I watched Star Trek – Lower Decks

At the risk of becoming some kind of Star Trek completist, I watched the animated series Star Trek – Lower Decks which recently made its way onto Amazon Prime in locations beyond the USA. Initially confined to CBS All Access, the show wasn’t available for some time internationally (unlike Discovery or Picard which could be accessed on Netflix and Amazon respectively in locales without CBS).

Pitched as humorous, adult-orientated animated series in the Star Trek universe, the series creator is Mike McMahan, a lead writer from Rick and Morty. However, the show’s humour is both less crude and less imaginative than that show, indeed overall it pitches itself at ‘amusing’ rather than ‘funny’. The obvious comparison is with The Orville, rather than Galaxy Quest or John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Parodies can themselves be love letters to what they parody but there is a point where there is a degree of respectfulness to the source material where parody is no longer viable. Instead, the show is at the edge the range of humour that already exists within Star Trek’s variety of tone. It is not an attempt to pull at the loose threads of Star Trek’s concept to see what unravels and more an attempt to provide a more sustained hit of that Trouble With Tribbles energy or the ensemble warmth of DS9.

Put aside any expectations of Rick & Morty But Star Trek or a Star Trek sitcom or Red Dwarf but Trek but also put aside any expectations of a kind of Becky Chamber’s style look at ordinary people in space examination of Trek. There are bits of elements of that but judged against those criteria, the show is a failure. Treat as a different variation on mainstream Star Trek but with a bit of army-humour and the show works.

What it does well is provide relatively short Trek-like episodes with an ensemble cast of engaging characters. Indeed, given how much Discovery struggles to give its supporting cast any attention, it is notable how much better Lower Decks is at letting multiple characters be engaging. True, most episodes focus on the main two leads, Ensigns Beckett Mariner and Brad Boimler (Tawny Newsome and Jack Quaid) but nearly equal time is given to their two friends/co-workers Ensigns D’Vana Tendi and Sam Rutherford (Noël Wells and Eugene Cordero). All four of them are to varying degrees hyper-competent (because the show accepts that everybody in Starfleet is the best-of-the-best as a baseline) but to varying degrees flawed. However, the extent to which they are varyingly insubordinate, accident prone or magnets for misfortune is implied to be things that they may/might/will grow out of.

Overall that set-up works. The ship (the USS Cerritos) is a designated “second contact” ship whose job it is to run follow-up missions but just as low-key missions have a tendency to spiral out of control in The Next Generation, so they do for the Cerritos. The paradox that Starfleet ships are essentially university research departments run according to the rules of the navy is just as apparent here as with the rest of Trek but less annoying given the comedy setting [yes, everybody really should have been court-martialled already but then we can make the same point about Discovery].

The only stand-out episode for me was Episode 9:Crisis Point where Mariner co-opts Boimler’s holodeck simulation of the crew (designed to help him succeed at promotion interviews) into her own cinematic version of Lower Decks. The holodeck lets the show finally shift gear into proper parody but late enough into the series that we have gained some affection for the characters. There are some funny and wry moments balanced with some character growth.

So overall, as an amusing hit of Star Trek energy, the show works so longs as you aren’t expecting anything either deep or funny or insightful. It leans towards being overly respectful of the source material but is sufficiently engaging to be enjoyable.

Star Trek Discovery: That Hope is You – Part 2 (S3E13)

Discovery pulls off another of its space action finales in what I felt was a satisfying (except in one aspect) end. There were lots of emotional moments, in particular I’m a sucker for heroic deaths of cute robots but there were lots of other tear-jerking scenes particularly for the Hugh-Paul-Adira-Gray family. It’s a finale though, so spoilers follower.

Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery: That Hope is You – Part 2 (S3E13)”

Star Trek Discovery: There Is a Tide…(S3E12)

A bit of Die Hard Jefferies Tube action is surprisingly not the main focus of this fun episode. Like the initial episode of the three part finale, there is a lot going on but the balance of the plot is much better.

