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Some Blundering About Star Trek: Discovery 5×06: Whistlespeak

What the hell was that?

Discovery’s been sort of all over the place for a long time, but this Episode is giving me feelings more conflicted than usual. Stylistically, this is a good, strong episode. And most of the plot is good. But then right at the core of the plot… It’s just garbage. Complete and utter garbage. Fractal garbage.

They fenced themselves in with the construct of a Prime Directive plot, is, I think, the root of the problem. There’s been like one good Prime Directive episode ever. It’s not this one.

So let’s think a little bit about Prime Directive plots. The Prime Directive is introduced in, I think, “A Private Little War”, where the Klingons are arming one side in a conflict between two tribes of extraordinarily transparent Native American expies, and Kirk’s buddies with the leader of the other tribe, and they have to sort out a way to not break the rules while preventing the Friendly Native Americans from getting exterminated by the unfriendly ones. It’s a very straightforward Vietnam analogy, and the prime directive as originally introduced is basically an indictment of the US and the USSR fighting proxy wars using less-developed countries. Except at the end they basically decide that it’s okay to arm the natives as long as the Klingons did it first. It’s already not great, but we’re miles away from the horrors of where Prime Directive episodes will end up going.

Where it ends up going is 90s Trek giving us a ton of episodes about how we should let the planet of the adorable orphan children die because maybe that’s what Science God wants. That was basically the model of Prime Directive episodes in the TNG era. The Enterprise encounters a planet of doomed adorable aliens, somebody wants to save them, Picard gives a speech about how humans shouldn’t play God, they eventually go and save them anyway and come up with an excuse. Enterprise pushed it until it broke by going to a planet of doomed aliens and deciding not to save it because, ahem, “Maybe evolution is actually trying to get rid of them to make room for another species.” Look, Star Trek has never been good at evolution. They actually really like the idea of intelligent design old-Earth creationism, they just want it Extra Science Flavor, so they’ll talk about evolution having intentions and plans and directionality to it rather than just “Random things happen and the useful things stick.” The closest Trek ever came to getting evolution right was somehow Threshold, the one where Paris and Janeway turn into giant salamanders with Fu Manchus. (It was still not very close). But mainly, the Prime Directive moves away from its original “Don’t fight proxy wars in southeast Asia” analogy into being a weird kind of David Attenborough Nature Documentary Snuff Film thing where it’s mainly about declaring the moral high ground to involve not intervening when the lion eats the baby gazelle, which is upsetting enough when it’s a gazelle and not an adorable alien orphan who is literally begging for someone to help.

The Enterprise episode was basically an “origin story” for the Prime Directive (Jesus Christ the heavy-handedness of Archer’s “Perhaps one day my people will have some kind of ‘directive’ about how to deal with these things. We might even declare it the foremost or ‘prime’ of our directives”), but the Strange New Worlds premiere, “Strange New World” is basically the origin story of shitty Prime Directive stories. I talked about it years ago, of course, but the long and short of it is that Pike does, in fact, come down and play god to stop some aliens from going all The Day After, using the justification that it was kinda Starfleet’s fault for having a season finale-level firefight right next door. But that episode ends with Pike being told that he was very naughty, and in response, Starfleet has decided that they are going to be little bitches about the Prime Directive from now on, so no more saving doomed adorable alien orphans.

Eight Hundred Years Later, Prime Directive episodes suck. But you know what’s worse? A Prime Directive Episode that doesn’t seem to actually care that it is a Prime Directive episode.

Yeah, so after a week of not being able to figure out the next Macguffin, Kovitch shows up and gives Michael the names of the scientists who invented the puzzle box, because I guess it did not occur to the Discovery crew to do that. One of them, turns out, was a Denobulan, the same species as Dr. Phlox from Enterprise, who I have not forgiven for being the dude who declares that a species dying out from a disease he could cure is actually the will of the great and mighty Evolution. Anyway, this Denobulan set up rain towers on an arid planet so that the locals would not go extinct, and there is no implication that he was considered to have done anything wrong, since he made sure to disguise the towers to match the local landscape. So… Good?

I dunno, it seems like an incredible stroke of good luck that the clues have survived this long. One of them was stored on a crashed starship in a volatile space hole. In fact, this week’s MacGuffin isn’t even in the tower that the episode is about – it’s on one of the ones that broke down centuries ago. Our heroes don’t even know about the other towers at first, because the desert reclaimed them, and the clue is found by offscreen extras while the named characters are busy breaking the Prime Directive. So Michael and Tilly have to go undercover to learn about the local religion that has sprung up around the rain tower, being careful to avoid breaking the prime directive and contaminate this species of noble primitives.

Yeah, there’s a little of the whole “noble savage” archetype thing going on here. The Halem’no are a super friendly, super kind, peaceful race who are morally advanced and live in harmony with their shitty planet, and there’s a tense bit where a kind old lady is dying from too much sand in the lungs and the Prime Directive says they got to just let her die, but then it turns out that the Halem’no can sing at the right frequency to induce the coughing-up of sand, because Native Folk Wisdom Is Good.

Also the Halem’no practice ritual human sacrifice. Surprise!

