I’ve come here to ramble today! Be prepared for incoherence and reminiscences and fanboy nerdiness and not much structure. I apologize in advance; this is what happens when I have too many thoughts, too much caffeine, and only an hour to put it together. Brace yourselves!
While ninety percent of the known world is watching Avengers: Endgame for the seventeenth time (in a week! I have to say I’m impressed!), I’m catching up–finally–on Star Trek: Discovery. I rarely ever watch things when they come out; even before I became a cord-cutter, I was not very good at keeping up with television shows in first run, and it’s worse now that I can binge-watch them. But this is as close to current as I ever get: As of the season two finale, I’m only about two weeks past the original airdate. That’s not too late to talk about it, is it? What the hell, I talk about books from the early 1900s, I can do what I want.
So: Impressions! I really love this show, if not everything about it. It takes me back to my childhood, watching The Original Series (in reruns, I’m not that old!). Discovery, for those who don’t know, takes place in and around 2257 AD, approximately ten years before Star Trek: The Original Series. (Captain Kirk’s original five year mission took place between 2265 and 2270 AD.) As such, the technology is supposed to be similar to the Kirk era, and–most notably of all–the USS Enterprise itself appears multiple times, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, whom you may remember from original pilot The Cage and season one’s The Menagerie. Not everything works out exactly as it was back then, but they do an admirable job of trying. At any rate, Discovery is the story of the crew of the USS Discovery, a scientific test vessel with a number of experimental systems not seen in any other context. Not coincidentally, this allows the production team to get away with using technology that looks more advanced than the Original Series, and explain it away at the end–a technique they’ll expand in season two with the introduction of Section 31, Starfleet’s special security division.
There may be spoilers ahead! As I mentioned, this won’t be very structured, and I may reveal things in the course of my observations that would count as spoilers. If you haven’t watched, you may want to hold off on reading this post any further.
So, without further ado (adieu? Note to self: Look up that idiom), here are, in no particular order, my observations on Star Trek Discovery, and especially season two.
- The serialized format is working out great for this series. Every Star Trek series prior to discovery has been mostly episodic. Even where there is a series or season plot–such as the Xindi arc of Enterprise, or literally all of Deep Space Nine–most of the episodes have been standalone, with lots of “monster-of-the-week” stories. Not so with Discovery; and it’s a refreshing change. It’s not one I’d like to see in every instance of Star Trek moving forward; but arc television is in vogue these days, and at least it’s going well in this instance. Seasons are shorter than they used to be–about 14 episodes versus about 22–and there’s less room to pad things with one-off stories when you have a larger story to tell. In the age of multitudinous entertainment choices, even a former juggernaut like Star Trek has to do something to get people to come back every week (or binge the whole thing, like me), and…folks, arc-driven storytelling isn’t going away. It gets results. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I was pleased to see it’s doing good things for Discovery.
- The focus on a single main character is not working. I debated whether to mention this point here, or save it for the end, because this is my single greatest problem with Discovery. But I hope to end on a positive note, so I’ll put this here. While every other Star Trek series has been a true ensemble show, Discovery focuses on Commander Michael Burnham, the newly-introduced foster sister of franchise staple Spock. And Burnham is incredibly hate-able. This is the internet, so I have to go ahead and make my disclaimers before the objections start: No, it’s not because she’s a woman. There are many wonderful female characters in this series, and we’ve had a female lead before, with Captain Janeway in Voyager (still an ensemble show, but she was, after all, the captain). No, it’s not because she’s black, either–I am a-okay with that. It’s because she’s the most egregious Mary Sue I think I’ve ever seen. For anyone who doesn’t know, a “Mary Sue” (or “Marty Stu”, if it’s a man) is a self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. It’s a protagonist who can do no wrong, who has heavy plot armor, and who gets everything they want or attempt–essentially, they lead a charmed life to the point of absurdity. On top of being a Mary Sue, Burnham is a horrendous Starfleet officer. She singlehandedly starts the devastating war between the Klingons and the Federation. She does get court-martialed for that, in a case so historic it constitutes a first in Federation history; but within a few years, her Mary Sue powers kick in, and she’s back on a starship. By the end of season one, she’s a hero, and her rank is reinstated. She consistently makes decisions so bad, Kirk would’ve been slapped all the way back to ensign rank; but there’s never any consequences, and no one ever stands up to her. When someone tries, she lowers her voice to a breathy undertone, gives them an intense stare, and says “SIR, it’s the ONLY WAY–!” and they fold like a house of cards. She’s cost the lives of countless other people, very nearly sacrificed all sentient life in the galaxy, and LITERALLY started a war, but she always comes out on top. And she’s annoying to watch, as well. It’s just not working, is what I’m saying.