Osyraa has stolen Discovery and used it to gain access to Federation HQ. Everything is set up for a big spaceship fight as we all assume she is there to cause wanton destruction. Instead, Osyraa’s big plan is much bigger and at a wholly different scale: she wants to go legit. She may be a supervillain but she is a pragmatic supervillain and the way forward for the Emerald Chain is a deal with the Federation where the two groups work together for the greater good of the galaxy.

The episode spends time with Admiral Vance and Osyraa laying out the potential deal and…it actually makes sense. The Federation does not need to compromise much and maybe (maybe) it could actually all be for the best. It is, of course, a trap but it is a trap that is wide open and honest about what it is: the Federation selling out to a criminal enterprise that uses murder, slavery and extortion of whole planets to get what it wants. I like the thought put into this as there have certainly been Star Fleet officials in the past who would have bought into proposed Emerald Chain/Federation joint venture. It’s close enough of a compromise to create real tension because it is close enough that you can’t be sure if the writers actually think it might be a good idea (remember, they just spent two episodes rehabilitating an even more fundamentally evil space despot). Vance’s counter-offer is also very nicely tuned, showing a willingness to listen, compromise and offering an ethical way forward that also cuts to the heart of Osyraa’s duplicity.

Meanwhile, Adira, Hugh, Saru and Barney McGrew are parked off-screen while everybody else struggles for control of Discovery. With Michael infiltrating and Tilly rising to the occasion of captaincy under difficult circumstances, the story gives the emotional heart to neither of them but rather to Stamets. Anthony Rapp does fine work as his character is put through the wringer. Firstly his forced calm as he attempts to turn the psychological tables on Osyraa’s pet scientist is very nicely done. Only to be followed by a pragmatic betrayal by Michael as she forces him off the ship rather than helping him return Discovery to the planet where Hugh is trapped (and facing certain death).

The broader society within the control of the Emerald Chain is not something Discovery has shown us but the episode does a quick sketch of something more than just commercial exchanges and labour camps. It’s thin but just about sufficient, which reveals the luxury past Star Trek has had with fleshing out what the non-Federation societies are like over multiple episodes and series with the Klingons and Romulans (and even Vulcans) being one note societies for long periods, only picking up nuance overtime.

Unfortunately for those same writers, next week there are multiple plot lines that need resolving and (probably) Michael’s mum is going to turn up (maybe to save her from a very angry Stamets).

Star Trek Discovery: Su’Kal (S3E11)

While Discovery has had a distinctive visual style from the beginning and some distinct themes (bloodier than other versions of Trek), it hasn’t found its own narrative style. There have been experiments with space opera (particularly Season 1 mirror universe episodes) and advances in CGI have made it possible for Discovery to include exciting, action-filled space battles. Yet the show has often relied on story conventions from the original series and TNG. Also, the relatively small number of episodes per season has meant that it has retreated from the more social slightly-soap operaish (in a good way) qualities introduced in TNG but better explored in DS9.

The Picard limited series (flawed as it was) had the advantage of committing more overtly to a single season-length plot. Each season of Discovery has had its own story arc (Lorca-Ash, Red Angel and now The Burn) but the show has still attempted very TNG episodes (often directed by Commander Riker himself!) mixed in with space-action episodes (that I’ve enjoyed but often they felt like the belonged to a different franchise).

Su’Kal is an interesting, if over-stuffed episode. Lots of things happen (and Cora’s review covers the plot better than I can http://corabuhlert.com/2020/12/26/star-trek-discovery-mounts-a-rescue-mission-and-meets-sukal/ ) and overall it doesn’t quite come together but I feel like there is a sense of both synthesis and distinctiveness here.

The opening is unusual. Has a Trek episode ever done this before? The show starts within the same scene as the last episode but not to resolve a cliff hanger. We last met the crew toasting the dead-not-dead Emperor Georgiou. She is long dead and also very much alive in the past (which is true of every dead person when you think about it) but also she’s not narratively dead. That closing scene was a way to close off that story line but also (in universe) for the crew to find closure for the loss of Georgiou (and remember that several of them had served with the non-evil Georgiou & they all had served with the evil-but-pretending-not-to-be Lorca). That scene was plausible but also plausibly discordant in tone (sadness at losing a woman who was not just rude but a mass murderer who used to eat members of Captain Saru’s species).

