Star Trek: Discovery 2.14 – “Such Sweet Sorrow (part 2)”

Remember last week, when I thought it would be the pacing that ruined the season finale?

Ah, those were innocent days.

Let me start off by saying that I did not hate every second of this episode. In fact, it was full of things I loved, and even one of the things that really upset me (*cough* Cornwell’s sacrifice) is, I think, solid in concept if not execution.

But the final scenes — the epilogue — were subtextually toxic, not just ruining the finale for me, but undermining the whole series to date. Not to mention that it’s uncomfortably clear that season two as a whole is far, far less than the sum of its parts.

I don’t like leaving things on a sour note, so I’m going to set out all my problems first, and then go back to list the things I liked and loved.

These are the voyages…

I may be less than halfway through Enterprise, but even I know its series finale was a notorious failure, and why. Instead of farewelling the characters who drove this flawed, sometimes promising show for four seasons, it took place on the holodeck of the Enterprise-D, literally in the middle of a TNG episode, as Riker uses the setting and crew of Enterprise to work through a problem of his own.

It was intended as a farewell to the whole Berman era of Trek, but came across as tone-deaf and self-indulgent, an insult to the Enterprise cast and the (admittedly few) fans who cared about those characters.

The epilogue to “Such Sweet Sorrow” isn’t quite that bad. It just features, you know, four white people and a man of colour conspiring to erase and conceal the heroism of a woman of colour and her queer, diverse compatriots, and ultimately focuses on the crew of a different ship, from a different series.

It’s differently terrible.

Whose voices are heard?

Remember how, back when I was blogging about season 1, I complained that the voices being amplified — the reviewers favoured by YouTube’s algorithms, the ones doing it for money instead of love, the ones included in File 770 round-ups — were white men? Reviewers who seemed reluctant from the start to accept Discovery on its own terms, who often seemed to tune out as soon as a woman started speaking? Who kept asking, “But what’s Discovery about?” as if it was in any way subtle? Who fixated on technology and their own nostalgic ideas about “canon”?

When showrunner Alex Kurtzman said, “We are entirely aware of everyone’s questions and criticisms; I’ve read everything, and I see where everyone’s like, ‘Well, the spore drive never existed!’ and ‘What, Discovery was never around!’ and all of those things, we’re totally aware”, I felt a cold chill.

Because those aren’t “everyone’s” questions and criticisms. He hasn’t “read everything”, he’s read the most widely linked professional reviewers, and … well. See the demographic bias described above.

If there’s one thing we’ve seen over and over again in the last few years, it’s that white male fans are deeply conservative. Not all of them, obviously; some of my best friends are white male fans. And not all are driven, consciously or otherwise, by racism or misogyny. But this is a group with a widespread fear of change, and a notable dislike of the interrogation of any aspect of popular culture they regard as theirs. Any divergence from the approved nostalgic formula is perceived as a threat.

And season one of Discovery was all about deconstructing nostalgic Star Trek tropes, starting with the assumption that the main character should be the captain. In a franchise historically conservative about killing major characters, the premiere ended with the captain dead, and much of what followed was an examination of the power a ship’s captain holds over his crew, and of the dangers when that power is misused.

It was also about the compromise that comes with politics, and the idea that a utopia doesn’t just exist, but requires constant maintenance. The events of the premiere literally open with the Shenzhou assigned to repair and maintain the Federation’s communications infrastructure!

These aren’t new ideas in Star Trek — I highly recommend The M0vie Blog’s TOS reviews for an examination of how Gene L. Coon and D. C. Fontana added complexity and grey areas to Roddenberry’s utopia — but they’ve been flattened and lost by the force of nostalgia.

If you’re going to deconstruct something, you’d damn well better have something worthwhile to construct in its place, and I thought that’s what season 2 was doing: moving Michael and Saru along their respective paths to captaincy, using Pike to demonstrate the ideals Lorca betrayed and mirror!Georgiou undermined. I thought the series was overcorrecting somewhat, but that it would come good in the end.

I was wrong.

Season 2 ends with Michael, Georgiou, Tilly, Stamets and Culber — the women of colour, the queer men, the weirdos, the characters most hated by that demographic of fans — consigned to an unknown future, their achievements in the 23rd century completely erased. Classified. Even Michael’s relationship to Spock becomes a secret. Cornwell, also deeply unpopular, is dead.