I will give it to this episode on the vibes. They did a good job when they introduced the sacred ritual of running a half-marathon while very thirsty of making you think these folks had a DEEP DARK SINISTER SECRET, but then slowly disarming that idea. Everyone’s super supportive of the competitors, but also very supportive of the ones who drop out, and when Tilly breeches protocol by going back to share her water with her new friend so they can both reach the finish line, rather than being scandalized by the ancient tradition not going to plan, everyone thinks it’s super cool and a shining example of their cultural values of being nice to each other and working together.

Then they bring up the human sacrifice. They very carefully avoided mentioning that the winner of the race gets human sacrificed by locking them in the condenser coil of the rain tower.

So with Adorably Goofy Professor Tilly locked in the tower and about to die, Michael is faced with a clear course of action under the Prime Directive: she must sacrifice Tilly to protect the integrity of Halem’no culture. I mean, they’ve got three genders and can speak in whistles.

By the way, this episode is called “Whistlespeak”, after the fact that the Halem’no have a whistle-based language. It’s not their normal everyday language; it’s something else they do just for communicating over long distances. It does not actually come up in the episode except very briefly to no real purpose.

Yeah, so obviously Michael just fucking beams down next to the tribal elder and tells him that his religion is a lie and talks him into showing her how to open the transporter-proof door.

There are no repercussions. No one mentions it next week.

I know I sound petty. I mean, what did I want? For Adorably Goofy Professor Tilly to die? For Michael to spend fifteen minutes in a big moralizing speech about the importance of the non-interference directive? For Deus Ex Machina? I don’t know. But somehow setting up a Prime Directive Dilemma and then just telling it to fuck off because it is endangering a regular is worse.

There is a saving throw of a sort. They point out that these water towers actually need regular maintenance, so if they don’t teach the Halem’no how to do it, they’ll all be dead in a generation anyway. And this is a nice thing to view as a permissible boundary in the Prime Directive. But it never worked that way before. We’ve basically taken all four approaches to the Prime Directive in this episode: “Don’t intervene even if it means letting a species go exitinct because NatureEvolutionGod has a plan”, “Go ahead and intervene, but keep it on the DL, using holograms or whatever”, “You can intervene a little, but make sure you are respectful of the agency of less technological people and don’t impose your own worldviews on them”, and finally “Fuck it. Tell them the entire basis of their way of life is a lie.”

And the kicker, the absolute kicker, is that once Michael has convinced the elder that his religion is bullshit (I am not granting credit here for Michael trying to circumlocute by telling him that she isn’t taking a stand on the reality of his gods, just that this particular shine is actually a machine built by her civilization) and the human sacrifices are not helpful, his immediate reaction is, “Maybe we could keep doing the human sacrifices anyway? Just for the fun?” Fuck that scene. Seriously.

A big part of the problem here is this: this doesn’t feel like a Star Trek story. What it feels like is a Stargate SG-1 story. Ancient technology of unknown power; an ancient life lesson you have to learn before being granted access to the macguffin; spiritually wise but technologically primitive people who benefit from ancient technology they don’t understand which is now malfunctioning; an alien civilization living in the woods outside Vancouver. This is basically trying to shove Tilly into the Daniel Jackson role, Michael into Samantha Carter, with Phlox’s Grandson as Thor. It doesn’t quite work out, largely because the SGC didn’t actually have a prime directive – they had the much lower bar of “Play god less than the bad guys do.” Also, telling native peoples their religion was bullshit was a positive good in the Stargate universe, since everyone’s gods were either giant assholes, or did not actually want people worshiping them.

I think maybe this could have been salvaged if there had been some weight to Michael’s violation of the Prime Directive – after decades of using it as a Cheap Drama Inducer, to have her just dismiss it and nothing bad happen is impossible to swallow. I’m not saying we should have followed it up with Michael getting in trouble. In fact, it would be worse somehow if she’d defended her actions. No, I think the closest they could come to saving it would be to add a scene at the end where Michael goes to Kovitch in the white room (A therapist with weird capabilities who you visit by teleporting to a white void… Have we decided that Being Erica is set in the Star Trek universe?) and offers her resignation, only for him to explain in his charming and slightly unnerving way that the fact that in the 32nd century no one expects you to sacrifice an officer to avoid contaminating a culture that is doomed anyway, and since the Burn, they’ve reevaluated the morality of helping otherwise doomed cultures. It would actually be a nice scene to have Kovitch give a brief explanation of the history of interpretations of the Prime Directive. I can sort of imagine David Cronenberg pontificating on how the purpose of the Prime Directive is the preservation of cultures that would be otherwise be subsumed by more advanced civilizations.

There’s some other stuff going on at the same time back on the ship. Adira’s on week two of severe anxiety after they accidentally brought the time bug on board, and has to rebuild their self-confidence in order to help Michael repair the water tower. I love that Adira is getting some material, but it is driving me nuts that it doesn’t add up to anything, and that there is nothing at all coming out of the fact that they’re joined to a centuries-old being who has tons of life experience to draw from.

And ever since hosting Jinaal, Hugh has been struggling with the after-effects and hasn’t been able to talk to anyone about it, and he’s really bothered by that. It is solved by the simple expedient of Book pointing out that having a transcendent and ineffable experience is pretty cool actually, and it’s okay for him just to feel good about it and there’s nothing wrong with him not being able to share it with other people. As Fred Clark says, attempts to eff the ineffable tend to end up being pretty effed up.

This post first appeared on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging | Welcome To The WORL, please read the originial post: here

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Some Blundering About Star Trek: Discovery 5×06: Whistlespeak


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