Star Trek: Discovery 1.08 – “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”

Wanky episode title bingo card: Latin. Check.

It means “if you wish for peace, prepare for war”, but I’m not entirely sure this episode lived up to the promise of its title.

I tried to come up with a “tie in writer/tying up plot threads” joke here

Writer Kirsten Beyer has authored nine Voyager tie-in novels, with a tenth on the way, and I’ve read … hmm, quite a lot of them. Trek tie-ins are generally pretty dire these days — here’s a gratuitous link to my live-blogging of Michael Jan Friedman’s Death in Winter, which also features a brief breakdown of one of Beyer’s novels — but Beyer is … not bad. At least, she has a good grasp of characters, and I have charitably decided that some of the more ridiculous narrative choices in her work were mandated by the publisher.

“Si Vis Pacem…” features one of her strengths — interactions, rapport and respect between women; but also her major weakness: while she is great at coming up with new twists on old Trek cliches, her big ideas are often too thin, and work mostly as a framework for character interaction.

That’s fine in a tie-in novel, because I don’t think anyone reads those for the plots, but a television episode needs something a bit meatier. Worse, the thinness of the plot weakens the characterisation.

We need to talk about Saru

Back in the halcyon days of the premiere, I wondered what the point of Saru was, why he was in Starfleet at all.

Since then, I’ve come to appreciate him — he provides a valuable counterpoint to the more gung-ho attitudes of the entire rest of Starfleet, and is a useful foil to Michael. And he’s good at his job, as we see when he initiates first contact with the Pahvans.

We learn more about Saru’s physical capabilities here, and the relentless sensory overload which basically gives him an anxiety disorder. But his reaction to becoming ~tuned into the planet’s harmony~ is regrettably generic.

“I love it here on this zany planet, I am high on peace and I’m going to endanger my colleagues so we can all stay and be happy together” is a plotline we’ve seen many times before, with many different characters, and the only twist is that Saru is the last person you’d expect to be able to crush a communicator in his hand.

I saw people wondering how Saru even has a job after this, but if Starfleet started disciplining every character who got high on planet fumes and went off the rails, there’d be no one left. What happens on the magic pollen planet stays on the magic pollen planet, even when it’s not literally sex pollen. Even, apparently, when it leads to attempted sabotage during wartime.

Pahvans: why do they even have that building?

If Saru’s motivations are generic, the Pahvans’ are simply very confusing. Did they know that bringing Saru into their harmony would trigger this disharmonious hostility? Do they care? What is their crystal spire for?

Why do energy beings indistinguishable from the planet itself need a shelter? Or rocks which sense motivation?

…I take it back, the Pahvans aren’t just confusing, they’re generic. Trek cliché piled on Trek cliché.

It’s possible that next week’s episode, the mid-season finale, will clarify the Pahvans’ whole … deal. The twist at the end, that they have altered their signal to invite the Klingons and Federation to peace talks, is also a Trek cliché, one that goes right back to “Errand of Mercy” and the Organian Peace Treaty.

(Short version for newbies: the Enterprise crew butt heads with Klingons over who gets to control a primitive world, but — plot twist! — the inhabitants are not peaceful hippie, but super advanced energy beings, and they force the two sides to make peace.)

“Errand of Mercy” has been at the back of my mind for most of the season, because the main Klingon antagonist is a bloke named Kor, and General Kol, he of the pretty face paint, is of House Kor. So I won’t be hugely surprised when things get all glowy and mystical around Pahvo; it’s just a question of how it turns out. SelenaK reckons the Pahvans will turn out to be more powerful than the other parties; I’m inclined to think Pahvo will end up like Alderaan.

Anyway, speaking of motivations

The Pahvans’ motivations are murky; L’Rell’s are just … messy.

She tells Admiral Cornwell that she wishes to defect to the Federation — and specifically Discovery — because Kol has left her alone, and “chased away” Voq, T’Kuvma’s successor. We know that’s not true, but it’s Kat’s best chance of escape, so what the hell.

Only L’Rell is apparently making plans on the fly, and wants to stop and sabotage the sarcophagus ship before they leave, which means Kol catches them and Kat ends up, apparently, dead. L’Rell, finding the bodies of her dead friends, T’Kuvma’s followers, swears revenge, but offers her loyalty to Kol — only for him to accept her into his House, and then immediately turn on her, because he’s not an idiot and knew what she was doing.

