Star Trek: Discovery – “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” is a bunch of nonsense

“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” is the episode of Star Trek: Discovery that has forced me to finally admit that I am hopelessly confused about some important aspects of this show. Namely, what is going on with this war between the Klingons and the Federation. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t make a ton of sense, and this episode (the title translates to “If you want peace, prepare for war”) builds up to a cliffhanger that leaves us set up for next week’s fall finale, after which we’ll have to wait until mid-January for the final six episodes of the season. I’m not optimistic that one more episode will be enough to untangle this mess, but that would be less of a problem if the garbled plot and inconsistent characterization of the show’s main players didn’t combine to make it difficult to become emotionally invested in the story on screen.

**Spoilers below.**

This may be the most “classic” Trek episode of Star Trek: Discovery so far; it’s the first episode since the premiere to take our heroes to the surface of a planet, and it’s the first episode in which that planetside adventure is the primary plot. “Si Vis Pacem” starts with the Discovery failing to save hundreds of lives that are lost when a couple of Federation ships are ambushed by Klingons using stealth technology. As much as the Discovery’s spore drive gives the Federation an edge by making the ship incredibly swift and nimble, the Federation is still struggling with the dangers posed by the Klingons’ invisibility shields (“cloaking” technology comes years later, from the Romulans). To help allay the problem, Burnham, Saru and Tyler travel to the planet Pahvo, which houses an enormous (-ly phallic) crystal resonator that they hope to use to boost a sonar signal that would, theoretically, allow them to detect invisible Klingon ships within range. It’s a scientifically dodgy-sounding proposition, but okay. At this point I was just thrilled to get to see them go to a planet. It’s a nice change after eight episodes taking place almost entirely on ships.

When Burnham, Saru and Tyler arrive on Pahvo, they quickly realize that the planet is not, as previously thought, uninhabited. The planet is well known for its peculiar “singing,” which is channeled through the crystal antenna I guess? But it’s somehow never been thoroughly investigated enough for anyone to learn that there are creatures that live there and that appear to be the people responsible for the sounds that have been heard from the planet all this time. I suppose this oversight can be forgiven, since the Pahvans are incorporeal beings made of a sort of glittery blue mist, but it still kind of begs the question of how anyone in Starfleet could come up with an important plan that utilizes a feature of a planet like this without knowing a little more about the place. In any case, though hooking up the sonar thingy to the crystal thingy is important, the mission immediately switches to first contact protocols once they realize the Pahvans exist.

Though Burnham is the first one to insist that they follow first contact procedures and ensure that the Pahvans consent to the use of their crystal antenna, it’s Saru who does most of the communicating with the Pahvans, through a kind of telepathic connection. It’s awkward to watch, and things take a weird turn when Saru is seemingly mind-controlled by the Pahvans, who are purely peaceful beings dedicated to harmony. When Saru destroys Burnham and Tyler’s communicators and expresses his desire to stay on the planet, where he insists they can live in harmony, they’re forced to think fast and come up with a plan to escape so they can get back to the war with the Klingons. While Tyler distracts Saru, Burnham heads to the crystal antenna to contact the Discovery for help. Unfortunately, Tyler’s distraction of Saru doesn’t last long enough and the first officer chases after Burnham, attacking her and trying to destroy her communication device when he finds her at the antenna.

Before either Burnham or Saru is seriously injured, but not before Burnham has to use a phaser on Saru to defend herself, the Pahvans show up. Saru reiterates his desire to remain on Pahvo, but the Pahvans are, as apparently as possible for clouds of blue glitter to be, receptive to Burnham’s plea for permission to use the crystal antenna in order to bring an end to the war with the Klingons. This is about the time that the Discovery gets in contact with its away team and transports them back to the ship, where they quickly realize that the Pahvans aren’t transmitting a sonar signal; they’re sending out a message that is drawing the Klingons to Pahvo, presumably in the interest of forging a peace between the warring factions. We’ll find out next week how that works out for them.

There are a number of weird things about the whole ordeal on the service of Pahvo, and the vague silliness of the science of it is just the beginning. A major problem is what exactly is going on with Saru’s motivations throughout the episode. When they first arrive on Pahvo, Saru is in physical pain from the constant noise, which overstimulates his keen prey-species senses and makes him anxious to quickly finish their mission and get back to the ship. His change to being at peace with the noise and attuned to the Pahvans happens off screen, which makes his sudden desire to stay on the planet forever feel jarring and out of character in a way that suggests mind-control. However, while Burnham and Saru recuperate in sick bay, we find out that Saru wasn’t mind-controlled at all; he was just really into the Pahvans’ message of harmony. Saru’s anger at Burnham as they fight at the foot of the antenna feels real enough, and his fury over her continued “taking” things from him fits with what we’ve already seen of their relationship (although I thought they buried that hatchet several episodes ago), but it’s not an effective bridge between the earlier scenes on Pahvo, where Saru seems mind-controlled and the scene in sick bay where we learn that he’s not.

There’s no natural character progression or arc here for Saru, and the overall effect is to make him seem unbalanced and fragile. What he says, explicitly, is that he’s constantly stressed out by being a prey creature trying to do things that go against his essential nature. Saru’s outburst of extreme rage and violence, coupled with the anxiety and resentment he expresses, is indicative that he may only be barely holding things together most of the time, and this is at odds with what we’ve learned about Saru so far. Previous episodes of the show have touched upon Saru’s species traits and what they mean for him as a character, but the overall tone of that earlier material seemed to be that we should view his peculiarities as just that: peculiarities which, like all such individual traits, have pros and cons. There’s even an implicit message of diversity and acceptance (including self-acceptance) in Saru’s narrative in previous episodes. Sure, he may have traits that seem odd to humans, but he was also portrayed as studious, loyal and capable; his instincts were shown more as an extra sense that could even be useful, but here Saru’s instincts override everything else about his character.

