And Now Star Trek: Discovery Has Lost its Soul

By Katharine Trendacosta on at

Let’s talk about Captain Lorca, Ash Tyler, Harcourt Fenton Mudd, and the moral centre of Star Trek. I can’t believe I’m about to defend Harry Mudd. Goddammit, Discovery.

So the plot of yesterday’s episode is that Lorca has been summoned by Starfleet command, away from the ship, and told not to use the s-drive (spore-drive, I guess) unless specifically ordered to. They’re worried about depleting their “asset,” a.k.a. the tardigrade that is showing distress with every jump. Also, they think the Klingons have twigged to the Discovery being the secret weapon and want it to keep it out of danger as much as possible. By the end of the episode they are right and also all of this is moot, since Burnham sets the tardigrade free.

On his way back to the ship, Lorca is captured by Klingons and put in cell with the Harry Mudd, a genial and sexist con man we saw in two episodes of the original series and one in the animated one, and Lieutenant Ash Tyler, who was captured during the Battle of the Binary Stars (the battle that started the war).

Because Mudd is... Mudd, Lorca determines that it’s him that’s slipping the Klingons information on his fellow prisoners, and not Tyler, who claims he’s still alive because the Klingon captain has taken a liking to him. Given that Mudd has no problems letting others take a beating for him, you can see why Lorca would come to that conclusion. Eventually, Lorca and Tyler escape and they leave Mudd behind. And that was the moment this show completely lost me.

Is Mudd a good guy? No. He’s driven by craven self-interest that manifests in taking advantage of others, and Kirk always tried to see to it that Mudd got what he deserved for his wrongs. Kirk also always remained the better man. In “I, Mudd,” Kirk and his crew are captured by humanoid robots because of Mudd’s actions. He wants off a planet, so he directs the robots to grab him a ship; then the robots decide they need to “help” humanity by “serving,” i.e. imprisoning them where they can be looked after and kept from screwing up, all because of Mudd. Mudd helps Kirk defeat the robots, and Kirk still leaves him behind, to make sure the robots don’t stray from their path. In that case, Mudd helped create the mess, Kirk made sure he helps clean it up. That’s not what Lorca did.

Lorca left Mudd behind on a Klingon prison ship, happy to let him suffer torture and almost certain eventual death. (And there was no way to know the ship they would end up stealing was a two-seater.) This isn’t a case where Lorca happens to have a different view of Starfleet’s role as a military power. This is reprehensible.

It is specifically reprehensible in Star Trek. A lot of people have complained that Discovery has lost the hope that Star Trek has always represented. I held off on that for a while, seeing hope in Burnham’s redemption arc—that she’d choose science and exploration over doing what you need to win a war. But Lorca’s actions in this case are a death knell. He didn’t even struggle with the decision. If he had been angry and vengeful, so the choice was a battle between what he knew was right and what he felt, maybe we’d still be in a Star Trek that promises humans can make the right decisions, even though it’s hard and requires us to work for it. But no, Lorca just left him behind, with Tyler in tow.

To the audience Tyler is so obviously a spy that Lorca’s not just callous, he’s a fucking moron. Tyler is played by Shazad Latif, who also plays the albino Klingon Voq. We do know Voq went to learn skills from the House Mokai—a house with matriarchs, and this ship was captained by a female Klingon who said she trained as a spy and that’s how she speaks English so well. L’Rell also told Voq he’d have to give up “everything” to win the war, and having to look and act human is that, especially for a Klingon who rages against assimilation and who comes from a time when “Remain Klingon” is the slogan of the day. (Also, “The Trouble With Tribbles” featured a Klingon spy made to look human—it’s not a new trick of the Klingon Empire’s.) It’s too ironic for writers to not be setting it up. And so the problem is that telling your audience this much that they figure out the twist early means, for weeks, we’re going to be screaming bloody murder at Lorca.

Lorca’s big trauma, by the way, was that he escaped a battle his previous ship had with the Klingons, but also destroyed the ship and killed his crew to “spare them” the humiliating and drawn-out death the Klingons had in store for them. I wish I cared even a little bit.

In this scenario, the audience is the Klingon captain.