- The callbacks to other series are a fanboy’s dream. From the Mirror Universe to Talos IV to the Enterprise herself, this series is loaded with callbacks to the original series. Major character Philippa Georgieu is killed in the first two episodes, but is replaced later with her Mirror Universe counterpart, in what now constitutes the earliest official contact between the two universes. The fact that her Mirror Universe counterpart is the Terran Emperor only makes it that much more fun–and indeed, Georgieu in Season Two becomes a hugely fascinating character, one whose loyalties are never quite clear. Also in season two, we get introduced to Christopher Pike, the pre-Kirk captain of the Enterprise. His ship is damaged and inoperable at the beginning of the season, and so he becomes the acting captain of Discovery, merging the ship’s scientific mission with his own: to discover the source and purpose of seven mysterious lights in the galaxy. Anson Mount plays a great Pike (in fact, this series has had no lack of great captains–Georgieu, Lorca, and now Pike). At one point, he gets a vision of his future, a future of crippling disability as originally seen in The Menagerie, and he embraces it to save the galaxy. I kind of hate knowing what lies ahead for him now. In conjunction with Pike, we also revisit Talos IV, the planet to which Spock takes him in The Menagerie, so that he can live out his life in a semblance of wholeness and happiness. And then there’s the Enterprise herself–but more on that in a minute!
- There are, unfortunately, plot holes. They’re not egregious, but they do exist, and they increase as we near the end of season two. For one, the seven signals–the lights in the sky–prove to be caused by Burnham (naturally), and she time travels to make them happen. But the Federation is aware of them before they happen–the entire premise of the season is that Enterprise was tasked with investigating these signals. So…did they happen twice? It’s not explained (unless I missed something–feel free to explain in the comments). For another, during the season two finale, Discovery is surrounded by Section 31 ships, and has only a very limited time to put together a last-ditch plan, for which they summon the Enterprise to help. It’s all very last-second; they’re still assembling the critical mcguffin when the battle starts. So, did we just forget that we have a spore drive that can take us anywhere in the universe instantly? For one thing, the spore drive should have been the solution to the entire problem. Discovery is carrying data that the Section 31 supercomputer needs to achieve full sentience and wipe out all life in the galaxy. Why not use the spore drive and take it to another galaxy, so far away the computer will never reach it? In part two, Ash Tyler says that if they use the spore drive to run, Section 31 will keep coming after them. Sure, but–even IF we ignore the obvious solution of running too far away–why not at least keep jumping around to buy yourselves time to finish the mcguffin? Why sit here and get shot at? There are other plot holes of a similar nature, as well.
- For a season about time travel, no one understands time at all. Mostly I’m concerned here with the passage of time, not with time travel itself. I’m reminded of Star Wars, where hyperspace travel is wildly inconsistent–trips sometimes take days, sometimes hours, because there’s no standard. But Star Wars is space opera, more science fantasy than science fiction, and the technical details serve the plot. Star Trek has always, to a degree, been the other way around. Previous series have been careful to emphasize that some trips take days or even weeks–space is huge. Hell, Voyager put the ship seventy years away, and that was on the other side of the galaxy. Warp drive is not instantaneous! This is at its most egregious in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films–the same films where someone transported from Earth to Qo’nos–and thankfully, Discovery has taken an enormous step back from those films. It still plays fast and loose with travel times, though; for example, at one point, Discovery uses the spore drive to travel a considerable distance into the Klingon Empire, to Boreth, before summoning the Enterprise to join them–and the ship is there within hours at most. A few episodes earlier, the ship liberates Saru’s people, the Kelpiens, from oppression by the Ba’ul–and then a very short time later, the primitive, pastoral Kelpiens are flying Ba’ul fighters into battle. The entire second season gives the impression of rapid-fire progression, when it’s simply not possible. It stands out, because season one didn’t give that impression; there was downtime and travel time and time for projects to be completed.
- With the exception of Burnham, the cast are wonderful. Discovery seems to have parked all its bad characterization in Burnham…which is a bit of a relief, because everyone else is fantastic. Lorca, as captain in the first season (and eventual traitor), was deep and nuanced. Pike steps up to the role in excellent fashion in season two, moving from a peppy, people-loving father figure to a somewhat disillusioned–but much more grounded–seasoned leader by the finale. (Honestly, if I could have an entire series of Pike’s Enterprise, I would watch every minute and beg for more.) There are officers with a much wider range of emotion than we usually get–Sylvia Tilly is both neurotic and enthusiastic; Paul Stamets has a sensitivity that Starfleet rarely fosters; Hugh Culber plays both weakness and fury very well; Saru makes the transition from the prey characteristics of fear and anxiety to the predator traits of confidence and aggression, almost seamlessly. The late addition of Denise “Jett” Reno to the crew brings some much-needed cynicism and levity. (Before anyone corrects me, it’s still up in the air whether her real name is Denise or Jett; different sources have made competing claims.) Even incidental characters–such as Number One, Pike’s first officer on the Enterprise–are excellently portrayed.
