Star Trek Discovery, a show burdened with returning Star Trek to the small screen after the franchise’s fleeting reboot “Kelvin” timeline movies, helmed by JJ Abrams. Discovery also has the added weight on its shoulders of championing CBS’ new streaming service, CBS All Access.
During the shows inception, the news cycle delivered much promise for old trekkies and trekkers like me, and there was a general sense of optimism. While Star Trek: Beyond (the third installment of the Kelvin timeline movies) had been better received than most were expecting, there was a general sense that Discovery would be returning us back to our usual Trek programming.
A return to an hour-long, episodic television format meant, not just a return to the “Prime” universe but also a return to smaller, character driven storytelling in which Trek had always thrived. It was a place and pace we had missed, one that we had take for granted before we lost it in 2005 when Star Trek’s first prequel series Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons.
However, a season and a half in, things have not really turned out the way we'd hoped. The universe within Star Trek Discovery has been affected by the real world in ways we haven’t seen since the horrible Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 finale Shades of Grey, a clip show pieced together as a result of the Writer’s Strike in 1988.
Initially, Star Trek alumni such as Bryan Fuller who was set to show run, along with Joe Menosky, Nicholas Meyer and celebrated Star Trek Voyager novelist Kirsten Beyer were all announced. Things looked promising as these familiar names could carry on the Trek mantle, following on from the Berman, Braga, Ronald D. Moore era of the 90s and early 00s.
However swift and sharp changes became the order of the day, starting with Bryan Fuller stepping down (or being fired), and later his successors Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg (after Season One). There were production problems, release delays and in recent times, more involvement from Alex Kurtzman, who’s other Hollywood ventures have failed; namely the Universal Monsters Dark Universe.
Things have been rocky to say the least.
While there are fans of the show, who are enjoying what’s on screen regardless of what is going on behind-the-scenes, there is no denying it has split the Star Trek fanbase and there is an audience of people watching it, like me, who aren’t really enjoying it.
That is the curious thing about beloved franchises and something people need to accept. It’s not as easy as saying, “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”
If all were fair and equal, Star Trek Discovery could (and would) be reviewed on its own merits alone, without reference to what came before in the franchise, however it is impossible to review the extension to a franchise as being apart from the rest. It is important to understand the context from which Star Trek is viewed by its fans (at least this fan).
Perhaps positive reviewers would be a lot harder on the show if it wasn’t part of the franchise, and those who criticise it may have less passion underpinning their views on it. Yet, you don’t get to use a brand name to help market a product in order to get its loyal audience out-of-the-box without having to deal with the consequences of it having that loyal audience. I watch Star Trek Discovery because I’m a Star Trek fan and if it wasn’t tied to Star Trek, I would not be tuning in.
That being said, I will attempt to not only give reasons why I believe Discovery is a poor entry into Star Trek lore but that if seen as a separate entity—with the weight of Trek off it’s shoulders—still falls short of good television, more specifically, basic storytelling.
But first, a trip around the sun in a Klingon Bird-of-Prey
Before we get into the review of what’s new, let’s unpack what came before to examine what Star Trek has (or had) presented and represented. Looking no further than my recent revisit of some classic episodes such as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s, “The Measure of a Man”, perhaps the episode, in its second season, which really kicked the show into warp drive.
In it, Lieutenant Commander Data (an Android) must prove his sentience, else be deemed the property of Starfleet, allowing the episode’s antagonist Commander Bruce Maddox to take him away for experimentation in the hopes of creating more “Datas” which could serve Starfleet.
Toward the episode’s climax, in which Captain Philippa Louvois (the Judge Advocate General) must give her verdict on proceedings, Captain Jean-Luc Picard played by Sir Patrick Stewart is able to show off his great theater voice, giving an impassioned speech, referring to Maddox;
“... sooner or later, this man or others like him will succeed in replicating Commander Data. And the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery? Your Honour, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits. Waiting.”