This episode simply carries on that scene with the crew still at Georgiou’s wake. We get Adira and Stamets interacting and Gray deciding to return. However, the social bonding is interrupted with the shocking news that there is somebody alive on the mysterious Kelpian ship that may contain the answers to the mystery of the Burn. I wonder, if they filmed this with the original intention for this revelation to be a cliff-hanger moment for the previous episode? Maybe, but as odd as it was I liked that sense of a blending between episodes. There is a thing that Discovery has done that previous Trek versions have rarely done — play with the narrative time within and between episodes.

The episode attempts to pull in the different ways Discovery can be into one episode. Space action (as Book’s ship attempts to zoom through an erratic and radioactive dilithium fuelled nebula storm) a very TNG/TOS away-team adventure in a mind-bending location along with the plot arc and Disocvery’s penchant for space-opera tropes as acting-captain Tilly has to face off evil-space-princess-pirate with green skin.

Does that all work in one episode? No but not for a lack of effort and the show delivers an enjoyable if chaotic Trek adventure. It is also probably one of the best uses of the holodeck concept in an episode that I’ve seen (note: not the best episode on the holodeck but the best concept). As the Discovery crew aren’t familiar with the technology, it is a genuine mystery to them but not to the viewer. That itself is another Discoveryesque aspect done well — a call back that rewards fans but works without prior knowledge that works organically with the plot.

It also means that Doug Jones gets to work without make-up as the holodeck on board the crashed Kelpian ship decides to represent him as a human.

The essence of the mystery of the Burn is explained and the answer is unsurprising only in so far as it doesn’t matter. It was always going to be magicphysics but we get a bit of Trekian psychic-woo which is fine. Trek cosplays as hard-science fiction in the Campbellian tradition of cosplaying as hard science (it’s recursive) and I have zero complaints about that.

The good news is that behind the scenes, Phillipa Georgiou took the script for this episode back to Season 1 and is threatening to put the showrunners for that season in the Agoniser so that they start experimenting with this format in season 1 so that by the time the new timeline gets to season 3 they’ve worked out how to make it work. “No Klingons!” shouts Georgiou as producers cower in terror while an intern tries to get Michelle Yeoh’s agent on the phone, not understanding that Georgiou is the character and not the actor playing her. “Experiment with the narrative form of Trek,” she says in a more charming tone which some how conveys a deeper threat of mutilating violence than her shouts or the combo of bat’leth and Romulan disruptor that she is wielding. “Experiment with character not Klingon prosthetics. Show us the neglected Trek species like the Orions not the Klingons again! Show non-traditional family relationships like it’s the future and not the 1990s and expecting a cookie just for having a gay couple in the cast!”. (Why isn’t Georgiou also warning us all about Covid-19 if she is in the past? Because she is an evil space emperor and she has other priorities.)

Two more episodes to go. The next one is on New Year’s Eve — it’s like Discovery is doing Christmas specials like Doctor Who! Michael, Saru and Doctor Hugh as the Three Wise Men/Sentient Beings come to visit the child born in hostile surroundings? That almost works.

Finally, once again (as the show always has) the episode delivers visually with great CGI work on the space storm planet and the crumbling fantasy world of the holodeck. Hot mess that looks fabulous is the future that Discovery wants.

Star Trek Discovery: Terra Firma Part 2 (S3E10)

The theme revealed in this mirror universe two-parter is can people change and if so can one person intentionally change another. The answer given is yes to the first and no to the second even using brutal torture techniques to obliterate a personality.

Emperor Georgiou was always going to be a tricky character to rehabilitate but she’s a fun addition to the Star Trek universe. There simply isn’t a good way to go from cruel, murderous dictator to loveable bad-ass without just pretending that eating your crew-mates because they taste nice is a forgivable lapse.

