What follows is an editorial. You may not agree with it. If you don’t, feel free to point out inaccuracies in the statements made here. I wrote this editorial because I am a writer myself, having written more than a million words in articles for Krypton Radio over the years, as well as being a screenwriter of some as yet unproduced work. The latter probably doesn’t qualify to speak on finished productions, but the former possibly does. 1.1 million words is a lot of writing, and that doesn’t even count about another million words I’ve written over the rest of my professional career as a writer for other media companies.
I’m so torn on this. I wanted to love it. I wanted to jump in with both feet and bathe myself in the glow from it.
And I can’t. Because for whatever reason, they stopped at “shiny”. It never got any better.
If you still have not seen the series, and plan to, reading this article will pretty much ruin it for you, because it’s full of spoilers. You have been warned. Anything that happens to you from this point forward is therefore your own fault.
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 (even aggressive in some cases), 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 smacks unpleasantly of deus ex machina1, a handy magical solution introduced without prior explanation because without them we have no plot. What they have created here is magical woo-woo space boogers. I mean, sometimes we have to bend the rules a bit to have a story at all, but within the confines of the Star Trek universe, this is a very long reach.
- 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’t talk to the probe because the background radiation is interfering with the signal? No problem. Just send out a series of probes and daisy-chain the signal. Wait, belay all that. We send a bridge officer, 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. Does it serve any definable purpose? Is it ever explained? 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 machina1. In Star Wars it’s established that you can talk to Force ghosts this way, or interact with people and events far away by projecting a mind hologram, but Star Wars is space fantasy. In Star Trek Vulcans are well established as proximate telepaths – they can read your mind, but they have to be able to touch you. There are solid reasons for setting it up this way, and of course Roddenberry had it right. Otherwise it’s too tempting to use it like a fantasy space telephone, 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.
- Can whoever is in charge of the lights on the bridge please turn them on? Seriously.
- Can whoever is in charge of the lens flares on the bridge please turn them off? If there are no damn lights on the bridge, where are the lens flares coming from?
When we saw the delayed reflection of Stametz as the cliffhanger of one episode, why did we completely drop the subject in the next episode? Okay, so that was nothing. Then why was it there? Or if it was something, why was it there instead of someplace else where it would have made more sense?
- If the Tardigrade could have jumped away the entire time, why didn’t it do that in the first place? (See above complaint about not being able to jump out of a force field.)
- 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.
- Harcourt Fenton 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? And whle we’re on it, why are were these episodes even produced? They literally add nothing to the story line, and apart from the marginally necessary first two episodes, are the only other episodes that don’t.
- Captain Georgio and 1st Officer Burnham, the two most senior officers aboard the Shinzou, decide not to send trained security personnel on a ship-to-ship mission to a Klingon heavy cruiser. Neither of them is armed with more than a hand phaser, the two of them together weigh 280 pounds soaking wet. They know Klingons are big, because Michael Burnham killed one. So they beam over to a hostile ship with no knowledge of how many of these hulking, bred-for-combat highly trained adversaries they might be facing. Wait, what?
- Surprise, Tyler was Voq’ the whole time. Seven episodes in. Like we couldn’t tell four episodes back. Please.
- Surprise, Lorca is from the Mirror Universe, like we couldn’t tell twelve episodes back. Please.
- The entire series leads up to handing the Klingon woman the genetic key to the bomb? Hello, just kill her. The bomb can’t detonate if she doesn’t push the button, and she can’t do it if she’s dead, so giving her control of the bomb solves literally nothing. They can’t make it a deadman switch either, because as soon as she dies of old age, kaboom. Or leaves the planet for any reason, kaboom. That’s the weakest ending scenario they could possibly have gone for. And she’s just like oh, yuppa yup, okie dokie, I’ll end the war now. Uuuuuhhh, what? Did everybody just take stupid pills?
There’s something important to know about plot twists, and the writers of Star Trek: Discovery ran aground on the sharp rocks of this critical bit of knowledge over and over again: you’re not supposed to see them coming, because in the universe you’ve established there are a dozen possible outcomes and anything could happen. In Star Trek: Discovery, though, we don’t get that. We get “destiny on a rail”. The writers set up the foreshadowing, but forgot that when you set up something like this there has to be a deep, rich world around it with sufficient substance that you only see that foreshadowing after the fact, looking back on it, saying to yourself, “Aha, there it was. How did I miss that?” In Star Trek: Discovery, the universe, despite the trappings and gee-whiz visuals, is very thin – to quote Frodo Baggins, “like too little butter spread over too much bread.”
How many was that? Two dozen issues? And I didn’t even get into the ridiculous “reimagining” of the Klingons that loaded the actors with so many silicone appliances and different sets of goofy teeth that for the most part it was all they could do to huff out their lines through the unresponsive makeup. They had their occasional moments, but for the most part they simply didn’t work. Nor did I address the series ending, where all 23 houses of Klingons suddenly decided to act responsibly instead of the leader of at least one house succumbing to Klingon battle rage (something Klingons have always been known for).
