Warning: SPOILERS below for Star Trek: Discovery!
Star Trek: Discovery‘s voyage to the Mirror Universe has revealed answers to the biggest mystery of the series thus far – though for a large segment of fans, it is a non-mystery, a fait accompli. After months of fan theories and speculation, the true nature of Lieutenant Ash Tyler was definitely resolved: he is in fact the Klingon named Voq, who was Torchbearer to the would-be Klingon messiah T’Kuvma in the pilot. While the details remain sketchy, flashbacks and Ash/Voq’s own words inform us that Voq’s Klingon body was surgically “reduced to human,” with a human’s personality planted over his true Klingon self.
This was meant to be a shock – and no doubt for some viewers, it was – but for many fans (and Star Trek fans are not only extremely bright but detail oriented) the reveal elicited a reaction akin to “No s#!t, Sherlock!” Most fans, whether they frequent the Trek sub-Reddits or simply discuss the series with other fans they know – saw this revelation coming a mile away. Suspicion that Ash was really Voq didn’t even require any Internet detective work, though many fans pursued answers and gleaned the truth: the mysterious actor named “Javid Iqbal” who is credited as playing Voq didn’t actually exist. Shazad Latif plays both roles (an elaborate fiction he and the rest of the cast had to maintain while doing press for Discovery in order to preserve the surprise).
The intention of the subterfuge was to bolster the integrity of the story, according to Discovery‘s showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg. Speaking to THR, they explain that knowing ahead of time Voq and Ash are played by the same actor changes how the audience views the character. They wanted fans to get to know Tyler the way Michael Burnham does, and see him through her eyes. The problem is Discovery‘s creative team underestimated just how intelligent, dedicated, and savvy Trek‘s core fanbase is.
Regardless of the sincerity of the producers’ desire to protect the secret and how one feels about the Ash/Voq story itself, much of the impact is intended to be derived by being surprised they are one and the same. But so many fans saw it coming months ago – virtually from the moment Ash is introduced on board the Klingon prison ship – that the impact of the surprise was deflated if not entirely lost. Ultimately, all that effort and outright lying (though these days, actors must grow accustomed to keeping their mouths shut about spoiling the shows and movies they star in) was for very diminished returns.
PEAK TV HAS CHANGED THE IMPACT OF SHOCK VALUE
Star Trek: Discovery, by executive producer Alex Kurtzman‘s own admission, aspires to the kind of Peak TV prestige and quality that Game of Thrones and Westworld achieve. They feel this is the lofty level the series needs to reach to justify fans (in the United States) getting past the paywall of CBS All-Access to watch Discovery.
Game of Thrones, in particular, is an obvious model for the new Trek‘s complex, morally ambiguous characters and universe, but they really want to be like GoT when it comes to delivering shocking character deaths. A prime example is the sudden murder of Dr. Culber by Ash/Voq, which the showrunners have already walked back, promising to angry fans that Culber will somehow return. In the newest episode, Paul Stamets “died” – for a few minutes – before the episode revealed he and his Mirror self are communing in the mycelial network.
If the goal with these excessive twists is to shock viewers, and it is, that is easier said than done these days. Audiences have spent this entire decade absorbing some of the best and most sophisticated television series ever produced. In the case of GoT, after Ned Stark’s shock death in season 1 and the Red Wedding 2 years later, fans have been conditioned to see ‘surprises’ coming and even expect them. As a result, they are less and less impressed by ‘shocking twists’. Witness the diminishing ratings of The Walking Dead after so many years of killing its main characters for shock value. Which isn’t to say Star Trek shouldn’t try to surprise fans, just that it’s obviously much harder to. Thus far, one of the biggest surprises about Discovery is that they’ve proven to be remarkably bad at surprises.
SOME FAILED SURPRISES CAN STILL BE GOOD
The newest episode ‘The Wolf Inside’ concluded with another reveal clearly intended to be shocking: that the Emperor of the Mirror Universe is Philippa Georgiou. While Michael Burnham stared at Georgiou’s hologram utterly stunned to see the gold-regaled evil doppelganger of her former mentor staring back at her, most fans watching at home only wished they could have shared Burnham’s shock and awe. Instead, as soon as the “mysterious, faceless Emperor” was mentioned in the prior episode, most fans instantly leaped to the correct conclusion the Emperor was Mirror Georgiou.
This isn’t to say it is a bad creative choice; it’s actually the correct choice. (Despite some fans clamoring for the Emperor to be Spock. which would make zero sense considering many of these same fans lambast Discovery for diverging from canon, and Mirror Spock is serving on the ISS Enterprise at this point in time.) Emperor Georgiou creates a nice bookend to the last time Trek ventured to the Mirror Universe in Star Trek: Enterprise, which concluded with Hoshi Sato declaring herself Empress. Sato must have created a dynasty so that the throne of the Terran Empire has been controlled by women of Asian descent for the last century – a very cool, Trekkian creative decision.
Emperor Georgiou is also an excellent way to bring Michelle Yeoh back to the series. Michael Burnham is already suffering from a personal identity crisis by being forced to pretend she is her evil Mirror opposite, and thus she must constantly make decisions that violate both her core principles and those of Starfleet. Being forced to confront the most evil version of her former captain, whom she betrayed at the series inception, will only test her spirit even further and puts all of the heroes of Discovery in greater jeopardy. And yet, Emperor Georgiou, while a satisfying creative decision that should pay off immensely in terms of dramatic and story potential, inevitably fails as a genuine surprise.
Discovery is good – at times great – enough to overcome their failure to shock fans, but in season 2, it would be best if the series’ creative team plays to what has been evident as their strengths: brilliant, feature film-quality visual effects paired with interesting characters wrestling with difficult moral and personal quandaries. Season 1’s best episode thus far was ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’, Harry Mudd’s time travel causality loop thriller. This was Discovery‘s most Star Trek-y hour; it engaged the characters with both a difficult problem to solve and a compelling villain to defeat, and it rose to meet the brainy excellence of the best of Star Trek. More episodes like that, please, and fewer, ultimately futile attempts attempting to shock an audience that, like Mudd was in ‘Magic..’ is already two steps ahead of the curve.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays @ 8:30pm on CBS All-Access, Space Channel in Canada, and Internationally on Netflix
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