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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Point of Light” and “An Obol for Charon”

I was relatively happy with the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season two.  (Click here for my thoughts!)  Episode three was a huge step in the wrong direction, but then the fourth episode might have been the best episode of the new season so far.  So things are looking up!  Sort of.  Please read on for my detailed reviews:

Episode 3: “Point of Light” — I had my quibbles with the first two episodes of Discovery season two, but for the most part I thought they were a strong start to the season.  Things took a step backwards in this third episode.  Blech, this one was weak in the extreme.

Though I will freely admit that, for the most part, the stuff in this episode that took place on Discovery was good-to-great.  It was everything else — all that nonsense with the Klingons and Mirror Georgiou and Section 31 was just terrible, just a huge swing-and-a-miss, in my opinion.  This episode also struggled where the first two episodes succeeded in finding a balance of episodic versus the more common every-episode-leads-right-into-the-next approach of many streaming shows today.  I like continuity.  Strike that, I LOVE continuity.  I WANT these episodes to connect to one another, and to fit together as they tell a story-arc over the course of the season.  But I also want each episode to feel like an episode, to feel like it has its own structure and a definitive beginning-middle-end, even if that ending is a cliffhanger leading into the next installment.  The first two episodes of season two found that balance very well.  But this third episode just feels like a lot of random scenes strung together, continuing stories that were mostly begun back in season one (both the Klingon/Georgiou stuff as well as the spore that had infected Tilly), without actually resolving much of anything.

Let’s start with what’s good, which is most of the Discovery stuff.  I’m worried that they’ve already over-used the plot device of “Tilly does something crazy that turns out to be motivated by a good reason, worries she’s going to be kicked out of the Starfleet command training program, and then is reassured by Saru.”  But that being said, I enjoyed this story even as I want the Discovery writers to find new and better ways to use Tilly.  I enjoyed the mystery of her “I see dead people” friend, and I was pleased they didn’t try to milk the idea of Tilly’s being crazy for too long, allowing Burnham to quickly help Tilly figure out that there was a real scientific explanation for her visions of her dead friend.  I’m glad they didn’t let the mystery of the spore that touched Tilly last season linger for too long.  I’m eager to see where this goes next.  (And hoping that, somehow, the continuing presence of spore-related mysteries on the show will eventually lead us back to Dr. Culbert.)  But, in the meantime, I liked seeing Tilly in the spotlight and was glad the episode spent a lot of time with her.

We didn’t get to see much of Captain Pike this week, but he was great in his brief appearance, continuing to be exactly the type of firm but honest and understanding captain that I want him to be.  I like that he’s too by-the-book to agree too quickly to Burnham and Amanda’s request to break into Spock’s secure medical records… and I also like that, once he (quickly) deduces that there’s more afoot than meets the eye (and that Spock probably didn’t really go crazy and murder a bunch of people), that he trusts Spock and also Burnham enough to know that action needs to be taken.

I’m not quite as taken with Mia Kirshner’s work on Discovery as Amanda as I am by James Frain’s work as Sarek, but it was nice to get what I think was our biggest dose of Amanda yet in this episode.  I like that she’s not passive, that she’s taking action on behalf of her son.  My biggest concern here is the suggestion that something happened to Spock as a kid after he first saw the “red angel,” something that changed him enough to the point that his mother Amanda is now willing to consider the possibility that Spock has had a psychotic break.  I don’t like the way this season of Discovery is subtly retconning Spock’s backstory to suggest that he was a sort of nasty kid (cruelly shutting out young, traumatized Burnham).  And since we must assume that however the red angel affected young Spock is still at issue, and won’t be resolved until the end of this season-long story, it colors in an unfortunate way everything we know of Spock’s youth and his decision to join Starfleet (which took place during the time at which Discovery is telling us he was changed by exposure to this red angel).  At least, I am afraid it will color that.  I am trying to keep my mind open until we see how this story plays out, but for now I am concerned.  But sticking to just this episode, I enjoyed the Amanda-Burnham emotional dynamic, and I enjoyed watching those two strong, smart women try to puzzle their way through this mystery.  And I’m glad that Burnham was honest and told Amanda right away that she’d seen the Red Angel too, rather than withholding that key info in the way that TV characters often, annoyingly, do.  The only off note in the whole thing was the turnaround at the end, in which Amanda stormed out on Burnham.  Whaaat?  That came out of left field.

