We are back to the universe of the Radch, new pronouns and strange aliens. Provenance is set shortly after the events of Ancillary Mercy but the tumultuous events of that book are a minor background to this new stand-alone novel (i.e. you needn’t have read the Ancillary books).
Ingray is the adopted child of a high ranking family of the Hwae system. Now a young adult (I think) she has been brought up to compete directly with her brother to win the privilege of being named their parent’s heir – an event which would lead one of them to adopt a new name and gain both wealth, status and political responsibility.
The people of Hwae (or at least the high-ranking ones) obsess over social status in a way that the Radch obsesses over rank (and tea). Central to this cult-like obsession is the veneration of ‘vestiges’ – artifacts that demonstrate the age of a family and possible connections to historical events. Vestiges can be anything from physical objects to letters and postcards or ticket stubs.
When we first meet Ingray she is off planet, embroiled in a scheme that is within her cognitive capacity to execute but for which she is not temperamentally prepared. As events unfold, a prison break, stolen spaceships, a murder of foreign dignitary and an invasion plot unfold around Ingray in a story that has elements of a mad-cap caper along side space-opera and Leckie’s trademark examination of the potential variety of human culture.
Above all Ingray is an honest person caught in a story in which most people she meets (both the good and the bad) are liars. This is such a clever trick by Leckie, as she manages to encapsulate Ingray very quickly as a character very early in the book, while giving her a backstory that gives her reasons to attempt a devious scheme (returning a notorious exiled criminal/disgraced vestige keeper to Hwae to embarrass her parent’s political rival). Ingray’s basic niceness wins her some useful allies and her naturally bravery pushes her further into the events.
Despite one murder and a potential war, this is a much lighter book than the Ancillary/Imperial Radch trilogy. Of the three books it reminded me most of Ancillary Mercy which also featured some aristocratic planetary shenanigans and also gave us insight into a different somewhat parochial future human culture.
I didn’t find it overall as compelling as Ancillary Justice and I think I preferred the higher stakes and darker tone of Breq’s world but Provenance also feels more self-confident to be its own thing.
It is a Lorca Episode this week on Dark Trek and also a shout-out episode with references galore to the original series, the animated series (apparently), The Next Generation and for added fun Twin Peaks. Is it a good episode? Mmmm, if you don’t like the antithesis qualities of Discovery as a cyncial mirror to the more ethical federation of Jean-Luc Picard, then you’ll hate this episode – although their are glimmers.
The premise (which is in the episode synopsis so not a spoiler) is that Lorca gets captured by the Klingons and on a Klingon prison/torture ship he meets Harry Mudd, a recurring character from the original series…beyond here spoilers follow.
Michael Burnham continues to entertain as the human who tries to be Vulcan and is a bit messed up as a result. Partly (and only partly) this is the most Star Trekky episode yet. Sadly, the air of dark mystery established last episode basically vanishes this episode. This is not a plot whole as such – Michael Burnham is the main point of view and last week she was little more than a infamous prisoner being given a brief oppotunity to help out before being shipped back to the surprisingly regressive Federation penal system. This week Michael is a reluctant (and rankless) member of the crew and as a consequence people are more open about what is going on.
Spoilers below the fold…
It is coca-cola with coffee in it. It tastes like coke but with a coffee taste as well and by “coffee” I mean that coffee flavour that a coffee flavoured milkshake or a coffee flavoured cake tastes of.
There is also a weird slimy quality to it. It’s like drinking coke but a bit more unpleasant.
The coffee is “real” and from Brazil. If I was Brazil I might object to the free advertising.
Or is this Star Trek: Black Ops? The third episode is full of promise for what could be a really good series. Once again, the broad strokes and characters are good but the plot details still need attention.
It is six months after the events of the first two episodes. Michael Burnham is on a shuttle transport amid some kind of space storm on her way with other prisoners to some space mines etc.
Viewer alert: engage disbelief suspension system. Beep, beep, beep. Space opera mode engaged: disbelief suspended.
It’s Star Trek, it wants more fake realism than other SF properties but this is still a rubber headed alien universe with tribbles and space monsters. I resolved to give it some more slack when the hull of the shuttle gets infected with electricity eating bugs.
Rescued by the surprise arrival of the USS Discovery, Michael finds herself back aboard a Starfleet ship – with her reputation as the mutinous officer who plunged Starfleet into a war with the Klingon Empire already well established.
And at last, the show proper appears to have started. This is a dark and sinister Starfleet – different from but consistent with the Starfleet of the original and of TNG. By ‘consistent with’ I mean that this shady side of Starfleet has appeared on numerous occasions. Not every officer is Kirk or Picard and not every action of Starfleet in its previous incarnations have been ethically non-dubious.