Thanks to the intervention of what turns out to be the Guardian of Forever aka Carl, Georgiou is back in the Mirror universe. She is still pretty damn evil and the empire she runs is even worse but she tries to evily be less evil by not killing the evil traitorous version of Michael Burnham and instead methodically tortures her to try and make her moderately less evil. I’ll spoil the plot a little bit to say that thankfully this doesn’t work, although I didn’t trust the writers sufficiently to not worry that we were going to get an apologetics on torture. I think the plot works better knowing that Georgiou’s plan is definitely going to fail precisely because the apparent direction of the story looked like it was going to be awful.

Anyway, it turns out torturing people is a bad idea both ethically and pragmatically even in the Mirror universe and you a not-as-evil-as-you-could-be Emperor trying to make the empire less evil. Georgiou’s actual act of salvation is almost an afterthought. She reveals to mirror-Saru the secret of the Kelpian transformation — that they can survive their supposed descent into madness and come out the other side a little less timid. It is this act, allowing somebody to change themselves by giving them the tools they need that marks that Georgiou has changed.

I watched it a second time around knowing where the plot was going and I enjoyed it more. The first time around, that apparent theme of ‘maybe we can zap people into being who we want them to be’ was too off-putting to enjoy. Knowing that the episode rejects the idea helps but overall there is always going to be this tension between the campy-fun of the evil empire and the empire actually being horrible and evil.

Given the real world acrimony and claims of betrayal around the original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” it was an interesting choice to have the omnipotent being be the iconic Guardian. However, overall it was a mediocre episode that kept wandering into ethical dilemmas without having sensible answers. Making an overt nod to one of the most critically acclaimed Star Trek episodes invites comparisons that this episode can’t live up to.

ETA Cora’s review was equally dissatisfied with the torture element of the episode http://corabuhlert.com/2020/12/19/star-trek-discovery-a-k-a-the-adventures-of-empress-philippa-the-no-longer-quite-so-merciless-on-terra-firma-part-ii/

Star Trek Discovery: Terra Firma Part 1 (S3E9)

In the pilot episode of Discovery, Michael and Captain Georgiou are walking across a desert planet and in this episode we get a visual nod to that with Michael and Former-Emperor Georgiou walking across a snow bound world. The prologue to the episodes main action takes it time. We get the return of David Cronenberg as the mysterious Federation agent whose job it is to know about time wars and parallel universes. We get a nod to the Kelvin timeline and some progress on the meta-plot about the Burn.

This delay is largely a pretext to bring back the mirror universe. The return of the universe in which every shot looks like a Baen book cover, is hardly a surprise. Georgiou’s mysterious illness was clearly being set up as a way of bringing back the campy-space empire which had been some of the most fun but least Trekky aspects of Season 1.

The way back is via one of Trek’s many magical beings, a sequence which I found a bit weak. While Discovery’s nod’s to other iterations of Trek can get tiresome, it might have been fun if John de Lancie had been the guy with newspaper and magic door.

It is December, so maybe the Narnia like snowy portals is Discovery’s idea of a Christmas episode, which makes what follows Discovery’s version of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Georgiou finds herself back in the mirror universe but also back in time. Lorca is plotting a coup and (evil) Michael is ready to betray her — events that all occurred before Season 1. Sadly, there is no Jason Isaac cameo but the rest of the cast get to dress up as Trek-but-fascist.

It’s fun but being a two-parter, it is also inconclusive. The most interesting idea here is how inherently evil the Terran versions of Discovery are. Georgiou should literally be in her element (indeed, it is her atoms rebelling that is causing her medical condition) but she finds herself in a position not unlike Captain Kirk in the original jaunt into the mirror. Her time in the not-evil dimension has taught much about the people around her and while she hasn’t become good exactly, she has become more pragmatic. Perhaps not having to spend all your cognitive effort on keeping track of who is scheming against who gives you time to think more clearly.

We will see where it all goes next week.

Star Trek Discovery: The Sanctuary (S3E8)

This week we get a Jonathan Frakes directed episode that is a bitty and disconnected but which covers a lot of ground. It’s not quite 100% b-plots but it feels that way at times.

