So after the first four episodes of Star Trek: Discovery made such a great impression on me, I was happy with the way this season was shaping up. I’m… less so now. As the season has progressed the show has begun slipping back into bad habits, once again emphasizing plot development over character growth. It’s not as bad as it was last season, but it’s getting distracting enough to the point where my excitement for where the season was heading is severely diminished.
So let’s talk about some of the problems that have cropped up this season.
Star Trek: Discovery
I’m Starting to Forget What’s Happening
The Problem with Time Travel
Spore drives and time travel; Klingons and AI. Star Trek: Discovery has a bad habit of coming up with overly complicated and unnecessarily dire situations to drive its plot.
The trouble started when Tyler speculates that the Red Angel is a time traveller, because there seemed to be no evidence of that being the case yet. My initial thought was that the Red Angel would turn out to be some kind of lifeform, perhaps a unique entity, that was driven by an overwhelming compassion. Instead, Tyler and Section 31’s out-of-left-field assumption turns out to be 100% true. That’s a problem for two reasons, the first being that it’s a major retcon of Star Trek canon.
Now I don’t care about how much more advanced the Discovery is when compared to the Enterprise. It’s true the original series Enterprise didn’t have anything remotely as advanced as the holographic displays on Discovery; Star Trek had a special effects budget of “whatever loose change the cast and crew could find in their couches” and it was made in the 1960’s, when seatbelts in cars was considered a radical new invention. It’s important to take into account the real world conditions that led to the design decisions of the day, had Gene Roddenberry had access to today’s technology (and budget), the Enterprise would likely have looked far different.
However, introducing Time Travel as a 23rd century ability seems like a huge retcon to make for no good reason. The other shows have obviously had time travel in them, sometimes to almost absurd degree, but it was always due to some spacial anamoly or from advanced Starfleet ships travelling back from the 29th century. Also time crystals? I’ll admit, Star Trek is far more fantasy than it is science. For every real scientific idea, like Matter/Anti-matter reactions to generate power, you’ll have two heisenberg compensators and inertial dampeners.
But at least when Star Trek delves into fantasy, they at least dress it up with fancy lingo. Time crystal… it’s like they’re not even trying.
The biggest problem with this time travel plot is that it feels like such an artificial way to create danger. As much as I disliked the Klingon War in the first season, at least the Klingons had understandable motivations and were a known quantity in the universe. By contrast Star Trek: Discovery has had to do some significant storytelling gymnastics in order to make Control a credible threat. First of all, they had to introduce the idea that Starfleet uses “Control” as an AI assistant that helps them make decisions. Then they had to introduce a strange sphere with vast knowledge to justify Control becoming sentient. Then there had to be a time travelling suit to jump forward in time to see Control’s destruction of all sentient life, so then it could jump back in time to stop it.
There had to have been easier way to introduce the threat for this season. In fact, why did it have to be such a huge threat? By threatening to extinguish all life in the galaxy, Star Trek: Discovery is going to have to answer a difficult question next season.
Where Does Discovery Go From Here?
In the second out of two seasons, Star Trek Discovery features yet another world ending catacylsm that only our intrepid heroes can prevent. Last season it was humanity and Earth at stake, this time it’s literally all sentient life in the galaxy. They have dialed the threat up to 11 in their second season, all but gauranteeing that season three’s stakes simply won’t be able to live up to that. What else can you possibly threaten when you’ve literally threatened everything.
I talked about this in my article You Don’t Have to Save the World, but constantly relying on cataclysmic events to build tension for your story is ultimately self-defeating. You can get away with it in movies or books, where it’s a one-off story. Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3 show how you can slow-cook the cataclysm, building it up gradually while focusing on smaller subplots and character development. If Star Trek: Discovery wants to run for 5-7 years like its predecessors, then it can’t keep relying on end of the world scenarios to drive its plots because it’s already getting old. It would be like if Game of Thrones first season had ended with Jon Snow defeating the white walkers, and then to come back in season 2 with him defeating Sand Walkers from the south. And then the Water Walkers.
