With the third season of Star Trek: Discovery due to drop later this year, we check out what the show’s been missing. There are things that have worked, but more that hasn’t, for us here at Sci-fi Pulse. Rather than have a general rant, we’d like to break it down and in no particular order offer our views on what we feel was missing, which meant the show didn’t quite make the cut and immediately enter into the realm of Trek brilliance. Yes, it’s important to do something new, so you aren’t stuck in the past, but formulas do work. Trying to reinvent the wheel isn’t a wise choice, and in this case has resulted in the wheel coming off, at times, and the carriage it carries crashing down whilst in transit.
Whilst Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn is ultimately responsible for the feeling of the ship being a naval unit, voyaging through the “sea” of space, it didn’t begin there. The command-structure alone doesn’t make this a trait and is only a reference. What does is the use of maritime aspects in the stories and references to high-adventure and romanticist escapism.
Way back in the first series of Star Trek (TOS), in episode 14, we saw what was essentially a naval battle. The episode “Balance of Terror” sees Kirk locked in a deadly battle of wits with his Romulan counterpart. The scenes were straight out of a WWII movie and were exciting for their psychological tension and danger. They firmly evoked the feeling that space was the ‘open sea’, and that the oceans the ship traversed were endless. This idea was further embedded in series 2, episode 24, “The Ultimate Computer”, when Kirk quotes the poem, Sea Fever, by John Masefield. His chat with Bones, as he mentions the poem really gives Kirk the traditional characterization of a traditional naval captain. It encompasses the spirit of adventure and freedom.
By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation comes about the idea of naval tradition is common-place. So much so that the ship itself becomes very much a character. Picard’s love of the ship is explored in-depth, and the episode “Ship in a Bottle” (S6 Ep12) draws on this idea. By then it’s so established that viewers accept it. The episode isn’t even about it really. Still, the opening pre-title sequence sees Picard talk of collecting ships in bottles, as a boy. he states he wants to go inside the bottle. That imagery of a would-be seafarer is powerful and a much-loved part of the show. It’s devoid in Discovery, and the show is the lesser for not drawing on it. You could say that, at times, not using the naval tradition is what’s responsible for the show being lost at sea, drifting aimlessly.
Starfleet Protocol, Socio-politics and Ethical Issues
As the world of Starfleet developed, first with the TOS movies and then with TNG and subsequent shows, a brilliant shared universe was created. With this came civil wars, plots to undermine the peace processes, and much more. The very fabric of the civilizations depicted was explored and put on trial. New ways to uphold the Prime Directive came about. Boundaries were pushed and sacrifices made. The decisions that led to this were always scrutinized. Kirk had Bones and Spock as his conscience. Picard Guinan and Troi (and his books, too). Sisko had Dax and at times Garak. Janeway lacked confidants in this sense but did have Chakotay. Her circumstances were different, anyway. Archer came to rely on T’Pol, eventually. Particularly troubling questions took a whole episode.
Fast forward (which is really a rewind — at least it is in Trek history — or should be too) to Discovery and decisions are very simply reached, so the action can go on. The intricacies of problems aren’t explored, as the action takes precedence. Exploration of ethics and the “playing God” is so central to Star Trek that when it’s absent, it’s hard to recognize the show as Star Trek. Almost everything in Discovery relies on secrets not yet known. Some things need to be laid out there and have the bones picked from them. That doesn’t happen. The lack of strong political and social codes apparent (so well established in the previous series) is also a lack of world-building. That comes first, or at least it should in Star Trek, and the characters fit around it. Anything else feels disjointed and a bad imitation.
Previous incarnations dealt with complex issues because the characters were strong enough to stand up to it. Whichever stance a person (or being) took was due to their personality. In Discovery it’s simply to further the story and get things along. The meat of the problems aren’t fleshed out, and the atmosphere feels hollow and without substance. Great graphics and set pieces don’t make for a world where the suspension of disbelief can be maintained. Let’s hope Season 3 draws on the “Voyager” trope of developments due to extreme circumstances (they’ll be the furthest into the future Star Trek has ever gone). If this doesn’t do it, maybe nothing will.
Whether it’s a crew member’s birthday, a performance they are planning, or even one of Quark’s many little side-schemes gone wrong, viewers of Star Trek have come to have an expectation of an overall story theme occurring, in more than one thread, often. The two tie in and by the end of the episode things make sense, usually in relation to the title. This is a testament to story-writing the writing quality, which is certainly lacking in Discovery, at times. There are many examples, but one of the most famous is “Best of Both Worlds”. At the heart of the story is a Borg invasion of the Enterprise; yet, Riker’s refusal to further his career is also the focus. These two elements marry up, perfectly, as Riker is forced into the Captain’s chair. It’s this sort of stuff that works wonderfully. It helps character development and as mentioned really hones in on key themes of the story.
