve missed out on, and I don’t have that sort of time.

Liz:

Speaking of Klingons, though, I had to stop and VIOLENTLY ROLL MY EYES at the line, “Some may see the colour of your skin as nature’s mistake”.

Look, maybe the Klingon bigotry against albinos is a thinly-veiled metaphor for Human bigotry against albinos, and not a really dodgy “white people are oppressed” narrative. Maybe it was just ill conceived. But I rolled my eyes.

And then, as Stephanie texted me, “IT GETS WORSE”, as Admiral Brett (HIS NAME IS BRETT) takes time out from his busy schedule to whitemansplain to Michael, a woman of colour, that race and culture are not the same thing.

Now, Starfleet admirals are, traditionally, the worst. Even Kirk — I mean, he was so bad, he had to be demoted. Janeway? Girl decided to mess with the timeline because her BFFs weren’t around. It’s just something about the sparkly gold braid.

But, joking aside, that dialogue was horribly tone deaf. Michael is a xeno-anthropologist, so Admiral Brett’s not telling her anything she didn’t know (classic mansplaning), and as a line from a white man to a black woman, it was just … weird and silly and ill-considered.

We were out of sync in our stream by this point, so while I was being mad about WHITE DUDES, Stephanie was warning me that Sarek and Michael have amazing chemistry, and it’s inappropriate and wonderful.

Liz texted back:

THAT’S LIKE
A BULLETPROOF PROBLEMATIC FAVE

Liz says now:

STOP JUDGING US AND PASS THE MICHAEL/SAREK FIC

In fact, I kind of ship Michael with everyone. Except Saru, the prey alien played by Doug Jones.

I don’t mind Saru, I’m just, like, “Dude, you are literally afraid of everything, why are you even in Starfleet?”

On the other hand, maybe we’re meant to have that reaction. I mean, it’s obvious why Spock and Data joined Starfleet, but Saru is the first “outsider” character where that’s not clear. And that’s kind of cool, but his whole “space is scary and we are fragile and squishy” schtick could get old fast. (Even though I wholeheartedly agree with him on that count.)

I enjoy the rivalry between Saru and Michael, though. I just don’t want them to make out.

But back to the important issues, and please excuse the self-indulgence as I share our exchange from the night:

Stephanie:

Sarek and Michael had SO much sexual tension in this episode
That’s not a spoiler, I just can’t believe it accidentally happened
I’ve never found him attractive before

Liz:

It’s James Frain. He’s magic.
We don’t know that Vulcans are monogamous…

Stephanie:

Well and if you don’t know then none of us do

Liz says now:

It was very kind of Stephanie to say that, but I’ve remembered that Vulcans are so monogamous, they arrange marriages when the parties are children, and you have to stage a full-on battle to the death if you want to marry someone else. Not to mention that Tuvok’s time on Voyager might have been a bit easier if he wasn’t monogamous.

Having said that, Sarek is married to a human, he’s clearly not your average Vulcan. We don’t know what arrangement he has with Amanda!

PLUS, I think this is the Prime timeline, but in the AOS-timeline, Sarek is about to become a widower, I’M JUST SAYING. *waggles eyebrows*

(Yes, fictional cross-species adultery is a bigger hurdle for me than a relationship between a fictional adult and her former foster parent. I don’t want it to happen in canon, except that Sonequa Martin-Green and James Frain are so pretty and have such great chemistry, and apparently they’re soulbonded across the universe SO THERE. This is why fan fiction exists.)

A less delightful set of texts:

Stephanie:

OH NO
IT HAPPENED
MICHELLE IS DEAD

Liz says now:

I’ve been saying for months that Georgiou would die. From the minute Jason Isaacs was announced as the captain of the USS Discovery. I told Stephanie to text me if it happened.

And, yeah, I’m bummed. Really bummed. I love Michelle Yeoh, I loved Georgiou, I loved her relationship with Burnham. I loved having an Asian woman who was warm and playful and empathetic on my screen. I want to know every single thing about Georgiou’s past, and I want to see every second of the seven years she served with Burnham.