I remember loving this episode when I was young, it had all the drama, tension and suspense you needed in an hour of television. Adding to that tension was a twist that, in order to run the hearings at all, Commander Riker was required to play prosecutor, against his friend Data, and he almost wins. His internal struggle is beautifully acted by Jonathan Frakes and in the episode's final scene there is a touching moment between the two, when Data explains to a forlorn Riker, he need not feel guilty,
“Is it not true that had you refused to prosecute, Captain Louvois would have ruled summarily against me? That action injured you, and saved me. I will not forget it.”
The scene showcases an enlightened 24th century human sentiment by the very character who’s humanity had been in question.
Gene Roddenberry’s vision was alive in well in this new incarnation and the episode is a perfect demonstration of what Star Trek could be at its best. Like all good Science Fiction, asking “what if?” And examining metaphysical questions and universal truths.
Star Trek always using its varied cast of characters by putting them through all different trials to examine social issues. It seldom focused on grand intrigue or battles between good and evil characters. Star Trek’s morality plays focused on conflicts of ideology, with both sides getting a fair swing of their Bat’leths. Like Commander Maddox in The Measure of a Man, the series always strived to sway from moustache twirling villains. Even in the original series, presented as an action adventure was able to explore something more important beneath its, "wagon train to the stars" presentation.
In Balance of Terror, perhaps the perfect Star Trek episode, we meet the Romulans and their Commander, who we have a hard time disliking, while still cheering on Captain Kirk and our favourite Starfleet crew.
The two leaders, demonstrate much respect, despite being on either side of a deadly conflict. The Romulan Commander admitting,
“You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
While Balance of Terror showcases a conflict resolved in what is essentially a submarine battle. More often than not, the conflict in Star Trek was resolved by non-violent means, most famously in Arena (where Kirk is pitted against the Gorn in a fight to the death).
This tradition was continued, perhaps even more prolifically throughout The Next Generation, where Captain Picard’s famous diplomacy was ever on show. We saw conflict resolution through problem solving, team work, boardroom meetings, engineering, experimentation, courtroom dramas and sacrifice.
Later, as Star Trek exploded in the late 90s. It's two spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager showcased the challenges faced by Starfleet’s finest when put out further into the final frontier. Pushing their respective crews to retain their 'humanity' when dealing with forces very much away from the comfort of the Federation.
On Deep Space Nine (Commander Sisko, played the role of a mayor of a frontier town (in this case, an abandoned Cardassian station at the time of Bajor’s liberation). While on Voyager, Captain Janeway, a captain stranded with her crew (along with some Maquis freedom fighters), in the Delta Quadrant.
The last show of this Star Trek era (the Rick Berman era), Enterprise, finished up in 2005 with one of it’s lesser episodes, These are the voyages which did not do justice to the trajectory its quality had been on, especially toward the end of Season 4. While Enterprise suffered a lot of critical backlash at the time, in retrospect, many are finding it was actually quite good and Manny Coto, perhaps a season too late was really set to make it great.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, Enterprise and the end of niche. It’s not particularly well written but the point I made at the time has been validated further with the release of Discovery, CBS’ latest spin-off, that a piece of entertainment like Star Trek (as it was) could no longer exist. Star Trek had been unique amoung the zeitgeist as it was very, very niche (with a very passionate fanbase) but also, at the same time, very well known (if not enjoyed) in wider pop culture.
Basically, it wasn’t for everyone, with strange language, techno-babble, pyjama looking outfits and weird aliens. So, while it remained in the purview of the mainstream, it didn’t have wide mainstream appeal. It was deeply science fiction and espoused a positive outlook on humanity's future. It wasn’t like Star Wars, which, while loved by a fanatical base, was also enjoyed and accepted by a broader audience.
Becoming a “Trekkie” when I was young went hand-in-hand with having to accept some verbal abuse from people who didn’t “get it”. It was a unique show for unique individuals. Nerds and geeks and people who had a mind open enough to give it a go and at least watch some of the more accessible episodes.
Okay, but what’s this got to do with Discovery?
Yes, that's quite a lot of NOT talking about Discovery, but it's important that I set some context for when I review Discovery it is through two lenses, one which examines it in the context of Star Trek and the other, purely as a TV show. The faults I find in the the latter, only serving to enhancing my feelings about it in the former.
