So thanks to Washington’s latest bout of Snowmageddon, my 6-day work weeks have had an unexpected break. So with some free time on my hands, I decided to try watching Star Trek: Discovery after a friend recommended I give it a second chance. I was skeptical, figured I’d give the first episode 30 minutes and then turn it off, because I have so limited leisure time nowadays I can’t afford to waste it.
Four hours later I found myself absolutely devastated that I had to wait another week to get a new episode of Discovery. Now I’ve seen shows get better with every season, many of the Star Trek series follow that curve, but never have I experienced such a drastic improvement in my viewing experience. I was one of Discovery‘s harshest critics last season, and now I can barely believe that this is the same show.
So what’s changed to so radically alter my experience with the show? Well, for one, I think I finally understand what’s happening.
Star Trek: Discovery
I Finally Know What’s Happening
The sheer amount of improvement that I’ve seen just in the first four episodes of Discovery almost defy belief. I now feel bad about how hard I was on it last season, because now I feel like the production problems that plagued the show’s first season were probably to blame. There are still problems with the show (namely it’s only available on a streaming service no one wants), but every show has problems, and at least now I actually understand what’s happening.
Star Trek: Discovery is Now About Exploration
Now that the Klingon War is over the show can focus on exploration and struggling against the harsh realities of space again. No longer hamstringed by breakneck plot pacing and exhausting battle sequences, Star Trek: Discovery now has time for the careful, considered brainstorming that made Star Trek such a joy to watch.
Right off the bat, the crew of Discovery has to figure out how to land on a strange asteroid whose gravitational forces exceed what its mass alone would create. What this allows for is actual teamwork, rather than just sitting around waiting for Captain Lorca to tell everyone the plan on how to blow up Klingons. After coming out of warp, Saru identifies it as an interstellar asteroid, Michael gives its approximate mass and that it has an atmosphere, and Detmer reports that there’s intense gravity distortions.
Captain Pike says one of the best lines of the episode:
“I want to know what’s down there. Suggestions?”
This is something Captain Picard asked all the time, because he realized that it was his crew, and not the ship itself, that was the true resource. Captain Pike needs ideas, and Michael provides one: telescopic cameras that would allow them to see what’s on the asteroid. The picture reveals a crashed Federation medical frigate but Michael can’t read the registry number, but Saru has better eyesight, so she asks him to read it. Later, during an attempt to land on the asteroid, Pike’s landing pod is damaged. Michael comes up with a way to save him, but she has to rely on Owo and Detmer to help her do it. Watching a team work together to come up with solutions to impossible problems, that’s what Star Trek is all about; how amazing mankind can be when it works together for a common cause.
In the next episode, Discovery has to save a colony of pre-warp humans from an impending disaster. Ensign Tilly comes up with the solution, but it takes Detmer’s piloting skills and Stamets use of the Spore Drive to make it work. The following episode has Tilly struggling with what she believes is a hallucination, but Michael figures out that it might be an alien presence, and Stamets who eventually removes it. No one person is ever able to save the day themselves, it relies on the crew working together.
Yet most heartening of all, is that while the crew is exploring space, the show is using that setting to explore ideas. Star Trek has always been about exploring ideas: scientific, spiritual, and personal. Yet all I really ever got out of the first season of Discovery was the exploration of war, which has been done better by countless other stories, including Deep Space 9. Now though, free of the “war is hell, and everything is awful” message that they kept hammering home last season, Discovery is free to, well, discover new ideas. And explore them.
When I saw the previews for the second season, I thought that the strange signals would inevitably be some dire threat; I was almost expecting a Mass Effect storyline where the signals would be warnings of a coming apocalypse. Instead I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that these signals are warning of a different kind, an indicator that someone needs help. It’s while following the first of these signals that Discovery comes across the asteroid, and the trapped Federation crew below. The next signal leads them to a group of pre-warp humans who had been seemingly rescued by an alien entity from the ravages of the 3rd World War, but who were now in danger of dying from falling radioactive debris.
The mysterious Red Angel figure behind all of this appears to be guiding Discovery to missions of mercy. Yet what this plotline is allowing the show to explore is the idea of divine intervention, and the idea of god itself. How would humanity react to the idea that what religion thinks of as a god, could in fact just be an alien intelligence? Would that distinction matter? Personally I find the exploration this idea fascinating, but then I’m coming at it from an agnostic’s point of view whose never given idea much thought.