But while I was mostly digging all of that action on-board Discovery, I really hated all of the Klingon stuff.  Ugh.  I didn’t think the Klingon storylines in Discovery season one worked at all, and I was happy that those characters and storylines were entirely absent from the first two episodes this season.  I suspected that Ash/Voq and L’rell weren’t gone forever, but I’d hoped that when they returned they’d somehow be adjusted to course-correct from season one, as the show has gently course-corrected in other areas.

Well, they gave the Klingons hair, so that’s something?  And they finally allowed the Klingons to speak English (using the translation gag — previously used so cleverly in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, not to mention in plenty of other movies like The Hunt for Red October).  But otherwise, I found this stuff just as bad as in season one, perhaps even worse, because having gotten to the end of season one and realizing that the Emperor had no clothes, and that the Klingon storylines that took up so much time in season one wound up going nowhere, I am out of patience with this stuff.  In this episode, all of this service to dumb storylines and characters left-over from season one felt like a huge rock tied around the neck of the show, dragging it down.

I still absolutely detest the look of the Klingons.  The hair is an improvement, and when glimpsed straight-on, Klingons like the white-haired Kol-Sha (father of the deceased Kol from season one, and played by the same actor) look sort of like Klingons.  But when they turn and we can see their ridiculously bulbous craniums, which are laughably absurd, it all falls apart.  And their floppy claw-like fingers….!  So silly and fake-looking!  I can’t take L’Rell seriously because of her terribly silly make-up, which to me just makes her face look all puffy and weird, not alien and dangerous, and definitely not Klingon.

Maybe I could forgive these design choices if the Klingon characters were at all interesting.  Are we supposed to like and care about L’Rell?  I don’t really understand this character and where she is coming from at all.  Why should I believe she’s a good leader of the Empire?  She seemed like a religious fanatic, just like Voq.  Are we supposed to be invested in their love story?  Because I’m not.  And as for Voq/Ash, I don’t understand this character either.  Who is he?  Why did he choose to go with L’Rell?  That made it seem, at the end of season one, like he was more Voq than Ash Tyler… but in this episode he doesn’t seem Klingon at all (he speaks English, and he talks about accessing Voq’s memories like he’s opening a book, not like he actually IS Voq).  Does the show thinks I’m invested in his puppy-dog affection for Burnham?  I want her to get as far away from this creepy loser as possible!  And now, suddenly, magically, there’s a baby?  Blech!  (Go back and watch the classic early Next Generation Klingon episodes “Sins of the Father” and “Reunion” to see how that show so cleverly and successfully set up a whole world of new Klingon characters and their universe, instantly locking us in to the stories of these new heroes and villains and their complicated political and family schemes and battles.  Those two episodes succeed in every way in which an episode like this fails.)

And I have all the same complaints about Mirror Georgiou, a one-dimensional “evil” character I had no wish to see continue on the show after the end of season one.  All of the weird Mirror Universe backstory baggage of this character feels like it weighs down the show whenever she appears on screen.  And now she’s working with Section 31?  Ugh.  Section 31 was super-cool when they were first introduced on DS9.  But now they’ve been hugely overused, appearing on Enterprise and in the JJ. Abrams movies and now on Discovery.  And Discovery seems to totally misunderstand what Section 31 was.  This super-secret organization wouldn’t have their own special insignia pins that everyone can recognize!!!  Don’t the Discovery writers understand how that would, um, sort of defeat the purpose of this SECRET organization?  And by making the 31 characters seem one-dimensional and evil — and aligned with evil Georgiou — they take this cool concept and make it flat and boring.  You know what would be MORE interesting?  Having a character we LIKE get involved with Section 31, and making a convincingly plausible case for why this secret organization is actually needed to protect the Federation.  Give us some actual meaty moral dilemmas.  Just making them black-hat villains for the show is boring and lame.  (Though I was intrigued to hear a character mention “Control.”  That’s a interesting concept from the post few years of Pocket Books’ Star Trek novels, most notably David Mack’s book Section 31: Control.  Will Discovery keep in continuity with the backstory for Section 31 that the novels have established?  I can’t imagine they will, but the mention of “Control” did tickle my imagination.)