The main victim of this lack of focus is the trip to Book’s home world and family. It is a huge planet that feels like one bit of woodland and six or seven people. Star Trek can often fail to distinguish between a planet, a town and a specific place but I felt like the plot tripped over itself in the level of confusion here and implied that the population of the planet was essentially Book and his brother.

We do get to meet Osyraa, the not-so-big-bad leader of the Emerald Chain crime syndicate. What the episode lacks as a self-contained narrative arc, it compensates for by moving multiple season story arcs forward. In Osyraa’s case we meet her (a member of one of classic Trek’s under-used species, the Orions) and get insight into her basic motives (she is a mob boss, that’s about it).

Meanwhile there is plenty of other stuff going on. Georgiou is finally seeking treatment for her black outs from Dr Culber. Her uncooperative attitude makes her a terrible patient but makes for some good dialogue.

Adira resolves a key question for reviewers of Discovery and clarifies their choice of pronouns to Stamets. Luckily for them Stamets as decided to turn down his tendency to be an arsehole to people and is supportive. It’s nice as well that both Culber and Stamets have their own separate plots this episode, which makes their brief interaction feel like two people in a stable relationship (and also be Adira’s adoptive dads).

Stamets and Adira also make progress on finding the source of the Burn and the mysterious music motif.

I’m writing lots of short paragraphs, which is how this episode feels. It would have been kind of cool if Frakes had done this episode as a series of vignettes like the “22 Short Films about Springfield” episode of the Simpsons.

Tilly and Saru get to run Discovery and Saru (delightfully) tries out different signature catch-phrases.

Detmer deals with the loss of her pilot mojo by embracing her inner Han Solo and launching an attack from Book’s ship on a much bigger star ship. Technically, that is part of the main plot but it is also another season plot arc dealt with.

It’s a Frakes episode, so it is largely competent but unremarkable. It’s the first episode this season where I felt like the old Discovery problem of letting the flaws in plotting take centre stage returned. Book’s relationship with his brother, the nature of their planet, the society they live in, the deal with the Emerald Chain and the eventual resolution of the lice problem all felt badly under-cooked. Trek (and sci-fi shows in general) have to get a lot world building done with some big broad brush strokes, small sets and a couple of actors to suggest that their is a whole planet full of people. The episode failed to pull that off.

Cora’s review reminds me that we also had a minor Linus the reptile guy sub plot: http://corabuhlert.com/2020/12/05/star-trek-discovery-visits-the-sanctuary/

Star Trek Discovery: Unification III (S3E7)

A slow and thoughtful episode with a cheeky title and overt connections to both The Next Generation and Picard. The risk it runs is playing dangerously close to being dull and/or mawkish but I enjoyed it and the slower pace allows the strong cast to carry the emotional stakes. There are a few surprises, so I’ll put the spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery: Unification III (S3E7)”

Star Trek Discovery: Scavengers (S3E6)

The core of this episode is a bit weak and cliched but it is surrounded with decent character work.

Book’s ship turns up at Star Fleet HQ with only Grudge the cat on board. With Saru keen to prove Discovery’s reliability to Star Fleet he forbids Michael from going on an impromptu rescue mission. Naturally Michael goes on an impromptu rescue mission.

The mission itself involves Michael and Georgiou visiting a junkyard planet that’s just some sort of rusty mineral processing factory but filmed with a yellow filter to look alien. The factory is run by the bad-guy organised crime gang and populated with slave-prisoners. The slaves can’t escape because they have devices on their necks that blow their heads off if they cross the perimeter. Book is one of the prisoners etc. It’s fine but you’ve seen it all before.

What is better here is that episode finally makes an attempt to deal with the question of Michael’s propensity for rogue missions in a way that is neither court-martial-life-imprisonment nor a pat-on-the-head and praise for what a cheeky scamp she is. The set-up for her disobedience is (more or less) a bit of a genuine dilemma for both Michael and Saru and the consequences for her insubordination are significant and have impact but aren’t absurd or unjust.

