Star Trek: Discovery
or, no one needs therapy in space
Let’s get right to the point:
Star Trek: Discovery is the Marvel’s Avengers of Star Trek by way of Game of Thrones.
This is both as good and as bad as it sounds.
The makers of Star Trek: Discovery have taken a franchise known for its complex characters and moral quandaries and added a whole lot of punches and kicks and explosions alongside its attempts to Red Wedding space in every single season.
With the new season about to come out, I’d like to talk about a show I just marathoned a few weeks ago. A show screaming with the freak heat of big budget animated spectacle and all the nuance of a tipped over barbecue.
or, flipping like parkour
I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery (STD from now on because I hate typing that whole name, especially the colon) is full of fanservice for Big Boys who spent their childhoods and adolescences watching the various Star Trek1 series and movies. Despite that, it’s willing to break the mold (this is a pun for show-watchers) and make its own daring moves with a franchise known and loved by so many different people spread across six continents over the last six decades.
We begin with the first non-native English speaking, first woman of color, captain. But, interestingly, the real significant First here is that the primary protagonist is not the captain. Michael Burnham is…well, she’s many things. I’ll get to her in a bit.
We begin with space orcs called Klingons speaking in Klingon through thick prosthetic masks that feel like an absolute horror to speak through, which gives all the Klingon this otherworldly feeling while they speak their language, as if it’s not only not their native language but like they all have the smallest lungs and can only find breath for a few words at a time.
Almost immediately, Michael Burnham aims for some acts of daring rather than peaceful negotiation, which sparks a space war with the space orcs and the almost immediate killing of her captain in a brutal way that reminds you that this is Star Trek but with the f-word.
It’s serious shit is what I mean. It’s for Big Boys, not little babies.
Michael Burnham goes to prison but on the way she gets scooped up by Discovery, a research vessel and she does some cool stuff that makes the handsome captain be like, Hey, be on my crew. Michael Burnham is like, Yeah, sure, why not.
From there, the story settles in. It actually becomes very good. The acting is great—especially Doug Jones as Saru: an absolute marvel of physicality—with a few, to me, notable exceptions—I love you, Stamets, but learn how to say your lines, buddy—and the visual effects are so mouthwateringly high production that you can sink your teeth into your TV and taste them. The action, when it happens, is appropriately exciting, and the cast develops and grows together naturally, as if they’ve really been living together for months or years, making the Discovery feel alive, lived in, vibrant.
This is something that we lost in the Golden Age of television. With every network trying to get the next Game of Thrones so they can shock their audiences with Red Weddings and Battles of Bastards, they gave up on humanizing their casts and stories. Never mind that Game of Thrones spent three seasons meticulously putting their characters and narratives together just so they could shock the world with a wedding painted bloody.
STD seems to understand the importance of slowing down, of settling in. So we have all the production value of the Golden Age but with the meandering Quandaries of the Week that fill out the world, allow the characters to grow and relationships to unfurl naturally over the course of hours.
Of course, Prestige Television Syndrome kicks in and we are forced to be shocked while a Plot slaps away the rest of what was going on. That’s not to say it’s bad. The seeds are planted early for this neckbreaking action thriller that swallows the final quarter of the season. It’s all baked right into the beginning of the series.
And so when the twists twist twistily round your neck to choke you into a submissive galaxy spanning conflict between the space orcs and the Federation, you feel genuine excitement. Especially because these twists are baked into concepts and storylines splashed across six decades of Star Trek shows and movies and stories.
My other dimension has another dimension T-shirt…et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The first season is about getting cake and getting to eat it too AND not getting fat. The fanservice is smeared casually but visibly, the action appropriately heart flutteringly thrilling, the mysteries puzzly enough that the clever viewer guessed the reveal right before it happened and the cleverer viewer guessed it way back in episode three or four. Me? I’m a dummy. I never know what’s happening until the writers have made it so abundantly clear that I can feel like I’m not an idiot because I got the answer about a second before someone literally looks into the screen and says THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE WATCHING and I nod along, like Hell yeah, I knew it!
Despite my spotty history with this franchise, I was on board by the end of season one. It had its problems but I don’t ask for perfection when I watch TV. I ask for entertainment. Even slapped together TV with budgets larger than my future lifetime earnings.
Season Two is my favorite of the seasons for a few reasons. I imagine it was pretty divisive because of the way it chooses to engage with the history of the franchise, but I don’t care about fictional history.
Slathered with fanservice barbecue sauce so thick and tangy you don’t even mind that these ribs fell into the dirt because you know you’re going to lick your fat fingers clean until they glimmer slightly in the approaching twilight.
You want Spock?
You got it, buddy.
You want some connections to the original series?
You want everything you knew about Star Trek to be subverted in such a comforting way that it actually reinforces the scaffolding you’ve loved for your whole dorky life?
