Who Carries Star Trek’s Torch?

It seems like the great nerd debate lately is which show is the better successor to Star Trek’s legacy: Discovery or The Orville.

The cast of Seth MacFarlane's The OrvilleI have to be honest, mulling over things during the mid-season break, I’ve got to admit that Discovery is losing some of its luster. I watched a random episode of Enterprise a few days ago (“Judgment”), and I couldn’t help comparing it to Discovery. “Judgment” isn’t even one of the better episodes, but even so, I wound up really missing the Star Trek of yesteryear and feeling as though Discovery was missing something.

The thing is, Discovery is trying too hard. It wants to be edgier and more real, and it also wants to have the same morality of old school Trek, and although its had flashes of brilliance, more often than not it doesn’t do a great job of either.

The Klingons have no nuance. They’re just disgusting space goblins with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. However cartoony the Klingons of TNG onward may have been, they were still people, with a balance of noble and negative traits.

The attempts to make the human cast members grittier has also been hit and miss. I was initially happy to hear some harsher swearing on Star Trek, as it added an element of realism for me, but the fact it was just one line in one episode leads me to believe it really was just something thrown in for cheap shock value.

As is much of Discovery, really. It’s a show that’s trying hard to surprise and to shock, and damn the consequences. Who cares if it makes sense, who cares if it has a meaningful purpose in the story, if it gets people talking, that’s all that matters.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander Michael Burnham on Star Trek: DiscoveryMore than anything else, Discovery doesn’t feel honest. It feels artificial, contrived, constructed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s also plenty that’s good about the show. The cast is really strong, and there’s a lot of great acting in it. And I still think Stamets is the best. I’m going to keep watching, if only due to a dearth of good sci-fi television right now. But as far as carrying on the legacy of what Star Trek stands for, it could do a lot better.

As for The Orville… well, I haven’t seen it. I don’t think there’s a way to watch it streaming in Canada, and even if there was, I find Seth MacFarlane to be the human equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard, so that’s enough to turn me off out of the gate. To be fair, the buzz is surprisingly good, but I still have a hard time seeing it as a true torchbearer for Star Trek’s ideals.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think this is a two horse race. I say there’s a third contender here, and it’s the one that deserves the crown.

It’s called Mass Effect: Andromeda.

My review of Andromeda was probably a bit confusing. I spent most of it complaining, then closed with a glowing recommendation. At the time, I had trouble articulating just what it was that made me love Andromeda so much. Over the last few months, though, I’ve had time to ponder it, and I think I’m figuring it out.

The space whales of Havarl in Mass Effect: AndromedaAndromeda is a story about the triumph of the human spirit. It’s about a group of people who left behind everything they knew to explore the unknown, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It’s about the wonder and the terror of the unknown, and it goes to some dark places, and it pulls no punches, but never does it lose its core of optimism, of hope, of joy.

You see it in Suvi’s wide-eyed stare as she takes in the grandeur of Khi Tasira for the first time. You see it Drack as he learns that after centuries of violence, he has something to live for, not just kill for. You see it in Jaal as he comes to understand humanity, and finds an entirely new family.

Even Liam — by far Andromeda’s worst character, whom I have taken to calling Jimmy the Idiot Boy — at times can embody the spirit of human goodness that lies at the heart of Andromeda. When sweet, good-natured Liam furiously declares that whoever unleashed the Scourge were “some motherfuckers,” it doesn’t feel like a cheap play for shock value. It feels like an honest expression of pain.

And that’s what Andromeda is that Discovery isn’t: honest. That’s what made Andromeda so special. That’s why I love it so much despite its flaws. When the characters despair, your heart hurts in sympathy. When the characters succeed, you feel the joy palpably. It’s not trying to be dramatic, or powerful, or profound. It is dramatic, powerful, and profound.

Sara Ryder, Nakmor Drack, and Vetra Nyx take in Kadara Port in Mass Effect: AndromedaWhen I started playing the game, the headline on this blog read, “Mass Effect: Andromeda Is the Best Star Trek Movie in Years,” and the more time goes by, the more I realize how right I was. Except a Star Trek movie would run at most two hours, while even a casual non-completionist playthrough of Andromeda will likely net a couple dozen hours.

Can there be a better embodiment of what Star Trek stands for than Suvi Anwar? A gay Scottish scientist with a Finnish first name, an Arabic last name, a child’s wonder for the unknown, and a poet’s appreciation for the beauty of all creation. She’s the walking avatar of IDIC.

Andromeda is more Star Trek than Star Trek has ever been. For this reason, I think it — and not Discovery, and not The Orville — deserves to be viewed as the true successor to Roddenberry’s ideals today.

