Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Episode 12 Review – Vaulting Ambition

star trek discovery vaulting ambition captain lorca jason isaacs mirror universe dr culber fridging

Of course, though, there is one part of this episode that must be mentioned: Captain Lorca is, in fact, from the Mirror Universe, and he’s been manipulating Burnham and the crew of the Discovery throughout the series in the hopes of returning home to finish his coup.

I am in… well, no, I’m not in two minds about it. I just don’t particularly like the idea.

Mirror-Lorca has been something of a popular fan theory for a while now – second only really to ‘Ash Tyler is Voq’ in terms of how ubiquitous it was, but largely lacking in the same ancillary details to substantiate the idea. Indeed, more often than not, the idea that Lorca was from the Mirror universe was borne from a rejection of the idea that someone like him wouldn’t exist in the main universe – essentially a rejection of the nuances of the character, dismissing them because they were a bit different from the Star Trek captains we’ve seen before. Sure, there’s since been a couple of vague hints, but that’s largely always been the starting point.

In this review, I spoke largely about my trepidation about the mirror-Lorca reveal (spoilers, sorry) and my frustration at fridging Culber (again, sorry), particularly after the show had depicted itself as the ‘progressive’ Star Trek at last.

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Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones, and it shouldn’t try to be

star trek discovery game of thrones mirror universe michael burnham sonequa martin green captain georgiou dr culber stamets fridging

What’s also particularly troubling is the – hopefully unintentional – trend that’s emerged as each major character is killed. The first was Captain Michelle Georgiou, a female character of colour. The second was Head of Security Commander Landry, a female character of colour (who was killed off fairly unceremoniously, and really only for shock value). In the most recent episode, it was Doctor Culber – another person of colour, and one half of Star Trek: Discovery’s gay couple.

It’s a series of deaths that’d be a problem for any show, but there’s something about it that feels worse with Star Trek: Discovery. A big part of the marketing for Star Trek: Discovery drew focus to its diversity – the fact that it saw the first black female lead, the first Asian female captain, and the first openly gay characters in Star Trek history. In a real and meaningful way, Star Trek: Discovery was going to realise the promise of the original series at last – finally, a vision of the future that genuinely was as utopian as it was meant to be. If the series gained any credit for that, it’s surely squandered a lot of it now.

Yet it does suggest that, at one point, there was an understanding of just what Star Trek is meant to be. While it hasn’t always lived up to its reputation, Star Trek is a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic series – an idealistic one that looks towards a better future. The deaths we’ve seen so far haven’t been in keeping with that – they were nothing short of cynical. You can see how they’ve been influenced by Game of Thrones; they’d fit right in there. Thrones, after all, is a much more pessimistic series – that’s not a slight against it, not at all, but it is one of the things that set it apart from Star Trek.

This is a very spoiler-y piece on Star Trek: Discovery – it contains discussion of various deaths that happened in the series.

This was an article that had been on my mind since, I think, the third episode of the series. In the run-up to Discoverys premier, showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg spoke about being influenced by Game of Thrones, and wanted to have deaths you wouldn’t expect throughout the show. It struck me as cynical at the time, even more so when watching the show itself.

The excerpt above admittedly doesn’t have a lot to do with that – it’s part of a digression about an aggravating trend that developed across Discovery – but the article as a whole tackles the idea that Star Trek should have lots of deaths in it, because… well, I’m not convinced. It’s kinda also part of the ongoing development of a theory about death in fiction and storytelling, because I’m becoming increasingly convinced that death is typically the least interesting storytelling choice available.

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The Crown Episode 4 review: Act of God is a poor man’s West Wing in 1950s England

the crown the great smog netflix john lithgow fridging peter morgan juliad jarrold churchill venetia scott

Accordingly, then, at times it feels as though it lacks nuance or subtlety – from discussions of Elizabeth’s duty to, in this case, deliberations on Churchill’s age and efficacy, it often appears very surface level. And, arguably speaking, it is – while there’s a lot going on, the workings of the drama are laid open and entirely clear for all to see.

Here, then, it’s very clear what’s going on – the death of Venetia Scott (Kate Philips) was telegraphed early, and entirely unsurprising when the moment came. It’s one of the few attempts on behalf of the episode to actually ground the story in terms of the impact of the smog on the public, rather than political infighting or royal squabbles.

And yet it was largely ineffective – not least because it was little more than a cheap fridging, as The Crown here falls into the old trope of killing a female character to develop a male one. It’s particularly lazy writing, made all the more evident by The Crown’s tendency to wear its themes on its sleeve.

