Get Me Off This Space Trek

Star Trek: Discovery: Season 1

As many of you are probably aware, we live in a new era of active Star Trek. After the TV shows went off the air due to the relative failure of Star Trek: Enterprise (which I honestly felt was finally hitting its stride in season 4) and the totally bombing of Star Trek: Nemesis in theaters, it looked as though Star Trek might have been dead and gone for quite some time. The franchise wasn't as popular as it used to be, and then CBS and Paramount split apart, each taking a different part of the Star Trek empire, miring the franchise in legal woes as well as audience disinterest.

Legal issues were ironed out and the audience came back with the release of the 2009 Star Trek Kelvin timeline-based reboot. That movie was followed by Into Darkness (which would have been far more interesting if it didn't force Kahn into the script) and Beyond (a smaller movie I very much enjoyed). Then, over on the TV side of the franchise rights, CBS launched their "All Access" streaming program onto which debuted Star Trek: Discovery. CBS has said that the series is hugely successful, and a second season has been ordered. When you factor in two more movies Paramount is planning (one of which Quentin Tarantino is involved with and may direct), and three other made-for-streaming movies being worked on for CBS, this is a big time to be a Star Trek fan.

And yet, I have some issues with where Star Trek is at, and most of that comes down to CBS and Discovery. I do recognize that the Kelvin-based movies don't necessarily rise to the heights of the original series of films... but they also don't sink to the lowest lows of those films, either. Say what you want about Into Darkness, but it was nowhere near as terrible as Nemesis or Star Trek V: Wait, Shatner Wants to Do What? And while Trek 2009 and Beyond may not feel as cerebral as the original films, they're still fun romps with enjoyable characters/actors.

Besides, anyone that wants to grouse about how "dumb" the current movies has to remember that film most people hold up as the "BEST TREK EVAR", Wrath of Kahn is essentially two actions sequences with a long chase in the middle, all orchestrated by a villain who barely understand anything he's doing and sucks at space combat. I dig Rocardo Mantalban's performance as Kahn -- he's the only reason the character works. For a super-genius, Kahn is really stupid in Star Trek II: Rich Corinthian Leather. I really enjoy the movie, but it's not smart and neither is the villain.

Getting back to my point, though, there are a number of flaws that keep Discovery from rising up as a great Trek show. The first, and biggest, is that the plot goes way too fast. Set 10 years before the events of the original Star Trek TV Series (usually called TOS by the fans), Discovery tells the tale of:

  • the titular ship
  • its weird new "Spore Drive" (which allows the ship to essentially warp anywhere in space instantly)
  • Michael Burnham, the disgraced Commander once sent to prison but, instead, take in by Discovery to act as an unranked science officer
  • the war with the Klingons Burnham accidently sets off at the start of the whole series

That's a lot of plot right there, enough to fill a whole set of seasons. If the show had slowed down, we could have spent plenty of time with each of those questions, having whole episodes devoted to the science of the ship, its spore drive, and all of it interlaced with the Klingon War over the course of, easily, five seasons, with increasing pressure and stakes as the seasons went on (you know, like Deep Space Nine did with its own Dominion War arc). Instead, everything I've already mentioned is wrapped up, start to finish, by the end of the 15-episode first season. And that doesn't even take into account all the other plotlines raised through these episodes so far:

  • a Klingon mole that has infiltrated the ship
  • a mini-arc featuring Harry Mudd
  • a multi-episode arc set in the Mirror Universe
  • Burnham's interpersonal issues with her adoptive father, Sarek

I like all the ideas in Discovery. Setting the show in TOS territory is fine. Sure, it's not original, and we already have a series of movie re-exploring that time period, but it doesn't bother me that we aren't seeing some new facet of Federation history. I also think the Klingon War could have worked (if it had been given much more time). The Klingons may be the Federation's ally in The Next Generation, but there was a long, bloody history with the Federation there beforehand and taking time to explore that could have worked.

I especially dug the idea that our main character, Burnham, wasn't the captain or first officer of the ship. Being among the lowest dregs of the crew (where even a cadet outranks her), Burnham certainly could have given us a different perspective of life on a starship. And she was gamely played by Sonequa Martin-Green, given the needed pathos behind the shielded emotions you'd expect from a human raised by Vulcans. The elements were all there for the show to work.

But it doesn't, and that all tracks back to a show that had easily five seasons (if not the traditional Star Trek seven setup by TNG, DS9, and Voyager). Instead we get only a small handful of episodes exploring the time period and the ship before it's rush, rush, rush to get through everything that was planned all so the first season can tie up with a bow. The Mirror Universe threat is defeated, the war is over, and Burnham is pardoned and resumes her rank as a Commander, all in 15 episodes. It's hard to care about any of it happening when so little time is spent giving it meaning.

So, sure, Star Trek: Discovery is getting a second season. We can hope they explore further into world and actually take the time to tell the story properly. If not, though, then like with the later seasons of VOY and the early seasons of ENT, I'm gonna tune out. I can only take bad storytelling for so long, and we're hitting up against my limit with this Star Trek show.