I'll begin by addressing the most base facet, which doesn't involve the greater franchise or pre-existing canon, that is, the style and tone of the storytelling.
Star Trek Discovery is “Post-Abrams” Trek. My thoughts on the Bad Robot produced features; Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness can be found in my reviews, Dude, Where’s My Star Trek and Star Trek Into Brain-less. I won’t elaborate on them but those titles alone give a pretty good indication of what my thoughts and feelings on those movies are.
Star Trek Discovery has—consciously or unconsciously—carried across many of the tropes found in the three "Kelvin" timeline films. In an attempt to bring a new, "younger" audience to the show, it employs techniques such as, timer countdowns to add a false sense of suspence, or forced plot twists and mystery-boxes which don't spark the awe they intend.
In JJ's Into Darkness, it was the bolted on use of Khan (Star Trek's most famous antagonist), which relied on the audience to fill in the emotional connection the characters didn't have. Similarly, Discovery used the Mirror Universe in such a way, relying on the audience's knowledge of it to drive the twists, such as Lorca being from there all along. We saw it coming, but it also meant we had to have the characters travel there in order to make the twist make sense. It didn't change the way we viewed the episodes prior and it wasn't exactly shocking based on Lorca's character, not to us and not to his crew.
Discovery tried very hard to set up twists in its first season, another being "Tyler is Voq", which they made no real attempts to lock down with any sort of clarity as to how. Strange and graphic flash backs just added to the confusion and this was an example where a little bit of good old fashioned Trek techno-babble might have gone a long way. I'm sure Dr. Crusher or Phlox could have given us some clarity here, but Discovery tries so hard to distance itself from that style of writing that we are left to have to figure out what is going on.
Techno-babble was a device which allowed the characters a way to explain clearly far-fetched concepts to each other but also do it in such a way that made some sort of in-story logic for the audience. Deep Space Nine in particular made attempts to not rely on techno-babble and focus on character led drama. Discovery, wants to have it both ways, that is, rely on "science-ing" solutions but also not use language in a way that keeps things logical in-universe. With the Tyler/Voq situation, I'm left thinking the writer's changed their mind between Voq’s mind being put into Tyler’s body and Voq simply being made to look like a human and forgot to tell us.
None of these twists have ultimately landed well because they are forced or rushed, trying to earn a collective Twitter gasp from its audience rather than focusing on character development which would allow those devices to serve the story and actually be earned. In short, they just happen and we accept them. We don't care enough about the characters which they are meant to affect.
The latest twist, half way through season two is that Leland, a Section 31 operative, has just been outed as being responsible for the death of Burnham's parents. The show hasn't done nearly enough to set up that this matters though and therefore feels more like a cheap way to progress Georgiou's story line rather than a way to add depth to Burnham or Leland. Leland has only just appeared on the show; we don't care about him and he doesn't have a relationship with Burnham.
Aside from trying to drop plot twists every which way, Discovery also attempts to mimic the likes of Game of Thrones and The Expanse with narrative elements that were traditionally played more subtly or taken more seriously in Star Trek; such as murder, torture, or the portrayal of moral ambiguity.
We had many morally ambiguous characters on Star Trek before Discovery however we never saw a deliberate, celebration of characters who are just plain evil, unless it was in a form of hammed up way, such as the previous visits to the Mirror Universe. Empress Giorgiou however is not a hammed up Mirror Universe character, they have written her into the show as a strong lead, shone in a positive light. Yet, we've been shown without a shadow of doubt how horrendous she is. We've seen a similar development in Chancellor L'Rell and Tyler/Voq, whose actions haven't been redeemed, just forgiven by the needs of the script to drive the plot along.
This "dark" and "edgy" tone is curious because Star Trek was always hopeful about the future and humanity’s part in it. Discovery presents us with a dark and gloomy one, even the alerts are black. This tone is so prevalent that people believed the twist in season one was going to be that the show was actually set in the Mirror Universe all along. Instead, when we got there, we saw that our characters fit right in, rather than, as in the original incarnations, a way to show just how far we’d come against a more base version of ourselves.