I wrote in my initial article, that I was afraid that the signals would end up being a warning of impending galactic destruction, and was happy that wasn’t the case. Boy, I guess that’ll teach me about speaking too soon, because it ends up that’s exactly what they are. This season of Star Trek: Discovery is now looking identical to the plot of Mass Effect; a strange, almost incomprehensible warning about the destruction of all sentient life spurs a starship crew to stop it before it’s too late. Except Control isn’t nearly as interesting as the Reapers.
Another thing I loved about those first four episodes was that they explored different ideas about faith, death, friendship, and sacrifice; they were actually about things. Some of the episodes kept up with that, most notably Saints of Imperfection and Through the Valley of Shadows, but the “Red Angel” storyline began steamrolling anything in its way. Which would be fine if that storyline had anything interesting to say, but unfortunately it doesn’t.
A sentient machine bent on the destruction of all life is something that both Terminator 2 and Mass Effect explored with far more nuance. Star Trek: Discovery is desperately pushing that narrative, but it also refuses to say anything about it. The only motivation they can come up with for Control is a single line about it being the purest (or one could say, perfect) form of life in the galaxy. Why does it believe that? Why does that necessitate the extermination of all other life?
The show’s response is to say “Who cares? Let’s just get on with the explodey bits.” Ironic, considering that when it’s not rushing to play up the threat posed by Control, it’s overplaying its hand with the emotions of the show.
Wasting Emotional Scenes
The emotions of Discovery have gotten a little repetitive. I still understand them at least, but they’re losing their power. Last season Michael was difficult to relate to because she acted too Vulcan, almost completely detached emotionally. This season Michael has swung too far in the opposite direction, there were three or four episodes in a row where Michael has had long crying scenes. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, aside from the fact it’s happening too frequently.
Just as excessive action scenes can exhaust and bore an audience, so can too many emotional scenes, especially if it’s always the same emotion. Michael with dying Saru; Michael reconciling with Spock; Michael reuniting with her mother. They all feature her crying, and while she’s a good actress who carries the scenes well, it’s felt like one after another with no opportunity to show other emotions.
Which is why I wish Jett Reno was a central character rather than a recurring character, because I adore her dry, sarcastic wit. Her conversation with Hugh in Through the Valley of Shadows, where she reveals that her wife was killed in the war, felt all the more powerful because that was the first time we’d seen her vulnerable like that.
This is well illustrated with Pike as well when he’s about to obtain the time crystal. I’ve watched Pike all season, seeing him as a confident commander and a positive, idealistic man who encourages his crew to be the best they can by setting himself as an example. When we see him confronted with his future, of being horrifically maimed and forever crippled, he’s terrified. Not only that, but you see him grieve for the future he thought he had. It’s a powerful scene, and ultimately one of my favorites that the show has created so far. Had we been treated to five scenes of Pike crying and being terrified before this one, it would have been far less powerful.
Meanwhile Discovery is burning through its emotional highpoints way too quickly with Michael. Seeing Michael’s lose her mother a second time should have been a heartbreaking scene, an emotional crescendo leading into the final act of the season. Yet I didn’t feel much of anything because I felt like I’d seen this all before with Michael and Saru, and then again with Michael and Airiam.
Now I thought the show did a good job at making Airiam into an actual character, considering in season one she was just a weird background detail. The funeral was quite touching as well. Again, however, you can only use these scenes so many times, and what Star Trek: Discovery has essentially does is waste a well done funeral scene on a bit character. If a main character does eventually die, then the show is almost obligated to either match or exceed the expectation this scene sets. Why set yourself up for failure like that?
Overall I’m still liking this season way more than last, and I do want to go into more detail about what this season has done right. However, the mistakes that keep cropping up speak to a fundamental problem with the storytelling philosophy that guides the show. If Star Trek: Discovery wants to survive long-term, and I desperately want it to, it’ll need to change how it tells its story in the coming seasons. Relying on extinction level events to build its stakes, creating convoluted plotlines driven by time travel and spore drives, cannot be sustained in the long term.
We’ll see what Star Trek: Discovery manages to pull out of its hat in the final two episodes of the season. I’m rooting for it, I want this show to succeed, but I’m no longer as confident as I was when I saw those first four episodes.