To Boldly Go Into Mediocrity?

What the heck is wrong with Star Trek Discovery?

I tolerate a lot in my science fiction shows, after all I’m a long time Doctor Who fan. I’ve given Star Trek Discovery a good go, I’ve watched each episode and looked for the good in each one. There is a lot that is admirable:

  • Visually it is great. It looks gorgeous and there is real attention to design and visual impact.
  • The cast is great, Jason Isaacs and Sonequa Martin…. in particular.
  • The characters are interesting and multidimensional.
  • The notion of Klingon PoV characters, speaking Klingon and following Klingon objectives is interesting.
  • There have been enjoyable episodes and some less enjoyable episodes with good bits in them.
  • The sense of secrets and mystery has been nice – I like that the show is spawning fan theories.

Yeah, but…

It really isn’t working is it? I was going to wait to post this until after the mid-season finale (some time tomorrow) but that episode may end up being better than most as it will probably end on a cliffhanger and avoid one of Discovery’s flaws of not knowing how to end a story.

These essays by Cora Buhlert covers many of the same issues I have but in more detail: Cora has been more negative overall than I have but looking at the details I think we are seeing mainly the same problems. Likewise Feminist Frequency have been doing Discovery podcast recaps of episodes I have only listened to some but again, I’m seeing similar issues being raised.

I’m going to spend some time trying to pull things apart. I haven’t given up hope on it – there is a lot of promise here that can still be fulfilled.

Here is my list of issues:

1. Sloppy plotting. I think every episode has elements of this. The arc of the story is fine, the acting and dialogue is usually good or at least decent enough. Yet, the mid-level details are often off in multiple ways. Character motivations seem inconsistent, choices by supposedly competent people don’t make sense. That’s OK when it’s Captain Lorca, whose mental state is suspect and motives are hidden, but non-Lorca people are just as daft. One misstep or rare missteps are to be expected but they are so common as to be a feature. Things and people just seem to get forgotten about. I really feel that we are seeing first drafts of the scripts that haven’t had a critical eye cast over them – or maybe it is the opposite problem, a stronger script is being repeatedly damaged with edits?

On one of the Femfreq Recap, they speculate that there is a huge writers room but only one of the writers is familiar with Star Trek and that writer is the one doing the good bits. I can believe the first part of that idea but some of the bits that seem really off are inherently Star Trekky (e.g. Mudd getting a cutesy ironic punishment).

2. Accidental Deconstruction. Star Trek has issues. It has always had issues. Starfleet is the Royal Navy and the US Military mashed together with a bunch of progressive ideas and layered on with back story that has arisen out the needs of individual episodes and movies. All SF franchises have these kinds of legacy issues and for a new show in a franchise it can be hard to make sense of them all. Discovery isn’t examining those issues – it isn’t a show that is critically examining why the Federations exploratory and space science research arm is organised as a military agency. It certainly is encountering these issues (particularly setting the show in wartime) but not examining them. Instead, Discovery ends up highlighting the contradictions , inconsistencies and dubiousness of Star Trek but with not better answer than that’s just the way things are. Stamets is the only character who seems to have challenged how things are.

So we end up with a view of Starfleet that is largely consistent with what we know from other Star Trek shows but which is uglier and less likeable. That could be powerful but I don’t get the feeling from the show that it knows what it is doing there. It is more like that it is bumping into the scenery and revealing the wooden joists behind, not to make a statement about the unreality of the theatre but just because it is clumsy.

3. Neither one thing nor the other. The majority of the episodes so far are not Star Trek in genre – rather they are a different style of show set in the same universe. That’s fine, indeed maybe even great. After all why not? Early on I was attracted to the idea that the show was (apparently) following of being about the journey of some characters rather than the adventures of a ship and crew. Yes, such a show wouldn’t be Star Trek as such but we already HAVE Star Trek in multiple forms. I had a sense of a show in which we would follow Michael’s journey and possibly a Klingon’s journey also. This may be where the show will go but…it sort of then shifted to trying to be a more conventional Star Trek show and…well that’s OK also, because Star Trek shows are fun and while we have lots of them, another one is nice to have. But, now I don’t really know what this show is. Why should I tune in to the next episode?

4. The sense of mystery just sort of vanished. This is a specific aspect of point 3. I really liked that sense of the Discovery being a ship with dark secrets. Then all of them, that we were made aware of, were neatly wrapped up in a few episodes.