Beyond that idea though, each episode has explored its own ideas; the first episode explored ideas of sacrifice and altruism; the second ideas of religious belief; the third explored ideas of self-identity and personal loss; and the fourth explored the idea of death, and our reaction to it, beautifully.
And these explorations have led to Discovery’s crew becoming believable, relatable characters…
Star Trek: Discovery Has More Characterization
One of the biggest flaws in the first season was how little time was spent fleshing out the characters. It was so determined to squeeze as much action into the Klingon War as it could that it often left the more interesting characterization on the back burner. The shift to struggling against space itself, and having to brainstorm solutions to problems as a group, has naturally allowed the characters to interact with each other more often and more naturally. Really that’s one of the most basic, and important, ways to characterize: simply allow your characters to interact and play off each other.
I realized how different the storytelling was this season based on a great interaction between Pike and the crew of Discovery in the first episode. Pike wants to rescue any survivors from the crashed medical frigate, and Saru brings up a valid point: that risking their own crew to investigate the remote possibility of survivors bears careful consideration. Pike argues that even if the chances are remote, if there are survivors, he can’t in good conscience leave them behind. Michael then begins verbally brainstorming, as she usually does. It’s at this point that Pike gets angry, interrupting her because he thinks she’s just rattling off a list of reasons why it’s impossible. And here’s why I love that:
It’s a misunderstanding, and a believable one. Pike has only been on the ship for a couple hours at this point, he doesn’t know Michael or the rest of the crew. And if you don’t know Michael, her verbal brainstorming does sound like just a list of “here’s why I can’t do it” excuses. But Michael stands her ground, and firmly, but respectfully, tells Captain Pike that no one would abandon a fellow Starfleet brother or sister, and that she was attempting to provide him a solution. Again, this is an excellent example of how simply allowing characters to interact help characterize them. I learned more about Pike through this brief interaction than I ever managed to learn about Lorca. And for that matter, I learned more about Michael than I did the entire first season.
The next great scene came just a few moments later as Michael is launching in one of the landing pods: as her pod begins to accelerate out of the launch bay, you can actually see the excitement washing over Michael’s face. Watching her reaction made me feel like I was on a rollercoaster just as it was about to crest that first rise. The fact that I could share her excitement made the following scene all the more enjoyable, and even though it was a CGI heavy action scene, it meant something because there was emotional context to it.
Which brings me to the most important part.
I Understand The Emotions of Star Trek: Discovery
More than anything else in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, what made it so difficult for me to watch was that I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be feeling. None of the episodes had any emotional resonance with me, I didn’t even have a rough idea what emotions they were hoping to evoke. Whether it’s a book, film, TV show, or video game, I need stories to move me emotionally. If it doesn’t… then what was the point?
That’s the most important thing that’s changed in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, I find myself being moved. I’ve been laughing at Tilly’s jokes, felt fear as the crew struggles against impossible odds, and been overjoyed when they succeed. Most importantly, the fourth episode I was genuinely moved by Star Trek: Discovery‘s exploration of the importance of communication, trust, and even death.
The Discovery is pulled out of warp by a huge, and rather ominous looking, sphere. Their trapped, can’t raise their shields, and a computer virus begins ravaging Discovery, taking one system after another offline. Worse yet, Saru begins experiencing his species death process. All of this taken together, it would not be unreasonable to assume that these are the acts of a hostile entity.
What this episode explores, is the idea that assumption leads to misunderstanding. Discovery and her crew assume its intentions are hostile, when it’s true intention is communication; the Sphere is dying, and all it wants in its final moments is to be understood, to tell its story. Which is what we all want, to know we’ve been seen, to know we’ve been heard. And once it’s done that, the Sphere saves them from its impending death, throwing them clear of the explosion.
This moment is only topped only by Saru’s dying moments (or at least, presumed dying) with Michael. It’s a tragic, beautiful moment that brought up so many memories for me of my own father’s death, because this was the kind of moment I wanted. To talk to him about his life, his regrets, his fears, but was too afraid to pursue it. Like the Discovery, I kept my shields up, and his life passed, perhaps not unremembered, but not as well understood as I would have wanted. I cried during this scene.
And that’s all I want from stories, to be moved emotionally. That’s why we tell stories, to laugh and cry. Without that, I can’t understand the story.
I’m incredibly happy to report that, for the first time, I understand Star Trek: Discovery. I’d encourage anyone who lost faith last season, to give it another try, because it is a totally different show now.
I concur that there are improvements this season.