Oct 3, 2017

Is Discovery Too Dark?

21 comments

In our coverage of "Context is for Kings," Valerie and I talk about finding the Trek in Discovery. We both agree that Discovery has taken up the mantle of asking us tough questions about ourselves, our culture, our society and our institutions; but Valerie points out that we aren't being asked those questions from the point of optimism that has been the hallmark of (most) Trek. So I ask you, what are the pros and cons of this choice? What do we lose, what do we gain? Does Discovery feel Trek enough for you?

Oct 3, 2017

I personally liked the darkness of the show, but then again, I am a bit of a Star Trek newbie. I found the monster scene on the USS Glenn truly frightening, and I'm intrigued by the moral dillemma raised by a questionable captain. Plus, we do have a few rays of sunshine, in Tilly and Saru. My problem with "Context is for Kings" was not its darkness, but some of the storytelling choices. I'm always up for a mystery, and I appreciate shows that don't spell everything out for the audience, but I was genuinely confused throughout most of this episode. I found the visual language of the little electricity-eating bug things to be too similar to the sparkly spores—I initially thought they were the same thing. I had no idea why the other inmates wanted to jump Michael in the middle of a highly militarized spaceship. I couldn't understand the menacing but mumbly Captain half the time. I didn't know whether the Black Alert "mishap" is what eerily disfigured all the bodies on the USS Glenn, or whether it was the monster, or how the monster was related to the spores, or what. And certainly can't answer y'all's question about what happened when Burnham got a demonstration of how the spores work—though my reading is that she was actually being sent to those other planets, not just seeing them on a screen. Long story short, I like being intrigued, but I don't like being befuddled!

Oct 5, 2017Edited: Oct 5, 2017

Thanks for asking this question (USS) Glenn. For me it's at the heart of my issues with this episode, and potentially Discovery as a whole depending on how things progress.

 

I'll start by saying that I really don't mind a bit of darkness in Star Trek. It definitely has its place in the moral quandaries the show has always presented to its audience, and every series has dealt with dark issues and grey morality to a greater or lesser extent. (I also don't mind serialization as opposed to 'Monster of the Week', but that's a different debate.)

 

The problem is with how the darkness is handled and presented to the audience. Previous Trek series had the core protagonist(s) coming from the place of optimism and having to confront difficult choices or uncomfortable situations, but the setting itself remains ultimately part of the Star Trek utopia and the show is trying to present a positive message (yes, I even include DS9 in this and I'm willing to debate the point!).

 

Here, as far as we've seen so far, we essentially have the reverse of that. The setting is dark and the moral quandaries are the basis of the story, rather than being something our protagonists are confronted by; and apart from two, those protagonists are all morally ambiguous at best. So we don't have the utopian grounding that Star Trek usually works from. And without that it just kind of feels like dark, gritty 21st century sci-fi dressed up as Star Trek.

 

There's nothing wrong with dark, gritty sci-fi, but I was hoping Star Trek Discovery would be an antidote to that when we don't really have any optimistic sci-fi on TV anymore. It might be a bit disingenuous to say this 'doesn't feel like Star Trek' because what Star Trek feels like is different from one series to the next (and sometimes even from one episode of a series to the next), but I want to say there was some almost undefinable quality that ran through the previous series that is just missing from Discovery so far. And in that regard, to this viewer at least, it 'doesn't feel like Star Trek'.

 

TLDR: I didn't hate this episode of Discovery as a sci-fi show, but I didn't really care for it as Star Trek. It is definitely too dark.

Oct 5, 2017

I've been thinking about this a lot since Valerie raised the issue on the podcast. I'm not sure that the thing that is "missing" from Discovery is the optimism of the pacifist post-scarcity Federation we've seen in shows past, but rather the feeling that the crew is a family and the ship is their home -- a home we've been invited into for a little while. Certainly, for me, this was an element of TNG that drew me to it, and it's something I've loved about all other iterations of Trek. So far we aren't getting that on Discovery, and, if anything, we are following the story of an orphan who has a hard time finding a home and a family. I know we aren't going to get any holodeck baseball games, but I hope that we do (soon) get to see some people who like spending time with each other.

