Now that Star Trek: Discovery has wrapped up its first season, and everyone’s had a chance to binge and catch up, two of our writers had a q&a together on the series. What worked? What did we each like? Or hate? It is rumored to be a long time until the next season comes out (2019 is the word) but that won’t keep us from loving Michael Burnham and her crew for the next several months while we continue to dissect this latest entry in the Star Trek canon.
Leslie: So Jamil, Star Trek: Discovery has wrapped the first season. We’ve talked a lot in our recaps about what we liked. What’s the biggest thing you *didn’t* like?
Jamil: One thing I really didn’t like was the way that the Ash/Voq thing played out. I read the fan theories pretty early about Ash being Voq, so I wasn’t surprised at all when the reveal came (although, to be fair, I don’t think anyone was). I wasn’t upset for plot reasons though; I was upset because I was genuinely happy to see the character of Michael Burnham find love as a Black woman. There are depressingly few examples of Black women finding good, loving relationships on television, particularly genre television. Remember that bullshit Duala went through on Battlestar Galactica? So I was glad that Burnham found Tyler, and Sonequa Martin-Green and Shazad Latif had amazing on-screen chemistry, so it made their budding romance fun to watch. I didn’t want to see that relationship taken away. Granted, the opportunity still exists for Ash Tyler to return, but we’ll never have him as a regular on the USS Discovery again.
Jamil: DISCO relied on narrative twists and shocking moments more than any other Star Trek has before. Do you think this approach worked for the first season, and would you make any changes to the formula in season 2?
Leslie: I like a good twist, but this season was exhausting. By the time we got to the end of the Lorca reveal, it wasn’t even a shock. In fact, the Lorca reveal allowed his odd actions throughout the season to make more sense. Instead of a “Oh My GAWD!” my reaction was “Oh THANK GAWD.” Him being an agent for the Mirror on his own errand meant I could continue to believe that “the Federation” wouldn’t do some of the things he’d done.
Add to that the fact that the two reveals of Ash and Lorca were both plays on the same idea — how long can a man hide who he really is? How do different personality traits play out in different environments? It turns out you can make a Klingon a human, but you can’t make a truly evil man a good one.
I’d like to see them tone all that down next season. One reveal/twist a season is enough for 12 or 13 episodes. They are already on the verge of ceasing to surprise us. If they keep ratcheting up the soap opera drama, they risk having their twists bore us instead.
Jamil: Agreed. The whiplash was fun for a while, but eventually I started to worry that the show wouldn’t be as fun to watch a second time with all of the big reveals gone. I’m hoping that if DISCO sticks with the heavy serialization, it constructs a more coherent storyline that can last for the entirety of the season and not rely so much on shock and awe.
Leslie: Despite a relentless focus on Burnham, we know precious little about anyone else, the show was very much about relationships. Did that work? Which were really successful?
Jamil: I think a few of the relationships worked well, mostly because of the skill of the actors involved. Michelle Yeoh is in a class of her own, but Jason Isaacs, Sonequa Martin-Green and Shazad Latif are also amazing performers who elevated so-so writing and gave us connections we cared about. As creepy as Lorca got when we found out about his relationship with Mirror Burnham, you could see how much he loved her when he invited our Burnham to join him, thanks to a great performance. Without Isaacs, Lorca is just another run-of-the-mill antihero; without Yeoh, Captain Georgiou is some dead captain and cheesy Mirror Universe doppelganger.
To your point about not knowing anything about everyone else, I was sad to see Isaacs and Yeoh go, but hopefully this will present an opportunity to get to know more about the rest of the bridge crew. This isn’t like The Next Generation where some random actor filled in at helm every week. These characters have names and have been portrayed by the same people the whole season. I really hope that they get integrated more into the larger cast, especially Joann Owosekun (played by Oyin Oladejo). The main thing I enjoyed about the Mirror Universe was the expanded roles for the other bridge officers, even if it was just as sneering villains.
Leslie: This. I want that bridge crew to really show up next season, not just because there are 2 or 3 People of Color on the cast, but because they are so clearly talented and ready to do more. Hopefully with less sneering Lorca, there will be more room for the others to step up.
Leslie: On AfterTrek, one of the producers said: “Our goal was to blur the line between TV and movies completely.” Is that a good goal? Did they succeed at it?
Jamil: In terms of production, I think that’s a great goal. The quality of the sets, of the special effects, the cinematography and of the level of the actors they brought on was all top notch. One thing I was afraid of before Discovery premiered was that CBS were going to be cheapskates about the show since it was banished behind their All-Access paywall, but they seemed to have spared no expense in this first season. It had the texture and feel of a movie, and that helped immerse me in the world, even though it didn’t always make sense.
In terms of storytelling, I’m less sold. Television has been moving increasingly in the direction of serialization for a long time now, and the negative results have been two-fold. First, we’re losing one of the biggest benefits of television: its episodic nature. There’s been some pushback on this with anthology series like Black Mirror, but it’s more and more difficult to be able to jump into a drama unless you’ve seen every episode from the beginning. The writers also don’t feel compelled to wrap up any plot line in the confines of a single episode, which sounds like a good thing, but often results in muddied plotting as arcs stretch across episodes with no clear organization, since time barely counts as a restriction anymore.
