When I first sat down to write about Star Trek: Discovery, I had some very clear thoughts about why I wasn’t happy with it. I talked with a friend of mine, who went through it with me and showed me that there are actually some good things about the show that offer at least a little sunshine on what is otherwise a pretty dark interpretation of the Star Trek universe.
First, What I Thought Was Wrong
Here are my thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery, and why I’m disappointed in it.
After a 12 year drought, we finally have new Star Trek to watch. It should be the return of the prodigal son, but it isn’t. Here’s just a few of the things wrong with the show from my perspective, having nothing to do with CBS’ abusive treatment of the makers of Star Trek fan films, or the bizarre decision to put Star Trek behind a paywall for U.S. audiences.
If you haven’t seen Star Trek: Discovery and plan to, STOP READING HERE, because there are SPOILERS after this. You have been warned. Anything bad that happens to you after having read this warning is therefore your own fault.
People have been asking me what I think of Star Trek: Discovery, and I have to tell them that it’s just not wonderful.
They’re dumbfounded. Yaaaay, Star Trek, there’s finally new Star Trek, yaaaay.
And then I tell them, I’m sorry, but while somehow despite all its faults it’s watchable, and that this is an achievement, all the problems mean it’s not great Star Trek, or even great story telling.
And then they get incredulous, or defensive, and demand that I explain myself.
So here goes:
If you can’t get a lock on a body without a life sign to beam it back, why can you get a lock on a body without a life sign to beam anything to it?
Spores are how fungi reproduce. They cannot, by definition, quantum entangle. This is not science fiction. It is deus ex machina. What they have created here is magical woo-woo space boogers.
The potentially dangerous anomaly is too far into the danger zone for the ship to fly. So instead of sending, oh, I don’t know, how about a PROBE? We can send a pile of them, and put together a pastiche of data and get a much better look at whatever this anomaly is. We don’t even have to expect the probes to be able to navigate their way back for certain, because they’re expendable. They’re probes. No. We send Michael Burnham in a space suit. Wait, what?
If a pile of Klingons and an entire Federation away team couldn’t control the Tardigrade, how did Captain Lorca manage it? And why didn’t he do that in the first place instead of letting it kill all those people?
How is it that a creature than can instantly teleport anywhere in the universe be contained by a security field? Woops, watch your step. Plot holes are everywhere.
We have a primary hull that spins now, like – what is that thing it reminds us most of? Oh yes. #usspizzacutter
The Discovery’s chief of security, one of the most trusted officers on the entire ship, is really such an arrogant, irresponsible trigger happy goon that she gets herself killed over it? Really?
In 2369, on the Enterprise D, the holodeck was this remarkable new technology that had never been in a Federation starship before – and yet, here we are on the Discovery, in the year 2255 and there’s Captain Lorca and Lt. Taylor doing combat training in one, 114 years too early. Continuity is apparently for losers.
Peace loving Vulcans shoot first. Wait, what? What did I miss?
Vulcan soul katra does not work like a telephone. Or shouldn’t. The fact that it does in Discovery is more space magic deux ex machina. In Star Wars it’s established that you can talk to Force ghosts this way, or send very simple messages over relatively short distances to other Jedi, but in Discovery it works like a 3D holodeck, complete with tactile feedback.
Why did the first two episodes exist at all? These should have been folded into Episode 3 as backstory so that we could start the series actually on the Discovery to start with. This is just bad writing, this is screenwriting 101 stuff. This must be why we’re getting 15 episodes instead of 13 – they padded it with two pointless extra scripts.
Why is the Klingon makeup so over-designed to the point where the actors can’t move or speak in it? What was the point of doing that? They could have saved twenty thousand dollars just using slipcast rubber masks if that’s the result they were going to get. I’ve seen better makeup in fan productions.
If there are no damn lights on the bridge, where are the lens flares coming from?
If the Tardigrade could have jumped away the entire time, why didn’t it do that in the first place?
The Tardigrade rehydrated itself in the vacuum of space. Where did it get the water? We could presume that since it could teleport anywhere in the universe, it might also be able to teleport anything it wants to it, but that’s rationalization, not established or set up in any way in the plot.
They ejected the Tardigrade directly into space through a tube that led from the heart of engineering straight to the outer hull opening directly to space. Really?
Why were the stealth detection devices Burnham took onto the Klingon Ship of the Dead so bright, flashy, and noisy? They were custom built for the job, so a conscious decision had to have been made to make them as stupidly non-stealthy as possible. This makes no sense whatever.