Oct 5, 2017

I think you've hit on something there Glenn, and it's something that I also felt was missing from the Shenzhou too (though based on discussion I've seen elsewhere I seem to be in the minority on that one).

 

To play Devil's Advocate: it takes time to establish a family, and none of the previous series (probably with the exception of TOS) had the 'family' in their pilot. TNG established it pretty quickly after that, even if the crew dynamics changed quite a bit in the first couple of seasons for various off-screen reasons. But from what I remember both DS9 and VOY spent a few episodes establishing the crew and what the family dynamics were going to be. I don't remember Season 1 of ENT that well, and it's been a long time since I saw it, so I can't comment on how things worked there.

 

I think this is compounded by the fact that our protagonist in Discovery has already been on two ships in three episodes, so we haven't had time to establish the family yet. And as you point out, she's an outsider on the Discovery. So maybe part of what we'll see as the season unfolds is Burnham finding her place in the family of the crew.

 

But all that said, the crew of the Discovery really doesn't seem to have much of a family dynamic to it (unless it's a very dysfunctional family, which is not what we want). So I remain sceptical that we're going to see a (functional) family develop, and any people who like spending time together will be more on an individual basis. But as with everything about this show at this stage, we'll see.

Oct 6, 2017

 

I think these are all great points, Karanthir and Glenn. To your comments, Karanthir, you're very correct to point out that these things take time. TNG was the very first series that I watched and I really, really wasn't a fan until the second season. I look back on the first season fondly now, of course, but that's because of the fondness I have for the characters after spending seven years with them in space. But I did recently rewatch the TNG pilot and it falls quite short of a cinematic or storytelling masterpiece. It's extremely different from the TOS pilot (where we jump right into a morality play) and the Voyager and Enterprise pilots (which set up the circumstances of the deep space voyages themselves, rather than starting us out on the ship that will be our home). I haven't seen the DS9 pilot in a while, so I'll have to remedy that. 

 

In a way, we're all grappling with different quandaries here. Hidden behind the question "Is it too dark" are several other questions that we're all coming up against: Is it a good show? Is it a Star Trek show? Is it what we *want* a Star Trek show to be? Also, what the heck makes a Star Trek show a Star Trek show, and how flexible should that formula/definition be? 

 

A point that was recently brought up to me is that while, yes, we're used to seeing a starship family encounter bad guys and triumph over them, darkness in the Star Trek universe isn't new. We've met officers with questionable morals and motives. We've seen the mirror universe. We've seen subplots where Starfleet does some pretty questionable things. We're just always getting that narrative from the perspective of the good guys (who, yes, we're meant to believe make up the majority of Starfleet). Perhaps, then, what we're seeing here is the less dominant narrative, the other side of the coin, a series that focuses on the history of those subplots and in so doing lets us explore something new without interfering with the canonical events in the subsequent timeline. 

Oct 6, 2017

Excellent analysis!

 

I don't disagree with your point about this being a show from a different perspective. The question for me remains is that what the perspective of a Star Trek series should be? (I guess that comes back to your list of questions.)

 

As for the pilots, I think the main difference between the pilots for previous shows (again with the exception of TOS) and the pilot for Discovery is that the former were all setting up the crew and the ship we were going to be watching for the rest of the series, whereas with Discovery they were setting up the background and the main protagonist. So in a sense we're still in an extended pilot period.

Oct 8, 2017

Yes, this is something of a strange and prolonged introduction to the show. It definitely has me feeling anxious, but when Valerie and I covered the Voyager pilot, we felt that everything had been wrapped up too quickly and too neatly. We really wanted a prolonged story that would slowly get us to the combined crew getting along, and I guess now we are getting something close to what we asked for.

Oct 9, 2017

Be careful what you wish for!

Oct 10, 2017

Getting what you wished for is a dish best served cold.

Oct 12, 2017

Its not Trek! I keep hearing this but if Trek is all about saccharine sweet goody two shoes morality lessons then go to church. I find this more real life grey and edgy a bunch a people who have been plunged into war after generations of peace and having to find their way. Some will be initially very militant some will try to ignore it. I think that Burnham will have a great effect to moderate Lorca even as he tries to manipulate her and we will get some middle ground as that develops. I think it is trying to instill the same shock into us as viewers as the crew is feeling in their very altered situation.