- …But there are always a few oddities. Let’s talk about Vulcans! In previous entries, the actors playing Vulcans have made a concerted effort to look the part. Vulcans generally repress their emotions, relying solely on logic. This manifests not only in their dialogue and behavior, but also in their facial expressions and body language. Past actors have worked to school their features into submission for this purpose, making the Vulcan commitment to logic convincing. In season two, we see Spock, who is clearly struggling with his emotions–but that’s a facet of the character arc for the season. He begins by thinking he may be insane, driven to confusion by his visions of the mysterious Red Angel. As well, he has much emotional baggage with his parents and with Michael Burnham (who honestly could drive anyone crazy). So, perhaps we can overlook Spock’s emotional outbursts–this is, after all, not the mature Spock of later years. Much more egregious, though, is his father, Sarek. Historically, Mark Lenard played the role with reserve, distance, and grace. Here, however, even Sarek can’t control himself; you see emotions struggling on his face nearly every time you see him. He should be the consummate Vulcan, but instead he’s almost a proto-Spock, struggling with the same issues–and for no good reason. (While she’s not a Vulcan, I do want to take this opportunity to compliment the portrayal of his human wife, Amanda, Spock’s mother and Michael’s foster mother. We’ve always had hints that her life hasn’t always been happy; here we get to see some of the struggle she took on when she chose to marry a Vulcan. Amanda is bitter, but also proud, and she has a deep love for her family, though it is sometimes buried beneath cultural strictures.)
- The technology creep is unavoidable. They really do try. Honestly, they do. But this is a problem that’s been around since Enterprise, and as long as we continue to get stories set between or before previous entries, it’s going to continue to be a problem. The fact is, the real world has moved on, technologically, to the point that many of the incidental technologies of the original series are now woefully outdated–two hundred years ahead of schedule. Modern cell phones are arguably superior to communicators, for example. Touchscreens have long since supplanted buttons. A show that looks just like the original series, simply won’t fly with today’s audiences. The developers walk a fine line with trying to look just enough like the original series, while still trying to be flashy and new. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. Other times, they don’t even try; they just make a workaround later. The Discovery has holographic communication systems that are implied to be new, but common enough in Starfleet. It has the experimental spore drive that can travel anywhere, instantaneously. The Discovery and the various Section 31 ships all have graviton beam emitters. The writers then have to go to great lengths to explain why these things aren’t common by the time we get to Kirk and his Enterprise crew. Pike has the holographic technology torn out of the Enterprise (although that doesn’t explain why other ships don’t have it later). The graviton beam emitters are classified Section 31 (and experimental) tech, and Section 31 is very secretive indeed. Their ships have a form of cloaking and warp-concealment technology–something the Federation is very much not supposed to have–but again, they’re the ultra-secret security division, and not many people know they have it. The spore drive is classified after the presumed loss of Discovery at the end of season two, and never widely implemented.
- …But in the end, those ships are AWESOME. The Discovery is based on an early design by the legendary Ralph McQuarrie, intended to be used for the Enterprise in the canceled Star Trek: Phase II. It looks a bit silly in concept; but with a little modification, the Discovery is an amazing ship. Its rotating hull is a bit gimmicky, and must play hell with the internal geometry, but otherwise it’s impressive, and looks utterly perfect for a scientific testbed ship. And then there’s the Enterprise…ah, the Enterprise! Making its first appearance in the final moments of season one, the ship is absolutely beautiful. It appears several times in season two, taking extreme damage while covering Discovery’s escape in the finale. I should point out that there was much discussion of the ship when it first appeared–specifically, comparing it to the original series version. There are some differences, though not many. I found it interesting, though–and I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else–is that, after the ship is repaired following its battle alongside Discovery, those differences are gone, and the ship much more closely matches its Original Series profile. At any rate, nothing will ever beat the first glimpse of the bridge of the Enterprise…oh, baby, was that something.
And that, I think, is enough for now. Things got a little out of hand near the end of season two; but with a little restraint, and a little less focus on Michael Burnham, season three promises good things to come. See you there!