And what shits me off is that it was just so predictable. Of course the mentor has to die. As if Burnham didn’t have enough issues around Klingons, what with the evident PTSD that the Vulcans have completely failed to address.

(Worst. Trauma recovery specialists. In the quadrant.)

It’s not really a fridging, because Georgiou’s death isn’t sexualised, and a male character would have died the same way. And it is important to demonstrate the sheer physical power of a Klingon warrior against a fragile human. But, like I said, it’s predictable. At least it’s in the service of a story about a woman of colour, I guess.

(I do feel cheated that Michelle Yeoh was held out as a regular, and then killed off. Bait and switch, guys. IMDB says she’s in 15 episodes, so maybe we’ll get flashbacks, but having been disappointed once, I’m trying not to get my hopes up.)

I just loved Georgiou and Burnham. I loved the way they looked at each other, with hope and admiration and appreciation. I loved their mutual respect and their willingness to learn from each other. I loved Michael’s heartbreak at betraying Philippa, and Philippa’s regret and anger at being betrayed. I love that the betrayal was driven by emotion, not logic.

…yeah, I shipped it. A lot. Apparently we’re meant to see Georgiou as a maternal figure to Michael, which — look, I’m from Voyager, where “Janeway is like a mother to Seven” was mostly Kate Mulgrew’s code for “no homo”.

It’s reductive, in my opinion, to perceive every relationship between an older woman and her protege as maternal. (See also: Olivia Dunham and Nina Sharp in Fringe; I only stopped shipping that when we switched into the timeline where Nina literally adopted and raised Olivia.) “Like a mother” is the older sister of “gal pals”.

In conclusion: I AM  D E V A S T A T E D.

And yet, I think I need to own up to the fact that I ship Michael with all of her mentors, and as much as I want to hate Jason Isaacs for not being Michelle Yeoh, I’ll probably ship Michael with Captain Lorca next week, too.

…it occurs to me that my thoughts this post have been more about Georgiou than Michael, and that’s a shame, because I love Michael a lot. She’s super smart, she’s an adrenaline junky who loves the Starfleet ideals of peace and discovery, but she’s also pragmatic. (Too pragmatic.) And traumatised.

And as of the end of the second episode, she has lost everything (except, presumably, her head!Sarek). I’m so eager to see her journey as she redeems herself in her own eyes and Starfleet’s, and walks her own path, honouring Georgiou’s trust but achieving greatness in her own right.

Stephanie:

Despite knowing just as much about the casting as Liz did in advance, I was clinging to the hope that Captain Space Auntie Michelle would survive. And although Liz kindly suggests that Michelle gave us the least embarrassing hand to hand combat in Star Trek, she’s Michelle Yeoh, and she can do so much better. Literally. Have you seen her movies?

Liz replies:

I said least embarrassing, that’s a very low bar.

Stephanie continues:

Anyway, Captain Space Auntie Michelle is the space captain that Star Trek didn’t deserve, and I have had so many conversations with Malaysians over the last few days about how betrayed we all have been. She was too good for American TV.

Liz:

We’ll always have fic. I, for one, propose to write Georgiou/Janeway time travel fic and make Stephanie beta it.

