If there is one criticism many fans would struggle to level at Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, it would be the classic “this is not Star Trek”.
You can understand, to a point, why some fans shouted that from the rooftops about Season 1. Bryan Fuller’s initial vision for Star Trek’s long awaited return to television alongside Alex Kurtzman resolutely set out to buck the storytelling trend you had come to expect from a franchise last on television at the tail end of a very different age. Season 1 was heavily serialised, darker, had a protagonist who had mutinied by the end of the second episode, didn’t even introduce the main ship until episode three, and had the ships Captain end up being the villain.
With hindsight, however, we never knew we had it so good with Season 1. Yes, it was a season compromised by behind the scenes complications, which may have resulted in the fractured balance of the Federation-Klingon War and Mirror Universe stories, but Season 1 pushed the boundaries of what we expected Star Trek to be. As the 90’s era wasn’t your Dad’s Star Trek, then Discovery was proving the 90’s *was* now your Dad’s Star Trek. It dropped the F-bomb. It went hard to starboard on serialisation. And it wasn’t afraid to craft protagonists like Michael Burnham or Saru (or naturally Gabriel Lorca) who were hard to like and who had to grow on us.
Season 2 in the wake of this spends fourteen episodes systematically undoing everything that made, or could have made, Discovery something special and unique. If Season 1 wasn’t Star Trek enough, then by Kahless, Season 2 absolutely was much “too Star Trek” from start to finish.
This ostensibly sounds like a ridiculous comment to make. Discovery *is* a Star Trek series so how can it possibly *too* Star Trek? Is this not a good thing? Is this not what the fans have been wanting since the show was first announced? Well therein lies problem number one. Discovery Season 2 is profoundly, and not even subtly, an exercise in the kind of fan service that is, often, scarcely hard to believe. While there is a strong argument that any continuation series along the lines of Discovery in a franchise as big as Star Trek is some element of ‘fan fiction’, Season 2 could easily have originated as a long form piece of fanfic adapted by the producers. Everything Season 2 provides is chiefly designed for one thing and one thing only: giving Star Trek fans what they felt they were robbed of in Discovery’s opening year.
We should have seen this coming from the moment Season 1 dropped the whopping great cliffhanger of the USS Discovery coming face to face with the classic, original USS Enterprise, because once Discovery abandoned Fuller’s original concept of an anthology series set across different Star Trek time periods, and grounded itself permanently in the sweet spot ten years before the events of the 1966-1969 Original Series, Discovery was always waiting to become what Season 2 should really be described as: TOS Season 0.5. In other words, not just a prequel series to the Original Series, exploring the aforementioned Klingon conflict first mentioned in TOS’ Errand of Mercy, but a direct lead-in to the Original Series itself. The Star Trek equivalent of what Rogue One was in the Star Wars universe – a prequel we never knew we needed.
The difference between these two examples, however, turns out to be execution. Rogue One, which took a throwaway line of dialogue in the very first Star Wars movie A New Hope and spins it out to detail a sprawling, daring mission by a group of mercenaries to get hold of the plans to the devastating Death Star super-weapon, flows directly into A New Hope (literally to the second) and genuinely adds something to the scope of the drama. You don’t need to watch Rogue One first if you’re new to Star Wars—indeed I’d recommend to anyone it’ll mean more if you spiral back to it after watching the Original Trilogy—but Gareth Edwards’ film doesn’t feel out of step with the overarching Star Wars narrative and, if you’re so inclined, can optionally lend more dramatic weight to the events of A New Hope. Discovery Season 2 wants to do the same for the time period just before the Original Series and, specifically, for the characters of Spock and Captain Christopher Pike.
In this it fails, and fails quite remarkably.
You can understand the thought process behind reviving the character of Pike, in fairness. The original Captain of the USS Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s first pilot from 1965, The Cage, where he was memorably played by Jeffrey Hunter, Pike ended up being swapped out by the time the first season of TOS came around for William Shatner’s James T. Kirk and was subsequently denied his place as an immortalised science-fiction hero. Pike’s absence was quite weirdly explained away in the TOS Season 1 two-part clip show, The Menagerie, designed primarily to use sequences from The Cage as a cost-cutting measure, but in doing so Pike’s rather grim fate as a scarred, crippled figure who gives up his life to live with the reality-bending Talosians so he can be with Vina, a woman he fell in love with, is set in stone. Interest no doubt was restored in the character thanks to JJ Abrams reviving him, as played by Bruce Greenwood, in 2009’s Star Trek big screen reboot and sequel Into Darkness, serving more as Kirk’s mentor than Spock’s. You can certainly see the influence of Greenwood’s likeable, firm but fair portrayal of Admiral Pike on Discovery’s casting of Anson Mount in the role, fresh off the calamity of The Inhumans swiftly cancelled series.