Enter Captain Lorca, Jason Issacs with an American accent* but otherwise delightfully Jason Issacs. The Discovery is a brand new, top of the range starship but…one dedicated to scientific research and some distance away from the frontlines. This despite the Federation being embroiled in a bloody war with the Klingon Empire.
Even by the end of the episode and after several revelations, we don’t know what exactly he is up to but everything (right down to Lorca obviously graduating from the Slytherin house of Starfleet Academy) is pointing to not good stuff. This is still the Starfleet of Star Trek but Lorca is apparently the sort of captain that Kirk would have ended up punching or Picard would have given a stern lecture to. There’s a whiff of the Genesis Project and other dodgy science experiments that would have provoked McCoy into exclaiming that you shouldn’t play at being God.
The plot does a detour into a spooky spaceship-with-everybody-dead section that is well done (and in keeping with the story) if over-familiar. However, the main thrust is Michael once again being on a starship and encountering new crew members and old comrades. There is no easy forgiveness here, in particular, Michael is seeking no forgiveness for herself.
Worth watching? Yes, mainly because I really like Michael Burnham as a character – an impulsive logician who has messed up more deeply than they ever thought possible. I’m hooked enough that I really want to see the next episode.
Bits and pieces:
- I’d like to know what happened to the prison shuttle pilot.
- An additional nod to Spock as an unnamed foster brother.
- Michael owns a copy of Alice in Wonderland – which is a great touch: an absurd novel about meaning and nonsense by a logician.
- Cadet Tilly was meant to be annoying I think but was quite likeable.
- I’m not sure Lt Stamets was meant to be annoying but he was.
- Saru is the only other returning character from the first two episodes with any lines. Played by Doug Jones who was Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies.
- I’m sure my Netflix app said this episode would be available next Monday rather than today? Did they move the schedule forward? If so smart move – it rekindled my interest.
- The minor plot hole flaws and the less-than-progressive Starfleet remain as issues from the first two. I don’t think those are going away as issues.
- A redshirt goes to redshirt Valhalla. Except they are wearing blue obviously. Not sure how they are colour coded but given the away team was a mix of security and engineering, they were definitely a redshirt by ToS nomenclature.
- “Is he shushing you?” best line.
- I’m blogging this episode by episode now? I wish somebody had warned me of that.
- Netflix keeps pushing me to watch an aftershow-show which I refuse to do because such things are always annoying.
- OK, I’ll do an episode ranking.
- Episode 3: Context is for Kings
- Episode 2: Battle at the Binary Stars
- Episode 1: The Vulcan Hello
That looks like a promising direction.
Disbelief systems re-engaging. Woop, woop woop.Disbelief system no longer suspended.
No, but seriously, what the heck was that space storm supposed to be? Random space weather? Random space weather with electricity eating bugs in it? Random space weather with electricity eating bugs in it and to get them off you have to climb out of your shuttle and what(?) scrape them off? And forced prison labour? And they feed the dangerous prisoners in the regular ship canteen? Because why? They’ve got food replicators all over the ship fer goodness sake.
*[I like it when actors get to keep their accent but in this case, Lorca sounding British would have turned the ‘sinister’ up way too high]
As promised and there are many spoilers below the fold – basically it is all spoilers. I should also reiterate that if you haven’t seen the show the emotional themes described may give the impression that it is some sort of morbid self-absorbed story of angst. It is a story of self-absorbed morbid angst but also very funny , and absurd.
When I first heard the premise for Star Trek: Discovery I was disappointed. The show is set marginally before the original series relative to the broad continuity of the TV shows. As a decision, it implied the kind of navel-gazing or over-reverence to the original material that ends in both stagnation and a confused need for re-invention. It is the contradiction that leads to repetitive reboots of superhero origin stories but with odd new twists. I assume the thinking with Discovery was that they wanted to re-introduce viewers to the established Star Trek galaxy by having the protagonists encounter familiar elements while changing those elements so as not to be too predictable.
So you end up with a setting that is familiar but different but in a way that contains no real surprises and which makes the differences jarring. Why not just set the story AFTER the period of The Next Generation/DS9/Voyager shows? Create a sense of civilisation moved on? Perhaps here the baggage of all those shows felt too much – too many big bads (the Borg, the Dominion etc) too many alien antagonists (the Ferengi, the now unfortunately named Cardassians). The galactic quadrants had become too busy and too packed with rubber headed aliens. By setting the series back just before the original series the show could make the Klingons the bad guys again.