Oh, buddy, have we got just a platter of freshly smoked meats with twelve different kinds of sauces waiting for you.
After the breakneckery of the finale of the First Season, we’re even allowed to relax into this new normal. And this relaxed pace is just brimming with Michelle Yeoh yass-queening across the screen, just gobbling up every second she’s in costume.
I love her.
I’d let her kill me!
I love how the writers just gave the characters time to breathe, time to emerge and become themselves. I love the way the characters become real and solid here. Yes, I could watch an entire 100 episode series of Michelle Yeoh sashaying across the screen threatening and flirting with anyone lucky enough to share the screen with her, but I’d also watch just thousands of hours of Saru swaying his arms side to side as he walks, embodying so fully an alien creature that it’s honestly bizarrely shocking at first. But, with Saru, it’s really the utter sweetness and sincerity that makes me love him.
I’d let him kill me too!
Of course, nothing lasts forever and we’re forced to run the numbers and watch Prestige Television Syndrome grab what’s good and beautiful and lovely about the show and slam it into the dirt, choke it out while demanding we call it DADDY, because, buddy, we’re seven episodes deep and we have yet to have the PLOT kick in.
And so it kicks in and the action and visual effects are stunning and the twists are less twisty but you’re locked into this rollercoaster as it plummets so you may as well throw your hands in the air and just enjoy the spectacle of punches and kicks and lasers and explosions.
Despite my feelings about how the PLOT enters the Second Season, it does do something expansively awesome to finish the season. It may not be a Red Wedding surprise but it left me with my mouth hanging open for a moment.
Of course, I didn’t have to wait months to watch what happens next. The next episode just started a few seconds later, before I could even really consider what this meant.
Though I want to stop here and talk about Michael Burnham and a few other things.
or, the clockmaker’s itch
A lot of this show would be dramatically simplified if anyone in space went to therapy.
I don’t even mean that in the joking sense. I mean that so many of these people just need a mental health professional!
The lengths poor Ash Tyler in Season One or Spock in Season Two or Michael Burnham in every episode go to to avoid therapy is honestly kind of astounding. Of course, this starship doesn’t have a therapist on it.
I guess space doesn’t discover space therapists until a century later in TNG.
And so the Discovery becomes populated by broken people who have suffered serious and severe trauma, including PTSD and war and hostage situations and so on.
This leaves the crew sort of balanced on razor edges of sanity. While this heightens drama, it’s also my least favorite way for drama to function: people refusing to talk to one another.
I could write dozens of essays about this specific issue I have with so many books, shows, and movies, but it really does make the plot complications often more annoying than interesting. Because the solution could be achieved if people just spoke to their friends and colleagues like any normal person would.
But this is Prestige Television and that means we need lots of different kinds of tensions happening at once, adding another layer of narrative tension to everything, because we’re forced to wonder how can these broken beings save the universe when they can’t even talk to their friend honestly?
I mean, it’s a way to write. I hate it. But some people seem to really enjoy it.
But now we need to talk about Michael Burnham.
There are a lot of criticisms floating around her character. Some of these are real and valid while others seem to be in the general vein of we don’t need a black girl to be the hero.
However, I think that latter criticism is pretty minor, even if it’s vocal. Most people who have an issue with Michael Burnham have actual, real, and reasonable criticisms.
I think defenders of the show and people involved with the show try to brush all criticism under the rug of RACISM and MISOGYNY because it’s easier to say that the criticism is invalid than actually, you know, write a compelling character.
So let’s dive in.
Michael Burnham is an interesting character, in theory. She was adopted by a Vulcan and grew up on Vulcan. She was trained in badass Vulcan combat and has all the LOGIC brain of a real ass Vulcan (never mind the first real act we see her do in the first episode is try to blow up a space orc hive). She’s a decorated member of Star Fleet, but also has a bit of an impulsive streak, which makes her sometimes do rash and unexpected things that are almost always reckless and borderline stupid. At least once, this results in a dear friend getting murdered right in front of her eyes by a space orc with a space orc space sword.
The problem with Michael isn’t that she seems to be sort of good at everything or that she has a serious case of IDIOT PROTAGONIST syndrome when the story requires it. The problem is that her character is always so caught up inside the PLOT that she doesn’t really have a personality or desire outside of what the PLOT demands.
Where the rest of the casts gets to have motivations and desire, hopes and dreams, hobbies and interests, Michael Burnham is forced to carry the PLOT on her shoulders, which makes her behave less like a person and more like a narrative device.
Why is Michael doing some reckless nonsense that, according to the seemingly strict Star Fleet regulations, would get her demoted or decommissioned or whatever?
Well, the PLOT demands someone do this stupid thing and she’s the main character, so I guess it has to be her, yeah?