Things were slightly better on the science end this week. Burnham convinces Stamets that they can’t rely on the tardigrade. As usual, she’s not great at talking to people, trying first to butter up Stamets with compliments. As usual, Stamets is great, responding, “I know I’m brilliant, what are you trying to get out of me?”

There’s a lot of science babble, but it boils down to trying to put the same genes that let the tardigrade be accepted by the mycelium into a species that can consent to driving the ship. What happens next is confusing if you don’t know a tiny bit about some obscure bits of canon. Yes, everyone’s history and emotions gets talked out, but not this important point.

Apparently, the only compatible match in the database is human. Humans might be a match for the spore/tardigrade mixture, but DNA alteration is banned on Earth. (It’s easy to forget, but Earth isn’t actually the same as the Federation—it has its own rules.) Earth banned it to prevent another set of Eugenics Wars, where “Augments”—supermen with altered genes—ruled Earth as despots. (Khan Noonien Singh was one of these.) Also, this happened in the ‘90s. Ah, the ‘90s: Nirvana, Friends, and genetically engineered supermen enslaving everyone in a series of brutal wars.

Anyway, humans can’t alter their genes, it’s illegal and will stay illegal for hundreds of years, as Deep Space Nine fans know. Now, I’m sure the same broad powers that let the Discovery do all sorts of other morally bankrupt shit in the pursuit of winning this war would let them get around this law. But Saru, who is acting as the captain and wants desperately to prove himself while saving Lorca, tells them no. And when the stress finally sends the tardigrade into a super-hibernation, Saru orders Stamets to bring it back to usefulness, even if it would end up killing it... even if it turns out to be sentient. Another strike against the soul of Discovery.

Instead, Stamets slams the DNA mixture into himself and pilots the ship away from Klingon space, Lorca and Tyler in tow. I’m sure this will have no negative effects whatsoever. Saru gets some of his good points back by asking Burnham to save the “soul” of the tardigrade. She has no clue how to do that, so she just... puts it out into space with some spores. She’s lucky that worked.

Stamets’ face speaks for us all.

While Stamets continues to be the salty science asshole I wish I could be and Saru at least learns from mistakes, this is the Discovery episode that I just couldn’t see more good than bad in. I hate the Lorca bit so much, it actually makes me heartsick. I need better from Star Trek. Burnham’s only defining characteristic continues to be “I do what I want,” and it’s unappealing. She learns every week to not do it, and then she’s right back there the next week. Rainn Wilson’s Mudd is lacking Roger C. Carmel’s buoyancy and mellifluousness, so I don’t believe he’s going to age into someone who can banter with Kirk. Or that he’ll be playful with Starfleet rather than bitterly enraged at how he’s been treated.

I see male privilege is still alive and well in the future.

Assorted Musings:

  • Saru, left in charge of the Discovery, asks for a list of the most-decorated Starfleet officers. Robert April was the first “first captain” of the Enterprise, popping up in the animated series. Jonathan Archer also became the first captain of the Enterprise—when it was the first ship of United Earth Starfleet, before the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet properly existed—in the prequel series Enterprise. (I assume he’s only on this list because being first makes you the most decorated by default.) Matt Decker pops up as a commodore in “The Doomsday Machine” in the original series. Georgiou we all know. Pike is either the captain of the Enterprise right now, or is about to be.
  • Saru asks for the characteristics of these captains and the computer lists, “bravery, self-sacrifice, intelligence, tactical brilliance, compassion.” Saru tells the computer to track his actions as captain and tell him if deviates from the parameters on the list. Nice attempt to science yourself into being a good captain.
  • In the end, Saru’s knowledge of predator and prey behaviour leads him to identify Lorca flying a stolen Klingon ship, being a better leader as himself than while trying to emulate those other captains, and this character moment deserved a better episode.
  • Stamets correctly points out that Burnham is the reason the tardigrade is being used this way in the first place. Burnham is the opposite of Midas: everything she touches turns to shit.
  • I can’t tell if “You say portobella, I say portobello” is cute or awful for a fungi specialist to say.
  • If you know how Mudd will eventually feel about his wife, Stella, every line about her is both sadder and funnier.
  • Who knew the line “I always wanted to converse with my mushrooms” would be foreshadowing?