It’s not even that this racial essentialism is uncommon in Star Trek; just look at this show’s Klingons (or DS9’s Ferengi or basically all Vulcans ever) for further examples. What I find frustrating about Saru’s actions in this episode is that I get the feeling the show’s writers don’t grasp the way they’ve undermined their own point. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising after the way the bungled Harry Mudd as a Lovable Rogue, but it’s irritating to watch. If Saru is supposed to be a sort of ambassador for diversity aboard the Discovery, with most of his portrayal dedicated to the idea that his species traits don’t dictate his fitness to serve in Starfleet or present a barrier to his ambitions there, showing him as unpredictably violent due to those same traits really works at cross purposes with that message. In the end, it’s just nonsensical.

The other big storyline this week belongs to L’Rell, who is trying to ingratiate herself to Kol. Or something? It’s actually not at all clear exactly what L’Rell is trying to accomplish here. I suppose there’s intended to be layers and layers of scheming going on, but what comes across is a confusing sequence of failed plans that end with L’Rell being imprisoned by Kol. First, L’rell offers Kol her services as an interrogator, and she’s given the task of extracting information from the captive Admiral Cornwell. However, as soon as the guards leave the two women alone, L’Rell tells Cornwell that she wants to defect to the Federation. L’Rell claims to have an escape plan, and she escorts Cornwell through the halls of the Klingon vessel, ostensibly on the way to L’Rell’s ship, but they’re caught by Kol, at which point L’Rell stages a fight with Cornwell and kills her, telling Kol that the Admiral had overpowered her. When L’Rell drags Cornwell to, I guess, the ship’s dead body room (I mean, I don’t even know?), she finds her own crew slaughtered and piled up on the floor and vows to avenge them. She returns to Kol and swears fealty to him, but he sees through her, calls her a liar and has her escorted out.

This is all a lot, and it doesn’t make much sense at all. L’Rell’s stated desire to defect to the Federation could make sense as either a ruse, to trick Cornwell into giving her sensitive information, or as a sincere desire if L’Rell really is angry at Kol and wants nothing but vengeance on him for deposing T’kuvma’s chosen successor, Voq. However, L’Rell doesn’t get any information from Cornwell, at least not on screen, and her apparent murder of the Admiral and quick abandonment of the plan is evidence against L’Rell’s desire to defect being for real. It’s also notable that L’Rell seems surprised to find her dead men, and this is the first time we see her vow vengeance, which undermines vengeance as a possible motive for her earlier actions. But, if L’Rell was only trying to insinuate herself with Admiral Cornwell by pretending to be an ally in hopes of getting information, why would she be so quick to murder the other woman? And when Kol calls L’Rell a liar, what lies is he referring to? What evidence is he basing this judgment on? Why isn’t he more upset about L’Rell casually murdering a valuable prisoner? If this is all some kind of extremely layered ruse, what is L’Rell’s endgame here? How does being locked up in Klingon jail get her closer to success? And where is Voq, anyway?

Something tells me that these questions aren’t all going to be satisfactorily answered next week.

Miscellany:

  • Burnham and Tyler finally get that kiss.
  • When Tyler is trying to delay Saru, there’s a moment where Saru calls him out on his deception, and Tyler looked really uncertain and frightened, almost as if he thought Saru might have sensed some deeper deception.
  • Unpopular Opinion: The Tilly/Stamets stuff was the most compelling material in the episode. We know that the spore drive doesn’t survive into later Treks, but it’s a fantastic piece of technology so I’m interested to see what catastrophic drawbacks cause it to be abandoned.
  • Also, why does this show have such a high body count for women characters? If Cornwell really is dead, it was upsettingly abrupt and senseless. Even if it wasn’t especially brutal or bloody, it’s still part of a sad pattern on this show where any woman in a position of power or influence has a shockingly early expiration date.

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: November 5, 2017

This was actually a pretty great week until yesterday, when I had to spend half the afternoon dealing with Spectrum, as I finally decided to switch my grandfathered-in Time Warner internet plan to one of the newer ones, which meant new hardware that had to be hooked up and activated. It’s all supposed to be automated and as simple as calling a number and saying “activate,” but that turned out not to be the case. The tech support guy I dealt with was very nice and did finally get things sorted, but over an hour on the phone with anyone is usually enough to fry my nerves for the rest of the day. An hour on the phone with a tech support guy stumbling through settings to find out why things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to is basically torture. Honestly, I’m still feeling frazzled and resentful about the whole experience a day later.

Halloween was on Tuesday, and we kept it low key here. It was the first Halloween my daughter chose not to go trick-or-treating, which was kind of sad. She went to her grandparents’ house to help hand out candy instead, so we were left to our own devices. We don’t get trick-or-treaters at the apartment, so I ended up just staying up far past my normal bedtime to finish a post about Star Trek: Discovery. Let’s just say there was a lot to unpack in the most recent episode.

Wednesday marked the start of NaNoWriMo, which I’m kinda doing this year. I’m not writing a novel, but I am treating the whole month as a sort of productivity exercise in the hopes that it will help me get back on track to where I’d like to be in terms of writing content for the blog, which will in turn (ideally, anyway) put me in a better position, come the first of the year, to work on a couple of ambitious project ideas I’ve been sitting on for a while. Right now, I’m all about instituting more structure in my day-to-day life and building a routine that will allow me to accomplish big goals in the future. So far, it’s gone okay, even if yesterday turned out to be a total loss, what with dealing with the cable company and all. This coming week should be even better.

Every year for Halloween, the Book Smugglers publish a short horror story. This year’s is “Nini” by Yukimi Ogawa.

This video of Wayne Brady doing a 1930s-style cover of “Thriller” is the last Halloween-ish thing I’m sharing this year:

If you’re looking for something to read this month and my Fall Reading List isn’t good enough for you, be sure to check out Tor.com’s lists of November releases:

The cover and table of contents for Issue 19 of Uncanny has been revealed, and it looks fabulous.

The new issue of Strange Horizons celebrates SFF from the Arab League community.

Congrats to the winners of this year’s World Fantasy Awards!

If you, too, are participating in NaNoWriMo, Tor.com has a nice collection of advice and pep talks from popular SFF writers.

It looks like there might be a new Red Sonja movie, and I am here for it.

The AV Club covered Victor Lavalle’s Destroyer in Friday’s Big Issues column.

Charles Payseur is still mapping short SFF at Nerds of a Feather. This week: Fun Short SFF.

At Queership, Elizabeth Bear (The Stone in the Skull) wrote about identifying with the monsters in stories.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, whose novella Winterglass is out in December from Apex Publishing, wrote about writing queer stories without queer tragedy.