Mount, in all honesty, is the best thing about Discovery’s second season, something both lovers and detractors of the show have by and large agreed upon. Commanding and charming, strong but kind, Pike is without doubt the most stock, clear cut Starfleet Captain any Star Trek show has ever given us. He’s less of a cowboy than Kirk, he’s easier for his crew to like than Picard, he’s more measured than Sisko, he’s a man unlike Janeway (if we assume she inverted the trope of male leadership, which is thankfully less of an act of social rebellion these days), and he’s far less boring than Archer.
Pike is the Captain thousands of Trek fans have written in their fan fiction tales of a crew exploring the unknown and Mount fills the show with the requisite dignity and confidence Discovery needed after Jason Isaacs’ darker, ultimate villainously turn as Lorca. There are now significant calls for Pike and his pre-TOS Enterprise crew to be given a show of their own by CBS, calls loud enough for Alex Kurtzman to respond recently to them. Even as a limited run series, don’t be at all surprised if Mount’s Pike, Ethan Peck’s Spock and Rebecca Romijn’s Number One return down the road. The final episode, heck the final *scene* of the season, effectively sets this up as a likely foregone conclusion. You can tell Kurtzman would jump at the chance.
Which brings me to the first significant problem about Discovery’s second season… which, frankly, is Pike, Spock, Number One and the Enterprise.
When Discovery began, it attempted to introduce an ensemble which didn’t simply repeat character beats we have seen across previous shows in the universe. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), our first protagonist of colour since Avery Brooks’s Commander Sisko of Deep Space Nine, was only a Lieutenant Commander, not a Captain – it would be the first series in which the lead was not in charge of the ship. Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) felt designed to be more of a real human being – not physically svelte like many of the female Trek co-stars, often awkward in social or professional situations, but with heartfelt aspirations about one day becoming a Captain; probably her closest Trek antecedent is Voyager’s Harry Kim, but he settled in much faster than Tilly has.
Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) was a brittle engineering genius and in the first openly homosexual relationship in Star Trek history, with Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Saru (Doug Jones) fills the role of the resident new alien species, this time the Kelpiens, who have the morbid ability to sense the coming of death – which made Saru quite a glum, nervous, often panicky and sometimes even angry character, someone having to live with being an ostracised member of his kind as the only Kelpien in Starfleet. In other words, the primary crew were all versions of Star Trek tropes either evolved, inverted or advanced for the modern audience Discovery needed to serve. After Season 1 worked hard to establish this difficult new dynamic filled with conflict, Season 2 works even harder to tear down and homogenise almost every aspect of it.
Immediately, upon introducing the Enterprise and Pike, not to mention making the primary Season 2 narrative about Spock being missing, Discovery shifts the focus from its own crew onto the classic Star Trek characters who Kurtzman and his writing team seem intent on using to fill in certain canonical gaps and inconsistencies in the Original Series time line. This may not have been all Kurtzman’s fault, in fairness; he doesn’t become the full showrunner until Aaron Harberts & Gretchen T. Berg were let go after being accused of bullying behaviour toward other writing staff, with Kurtzman taking over roughly from Light and Shadows onwards.
By then, however, he had already inherited a highly serialised storyline which places Spock and Pike in particular front and centre of the entire mystery of the seven signals, the Red Angel and eventually the future destruction of all sentient life in the galaxy. There would have been no way to hit the pause button even if Kurtzman had wanted to, lest the show’s season structure had been irreparably lurched into a different plot line over halfway in. That just doesn’t happen, or it only happens if a seamless transition can take place. Had Discovery decided to throw the crew 1000 years into the future by episode eight, and do the final six episodes in the 33rd century, it would have made the jarring switch into the Mirror Universe after S1’s Into the Forest I Go look like narrative perfection.
