In the fall 2017, CBS brought back Star Trek after a too-long TV hiatus. The franchise had been more or less active in theaters, in various iterations, but while some films have been great and some not, the fact is Star Trek was born as a TV show and has had its greatest highs as one too. Star Trek functions best in hour-long bursts, introducing a problem, debating a problem, solving a problem, and learning about what it means to be…us, along the way. A movie can provide bigger action scenes and higher concept ideas but rarely do the Star Trek movies ever “ruminate.”
Star Trek: The Motion Picture certainly did and the reception it got for it nearly killed the franchise after one film. Star Trek II balanced a big movie feel with genuine philosophy, but most other movies failed to approach that peak. The Next Generation came along and, in many ways, rewrote the rulebook for what a Trek series should be. DS9 expanded those concepts. Voyager and Enterprise turned them into a formula that grew stale but still offered the occasional profound hour. After decades on the air, Star Trek proved its worth as television institution.
So of course CBS would bring it back to TV having learned none of the lessons of the past.
Somehow they managed to create a show that had all the whiz-bang explosions of the movies and none of the profundity of the shows. It was the opposite of what made the Trek shows work. In terms of plot, Star Trek Discovery eschewed the episodic nature of its forebearers for a more cinematic “serialized” format, where each episode tied into the larger season-spanning plot. That sort of format works best on a platform like Netflix, where you can binge-watch and soak in several (if not all) episodes at a time. It makes it easier to grasp the story that way.
So of course CBS chopped up the story into weekly installments and expected viewers to (A) keep up with a convoluted plotline, and (B) pay a Netflix-like price for it, while also (C) running ads throughout!
Discovery’s second season is ended and, after two years of this, the flaws grossly outweigh the positives. It’s remarkable to look back on the first season in light of the second; year one seems to quaint and small in scale. Season two goes big and certainly swings for the fences, but I’m not sure it ever came close to knocking things out of the park.
Now that year two is done, has the show jumped the shark or grown the beard? There are pros, but there are also many cons…
Christopher freaking Pike
What a revelation this guy has been. Here’s a character that was previously known only as a catatonic for whom Spock had a tremendous loyalty. Basically, he was a blank slate and I had no overwhelming interest in his character nor to see the Enterprise shoehorned into the series. On both counts I was pleasantly surprised. Pike was his own man, with the decisiveness of Kirk and a sometimes-relaxed command style that ought to have been off-putting but ended up charming. It helps that Anson Mount totally committed to the role and became arguably the best Star Trek captain since Sisko. By the end of the season I was ready to bid Discovery adieu for good and just follow Pike, Number One, Spock, and the 1701 on a five-year mission.
There were these two episodes…
After a middling opening hour, and coming off a largely underwhelming first season, I had little hopes for the show going forward. But then episode two happened and, for a brief moment, completely reinvigorated my interest in all things Trek. An excerpt from my review back in January…
New Eden is as classic a Trek episode as you are going to get in these “new era of Trek” days in which we live…
it feels like old school Trek, with the crew beaming down to a mystery planet, talking with mystery people, unraveling a mystery mystery, debating the mystery on philosophical and ethical grounds, [solving the mystery before] beaming back having learned something about themselves.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is all I want from my Star Trek.
Looking back on the season, it’s sad to remember New Eden, because it showed me that Star Trek is still capable of delivering all that I want from the franchise, but the people in charge aren’t really interested in making that the focus of the show.
The other great episode came a couple of months later, with a return to Talos IV. From my review back in March…
A lot of things went right with [If Memory Serves]. It wasn’t perfect; there were some moments that really failed to land with me, but overall I loved it and appreciate the way it wove Star Trek’s past and present together in a way that didn’t feel contrived, shallow, out of context, or completely beside the point. Basically, everything that Star Trek Into Darkness did wrong, this episode did right…
Everything worked here; the presentation was stellar, with the planet looking like a modern-version of an old TOS-era backlot set. The Talosian design was evocative of the original but, again, modernized with just enough flair to work on a 2019 show. Their role in the story worked as well, with there being an organic and in-story explanation for going there in the first place. It was fan service, sure, but it was logical: Spock needed to be fixed and he couldn’t trust any Starfleet or Vulcan location not to rat him out.
If Memory Serves came at about the halfway point of the season, but sadly it was all downhill from here. It remains one of the best ways a Star Trek prequel (be it Enterprise, the JJ Reboots, previous time travel episodes, or now Discovery) has used its past in a natural and logical way without it feeling contrived. More of that would have been great. Alas…
There are too many to list, but just to bullet-point them…
Michael Burnham, the savior of everything
She ended up being the mariest of sues, and even though that epithet is a bit overused these days, it’s totally applicable here. Everything revolved around her, she solved almost every problem, she seemed capable of doing anything. It was tiresome.
Watching this storyline unfold in weekly increments probably helped, as I ended up forgetting half the ways things were seemingly being written on the fly. There was an attempt(TM) to tie everything together in the final episode of the season, but it felt forced and unearned. The through-line of the season is less a line than it is the signature of a Parkinson’s sufferer.
This show is vapid and fast and loud and dumb and oh so loud and dumb.
Shouting and/or talking fast does not make something dramatic nor does it stir up my interest. You know what stirs up my interest? A compelling narrative that makes sense, challenges my thinking, takes me on a journey with unexpected (but still logical) twists, and ends in a cohesive way. This season had none of that.
A lack of proper character development of many characters
Quick, what was the name of RoboLady: Atrium or Arium? I honestly can’t remember but I think one of those is right. Maybe not. What’s the name of the robo-eyebrow lady? I have no idea. Don’t lie, neither do you. What about Section 31 guy who became the big bad? I’m drawing a blank. The show is in a big hurry to get where it’s going but I don’t care about the journey because I haven’t had time to learn the characters on the journey.
TNG, DS9, Voyager; those shows had big casts and robust secondary characters, especially DS9, but the writing was stronger and the show’s overall direction was more focused, so those characters were memorable right off the bat. We’re entering the show’s third year and I only know the names of maybe half the crew.
Not great Bob.
HOPE FOR FUTURE?
I’m a sucker so I’ll be back next year. I will enter the third season with the hope that the soft reboot in the 33rd or whatever it is century will open new storytelling possibilities, but that’s a tenuous hope, built on nothing more than thirty years of hardcore fandom and not wanting my beloved show to be as creatively misguided as I fear it actually is. For the record, though I prefer a “thing of the week” format to Star Trek, I’m not opposed to a season-long arc format; I just want a show that makes sense. Right now, Discovery doesn’t.
I have higher hopes for the Picard show and if you give me a Captain Pike show that brings back the old, “new planet/crisis every week” storytelling, I am THERE. With DISCO, though, I’m there out of obligation and not much else.
4/10 – A messy, sloppy storyline, buoyed only by two stellar outings, neither of which was enough to keep the boat from sinking.
Here’s to season three.