R.E. Stearns shared her Favorite Bit of her debut novel, Barbary Station.

Singapore’s The Straits Times profiled Ken Liu, JY Yang, Aliette de Bodard, and Marjorie Liu.

At the Powell’s Book Blog, editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe asked several of the contributors to their fantastic anthology, The Starlit Wood, to share their thoughts and perspective on retelling fairy tales.

At Terrible Minds, author Fonda Lee offers her new novel, Jade City (out November 7), as an anti-NaNoWriMo case study.

Lee was also interviewed about Jade City over at The Illustrated Page.

Also, I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Jade City and just finished it last night. I’ll be writing a longer review, but it’s incredible and you should order it right now.

It’s been a week full of people having all kinds of terrible, poorly informed opinions about the Civil War. If you are one of the people who has those opinions, or if you aren’t sure you’re not, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a handy list of 5 Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War over at The Atlantic.

The Oral History of 1997’s Cinderella is one of the best things you could read this week.

You also owe it to yourself to read the NYT profile of classicist Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English.

Finally, I’m still processing all the news that came out of Blizzcon this weekend, but look at this cinematic trailer for the next World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth. Sylvanas looks a-MAZING:

 

The Shannara Chronicles: “Dweller” is the show at its high fantasy best

The Shannara Chronicles continues to improve in its second season, giving us a strongly entertaining episode in “Dweller.” I’m a little skeptical of just how much plot is happening per episode in this show, just, you know, in general, and there’s a lot going on in “Dweller,” but it all, somewhat miraculously, worked this week. The show has a tendency to use a lot of storytelling shorthand, and that’s apparent in every storyline in this episode, but most of that shorthand is smart, and the couple of groanworthy instances of coincidence that do pop up are pretty forgivable ones. There’s also a higher than Shannara-average amount of genuinely good acting in this episode, which helps solidify the emotional beats, though there are still a couple that don’t quite land on target. It’s not perfect, but “Dweller” is about as good as The Shannara Chronicles gets.

**Spoilers ahead!**

Bandon (and Tamlin) (but mostly Flick)

The episode opens with Queen Tamlin being visited by Bandon, who is there to tell her that the Warlock Lord hasn’t forgotten the debt she owes him. Apparently, Tamlin was young and new to ruling during the last war against the Warlock Lord, and she bargained with him to help her people and preserve her kingdom. It’s not clear exactly what the terms of the agreement were, but it seems this is a piper who demands to be paid. What will be interesting to see in the coming weeks is whether the threat of the Warlock Lord drives the scheming Tamlin to a genuine alliance with the elves or if she’s going to try for a better deal with the forces of darkness.

The rest of Bandon’s considerable screen time in “Dweller” is spent making his way toward Paranor with Flick Ohmsford. When they stop to take a break so Bandon can get shirtless and show off how ripped he is, Flick tries to make the case that people are actually okay and that maybe bringing back the Warlock Lord isn’t a great idea. Bandon’s a true misanthrope though, and his counterpoint is that people are terrible and Allanon in particular is the worst. To prove his point, Bandon takes Flick on a detour to a farm we soon learn is Bandon’s childhood home. It’s been fixed up a bit since demons wrecked the place in season one, and there’s a new family living there. Bandon approaches the family to ask if he and his “uncle” could get food and lodging for the night and they’re happy to help the travelers, but over dinner Bandon’s simple question about what the family thinks of magic-users elicits a violently hateful response. Worse, it becomes clear that the family knows the story of their home’s previous inhabitants; they’ve even saved the disgusting muzzle Bandon’s own parents had forced on him. It’s not terribly surprising when things take a scary turn. Bandon conjures winds to push the farmer and his wife against the wall of the abode, and he captures their tween son, forces the muzzle on him and then squeezes the boy’s neck until blood starts coming out of the kid’s mouth and nose.

And this is one of the emotional beats that doesn’t quite land the way it seems to be intended. It seems as if we’re supposed to consider Bandon’s experiment here seriously. He basically bet Flick that these common people, of the sort that Flick insists are mostly decent folk, aren’t and that he can prove it, and in a sense Bandon succeeds at this when he prompts the family about magic and their murderous opinions about magic-users come right out. Like many fearful people, this family is full of hateful opinions about what they don’t understand, and they think safety will come from destroying the object of their fear. However, Bandon’s moral reasoning here is childish and simplistic. It’s not ignorant farmers who murder magic-users and craft discriminatory policy, though they may support political or military leaders who do. It’s bad systems that foster ignorance in a populace, allow bigotry to take hold in government, and fail to root out abusers of power. It’s difficult to take Bandon’s grievance seriously when it’s so clearly a case of misdirected rage. Bandon has been a victim of some real injustice, and he’s also been a victim of bad luck, but this family isn’t the agent of his pain, even if they do have some terrible opinions.

Bandon’s decision to kill the young son, in particular, makes it difficult to give much merit to Bandon’s point of view. It’s an especially brutal death and filmed in almost lascivious detail, often focusing on the face of the boy while he’s being murdered, but it’s through dialogue while the murder is occurring that Bandon makes his final point, such as it is. The farmers opined that the son of the previous family was just “born damaged,” and Bandon repeats those words back to them as he murders their child. This is framed as irony, but also as real pathos; Flick’s face as he watches Bandon is sad, and it seems that the audience is also supposed to feel saddened and sympathetic towards Bandon. It’s a moment that doesn’t work for me and shouldn’t work for most people. Bandon is killing a child. Because he’s mad that people dislike and distrust magic. And he’s mad about his parents and about Allanon. But he’s using magic to kill a child in front of the child’s parents. It’s nonsensical. It’s not sympathetic. It’s actually heinously evil, and the only thing Bandon’s actions here should have proved to anyone is that, yeah, magic is powerful and dangerous, but also that Bandon is stupidly, senselessly cruel.

