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Josh Looks Back on Star Trek: Discovery Season One

I have been thinking a lot about Star Trek: Discovery since the series wrapped up several weeks ago, and I have been having a lot of spirited conversations about the show with my fellow Trek fans.  There is quite a range of opinions about the show among the Trek fans that I know.  I am happy that a number of my friends quite enjoyed the show.  I wish I was one of them.

There is a great Star Trek TV show lurking somewhere inside Star Trek: Discovery.  I know there is.  The elements are there.  The main cast is strong.  In particular, Sonequa Martin-Green is fantastic, a perfect choice to build a new type of Star Trek show around.  The production values are extraordinary — Star Trek has never looked better on TV.

And yet, for the most part, I found this first fifteen-episode season of Star Trek: Discovery to be a big swing and a miss.  I am fundamentally baffled by the creative choices made by the show’s creators.  Repeatedly, while watching this first season, I asked myself: what is this show ABOUT?

At first, based on the pre-show interviews and press, I thought the show would have two major themes: 1) that, unlike all (well, most) previous Trek, the show would not be based around the captain and the main bridge command crew, but instead it would be about lower-ranked officers who weren’t always in the middle of the action, characters like the disgraced Michael Burnham and her new friend Tilly, who was just a cadet, and 2) that it would be about the Klingon-Federation conflict that erupted a decade before the events of the Original Series (which depicted the Federation and the Klingon Empire locked in a Cold War stalemate), but that it would make an effort to depict both sides of the conflict, with several Klingon characters in major roles on the series.  Both of those are great ideas with the potential to be the basis for an exciting new Star Trek show.  But neither panned out.  Discovery IS about the leadership characters on the ship, and Burnham and Tilly, though neither are commissioned Starfleet officers, always found themselves at the center of the action.  And while the first two episodes spent a huge amount of time with the Klingons, we never really got anything more than superficial insight into their characters and/or perspectives, and those Klingon characters quickly fell away as the show progressed.

Then, for the bulk of the rest of the first half of the season (that initial batch of nine episodes), the show seemed to flirt with the idea of being about whether Starfleet ideals and pacifism could be maintained when the Federation was thrust into a brutal war.  That would also be an interesting central hook for a Star Trek show (even though Deep Space Nine already did this, and brilliantly so, in its later seasons).  But the show never really went there.  After those first few episodes, we saw very little of the Federation-Klingon war, and the show never really dug deep into this potentially interesting philosophical conflict.  We could have gotten a great story about the conflict (and, perhaps, eventual mutual understanding) between the militaristic Lorca and the more idealistic Burnham, but the show never really went there, content mostly to let Lorca just seem “evil”.  (The ultimate revelation that Lorca was from the Mirror Universe represented a complete dismissal of the idea of the show being about an exploration of Starfleet characters pushed to their breaking point by terrible circumstances.  Lorca, rather than developing into a complicated, three-dimensional character, was instead revealed to just be an evil doppelgänger from the Mirror Universe.)

Speaking of the Mirror Universe, after the hiatus, the show switched gears entirely and gave us a multi-episode arc in the Mirror Universe (the alternate universe filled with evil versions of our characters, first introduced in the Original Series episode “Mirror, Mirror” and revisited multiple times in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise).  I love the Mirror Universe, and the idea of spending a prolonged amount of time exploring that universe and those concepts is an intriguing notion.  But, as I have written before, it feels to me like a stunningly bizarre choice that this show which seemed intended to attract non-Trek fans and which showed, time and again, a staggering disregard to Star Trek continuity (continuity that is important to most actual Star Trek fans), would then choose to dive so deeply into this concept that would, I suspect, probably only be of real interest to those pre-existing Star Trek fans the show had seemed not to care about.  The result is that the show pissed off many long-time Trek fans while also failing to be something that I’d feel I could show to a non-Trek fan.  (Also, another weakness is that the whole Mirror Universe storyline feels to me like it came way too early in Discovery’s run.  A prolonged Mirror Universe arc would make more sense to me as a fun change of pace in, say, season four or five, rather than a place to go to in the show’s tenth episode of season one.)

And so, I am left scratching my head, trying to determine what Discovery was intended to actually be about, and why the show runners made the choices that they did.

