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Why can’t Star Trek: Discovery commit to serialized storytelling?

Why can’t Star Trek: Discovery commit to serialized storytelling?


Everything that could happen, did happen — but none of it felt like it ever mattered

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Star Trek: Discovery
Image: CBS

Star Trek: Discovery has staked a lot on the idea that it was telling a different kind of Star Trek story — a tighter, more plotted-out version of Trek instead of the crisis-of-the-week style of earlier shows, which were designed to meet the needs of cable syndication. But Discovery — which just wrapped up its first season on Sunday — didn’t embrace long-arc storytelling. The creators and writers divided the season and its story into disparate pieces, and crammed them so full of flashy plot twists and reveals that the series rarely reached beyond hammering home its core conceit: that war is bad, and morals are good.

And boy, does Discovery want its fans to feel the weight of that motto. The show’s cycling plotlines looped from the pilot (almost unrelated to the larger story), to the nearly standalone middle episodes, to the larger Klingon war arc, the Mirror Universe detour, and then the slightly different second Klingon war plot. And throughout, the writers’ room seemed willing to try any tactic to get that central point across. But by shattering the season into fragments of stories, Discovery ended up with characters who barely changed over 15 episodes. They spent the whole season going through the same motions in whatever Mad Libs scenario a given episode required.


At one point in the movie Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s character quotes an alternate interpretation of Murphy’s Law as “Whatever can happen, will happen.” Star Trek: Discovery takes place in an entirely different science fiction world, but McConaughey’s motto works there, as well. Almost every familiar science fiction plot device that could have popped up, did. So why does it feel like none of it mattered?

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. Lots of ’em.

When the show left viewers at the mid-season break, it seemed like it was wrapping up the opening Klingon war arc and setting out for some new voyages of exploration among the stars. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin) had learned from the mistakes that launched the war in the pilot episode, the unorthodox Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) finally looked like the heroic leader that viewers expect from Star Trek captains, the teleporting spore-drive was complete, and with the Discovery seemingly lost in space, the sky seemed the limit for future storylines.

The second half of the season never assembled those threads into a coherent whole

Unfortunately, the second half of the season never assembled those threads into a coherent whole. Discovery’s second half leaves no science fiction trope unused, no plot device untouched. It doesn’t feel like a well-plotted serial story, so much as the writers trying to cram everything possible in for the sake of it without any real impact or stakes.

That includes the extended arc in the Mirror Universe, where everyone is evil. Through that storyline, the show gets an unsubtle illustration for its core thesis, that violence and war are not the answers to problems. “We are stranded in a cruel anarchic world, but we are still Starfleet. We still live and die by Federation law,” the alien Saru (Doug Jones) intones at one point.

Jan Thijs / CBS

Burnham’s former mentor, the wise and kind Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), is revealed as a murderous, power-hungry emperor of the evil Terran Empire. As many fans anticipated, Lorca, whose “do-anything-to-win” tactics and rebellious decision-making in earlier episodes could have offered an interesting shift from Starfleet’s usually unimpeachable morals, turns out to be the Mirror Universe version of himself. Upon arriving in the Mirror-verse, Lorca immediately reverts from the complex character from the first half of the season to a caricature who believes humans are superior to all other races, and who declares with zero irony that he “will make the empire glorious again.”

Discovery touches on a lot of other familiar science fiction tropes

Lt. Ash Tyler, who was struggling with PTSD at mid-season, is shown to be a Klingon sleeper agent (as many viewers guessed far too early on), although almost nothing actually comes from this. The show itself seems to completely forget about it for an episode, and ultimately, Tyler just leaves the ship during the finale.

Discovery touches on a lot of other familiar science fiction tropes: time travel, a Rip Van Winkle lost-time plot, an alien bazaar, even a visit to a Star Wars-style alien strip club / casino for virtually no good reason. Through those plots, the finale dives back into the questions Discovery has been asking all season: “Do the ends justify the means?” and “Should good people stick to their principles when fighting an enemy who lacks them?”

Best Possible Screengrab / CBS

The season finale offers one final round of this repetition. Yet another duplicitous captain betrays Burnham, who gets yet another chance to choose a path other than the most violent, destructive one. Saru gets to say “We are Starfleet” again, as the crew of the Discovery threatens to mutiny again against a Federation that has lost its way and is contemplating genocide.

It feels like Discovery shouting “Look! This is what we were going for!”

It’s all capped by Burnham giving a remarkably unsubtle speech full of phrases like “We will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness,” “We will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts,” and “We will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority.” It feels like Discovery shouting “Look! This is what we were going for!” in 10-foot-high neon letters long after the point has been repeatedly made.

In Discovery’s defense, the season finale suggests that the show’s creators know they’ve been getting off track. The Klingon war is wrapped up again, and the entire slate of the show seems to be wiped clean for whatever comes next. Burnham has been reinstituted into Starfleet as a commander, everyone gets medals, the spore drive is shut down while Starfleet finds a less dangerous workaround, and the ship heads out to get a new, presumably more conventional, and less secretly evil captain from Vulcan.

Image: CBS

And even at its most ridiculous, the series is still entertaining

And for all it’s heavy-handedness and mile-a-minute plotting, Discovery isn’t all bad. The show still looks fantastic — the futuristic tech looks fantastic, the effects are far and away the best ever seen on a Trek show, and even the blue uniforms kind of work. The characters are fun: Anthony Rapp’s dry Lt. Stamets, Doug Jones’ sombre Saru, and Mary Wiseman’s always enthusiastic Tilly remain the show’s unsung MVPs. And even at its most ridiculous, the series is still entertaining. It has good bones in its cast and characters. That just makes the more questionable decisions, like the show’s aggressively serialized nature, or its place in overall Trek continuity, stand out even more. And if the season finale highlights many of Discovery’s flaws, it at least seems to understand at the end what a Star Trek show can be: one full of hope for humanity’s future and reaching for the stars to see what else is out there.

Of course, that’s before the final scene, which calls into question whether Discovery can really change for the better. (Seriously, spoilers ahead.) Enroute to Vulcan, the ship receives a Federation distress call. And who should be on the other side but the most famous ship in the fleet: the USS Enterprise, captained in this pre-Kirk era by Captain Christopher Pike. It’s the most pandering sort of cliffhanger, both unearned (where was the Enterprise during this entire Klingon war?) and a shameless attempt to lure viewers back for next season.

Because if one thing is clear about Star Trek: Discovery at this point, not only can we be sure that “Whatever can happen, will happen,” it’s clear it’ll happen in the least subtle way possible.