We finish up with a shot of the Enterprise bridge, a sea of white people. Mostly women, yes, and that’s nice, but #enterprisesowhite. And don’t worry, boys, there’s a solid, decent white man in charge of it all. We’ve got all the girl and gay cooties off your precious 23rd century, you don’t ever have to hear about those people again!

Do you know why it’s important that Discovery is was a prequel? It was an opportunity to add 21st century values to a 1960s setting, a way of saying, “We were here all along. You didn’t see us, but we were here.” Enterprise had that opportunity, but chose instead to be regressive. Discovery tried to be progressive, and often succeeded.

Now?

Michael Burnham was infamous throughout the Federation as the mutineer who started a war. As the Starfleet officer who saved all sentient life in the galaxy, her achievements are actively concealed.

You could call it a subtextual metaphor for how African American women are treated in real life, but it’s right there in the text.

I don’t for a minute think that any of this was intentional on the writers’ parts. But let me point out: there are no African American women writing Star Trek: Discovery. It’s the most diverse writers room a Star Trek has ever had, but there’s this key voice missing.

In fact:

Did you know that there’s not one black creative executive working at CBS Television Network or CBS Television Studios? Of the network’s 36 creative executives — all upper management roles that deal with content development, casting, current production, daytime and alternative programming — there are only three women of color, none black.

(source)

I didn’t care for Series 11 of Doctor Who. In fact, I stopped watching after three episodes because, as much as I enjoyed Jodie Whittaker’s performance as the Doctor, I find Chris Chibnall’s writing unbearably dull.

But Chibnall gets one thing right: if you’re going to tell stories about diverse characters, you need diverse writers. And sometimes, that means you need to actively seek them out, recruit them, train them, retain them, support them.

Discovery needs to do better.

I have loved Star Trek since I was a child. I may take breaks from it for a decade or so, but part of me will always love Star Trek. It’s the reason I want to be a writer. Hell, it’s the reason I studied history — for stories on the same grand scale as a space opera.

But I always knew that, as a woman, Star Trek was not for me. Never mind that it was a woman who created the Vulcans; never mind that it was women who saved the series from cancellation, who organised the first conventions. That it was mostly college and high school-aged girls who attended those first conventions. We weren’t actually wanted.

Star Trek: Voyager was the highest rated show on its network (admittedly not a difficult feat), but its audience was dominated by women. So the network ordered it be retooled, sexed up, made more appealing to the male demographic, because that was who “should be” watching Star Trek.

(Granted, that decision gave us Seven of Nine, one of the franchise’s most complicated and interesting female characters, but that’s because, for once, the writers managed to make lemonade out of sexist lemons.)

Discovery‘s season 1 felt like the first time Trek was pandering to me. The epilogue to season 2 feels like a step back — and makes the whole preceding two seasons feel simply pointless.

Now, I’m sure that, once season 3 begins, and we return to the story of Michael and Discovery, unencumbered by the trappings of the 23rd century and “canon”, the epilogue will start to feel more like the love letter to an era that it’s intended to be. But the subtext is so ugly that Pike, Number One, Ash and even Spock feel tainted by association.

Who gets to change?

Michael’s farewell with Spock was tender and heartbreaking, and the culmination of their reconciliation as siblings and friends.

It was also frustrating, because it became clear that Michael was the catalyst for Spock’s change and growth, but the relationship is not reciprocal. The black woman who is allegedly the heroine of this story is simply used to serve the story of a white man.

Her farewell to Spock even includes an intentional allusion to his friendship with Kirk. I think we can assume the writers don’t know that “black woman is used as matchmaker to set up More Important White Characters” is one of fandom’s ugliest tropes, but, well, here we are.

Michael changes over the season, but it’s incremental. She lets go of her guilt about her family’s death, but doesn’t stop taking responsibility for the well-being of the universe. She’s no longer isolated, but that just means she has more people to enable her to martyr herself.

In some ways, this rings emotionally true: a trauma ends, but the coping mechanisms that help a person deal with it go on. And Michael’s story isn’t over yet — as opposed to Spock’s, which is well known and complete save for the small details.

And don’t get me wrong, I like characters who are inclined to sacrifice themselves for the greater good! Although, on the whole, I would prefer if they weren’t able to actually go through with it, Katrina.

But it was so clearly highlighted as a problem for Michael to overcome that I feel like she … should have at least tried … to overcome it.