I also liked seeing the holographic image of the Klingon D7 battlecruiser, actually looking like a D7 battlecruiser!!  (Not like the misshapen ship incorrectly identified as a D7 in the first season episode “Choose Your Pain.”)  So there was that….

Episode 4: “An Obol for Charon” — Thankfully, this next episode was MUCH better!  In pursuit of Spock, the Discovery is pulled out of warp by an enormous planetoid-sized creature/sphere, that appears to be sentient.  Holding Discovery in a stasis field, the sphere infects the Discovery’s computer in a way that disables most of the ship’s systems… and also seems to trigger the death-phase of Saru’s Kelpian lifecycle.

There was a lot to enjoy in this episode.  There was a lot of great character stuff, and some great pairing-off of the characters.  Let’s start with Saru.  After being somewhat in the background in these first three episodes of season two, I loved that this episode put Doug Jones back in the spotlight and, boy, did he knock it out of the park.  I knew Saru wasn’t going to die, but I was engaged with the character’s emotional journey in this episode.  And I loved the way this episode followed up on many of the hints we’d gotten at Saru’s backstory, and the nature of Kelpian society, in the short film “The Brightest Star.”  This episode heavily implies that the show will soon be taking us back too Saru’s home planet, to answer some of the questions that short film raised, and I cannot wait.  (I will comment, though, that I’m a little sad to see Saru’s threat ganglia — such an iconic part of his character!! — gone, possibly forever!  We’ll see how future episodes handle this change; that will affect whether or not I wind up being happy or regretful about this major change to Saru.)  Burnham got a little over-the-top weepy in her scenes in Saru’s quarters at the end of the episode, but still, I enjoyed the focus on these two characters’ relationship.

I was thrilled that Tig Notaro’s Jett Reno returned to the show, and I thought that every second we spent with Jett, Stamets, and Tilly was just gold.  We got some great, very funny dialogue as the banter flew fast and furious.  Ms. Notaro’s comedic skills were on full display.  More please!!  I hope that she sticks around.  Anthony Rapp and Mary Wiseman were also great, as always, as Stamets and Tilly.  I enjoyed seeing the deepening of their relationship.  The sing-along moment was an unusual place for a Star Trek episode to go — it could easily have been ridiculous, but I loved it.  I thought it was so sweet.  (Perfect song choice!!)

Before this season began, the show’s promotional materials teased us hard with Rebecca Romijn’s portrayal of Captain Pike’s first officer on the Enterprise, Number One (a character played by Majel Barrett in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”).  I was delighted to finally see her on-screen, and I thought Ms. Romijn was great!!  She absolutely looks the part, and I thought she embodied the character well.  I was sorry we only saw her for that one sequence at the beginning of the episode.  I’d love to see lots more of her.  (The choice to have Number One dig into a burger and shake moments after beaming over to Discovery was… weird.  Will this be a characteristic of Number One that future episodes will follow up on…?)

I enjoyed the short briefing scene early in the episode, in which we got to see a bit more of Rhys, Owosekun and Detmer off the bridge.  I am enjoying the way season two is finding ways to spend more time with these bridge officers.  I hope this continues, as we still don’t know much about these supporting Discovery characters.  I was also surprised and happy to see the Saurian Linus have a substantial role in this episode!  I’d thought he was just a one-off joke for that turbolift sneeze scene in the season premiere.  I didn’t love that scene, but I thought the character was great here.  I like his look and the sound of his voice.  I’d love to see more.  Speaking of the crew, I loved the moment in which the bridge crew-members rose, one by one, when Saru left the bridge for what everyone expected would be his final time.  Nice moment.