I just don’t have a lot of patience for these sorts of narratives these days, especially when the parallels to real-world current events are as unsubtle as they are here. Any urge the viewer might have to cheer Bandon on for murdering a child to punish the child’s bigoted parents is an ugly urge that ought to be tamped down rather than encouraged. Flick may be overestimating the goodness of the common people, but murdering children isn’t the moral equivalent of being poorly informed and frightened of magic, especially when another major theme of this show is that magic actually is dangerous, that it has a price, and that it’s important that magical power doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. This whole storyline in this episode is a messy metaphor that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and tries to require the viewer to accept the absurd proposition that Bandon and this family of farmers are essentially moral and ethical equals. It’s a nasty case of both-sides-ism that is as frustrating as it tries to be timely.

General Riga

We don’t see much of Riga this week. There’s just one short scene that pops in back at Graymark to see how he’s taking the apparent loss of his entire force of men there. Trackers were sent after Allanon and his friends after they escaped, but they’ve been unsuccessful. In a fit of rage, Riga kills the man who brought him this bit of bad news and then tells his single remaining lackey that they need to contact Edain to hurry up the shipment of weapons they’re supposed to be getting from Leah. My biggest question here is: who is going to use all those weapons? It looks like Riga and this one captain or whatever are literally the last men standing at Graymark.

Eretria, Garet Jax, Ander, Lyria and Leah

Right after the opening credits, the group that escaped from Graymark last week is already splitting up, with Eretria and Garet Jax being sent to Leah. At Graymark, they realized that all of the Crimson soldiers were using weapons made of Leah steel, which suggests a secret alliance between Riga’s forces and the human kingdom. On the road, Garet Jax wakes up from a nightmare and discloses a little more of his backstory to Eretria, though it’s not much more than we already knew about his being part of the Border Guard and surviving a massacre. When the pair arrive in Leah, they find Ander, who’s worried about Catania and starting to be suspicious of Edain, getting sort-of rejected by Lyria, who is professing her love for Eretria. Seriously. In an obvious piece of plot convenience theater, Jax and Eretria show up right as Lyria is telling Ander that she’s in love with Eretria. It’s silly, but I like Eretria and Lyria, so I’m willing to accept it.

The news and evidence that Eretria and Jax bring about the weapons the Crimson are getting from Leah alarms Ander, but he never doubts them. It’s actually kind of impressive how easily he believes them about Edain’s treachery, and the elf king is quick to come up with a plan that allows them to catch Edain in the act of moving weapons from Leah to the Crimson. It’s not clear how much information they get out Edain and his co-conspirators, but it does seem that Queen Tamlin is working hard to maintain enough plausible deniability to avoid being implicated. She claims that she had no knowledge of Edain or his activities, and she even organizes the execution of Edain and the Leah men he was working with—though it’s Ander who actually executes his former friend.

The final scenes in Leah this week are Lyria and Eretria and then Lyria and her mother. Eretria is leaving Leah again to go help Wil, but before she goes she advises Lyria to rethink her relationship with Tamlin. Eretria points out that Tamlin needs Lyria more than Lyria needs her mother, and this gets the wheels in Lyria’s head turning. After Eretria is gone, Lyria goes to Tamlin and tells her mother how things are going to be from now on. It seems that Lyria is going to pull the trigger on marriage to Ander after all, but she makes it very clear to Tamlin that she intends to be a real ruler and that Tamlin will have to earn her as an ally. I’m starting to get very worried about Lyria’s lifespan, though. Tamlin seems to have at least some real love for her daughter, but she’s also got the threat of the Warlock Lord to worry about, and Ander already has two dead girlfriends, one of them a black woman. It also increasingly feels as if Eretria and Wil are the show’s endgame couple, which would be in line with the books. Sure, the show is rather famously divorced from the source material, but still. I’m going to be extremely pissed off if Lyria ends up fridged to make way for Wil and Eretria to pair off.

Wil, Allanon and Mareth

While Eretria and Jax head of the Leah, the rest of our heroes are off to Paranor, where they hope to rescue Flick. First, though, Mareth approaches Allanon about his being her father, which he denies and rather cruelly rejects her, refusing to even consider training her to control her magic, which is really all she wants. Allanon insists to Wil that the druid sleep ought to have made him infertile, and it made me actually cackle to imagine a younger Allanon telling Mareth’s mom that they don’t need to use condoms because he’s totally infertile, only for her to find out a couple months later that he was incorrect. I can’t help it. It’s just such a line, and Allanon is being such an asshole to Mareth. I mean, even if he doesn’t believe she’s his daughter, he could still help her out with her magic problem since that’s kind of his job and a moral imperative or whatever. Instead, he’s just kind of a dick to her throughout the episode.

It’s a great week for druid detours, though Allanon’s isn’t as sinister as Bandon’s. Allanon is taking Wil to retrieve the Sword of Shannara, which is hidden at the grave of Wil’s father, Shae. The elder Ohmsford’s final resting place is inside a huge, beautiful cave that, from the top, looks like a giant vagina surrounded by trees, which isn’t at all a heavy-handed bit of visual language suggesting rebirth. However, before Wil can get his dad’s sword and symbolically come of age and power as he raises up an inherited phallic symbol he has to defeat the huge tentacle-spider—the titular “Dweller”—that stalks the cave in a sequence that’s shamelessly cribbed from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

I’m not even kidding about the vagina cave.

I poke a little fun, but I loved this stuff. The vagina tree cave is hilariously on the nose. The visual and even auditory references to the Shelob sequence from The Return of the King are such an obvious homage to a good movie that it’s hard to get mad about them. There’s some great banter and a lot of evidence that Austin Butler is growing as an actor. The Dweller doesn’t look bad; at the very least the compositing is competent so that it feels like there’s a real creature in the scene with decent lighting. The defeat of the Dweller through teamwork was nice. Shae Ohmsford’s “grave” is baffling (I have so many questions), but it looks awesome, and the Sword of Shannara is another great-looking prop. Most importantly, for all that there’s a lot of story and character stuff crammed in here, it never feels perfunctory or rushed and it all makes a reasonable amount of sense if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the high fantasy of it all.

