Star Trek has been part of my life since I was a baby. My Dad’s a Trekkie so I grew up watching it. My childhood cat was called Tribble, for crying out loud. I’m a Star Trek nerd. And, like all other Star Trek nerds, I was thrilled when a new series was FINALLY announced (I guess it took that long for the franchise to recover from Enterprise...). I want to love the show. I want it to bring Star Trek screaming into our morally complicated times, with a host of loveably odd characters and big damn heroes.
But it’s just not quite hitting the nail on the head, is it?
It’s certainly hitting, with all its might, and it’s aiming at all the right things, but it keeps falling just shy of the mark. It seems cruel to say such a thing of Star Trek, but Discovery is painfully illogical.
There are moments of smack-your-head stupidity in the show that would normally be the reserve of red-shirts alone, but in Discovery all of the characters make dumb decisions. Hey, let’s open the cage containing the creature that slaughtered the inhabitants of a Klingon vessel – this won’t end badly at all. Let’s pause in the middle of this pretty urgent situation to discuss our feelings. Let’s disobey orders in EVERY SINGLE EPISODE ALL THE GOD-DAMN TIME. (To be fair, this is one of the main themes of the show, but it’s not very Trek-esque, is it?)
It’s not just the characters who behave illogically – the writing is often full of half-cocked ideas, like Captain Lorca’s light sensitivity, which comes and goes as and when the story dictates, and the ‘frenemy’ status of Burnham and Saru, who switch between being friendly and hostile from episode to episode, depending on what the plot-line requires. The show also falls victim to the curse of all prequels – we know what’s going to happen. We know the spore drive is going to go horribly wrong because later Star Trek series don’t have a spore drive. We know the war with the Klingons will eventually be resolved and they will exist alongside the Federation more or less peacefully. The show can’t make any major additions to Star Trek lore without having to wrap everything up neatly at the end and put their toys back in the box, in order to make sure things line up with previous Star Trek series’.
It looks like the mid-season finale might have fixed the ‘we know what’s going to happen’ problem by either ‘doing a Voyager’ or ‘doing a Kelvin timeline’ – Discovery is lost, either in an unexplored bit of space, or, if the heavy-handed exposition earlier in the episode is anything to go by, in a parallel universe.
The show looks fantastic, and has some fascinating ideas. Saru is clearly the best character in it and is a genuinely interesting alien race to add to the Star Trek canon – a species which, on its home world, is not the apex predator is something entirely new for the show to explore, and they do so well. The idea of a war-mongering captain who might not be the most stable person to govern a ship is also an interesting one, and the show’s best episodes tend to focus on Jason Isaacs’ Lorca. I also admire the show’s leisurely approach to introducing characters, and their cavalier approach to killing them off again. The cast are good, but Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham isn’t given quite enough to do. She’s not as morally interesting as Lorca, she’s not as unique as Saru, she’s not on the same unpredictable character arc as Anthony Rapp’s Stamets. All credit to them, though, for making the show’s main male action hero a survivor of torture and sexual abuse.
The show feels like a lot of early planning went into it, only for the episodes to be rushed out before the scripts were quite ready, the behind the scenes chaos (original showrunner Bryan Fuller left the show during pre-production) is visible on screen, which is a shame. The third episode was overburdened with so much exposition about Burnham being a mutineer that it felt like it was originally the pilot episode, and no-one bothered to re-write it after the two-part opener was added. Burnham’s link to Sarek and the Vulcans seems like it tied into a different story-line that didn’t quite come to pass, although it still might down the line. The individual Klingon villains are stiff and uncharismatic. There are raw edges all over the place. Now that the writing staff and showrunners have stabilised, though, there’s a strong chance that all of these problems will be fixed by the second season, and we could see better continuity and stronger stories. The end of the mid-season finale suggests that everything we’ve seen so far may just have been a prequel, and the show’s only just embarking on its true mission now.
I’m also aware that I’m probably holding the show up to an impossible standard – my hazy memories of The Next Generation and co. It’s been a long time since I re-watched a Star Trek show, so I inevitably just remember the best episodes and plot-lines, the most interesting characters and the smartest science. My brain edits out TNG’s ropy first season, and most of Voyager. Star Trek shows have a history of being heavily character-based, with a vast number of characters, so the shows tend to warm up over time once the characters are established and the audience cares about them.
Despite its heavily flawed start, Star Trek: Discovery definitely deserves its second season, and a chance to grow into itself. TV audiences are spoilt for choice these days, and a show can’t afford to coast on the name of its franchise alone (unless you’re Agents of SHIELD). Hopefully Discovery will come back for the second half of season one stronger, and really take off in season two. I’m ready and waiting to love it. I just need the show to step up a bit.