I like the darker approach, i often found the heavy handed morality cringe worthy.

Oct 12, 2017

Kev, that's a really great point about the show leading viewers to feel the same way about the Discovery as Burnham does, and it's certainly working. And, yes, some of those heavy-handed episodes can be a little painful. I think for me the most flagrant of them is "Symbiosis" from TNG's first season, which is basically an after-school special with some Wrath of Khan fan service thrown in.

Oct 18, 2017Edited: Oct 18, 2017

I listened with interest to the last podcast on "Choose your pain", Valerie had a lot to say about the level of violence in the episode not being appropriate for Star Trek. I must say that I do not feel that this is the case. There was plenty of violence throughout the ST canon. I can recall plenty of violence in TOS, TNG and DS9. One of the big things about the franchise was its readiness to face and challenge the current issues. In a world that is full of conflict and violence based on race and religion this being reflected in the programme is, I believe, quite understandable. As long as it serves the plot and is not just gratuitous. You cannot praise the show runners for including some aspects of current contention and then lambast them for including others.

 

Yay for same sex and interracial couples but boo for religious and racial violence.

 

The series is set in a time of war so for sure there is going to be violence and you cannot expect to tell not show that aspect while lauding them for show not tell for others.

 

This may simply be because I am a former serviceman, the violence I saw on screen was neither particularly graphic or gratuitous as far as I am concerned but it was interesting to hear others comment on what they thought.

 

So thanks Valerie for your viewpoint, I respect your position on this. Certainly in many other shows I have seen a level of violence and sexual content which I would categorize as gratuitous and for shock value.

 

By the way, shooting a fallen combatant who is not posing a threat to you is a war crime, the prison ship captain was down and out of the fight and was not a valid target. Lorca was correct in his behavior in leaving her alive.

Oct 18, 2017

Hi Kev,

Thanks for these comments. I'll leave Valerie to respond about the level of violence and her distaste for it, but I wanted to address the issue of the Klingon captain. I too have carried that Geneva Convention card around in my pocket, so I'm well aware that you can't execute disabled combatants (and Burnham told us that the Geneva Convention was renewed), but I was operating under the impression that the Klingon disruptor (is that what these are?) was slowly going to disintegrate her and that Lorca's decision to leave her like that was a decision to torture her (also a war crime). I'm not certain why I made that assumption about the disruptor, and I think it's going to turn out to be wrong (at least in this instance).

 

What did you think of Lorca's choice to leave Harry Mudd behind?

Oct 19, 2017

As a collaborator i suppose he could have just executed him but I think that Lorca thought that had he tried to take him along he would have sabotaged their escape putting them all in danger.

Oct 19, 2017

Yes, I don't think I'd want to be trying to make an escape with Mudd, either, and I suppose that narratively we now will have the chance to see him pop up again, perhaps as the Khan to Lorca's Kirk.

Oct 20, 2017

Just a few thoughts on the violence issue. I am a Star Trek newbie and have no nostalgic memories of campy, fun monster-of-the-week episodes or heavy-handed morality tales. So I am judging Discovery on its own. Overall, I have not found the violence to be gratuitous or over-the-top. Klingons beating a prisoner to death? Seems important to the plot. Entire space-ships full of people dying in combat? Seems to fit the backdrop of war. The only death I found problematic or ill-handled so far was that security officer woman who got ripped up by the tardigrade. That one felt a little Game of Thronesy to me, in that it tricked us into thinking someone was going to be a major character, and then killed them off for no real reason that I can discern. Also, the Star Fleet reaction to her death was basically: whoopsie! I think it was supposed to to up the stakes for Burnham to figure out what to do with the tardigrade, but I was already invested in that storyline without needing to kill off the security officer. Instead, it made me feel like Star Fleet members are expendible commodities, instead of valuable individuals.

