Star Trek: Discovery has ended and, spoiler alert, the appearance of the U.S.S Enterprise in the last moments is a red herring as much as an analgesic. Has Discovery lived up to its potential? The short answer is no. For all the spectacle and rollercoaster plot twists this is an unfamiliar universe next to the unabashed idealism of The Original Series.
Some of this might be a crisis of identity. Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller created the show, but Fuller left over disagreements with CBS about its direction. He was keen on an anthology series, and what could have been different time periods in the Trek universe has now become one big TOS preamble.
According to showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts that’s the point. Discovery is set ten-years before The Original Series, and it’s a journey from the tropes of war and strife into the utopian vision of humanity in Star Trek.
The Federation-Klingon War is a curious surviving idea of Fuller’s original take. Given how little of the show has given over to exploring themes of conflict, it’s been an unfulfilled and mostly irrelevant backdrop. Deep Space Nine and Enterprise to some extent undertook a multi-season war arc, and Discovery never comes close to emulating the series’ maturity and risk-taking.
Unfortunately, the show just asks too much. Excluding the non-sequitur, J.J. Abrams’ movie reboots, Star Trek hasn’t been on television for 12 years. Its last iteration was notoriously bland with only its final season offering the familiar Trek hallmarks to make it appealing (ironically a change of showrunner was the reason for the improvement).
Discovery‘s most critical flaw is what Enterprise should never had a problem with. Set a hundred years prior to any canon, Enterprise should have been able to do whatever it wanted. There were some unavoidable dates and factoids from the show’s fictional chronology, but by and large it all chimed in with the Old West feel of the original show. Where it collapsed was in failing to embrace any real canon or to provide any innovative form of storytelling. It lacked heart, and ambition, in what could have been a terrific show making the most of a blank canvass.
Discovery might have had the illusion of creative freedom, but was catastrophically limited in what it could actually do. The decision to make the show so close to TOS is maddening, presumably to no one more than its writing team. If they do too much, they violate 50-year roots and irk fans. If they do too little or give too much anachronistic visual and tech in line with the show’s 1960’s origin, then it’s a foul on its promise for new audiences and fans.
After fifteen episodes then, Discovery is a bizarre mesh of restrained ambition and fanboy indulgence. Throw in an inaugural ‘F’ bomb, kill a few Captains and tell an elongated, vice-laden plot littered with contrivance and here you are. From spore drives that don’t make sense (Voyager, lost in space, would have been over in 45 minutes) to a segway into the Mirror Universe and ‘surprises’ seen a mile off, the show has little to show for itself. Much has been made of its slow-burning, Game of Thrones style storytelling, but it’s come at the cost of moments and adventures that build character. We now know Michael Burnham, but we don’t have much reason to care (her more famous stepbrother failed to even mention her).
So gone are the heady days of speculation of what the show might be replaced with a continuing feeling of ‘meh’. Star Trek’s most significant success isn’t its longevity, but it’s addictiveness in syndication. Everyone who likes it, and even those who don’t, can call back to specific episodes. The one with the orange rug alien. The one where Spock is randy and fights. The one with the beard. The one where Kirk hooks up with the green woman.
Self-contained creatures are Star Trek. Alien of the week is exactly what audiences expect. All of the series’ five iterations and pre-reboot films ran with this plot device. It’s more important than captains’ logs or killing red shirts. Each episode began with the unknown and ended with a moral point. Finding one episode that doesn’t oblige that format is the rarest of Trek.
What’s so frustrating about Discovery is it’s the show Enterprise should have been, but it doesn’t even know it. The acting is fine, the budget is enormous and the spectacle is excellent. But what is it? It might have done away with most of the affectations of Trek, but that’s not the issue. It’s criminally negligent of that beautiful, insatiable quality that makes the other shows so watchable: hope.
That sounds hokey. But if you’re going to resurrect a new incarnation of a classic, look it dead in the eye and see it for what it was. Asian, Black and Russian characters held positions of respect on the bridge of an Earth ship at a time they were being denied basic dignity in the real world. A Jewish man fashioned a Hebrew gesture into a symbol of prosperity and longevity. An atypical Hornblower Captain held a balance between a Southern Doctor and a mixed-race Science officer all at a time when technological achievement seemed devastating but boundless.
Even putting Gene Roddenberry’s name in the same article as Discovery seems jarring. The defence of Discovery is it’s made Star Trek modern. But has it? The show has betrayed its roots by exchanging a proud moral display for misty-eyed indulgence, hypersexualisation and the same torture porn that TV drama seems obsessed with today.
Consider for a moment if the creators, writers and actors had conspired together to do the unthinkable. Audiences want sex and violence at a time when streaming services ensure they’re saturated for choice in that department. Instead, what could they have done? Given an idealised version of the future where an intrepid band of humans and aliens show us that a better tomorrow can be made.
Star Trek is about principal when there is none, and pushing a new frontier for representation and values. Cliched as that may be, that’s the essence of Star Trek, and what Discovery isn’t. Perhaps it could be, and once go where no one has gone before.