February 27, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery S2 Ep 6, "The Sound of Thunder"

I'm cautiously optimistic about this season of Discovery, in that the show finally seems to be finding its voice and its stride. "An Obol for Charon" was definitely the high point for me so far, followed by "Points of Light" and "Saints of Imperfection." Unfortunately, this season is still producing clunkers, and this is one of them.

It's not evident when you first watch it though, because this show is, and continues to be, gorgeous. The special effects are top-notch, and the alien in this episode is a creepy, black slime dripping CGI masterpiece. (I wish they hadn't filtered the actor's voice, though. I know they did that to make it sound even more alien, but it just made it hard to understand what the Ba'ul were saying.) Doug Jones' performance as Saru is equally as good, but he's always been one of the best actors on the show (along with Anthony Rapp). Anson Mount, as Captain Christopher Pike, is one of the better elements this season, and I'm liking what they're doing with a relatively undeveloped character from the original series. If the writers can do as well with a young Spock (which we really need to see--hopefully he finally shows up next week), that will be a step forward for the show.

But sometimes it doesn't seem like the writers are really thinking through what they're doing, and that was never more evident than this episode. This episode combined two story threads: Saru's Kelpien background (also incorporating the Short Trek "The Brightest Day") with the overarching season storyline of the hunt for the Red Angel. Kelpiens, we found out in the Short Trek, are a sentient prey species, living in peace and isolation on their planet and subject to periodic "culling" by their predators, the technologically advanced Ba'ul. Every so often certain Kelpiens are summoned to the pylons that oversee each village, and they're zapped into nothingness and never seen again. Saru escaped this fate eighteen years earlier by cobbling together Ba'ul technology to reach beyond his planet and get in contact with the Federation (and specifically a young Lieutenant Philippa Georgiou). Due to the restrictions imposed by General Order One (which is an apparent precursor to the Prime Directive, Starfleet's non-interference policy) Georgiou can only rescue Saru by making him promise to leave his planet behind and never contact it or his people again, and Saru's thirst for knowledge is so great that he agrees to this.

This episode picks up what happens after "An Obol for Charon," in which a Big Dumb Object stops the Discovery and basically begs the ship to take its testimony before it dies, and in the process triggers Saru's vahar'ai, the (supposed) imminent death of Kelpien individuals that occurs with the culling. But come to find out, when Saru's threat ganglia fall off and he survives, only to lose the fear that has consumed Kelpiens their entire lives, he realizes that the Ba'ul have been imprisoning his people and telling them lies about their biology and way of life for centuries. Obviously a confrontation would have to take place here, and the Red Angel sends a signal from Kaminar, the Kelpien home planet, to force one.

To make a long, convoluted story short, the Ba'ul attempt to destroy all the Kelpiens, and are countered by Discovery and Saru, using the signal from "Charon's" Big Dumb Object to trigger vahar'ai in every Kelpien on the planet. Here is where the episode starts to break down, because nobody asks if that's a good thing, even the normally more cautious Captain Pike. I realize that Discovery was in the middle of a crisis, but for crying out loud, if they had time for Saru to have a flipping long conversation with Burnham and Pike while he was on the Ba'ul's ship, they had time for someone to say, "Uh, is forcing a massive biological change on an entire species without even asking them really the best way out of this?" It also shreds General Order One into teeny tiny fragments and blows them away on the wind. I'm not a fan of General Order One/the Prime Directive at the best of times, because it seems like a (to continue the "Big" analogy) a Big Stupid Rule that Starfleet has to pay lip service to while allowing their captains and others to find clever ways around it. I wish it had never been included in the series at all. I wish it could be jettisoned entirely, but it's far too late for that now. Aside from a perfunctory mention from Captain Pike, nobody pays even lip service to it this time around.

And to top it all off, almost none of this had to happen, because at the last minute the Red Angel shows up to shut the Ba'ul genocide down. This is a massive, disappointing cheat. The only good thing about it is that Saru caught a good look at the Red Angel, which suspiciously resembles a bipedal, rather human-shaped being in a red spacesuit. So I suppose this episode advanced the season's overarching plot a bit, and it did give Saru some character development (losing his threat ganglia has apparently turned him, at least temporarily, into an arrogant jackass) and some appropriately badass scenes. But man, the show spouted a lot of contradictory, not-so-good stuff to get there.

Look, every show has less-than-stellar episodes, and a lot of this season of Discovery has been trying to fix and/or retcon the missteps of the first season (particularly killing off Hugh Culber). And the revelation about Saru's people is certainly a game-changer. But this is not a good way to handle the aftermath of that, and I certainly hope the show improves going forward.

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