Trek has wobbled all over the place with these kinds of issues through every iteration. The problem is creating a dilemma for what are supposed to be military officers that doesn’t imply that at least one party is both an arsehole and shouldn’t be an officer with access to the weapons of a starship. The result adds to the wildly inconsistent portrait of Star Fleet as an institution and as a place where the chain-of-command is on one hand sacred and on the other hand a more of a vague custom rather than something enforced.

Meanwhile, the episode moves things along with whatever mysterious thing is going on with Georgiou and also moves things along with Adira and Stamets. The bridge crew also get new toys. None of which are big plot points (yet) but do demonstrate that the show continues to improve in giving a sense that everybody on the ship aren’t just holograms that wink off when Michael leaves the ship. A short scene with Tilly and Grudge likewise does a lot of this work. You don’t need big speeches or even a B-plot to ensure that a show about a crew of a spaceship feels populated.

ETA Cora makes the valid point that while the slave-worker story is a familiar one, it’s not one that is common in Star Trek http://corabuhlert.com/2020/11/21/star-trek-discovery-goes-on-an-unsanctioned-mission-in-scavengers/

Star Trek Discovery: Die Trying (S3E5)

I think this is the most self-confident episode of Discovery we have had. Ironically given that the plot involves the crew of the ship having to prove themselves to the remaining rump of Star Fleet, this is an episode that acts like it has nothing to prove. Stronger than last week’s episode but it shares that quality of not being a stand-out episode of Trek in general while being clever, engaging, entertaining and visually brilliant. Where it has the advantage over past episodes is that it uses small moments to make use of a large cast.

Discovery has finally found the hidden remains of Star Fleet and the Federation. Do you want starship porn? Well we get a big glowy show of ships (including a version of Voyager) that makes the secret Star Fleet base feel more like Iain Bank’s Culture than earlier versions. There’s even a USS Nog for DS9 fans. Here the Discovery runs into an excellent threat: a reasonable, measured and quite rightly suspicious Star Fleet whose last records of a “USS Discovery” is a ship that was destroyed centuries ago and which also has very strict laws against time travel (a nod to Enterprise). Hey! Lots of inter-show continuity going on here but all done in nods and without interrupting the plot.

The threat to the ship comes in the form of military bureaucracy and I really like this. Star Fleet has gained a new ship and traumatised crew and so (arguably sensibly) wants to split up the crew and repurpose the ship. Saru and Burnham have other ideas (arguably sensible ones) and we voila! We have a dramatic conflict in which reasonable people are in conflict for reasonable reasons! No secret conspiracies or mirror universe doppelgängers , just two sets of people with different agendas.

OK, I mean we DO have a mirror universe doppelgänger in the form of Emperor Georgiou who gets her own time to shine in a debrief interrogation scene with Michael from the Good Place. No, no not actually a Ted Danson cameo but a flippin’ David Cronenberg cameo, as the future-Federation’s resident mirror universe specialist. If that and the rest of the crew’s debrief scenes (some very funny plot summaries of seasons 1 & 2) aren’t enough, we also have a mysteriously-abandoned-ship/base story.

The episode crams a lot in! Yet, it keeps things together and sticks to a good pace. The weakest part is centring security officer Nahn and her people’s culture. Yet even here the sense of unearned emotions arise from flaws in previous episodes. Nahn has been a character in 13 episodes of Discovery but prior to this episode, I would have struggled to remember her name or how she joined the crew. So we get a bit of a “Hello, I’m Commander Nahn. Here is a quick backstory about my people who are very unique because we breathe funny air but our culture has a thing about death, no time to explain what it is and I was very attached to the nice robot lady who died. Goodbye!”

Security Officer of Discovery is a position with a bit of a curse attached to it.

Five episodes in and so far I haven’t felt disappointed by a single one of them! Aside from Nahn, the only annoying thing was Saru’s version of the Dark Ages versus the Renaissance and given the time period is forgivable. Future Alien guy has a very potted & distorted take on human history? Technically that’s realism.

Anyway, David Cronenberg.

Cora’s review is here http://corabuhlert.com/2020/11/14/star-trek-discovery-is-determined-to-fulfill-its-mission-or-die-trying/