So, despite the hope that a return to television and the “Prime” timeline would help bring Star Trek back to its roots, a season and a half in, it certainly doesn't feel like a Star Trek show in its narrative structure or dialogue, but also doesn't work as good, slow-burn, long-form television worthy of binge-watching either because nothing is given the room to breathe. Key moments are not earned, such as Saru's fake death where both Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones are doing their best to convey emotion we don't believe their characters have.
Stylistically, in much the same way as the Abram’s blockbuster films, everything in Discovery is at 10, all the time. Sweeping cameras shots, even when characters are just talking or walking down a corridor. There are transparent panels everywhere flaring light every time someone gives an order.
While all of this reflects a high production budget, it also highlights a style over substance approach. So, it's easy to see why the writers can come across as lazy when action set pieces, space jumps and light shows fill much of the running time, regardless of whether or not the plot calls for it.
Another aspect which has transitioned from the Bad Robot movies into Discovery is not only the change in how known characters from the previous incarnations are portrayed, but overall, how characters from the universe at large behave. Far from the aspirational beings which Gene Roddenberry envisioned or the subtle way Enterprise’s crew showed a stage between us and them, those in Discovery take a little too much inspiration from The Expanse in there portrayal of future humans. The Expanse is a great show in it’s own right but not one that Star Trek need try emulate.
Much like the Abrams films, we are constantly told that the characters are good at their jobs, rather than seeing them perform tasks or say things that would lead us to believe it.
Another stark contrast is the literal tone of voice, which was once Shakespearean, as demonstrated earlier in Picard’s speech from Measure of a Man. It was a basic trick in the writing, that Star Trek characters spoke a certain form of English, in many ways old and proper, giving their speech a certain sophistication that we aren’t accustomed to in today’s vernacular. This helped us imagine something futuristic, purely by having it sound understandable, yet not too familiar.
This dialed up, proper, and polite speech echoed those evolved sensibilities we were told had become part of human civilisation by the 23nd century; a trait of space faring species, especially those in an organisation such as Starfleet. Vulcans, Romulans, Cardassians and even Klingons shared a certain correctness in their speech patterns despite their cultural differences with humans. If you want to get to space, you have to sort some things out. Even the Borg were quite polite really, with their, “Resistance is futile” warning.
In Discovery however while attempts are made to keep this tone, it shifts in and out. Take Cadet Tilly, whose manner of speech is taken straight out of 2018, and while she may well be intended to represent us, the audience, similar to the role Wesley Crusher on The Next Generation in a way, her blend of modern day, witty, smack talk pulls the viewer out of a universe already well-established in the fifty plus years.
The speech of course is but one change in the behaviour of these characters. There’s a lot less hopefulness in them and far less development.
On Discovery the characters themselves, taken out of a Star Trek context, are just not very good. We can’t connect with them as most are treated as nameless faces who have not been introduced with any clarity around the role they play on the ship (or the show). In every other iteration of Star Trek, especially Deep Space Nine, they managed to develop a whole host of secondary characters in their ensemble.
In Discovery, I have no idea who the central characters really are with some simply appearing and disappear, like Tig Notaro’s whats-her-face or the character on the bridge who is a robot. In Season 2, a new security officer is introduced but she disappeared on the last episode because it seems Tyler is back onboard for good. Even though he murdered a crew-mate, who is also back from the dead... did I mention there's only been 20 episodes of this show?
The simple formula of assigning the ensemble members a senior position each was not a model that needed “shaking up”. The Captain of each previous series was the lead and anchored the show, but a simple lead of each department made it easy to structure the hierarchy and dynamics between characters. They each owned something and from then on, it was about development.
Having a static(ish) ensemble allows us to get to know the characters and gives each of them time to grow. Some bottle episodes also allow them to each get some focus, allowing the audience to get to know them and start to care about them.
A look at Discovery, which focuses predominantly on Burnham, we ends up with this when we do a Google image search for it's crew:
There's no core ensember in Discovery, a season and a half in and there's been too little time for so much cast and crew shuffling, but also, too much to still not understand who is doing what.