Miscellany:

  • Eretria stole the Elfstones back for Wil when they were at Graywatch, which answers my question from last week, but her explanation was basically “I saw these sitting around and thought you might need them” and that is deeply silly and really stretches the limits of what you can get away with having happen off screen.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” could have been great

So, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is definitely my favorite episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date. It’s a time loop episode, which is one of my favorite genres of sci-fi television stories, and it’s, for the most part, really well done. It’s often hand-wavy about science and logic, but that’s been the Star Trek way since forever and isn’t really a negative to my mind. There’s some interesting character work going on, especially for Lieutenant Stamets, who we’ve seen little of since he injected himself with the tardigrade DNA. It also brings back Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, which is rather earlier than I expected but welcome nonetheless. ALSO, there is a space whale. It’s not a perfect hour, by any stretch, but it’s pretty good, and it’s a pleasantly standalone episode that I could see rewatching on its own in the future.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The episode opens with a party that’s notable in Trek history for actually feeling like a party that real young people might go to and enjoy. There’s drinking and dancing and people making out, and it’s nice to get another look at life on the Discovery when there’s not a crisis going on. Of course, right as Tyler is about to ask Burnham to dance, a crisis starts, and it starts with an endangered space whale that needs a lift to, I guess, a space whale sanctuary of some kind. The space whale turns out to be Harry Mudd’s way onto the Discovery, and he comes out, phaser blazing, to take over the ship, find out its secrets, and sell them to the Klingons. He’s only got thirty minutes to accomplish this, but Mudd’s got a time crystal that lets him murder Lorca and destroy the ship time and time again to perfect his strategy. Also, for funsies. Fortunately, through cleverness and teamwork, the Discovery crew foils Mudd’s plans. And they get to talk about their feelings, to boot.

It ticks a lot of classic Trek boxes—time loop, Mudd, weird space creature, feelings, friendship—and these overlap quite a lot with all my personal boxes that are ticked by this episode—time loop, weird space creatures, feelings, friendship, smooching, Rainn Wilson. For Trekkie reasons and personal reasons, I basically uncritically love about the first 85% or so of the episode, but that first 85% is also a smartly constructed, well-executed and highly entertaining bit of television. For most of the hour, it manages to strike a great balance between hijinks, romance, science and the darkness that’s characteristic of this Trek iteration. Certainly, it’s a much better balance than existed in the previous several episodes, and it makes it that much more disappointing when it fails, pretty spectacularly, to stick its landing. I just don’t know what the Discovery writers—and costumers and directors and anyone else involved in the end of this episode—were thinking by tacking on such a tonally dissonant mess at the end of an otherwise excellent hour, but that’s a thing that has happened.

In a lot of ways, this is a Stamets episode. Due to his combining his DNA with that of the giant space tardigrade, he’s now outside the normal spacetime continuum, so he’s the only member of the Discovery’s crew to realize what’s going on. After last week’s brief glimpse of the new, post-tardigrade Stamets, it was nice to get a better idea of how he’s doing these days and how much he’s changed. Here, we find a kinder, gentler Stamets, capable of and willing to give Burnham dancing lessons and relationship advice, but most of Stamets’ time this week is spent trying to convince Burnham and Tyler to help stop Mudd and save the ship. Anthony Rapp does a fantastic job of portraying a coherent character arc for Stamets, and it’s Stamets’ reactions to the experience of being trapped in Mudd’s time loop that are the most interesting thing about the episode. His journey through feelings of anxiety, frustration, resignation, fatalism, and desperation to put a stop to it are compelling and heartfelt.

The stress and trauma of experiencing the ship being destroyed time and time again is conveyed to the viewer largely through confident editing as we see short snippets of many instances of the time loop in the first three quarters of the episode. It’s not always entirely clear how Stamets is supposed to have learned all the information we’re meant to believe he’s learned from each loop, but the episode is fast-paced and fantastically-premised enough in the first place that it’s not hard to suspend disbelief. Rapp’s skillful portrayal of Stamets’ arc is mirrored by Harry Mudd’s arc, in which Mudd starts the hour gleefully murdering Lorca over and over again, only to become fatigued by the experience in the end. By the time Mudd stops the time loop, he’s entirely lost interest in killing Lorca and is simply anxious to get his promised pay-out from the Klingons, and this is what allows Stamets, Burnham and Tyler to trick him into ending the time loop at all. Thinking that he’s captured the ship and Michael Burnham, Mudd cheerfully transmits their coordinates to, theoretically, some waiting Klingons, only to find out that the ship that is coming to meet them contains his wife, Stella, and her arms-dealing father.

And this is where things get bad.

Listen. There’s definitely something a little off, just overall, with the way Harry Mudd is written on this show. I’ve written before about similar characters in other shows, usually white, almost always men, who we’re supposed to understand as Lovable Rogues. They’re crude, sexist, sometimes racist, generally self-serving, often craven and greedy, but they somehow manage to have all these negative qualities in a way that we can be convinced is charming. So, we like these characters, rather in spite of ourselves. The thing is, in order for these characters to maintain their lovableness, their transgressive behaviors can’t be too transgressive. Stealing stuff (especially from the rich and powerful), getting in fights, treating romantic partners poorly, being generally unreliable, that sort of thing works. Gleefully murdering hundreds of people dozens of times over as part of your plan, motivated by revenge and spite and not a little bit of a greed, to sell out the Federation to a brutal adversary is a more than a little outside the “Lovable” Rogue wheelhouse. The cruelty and sadism of Mudd’s actions in this episode are genuinely dark and horrifying, far beyond anything that should be accepted as the sort of whacky hijinks that make Lovable Rogues beloved.

To be fair, Mudd’s actions take a toll on him. However, whereas it’s obvious that Stamets’ desperation to bring the time loop to an end comes from a place of caring for others and not wanting to see any more suffering or experience more pain, Harry Mudd’s fatigue seems more connected to boredom and actual physical exhaustion after well over 24 hours without sleep while he ran and reran the scenario of taking over the Discovery. Mudd doesn’t feel guilty or ashamed of his actions; he’s simply achieved maximum catharsis through murder, and he’s now impatient to be done so he can get his payday and, presumably, hit the sack. It’s also not clear, in the final time loop, how much damage Mudd has actually done on the Discovery. In previous versions of the loop, he killed multiple people on his way to the bridge, but even if he didn’t physically harm anyone this last time through the time loop, Stamets exists as a witness to Mudd’s litany of crimes in earlier iterations of the event. Mudd has proven himself to be unprincipled and dangerous, and by the episode’s end he’s still in possession of sensitive information, even if his ability to monetize that information is greatly reduced.