So what does L’Rell want? And is this half the story, or did the writing simply make her look unbearably stupid?

My guesses at this stage are, “It’s complicated” and “yes and no?”

What does L’Rell want?

She’s one of the few surviving T’Kuvma loyalists. She has been separated from Voq, although we don’t know exactly how, and she wants to get on board the Discovery. Probably because “Ash Tyler” is a sleeper agent, and she needs to activate him.

At the same time, she wants revenge against Kol, and if she can’t just blow up the sarcophagus ship and escape, she’ll pretend to be his loyal soldier. Except that he has seen through that part of her plan (at least).

Basically, her obsession with Kol has backfired and destroyed her best chance of getting to Discovery.

Does this make her look stupid? A little. Just walking Kat through the ship, with no back-up plan in case they were caught, was very, very foolish.

But L’Rell’s not a trained soldier. It would be more accurate to think of her and Voq as alt-right extremists, fighting an insurgency against Kol at the same time as they seek revenge for T’Kuvma’s death.

(Fun fact! One of the inspirations for Disco’s Klingons was the American alt-right. Although I’ve misplaced the source for this and all Google brought up was alt-right manbabies crying because Star Trek was mean to them.)

Anyway, it makes sense that L’Rell is sloppy and undisciplined in some respects. But she might also have a bigger scheme happening.

For one thing, I don’t believe Admiral Kat is dead. This might be denial (women over 35 haven’t had amazing longevity, YEAH, HI, I’M LIZ AND I’M STILL BITTER ABOUT PHILIPPA GEORGIOU AND INTEND TO REMAIN SO FOR THE NEXT LITTLE ETERNITY), but also … the emphasis on Kat’s “body” felt like it was setting something up. It had a whiff of foreshadowing.

Or maybe the show was just giving us a slightly odd farewell to a popular recurring character. But I sat through After Trek, the excruciating post-episode chat show, and … well, it’s recorded live, and featured such highlights as Jayne Brook apparently forgetting her character was dead (“dead”) and the host referring to Cornwell’s “dead or maybe dead” body.

So hopefully this is all a Cunning Plan, and next week we can talk about the problems inherent in the white woman surviving where two female characters of colour didn’t. Because you can bet that we will.

Ash Tyler: still definitely a Klingon

But I don’t think he knows it. His spiel about the lake house and fresh trout seemed sincere, and honestly? Voq didn’t strike me as that good a liar.

I suspect that there was once an Ash Tyler, and his death in Klingon captivity came at just the right time for L’Rell and Voq and the unseen Matriarchs of Mo’Kai to implant his memories into Voq and do the … you know, the radical plastic surgery which has clearly taken place. A latexectomy.

I’m also inclined to theorise that he hadn’t finished cooking when Lorca came along and rescued him — maybe he was released into prison early, so that Harry Mudd could attest to his being an actual person, but work was still ongoing.

For one thing, “Ash” doesn’t seem nearly traumatised enough by seven months of captivity and sexual assault. Compare him to Lorca, for example, or even Michael, whose flashbacks to the death of her parents partially triggered her mutiny.

And for another thing … it sure is handy for the audience that Michael needed to explain first contact protocol to Ash, but let’s not overlook that Michael needed to explain first contact protocol to him.

Or maybe it’s just coincidence, and someone had to hold the idiot ball, but I’m pretty sold on the idea that Ash is a Klingon but thinks he’s a real boy. Where that leaves him and Michael as a couple is … look, simple, straightforward relationships are very boring.

On the other hand … when I realised that L’Rell and Voq aren’t soldiers, but radicalised extremists, that made Ash-is-Voq much less hilarious and terrimazing, and a lot more racist. It’s one thing to say the Klingons are inspired by the alt-right, but it’s obviously quite another to have your British-Pakistani actor playing a bloke who is secretly a terrorist. Even if it’s a secret from him.

I hope the writers surprise me here, but twenty-five years as a fan have taught me never to overestimate Star Trek writers.

There was also a C plot

Much like this post, “Sic Vis Pacem…” was a bit of a mess, structurally, and the C plot — Stamets is back to his old, irascible self, only less in touch with reality, and Tilly is on it — was practically vestigial.

