WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery, and some of the links contain spoilers to some of the best bits of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
I don’t talk much on De Civ about my personal life, but I am an enormous Trekkie and always have been. I once memorized a song listing all the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, more or less in order, and the most damning thing of all is that I routinely find it genuinely useful to have this song memorized.
I even used to run a Star Trek roleplaying game online. A dozen or so players from around the world came up with Star Trek characters they could pretend to be aboard my “starship” and we all wrote Star Trek adventures with each other, using short chapters called “posts.” I played the captain, a bitter Bolian war hero, and I was ultimately responsible for coming up with good plots for the other characters to play through. The game ran for several years, and we had a lot of fun.
This is called “simming.” There’s a whole subculture around it. People who like the Original Series simm ships from Kirk and Spock’s time, people who want to “continue” Star Trek make simms that share the time period and feel of Voyager and Next Generation, and so on. People who want to make Star Trek “dark and gritty” make restricted “R-rated” simms which are inspired by Star Trek but with cussing, dark and pessimistic storylines, character death, and a lot more sex. There are even a few who like the J.J. Abrams movies enough to make simms based in the “Abramsverse.” Simms often organize into federations of dozens of different simms called fleets, which allows them to share stories across a large shared multiverse.
Of course, because of Sturgeon’s Law, most simms are terrible, repetitive, joyless, and unstable. But some aren’t. (Mine, for instance!) Even a few of the R-rated games were surprisingly decent.
There was one R-rated game in my fleet called, I think, Deep Space 17. It was captained by a chipper 16-year-old girl named Penny whose character (in one of the Mary Sue flourishes for which simms are justly famous) was also a 16-year-old girl named Penny, the youngest captain in Starfleet, an absolute prodigy. When she decided to make her game more “mature,” I think she had some genetic virus infect her that turned her into a 21-year-old, and then she added an R-rating to her game and the characters started angsting a lot more. Her game had a lot of people shouting at each other and having sex and making Difficult Choices because Every Episode Needs To Be Dark, but, for a simm, she had good writers, and she became a good writer herself. It was different enough from everything else in my fleet that I honestly enjoyed reading their adventures.
Fast-forward to today. I’m no longer a simmer, but I am faithfully watching every episode of the new Star Trek: Discovery (currently paywalled for American viewers at CBS All Access). It’s unlike any Star Trek that has ever been televised before. And yet, every week, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I’ve seen this all before. None of the shocking twists have made me even bat an eye. Several of them have made me roll my eyes. But so much of Discovery is new and different, where could that feeling be coming from? And why do I feel so disappointed in a show that is so bold and fresh and new–all things I’ve long believed a new Star Trek needed to be?
It finally clicked with me when this happened in episode 5, “Choose Your Pain”:
That’s it, isn’t it?
The first episode that has nothing to do with the rest of the series.
The unexpected protagonist, Michael Burnham, who is terrible yet somehow wins every argument.
The “edgy” Klingons.
The garish design.
The “edgy” cussing, including the F-bomb.
The choice to immediately start a war without earning it and thinking it would somehow have the same power as DS9 even if it’s the most cliche war in history.
The blunt, soulless namedropping of characters and events from other Star Trek shows in lieu of actual continuity.
The casual use of Section 31-influenced plot points because a “shadowy amoral intelligence service” is cool and “edgy” and dark.
The twenty-eight separately credited producers.
Even the same-sex relationship.
It all makes sense now.
Star Trek Discovery is somebody’s R-rated simm, ported on to the big screen with a $120 million budget and a stunningly good cast. (It really is a great cast. Sonequa Martin-Green in particular is so far above the material she’s being given so far it hurts.)
Here’s how I imagine it played out:
The Discovery simm started out as an Abramsverse game run by Captain Georgiou’s player. (I’m assuming that was either Nicholas Meyer or Bryan Fuller.) It was going to be a bright story of exploration, rated PG (the baseline for simms), and it was set in the Abrams timeline simply to avoid continuity headaches.
But, after the first few posts of the game (i.e. about 16 minutes into “The Vulcan Hello”), Georgiou’s player flaked out. In a simm, when the captain disappears (which happens a lot), the first officer takes over the game, regardless of the first officer’s in-character or out-of-character qualifications. That’s just how it is. Chain-of-command. And Georgiou’s first officer was a character named Michael Burnham (played by Akiva Goldsmith?).