So, you’d think that Harry Mudd, once his plan was foiled, would be arrested and imprisoned pending trial for whatever crimes he’s committed, even if all they can get him on is “conspiracy to commit.” You would be incorrect in thinking that, however. Instead of facing any kind of actual punishment or legal consequences, Mudd finds himself tricked into ending the device he used to create the time loop and escorted to the transporter room, where he’s not greeting Klingon guests like he expects, but is instead faced with his wife, the mythical Stella, and her father, a wealthy arms dealer. I hate this.

So, apparently, in the Original Series, Harry Mudd’s wife, Stella Grimes, was a famously nagging harpy of a woman, with the punchline of one Harry Mudd episode, in which he’d made a Stella fembot (as part of a whole scheme of selling fembots), being the creation of hundreds of robot Stellas who can all harangue him at once. That’s obviously a damaging (and sadly pernicious) misogynistic stereotype, and it would be a disaster to replicate uncritically in 2017. Still, the ending of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is little more than a variation on that theme. The only problem is that Discovery’s Stella isn’t a middle-aged harridan, ready to hound her wayward husband; she’s young (like, young enough to be Rainn Wilson’s daughter young, and looks younger), and she seems to have genuine affection for Mudd. I just… don’t know what they were going for here.

Discovery!Stella, as I said, is younger than her husband by quite a bit, younger enough that it’s hard not to suspect that Mudd has preyed upon her youth and ignorance in order to finagle his way into an advantageous marriage. This perception isn’t helped by the confused portrayal of Stella as both somewhat aggressively overbearing and rather stupid, while her father, Baron Grimes, is portrayed as patronizingly indulgent of his daughter’s foibles. It’s like the people in charge of coming up with this stuff kind of understood that it’s not 1967 anymore, so they tried to soften the trope of the Nagging Wife in several ways and to create Stella as a sympathetic and humorous character. This is apparent in her dialogue, though there isn’t much of it, but also in the costuming of Stella and her father. They’re both in get-ups that could have come straight from the Original Series, Stella in bright synthetic fabric and her father in some kind of pleather old-timey mobster number. Compared to the show’s other excellent costumes, these are retro in all the wrong ways, and contribute to the complete tonal dissonance of this ending when set against the rest of the episode.

For an otherwise strong episode to end on such a strange, regressive note, especially when it’s so at odds with the tone of the rest of the hour, is a huge disappointment. I loved the time loop; I loved Stamets; I loved Burnham’s burgeoning romance with Tyler; I loved the party and Tilly and the space whale; but I hate, with a passion, that Harry Mudd’s “punishment” for all the many crimes he committed in this episode is still, in the year of our Lord 2017, having to return to the mildly unpleasant wife he jilted.

Miscellany:

  • I loved Stamets’ story about how he met his partner. That story, coupled with the sensible advice he gives Burnham, helps to put this new, softer side of Stamets that we’re seeing post-tardigrade in a context where we can see that this sensitivity in him isn’t entirely new or unprecedented and helps to diffuse some of the sense of body-snatching I had watching Stamets in the last episode.
  • I’m starting to reconsider my early perception of Cadet Tilly as neuroatypical. It seems weird that her allergies and mild snoring would keep her from having a roommate before Burnham arrived, but the issue of Tilly being neuroatypical hasn’t been addressed since, and she’s seemed to behave fairly typically in the intervening episodes. Which doesn’t rule out neuroatypicality, but I’m not going to give this show credit for representation if I have to imagine it all in my head.
  • Tilly seems fun at parties. Also, I like her friendship with Burnham better when they are just young women being friends. Because of Burnham’s background as a mutineer, she’s a somewhat inappropriate mentor or professional role model for Tilly, which is a concern, but it also bothered me to see a black woman character, herself so in need of love and guidance, being made to mentor a white woman. I’d much rather see them have a more equitable relationship and, as in this episode, see more of what Tilly brings to the table as a friend and confidant to Burnham.
  • What emotion was Lorca supposed to be expressing as he turned the ship over to Mudd? Seriously? This moment felt like it could be character development; perhaps we’re meant to understand from this that Lorca’s learned from past mistakes and doesn’t want to repeat them. Certainly, in the moment, before it’s revealed that the Discovery crew has executed a plan to foil Mudd, Lorca’s sentiment seems real enough. But we’ve also seen as recently as last week that Lorca has a manipulative and calculating side to him that hasn’t been trained out by Starfleet. His submission to Mudd is feigned, after all, so it’s also possible that Lorca just has a fantastic poker face.
  • I like Burnham and Tyler together. Very cute.

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: October 29, 2017

So, the thing about depression, at least the way mine works, is that, sometimes, when I get towards the end of a depressive period, I feel like things are going to get better, but that feeling can last for weeks or even months with little actual change in my mood or productivity. Which is sort of where I’m at these days. The good news, of course, is that things aren’t getting worse. The bad news is that no matter how much I feel like things are looking up, there’s no telling how much longer it’s going to be before I actually am better.

So, this week, I only managed to write my regular Star Trek: Discovery and Shannara Chronicles coverage, in spite of having intended to write quite a bit more than that. It just didn’t happen, so I’m more than a little disappointed with myself. It didn’t help, either, that I was mired all week long in a book that I just didn’t enjoy, even though I’d been super hyped for it. I kept reading and reading and hoping it would get better, but it did not. It was a bummer. Fortunately, I’ve been reading some better stuff this weekend. I started reading Fonda Lee’s Jade City yesterday, and this morning I raced through Matt Wallace’s upcoming, penultimate Sin du Jour novella, Gluttony Bay, which is fantastic.  No one writes action like Matt Wallace.

With Halloween coming up on Tuesday, it’s a good time to read something spooky.

Lit Reactor has a list of the 20 Best Horror Stories Available Online for Free.

At Electric Literature, there’s an indepth look at some of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Book Riot lists 7 Monstrous, Feminine and Free Short Stories.

At Nerds of a Feather, Chloe N. Clark continued her Horror 101 series with a post about the uncanny.

This Skiffy and Fanty discussion on Indigenous Representation in Horror (with Darcie Little Badger, Nathan Adler and Stephen Graham Jones) is a must-listen.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne author Tade Thompson was interviewed at Lightspeed.