You know who else doesn’t get to change? Tilly. She changes her hair, but is otherwise essentially the same at the end as the beginning — even after her experiences with May.

And Jett Reno has a glimpse of the future via the time crystal. Consequences? Nil.

On the other hand, we have Culber, who radically changed offscreen from a guy who was ready to let go of Paul to a man who would follow him a thousand years into the future. And Georgiou, who has apparently become a hybrid of her Federation and Terran selves, if you can believe it. Storylines hinted at, but never explored with any depth.

It turns out the real red bursts were the friends we made along the way

(Did I say that about the Red Angel(s) a few weeks ago? Look, it’s a good meme.)

Season 1 turned out to be pretty simple. The war with the Klingons. Michael’s redemption. Get the spore drive working. Get the spore drive working without torturing a lifeform. Ash’s identity. Lorca’s identity. Making the right choices in the mirror universe, then using those skills and that knowledge to make the right choices for the Federation.

Okay, not that simple. But it hung together.

Season 2 had so many ideas. And most of them were really good! Unfortunately most of them didn’t get time to be explored in any depth.

Take Control, for example. Controleland was just a hissable villain by the end, spouting random sexism and claiming ownership of the sphere data. And, you know, I like a good hissable villain now and then, but Control could have been so much more. A nascent intelligence borne out of war and paranoia, unable to comprehend the concept of “peace”. The misinterpretation of data by a faulty algorithm. Imagine if Control had been contrasted against Michael’s need to protect and save and … control.

We didn’t need time travel to tell this story.

Season 2 presented us with a series of mysteries, but the answers proved largely to be obvious and disappointing. The only revelation that was both shocking and emotionally resonant was that the first Red Angel was Gabrielle Burnham. And meanwhile, we puttered around New Eden, hung out with a dying sphere, fomented rebellion on Kaminar, dabbled in politics on Qo’noS.

This was all (mostly) interesting, but now that we can see the big picture, so much of it feels pointless. Inconsequential. It feels like the writers set out with the goal of sending Discovery on a one-way trip to the future, and didn’t quite get as far as making the story feel organic.

“It’s about faith versus science, and family,” we were promised, but the only storyline with meaningful follow-through was the one about family.

And that was great. Right up until it became literally treason for Michael Burnham’s adopted family to talk about her except privately.

And this is so disappointing! I was so optimistic — to the point of delusion, maybe — that it would all come good in the end. And I was wrong.

(I will say, although the overt religious themes fell by the wayside after Kaminar, we had an interesting pivot into Starfleet as a secular religion, the ideals behind Pike’s morality. The season 1 finale featured a refrain of “This is Starfleet”, and season 2 has expanded on that idea in some cool ways which I will definitely consider once I’ve stopped feeling angry about the stuff I disliked.)

Eyes up for the admiral

Cornwell was meant to die at the end of her third appearance. She was created to appear a couple of times, deepen Lorca’s mysteries, and then be murdered by Klingons when she got too close to seeing what he really was. Woman has sex with the wrong man, pays for it with her life.

Instead, because the showrunners liked Jayne Brook — a last-minute replacement for another actress — they decided to keep her own, and expand her character beyond her relationship with Lorca. She got to be complicated, flawed, sometimes unsympathetic, sometimes incredibly kind.

Her death in “Such Sweet Sorrow” is better than what was originally planned. Kat went out with agency, dignity and courage.

Naturally, I’m devastated.

I’ve never lost one of my characters before. My Snape obsession had faded by the time Deathly Hallows came out, and anyway, he was marked for death from the first book. (I still cried for an afternoon.) I’ve never been cut off, mid-hyperfixation. If there’s a skillset for dealing with this, I don’t have it yet, although I’m confident that Avengers fandom will be able to provide group therapy soon.

Suffice to say, I’ve been pretty sad for the past week. I cried for about ten hours on Friday — thank heavens it was a public holiday so I wasn’t at work or wearing eye make-up when I got spoiled for her fate. I was still teary on Saturday, and … well, I’m getting better, but someone was definitely chopping onions as I typed the preceding paragraphs.

I feel pretty silly about all this, but that actually isn’t enough to make it stop. I’ve taken it for granted that Kat would just be there, lurking in the background of the 23rd century, feigning shock when Kirk discovers the mirror universe, chilling with L’Rell at the signing of the Khitomer Accords. There was potential, and it’s been cut off.