It’s crucial for each show to be unique, and to offer something new. Nobody wants to see the same thing, again and again. However, proven formats are there for a reason, and fans know where they stand. The plots having a secondary strand is really quite important, as the actions in the episode and the motivations of characters should always match up. At times, it feels the closest Discovery has come to this is the “side-quests” in the Star Trek: Shorts. They act like cut scenes in a video game, and for viewers to understand the “next-level”. Sadly, that analogy is apt, as Discovery itself is very much about getting to the next stage, and often this happens via clumsy or boring story-telling. Sub-plots could help to fix this in season 3. Let’s hope they do.
Literary Quotes and Pop Culture
So not to utterly berate Discovery, let’s start with the fact that Discovery does try to do this. Michael Burnham refers to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll. So, it does try to continue to refer to the past, and the great literature of the world. Yet, it doesn’t feel authentic. It does with other series. The whole “Shakespeare in space” feel of TNG was a masterstroke. It took what Gene Rodenberry started, which were pretty much morality plays in a sci-fi guise, and gave them a fresh feel. The ethics of the show and Star Trek’s ability to uniquely deal with injustice and oppression were often backed up by the tales spoken of, that the episodes were occasionally based on, loosely.
Viewers like references and nods to Earth history. It’s even an expectation, to some degree, with Star Trek. It’s a show that explores the human condition and often revisits historical points. This is apparent in every guise of the show, except Discovery. Abandoning the idea is to fail to portray what Starfleet is, and why that concept works. People are mentioned throughout the series, fictional or otherwise. Zefram Cochrane springs to mind. Another is Freeman Dyson, in TNG. The old theories of physics are now a reality. It’s this that helps to make the show what it is. One massive example is Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the Voyager probe. There’s none of this in Discovery, and the feeling of authenticity in the show is lost; or at the very least, the ability to suspend disbelief is. The writers need to show more awareness of Earth’s history. This would also show their inspirations and help to shape the stories, too.
Character Arcs/Individual Focus
It’s definitely fair to say that these two aspects are in many ways one and the same; not the same thing, but certainly two sides of one coin. Growth of characters if essential in all stories. If they stay still, there’s no change in the way they’re seen. As a series, Star Trek didn’t get this right in TOS, at least not in the sense that the developments happened season by season. It tended to be more the events in the episodes. This did change in the TOS films and by the time Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) came out, the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones were notably different than their initial selves. They weren’t different people entirely but changed by their experiences.
All throughout TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT there was a shared trait of development. There were examples of bad writing, for example, Harry Kim only getting one promotion in seven years, and in “warlike” circumstances. But he changed his motivations and his views. He’s just one example. The many examples of character arc and individual focus are for another article, but the point is that they work, and are expected by fans of Star Trek. By all means, do something new, but don’t change a winning formula, that’s not even specific to Star Trek. It’s basic story-writing.
Star Trek: Discovery has only had two seasons, and that’s important to acknowledge. It took TNG (this example works because it’s the best comparison of a break with tradition — even though the tradition was only from a single series, TOS) a couple of seasons to get really good. Examples might be to introduce us to the family backgrounds of characters. make the characters rebel more, too. Questioning themselves is a great way for fans to see they are undergoing changes; this would work well if ongoing arcs explore this and give individuals more story-time. As it is most all seem to be extras in “The Michael Burnham” show. Again, this isn’t an attack on Discovery simply because it is new or just different from the old shows. Not at all. Picard has gotten this right in one series. That’s not the old shows, and we loved that. All hope is definitely not lost, but series three really has to nail it. Let’s hope it can.
And there we have it. Things that Discovery just isn’t getting right. Doing things that are different isn’t the same as doing things differently. We really do hope that things improve in season 3. The excitement for fans of Trek is always to see how variations on a formula work. The above-mentioned things are a huge part of Star Trek. Requirements, even, for the show to “feel” like Star Trek. The JJ Abrams movies were soft reboots of a sort. Star Trek Discovery shouldn’t be. It should build on what is, not try to distance itself from them. Especially when the show stems from within ten years of the same timeline of the original show. If the Bible ever had a sequel you’d still want to recognize it as biblical. We want Discovery to be recognizable Star Trek. Over to the writers. Make it so . . .