I almost wish this show didn’t do just enough things right to keep me invested, because the things it does wrong would ordinarily be enough for me to check out and say goodbye.
Discovery nears the end of its first season and it has been an up and down affair from the beginning. The show seems unsure of what it wants to be, or maybe it knows exactly what it wants to be and I’m too in denial to see it. I want to believe the show is trying to pull off a 21st century version of the old Trek/sci-fi show that explored humanity and used its futuristic backdrop as a clever bit of window dressing to tell very grounded, modern and relevant morality tales. Goodness knows there’s an abundance of current-events material to mine in the classic Roddenberry fashion.
Instead Disco seems determined to be Mr. Pibb-esque Star Wars. It’s not Dr. Pepper, but it’s trying really hard to be Dr. Pepper when people would rather they not try and just be Coke and let Dr. Pepper be its own awesome thing.
For a show mapped out ahead of time it feels like it’s making it up as it goes even though I can go back and see the early clues and know they were apparently always heading to this (or these) conclusion(s). It’s weird: how did a show like Breaking Bad just make it up as it went along yet managed to feel like it was telling one big story, like a novel brought to life on the screen? What’s the difference? Is it the quality of writing? It must be because the acting on Discovery is solid and occasionally very good. The special effects, for a TV show in particular, are fantastic. There are little moments that, when isolated from context, are beautiful. But the whole is so subpar compared to those parts, so the only thing I can put my finger on is the stitching that holds those parts together: the writing.
From character motivations that feel arbitrarily decided (sometimes from scene to scene), to character decisions that—despite the big plan they’ve had from the beginning—seem to be random and done on a lark, nothing about the overall writing of this show makes sense from week to week. As someone who was on the bandwagon for a serialized Trek show (going back to the near-weekly nerdgasms I had during the final season of Enterprise), I’m ready to admit that I was wrong. Star Trek was created to be Gene Roddenberry’s outlet to talk about social issues facing the turbulent 1960’s world. The “new story every week” format suited that perfectly. Star Trek’s DNA is as an anthology show.
I miss it now more than ever.
What’s Past is Prologue
The overall weakness of the show’s writing is evident whenever the phaser fire and hand fighting pauses for a moment and people actually start talking. You can see the attempts to mimic the old shows’ penchant for philosophical debate but it often comes off as just that: mimicry. Most often the dialogue ends up talking around a problem instead of about or through it. The rest of the dialogue is just bland, shoe-horned-in exposition. I was glad to know a little more about how Lorca came to leave the mirror universe, but the “voice over a montage” way they presented it was just lazy.
But as I said, the show keeps doing one or two little things each week. In episode thirteen, What’s Past is Prologue, that moment comes when we cut away from the Emperor to Discovery, as Saru gives a traditional “Captain’s Log” followed by Stamets and Tilly debating over a sci-fi plot device thingy. It felt like Star Trek. When the show cut back to the Emperor, however, it was back to being a Star Wars knock-off, with gun fights, betrayals, cliffhanger action, etc. It’s the disconnect the show has had from the beginning.
It’s really pretty to look at and occasionally thrilling, but ultimately is just a dumb action story, when Trek is supposed to be more.
EPISODE THIRTEEN REVIEW: 6/10 – Action with no thought; words with no substance.
The War Without, the War Within
In episode fourteen, we’re given a plot that’s a little more Trekkian in its theme, with moments that talk about reintegrating into a society, owning past mistakes and adapting to new environments. Those are basic themes, easily adaptable to a sci-fi environment and able to be turned into an allegory of some modern issue. But instead, the themes are kept superficial, with would-be beautiful moments—like Ash finding acceptance in the mess hall—that end up falling flat because they are unearned. There’s no nuance to any of it. It’s never boring and it’s never poorly shot; it’s just cheaply written.
And it seems the writers, at least subconsciously, realize it, because we can’t seem to go a single episode without some big shock or twist in the plot designed to hide the fact that the actual stories being told are weak. In Ep13 the shock was saying goodbye to Lorca. In Ep14 it’s the the state of the war nine months after Discovery left for the mirror universe. Apparently the Klingons have almost completely swept over the Alpha Quadrant and the Federation is near collapse. Twist! As a last ditch effort to save the Federation—a space-faring organization with a mission statement of peace and exploration—the evil Emperor of the mirror universe is recruited to help save the day. TWISTIER!