That leads to the other big problem- plot incoherence. DISCO is a particularly acute case of this condition, where so many things are happening at the same time that it’s hard to keep track of it all, and none of it is related to anything else. The main plotlines of the season, the Mirror Universe and the Klingon war, are perfect examples of that. Their narrative arcs really only intersect at two places: the fact that breaking the Klingon cloak also conveniently gave Lorca the coordinates to jump back to his own universe, and Mirror Georgiou’s plan to destroy Qo’noS. For the rest of the season, those plots had almost nothing to do with each other, and would supercede each other at random plots without rhyme or reason. That’s to say nothing of the half dozen or more smaller plots that cropped and disappeared as suddenly. I think this is a direct result of the breakdown of thinking of television not as movies with a continuing story, but as television as a collection of discreet episodes which can be fit together as a puzzle, yet must remain intact on their own.
Question for you, Leslie. One of those twists was the appearance of the classic USS Enterprise at the end of DISCO’s season finale. What did you think about the potential benefits and pitfalls of that decision?
Leslie: One of the weaknesses of the show is it’s obsession with “the timeline.” Admittedly, they picked a sticky needle to try and thread — just 10 years before The Original Series — but they drew attention to what a hard job they’ve given themselves at least once an episode. The focus on the timeline leads to a self-referentialness that limits how far the show can reach. I know nerds love canon and continuity, but there comes a point where a show has to be its own new thing, not a reference to an old thing. Too much nostalgia is not good. Given that, I knew they’d have to run into Spock and Pine at some point, but I’d hoped it would be deeper into the series, after all of the characters had solidified more. Now they’ll go through a bunch of narrative hoops to avoid Burnham, Spock, and Sarek meeting, the whole time trying to convince me they were clever. You know what’s clever? Not mentioning it at all. Leave it up to my headcanon to address the relationships between those 3 Vulcans/Humans/Brothers/Sisters/Dads. A good author knows what not to explain. The show runners need to fit and explain everything plays to a particular weakness of the fandom, not to the strength of the story.
Jamil: I completely agree that DISCO’s obsession with canon is a major weakness. The Star Trek franchise has been going backwards since the end of Voyager – Enterprise, the Abramsverse and DISCO are all prequels, and each time the writers have to find some way to make stories that don’t follow canon fit, with varying degrees of success (read: none). I would have loved to see a new series set in the post- Dominion War Alpha Quadrant, but that seems less and less likely the more time passes.
Leslie: RIGHT? A post-Sisko post war setting in the Alpha Quadrant would be the best. They could have covered war and love and peace and all that, while still taking us forward, not back.
Jamil: I think the canon isn’t nearly as important to the writers as it is to the fans anyway though. There have been so many retcons across the history of the franchise that’s it not even funny, from the small (apparently Klingon corpses are both disposable and really important) to the major (there were six ships named Enterprise…until there was seven). Yet the more obsessive fans insist that everything fit together nice and neat, and that’s just not going to happen across a fifty year old franchise. I say forget the canon and tell interesting stories, but that seems to be a minority view.
Leslie: One I agree with 10000%.
Jamil: What is the identity of Star Trek Discovery? Each Trek series has had a core concept which framed it, and the producers of DISCO often talked about testing the ideals of the Federation in a time of war. Now that the war is over, what is Discovery actually about going forward?
Leslie: Yeahhhh, I don’t believe the war is over. There’s no way, after blowing up darn near everything in sight, that Disco settles down to be about actual discovery. They’ve got an action star heroine who punches as well as she talks and a supporting cast who seem ready to throw hands, or at least phaser shots, at anything that moves. I suspect the show continues to be about war, how it challenges our morals, what kind of people succeed in that challenge, how the federation really comes to settle into its role as a universal peacemaker and diplomat.
All this war sets up the more peaceful wanderings of the TOS and meshes well with the mood of the viewing public — if you check the rest of CBS’ lineup, it is war, war, CIA, secret op, war. Discovery is leaning to be that war story, in space. Which is better than a new CSI spin off, to be sure.
While the Klingon War may be over, there are still going to be rogue Klingons to fight, and plenty of other races and species to meet and get into it with. We can no longer imagine space exploration as a primarily peaceful affair. So as usual, this setting of ST says as much about the present as it does the future.
Jamil: Again, I think you’re right that conflict will remain at the core of DISCO. It’s kind of funny that a show about the USS Discovery has featured almost no actual discovery or exploration this season. It would be great if we got some exploration, but that looks unlikely.
DISCO’s production troubles are well documented, and I think that may have had alot to do with the lack of a clear identity for the show this season. Now that a regular team is in place and has survived the trial by fire of the first season, I think we’ll see something with more coherence in season two…all the way in 2019 🙁