This episode, man. Possibly the most irritating of them all, because it managed to be the one that was both the most engaging and the most exemplary of all the show’s problems. Arguably it’s my favourite – not because it’s good, but because it’d be very easy to write about. I could go on about this at length. It’s probably a good thing that CultBox tends to put a 500-word limit on these reviews, because otherwise I’d have written thousands.

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Sherlock: Why Mary Watson (probably) isn’t dead

sherlock series 4 mary watson the six thatchers rachel talalay alive sherlock holmes benedict cumberbatch amanda abbington mary watson john watson martin freeman mark gatiss

It’s also worth noting that a recurring theme within the episode is the narrative which rejects death; consider how the episode opens with Moriarty’s reappearance, and Mycroft essentially changing the ending of His Last Vow. Right from the beginning, The Six Thatchers is establishing an inherent ambiguity to that which is true; perhaps most significant of all though is The Merchant of Sumatra, oft-referenced throughout the episode, repeatedly emphasising that when confronted with a story that ended in death, Sherlock didn’t like it – and he changed the ending. Both Moffat and Gatiss are far too precise in their writing for that to be simple throwaway dialogue; it’s a clear statement of both theme and intent.

But another recurring theme throughout The Six Thatchers is the idea that Mary is, in many ways, an equal of Sherlock – as he himself put it to John, “she’s better than you at this”. Time and time again, The Six Thatchers presents Sherlock and Mary matching and surpassing one another, establishing Mary Watson as something of a mirror of Sherlock. What is Sherlock’s greatest achievement? What would demonstrate Mary is his equal, above all else? If Mary were, like Sherlock, able to fake her own death. It’s the sort of move that Moffat and Gatiss would delight in – at the same time both loyal to the Doyle canon, but also gleefully subversive of it.

While I didn’t really like The Six Thatchers on first broadcast, I’ve also been totally unable to get it out of my head for the past week – it’s had a far greater impact on me than any television series I’ve watched in a long time. Indeed, it’s the first programme I’ve watched in years that prompted me to sit down and theorise about the next episode, wondering where it was going and genuinely analysing it – it’s been a long time since I’ve even done that with Doctor Who, frankly.

If nothing else, I’ve now got a lot of respect for The Six Thatchers – surely anything that prompts this level of thought and dissection does, ultimately, have some sort of value. (Although I’ll be pretty annoyed if I was wrong.)

(And I did indeed turn out to be wrong. So that was disappointing.)

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Arrow, and the Disturbing Trend of Fridging Female Characters

arrow laurel lance black canary fridging female character death sara lance white canary moira queen shado marc guggenheim wendy mericle review criticism katie cassidy felicity smoak bye bye birdie emily bett rickards

“Fridging” is a term which is used to describe the death of a female character to further the development of and advance the plot for a male character. It is typically the bastion of the lazy screenwriter, given that it is a tired and overused cliché. You need only take a quick perusal of this TV Tropes page, or indeed the Women in Refrigerators website where the concept was first defined, to appreciate quite how proliferated our media has become with this hackneyed trope.

More to the point, though, there is often an inherent misogyny and sexism to this trope. That’s very much self evident, really; when a writer kills off a female character to further develop a male one, then the implicit suggestion is that her story is one not worth telling. 

Arrow has engaged in this not once, not twice, but at least five times – this is in a show which hasn’t even begun its fifth season yet. For obvious reasons, that’s not really something to be proud of.

So, my most recent article for Yahoo is about Arrow, and their habit of fridging female characters. For obvious reasons, regularly fridging female characters isn’t a particularly good thing, so the article takes something of a critical tone.

I would really appreciate it if people were to share this article. I’m quite pleased with it, as it goes; I think I make a fairly important point, and that it’s reasonably well articulated. It’s something I’d like to reach a fairly wide audience, so please do share this article if you can.

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Defined by an Absence

arrow the grave season 4 laurel lance katie cassidy fridging marc guggenheim oliver queen stephen amell six months later defined by an absence

It is difficult for me to put into words quite how much it offended me – because it didn’t just offend me. It made me angry.

I knew it was coming, of course, because I watch the show in the UK, so that means I’m always a couple of weeks behind. It’s difficult to avoid spoilers at the best of times in that position, but this caused enough outrage across the pond that UK newspapers were reporting on it, just under a month before the episode was set to air here.

Even then, though. The death had been… not telegraphed, obviously. That implies a degree of foreshadowing had gone into it. That it had been planned out, considered, evaluated. That any degree of thought had gone into it.