I am a huge Star Trek fan, but I am very supportive of attempting to broaden the reach of the series beyond the hard-core fans.  I’d love it if I could say to any non-fan that Discovery is an awesome show that they should watch.  I believe that this could have been done without, at the same time, disregarding the long-time Trek fans.  But that’s not what happened.  Almost all of the creative choices made in Discovery’s early-going showed a shocking disregard for Star Trek continuity in a way that felt, to me, like a slap in the face to long-time Trek fans.  And, look, I am not a super-crazy continuity fanatic!!  I’m really not!  I don’t care if one episode says the ship’s galley is on deck nine and another episode says it’s on deck ten.  But I do care about the Klingons looking basically like Klingons.  I do care that Starfleet ships set in the era of the Original Series actually look SOMETHING like the Starfleet ships that we saw in the Original Series!

Which brings me to the question that I have asked, repeatedly, in many of my previous reviews of Discovery episodes: why is this show a prequel??  I could see a lot of fascinating story potential in a show set just a decade before the events of the Original Series.  But Discovery never seemed interested in any sort of storytelling that would connect to the Original Series in any way.  In fact, the show seemed to go out of its way, over and over and over again, to contradict what we knew of this time-period from the Original Series (and the subsequent Trek shows).  The show didn’t make ANY attempt to have any sort of visual connection with the Original Series.  The ships, the uniforms, the technology, none of that looks anything like the Original Series.  The Klingons were given an entirely different look that 1) I thought looked terrible and 2) didn’t mesh at all with any previous look we’d seen for the Klingons.  Time after time, we saw characters on Discovery using technology that they shouldn’t have in this time-period of Trek (the humongous viewscreens, holographic communications technology, the magic spore drive, Klingon ships with cloaking devices) and knowing things they shouldn’t know about (such as the existence of the Mirror Universe).  So I ask again: why make this show a prequel if the creators had zero interest in fitting the show into pre-established Star Trek continuity??  As I have written repeatedly, this show would have been so much stronger had it been set decades AFTER the events of the 24th century-set Trek shows (Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager) rather than as a prequel.  Then the contradictions wouldn’t be a problem!  The more advanced tech/ships/etc. wouldn’t be a problem because it’d be further into the Trek future, and other creative choices that were problematic in the prequel setting (such as the new-look Klingons) could be more easily accepted under the assumption that something happened in the time between the previous Trek shows and this one (in the same way that fans forgave the new bumpy-headed look given to the Klingons in the Trek movies, which of course was very different from the human-looking Klingons in the Original Series).

Am I being too hard on Discovery?  Looking back now, I have to acknowledge that the first season of every other Trek show (with the exception of the Original Series) pretty much stunk.  Even with all its problems, these season one Discovery episodes are more watchable than most season one Next Gen or Deep Space Nine episodes, and those developed into spectacular shows.  But today’s TV landscape is different, and our expectations are higher that shows — particularly those shows created for platforms outside of the main networks, and with shorter episode runs — will come out of the gate stronger.  Also, when one considers how long Star Trek has been off of TV, and Discovery’s lengthy pre-production process, I also had a higher expectation that, when this new Trek show finally arrived, that it would arrive in better shape.  Also, when Trek fans are being asked to PAY for the “CBS All-Access” service in order to watch these episodes, I also have reason to expect a higher quality.

Am I just impossible to please?  I don’t think so.  I think that I am able to think critically about the things that I love.  My love can allow me to forgive some sins but I don’t think I will blindly devour any crap just because it has a name that I feel a connection to.  Conversely, while I tend to spend a lot more time thinking about the things that I love than I think most people do — and therefore and much more cognizant of where I think they are flawed — I don’t think I am so hyper-critical of the things that I love that nothing can satisfy me.  Take Star Wars: The Last Jedi for example.  I am a pretty enormous Star Wars nerd.  I love Star Wars and have very high expectations for any new Star Wars movie or TV show, just as I do for Star Trek.  In my review of the film, I wrote very frankly about what I saw as The Last Jedi’s many flaws.  The Last Jedi is far from a perfect film.  But I still enjoyed it, and despite its flaws I still think it is a pretty great movie.  Those flaws didn’t ruin the movie for me.  I have been mystified by the hate for the film I have seen online, and even encountered in some of my friends.  I think there is something somewhat warped that so many Star Wars fans have such hate for a film that I think has so much great stuff in it.  I can understand having problems with the film — I do myself! — but HATING the film is something else entirely.  To bring us back to Star Trek, I use TLJ as an example of how I don’t believe I am impossible to please just because I am such an uber-fan.  I think my issues with Star Trek: Discovery are valid.

So where from here?  When Star Trek: Discovery returns for season two, I’ll be there.  I won’t be hate-watching.  I don’t believe in that!  Life is too short!  I’ll be hope-watching.  As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, I know that there are all the elements of a great TV show there within Star Trek: Discovery.  I hope that the men and women behind the show can make some needed course corrections and give us a season two that is great Star Trek.  It’s been done before.

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