And to be frank, that’s not even a comprehensive list of all the script problems, and you’ll notice that I didn’t even touch the jarring discontinuity of Starfleet technology as a significant flaw that affected every single other creative decision they made after throwing that out. It’s not just a fan being butt hurt about the show being inconsistent with established canon. Canon is useful for a reason: if you stick to your continuity, your show fits well with the rest of the established universe and can be taken seriously as an addition to the universe. If you don’t, then what you do looks like a tacky attempt to pump money out of a franchise.
Of course it was restricting. Of course it’s difficult. There’s a cure for that, though. It’s called “writing”.
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.
Is anybody actually in charge? Which of the show’s eight or nine executive producers actually producing? I’m guessing not very many, and the ones that are are either overtaxed or not paying attention.
This is why I’m not as enthused as I wish I could be about the new Star Trek. That there would be so much wrong with the show after only six episodes is staggering. It’s also insulting, because it demonstrates very clearly that CBS thinks we’re all just too stupid to notice any of this.
Each episode appears to have had a great deal of spit and polish applied to it, with a great many people applying their very best efforts to make it look as good as they possibly can. The attention to the quality of the acting and the visual design was obviously there, even if we don’t all necessarily agree on what that should have looked like. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be anybody watching to make sure it all meshes together properly, and in many cases it simply doesn’t.
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. Of course she’s going to have a severe case of broomstick-in-uncomfortable-places.
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 had 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. Unfortunately this is in conflict with solving the problem by writing the scripts well. No amount of clever writing to get around the issue is going to play well in a 30 second promo spot on a 2 inch smart phone screen.
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.
In the End, It Falls Far Short of the Mark
But this – this is not only presented as Star Trek, but as science fiction as well, and with science fiction at least, there is an additional overlay of requirement: 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 ship’s helmsman into giant lizards who then have sex and create a new species, like we did in Star Trek: Voyager.
However, this is damning with faint praise. No, to fix Star Trek: Discovery, they’d have to get some people who understand science fiction into the writing pool. It’s obvious, to me at least, that they don’t have them yet.
Whether you enjoy this iteration of Star Trek depends on how much you care about internal consistency and story arc. The acting is pretty good. The stories they tell are a jumbled, jangly mess. Each episode contains some sort of internal contradiction so bad that it takes you out of the moment, ruining the episode and the experience if your brain is engaged at all. And, the first season ends in a jawdropping Whiskey Tango Foxtrot event that makes zero sense given the setup and the history they’ve established for the Klingons.
The first two episodes really have very little to do with the story arc, and were really just back story which should have been used as subtext for the remainder of the season instead of being uselessly produced at a cost of about five million dollars.
Two episodes in the middle have to do with a hilariously misinterpreted Harry Mudd, and suddenly drop the series from being story arc driven to episodic, only to have that course reversed again when they’re over.
A sign that something can be cut from a story or script is whether you’ll notice something missing if you were to cut it. If you cut out these two episodes, and pretend they never existed, nothing happens. Five million more dollars completely wasted. As far as the story they claimed to be trying to tell goes, they could have just filmed the cast shooting soda water down each other’s trousers for 84 minutes. It would have been a lot cheaper, and it would have had the same contribution to the story line.
So they shot fifteen episodes and didn’t have the sense to realize four of them could have been cut without hurting a damn thing, and it ballooned their budget by ten million. Every episode out of the remaining 11 had at least one “wait, but THEY JUST SAID…” moment in it, and the whole first season leads up to a belly flop of an ending.
I am a long time Trek fan. I watched every series with avid glee, even the mostly terrible Enterprise, even the goofy sitcom-in-space style Voyager episodes. Of all the Star Trek television series that have ever been, Discovery sadly floats near the bottom of the tank.
Yes, it’s possible to watch, and even enjoy, Star Trek: Discovery. But leave your brains in the bucket by the door. You can pick them up again on your way out.
1 Krypton Radio reader Dean Brown observes the following about my deus ex machine statement, and makes a pretty good refutation of my claim that the spores and the Vulcan katra telephone situation are such: “In point 2 and 11. neither are examples of deus ex machina. A deus ex machina is something introduced without prior indication into a plot to resolve an apparently otherwise unsolvable problem. It’s introduced within the plot, not suddenly and unexpectedly within the narrative it’s a part of in order to resolve a problem without having previously being introduced in the story. If say, the plot hadn’t alluded to any secret research, or previously introduced the concept of the spores, then a problem arose within the narrative that required them to get somewhere faster than they could with warp and then they suddenly said ‘oh hey, didn’t mention it before but we do have these spore things that can teleport us anywhere instantly so problem solved’ that’d be a deus ex machina.” Well played, sir.