Discovery instead across Season 2 opts for a tactic of neutering much of what made the characters Bryan Fuller (and cohorts such as Nicholas Meyer at the beginning) defiantly different. Burnham, who across Season 1 was stubborn and recalcitrant and dogged, very swiftly becomes a mewling, emotional black hole of a character; credit to Martin-Green, because even saddled with frequently terrible dialogue, she gives playing Burnham her absolute all, but Burnham’s development across Season 2 has ripped away anything that made her truly interesting. The whole gimmick of her being a human girl raised by a Vulcan family, with said emotions firmly placed in check, might as well now not exist – she is by far the most histrionic and over-emotional protagonist Star Trek has ever seen and by the time even Saru, in Such Sweet Sorrow (1) in not so many words tells her to wind her neck in before she gives *yet another* sanctimonious speech that plays into her devoted martyr complex, you’re right there with him.
Stamets, who began the show as extremely arrogant and hard to like, has evolved fairly well thanks to Rapp’s wide eyed performance into a sympathetic and useful character, even if he’s mostly deployed to provide necessary exposition, but Season 2 robs him of a powerful character arc in the hamfisted and beyond belief way, in Saints of Imperfection, that it reintroduces Culber—shockingly murdered at the end of S1 by Ash Tyler as his ‘Manklingonian Candidate’ conditioning kicked in. You really do sense the writers just liked Wilson Cruz too much (admittedly he does seem like a lovely chap) to lose Culber and instead opt to let Stamets wander around in Season 2 like a lonely puppy waiting for Culber to come back to him (which of course he does) rather than being pushed into dramatically strong areas in which Culber’s death *stuck*, especially given Culber only seems to exist to service Stamets as a character anyway.
Tilly is functionally sidelined for a significant amount of Season 2, often to make way for characters of lesser import such as Jet Reno (Tig Notaro), one of those smart mouthed, ultra cool, ultra useful characters you never really believe could exist as an *actual* person. This is partly due to Wiseman’s absence to go and get married, but mostly they don’t seem to have any clue what to really do with Tilly in the context of the all-dominant Red Angel narrative, and this is a problem for most of the primary Discovery crew – that ongoing plot is so heavily weighted in favour of Burnham, Pike and Spock, that almost nobody else gets a look in.
Tilly gets a weird mini-arc at the beginning where she is haunted by a dead friend and then gets sucked into the spore drive dimension (or whatever, at this stage), and later her Mary Sue of a friend, Queen Po, rocks up to help save the day in the finale and they act like they’ve been BFF’s forever even though Tilly only met her once in a Short Treks episode (Runaway, if you’re interested). Tilly is really Discovery’s super-weapon. She is the character you relate to, you care for, you’re rooting for to be a Captain one day & cement herself as a Starfleet legend. Her misuse is a symptom of how badly Discovery lost its way this season.
In truth, only one main character comes out of the Red Angel storyline well, and that’s Saru. He is given two episodes, and a Short Treks (The Brightest Star) before it to properly develop this season, even if it’s a little rushed and filled with the kind of over-egged and cloying sentiment in places that sunk the show. An Obol for Charon takes Saru to the point of death as his threat ganglia evolve and allow him in The Sounds of Thunder to return home to Kaminar with the confidence to help free the Kelpiens from the yoke of a pretty terrifying alien species who have dominated them for millennia.
Saru emerges as more confident, more *human* and likeable, and much more fit to become the Captain he almost certainly will have to be in Season 3 given Discovery could well end up in a Voyager-esque situation. Detractors do have a point in suggestion this has robbed Saru of everything that made him challenging and interesting as a character, and it certainly happens incredibly quickly in the context of his arc and of the series, but The Sounds of Thunder is easily the best episode of Season 2 because it tells a complete, satisfying narrative in the context of forty five or so minutes.
Which brings us back to the central problem of the main storyline, and how it ultimately only truly services the Original Series characters brought back to play in Discovery, at the expense of the main cast and the show’s concept.
