For a show predominantly about space, Star Trek really does feature an awful lot of time travel. It’s a concept that’s been used in a variety of different ways over the years. In many instances, it’s been used as something that happens by accident – a freak accident or some phenomenon which flings the crew back in time. On occasion, time travel has been used to heartrending effect, such as when Captain Kirk watched Joan Collins’ Edith Keeler meet her maker in ‘City On The Edge Of Forever’, knowing that the woman who he loves must die in order to preserve history, and he has to stand by helplessly.
In other cases, it has been employed for a far more lighthearted purpose, as in Deep Space Nine‘s ‘Trials And Tribble-ations’, with time travel being used as a device to let us see Sisko, Dax, Worf, Bashir and O’Brien rubbing shoulders with Kirk and crew during the original series, thanks to some neat VFX tech. Time travel has also cropped up as a threat – something goes back through time to change history for the worse, such as with the Borg in First Contact. More recently, we’ve had the notion of altered timelines used as the core of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Kelvin timeline’ of Star Trek reboot films, with everything being up for grabs in an entirely new continuity.
The current run of Star Trek: Discovery has seen temporal incursion at the very heart of the season’s story arc, when we found out the mysterious ‘Red Angel’ was in fact a time traveller who’d come from the future. As the weeks went on, it was revealed that the ‘Red Angel’ was trying to stop a Starfleet AI program managing to obtain information which would allow it to become self-aware, as it would then end all organic life in the cosmos; the ‘Red Angel’ was announced as being a Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) from the future, and the crew of the Discovery found a way to trap it when it came back to protect Michael from a (self-inflicted) near-death experience.
However, last week’s cliffhanger reveal was one of the dumbest and maybe most nonsensical in the 50+ years of the Trek franchise – after telling us that DNA data showed that it was 100% certainty, there was a surprise reveal that the ‘Red Angel’ was in fact Dr. Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn) – the long-believed-dead mother of the ship’s science officer. That’s one hell of a stretch of credulity – unless Michael had been an immaculate conception, this plot twist just didn’t make a lick of sense, and seems to have been done just for the shock value of it all. See how the writers furiously backpedal this week to try and contort reality to fit this development.
Sorry, but technobabble blather all about bio-neural signatures and how mothers and daughters share essentially the same genetic material seems like a bit of a cheat – you can’t use misdirection like they have by unequivocally stating it was definitely Michael in the ‘Red Angel’ suit, and then desperately trying to write your way out of it by then throwing in a load of cheap get-outs like this. There should have been a built-in way for them to have a realistic element of doubt, so that it didn’t end up looking like a cheap gimmick without any thought being given to how they manage to walk it back later without looking just plain dumb.
However, give all of that, at least they’ve been able to redeem themselves to some extent this week, by the way in which the presence of Gabrielle has been handled – Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) points out that Gabrielle’s time spent living in the future may have changed her, so the writers are at least smart enough to realise you have a character for whom there’s an obvious parallel, due to the way that he came back different after being trapped for months in the Mycelial Network, and it’s certainly welcome that they’ve not missed such an opportunity. The only slightly odd thing is the way that Culber seems to have slipped back into his old role with relative ease, given all the lengths that they’ve gone to in order to show us how difficult it was to readjust back to life on Discovery. It may have been expedient in terms of the plot, but it still feels like too much of a sudden jump.
However, after weeks of putting up with Martin-Green’s lip-quivering histrionics, this week she finally manages to pitch her performance as Michael mostly just about right. Given the fact that Gabrielle is back from the dead – well, as far as Michael’s concerned, anyway – you’d be forgiven for thinking that Martin-Green would subject us all to another typical display of what’s become her trademark OTT displays of emotional incontinence. As such, it’s a very welcome development to see just how relatively tight and contained her performance is, and she seems around 50% less grating than usual.