It’s not fair to compare this decision with the Doctor Who reboot because despite their similar age the shows don’t treat continuity in the same way. However, Russell T Davies made a smart move from which Discovery could have learnt. Set a new series in a time that follows a catastrophe that creates both a bridge to the previous series, and allows the viewers to re-encounter familiar protagonists in a new way. That doesn’t imply a new Star Trek would need to have a post-apocalyptic vibe, rather some sort of event that disrupted galactic civilisations sufficiently that the Federation is needing to rebuild (a gamma-ray burst, a contagion that spreads via transporter beams, a big-bad alien did more damage than usual).
Discovery hasn’t taken that option but the setting kind of looks like it did. The technology is both old and new, the spaceships look both updated and more grungy, some aliens are now more familiar and closer to humans (e.g. the Vulcans) while others have become even more alien and Star Fleet understands them less (the Klingons). The whole feel of the show implies a setting where change has occurred but which claims that it is about changes that will occur and I find that somewhat annoying.
Visually the show looks fantastic. The capacity to produce a SF TV show with stunning visuals has grown tremendously. An alien desert planet in episode 1 looks like more than just a sandy patch. An EVA to an alien artefact in the accretion disk of a binary star system consuming itself makes little astrophysical sense but again looks suitably spacey and has a nice echo with the first Star Trek film. [Minor spoiler] Episode 2 features a full-on multi-starship space battle and some very good action scenes. The new version of the Klingons are still rubber headed aliens but distinctly more alien looking.
Meanwhile, the phasers and the communicators are reverently remodelled versions of the ‘classic’ props. Which is fine but together it doesn’t make much sense. It feels like the story team (who want the setting to be distinctly just a few years before TOS) and the effects and design team (who want to show off all the new things that can be done) are at loggerheads. It works when what is showed is things that we didn’t see before but which have always been implied (e.g. episode 2 use the shields and force fields effectively as visuals and as part of the story on a damaged starship). It works less well when funky new things are added because they are cool (starship communications now included projecting hologram avatars right in front of you because that looks cool).
The Klingons speak Klingon and end up speaking a lot of Klingon – maybe a tad too much to be honest. Meanwhile, the Vulcans just look like Vulcans and the main protagonist Michael Burnham (more on the name below) is a human who was brought up as a Vulcan and looks a bit Vulcany. The unfortunate effect is that the nice aliens look more human than ever and the nasty aliens look even more alien than ever.
I don’t want to delve too much into the details of the story but I thought, despite all my griping above, that it was decent. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the first two episodes are about the federation re-encountering the Klingon Empire – the first episode’s cold open is a Klingon speech that reveals their anxiety about a growing menace and a “lie” that they see as an open threat: “We come in peace.” The story suffers a bit from wanting a sense of realism but then pitching events and circumstances that require a more generous suspension of disbelief.
Interspersed with the main story we also see more of the backstory of the central character. Michael Burnham is a human who has been raised by Vulcans – specifically Sarek, the guy who is Spock’s dad (although that connection is not mentioned in the show). Her name is giving the Scrappy-Doos conniptions because it is a boys name! (OMG! A girl with a boys name! I guess they’ve never met a Robin or a Cameron or an Ashley or a Meredith, heck isn’t the Gamergate mascot called Vivian?) Assuming that you can cope with the shocking news that there are women in the future called Michael, I really liked this character. She is a mess of contradictions and makes some very bad decisions and this aspect is where the show starts doing something genuinely different and interesting.
Now, it is only two episodes in but the approach here appears to be to follow a central character’s story through a set of events set in the Star Trek universe rather than to have a show that follows the standard Star Trek story structure. By the end of episode 2, the titular starship “Discovery” hasn’t appeared, nor has its captain and the central character is not in a good place. I think this is a smart decision. A planet/monster of the week show is something that other shows can do quite effectively (e.g. see Killjoys) on a smaller budget. More substantial story arcs make more sense for a pricey show on a streaming service (CBS’s own service in the US, Netflix for the rest of us – which is probably a better deal for the non-USAians). Showing us a character that fits with the Starfleet and Federation ethos but whose bad decisions drive the plot is a clever change.
Worth watching? If you already have a Netflix subscription, yes, definitely I’d say. Despite the annoying continuity/not-continuity element of the show, it looks good, it was nicely acted and the dialogue gets snappier (no laughs though). A strong attempt to do a serious space opera. For Americans, I don’t know what else the CBS streaming service has and I’m not sure I’d feel happy having paid for access JUST for this show. Your mileage may vary.