The Buzz: 'Star Trek: Discovery' Loses Sight of the Franchise Magic
My expectations were relatively high going into Star Trek: Discovery. The landmark franchise was back on television for the first time in a decade, and seemingly back to the staunch diplomacy of the original shows, as opposed to the ill-fitting (though admittedly fun) spectacle we’ve seen in J.J. Abrams’ cinematic reboots. There looked to be a renewed interest in diverse casting, something Star Trek pioneered, as well as a curiosity in seeing how the stories translated to today’s binge-watching format.
Sadly, the biggest discovery to be made about Star Trek: Discovery is how frustratingly lifeless it feels. In an effort to distinguish itself, the show has decided to break rank and defy several long-standing traditions, ultimately losing sight of what made Star Trek so great in the first place.
Those who swear by series creator Gene Roddenberry will be particularly miffed. Roddenberry compiled a “Writer's/Director’s Guide” during the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made it clear that any and all Starfleet crews had transcended the need for inner-conflict and should never let personal issues get in the way of their mission. The opposite is true in Discovery. The notion that strong, unwavering teamwork can bring about a peaceful resolution is completely lost on a new cast of characters who’d rather manipulate, bicker, and stage mutinies on the USS Discovery. The crew, rather than space, is the frontier being explored this time around.
Now a character-driven approach wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were likable and/or compelling. While purists would be put off, there is still some strong, challenging material to be culled from an imperfect vision of Starfleet. But it seems that in an effort to make the characters more “gritty”, the showrunners left out any semblance of “charm.” No one seems as though they want to be aboard the ship, let alone in the company of their peers. The feeling gets to be mutual for the viewer. To add insult to injury, these thankless roles are played by diverse and capable actors like Shazad Latif (Ash Tyler), Michelle Yeoh (Captain Philippa Georgiou), and Jason Isaacs (Captain Gabriel Lorca)-- each of whom deserve better.
Then there is the matter of the show’s continuity, which needlessly complicates the Star Trek timeline. Discovery is set ten years before the events of the original series, and like most prequels, there are errors and inconsistencies that can distract from the narrative. Why is the technology more advanced than it will be a decade from now? Why do the Klingons look different than every other iteration we’ve seen before? Why do they have cloaking devices this early in the timeline? And why are there still so many damn lens flares? So far, there’s been no clear benefit to setting Discovery in the past, making this a particularly baffling decision. If anything, it’s somber, wayward tone may have worked better had it been set after the events of The Next Generation.
That’s not to say Discovery is without positives. Sonequa Martin-Green is undeniably commanding as the show’s protagonist, Michael Burnham. While lacking the overt charisma of a Captain Kirk or Picard, her Burnham is a more rounded, human character than we’ve ever seen before, and the decisions she makes throughout the series carry legitimate dramatic weight. I also enjoy the character of Saru, which Doug Jones plays with colorful, combustible neuroticism. They represent hopeful exceptions to the rule-- a sign that the writers actually have what it takes to craft sharp, engaging characters.
My biggest bone to pick with Discovery, however, is it's blatant attempt to imitate the overarching narratives of recent Netflix dramas. Star Trek was always at it's best when it limits conflicts to a single episode. Discovery has unwisely avoided this. Instead, the show sprinkles flashbacks and exposition throughout each story, with little in the way of satisfying conclusions or payoffs thus far. The first two episodes rely almost entirely on this hollow promise of "intrigue", and wind up feeling like a glorified, overly-long prologue as a result. Things have improved somewhat (its fourth episode, “The Butcher's Knife Cares Not For The Lamb's Cry”, was easily its strongest to date), but right now, Discovery is stuck trying to play someone else’s game, and losing.
Overall, the future looks uncertain for Star Trek: Discovery. It’s not unthinkable for a series to find it's way after stumbling out the gate, but there are still so many structural and thematic weak spots that need to be patched up first. Furthermore, Discovery is streaming exclusively on CBS All Access, a platform that’s still unproven and will likely cut down on potential viewers compared to shows that are available on public broadcast. It’ll take a massive boost to simultaneously keep the series afloat and make us want to subscribe to yet another streaming service. In short: the showrunners better get to patching.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery air on Sundays at 8:30pm ET / 5:30pm PT on CBS All Access.