This causes her to be sidelined for much of the second season on a quixotic quest to deal with whatever weird thing is happening with Spock. This, of course, is connected to some other random shit that only Michael can engage with, which then results in the PLOT grabbing the show by the throat, which puts serious constraints on who and what Michael can be.
This causes her emotional moments to fall flat. Not because Sonequa Martin-Green is a bad actor—she’s probably a great one—but because Michael Burnham isn’t really a character.
The problem with Michael Burnham isn’t that she’s a black woman and fans are racist and sexist. The problem is that the writers don’t know how to make a woman of color an actual hero while still allowing her to have a personality.
The reason Michael Burnham works as well as she does to the extent that she does is in spite of her writing. This is another way of saying that Sonequa Martin-Green deserves an award for bringing such a lifeless character to life and giving her as much humanity as she possibly can, given that the script chooses continually to make her a plot device rather than a person.
Say what you want about Jean-Luc Picard’s seeming genius for solving every problem, but he fails often. He’s also a fully realized character with his own hobbies, desires, hopes, ideology, and personal failings.
Season Three manages to fix a lot of the Michael Burnham issue. Sonequa Martin-Green gets to gobble up her own scenes. The first episode is a goddamn delight! It’s easy to forget, during the first two seasons, that I first saw Martin-Green on New Girl where she absolutely swallowed every second of screentime, regardless of who shared it with her.
Unfortunately, this new deepening and expansiveness allowed her character once again smacks face first into the PLOT, causing Michael to do her best John McClane impersonation for the finale of the season while she Die Hards a bunch of nameless, faceless goons working for some VILLAIN who appears like ten minutes before she mouthfully declares that she is the PLOT now.
or, whipping diamonds at swine
I’ve never been a Star Trek fan but I really wanted to love STD. Sometimes, I even did love it. Loved it a whole lot.
But there’s this whole problem that I’ve slapdashedly defined as Prestige Television Syndrome (PTS™). It demands Twists and Shock and Awe. Never mind that Prestige Television was built on shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones and Mad Men. Shows that took their time with their characters. Shows willing to dive deep and force you to just sit in a room and come to know imaginary people as well as you know your coworkers you spend half your life sitting between.
STD does a lot of solid character work, but, every season, without fail, they chuck the characters to the side to raise the stakes, once more, somehow, to an existential galactic threat.
I mean, at least the first season had a war and space orcs to define its galactic threat. Something solid and easily digestible. The second and third seasons go to absurd lengths to make us suddenly believe in this out-of-nowhere catastrophe that’s about to change the shape of the universe and threaten every sentient being.
(aside: I really want to talk about the finale of Season Three because it perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the show. Maybe I’ll make another post full of spoilers specifically about that, assuming anyone even cares about this post, or maybe I’ll put the spoiler in this footnote2)
It diminishes the entire show, this PTS™. The stakes always get higher and direr, absurder and eyerolling-er.
I want to love this show, and sometimes I even come close, but the refusal to slow down and let the show settle into this new version of reality makes it borderline unwatchable.
(as another quick aside, aside from the footnotes, Season Three should have been at least two seasons, if not three—see, I have a lot to say about Season Three! If you want to read me do more specific deep dives, let me know, though I may mention it a bit in a spoilery fashion in this footnote3)
With Season Four coming, I was hoping that the show was going to finally slow down. But, if the trailer is anything to go off, we’re going to get more punches and explosions, more galactic threats that only Michael Burnham can solve.
Probably I’ll watch it. But I’ll do it grudgingly and may go blind from rolling my eyes too hard.
Some stray thoughts on the trailer:
The Queen is back!
The Anomaly, whatever it ends up being, is going to ruin this season.
I like Michael’s hair here.
The pendulum/wrecking ball metaphor is dumb and bad.
My wife loves Star Trek. Especially Voyager. She was elated several years ago when I said I’d give it a try.
I’m a good sport.
After a trying time with the first few episodes she had a better idea for helping me get into the show.
Let's skip to season five.
This stunning strangeness of this sentence shocked me. The sentiment still haunts me, sending shivers down my spine.
Let’s skip to season five.
I want you to hold that sentence in your mind, in your mouth. The sheer audacity of just skipping a hundred hours of scripted television like it didn’t matter floored me, floors me even now as I type this.
Let’s skip to season five.
Of course, looking back on it now, it’s not really so strange. Television used to be different. Episodes were self-contained stories and storylines rarely stretched past a few double-episodes scattered here and there through the lifetime of a TV show. Yes, a season would have an overall arc and trajectory, but missing an episode wasn’t meant to be a big deal.