At the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, Kameron Hurley answered some questions about her upcoming collection of Nyx short stories, Apocalypse Nyx. Hurley’s Beldame Apocrypha trilogy is still my favorite of her work, so I am stoked.

The Learned Fangirl picks apart black representation in Doctor Who‘s modern era.

At Winter is Coming, you can read about Brienne of Tarth and the Role of Absent Mothers in Game of Thrones.

I really enjoyed this HuffPo profile of Frances Glessner, the “Mother of Forensic Science.”

It’s super sad and frustrating that this is so hard for so many mostly-white writers to understand, but Chuck Wendig explains that not being inclusive is also a political choice.

A Lying Cat Pop is definitely on my Christmas list now.

The Shannara Chronicles: “Graymark” keeps up the pace but feels a little small

After a slower, soapier hour last week, The Shannara Chronicles is back with a more action-focused hour in “Graymark.” Short scenes continue to give an illusion of a fast pace, but this is coupled in this episode with an actually fast—one might say too fast—pace. Seriously. A lot of ground is covered in “Graymark,” which is exciting, but the speed with which all this travel and story happens has the unfortunate effect of making the world of Shannara feel remarkably small. This lack of epicness plagued the show’s first season as well, but the first couple episodes of season two involved somewhat less travel and the time-lapses between events within those episodes were handled a little more deftly than they are in this one, making it less notable. In an episode focused largely on a single major event/quest, it would have been nice for it to have more of a feeling of consequence. What I loved about “Graymark,” however, is how unabashedly high fantasy it is. The Shannara Chronicles has always been a show that owned its late-70s-to-mid-80s origin, but it was in rare retro form this week.

**Spoilers below.**

The episode opens at the titular fortress—complete with unsubtly Nazi-ish decoration and a whole lot of razor wire—where Allanon is being imprisoned and tortured by General Riga, who is dead set on rooting out and banishing all magic from the Four Lands. The way to do that, Riga thinks, is by destroying the Codex of Paranor, which is the repository of all remaining druid knowledge. Allanon tries appealing to Riga’s sense of justice and points out that the Warlock Lord is their common enemy, but Riga insists that “the true enemy is magic.” Having no luck with torturing the information he needs out of Allanon, Riga’s plan is to hunt down Wil Ohmsford and torture him until Allanon gives in to Riga’s demands. Fortunately for Riga, he doesn’t have to do much hunting.

I’m not kidding about the lack of subtlety.

Immediately after the opening credits, Eretria has managed (with a little help from Garet Jax) to track down Wil. As great as it is to have Wil and Eretria reunited, this all feels a little too easy and convenient. The two of them do have a couple of good conversations, though some of that was recapping season one events, presumably for viewers who are new to the show this year. The important thing, though, is that Eretria brings the news of Allanon’s capture by General Riga right at the time when Wil needs to find Allanon for his own reasons (to save Flick), so the two of them, along with Garet Jax and Mareth, are going to go extract Allanon from Graymark. And that’s basically the rest of the episode.

It’s a great quest adventure set-up in the high fantasy tradition, with clear stakes and a straightforward plan and it goes about how anyone familiar with the genre would expect. I only wish it had been given a little more room to breathe instead of smushing all this story into a single episode.

It’s not even that there’s just so much story here. There’s just an awful lot of torture, and it’s unpleasant to watch. Depictions of torture in general can be fraught, not least because torture is not a thing that works, which makes it irresponsible to depict in a favorable light. The good news is that’s not what’s going on here. Neither Allanon nor Wil are willing to give in to Riga’s torture. The bad news is twofold: first, the torture is depicted with an almost pornographic relish, which is gross, and, second, it undermines Riga as a sympathetic villain. Even as we learn about the death of Riga’s wife and unborn child (sigh) and his mother being attacked while pregnant by the magical creatures whose influence made Riga himself immune to magic, we see scene after scene of Riga coldly and viciously torturing two of the show’s main protagonists.

One gets the sense that Riga has some fundamental principles that he’s guided by and that his war against magic is something of a crusade that he feels morally justified in waging, but the way he tortures Allanon and Wil seems unbound by any rules of engagement or ethical concerns. If torture was a tactic that worked, it might be possible to accept it as part of the fantasy setting, but it’s shown two or three times over in this episode to be ineffective, making Riga’s continued reliance on it morally indefensible. He learns nothing of value here and doesn’t advance his cause at all, so his decision to use torture ends up feeling either profoundly stupid or indefensibly cruel. If Riga is stupid, it undermines his status as the most compelling villain of the series so far; if he’s wantonly cruel, it makes it really difficult to see him as sympathetic or misunderstood and diminishes the chance of any kind of redemption for him. Regardless, it’s not a good look.

What does work, surprisingly enough, is the plan for how to escape Graymark. It would have been nice to see a little more of the planning process, and the episode is a little hand-wavy about some things (like, how did Garet Jax get that map of the fortress?), but the plot of the episode is smartly put-together and well-executed. While Eretria’s reunion with Wil seemed easily accomplished earlier in the episode, there are enough real challenges in the course of this rescue plan to provide a sense of real drama and concern for the characters. Eretria and Mareth both get opportunities to use their particular skills to further the quest, and they even seem to be becoming friendly after each of them being somewhat suspicious of the other on first meeting. The episode even manages to provide space for some Garet Jax back story, though he’s not completely demystified by the end of the hour. While there’s a lot going on, and I would have liked to see more of some of the non-torture parts, what we did get on screen is nicely balanced between action, exposition and character work.

The best part of the episode, of course, is the final action scene as Allanon, Wil, Eretria, Jax, and Mareth finally escape from Graymark. It’s a well-choreographed fight scene, we get to see some magic, and all the characters get a chance to shine a little. The rain was a bit much, but it looked cool and, really, that’s what matters.