That’s why I view it as one of the best games — nay, one of the best stories, period — I’ve had the pleasure to experience in recent years. That’s why I reject the frothing hate of the hyper-critical Internet mob. That’s why I feel so bad for all my non-gamer Trekkie friends and family who will probably never get to experience the best Star Trek in years — those who can’t afford the hardware to run it, or don’t have the time, or are too intimidated by the concept of video games to give it a shot.

What made Star Trek special was never its superficialities, but what it stood for. You don’t need the Star Trek name to be true Trek. You just need to carry that torch of hope, of curiosity, of aspiration.

Suvi Anwar in Mass Effect: AndromedaThat’s exactly what Andromeda did.

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Review: Star Trek: Discovery, “Into the Forest I Go”

Picking up where the last episode left off, “Into the Forest I Go” sees the crew of the Discovery on course for a confrontation with the Ship of the Dead (or the “T’Kuvmobile” as some have dubbed it). In order to save the planet Pahvo, Discovery must find a way to defeat the Klingon cloaking technology, but it is a plan with many risks.

The official logo for Star Trek: DiscoveryStamets will have to conduct over a hundred spore drive jumps in order to gain the readings necessary to pierce the cloak, putting his health and sanity at severe risk, whilst Burnham and Ash beam aboard the enemy ship to conduct crucial sabotage.

This episode works very hard to be an epic tour de force, and in places it does succeed, but it also has many flaws that detract from what could otherwise be a great experience.

I got off on the wrong foot with this episode immediately because the fundamental premise is so flawed. Starfleet orders Lorca to retreat, but he refuses to leave the Pahvans to their fate. This is the exact opposite of the dynamic that has been established to date. Starfleet abandoning a new species to suffer a likely genocide that would be the direct result of Starfleet’s own actions is a breathtaking betrayal of everything the organization is supposed to stand for, and Lorca of all people being the one to put his foot down and stand for what’s right is equally baffling.

There’s a theory going around that Discovery is going to visit the Mirror Universe soon, but in this episode, it seems like at least one character has already crossed over, because the Gabriel Lorca of “Into the Forest I Go” is, again, pretty much the exact opposite of the character we’ve grown accustomed to over the course of the series to date.

This is a guy who has a secret lab full of exotic weapons, a Gorn skeleton, and for some reason a collection of agony-murder balls whose only possible application could be in war-crimes. From his introduction, Lorca has been nothing but nakedly sinister and conniving, and now all of he’s sudden he’s selflessly fighting for the innocent and waxing poetic on the nobility of exploration? Overnight he’s transformed from a Bond villain to Jean-Luc frickin’ Picard.

The titular ship in Star Trek: DiscoveryIt’s also a bit convenient how the spore drive turns out to also be the miracle cure to the Klingon cloaking, and I am bothered by the fact that that neither side deigns to send more than one ship to the battle over Pahvo.

Discovery’s lack of back-up could be explained by Starfleet’s decision to abandon the planet — though that in itself is, as discussed above, incomprehensible — but why does the Ship of the Dead come alone? I realize Klingons can be a bit reckless, but one would think that their flagship would travel with an escort as a matter of course.

Really, it’s just to set up a dramatic confrontation between two ships. And this is the problem with Discovery. It has repeatedly proved itself all too eager to throw logic to the wind if it can up the drama or cool factor. Any story will do this sometimes, and in small doses it’s fine, but Discovery has done it so often and so flagrantly it really damages the integrity of the show.

It happens again with Ash. Why would you send someone who spent seven months being tortured by Klingons onto a ship full of them? That is so obviously a bad idea. Ash is the absolute last person who should have been sent on that mission. Yes, we get some good character moments out of it, but it’s so dumb.

All that ranting aside, there is still a fair bit to like here.

I have been harshly critical of Burnham’s character from the outset, but she’s grown a lot over the course of the season, and “Into the Forest I Go” brings her arc to fruition. She’s every possible kind of badass and awesome there is, and I think she’s finally succeeded in winning me over.

Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets on Star Trek: DiscoveryMeanwhile, Stamets continues to be the best character on Discovery, in every sense of the word, and Tilly continues to be adorable, even if her role is relatively small this time.

This is also a beautiful episode to look at. And I don’t just mean the raw quality of the special effects — which I cannot fully enjoy because of Crave’s mediocre video quality — but the way they’re used. “Into the Forest I Go” has fantastic cinematography, and there’s some real artistry to the way it’s shot.

Shazad Latif is putting on a great performance as Ash, but I’m still not sure how I feel about his character.

This episode adds yet more weight to the idea that he’s a Klingon sleeper agent, though I’m not quite ready to sign on to the idea he’s a Klingon in disguise. But this is more because I don’t want it to be true than because it seems unlikely. It would be a very cheap twist and waste all of his character development. I want to believe Discovery is better than that, but it’s seeming less and less likely that it is.

For now, I’m hoping he simply got brainwashed or something. That I could live with.

I want to like this episode. It’s got a lot going for it. But it also has too many flaws to be truly great.

Overall rating: 7/10