5. The tone is awry. I think this is a combination of points 1,2,& 3. There is a spooky, grim dark show, set in the Star Trek universe that wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste but which could be really interesting – Star Trek Discovery isn’t it but it is not NOT* that show either. It is just sort of a bit stuck. Maybe they wanted something like the Battlestar Galactica reboot but then changed their minds? I don’t know!

This combination of issues makes it hard to settle in with the show. The arbitrary plotting has a net result of making all the stories seem lacking in consequences. Nothing seems to matter because the best explanation for events is at the level of “because the writers wanted to do that” rather than any kind of plot logic or internal aesthetics.

Mid-season finale may change things – hopefully for the better.

*[intentional double negative]


13 responses to “To Boldly Go Into Mediocrity?”

  1. You’re right, I am more negative than you about Star Trek Discovery and am basically hate-watching the show at this point. I briefly felt that it was improving, since the “Sarek is a crap dad” episode was okay and I actually enjoyed the timeloop episode. But this week’s episode was a step back.

    Nonetheless, I agree with your points, because the main problem of Star Trek Discovery is its massive inconsistency in pretty much every aspect. Now I don’t want to see a grimdark Star Trek and indeed Deep Space Nine is my least favourite Star Trek show (apparently a heresy today, though back in the day no one I knew liked it). But Deep Space Nine was a lot more consistent and a lot more Trek-like than Discovery. And yes, they clearly use the new, grimdark Battlestar Galactica (which I also disliked, since the original meant a lot to me) as a model, but the only reason Battelstar Galactica could get away with a grimdark remake is because the franchise was much more low profile than Star Trek. And indeed, I would have minded both Discovery and the new Galactica a lot less, if they had been completely new shows without connections to an established franchise.

    The worst thing is that you occasionally get glimpses of the good Star Trek show that Discovery could be with just a few little tweaks.

    I will reserve my final judgement until season 1 has finished, provided I last that long. But I don’t have a whole lot of hope that the production team will manage to pull the coals out of the fire and give us a good Star Trek show.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Each time we’re watching, my husband reminds me that the first season of each Star Trek show, including the original, is generally poor and the characters more annoying than great for a bit. The first season of Enterprise was so poor and determined to be soft porn that we ended up stopping watching it, but it apparently got better later on. Deep Space Nine had the least haphazard Season 1 because it was directly mined from Next Generation, but even there a lot of episodes just sucked or were very inconsistent at first. It’s sort of a Trek tradition with not very savvy network executives insisting on things in the shows that Trek fans are not particularly interested in, but that they think the fans need to have. So Discovery is getting a lot of rope to find itself (and a better budget to do things with,) but there are a lot of things I don’t like about it. It is very much an everything and kitchen sink show with a hyperactivity problem. And the revamped Klingons are a hot mess, as far as I’m concerned. Trek does much better with discovery rather than just flat out war, so the balancing that the show is doing is going to be an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thats true, but Im more optimistic than I was with Voyager and Enterprise after the first episodes. Disco ist different enough, and I didnt lake the formularic feel of these series (not too mention that a lot of Voyagers first episodes were really, really bad). I agree that Discovery is not really consistent and that they have pacing issues. But I dont see this is a built-in-flaw, thats soemthing that can be fixed (as opposed to the dark universe, if you dont like this, there wont be much changing).
        I think the redeming thing so far has been the strong characters of Burnham an Lorca. Characters are what ultimately draw me into series – or out of them (never got into the Expanse, because the characters didnt grab me somehow).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, previous Star Trek incarnations usually needed a couple of episodes, sometimes up to a season, to find themselves. But both viewers and TV executives are a lot less patient now than they used to be and will pull the plug quicker.

      Besides, I fear that the serialized structure will hurt Discovery here, because it was perfectly possible to skip the bad episodes of TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager and still get the gist of what was going on. But with Discovery, you have to sit through the bad early episodes (and the first three or four episodes were really bad) to get to the better ones. Okay, you can probably make do with recaps, but stil…

      Liked by 1 person

      • They’ve already renewed it for a second season. The show is to help launch their streaming service, so Discovery actually has probably more latitude to futz around than any of the previous Trek shows. But I agree about the serialization issue — it’s a war storyline so everything has to be about that. I had some hope that this last episode might be a one-off more episodic mission; instead it was the set-up for a Klingon war clifthanger. Which again I might not have minded if they had not totally screwed up the Klingons to the point that they are deeply painful to watch on screen. The current version of the Klingons is so against what the Trek franchise has tried to do, so racist in set-up and depiction and so deeply tortuous in how slowly and stiffly they all are forced to speak Klingon in very bad, melodramatic lines of dialogue, that I just really don’t get what’s going on in that writers’ room at all.