Burnham had been planning to get severely injured in her confrontation with the Klingons, then spend the next several adventures working on her character’s long and painful recovery, focusing on her* character. This is hurt/comfort fic, but nobody minded. After all, Burnham was already very clearly a Mary Sue. Between her being an adoptive family member of Sarek and Spock (despite never being mentioned before), mischaracterizing Sarek by writing a Sarek who wasn’t furious with her for joining Starfleet, having a bizarre name that makes her “special,” being the only human graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy, becoming a high-ranking officer without attending Starfleet Academy, and so on and so forth, Michael Burnham scores a 76 on the Ultimate Mary Sue Litmus Test. (Any score over 30 is considered “high risk of being a Mary Sue”). Sues are allowed to write hurt/comfort.
And, you know, having a Mary Sue aboard your simm isn’t the worst thing in the world. Simms can get dull if nobody has any fresh ideas, and Sues are idea machines. Kids who write Mary Sues turn into adults who write actual good stories. So Michael Burnham is exactly the kind of character you’d expect from a really talented 15-year-old.
But, when Georgiou vanished, Burnham became responsible for the entire ship and story. She had to drop the hurt/comfort story, leap up out of her Sickbay biobed half-dead, and head to the bridge.
To her credit, Burnham stalled, hoping that Georgiou would return and put the game back on track. This is why absolutely nothing happens in the middle part of “The Vulcan Hello.” But sometimes people just disappear from games with no explanation, and you have to move on. So, eventually, Burnham moved on. She staged a mutiny against Georgiou and then wrote a battle aboard the Klingon ship that got Georgiou killed.
Now the simm had no in-game captain, which is a genuine subversion of simming conventions. Like I said, Sues are awesome at coming up with fresh ideas, and moving the focus away from some arbitrary captain was a great one. Unfortunately, Burnham was so taken with the “mutiny” twist that she failed to write adequate justification for it into the story, and her mutiny came across as wildly unjustifiable. Still pretty good for a 15-year-old writer.
Burnham’s player now fully asserted herself as C.O. of the game–and she had very different ideas about how it should go. She saw Battlestar Galactica just last year, and thinks it is the bee’s knees because she hasn’t seen Season 4 yet. “What Star Trek is missing,” she announced in an OOC (“out-of-character”) post, “is a strong focus on endless interpersonal conflict between unlikable characters who never learn anything.” Which isn’t actually the lesson of BSG, but is the lesson most simmers took away from it.
So Burnham’s player changed the rating to R and announced that the game is now set in the regular Star Trek universe (the “Prime Timeline”). That’s not because she dislikes the Abramsverse, but simply because she wants to show the “real darkness” in the Star Trek universe, and can’t do that as well in the Abrams timeline. Also, she really likes name-dropping events from canon, as seen in her Sarek-heavy backstory, and the Prime Timeline is better for that. Nevertheless, Burnham kept all the hideous Abramsverse aesthetics, because she doesn’t actually care about continuity. Continuity isn’t “edgy,” but those hideous Abramsverse starships and doors and computer panels and lens flares sure as heck are.
Most of the players left when the game got an R-rating, so Burnham blew up the Shenzhou to kill off all their characters. Dr. Nambue, Ensign Danby, Lt. Januzzi, we hardly knew thee or thine ridiculous names. (They all used the same random name generator from the simm’s application form.) However, there were two big exceptions: Saru’s player is one of those guys who just wants to invent a species to play and then spend the rest of the game exploring that species, so he’s pretty much down for anything. He stuck with the simm, and so Saru survived the Battle at the Binary Stars.
So did Voq.
Yes, Voq is a player character. Originally, in Georgiou’s plan, the game was going to begin with a tense confrontation with the Klingons. However, based on dialogue in “Errand of Mercy”, there would be no Federation-Klingon war. The confrontation would be resolved by the end of the first simm “episode,” with Voq helping defuse the crisis. Voq would then join the Shenzhou crew permanently. (Georgiou didn’t really want to do Klingons at all, but Voq really really likes Klingons, so she agreed.) Voq had already started weaving out an elaborate Klingon political storyline, so he stuck with it when Burnham decided not to defuse the crisis after all. They agreed to kill off the NPC villain, T’Kuvma, that Georgiou had created, and leave Voq in charge of the Klingon plot.
However, Burnham is currently paying no attention to Voq’s plotline and has mostly just told him not to mess anything up. He’s not half-bad for an RPG writer, but he’s spinning his wheels a bit because he doesn’t know what direction he’s supposed to go (and he suffers from the delusion, common among simmers, that Klingon politics are FASCINATING). He managed to recruit his real-life girlfriend a couple weeks ago to play his in-game girlfriend L’Rell, explaining L’Rell’s oddly fanatic in-game loyalty to Voq.