Pike becoming temporary Captain is not necessarily a bad idea, given how little we know of his past, and there is absolutely a precedent in Star Trek series for this happening (see Captain Jellico in The Next Generation’s quite brilliant Chain of Command), but the ultimate problem is with the one character everyone was expecting to see from the moment we learned about Burnham’s back story: Spock. The search for Spock (pun intended) as he disappears entangled in the mystery of the seven signals and subsequently is wanted by Starfleet and Section 31 for murder upon escaping a psychiatric unit, becomes a major noose around the show’s neck.
When Spock eventually does appear he is bearded, maudlin and one note (not helped by Peck’s morose, slightly off performance), and Discovery segues into an origin story for a character who never for one second needed one. Spock’s journey of reconnecting with a sister he is never again permitted (by law!!!) to speak about adds nothing to the character we know, or the character he becomes. If anything the whole affair is scarcely hard to believe when you look at Leonard Nimoy’s performance in the 1960’s series. Perhaps it is for the better that we never speak about Spock’s emotional origin story again.
Let’s face it – Burnham being Spock’s sister was always a really awful, and nakedly fan baiting, creative decision. It displayed a middle finger to established Star Trek canon that Discovery has now essentially devoted an entire season to partially explaining away. What purpose has it really served except allowing the inclusion of Sarek, or Amanda Grayson, and now of course Spock? It has never really felt about Burnham. If they really wanted to tell the story of a woman torn between a world of logic and a world of emotion, she could have been the daughter of any Vulcan. Sure, it may have been less initially thrilling than her being the daughter of Sarek, but the impact could have been the same. In the end, Burnham has just been designed to facilitate seeing Vulcan’s first family in the show. Fans have worked very hard to try and explain away why Spock would never have mentioned a sister to Kirk or Bones or even Jean-Luc Picard later in life (if you take away the production factor that Discovery hadn’t been created yet), but the one Kurtzman and his writers give us in Such Sweet Sorrow (2) is so ridiculous, you wonder if they’re not just trolling the fan base now.
Pike’s journey is less of an origin story and more an exercise in filling a few gaps in Star Trek canon, wedging these elements into the Red Angel story with all the grace of a burglar with a crowbar. Given the fact the Red Angel plot is rooted in time travel, Pike ends up becoming aware of aspects of his future, which will turn out to be less nightmarish as the time crystals on Boreth suggest to him, more bittersweet. Pike will lose the Enterprise, lose his career, lose the functional use of his body (he looks more like Doctor Who’s Davros incarnate in his vision in Through the Valley of Shadows), but he will find love with Vina and some semblance of happiness in the fantasy environment the Talosians create for him. If Memory Serves, which brings back the Talosians and the character of Vina after the events of The Cage, is purely worked into the season to help put pieces in place to pay off Pike’s eventual destiny.
Indeed when Pike learns of his future, it becomes framed in terms of destiny over free will, concepts which Star Trek has dealt with far more gracefully (with Sisko in DS9) than with Pike here. It tries to mythologise Pike’s place in Trek canon as a tragic hero but it all feels like plot and character work that would have made more sense in a Pike *series*. Discovery is being borrowed in order to service broader canon questions within the Original Series era, at the expense of its own cast, crew and conceptual idea. Perhaps mercifully the enigmatic character of Number One, probably the one person in The Cage who would be fascinating to explore, gets almost nothing to do. They did well not to shoehorn in her backstory too when you could make it work much more seamlessly in a future Pike/Enterprise series.
Canon is something that Star Trek in particular as a fandom has a peculiar relationship with. While fans historically have been slavish to adherence to canon, as in holding true to the time line and established continuity of the franchise as a whole, a remarkable amount of fans have seemed prepared to give Discovery Season 2 a free pass when it comes to the multiple points it has bent or even discarded canon, or attempted to retrofit it for the story its telling. If the Burnham/Spock relationship is perhaps the most high profile example of this, and the existence of the Spore Drive (another frankly terrible idea someone should really have talked them out of) the strangest, then quite what Discovery did with Section 31 is the most egregious. If fans are prepared to forgive how they handled the Federation’s super secret intelligence organisation, then retrospectively they should give the Abramsverse much more of a break where canon is concerned. Nothing those films have done has broken with Star Trek continuity principles more than Discovery’s treatment of Section 31.