But it is a tricky question, does showing violence on TV force us to carefully consider our culture's own problems with war and violence, or does it desensitize us to the problem? I'm hoping the show uses violence as a catalyst for conversation, and not just as a backdrop. So far, I think the violence issue has been done in a thought-provoking way, with issues such as : is Burnham responsible for the war, what would you do if forced to "choose your pain," are the Klingons actually genetically predetermined to be "violent," and if so, what is the correct way to deal with them? Etc. I think if we are going to critically consider issues of violence in our own society, we do actually need to see and encounter that violence. I would love to know what y'all think!

Oct 20, 2017

Rainbow I fully agree, both on the need to portray the violence only as a way to provoke thought and to advance the plot. And that the death of Commander Landry was unnecessary, it would have been enough to have her attempt to get the tardigrades claw and fail sustaining injuries which would keep her out of Burnhams hair whilst she pursued her ideas. Landry/Burnham disagreements would have been entertaining going forwards. Mind you Landry seemed to be even more fanatical fangirl of Lorcas which I found a bit creepy, would have been nice to find out why she was so devoted to him.

Oct 20, 2017

 

Kev may, you’ve made some really great points. You’re right that there has been plenty of violence throughout the ST canon, particularly in the shows that you cited, and also in Enterprise. That violence, however, never seemed as gratuitous or, perhaps, never seemed to get as much screen time as it is getting in Discovery. There were murders and fights in TOS all the time, but never any blood, never any mangled, realistic-looking bodies, never any punches that seemed like real punches. It could definitely be argued that this is because of 1) budget, and 2) general audience attitudes towards violence (whether or not it was culturally appropriate to depict explicitly or in a hyper-realistic manner).

 

That is all to say that I agree with you: violence is appropriate to Star Trek and to this show in particular. Where I disagree, I suppose, with both you and with rainbow, is that I *do* find it gratuitous, which is a view I hold generally for the kind of violence that is extremely commonplace these days across media. For this reason I love the campy way that ST has treated violence in the past, and the campy way it shows up in shows like Buffy, for example. It’s also why I avoid a lot of modern TV dramas. This isn’t to say that violence portrayed in this manner is objectively a bad, or even inappropriate to the spirit of the show, but rather that I have a strong personal preference for not bearing witness to that kind of pain. You’re completely right to point out that this kind of violence is commonplace in other media and in today’s world (such as in your personal experience), and that it might also be important to driving the plot forward or to provoke conversations such as this one. I suppose I look to shows like ST to escape that kind of violence, or to imagine a future where there is less of it.

 

I’d love to pose this question to the group, then: Do you think that violence would have been portrayed this way in previous ST series, had budget allowed? Is this simply a matter of money and make-up developments, or did ST always make the conscious choice to move graphic violence off screen?

Oct 21, 2017

I think it is very much of its time.

 

Budget, special effects, stunt men's standards all certainly play their part but equally they try to be as up to date as they could. Today's audience expects certain things, photo-realistic special effects, make-up, prosthetics and a level of violence and sexuality that certainly would not have been allowed on TV when TOS came out.

Even if the technology was available they would not have portrayed the violence as they would not have been aired by the studios.

Certification and watersheds have allowed the portrayal of scenarios and situations that would never have been aired in TOS. But in the same way no matter the technology TOS could not have shown a gay couple and certainly not have them show any affection. I also doubt that they would have shown a black person in a position of command over a white officer (I don't think Uhura ever gave commands to anyone). The idea of TV shows in the sixties in the US doing these things is inconceivable.

Programmes are made for their core audience and the expectations and tolerances of a modern audience are, on the whole, far more permissive than the 60's.

Although saying that some places in the US banned the film The Day After Tomorrow because it had an interracial kiss.

So I would summarize that it was not budget but restrictive practices that made the shows the way they are the moral and cultural mores of the time at which they were made.

Oct 21, 2017

Those are some great points, Kev. We've not really talked about the use of profanity on the show, but that's related to the violence, I think, as something that is new for this Trek because of it's production circumstances. They're certainly going boldly where Trek hasn't gone before, and I find it interesting and I'm glad that these moves have prompted conversations such as this one. But I'm going to be disappointed if I don't get to see Lorca do a double-fisted back-punch and come away from it with several tears in his shirt.

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