Miscellaneous observations and thoughts

  • Quark absolutely has a pornographic holosuite program called “The Vulcan Hello”
  • Liz is intensely amused that there was plot justification for heavy lens flare
  • There are Starfleet insignia on the boots. Like, these costumes were designed expressly to torture cosplayers, right?
  • We were so busy having feelings that we kind of overlooked the plot stuff. Liz is intrigued by Michael’s upbringing and the bombing of the Vulcan Learning Centre, and is reserving judgement on the Klingon stuff. Are Klingons inherently interesting when Worf’s not around? Look, they can’t help not being Romulans or Cardassians. No one’s perfect.
  • Liz was chatting to Tansy Rayner Roberts, who described the premiere as “emotionally intelligent”, and I think that’s a really good summary.
  • (Liz and Tansy have also decided that Georgiou might be dead, but the Klingons are gonna revive her and turn her into a cyborg Winter Soldier – insert Rura Penthe joke as needed – and she’s gonna overcome her programming and get back to the Federation SO THERE.)
  • (It may have been mostly Liz who decided this, too late, it’s canon.)
  • If you want more Malaysians in space, here is a piece of fan fiction from 2009 that Stephanie finds very comforting.
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10 thoughts on “Star Trek: Discovery (in space, everyone can hear you whitemansplain)

  1. I love everything you have said and I endorse it all.

    I kinda liked that the Admiral was a lowkey asshole, patronising but not in a super blatant “hello I kick puppies so I am the Antagonist” kind of way. I loved that Georgiou was patient with him, and Burnham was visibly (but discreetly) bristling as he kept dismissing what both of them had to say and turning his back on her. It was SO jerk boss in the workplace.

    I super loved that the second he was gone, Georgiou relaxed and rolled her eyes and you realised that yeah, she wasn’t going to be mad at Burnham for interrupting, because she thought he was an asshole too but had been doing the Super Diplomatic Thing that most women have to do in the workplace to get any kind of traction.

    AND THEN HE GOT BLOWN UP AND EVERYTHING WAS PERFECT.

    Basically I don’t know how much of that was in the writing, but so much subtlety came off in the performance between the three of them in that scene, and that’s what happens when you get great actors and don’t make them wear outfits so tight they can’t breathe, and give them to directors who don’t treat them like furniture.

    1. It’s disappointing that we’re approaching our 23rd century utopia but women still have to negotiate that sort of situation, but it was also … hmm, not great to watch, but executed as well as could be possible. And nicely demonstrated Georgiou’s diplomatic skills.

      “…that’s what happens when you get great actors and don’t make them wear outfits so tight they can’t breathe, and give them to directors who don’t treat them like furniture.”

      The lack of corsetry and high heels was really nice to see. (I know that heels are sometimes a necessity when actresses are very, very short, but Kate Mulgrew’s costumes were tailored to conceal them, whereas Jeri Ryan — who is NOT short — and Nana Visitor were blatantly wearing six-inch heels, and poor Marina Sirtis had to get around in kitten heels with some costumes.)

  2. Grant Watson

    The Orville thing is weird. I’ve had multiple fans recommend it to me and to be honest I’m reluctant to even sample it because I dislike the overwhelming majority of McFarlane’s work.

      1. I had my reservations about him too, but the Orville Isnt bad actually. Or rather not as terrifying as I thought it would be. It actually tackles some interesting current issues too. It’s not great, or better than Trek, but he definitely captures some of the spirit of the original Trek ,only with more of what he likes to call humor. And the humor isn’t as raunchy as I was expecting. (I was waiting for it. Believe me.) I’m gonna keep watching it because I thought it was fun, but maybe try one episode (not the first one, please) and then decide maybe it’s crap. It could use some more PoC, but is otherwise a different animal than his other shows.

        It’s still okay to not watch because you hate McFarlane, though. That’s understandable.

      2. The Orville clearly WANTS to be TNG-Lite, not TNG-Parody. Like, the TNG serial numbers are BARELY scarped off. It’s not horrible, and if there wasn’t ALSO Actual Trek happening right now, I’d probably be even more forgiving of it just because it was something in the Trek Milieu. As is, I kind of root for it as it feels like it *wants* to be better. Whether it will be or not is up in the air.

  3. Gretchen McSomething

    I may have been obsessively checking IMDB when Georgiou was killed, because she is absolutely credited as appearing in all the episodes. I really hope it is not just flash backs. Or if it is flashbacks, they are episode length stories about her exploring the galaxy with Michael by her side.

  4. Pingback: Links of interest! – Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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