Wow, two completely average episodes in a row! Nice work, Star Trek: Discovery,you’ve strung two not-embarrassing stories together in a row. A record for this iteration of my all-time favorite franchise. But before I get to my observations about why these two half-assed episodes are better than the full-ass of all last season, let me address the larger issue: I really appreciate the writers are trying to “fix” what was so blatantly obviously wrong in the first season. First up: the humor.
The humor in ST comes from character and not situation, as a rule. Sure, you could argue that the situation elicits the response of character and that’s chicken-and-the-egg and whatnot, but, come on. I’m not teaching a class. I didn’t rent it shoes. I didn’t buy it a beer. He’s not taking your turn, Dude. A character like Jet Reno saying snide stuff in the face of impending doom, that’s Star Trek. It’ll work out or it won’t, but it probably will, because Starfleet is Earth’s best. Even if we drink a little too much Scotch down in the engine room or give a hard time to the pointy eared guy because we know he stings at the barbs even though he doesn’t let on. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests. We did.
But turning Saru into the comic relief guy isn’t just wrong for the character, it’s wrong for Star Trek as a whole.
I know most didn’t watch the Short Treks, because who cares? These things are presented as not-essential bits of storytelling in the time between seasons. I mean, I loved the Marvel One-Shots included as little bits of business on the blu ray releases, and some worked better than others, but they provided a little insight. I think “A Funny Thing Happened of the Way to Thor’s Hammer” is the purest distillation of the Agent Coulson character, ever. So, on paper, I should love the Short Treks as powerful peeks behind the curtain. Except that the Tilly based minisode didn’t make any sense, what with Cadet Ditzy Moron (who is apparently on a command track now) doesn’t immediately notify a superior officer that there is an intruder aboard, finds out there’s a missing royal family member of a dilithium rich planet who is the subject of a galaxy-wide APB, and then just beams her off the ship with nobody knowing? At least the food replicator wished her a glorious day.
The less said about the Harry Mudd adventure, the better, but at least Rainn Wilson got some scratch and a bump on his IMdB for the director’s credit. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon’s “Calypso” had nothing to do with Star Trek and felt like a rejected Black Mirror script. It was cute, but… who cares?
But, the Saru short. Let’s just leave aside that Kelpians eat kelp. That one is too on-the-nose to not be a joke, and not thinking something is funny does’t make it not funny to SOMEbody, but… still. This one shows that Kelpians are at the space cow level of their society. Evolved to sense life-threatening danger and meekly go stand in the transporter circle to get beamed up to be eaten by technologically superior space guys, for some reason. Cool. Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. And I get the storytelling trope of the outsider who dreams of something better “out there” beyond all he’s ever known; that’s practically the TV Guide description of half the stories in all the cultures that have ever existed. I also get the seemingly gratuitous inclusion of Lt. Georgiou as the one who comes to collect Saru after his kelp-eating ass figured out how to send a technological message in a bottle out into the great beyond. You get to hold Michelle Yeoh to her contract, and convey the passage of time.
But how long does it take to make Starfleet captain of your own ship… your own ship, much less Starfleet’s superspies Section 31’s prototype magic mushroom drive… after being a lieutenant? Five years? Eight? Ten? Let’s leave aside battlefield promotions and whatnot and give Saru the benefit of the doubt, and say ten years. In ten years that guy went from pre-warp food to the Cowardly Lion to knowing ninety Starfleet languages (not to mention being first officer on a magic mushroom powered space aircraft carrier) to being the comic relief to the point that the first three lines of dialogue he has in the second episode of Season Two are… quips. Bad jokes and snide references. If Doug Jones wasn’t so awesome in the role, I’d say you could replace him with Andy Samberg at this point and only half the audience would notice as long as you got those digitigrade boots on him.
Anyway, remember when The West Wing came out, and the conceit was the show was going to be based around Rob Lowe as the President’s speechwriter, and Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet was to be a guest star, utilized, as needed? It took Aaron Sorkin less than eight episodes to realize that’s not how the world works, and that’s not how TV works. That’s a writer’s conceit that hubris tells them hasn’t ever worked, but they’re the ones who will solve it. It has never worked and it never will, because the ship’s captain is always the most interesting guy in the story. By virtue of having attained captaincy, he’s the master of his crew. Sure, Ishmael is alone left to tell the tale, but Moby Dick is all Ahab.
So bringing in Pike is the greatest thing they could have ever done. Just give the show to Anson Mount, move some characters around, put everybody in gold, blue, and red. Give the Enterprise to Number One for a couple years, and when you’re done, Have the Discovery run across an old J-class with a ruptured baffle plate where he sacrifices himself to save the cadets and trainees from the delta-particles.
It’s not like he hasn’t already jumped on an overloading phaser and lived.