Nevertheless, when I try to be dispassionate, I don’t hate Kat’s death. When your heroes are fighting an abstract concept like the death of all sentient life in the galaxy, there’s narrative value in losing an individual who is known to the audience and widely popular.

And, given the set-up, the only other viable option was killing Number One. Which … could have worked. It would explain why she’s not involved in the events of “The Menagerie”, for example. But I don’t think her loss would have had the same impact as Cornwell’s, and given a choice (no one has given me the choice) I’d rather not have to decide which female character lives and dies.

My problem is really in the execution — why send a former psychiatrist down to disarm a torpedo with what amounts to a YouTube tutorial on an iPad? Why are the manual controls for the blast door only on one side? (Does Starfleet not have WorkSafe? OSHA?)

Why didn’t she try to close the door from the outside? Yes, she’d lose an arm, but … well, people die in Star Trek all the time, but amputation’s one of the few injuries that can’t be fixed with a magic wand. DS9 had a whole arc about Nog recovering from the loss of his leg. There’s your stakes!

The execution feels like, having decided to kill Kat, the writers forgot to consider and address all her options for avoiding death. Of which there were plenty. It starts to feel less tragic and more silly.

We haven’t really a sense of Kat’s state of mind this year. She hasn’t had an arc this season, and the closest we’ve come to seeing her private self was in her “therapy session” with Hugh. Is her sense that, if someone has to die, it should be the admiral who ordered a genocide, not the captain who wouldn’t even imagine it? In season 1, she had a tremendous will to survive. She was basically a cockroach (in a nice way). Did something change? We don’t know!

I’m sad, but I’m also frustrated.

Anyway, here’s a list of things I did like

  • I’m not really one for space battles. They’re fun at first, then boring. But I loved the sense of scale, the big starships and the tiny shuttles and drones which looked like swarms of insects by comparison.
  • Also, the battle was frequently broken up by very cool character moments — I wish there had been more, especially with so much time wasted on flashbacks (once again, they’re writing for the audience who isn’t paying attention — and how much is this going to undermine the bingeing experience?) — but everyone got a chance to do something.
  • Including the Klingons? Remember the other week, when it was of the utmost importance that no one on Qo’noS knew Ash was alive? Oh well. Mary Chieffo looked magnificent and got to have fun snarling orders and declaring it a good day to die.
  • Georgiou and Nhan’s pursuit of Controleland was fantastic. Amazing stunts. We see a new, bloodthirsty side of Nhan. And Georgiou literally giggles as she watches Controleland disintegrate, which is both horrifying and delightful. Much like Georgiou herself, come to think of it.
  • Kat teams up with Number One for her final mission, and yes, I’m quite salty that we didn’t get to actually see that, but I’m glad it happened.
  • Michael’s jumps through time looked like a sci-fi interpretation of Alice falling down the rabbithole, which is so perfect for her character, and also pretty unique in terms of time travel.
  • But Discovery’s trip to the future used the same distortion effects seen in the TOS movies, and that is also delightful.
  • I’m actually not opposed to the idea of sending Discovery to the far future. I don’t usually enjoy far future SF, but I think there’s potential for interesting storytelling here, provided the writers can strike a balance between “imagining the tremendous social change between then and ‘now'” and “people are always people”. I don’t like the behind-the-scenes reasoning for it, but I’m very curious to see what happens next.

In conclusion

It’s possible that I’ll revisit this post in a few year’s time and go, “Wow, I was quite unfair to this episode! Now that it sits in the context of season 3 [and whatever comes after], I can respect it despite its flaws.”

But then I think of the racism in the subtext, and … well. I think this is another case where I could be reconciled to the concept if the execution had been a bit more thoughtful — if, instead of focusing just on how hard this is for the people left behind, there was more acknowledgement that they are perpetrating an injustice against Michael’s memory. Would that make it better? I’m not sure! I’m a white lady from Australia! This is why more African Americans need to be writing Discovery.

Going forward

I’m going to take a break from Star Trek for a couple of weeks, and then resume my Voyager posts in mid-May. Oh look, we’re almost up to “Threshold”. There’s something pure about the simplicity of evolving into a salamander and having lizard babies with your equally-hyper-evolved captain, don’t you think?

Finally! If you are an attending or supporting member of Continuum 15, or were an attending or supporting member of Swancon43 in 2018, please consider voting for me for Best Fan Writer in the Ditmar Awards.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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