However, Voq had so little to do last week that they had his player run a new character called Ash Tyler, a Starfleet prisoner aboard a Klingon ship rescued by Lorca in a storyline that went nowhere. (Ash was also L’Rell’s girlfriend, because L’Rell’s player insisted.) However, I have my suspicions about whether there’s more to that story than meets the eye: since simm storylines are always driven by the player characters, it was very weird to have an entire subplot between Voq’s alternate character; Burnham’s friend Dwight, the captain of another simm who stopped by to play dark-and-gritty Harry Mudd for a week; and an NPC like Captain Lorca.
Yep, Lorca is an NPC (or non-player character). While Burnham’s player is in charge of the game, the Burnham character, in-game, has been stripped of rank, and can’t be in charge of anyone. Lorca is her solution to this problem: an NPC under her control who can hand out orders to everyone else (mostly Burnham), while also handing out cryptic hints about Dark Gritty Starfleet Stuff and serving as a dramatic foil to Burnham. That’s why Lorca only ever has scenes with Burnham (and not, say, Lt. Friggin’ Saru, the friggin’ XO). Stamets sometimes uses Lorca in his posts, mostly so they can shout at each other, but Burnham frankly wishes Stamets would stop.
Speaking of Stamets, both Stamets and Tilly are new players who joined Discovery soon after Burnham took over.
Stamets has characters on four other simms (which is the legal limit in his fleet), so he knows what he’s doing. He really enjoys simming, because it lets him explore drama. Unfortunately, he thinks drama consists mainly of angst and whining. This is his first time in an R-rated simm. He finds it refreshing! He’s not liking Stamets very much, since he’s turning out to be too idealistic for this kind of a game, so he’s thinking about signing up again with a new character… or doing something horrible to Stamets to make him more compatible with the R rating. OOC, Stamets’ player is an older teen who is (like roughly 40% of all simmers) very recently out of the closet, so his character is (of course) in what the player imagines an adult gay relationship is like. But he’s so new to the concept he just ends up writing more “edgy” bickering with his beloved, the NPC Dr. Culber. He’s a good player; he just needs a little more seasoning — and for Burnham to let him out of the box she’s keeping him in.
Tilly stumbled into the game. It’s her player’s first time simming, and Burnham (who is not a half-bad simming leader, for a simming leader) took her under her wing. So, even as a cadet, Tilly gets to be the game-master’s in-game roommate. Burnham’s player is a little frustrated, though, because Tilly (who is a HUGE Voyager fan) still hasn’t figured out the whole R-rating thing yet. Burnham’s player keeps writing joint posts with Tilly’s player and trying to drop hints that Tilly needs to develop an edgier side (by staring at her and frowning a lot in-character whenever Tilly seems happy). But it just isn’t clicking with Tilly, who keeps trying to write everything like a Voyager episode.
Last week, Burnham sent Tilly a private message on the forum where the simm is played telling Tilly in no uncertain terms that she needs to let out her “darker side,” that this is a game where she could even say the F-word and nobody would bat an eye! Tilly’s player took the advice to heart. Even though she couldn’t really figure out why she’d ever want to say the F-word in-character, she tried to be a good player and dropped it into a post. Only the post wasn’t dark, and didn’t develop Tilly’s edgier side. It was about exciting science! Stamets liked it and went along with it, because he is completely blown away by saying the F-word in a Star Trek simm, but Burnham’s player just put her head in her hands and sighed. She’s learning the first rule of roleplaying: no matter how good your plans are as the game-master, your players are going to go off in their own direction and ruin them without realizing this. If she can learn to roll with this and let her players play the game they want, her game could get good–even great.
For now, for a simm run by teenagers, Discovery is a strong, entertaining game that’s trapped in a “dark and edgy” box. If you just accept it for what it is–somebody’s R-rated simm–rather than expecting it to reincarnate the spirit of Star Trek for a glorious new era of television, it’s definitely possible to enjoy it. I’m going to keep watching. Plenty of Star Trek series have needed to grow up after weak first seasons; the only difference with Discovery is that it’s a gawky teen who wears all black and thinks it’s already an adult. It’ll eventually find the fun, and, if we’re lucky, it may even find the spirit of Star Trek. Until then, it’s pretty good for a simm. Star Trek Discovery airs Sunday nights (including tonight, in about 16 hours!) at 7:30 PM Central on CBS All Access.
Meanwhile, if you do want the spirit of Star Trek, Fox’s The Orville is somehow achieving that, despite a catastrophically awful premiere and weak second episode. They haven’t aired any episodes that made me say, “Oh, that’s right up there with ‘The Inner Light,'” but I’ve definitely seen worse episodes than their latest outing, “Krill,” and the humor is finally starting to click. The Orville airs Thursdays on Fox at 8 PM Central after Gotham.
*In simms, it is conventional to refer to players as their characters, even when the player and character have different genders. So I refer to Burnham’s player as a “she” even though the player could just as easily be a 15-year-old boy.