There are characters who have roles, like the helmswoman, but she's someone I still can’t name, and there are characters who are a little more fleshed out, but I don’t really know what they do. Stamets for example, seems senior but he isn’t the Chief Engineer. All this vagueness is unnecessary and as an audience member, trying to decipher this stuff just adds unnecessary confusion.
To give a comparison, imagine watching The Simpsons, but it was presented in a way where Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie lived together but we were never given any indication that they were a genetic family. It would add an unnecessary layer of confusion to a show about family dynamics.
We are on-board a navy influenced space faring vessel. A sense of hierarchy and position wouldn't go astray or betray its attempts at "woke-ness".
This problem seems to stem from having Burnham as an out and out lead. The show focuses on her in a military setting and causes narrative problems because we don't really understand where she sits in the contextual heirarchy of the ship. She's constantly telling everyone what to do, including her senior officers. This is an extension to the fact that she is presented as near perfect; in intellect, strength, and decision making acumen, in any and every situation. Essentially, she’s boring and has beomce unlikelable. She's way too serious and monotonous in her speech. Every word comes out as if all the weight of the universe is constantly on her shoulders. She lacks any charm, which is strange because Sonequa Martin-Green seems to have it in abundance. Though, I can't blame the actors for the writing of their characters or the direction they are given.
Television shows will often use consistent narrative devices to help set things up and move things along. Star Trek used many, such as techno-babble to explain the in-universe technology; constructs like "sub-space" and "inertial dampeners" helped to excuse things that would normally warrant scientific questioning such as how they could communicate at long distances quicker than they could travel, or why characters weren't stuck to their seats when the ship went to warp.
Even transporters where invented by Gene Roddenberry as a cost-saving method of getting characters from ship-to-surface without needing to show shuttle crafts transporting them all the time.
An iconic Star Trek narrative device is of course the service logs. Beginning an episode with the famous line, "Captain's Log, Stardate..." was a simple way to set the scene and tone of an episode. It could be a reassuring way for Discovery to connect itself to the franchises heritage, however they prefer narration and this may seem but a subtle change, yet a very important distinction which gives much away regarding the shows intent.
The logs were always in-world, it is an action a character took within the plot. We often saw them do it, and have even been shown physical devices used to do. Narration, on the other hand, breaks the fourth wall. It speaks to the audience and is not in-world and because it’s not in-world it gets away from scene setting and starts getting into open discussion of theme.
The problem with narration is that it seldom sounds like the character but rather the voice of the actor and as with all things Discovery, they are not consitant, so characters will sometimes start this monologue with the words, "Personal log" but not always because that's the kind of attention to detail we get from the writing in the show.
Let’s take Michael Burnham opening to the second season episode Saints of Imperfection.
“Words define who we are; officer, orphan, widower, shipmate but there is no word for the unique agony of uncertainty.”
When presented over a slow motion montage, with a sombre tone by Sonequa Martin-Green, under-laid with a dramatic score, those words, barely coherent, sound profound. Yet, when read, in one’s head or out loud, their poetic resonance, falls to mere rhetoric. Sort of like what I just did there.
Or, from Light and Shadows, which comes across a little more traditional in terms of how it reads;
"Personal log, Commander Michael Burnham; my mother taught me the greatest mysteries come in threes. Birth, life, death. The past, the present and future. That's where the Red Angel is from. We now have confirmation thanks to Mr. Saru, the angel is humanoid and wearing an exo-suit made of future technology we've never seen, but whose future and why? The only person who may be able to answer these questions is the one person nobody can find."
Presented as a Personal log, yet still written as if it were narration, and once again runs over the top of a montage, playing more like a "last time on..."
Rather than setting up the episode, it recapped the previous, with a whole heap of non-sensical phrases about mystery-boxes coming in threes.
This maybe seem like a nitpick but it’s the kind of overlooked detail that stands out, and when a trail of similar details are put in front of the viewer, one can't help but keep pulling at the thread until they find themselves half inside the Mycelial network.