Or maybe you could call it efficient. From just two scenes, we know that Stamets is having odd turns, addressing Tilly as “captain”, that he’s keeping it to himself because whatever the outcome, Hugh will be hurt, and Tilly has noticed and has a plan to observe the situation (and also she is not remotely scared of Stamets at his grumpiest).

The main question arising out of this is how Hugh Culber, who seems like an intelligent guy, has failed to notice that his partner is jumping parallel universes/time travelling/being set up as the plot device for a Mirror Universe episode. A longer version of Stamets’s second scene was filmed, with Culber sharing Tilly and Stamets’s table — there are stills floating around — so maybe that was meant to be addressed.

But it’s not great to wind up with two subplots where you’re left wondering if it’s character stupidity or just bad writing.

The jerk ranking

  1. Kol. Not only does he humiliate L’Rell, but he’s just handing out cloaking devices willy nilly, with no respect whatsoever for canon.
  2. Saru. You say you’ve found paradise, then you start littering it up with crushed communicators? Maaaaaaaate. I’d hate to see you on a trip to Bali.
  3. Lorca. He was just your average garden variety arsehole, but my complaint is more personal: he hasn’t done anything shady for ages, and I’m starting to miss it. Anyway, here’s the Disco/Ask A Manager crossover the world needed.
  4. Admiral Kat. Look, not to be the language police, but promising a Klingon that the Federation treats its prisoners humanely? Girl. Time for a word from Klingon Social Justice Warrior Azetbur:
Apparently I added this image to No Award’s media gallery on 10 November 2015, which I assume means it’s been about two years since my last rewatch.

Other observations

  • Have you noticed how we’ve never seen Discovery‘s briefing room? Lorca’s not a man to pursue a TNG-style consultative approach at the best of times, but even TOS gave us the odd briefing room scene.
  • I keep seeing reviews criticising Sonequa Martin-Green for being stiff, even too studied in emotional moments, and I’m like … guys. Guys. That is the entire point of the character. Martin-Green is extraordinary. I haven’t seen her in anything else, but I watched a bunch of interviews over the weekend, and the gulf between her media persona and Michael is vast.
  • I rewatched Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country over the weekend — that movie was not well-served by a Blu-Ray release, by the way — and have some vague thoughts about Star Trek‘s Sexy Logic Girls, T’Pring to Seven of Nine to Michael, and one of the things I find interesting about Michael is that she’s not portrayed as a sex object. She’s beautiful, and she has a romantic arc, but she wears the same clothes as the rest of the cast, there are no scenes where she’s pouty or smirky, she’s not even good at flirting. Her closest predecessor is probably Robin Curtis’s Saavik, whose take on the character was far more earnest than Kirstie Alley’s. And I wonder if Michael’s relative unsexiness is also part of the reason that (male) reviewers think Martin-Green is anything less than amazing.
  • (Also, I think we’re just not accustomed to seeing stoic women in media. Anna Torv received similar criticisms in the early seasons of Fringe.)
  • Also cut was some more dialogue between L’Rell and Cornwell. I assume this is an elaborate ploy to make me buy the Blu-Ray when it comes out. Well, joke’s on you, show, I was gonna buy it anyway.
  • Speaking of L’Rell, as much as I would have enjoyed more of her and Cornwell bonding over Disappointing Yet Pretty Men, I’m not hopping aboard the Team L’Rell Bandwagon until it’s confirmed she did not actually rape Ash.
  • Worth mentioning that one of the writers of next week’s episode is Bo Yeon Kim, a Woman of Colour. She and her writing partner, Erika Lippoldt, have one other credit: Reign. I’m almost afraid to draw any conclusions from that.
  • (I have checked with Stephanie, whose conclusions are, “I fucking love Reign and there’s gonna be some shenanigans.”)
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2 thoughts on “Star Trek: Discovery 1.08 – “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”

  1. Grant Watson

    Saru isn’t a terrible Starfleet officer because he got affected by space music; he’s a terrible officer because by his own admission at the end of the episode he knew what he was doing the whole time and just lost control of himself. He’s a nice guy, but has no place being first officer on a warship in war time. His characterisation is also wildly inconsistent from episode to episode.

  2. Grant Watson

    Forget to add: anybody who doesn’t think Burnham is one of the best developed and performed characters in the entire history of Star Trek isn’t paying attention. She – and Martin-Green – is fabulous.

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