The interplay we get between her and Gabrielle takes us along with Michael’s personal anguish as we realise just how emotionally closed off Gabrielle’s had to become in order to survive, trapped 900+ years in the future with no other life in the universe. With her mission logs from the suit having been downloaded, we get to see – along with Michael – what life has been like as the last living creature in all existence, trapped centuries from home, and any jaunts back into the present only being relatively short lived, as she keeps snapping back to the future like a galactic yo-yo.
One of the criticisms of Star Trek having yet another series set right in established continuity is that there can’t really be any true sense of jeopardy, as the makers have to hold the line, and can’t do anything too radical or dramatic to the universe, as we know how things turn out – as such, there isn’t a feeling that there can be too much forward progression or deviation on a cosmic scale, as the future is set in stone. Except, perhaps it isn’t after all. At least, that’s what the series’ writers are tying to indicate here, by actually showing us a future where Star Trek as we know it just simply didn’t happen.
Now, deep down we know that things are going to turn out alright, and by the end of the season, history is assured of being still firmly on the right track. However, it does appear that the makers are dangling a tantalising possibility that they may look to break with continuity, and perhaps give us a ‘Kelvin Timeline 2.0’. We know that Gabrielle has been making incursions into the past, to try and nudge history along, but how do we know whether all this has kept Star Trek history on its course, or if it’s in fact created something else entirely as a result?
Showrunner Alex Kurtzman was the co-writer of 2009’s Star Trek reboot, as well as sequel Into Darkness, so we know he’s used to playing fast and loose with all the Star Trek continuity, and sending things off into a radically different direction. Is this a sign that – despite all protestations to the contrary – we aren’t actually in the ‘Prime’ timeline after all, and things are about to get very unexpectedly altered? It would be a bold move, and may even help to reinvigorate Discovery, by freeing it up from the shackles of needing to be slotted neatly into what we already know of Star Trek‘s timescape. Most likely not, but we were surprised plenty by events during the first season, so let’s wait and see how things will play out here.
With Control having taken, uh, control of Section 31’s Leland (Alan van Sprang), the stakes have been raised further, as it now has a body, and Control can now literally take things into its own hands, instead of needing to manipulate others indirectly. However, the effect seems lessened by the fact Leland appears to have been turned into a T-1000 style indestructible hybrid, which falls into the trap of presenting us with a seemingly invulnerable adversary, and leaves us with the possibility of its eventual defeat not being as satisfying as we may hope, and ultimately diminishing its overall threat level retrospectively. Yes, Borg, I’m looking at you.
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Also, did we really need to have Control / Leland glitching, and having moments where his face starts to morph, risking being discovered? It’s a cheap gimmick, and totally unsatisfying. Surely far better in dramatic terms to have the characters work things out for themselves, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, rather than just a random accidental unmasking? Mind you, Control doesn’t seem terribly good at the role of Leland, as his performance is a dead giveaway. We know that Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) doesn’t trust Leland, but it would have been a nice twist to have her taken in by Control, only to uncover the truth at the point Gabrielle ends up using a phrase which Control / Leland had used verbatim earlier.
And I think that we could have also done without the clunker of a moment where we get into the sort of mawkish, action-stopping moments where Gabrielle has to say a reluctant goodbye to Michael right in the middle of a firefight. Yes, we get it: it’s a big, emotional moment, as Michael will be losing her mother again – perhaps forever, as the suit’s time crystal has been destroyed by Control / Leland, but there’s a time and a place for such things, and it generally isn’t when you’re in dire mortal peril, giving time for people to be killed in the process. Yawn.
Discovery, you’re better than these sorts of cliches. And don’t even get me started on Gabrielle’s big reveal that she saw all of the important moments of Michael’s life. You’d think that someone in a bloody great big spacesuit would be a little bit noticeable in the audience. Yes, I’m being facetious, but it just seems to have been somewhat of an unnecessary touch, an over-egging of the mixture after we’ve already established by this point that Gabrielle wasn’t as emotionally dead as she’d made out. Dull, lazy writing in the extreme. Please try to rise above cheap emotional beats like this, Disco. Ironically, it seems like you could do with a bit of control.