Season 1 started creeping the organisation in, with the finale Will You Take My Hand? seeing Mirror Universe Empress Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) accepting an offer to skip away and become an agent of darkness. With the news that Mirror Georgiou was to get her own CBS spin off series, most fans assumed we may not see much of her in Season 2 as Discovery charted new waters. If anything, Kurtzman and his writers chose to go the opposite way; Section 31, and their manipulation by a rampant, nihilistic AI called Control, serve as the primary antagonist backbone crucial to the Red Angel mystery, and Georgiou is in the thick of it.
While admittedly the Georgiou character is far less cool than the writers honestly believe she is, despite how charming Yeoh is and how much fun she clearly is having, it is hard to swallow in the Star Trek universe the idea that a megalomaniacal totalitarian leader responsible likely for billions of deaths could be redeemed enough to become the anti-hero lead of her own show. That’s all about CBS wanting to front-line Yeoh (and likely capitalise on Far Eastern markets), though it’s not the worst thing about the Section 31 storyline here. Far more problematic is just how little the writers seem to care about lining Section 31 up with what we already know about them.
When we first meet Section 31 in Deep Space Nine’s Inquisition, through the shadowy character of Luther Sloan, they are so secret that not even Captain Sisko has any clue who they are or how long they’ve existed, until he learns they have been around since the mid-22nd century when the Federation was formed. DS9 uses them as an allegory for black ops intelligence agencies at the height of the 90’s era of fascination in secret government conspiracies (Inquisition aired in 1998, at the height of The X-Files popularity). Enterprise roughly continues the theme when a nascent version of Section 31 pops up in that pre-Federation era, while they also exist in similar terms in the Kelvin time line as talked about in Into Darkness, as the quietly aggressive and isolationist group Admiral Marcus works for, happy to invite war with the Klingons to advance Federation interests.
Discovery chooses to make them black-clad space gangsters who zip around with huge fleets, known to almost every Starfleet officer to a person. The main figurehead for them, Leland, is even also tied into the revised backstory for the death of Burnham’s parents. Everyone knows who Section 31 are and it doesn’t make any sense. Kurtzman has since clarified they too are on a journey to the clandestine organisation we know from the late 24th century but, honestly, these kind of “but it will make sense…” explanations don’t wash. If you worry it won’t make sense, why do it in the first place?
What is more likely is that the writing staff of Discovery feel that canon, or the respect of continuity, doesn’t matter if it gets in the way of the story they want to tell. Who cares if Spock secretly had a sister? We’ll just invent a ridiculous reason why he can never talk about her again. Does it matter that Starfleet invented an engine system which allowed them to travel through dimensions and across the galaxy in the blink of an eye? No because we’ll just classify knowledge of it and pretend it didn’t exist. Can we throw Section 31 in there as stock bad guys without any of the depth and subtlety they have shown in previous series? Sure because they’re not yet *the* Section 31 that worked so well before.
This is all just the laziest kind of writing because it assumes audiences won’t be concerned about this in the moment and that the propulsive nature of the storytelling will mean they don’t ask questions. It’s an insulting way to treat an intelligent audience who *do* want the Star Trek world to make sense in tune with character motivations alongside it. Discovery Season 2 judges that none of this is important, that we’ll be so distracted by Spock (gasp), Pike (gasp) or Number One (aka Una, as her name has now been canonised to be, in a nod to Trek novelist Una McCormack), that we’ll just go with it. We won’t look too deeply into whether any of this actually makes sense or feels in tune with what Star Trek is. And unfortunately, that seems to have worked with a great deal of fans.
It does beg the question of what Star Trek is now in this modern world. Discovery, from the very beginning, was never going to be the same as the 90’s series in tone and style, but it has consciously tried to evoke the escapism of the 1960’s with present day trends toward serialised storytelling. It also *looks* incredible every week. From a production standpoint, Discovery works. It is largely well directed, with terrific production design, and in the finale episodes the original Enterprise bridge is re-created, yet given a retro-futurist spin, to quite brilliant effect. Such Sweet Sorrow (2) also features a very good space battle which if not quite up there with the best certainly serves as highly entertaining.
From that vantage point, Discovery gives you as a Trek fan everything you may want from a modern take on the franchise. What it lacks, in any way, certainly in Season 2, is writing that matches up. Discovery believes it can give the main players dialogue and throw them into situations that develop character at lightning speed. Such Sweet Sorrow (1) particularly encapsulates how pervasively Discovery tries to *force* you to feel when very little of the ground work has been done; it is an entire episode of cloying, sometimes embarrassing, goodbye conversations to facilitate a denouement none of these characters ever needed in the end to go through with.