Miscellany:

  • Ander is engaged to marry Lyria.
  • Catania is missing. Ran off back to Arborlon according to Edain, though we know better.
  • Queen Tamsin knows that Edain is Riga’s man. Sounds like she may be funding the Crimson and fomenting this whole civil war thing that’s going on with the elves.
  • Honestly could have done without the scenes in Leah altogether this week. There’s enough else going on that they felt intrusive and out of place rather than truly important or interesting in their own right.
  • It’s not clear if the elfstones Riga now has are the real ones or not. It seems like there have been fake ones used at other times in the show, but they’re never commented on here one way or the other.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Lethe” is largely forgettable

So, the thing about “Lethe” is that, though I really liked some things about it and have a vague feeling that it’s a continuance of the show’s improvement, it’s not an especially memorable episode. Its emotional beats are fine, but they’re pedestrian, and the episode, overall, relies a little too much on well-worn tropes and by-the-numbers storytelling to make its points, which are slight. Add an ending that’s a bit maudlin and you’ve got an altogether forgettable hour that entertains while it’s running but doesn’t stick around to make you think very much.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The episode opens with a look at two new mentoring relationships. Captain Lorca has taken Ash Tyler under his wing in the days since their escape from the Klingons, and the beginning of the hour finds them going through a training simulation in what—contrary to Trek canon—appears to be a holodeck. I’m not a stickler for that sort of thing, though, and I suppose that if there is going to be an anachronistic holodeck it would be on a state-of-the-art science ship like the Discovery. After they get through the sim, Lorca offers Tyler the recently vacated security chief position, which I guess takes care of that loose end that I’d totally forgotten about. Also, obviously nothing could possibly go wrong with this idea. I’m sure Ash Tyler is totally okay and fit for duty and completely ready to take on an important position in the Discovery team. I’m also sure that no one else on this ship with a crew of hundreds had any interest or qualification or familiarity with the job that might make them a better prospect for the position. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, Burnham is mentoring Tilly, mostly by helping her develop a strict regime of healthy eating and exercise, though they still have time to bond a little over how hot Ash Tyler is. There was a little of this slice-of-life stuff last week after several episodes without it, and I’m glad to see more of it in this episode, though the friendship between Burnham and Tilly still feels a little contrived and perfunctory. That said, it’s early yet. There’s still time for their relationship to develop the real, lived-in quality that other Trek friendships have had, and while I’m not totally sold on this one yet, both women are interesting and likable. Mostly, what I’d like to see is for the friendship between Burnham and Tilly to get the same kind of hour-long focus that Burnham’s relationships with the men around her get. This show initially got me really excited about it with marketing featuring Burnham and Georgiou, and it’s deeply disappointing how devoid of relationships between women it’s actually turned out to be. All this is to say, YES, more, please, of Burnham and Tilly. Maybe go really wild and introduce another girlfriend or two for them.

Burnham and Tilly are introducing themselves to Tyler when Burnham collapses, writhing on the floor in pain. Burnham’s foster father, Sarek, is in trouble; while en route to a secret meeting where he was supposed to negotiate with the Klingons, a Vulcan extremist, resentful over Sarek’s love of humans, tries to assassinate the ambassador. Sarek, injured and his ship knocked off course and lost in a nebula, reaches out with his mind for Burnham. Once it’s confirmed what has happened, Lorca is quick to approve a mission for Burnham, Tilly and Tyler to go retrieve Sarek, which they do, using a device that works like a Vulcan mind meld that allows Burnham to track Sarek on his disabled ship. It also sends Burnham on a trip into Sarek’s subconscious, where he’s dwelling on the day Burnham was denied entrance into the Vulcan Expeditionary Force, reliving it over and over as he lingers near death.

This is fine, but ho-hum. Sarek’s failings as a father have been adequately covered several times over through his relationship with Spock in previous Treks, so there’s not much new here. The irony of Sarek sacrificing Michael’s prospects in favor of his biological child’s only to have Spock reject the opportunity and join Starfleet instead isn’t that great of a shock and doesn’t really justify an hour-long episode to deal with it. Burnham’s sanguine response to the knowledge shows us something about her, but there’s a sense of inevitability about the way she comes to terms with the way parents and children disappoint each other that doesn’t ring true. From the way she reintroduces herself to Tyler at the end of the episode as “Michael Burnham, human,” it seems like this wasn’t intended to be about the fraught nature of parent-child relationships at all but about Burnham’s understanding of herself and her own identity. This, again, is fine, but the whole message, in addition to being trite, is garbled and unclear. And none of this is helped along by the fact of this show being a prequel, which prevents any of the danger Sarek is in from ever feeling truly consequential, which in turn blunts all the emotional moments.

On the Discovery, Lorca has much more interesting problems. They just aren’t particularly Star Trek-ish problems. His friend Admiral Cornwell is so concerned about his recent behavior that she shows up for an in-person meeting with him, where she expresses her observation that he’s changed following some recent traumas and her fears that he’s not competent to captain a ship, especially one as important as the Discovery. On his best behavior, Lorca puts on a reasonably convincing show of being okay and points out that, unorthodox as his methods may be, he does get results. Cornwell doesn’t seem quite convinced, but she’s convinced enough to have a few drinks and sleep with him. It’s only when she wakes up in the night, gently touches a scar on his back, and suddenly finds herself pinned down with a phaser in her face that she’s certain Lorca isn’t fit for duty. Before she can head back to Starfleet headquarters, however, Cornwell has to go fill in for Sarek at the meeting with the Klingons, which is, naturally, a trap.

Either predictably or surprisingly (and I’m leaning toward predictably), Lorca isn’t rushing to rescue the admiral from the Klingons. Cornwell explicitly threatened Lorca’s job before leaving the Discovery, and his plaintive “Don’t take my ship; she’s all I’ve got” had a ring of truth to it that makes me think we might be about to find out what Lorca will do to protect the only thing he’s got. I guess we’ll find out next week if Lorca’s refusal to immediately chase after Cornwell is motivated by a sincere desire to play by the rules in a last-ditch effort to rescue his career or if it’s a cynical choice to leave her in Klingon hands as long as possible. I’m not sure there’s any middle ground here.

Miscellany:

  • So, Stamets has obviously been straight-up body-snatched, right?
  • I’d like to see Amanda Grayson get a little more to do than just be a supportive mother. She seems nice, I guess.
  • I want a “DISCO” shirt.
  • It’s nice to see a man Lorca’s age with an age-appropriate partner, even if the professional ethics of their sleeping together aren’t great.

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