Discovery is a very curious show to talk about. Its serialised format makes it quite difficult to discuss specific issues without giving away important plot and character details and to really get into what about the show works or doesn’t, you have to do that to some degree. I could leave it here, simply stating that I enjoyed it however finding it deeply flawed. That to me feels a shallow point to make; what does enjoyment say about the quality of it and does what I find to be flawed speak of personal issues or those more to do with the show itself?
There have been a number of arguments made about the fact that Discovery “isn’t real Trek”. To me, Star Trek is a universe attached to a set of morals demonstrated by various races and characters. Primarily, it’s a universe that focuses on optimistic idealism for the future, but not to dismiss the problems and threats that come with this. Without these we would be denied the Borg, one of the most threatening races in all of science fiction who reflect a society that has no morals. Or what about the Cardassians, a society reliant on fascism but still cherishes its culture and history? That’s to say nothing of the classic Klingons, whose warrior tendencies highlight the need for talk.
Do I think Discovery is ‘real Trek’? Going to have to go with a classic “yes…but”. Discovery lives in this universe, but I don’t think it quite carries the message. We find our contemporary politics dedicated to fear of this or that, looking backwards rather than forwards. Discovery has all of this technology that we’ve seen before (and even some that we haven’t which given the time-line, well, whatever, production values have changed in fifty years) and talks a lot of the talk we’ve heard before, however it never took the leap to challenge any of what it said. It says it’s about optimism in a time of strife, but what it shows us is that reciprocating violence or the threat thereof is the key.
I’m not going to sit here and make an argument saying that during a war you want the ‘goodies’ to never fire a shot or that Star Trek has to be constantly optimistic, that’s a futile gesture and one that doesn’t reflect a need to constantly re-evaluate itself to survive. Ultimately a Trek show shouldn’t be rated on what a widely subjective ideal says it should be. Instead, a lot of what Discovery does wrong it does so as a television show and whilst it definitely does get things right, I can’t help shake the feeling that a lot of that feels by accident.
So, what makes the basic tenets of a show? You want a good stable of interesting characters, a cohesive plot that is easy to follow yet still capable of catching you off-guard and a mixing of the two that help each other move forward in a timely fashion.
Before the first episode came out, we were told there was going to be a focus on one character rather than the traditional grand ensemble, with episodes highlighting one or two that Trek usually had. By the end of the series, it felt like they were dramatically trying to course correct which given the characteristics of the lead makes perfect sense, but also brings up the question of why they even went that direction in the first place. When your protagonist, Michael Burnham, is given a reason to suppress their emotions in universe you maybe want a larger cast to highlight the differences this can manifest in.
I can’t imagine how hard it would be to act with that direction, so I’ll just quickly chime in here and say the acting is, across the board, excellent, with a few notable stand-outs. Still, you can only do so much with certain characters and scripts. A lot of the stand-out characters get side-lined or eventually derailed with interesting plots or positions prevented from happening or unravelled hilariously so. “Oooh, moral ambiguity, cool. This is something Trek has done before, but never really shined a spot-light on and, wait, oh, no, they’re just legit full evil. Okay then.” “Ah, an exploration of situations not often explored in TV. Way to go Discovery for depicti-oh, wait, it’s not that at all. Forget I said that.”
The problem with having an almost emotionless lead is that their story gets subdued by everyone else, not aided by pretty much all of the cast bleeding charisma. To recap then, our lead is written as plodding, some of the other main characters get diminished and I haven’t even mentioned the secondary and recurring cast, primarily the ship’s bridge crew, who I can barely name a fraction of. Not to mention I know almost nothing about them. Oh, also, everyone is super dour with exception of one, maybe two characters. By the end of the series in the cast that remained the strongest arc went to a character who was definitely given air-time, but felt like they slipped through the cracks of everyone else’s plots and had strong development.
Looking at the plot and, well, I thought on the whole it was pretty tame. As I’ve mentioned in passing, the series is established around a war and what-ho, it’s with the Klingons. Gasp! What could be a nuanced discussion of the contemporary developed world’s societies is brushed to the side because we don’t want any of that, thank you very much. Admittedly, it was nice early on to see a lot of time spent from the perspective of the Klingons, to hear their side and boy, did we hear what they had to say. Some brazen and arguably unneeded make-up changes to the Klingons from their iconic design and an adherence to Klingon-only scenes being spoken in a stilted, passionless Klingon language, led to those sequences feeling long and tedious. Funniest thing is, felt like the Klingons did more speaking than the philosophical Federation.
Anyhow, war wages on and you’d barely be able to tell because we’re seldom shown how the war is going, merely told it as if it’s supposed to be important this many episodes in. This would have been a perfect way to highlight what was being fought for, the ideals of this era of Star Trek, but nope, we get a little bit of it inconsistently and then a bit more at the series end where it’s too little too late. Numerous character arcs are tied into this war, but they are either predictable from miles off or are never developed in a way that feels natural or entertaining. A mid-series excursion gives some relief, but brings with it the demolition of one of the leads in such a depressing manner that I wished it hadn’t happened.
A Trek show dealing with war isn’t at all new. Whilst it’s been done well, it can always be done better. Discovery, in this regard, lacked any sense of ambition to do so. Sure, it had twists that might shock and amaze if you didn’t see them coming, but the twists felt more like twists for the sake of it rather than interesting plot. If you asked me what the show was about, I don’t think I could do so easily. Is it about being true to yourself? Not really? Is it about talking it out with your enemies? Ha, no. Is it about what we shouldn’t let ourselves become, as a society? Maybe, but not with specific focus.
Still, I did say that I was entertained, so what on earth did the show do well? Like I said, even if I think many characters met unfortunate conclusions, some rose to be incredibly likeable. One amongst the cast was an eternal optimistic, a beacon in the night. Another was a stubborn scientist who didn’t like the situation they found themselves in. One thrust into a position of command that they were not comfortable unsure they were even suited to it, but organically found their way. Even the less enjoyable characters were still performed with care and purpose.
The production values were absurdly good, providing a grand sense of scope and movement. I do think there was a bit too much time spent on-board ships, especially for a show prefixed with “Star Trek”, but they felt they were used and operational. Costumes and sets are lavish too, shown off with camera work that mostly is well shot. If this weren’t the case the show might have been a write-off for me, but it’s hard to deny how immersed you can be in a world when it at least looks the part. All of this given the time to do so with some generally pretty good pacing.
It’s hard when even the positive things about the show I feel compelled to deduct a point from for various reasons. I don’t think it at all helped that what I found to be the worst episode of the series was the last one, riddled as it was with what I’d have thought would have been enough glaring stupidity for someone to stop it from taking form in the way that it did, but guess not. Topping it off, its final scene a reminder of the shadow Discovery stands in and demonstrably doesn’t want to move out of.
Look, I made it to the end of the series and could largely say I enjoyed watching it, even if it wasn’t the best thing on TV during its run. That’s got to count for something. Not just that, I want to watch the second series. I want to see the show’s potential unleashed, but I’m concerned that the show doesn’t. This feels distinctly clear with the opening theme; bookended by familiar notes its middle is an orchestral sweep that fills the time, but not your memory. It inspires nothing. I’ve gone this whole piece without making a pun on the show’s title, but really, Discovery needs to find out what it wants to be and embrace that, otherwise I think the show will plod on accepting it will never be better than it currently is. That would be a shame and critically, defies the message of the universe that things can and should be better.
[You can now read my thoughts on the second series. Right here, in fact!]