Some thoughts on the second series of Star Trek Discovery

“Sir, there’s another starship coming in…it’s the Enterprise!”

I have a lot of thoughts about the second series of Discovery. Few, if any, are me actually mentally tackling anything the show presented in a moral, philosophical, social, political, comedic or emotional way as that would indicate the show had the strength to do so. No, a lot of those thoughts are “Whyyyyyyyy” and “That was super dumb” and “Uggggggggh”.

There are three areas I want to focus on that combine to explain probably my biggest problem with the series. The first is the cast of characters and the emotional manipulation to try and get us to care about them. The second is the plot, or at least the narrative, and how it was tired and dull. The third is theme; namely the attempt at having one and its lack of ambition.

By the end of the first series I was seriously disappointed with how several characters had been handled, but there was word that they’d be opening up the cast a little more so that we could have a greater familiarity with the people who crewed the titular ship. Initially this was true and I was thankful for it. The addition of an old character, despite my reservations, proved to be incredibly effective and the first episode made an effort to tell us the name of the bridge crew at least. I mean, I don’t remember half of them, but it was welcome and I’m glad I could go “Yeah, I like the helm, Detmer, she’s quite cocky in a fun way” rather than “The red-haired woman who I think flies the ship?”

Hi, I’m Captain I.M. Suave, nice to meet you.

It didn’t last long, however. Characters came and went and it felt like I was being teased as to what morsel of information I’d get next about character X or Y, but it never really materialised. There are significant points in the story where our emotional attachment to various characters is required for strong reactions and it just doesn’t for various reasons, be it stringing out obvious states of feeling or simply having no build up to that character going through a specific experience. When you’re sort-of hoping for a major character to die when they enter a dangerous situation in vain hope despite the fact you know they won’t, something is wrong. There are few characters on board Discovery I actually cared about and I think most of that was just the work of the actors and not the script.

The lack of effective empathy really damaged the story though because at times it was hinged on these people we were supposed to care about having to deal with serious issues. What would it be like to never see your child again? Can you assist with someone’s suicide? And so on. The show really wants you to know when it is portraying an emotional sequence and it lays it on so incredibly thick, either through overly-long scenes or by spelling everything out loudly. So many times, especially towards the end of the series, whole groups of people were standing to attention as someone left the room because on the surface it seems that oh, character N is respected by all these people, isn’t that nice? What actually happened was I’d think “There’s a massive countdown visible. They don’t have time for this.”

Tigg Notaro is incredibly welcome as Jett Reno, featuring both a brilliant name and a character full of, well, character

As a story then Discovery undulated between urgency and a complete lack of, despite the fact the show very much wanting to present it as the former. The characters that come and go? Sometimes they just randomly appear a few episodes later and you have to wonder how they covered so much distance because space is quite big, it turns out, except through the demonstration of all the wondrous technology we’d supposedly have in the future, characters come and go like travelling half-way across a part of the galaxy is like bobbing round to your neighbour.  For a narrative that very much pits itself on a strict time-line very little is done to give you an accurate sense of how desperate, or not, things are. When we’re being told something is urgent, yet everything surrounding it suggests otherwise, a massive disconnect happens and I found myself disengaging.

Talking about care, there are a ton of logical issues with the story that for having characters going around saying “logic” so much, you’d think someone would’ve gone over just to make sure it was all above board. It’s the 23rd century and no-one in a military organisation full of scientists and otherwise smart people thought that maybe video footage could be edited?? Why can this technology work then, but not now, but again in a few minutes without any justification? These people travelled all the way over here knowing danger was approaching just to pass on their regards, yet didn’t bring any support whatsoever? Why does this character make an appearance here, didn’t they emphatically declare that that wasn’t going to happen again super seriously?

After fan blow-back they decided to give the Klingons back their hair, immediately making them look a ton better

Seemingly every episode was riddled with these gaping holes. It really took me out of the moment to try and fill in those gaps when the show, again, made no effort to do so or even hint at a possible explanation. Sure, some were small and you could dismiss them as not being important, but the bigger ones couldn’t be ignored. Regardless of their size, the fact that it happened so frequently meant that whatever narrative I, as a viewer, could follow along with was upended not because of an interesting twist, but because something suddenly came in that either had no explanation or was just straight stupid.

This is of course all before actually discussing the plot itself which was so uninspiring and frustrating with almost nothing new brought to the table in terms of the story it was telling. I’d seen it before so many times and even the Star Trek twist on it was loose. Bizarrely, the main thrust of the plot comes about half-way through the series and seemingly just out of nowhere. It felt like some important information I should’ve known about at some point despite the fact it hadn’t been mentioned at all prior.