It hadn’t. This death was not planned. The grave was empty when it was first shown to us – little more than a promise of angst, and darkness. Not an inspiring promise at the best of times, really. But the Powers That Be had decided it was a good way to get ratings. To inspire a buzz. Make headlines.

Shortly afterwards, they realised they would need to actually follow up on that promise. It was, it seems, a relatively easy decision for them to make, albeit one made very late in the day. The actress in question was informed, at most, just a few short weeks before the episode was to be filmed that she was to depart the series.

Organic storytelling at it’s finest, evidently.

Like I said, though. While it hadn’t been telegraphed, it had been eminently predictable. The character who was dispatched hadn’t exactly been getting much of a focus in recent episodes. Season four had seen her increasingly sidelined, with more and more focus diverted to another.

There was something cruel, then, in the way the episode was structured. After denying this character any real plotlines of her own for so long, the prospect of her receiving a greater focus was a welcome one. The suggestion of an ongoing character arc was dangled before us tantalisingly, with the implication of a greater role to come.

In some ways, then, it feels a mockery. Someone, somewhere, no doubt thinks they are very clever. They are wrong.

“Look,” they say, “we fooled them completely. What an intelligent twist! There was no way this death would be predicted, after we teased their future plotlines.”

It was a hollow plot twist. A hollow victory for a programme long since past its prime, with writers who have done better work, and actors who have long been denied material that befits their talents.

The death is self was far more egregious still. In some ways, it’s an achievement; the programme could well go down in history as having provided the most emphatic instance of callously stuffing a woman in a refrigerator ever.

Perhaps that was the aim. After all, it was at least the fourth time the show had engaged in such an offensive trope.

And yet, something felt different this time.

Certainly, it was compounded by the allure of change, the allusion to future character development, the promise of greater focus; all brutally cut down and dispatched. But the nature of the death itself. It was almost symbolic, really, in terms of how it was structured.

This character had come so far. Been there since the start. Developed, changed, progressed. (Up until the point she did not, of course; but then, no one did, bar one.) She had dealt with alcoholism. Built relationships with her father, her friends, her lovers.

She had become a hero.

And then she was stabbed to death. A simple act, which really has no reason to kill at this stage; it’s a program which has, after all, brought its entire cast back from the dead at least once.

Prior to that, though, she was restricted. The villain used his ill defined yet cheap magical powers to freeze the character in place.

To strip her of all agency. To strip her of all autonomy. To take away any control she had, to take away the development she was promised, and brutally cut her aside.

It was a death framed explicitly in terms of the male characters. The male villain wanted to get revenge on the character’s father, and this of course has the added benefit of providing that cheap, boring, generic angst that we were promised so many episodes ago.

Lovely.

Further still, the character was not allowed to have any real final words. Not for herself, of course; she was reduced to a soapbox, for the writers to speak through. An organ for their agenda. Denying this character a moment in character.

I was not sad. I was not surprised. I was angry.

For obvious reasons.

The sadness came later, though, because there was sadness. Not of the type that the writers had intended to elicit, naturally, but sadness all the same.

It was as early as the next episode. Not a bad one, as they go, but not a good one. A particular scene stood out. Two talented actors, working through their tragedy. Impressive. A tour de force in terms of their performance, undoubtedly.

But not a scene worth what we lost. Not a patch on all the impressive scenes we could, and should, have been allowed.

The sadness hit in the morgue, as is perhaps appropriate following a death. The programme felt the need to show us the lifeless, pallid corpse of the recently deceased. A questionable decision, certainly, but they felt the need to drive home the point.

It made me sad because that was when I realised, really realised, what we’d lost. Of course that was when I realised – that was when we saw her, quite literally, stuffed into a fridge. (Well, a freezer, which is perhaps worse, but at least serves to emphasise the point further.)

That was when I realised that the show – like this post – will now always be defined by an absence. By her absence. Not because she was the best character, nor because she was my favourite – because she was neither.

The show will be defined by her absence because of the shitty and offensive way in which it wrote her out. The way in which casually, brutally, tossed this character aside without a second thought, without any care or consideration, because the show did not care.

It did not care about how it treated a key female character.

It was cruel. It was poor writing. It was pathetic.

And it can never be forgiven.

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Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Darker Side of the MCU

marvel agents of shield phil coulson clark gregg dark side series 3 grant war

Over the past couple of years, Marvel has been exploring it’s darker side, and to quite a lot of success; their Netflix shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, have been wildly popular, and dealt with far more serious themes than the average MCU movie.