Except none of it makes any sense beyond the moment.
Lorca’s death makes his whole arc a shaggy dog story, going everywhere and ending nowhere. Using the Emperor of the literal bizarro-Federation to save our Federation with her non-Federation ways and ideals is madness.
What’s funny to me is how inconsequential the change from mirror universe and back again has been. I mean half the mirror people were just as they were in the other universe, such as much of the Shenzhou bridge crew or the security chief woman who ended up twice-over being so worthless her name escapes me and her death (both times) did nothing for me.
Also suddenly the android lady is talking up a storm and I still don’t know her (its?) name. I’m not convinced it’s ever been said in the show. Am I supposed to care about this character or not? By the time I do she’ll probably be killed off because these writers loved the shocks that Game of Thrones produced over the years, without the willingness to put the work in to earn it.
But those are minor things.
The real problem is the writing, both in terms of laying out and executing a season-long arc in general, and in establishing the show within the context of the Star Trek universe. I mean are we really supposed to believe that all this is happening just a few years before Kirk, Spock and McCoy start adventuring through space? The Klingons were a gnat’s eyelash from galactic conquest and then in a few years they’re going to be pushed back to the Beta Quadrant with nary a mention of all the havoc they wreaked on a quarter of the galaxy? As I’ve said many times this show would be so much easier to swallow if they’d just set it fifty years after Voyager.
Speaking of: there’s terraforming happening for crying out loud, rendering an entire plot point in Star Trek II void. Was there a Disney/Star Wars-style wiping of old canon that I missed? That would explain a lot. It’s a beautiful moment, with great visuals and music accompanying it. In a vacuum it’s hard not to love the scene. But in context…it falls flat.
Is the super big twist going to be that Discovery’s original universe ISN’T the one of TOS-VOY or JJverse? Is that how they’ll explain away all the changes? I’m officially calling that now.
In the meantime I will continue watching, frustrated and hoping for a lightbulb to go off and for this show to hit its stride and stay there<
EPISODE 14 REVIEW: 7/10 – Actions and words that fail to earn the beautiful moments they generate.
Lorca’s one and only episode after his big reveal reduced him to a one-dimensional baddie with none of the depth he had as the seemingly-war-torn and conflicted Cpt. Lorca. What a shame. In another time, in another universe, Jason Isaacs as a Star Trek captain would have been great TV. Instead it was only okay, held back by an arc that cared more about shocking twists than satisfying characterization.
A site-to-site transport in the mid-23rd century? Again: Just set the show post-Voyager.
I hate how the show goes on and on with setting up its big multi-episode arcs only to wrap them up and move on so abruptly it’s like they didn’t even happen.
Stardates beginning with 47 and 48 are 24th century dates. Come on! Who doesn’t know the date of TNG’s “All Good Things…” was Stardate 47988! Darn it Disco get the little things right at least, if you can’t bother with perfecting the big picture stuff.
Let’s talk about the welcome back Ash received in the mess hall. He went from hated Klingon Spy (despite his totally being a brain-washed victim) to handshakes and milkshakes in the span of five minutes, all because Tilly sat down to eat next to him. Fine. That’s okay. But then he and Michael finally have a face-to-face…now think about this: Ash and Michael are two people who have terrible pasts that made people initially shun them. Except Ash is a victim; Michael wasn’t brainwashed when she committed mutiny, yet the crew quickly comes around to Ash when they didn’t Michael (for weeks she was hated by all but Tilly). You’d think at the very least Michael could sympathize with Ash, but nope, she won’t forgive him, though everyone else was willing to. That’s the definition of plot contrivance and it’s the kind of thing Discovery all the time that drives me up the wall.
For a brief window of time, I thought we were gearing up for Saru to take over as captain with Michael as his first officer. What a great contrast that would be with a lot of potential for drama. That would be a good Star Trek show and potentially a great one. But I guess we’re getting knockoff Star Wars instead.
Next week is the season one finale and my expectations are low.
Which is probably for the best (it’ll probably be awesome).