Star Trek: Discovery has a nastiness problem.
Starting with its insanely grim episode title, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry” is a gallery of horrors for Star Trek fans. Jason Isaacs’ Captain Lorca is now so firmly wedged into position as the film’s villain, you couldn’t pry him out with a bat’leth. From his first appearance in the episode, reveling in a battle simulation, to his brusque order to Burnham to weaponise the creature they found on the USS Glenn last week, to his casual willingness to jeopardise the lives of his crew, the dude’s a full-blown warmongerin' loose cannon - about as far from Gene Roddenberry's Starfleet ideals as you could possibly get.
And that’s just Lorca. Security Chief Landry is almost comically mean-spirited, starting with naming the captured mega-tardigrade “Ripper” (!) and continuing by trying to sedate it and cut bits off to study them. It makes sense that she’s killed in her attempts to tear it apart; the character obviously wasn’t written as anything more than a two-dimensional portrait of cruelty. This is no science vessel, and it never was: never before has Star Trek played host to such an out-and-out warship.
Obviously, all that darkness is there to set up the characters - Burnham, especially - to fight against it. Burnham has empathy buried under her weird mixture of Vulcan logic and steely-eyed guilt, and several members of the crew would border on the adorable if the directing weren't so stilted. And obviously, Lorca's philosophies don't end up winning out in the long run. But for now, it's tough watching a Starfleet crew work towards such awful ends. The themes are reminiscent of Deep Space Nine’s constant tug-of-war between diplomacy, open war, science, and underhanded subterfuge, but with none of that show’s subtlety. Instead, everything feels temporally compressed, any sense of moral grey area rendered black-and-white by extreme situations and the steadfast march of plot.
I’m real torn on the show’s central sci-fi premise, the Discovery’s spore-driven engine. For one thing, it’s totally rad that the show even has a central sci-fi premise - no other Trek show has really had one, unless you count Deep Space Nine’s wormhole. And conceptually, a biologically-driven ship is interesting as fuck, particularly given the spores’ symbiosis with said giant tardigrade - even if the probabilistic nature of its navigation feels cribbed from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s hard to see the spore drive lasting, though, given that exploitation of animals isn’t exactly in the Federation charter (and that it shows up nowhere else in Trek lore). So far, it’s been presented as more or less a good thing. But just you wait until Burnham finds some way of communicating directly with her water-bear buddy.
On the Klingon side, things remain just as frustrating as they began two weeks ago. There are good ideas here: the feuding Klingon houses, the co-opting of quasi-religious beliefs by military leaders, a number of different attitudes to the responsibilities of leadership, the concept of Klingon “purity”. Sole female Klingon character L’rell is performed admirably well, constantly seeking the most profitable allegiance, her relationship with albino Prometheus offcut Voq swaying between romance and manipulation. Military commander Kol is a more traditional Klingon, seizing an opportunity to wrest power away from anointed one Voq and promising to return to inter-house rivalry once the war with the Federation is over. The characters are starting to emerge - but slowly.
Part of the problem is that the actors are forced to speak in halting Klingon; one assumes the characters would be more vibrant if they could only speak fucking English (it'd let the actors focus on their characters, not their words, and I’m sure we could all suspend our disbelief). Another part is the actors also being forced to perform through ridiculously overdesigned makeup appliances, false teeth, and costumes, with Voq actor Javid Iqbal suffering particularly unpleasant humiliation in this regard. Much comes from reducing each Klingon house to a single representative character, for the sake of drama; it makes the Empire feel weirdly small, lowering the stakes of a war whose scale we don’t really understand yet. I’m intrigued to see what comes of Voq’s revenge quest - and his visit to House Mokai’s matriarchs, whatever their deal is - but damn, I’m getting tired of listening to all that garbled Klingon.
Otherwise, the show continues to deliver intriguing details, even if they clash with established canon or even common sense. The episode’s opening shot, with the camera weaving through the interior of a replicator as it builds Burnham’s uniform, is as overblown as it is unnecessary. Discovery’s rotating saucer section looks ridiculous, while the spore drive visual effects are pretty cool, if you like that kinda thing (which, fuck it, I do). Lorca namedropping Elon Musk alongside the Wright Brothers and Zefram Cochrane feels uncomfortably on-the-nose. And I’m keen to see more of the ship’s doctor Culber - and, indeed, any character who isn't a total asshole.
Star Trek: Discovery’s biggest issue right now may be that the show, and the cast especially, take such delight in being nasty that any talk of classic Trek themes just feels like lip service. Georgiou might say Burnham's an explorer, but the first time we saw her, she was starting a war with the Klingons, largely out of anger at her captain's death. Hopefully Burnham’s receipt of Georgiou’s telescope (helpfully labeled “TELESCOPE” in big, friendly letters for anyone who can’t identify what a telescope looks like) will trigger a bit more passion for goodness. I can see where Discovery is going, but thus far, it’s been a rough road.*
* ...gettin’ from there to here. It’s been a long time, but my time is finally near.