This was by necessity. Before the world streamed all of filmed history back to us, the only way to catch up on a show when you missed an episode was to wait until the VHS or DVD came out months later. At which point you’d risk completely giving up on the season in hopes that it wouldn’t get spoiled before you could rent it at Blockbuster, assuming the home video release even happened before next season’s premier.
I should mention a few things here before we go on.
I am not really a Star Trek fan. I’m really not even a fan of science fiction more broadly. I think I’ve seen all of The Next Generation and various episodes of the original back when I was a child who was literally blown away by Khan’s Wrath, but I’ve never had strong emotions or even a strong connection to the franchise.
I’ve tried, now, to watch all of the different Star Trek series, but TNG is the only one I can watch. All Star Trek’s since TNG center the story and ensemble around a Captain, who is also usually the best actor on the show. The margin in acting ability between the captain and the rest of the crew is sometimes astronomical.
I mean, I’ve seen middle school plays. I was even in some. I know what acting shouldn’t look like.
And I gots ta tell ya: Star Trek’s acting is unusually terrible. Terrible to the point that I can’t watch (most of) it. I wish the gravitas of the various captains were enough to distract me from all the flat deliveries given by the various crews, but I’m not that brave.
TNG is the exception because the rest of the cast surrounding Patrick Stewart is actually good. Or at least good enough to carry a show about adventurous scientists in space.
So I’m pretty far from a fan, but I have enough familiarity with the franchise to understand why people like my older brother hate JJ Abram’s version of the franchise. Star Trek is a show about exploration and questioning our place in the universe. The drama and tension of the individual episodes usually rests on a Moral Quandary of the Week structure. This constantly challenges the viewers with new ways to think about their world, their life, their beliefs, and their biases.
Star Trek is not a franchise traditionally about punching your way to an answer, though, occasionally, ideology does require a closed fist.
But because I love my wife and because we temporarily have Paramount+, I suggested giving Star Trek: Discovery a shot. Also, not without significance, I told her that my friend recommended it. When I told my friend this, he reminded me that he did not, in fact, recommend it. He did the opposite.
*If I could, I would add another footnote here explaining that this overly long footnote is, in part, a joke, but, ironically, I no longer trust people to see the humor that I see in things (why this is ironic is demonstrated later in the essay that you’re now reading, or possibly previously if you’re reading this footnote last like some kind of barbarian), especially when it’s purely text based, and so maybe consider this an apology to those who stuck through to the end of this footnote and did not find it funny that I wrote a side essay into my essay about Star Trek. But I quite like the use of footnotes and have been toying with different ways to use them. I’ve largely used them as jokes throughout the essays published so far, though I did previously hide a whole story in a footnote in a previous essay, but I understand that some people don’t even click on the footnotes or probably find them funny, but I promise to continue annoying you with them until I die.
This is a lot to get into, so I’ll try to briefly describe the problem:
The central mystery of the season leads the Discovery to a nebula where Saru believes a child of a Starfleet scientist was. They discover the child, now over 100 years old. He’s adapted to the high radiation that is slowly killing Saru and Culber and Adira who become trapped on there for PLOT reasons. They discover that this child caused the dilithium explosion across the universe with a sort of psychic blast.
Anyrate, Saru, Culber, and Adira are now rapidly dying of radiation poisoning as the PLOT plots along. The stakes are high! People are dying! Just as they tease apart the mystery and sort everything out, the Discovery is racing to save them in time. Remember, they’re literally dying of radiation poisoning. We know this because the show told us several times and demonstrates it happening.
Even so, the show can’t trust it's audience and so the ship they’re all on, which has been relatively fine for over a century, suddenly begins to break to pieces. It’s not enough that we understand that they will die if they spend much longer there. We also need to see that they’ll die because the ship is breaking. So we have two physical threats to their safety. One understood very well, and the other merely as spectacle to remind anyone who hasn’t been following the literal show they’re watching that these people are in danger.
Of course, the Discovery saves them just as the ship falls apart. Then they show them getting radiation treatment.
Like, this shouldn’t matter, but it just seems so dumb. The show doesn’t trust its viewers enough to remember the things that the characters are saying about a threat to their life and that the show is showing us about the threat to their life, so they added a big crashing spectacle on top.
All of Season Three should have been Michael and Discovery’s hunt for the remnants of Star Fleet. This would have allowed the characters to gradually come to understand their new place in the galaxy, to understand how life has changed in the last 900 years. It also would have allowed the show to develop these Space Capitalists to organically become a threat as we see their disastrous and extractive influence spreading across the galaxy in the absence of Star Fleet. It also would have made discovering the remnants of the Federation more emotionally resonant, especially when the Discovery crew is met with distrust.
Season Four could have expanded on this new version of the Federation, which is no longer the primary political power in the universe, but one of many rivaling factions of the shattered galactic civilization. It also would have allowed a more natural progression of conflict between the Space Capitalists and the Federation.