The story then goes through various ridiculous moments, including the incredibly tired “but this disability was actually a blessing!” and culminating in an infamously bad ending that on the one hand gives them a nice slate to work from for the next series. It also serves to highlight what a massive mistake it was to pitch the show as it was in the first place as well as wrapping itself up as if the first person in the writing room to pitch an ending that could fill a few minutes of air time would be the one that was used.

But what does it meaaaaaaaaaaan?

Worse was how as the show went on the protagonist seemingly became the centre of the universe, which to an extent a protagonist would be, but it pushed suspension of disbelief. The show even comments on this very fact as if to make a serious point, but then immediately backtracks when moments later it almost confirmed that yes, in fact everything does revolve around the protagonist to a cosmically ludicrous degree. A protagonist who seemed to cry once per episode like the writers had a bet as to if they could include a sob scene and the person who couldn’t had to buy lunch for everyone.

A brief note on the third big issue then, theming. I mentioned a load of ways at the top that entertainment can provoke thought and it seemed that, like the naming of the bridge crew, there would be something committed to during the series that the story would cling to. The idea, which the writers in fact said before starting, was science versus faith. Faith hasn’t been used too much in Star Trek so the idea, whilst one I wasn’t totally fussed by, was something I was still intrigued to see how it was done. What it amounted to was some people going “I like science” and others going “I believe thing will work”. Empty sentiments that were proven right or wrong based on whatever contrivance needed meeting.

That CG budget has got to go somewhere and it’s all in the aft

Tonally the series started a little all over the place before settling into a mixture of melodrama and thriller, with the former being handled poorly and the latter not having much meat to wrestle with. This combined with the inconsistent pacing and story made the entire series bumpy and lacking in confidence; big set pieces might have had a neat spectacle but lacked in being meaningful.

So, what combines all of these things? Consequence. From character interactions to massive events, the show was completely unwilling too much of the time to explore what it had done. For a serialised story to not have (logical) consequences be given a chance to happen it robs any depth that could exist. Being left wondering “Why?” every so often is fine, but finishing an episode and going “Wait, what about X…and Y, come to think of it?” and having it skipped over was completely unsatisfying. There’s no point creating a story in a well-trodden universe because you want to use that universe and then not following through with what contributing to that actually means.

“Captain, permission to poop pants.” “Granted.”

There are quite a few other issues I have that were sizeable, but briefly…The camera work was negative more than positive, with grossly unnecessary movement that was at worst disorientating and at best distracting. Special mention must go to an action scene early on where a column obscures about a third of the screen which I found hilariously inept. It also didn’t help a lot of scenes across the series were very dimly lit and there seemed to be a blue filter over the screen making living on a technologically advanced ship look dreary.

Certain characters would say things that wouldn’t make sense for them to say. One character, in particular, had solid efforts made to be more likeable despite the fact that it didn’t at all square with their fundamentally vile and abhorrent morals, but it’s cool because they’re going to be the lead of a show and I definitely find myself wanting a Star Trek show’s protagonist to be a genocidal cannibal fascist. I also was concerned that Discovery was going to stay in the shadow of the franchise itself and whilst the lead-in to the third series makes it clear that won’t be a problem it didn’t seem to mind that it still was the rest of the time.

And yet I watched it all. There’s teases, moments of interest or engagement where the show does work and lulls me into a false sense of hope. There is massive potential the show squanders, but it does at least establish it is there waiting to be exploited. A lack of confidence in the vision of the show as its own unique thing stands in the way of something that should be very good, especially with the amount of money being poured into it, but it’s just not there. I’m still on board, especially as again the next series should be rid of a lot of the trappings holding the show back, but that really is its final chance.

There was a spectacular CG sequence in one episode that caused my mind to wander as I realised what I was watching was very pretty but nothing more. I found myself reminded of the song ‘Razzle Dazzle’ from Chicago. The song is about playing something up to masquerade and obfuscate reality. Rather than all flash and no substance, it’s flash to hide the substance. That, then, asks the question of why? In the case of Chicago it was to get out of a murder trial. In Discovery’s case? Well, I think it’s because they simply didn’t think through what purpose the flash actually served. I really hope they get it right next time around.

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About thejgman

I am a person and do persony things! Favourite things include Mars bars, video games and, surprisingly, writing. I'm a graduate in Cultural Studies, with a focus towards all things digital and technological.
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