Harvey Mudd knows more than probably any one person alive about how to get past the security methods on a Federation starship, and he killed the captain 52 times trying to take the ship, using a time loop device. He’s possibly the single most dangerous man known to the Federation at this point, and was spying for the Klingons, but they let him just sail off with his wife when it’s all over, with no punishment whatsoever. Wait, WHAT?
Captain Georgio and 1st Officer Burnham, the two most senior officers aboard the Shinzou, know Klingons are big, because Michael Burnham killed one. They decide that the best thing to is not to send trained security personnel on a ship-to-ship mission to a Klingon heavy cruiser, but to grab a couple of phaser pistols and just beam over. The two of them together weigh 280 pounds soaking wet. They beam over, and their main plan is simply not to get caught at it, with no idea many of these hulking, bred-for-combat highly trained adversaries they might be facing, and no backup plan.
Pull the other one, to quote the late Sir Terry Pratchett. It’s got bells on.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just dropping a ball here or there. It’s an endless, jarring litany of plot flaws, and sometimes they’re so jarring that it makes people turn off the feed in disgust. When red herrings and “deus ex machina” are regular plot devices, and when the writing just falls apart from day one, and when the art direction runs amok, it detracts from one’s ability to actually watch and enjoy the show.
This is why I’m not as enthused as I wish I could be about the new Star Trek. This should be a triumphant return. Instead it’s a deeply flawed exercise in dumbed down pew-pew sci-fi, and while I’m sure it’ll be okay for people who don’t care that much about whether a story has internal consistency or not, if I tried to send a sci-fi book manuscript to a publisher with these kinds of problems I’d get it kicked back for a massive rewrite in a heartbeat.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is pulp sci-fi. Star Trek should have been above this.
What They Got Right
Now, in its defense, you can see where the story arcs have been set up, and why, and how the characters are meant to progress from their various falls from grace, their struggles for redemption, and the mirror arcs of characters who are supposed to be in control gradually losing that control. That part of it is working, but I think there’s more to this problem than just acknowledging basic dramatic constructs like Checkov’s gun, that if you show the audience the gun in act 1, that this gun should be used by act 3.
The character of Michael Burnham is complex, and a little alien because of her upbringing. That’s part of why she’s been unapproachable as a character, why people aren’t warming up to her. Hello, she’s been raised as a Vulcan, and she’s got PTSD issues. Of course she’s going to have a severe case of broomstick-in-uncomfortable-places.
As awkward as the Klingon visual design might be, they’ve really managed to make the Klingons really scary. No more Mr. Worf with his pageboy haircut, complaining gruffly that he is Not a Merry Man. No, the Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery are really about as alien as you can get and still be bipedal hominids. They are casually deadly, terrifying, and that’s just as they should be.
As much as we might not like the technology as portrayed in the series, from the standpoint of having to sell this to the general public it makes sense not to make things look like the 1960’s view of the future. The fact that this makes it not mesh well with Discovery being a direct prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series is just something they have to work around. There’s no smooth fix, but in CBS’ defense, frankly, sooner or later you have to give the whole universe a face lift. You can’t stay in the 1960’s forever.
The characters took 10 episodes to make sense in some cases, but eventually they got them where they needed to be from a dramatic standpoint, and from a storytelling standpoint. A friend of mine called this a “long build”, and that you have to have patience with the process, and more of it will make sense as we go. The simple visceral requirements of the story are met, yes. They could yield some satisfying story arcs out of all this.
But This Is Science Fiction – Or Should Be
But this – this is science fiction, and with science fiction, there is an additional overlay of requirement, and that is that the story must be internally consistent. In this way it is like a mystery novel. Everything in the story has to feed back into the story and clearly connect with other parts of the story with a decisive click. These moments are few and far between in Star Trek: Discovery.
It’s certainly not the worst Star Trek we’ve seen. We don’t, for example, have a story about how a tweaky variant of warp drive turns the captain and the first officer into giant lizards who then have sex and create a new species, like we did in Star Trek: Voyager. We’re nowhere near the bottom of the tank here.
You can, if you’re willing to overlook all the crazy stuff they stick in, actually watch and enjoy the show. The developed character arcs, the directing, and the acting do make up for a lot. However, this is damning with faint praise. No, to fix Star Trek: Discovery, they’d have to get more people who understand science fiction into the writing pool. It’s obvious, to me at least, that they don’t have enough of them yet.