        So my hope is that they do a lot of revamping in the second season and fix stuff. But I’m losing interest rapidly, I’ve got to say.

        Take the poor imprisoned Admiral and the twisty spymaster Klingon — them working together and escaping, the spymaster having possibly triple ulterior motives relative to what she’s trying to do with the Klingon empire — all of that was potentially interesting for the war plot. But then it seems the Admiral is killed. Maybe the Admiral isn’t killed and things will progress, but if not, if she’s dead, what was the entire point of her character in the show? What was the point of having the contact plotline that went nowhere? As CF notes, Discovery is filled with stuff like that. They get going into something interesting, even Trek-like and then they just stop. Whoever is running the show needs to be fired, really.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, they already lost one showrunner. And considering the first few episodes, where Bryan Fuller had the most influence, were the IMO worst, that’s probably a good thing. It seems there has been some retooling going on from episode 5 or so on, because the episodes suddenly became better, there was more cameraderie between the characters, the lighting became a bit brighter, etc… But this latest episode was a step backwards. And considering that inconsistency is also a problem with some of the other shows Alex Kurtzman has worked on, replacing him would probably be a good idea.

        I totally agree with you on the Klingons BTW. The original series Klingons were a bit one-note, but from TNG on and later in Deep Space Nine and to a lesser degree Voyager, they became really interesting and probably my favourite Star Trek race. However, the Klingons in Discovery are just awful. The racist portrayal is horrible (and Discovery already has a bad record on race), the subtitled Klingon dialogue was a good idea in theory, but a bad idea in practice, because the actors just don’t speak Klingon very well and are further hampered by their masks and fake teeth. What is more, I’m having problems telling the different Klingons apart due to their make-up, a problem I never had with post-TNG Klingons.


      • Exactly — they turned them into orc monsters and completely messed up their culture. The Federation is supposed to make a peace treaty with the Klingons after the war, have cooperative actions with the Empire and have half-Klingons eventually serve in Star Fleet. Exactly how is that supposed to happen with this version of Klingons? (Again, the show clearly runs in an alternative timeline.) Apparently the people who run the show don’t understand that the Trekkers love the Klingons and the long history of Klingon culture that has gone across the shows. Instead the Discovery Klingons have not one positive thing about them and they borrow from black American and African people, indigenous people, Middle Eastern Muslim cultures and Asian people for them, and then cast all of it in a bigoted, negative light as monstrous, primitive, etc. It’s my biggest problem with the show and it may be my goodbye point.

        My understanding is that they had to change the look of the Klingons somewhat and the costumes and Federation uniforms somewhat for the show because of a proprietary trademark thing between CBS and Universal for each Trek iteration. They seem to have used that as an excuse to turn the Klingons into stiff, bombastic boogey monsters. It might be salvageable, but it’s not looking great. Other parts of the show are great and have a lot of promise and I don’t fault any of the actors at all. They’ve been giving some nice, if confused, performances. This is pretty clearly a writing/production problem and there seems to be a lot of disorganization. Since it’s Trek, viewers will put up with a lot, but I don’t think this show is going to generate the hoped for Trek Renaissance on t.v.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, I don’t fault the actors either. They’re all fine actors doing the best with what they’re given. I actually feel sorry for them having to deal with the inconsistent mess of this show. Even worse, at least two of the actors, Jason Isaacs and Doug Jones, have explicitly said that they are longterm Star Trek fans, so they must realise how unlike Star Trek much of Discovery is.


  3. Someone else taking an in-depth look at the show is SF Bluestocking e.g.

    “On one of the Femfreq Recap, they speculate that there is a huge writers room but only one of the writers is familiar with Star Trek and that writer is the one doing the good bits”

    Hah, I think this nails how the writing feels – there’s some good stuff in there but you never know if or when it will appear, and you can guarantee it’ll be accompanied by a sloppy element. A chaotic writers room is a pretty good explanation for that.

    I’ve been generally optimistic about the show, because taking time to settle isn’t unexpected for Trek (although there’s an argument that a major marque show ought to nail things from the start) but my bubble is getting quite badly burst by the constant drip-drip of weird decisions and missteps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reminder that SF Bluestocking also does episode by episode Star Trek Discovery reviews, especially since her opinions often mirror mine.


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