A good example of this is the Burnham/Ash Tyler relationship. It’s an absolute mess. Tyler, who in reality is Klingon fundamentalist Voq who was transformed into a Starfleet officer to infiltrate the Federation during the war, should probably have died at the end of Season 1. He killed Culber, was exposed as a traitor, and Burnham naturally has to let him go when he avoids punishment by joining Section 31. Throughout Season 2, the writers never have a clue what role Ash serves. Sometimes he’s an envoy to Leland, sometimes he’s pals with Pike and a Discovery bridge officer, sometimes he’s swapping barbs with Georgiou, occasionally he’s knocking about with Klingon Chancellor L’Rell (with whom he has a child who is magically time aged on Borath by time crystals… let’s not even go there), and then every now and then he’s having awkward conversations with Burnham that remind us they actually love each other.
Their goodbye in Such Sweet Sorrow (1) is so overwrought it’s almost hilarious (but then everything Burnham does this season makes you wonder if she’s about to break out into a teary, Halle Berry at the Oscars moment). It is *the* most forced and unconvincing romantic relationship on TV, and right now Jon Snow is having sex with his aunt! Like many of the Discovery dynamics, it just doesn’t wash – see also the ridiculous Burnham/Saru “I love you, brother” moment at the end of An Obol for Charon, which conveniently forgets Saru spent most of Season 1 wishing she was in prison for getting his mentor killed.
Discovery Season 2 believes the sheer weight of emotion will carry it forward. That everything about the Red Angel plotline that doesn’t make sense (how about Burnham’s real mother showing up, in a moment Kurtzman blatantly knicked from Alias’ Season 1 finale Almost Thirty Years) will be skipped over by the fact you care so much about these people, when the writing refuses to put the legwork in. Such Sweet Sorrow (1) reminded me of DS9’s A Call to Arms in places, in terms of characters leaving on the eve of a huge battle, but the latter had five seasons of strong character work and narrative behind it, where Discovery has less than thirty episodes.
It’s too early to be sold this kind of storyline in some respects, certainly one with galaxy ending consequences we know will not have any impact on the broader Star Trek universe. Of course Discovery will beat Control, because the franchise goes on. It’s another reason why Discovery should either have gone with the original anthology storytelling idea or have been set in the 25th century or further along, allowing the show to create an entirely fresh paradigm in the Star Trek universe. That didn’t happen because CBS knew a Trek relaunch would have better immediate luck tethered to the Original Series and recognisable characters and situations, hence the Klingons and Mirror Universe, and now Spock and the Enterprise. It has been a show which has never been allowed to find its own identity.
Maybe this will happen now Discovery has travelled 1000 years into the future for Season 3, a setting subsequently confirmed by Kurtzman. Season 3 has traditionally been the season where previous Trek series since the late 1980’s have found their feet and settled in; TNG introduced the Borg, DS9 the Dominion and the Defiant, and ENT the Xindi plotline (a far better balance of Trek storytelling and serialisation than Discovery S2). A fresh perspective, a fresh universe and essentially a reboot button that can focus on Discovery’s main cast may be what revitalises the series and allows it truly to become classic Star Trek, as opposed to the fan baiting, Original Series place holder that was Season 2, filled as it was with unwieldy plotting, poor writing and unconvincing character work. While rarely outwardly bad television, Discovery was this season profoundly average and constantly looking in the wrong direction, focusing on aspects that did it a disservice.
Just look at how the finale ends. Look at that final scene and tell me, hand on heart, that it’s about Discovery and this show. It encapsulates why Discovery Season 2 has been *too Star Trek*. In reality, it has been too busy giving audiences what they think they want instead of creating a Star Trek that means something in the long run. In truth, it hasn’t really felt like Star Trek at all. Has it been *about* anything? Even Season 1 covered fundamentalism and totalitarianism. What has Season 2 truly said about our world? Nothing. It is, by the finale, an empty experience.
God speed, therefore, as you chart new horizons, Discovery. Maybe finally you can become the show you truly deserve to be – the Star Trek fit for our world today.
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