The title of this week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s A Sound Of Thunder, and it’s no doubt intentional. With that in mind, you have to ask yourself why – what is it that this instalment of Discovery has in common with Bradbury’s famous story? Well, there’s certainly an element of time travel for one thing, so that might be one reason. There’s also the notion of making mistakes, or facing up to past actions, and the ripple effects they have – a theme in this tale appears to lean heavily towards dealing with consequences.
We pick up the action not long after the end of ‘Saints Of Imperfection’, where we saw the return of the presumed deceased Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), who had actually ended up being inadvertently transported into the Mycelial plane last year by his lover Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), after finding his lifeless body in the Sickbay shortly after he’d been killed by Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), the augmented Klingon deep cover agent. So, it turned out he wasn’t dead, just converted into a form of energy which was killing off the Mycelial network. Now he’s back in the real world, after having his physical form recreated by an organic alien transport made out of human DNA. Keeping up so far?
It appears that being stranded in a hostile alternative plane of existence isn’t really conducive to your wellbeing, as Culber is struggling with being back to reality. And he’s not the only one having to go through an adjustment: his return to the show has stirred up some controversy, in the same way as that his death did, all the way back in Season 1’s ‘Despite Yourself’. The main issue then was that, after being part of the first proper LGBTQ pairing in the history of Star Trek, he was promptly – as well as rather brutally – offed, before we’d even gotten to know him, or have him make an impact. However, the nature of his demise was at least in keeping with the overall tone of the first season, which was rather darker and more bleak than the Trek that we’ve come to know and love.
Given that the original Trek‘s mantra was Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC), it’s disappointing that Season 2 of Discovery has attempted to lose much of its distinctiveness, by trying to bridge the gap between itself and the Captain Kirk era, and in the process taking on a certain amount of homogeneity, which is such an awful shame. Part of this seems to involve walking back some of the creative choices made in Season 1, including bringing back Dr. Culber from the dead. Whatever you may feel about the call they made to kill him off, they should’ve had the courage to stick to it. While it’s good to see more of Culber, it feels an awful lot of a cheat, and puts it very firmly into the same sort of territory as the resurrection of Kirk in Into Darkness: a cod sci-fi cliche and a copout.
There is strong evidence that shows move into a decline when they start focusing on fan service, rather than trying to tell the best stories for the widest audience – the Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras of Doctor Who are a case in point. It stops shows from growing, and stifles creativity. There’s a quote from Joss Whedon about giving people what they need, as opposed to what they want, and there’s an awful lot of validity in that. It’s arguable how much of the internal conflict from the first season could be sustained, but the show seems to be doing a total 180, and doing too much to turn the Discovery’s crew into a typical set of sanitised Trek characters, without the rough, raw edges that we saw throughout last year.
This was most evident in the last episode, when Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru (Doug Jones) ended up not only fully reconciling their differences after it seemed Saru was dying, but also engaging in a full-on mutual admiration lovefest. It’s probably one of the weakest aspects of the show, as it doesn’t seem an organic process, but driven artificially by the need to get the story to a certain place. In this case, that place just happens to be Saru’s home planet, Kaminar. Viewers of Short Treks will have already had a look at Kaminar in ‘The Brightest Star’, where we got to meet his sister, Siranna (Hannah Spear), as well as learning all about Saru’s backstory, as well as why (and how) he left his home to join Starfleet. The story in ‘The Sounds Of Thunder’ does still work without you needing to have seen that as a pre-requisite, but it does work so much better – and is far more rewarding – if you have.
The producers really do seem to be going into overdrive to rehabilitate Saru, and cast him in the mould of a typical lovable Trek alien crew member. Which would be fine, if he hadn’t spent almost all last season being a monumental dick, and a typical ‘company man’. However, their next step appears to be giving us Badass Saru, after losing his fear ganglia in what he thought was part of the Kelpian dying process, but turned out to be an evolution of the species. No longer the cowed, timid character we first met, he’s now able to be bold and ballsy when need be, standing up to Captain Pike (Anson Mount) more than once. This is, then, very much a Saru episode, while still linking in with the big story arc involving the Red Angel, which has appeared over Kaminar; it gives an excuse to bring Saru home, and set his people free from the yoke of the Ba’ul, who have oppressed the Kelpian race for centuries.
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Saru’s return as prodigal son doesn’t go down as well as he might have hoped, as his sister bears a lot of resentment and anger towards him for making it appear he’d died some 18 years earlier. Another example of a choice made, and facing up now to the consequences of your actions, no matter how painful they may be. The Red Angel is just a convenient MacGuffin to get Saru back home, as the tale would have worked just as well with it excised; none of the appearances were absolutely vital to making the plot work, and there were other reasons they could’ve devised to get Saru to return to Kaminar – the Red Angel only seems to appear to remind us of the ongoing search for Spock (which is now becoming an irritant – teasing it so much, yet not giving any satisfaction, or even as much as a glimpse, is making it feel like he’s being fetishised, and ends up casting a shadow over the entire show, to its detriment).
The Discovery crew are reduced to the role of impotent observers for much of the episode, although Pike does get the chance to have a classic bit of Star Trek hailing frequencies action with the Ba’ul when they start getting antsy about there being a Federation ship in orbit over what they consider to be their planet. The Ba’ul turning out to have been the prey turned hunters, and stopping the Kelpians from evolving is a nice touch; this gives us the clear motivation for what they’re doing, as they see the evolved Kelpians as being a threat to their existence. It’s just a pity that they aren’t realised more effectively, as a man-shaped oil slick really doesn’t cut it, and feels as though a judicious bit of CGI enhancement (or creating them in the computer altogether) could have gone a long way. It also reinforces a stereotype of the bad guys looking ugly to suit their nature – it would have been better turning that cliche on its head, or even leaving the Ba’ul unseen altogether.
By the climax, we’ve ended up with a tale of redemption, hope and reconciliation in many ways, as well as getting important clues about the Red Angel – if if turns out to be something as mundane as being a time traveller, however, it’ll certainly be a massive disappointment, as that would be so mundane and pedestrian an outcome, so hopefully they’ll do something rather more creative and satisfying. There’s also hints that Culber may have come back ‘wrong’ somehow, so it does seem that Discovery might not have shed quite all of its darkness and cynicism in place of a more conventional Trek persona.
There’s still a place for its strong, unique voice, both in the Trek pantheon, as well as in TV sci-fi in general. Let’s just hope that it’s still there by the end of this run.
Star Trek: Discovery airs Fridays on Netflix in the UK.