Captain Pike continues to be a welcome addition to this show.  I hope Anson Mount stays forever!  I am loving Pike.  He’s firm and tough and clearly confident in his command, but he also trusts the Discovery crew and is constant in his steadfast support for Startfleet’s noblest qualities.  Every moment with Pike emphasizes how misguided the Lorca character and storyline was in season one.

Although I found it fairly obvious that the sphere/planetoid wouldn’t turn out to be evil, I still welcomed the classic Trek-style ending in which we discover that the sphere means no harm and was just trying to pass on its history before dying.

And, wow, all of the outer-space effects shots of the Discovery and the sphere looked absolutely gorgeous.  Really beautiful stuff.  Those effects shots made me very happy.

I enjoyed the look at Saru’s vegetation-filled quarters.

At one point in the show, Jett mentions that the Chief Engineer sent her on an errand.  Wait, who is Discovery’s Chief Engineer?  I’d thought that was Stamets.  Was he NEVER the chief engineer?  Was there always someone else in charge of the Discovery’s regular engines, while Stamets oversaw the spore drive science experiments?  Or was Stamets the Chief Engineer in season one, but now he isn’t, since he said in the first episode this season that his transfer off of Discovery had been approved?  I am confused.  Also, is the lab set (where the spore drive is located and where Stamets and Tilly have most of their scenes) Main Engineering?  I’d assumed it was — but then when Jett was talking about being sent by the Chief Engineer I assumed it wasn’t — but then I think one of them did refer to their location as Main Engineering later in the episode… so, like Ambassador Nanclus in Star Trek VI, I don’t know what to believe…

There’s a lot of work in this episode to undo some of the continuity problems created by season one.  Mae suggests to Stamets that Discovery’s jumps using the spore drive are damaging her home dimension… and I can now see the excuse the show will use for why this incredible space-jumping technology is never used in future Trek series.  (Shades of TNG’s “Force of Nature.”)  And Pike and Number One talk about how Pike prefers viewscreens to the holographic communications systems we saw everyone using in season one (and even, if I understood the scene right, suggests that the holographic system was tied to the Enterprise‘s malfunctions?).  On the one hand, I am glad the writers are trying to bring the show a bit more in line with established Trek continuity.  On the other hand, I am forced to again question why they made this show a prequel in the first place, and why they were so careless about established Trek continuity that all of this season two backtracking is required!  It’s so much wasted time and energy that wouldn’t have been needed if they’d a) just set this show further in the future of the older Trek shows, in which case they could’ve done anything they wanted with the technology, or b) actually paid more attention to what would have been appropriate for this pre-Original Series time-period.  Sigh.

This episode did have some of the storytelling laziness I have complained about in previous Discovery episodes.  If the Discovery was able to trace Spock’s flight path in the first place, why couldn’t they figure out how to do that again even when the shuttle passed out of their sensor range?  If Discovery knows where Spock is, why aren’t other starships also chasing after this fugitive who apparently killed many fellow officers?  I’m surprised a disruption to the universal translator would mean that no one on the bridge could understand one another.  (Weren’t Pike and Burnham, at least, both speaking English?)  And why would a disruption of the translator also mean that the text on the consoles were also unreadable?  What the heck are the digital antibodies that Burnham and Saru created to slow down the corruption of the ship’s systems?  That’s a cool name, but I wanted at least a sentence further of explanation.

And this great episode was saddled with a ridiculous ending.  Wasn’t it obvious Tilly would have been in some way affected by being sucked into that cocoon?  Why were Stamets and Jett just standing around at the end, as if all was well and there was no possibility of future problems?  And the scene of them being high on the spores, which was supposed to be funny, was groan inducing.

But an awkward last minute or two won’t distract me from an otherwise very strong episode.  This was fun and funny, fast-paced with a lot of excitement and some great character moments.  I’d like more episodes like this, please…!

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