Star trek's traditional morality play, episodic structure once lent itself to shine a light on current day issues week in, week out. The change to a season long, continuing arc is not something new in Star Trek per se, however spin-offs such as Deep Space Nine did a great job of blending the overarching complex intrigue of the "Dominion War" arc while still telling stand-alone stories each episode.
In Discovery, they're constantly rushing to the pre-credits cliffhanger. This is a trope we see in soap operas and comic books. It's all about "next time on..." Never letting the current episode sink in. The speed of this type of storytelling is also leading to an agenda driven approach to themes rather than taking the time for examination.
For example, in The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's parody/homage to Star Trek The Next Generation, one early Season One episode featured a look at a civilization, similar to our own, who had allowed the court of public opinion to literally become the justice system. Citizens would flippantly vote up or down on an issue and if down votes were high enough a person accused of something improper would be punished. The episode demonstrates what might become of current day issues around echo-chambers, social-media and extremely divided politics.
In Discovery, rather than examining our culture, the writer’s seem to have a side on current day issues and put forward surface level cues to their views on social issues rather than telling stories which tackle those issues. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with those views, it's a lazy way to work theme into the writing.
Where Star Trek traditionally shined a mirror on human experiences by using conflicts with or between aliens which allowed the audience to make up there minds. In Discovery, we see pandering, to the point of being illogical.
Most disappointing of all, a lot of what it presents, such as inclusion, is being marketed as if it is a for Star Trek, a franchise rooted in progressive themes since 1966.
In conclusion, it's disappointing that Discovery doesn’t have the feel of Trek. Not in it’s making, not in it's storytelling or in its world building. Nor does it evoke its traditional audible or visual language. Instead, it looks, feels and sounds like a modern Hollywood blockbuster. This has a certain appeal, especially visually, which was never the focus of Star Trek, despite being Sci-Fi.
For sure, Discovery has some "Star Treky" things about it. There’s ships and Starfleet and warp drive (but mainly schroom-drive) and now even Mr. Spock! But it is so subversive that it has no real connection to the Star Trek ethos laid out by its predecessors.
In its attempts to focus on action, intrigue, mystery-boxes and plot twists at warp speed it's forgetting to stay grounded in it's own logic, let alone that of the universe it is a part of. It throws around shallow references to the greater universe but ignores important details. It fails to follow up on its own setups and handles important topics like it's posting on Twitter into an echo-chamber.
Continuity issues can be forgiven; ship designs and costumes and how the Klingons might look. This could all be done without destroying the verisimilitude of Star Trek's universe (as Robert Meyer Bennett might say).
Discovery would not be the first show to get a few things canonically wrong and we've had to deal with changes in production quality over the span of 50 years. Therefore, my criticisms of Star Trek Discovery are not centred around it breaking Star Trek canon but rather that it's a poor quality show because things, within it's own world, are not explained or worse yet contradicted.
Discovery is not bad television because the lead character is a woman, it's bad television, because it's lead character is not well rendered or developed.
It's not a bad show because it isn't telling stories in Star Trek's bottle-show format, it's a bad show because it's failing to meet the basic structures of storytelling.
Discovery is poor television, especially compared to the current wave of quality long-form episodic shows being produced. It is poor because it fails to clearly set up what is going on and why. It jumps from plot beat to plot beat like a roller-coaster, never allowing the stakes to build, nor letting the audience understand character motivation without exposition and it never earns its thrills with any real suspense.
None of this has anything to do with Star Trek, yet unfortunately for me, even if I find little Star Trek in it, it is the latest installment of the franchise I love and therefore I can't let it go. I was able to disconnect the "Kelvin" movies from Star Trek, dismissing them as some sort of alternate reality Trek, like those comic books which cross over The Next Generation with The X-Men. However, Discovery IS meant to live in the same universe I grew up loving and spending time in. So, I'll keep tuning in, hoping it will give me a little something to love in it.
In my heart of hearts however, I'm afraid that I was right about the end of niche. That a franchise like Star Trek, as it once was, cannot exist anymore and it fails to translate or transition into something that it simply is not. It's not in Star Trek's DNA to be an action fantasy blockbuster. The more it's forced to fulfill that need for CBS, the more it becomes, well... strange.