But they’re not the only TV show which has been delving into the darkness – of late, Agents of SHIELD has also been flirting with darker storylines, and debating just what the place of these sorts of concepts is within Marvel.

Of course, there’s a difference between what the Netflix shows have been depicting – serious and more mature, “adult” themes – and what SHIELD has recently invoked.

What SHIELD has been delving into recently is what’s typically referred to as “grimdark” – an almost gratuitously grim tone, with a retreat into darkness simply for the sake of darkness. It’s the sort of thing I would usually dismiss as an attempt to be edgy, but it’s enjoyed a bit of a resurgence lately in the superhero genre. Batman vs Superman is a fairly good example of this really; like Man of Steel before it, the world being depicted is one that’s a lot more “serious” and violent than the way it is usually depicted.

Certainly, you can consider Batman vs Superman to be a response to Marvel; in an attempt to differentiate their cinematic universe from the popular MCU, Warner Bros have really leaned into a tradition which can only be described as grimdark. In turn, then, I would consider the recent plotline on Agents of SHIELD to have been a response to this, and a consideration of the place of the grimdark within Marvel.

marvel agents of shield rosalind price constance zimmer dead fridging phil coulson clark gregg hydra grant ward

Take, for instance, the fridging of Rosalind. In case you don’t know the term, “fridging” is when a female character is killed off, and their death is used to further the angst of the nearby male characters. It’s typically emblematic of pretty lazy writing – casting aside one character, reducing them only to their death, and then not letting this moment mean something for that character, but rather turning it into fuel for the same, tired angsty tropes being applied to another male character. (The death of Sara Lance in Arrow Seaon 3 is an example of something like this.)

Over the course of the first 9 episodes of the season, we’d seen Coulson and Rosalind grow closer to one another; Rosalind was on her way to become a nuanced character, and their relationship was demonstrating new depths to Coulson’s character – an impressive achievement, given that he’s been part of the MCU for almost ten years now.

This is cut short, though, by one of the most brutal moments we’ve seen on Agents of SHIELD; certainly, as you can see from the above picture, it’s the one of the bloodiest. Rosalind is shot, in the neck, with nary a final word to see her off, and Coulson is left to cradle her body while the blood seeps out of her – the whole thing then devolves into a revenge story between Coulson and Ward.

It’s an interesting position for this story to take, I think. When you consider how Coulson began – a mild mannered government agent – to take him to this point, where he’s a revenge seeking action man, is very much the antithesis of how he began. This is the grimdark reinvention of Agent Coulson, Captain American fanboy, who instructed his team that “killing is not an option” back in the very first episode of Agents of SHIELD.

marvel agents of shield phil coulson grant ward death killed blue planet

It escalates further, of course, with Coulson killing Ward. And not just killing him – crushing him, squeezing in his chest cavity until it snaps. It’s another brutal death in a series of casualties.

Following this, Coulson still isn’t satisfied; he then attempts to find Gideon Malick, the man who was working with Ward, and current Head of Hydra. To do so, Coulson uses a special machine to root through the memories of the near-dead Werner von Strucker; it’s a machine that was once used on Coulson himself, and he vowed never to put anyone else through.

And yet here he does. Von Strucker’s experience with the machine is written to deliberately parallel Coulson’s – he lies there, catatonic, begging to be killed, just as Coulson once did. It’s a deeply disconcerting and uncomfortable scene; the supporting cast all clearly want to disconnect von Strucker from the machine, and yet Coulson waits until he gets the information he wants to further his quest for vengeance. The scene is, essentially, torture, and our hero sanctions it.

The current storyline on Agents of SHIELD is still dealing with the fallout of these actions; I am, I suppose, jumping the gun a little bit by writing this article so soon. We’re yet to see a definitive answer to the question posited by this storyline, but were I to guess, we’ll likely see it rejected – we’ve got a rather nice villain in Hive, who represents an eldritch evil, and is presumably symbolic of this darkness. The manner in which the show deals with Hive will, in turn, tell us about how it is treating the grimdark themes that are so prevalent in superhero media at present.

I suppose it is quite likely that many of the people reading this will have dismissed what I’ve said, thinking that I’m reaching too far, and reading too far into things – and, to be fair, I could well be. Nonetheless, though, I think it’s fascinating that this interpretation is there, and that Agents of SHIELD is reaching higher, and trying to ask these questions.

And I can’t wait to find out what the answer is.

See the first post, “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Priorities”, here.

Related:

Agent Carter Season One Retrospective

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

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