Discovery Needs to Find Itself

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This week, as everyone was freaking out about Game of Thrones, I finished season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery. Ever since, I’ve been debating how to write this, and why. It’s important to me that I love Star Trek, in its myriad forms. I’ve ruled out wanting a rehash of the old show, just as I’ve ruled out many of the reasons my facebook group is full of salt. But I am trying to understand just what isn’t working for me, so that’s what this is going to be about.

The truth is, I have NOT loved every iteration of Trek instantly. Deep Space Nine is probably my favorite (tied with the original), though I find the first season almost unwatchable. I adore Voyager, but it took me awhile to get into. I never did manage to warm to Enterprise, which I thought had some good ideas and characters and design but failed to capture the spirit I wanted. And that’s generally how I feel about Discovery: that it’s trapped between two forms of television storytelling and has many great ideas that are foundering in their execution. Overall, it feels like something that is playing it too safe, even as it takes great strides to demonstrate the diversity that should be evident throughout any Trek franchise.

But while the diversity is well shown, I find most of the actual writing to lean heavily on telling. We are told, over and over, how hard things are for characters. Or how important something is. I love the trials that are set up for the characters, the identity-shaking, life and love and death situations, the notion that we are here to make the galaxy better. But I hardly ever feel those conflicts. This is more evident in the voiceover narration, which is tediously high-school diary. (“Just as repetition reinforces repetition, change begets change….Sometimes the only way to find out where you fit in is to step out of the routine. Because sometimes, where you really belong was waiting right around the corner all along.”) But it happens between characters, too, as Spock looks meaningfully at a three-dimensional chess set and intones, “the board is yours, Michael.”

So what am I missing? I don’t think any of the previous series are or should be a model for a new Trek. Nor do I think Trek needs to hare off into some new grimdark territory to keep up with Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or the fake-gritty DCU. What I do think we have, here, is an attempt to have both of those things that accomplishes neither. An attempt at the old feeling (including Spock and Pike, references to uniform color, etc) while trying too hard to be profound and edgy. But the cake-and-eat-it-too attempt to hew close to established canon while doing something new and different neither feels like canon nor like anything original and fresh. It feels constrained by creators who are afraid to step too far outside two boxes that don’t have a lot of overlap. And you get a show that should be helmed by the women and actors of color who hold most of the parts, but relies on Pike and Spock for a lot of the emotional core. You get a show that doesn’t bother to tell me why I should care about Airiam until she’s dead. A show that thinks it needs Section 31 and the mirror universe to provide edge and conflict.

We can argue about what Star Trek is, what elements make something “feel like” Trek. And I’ve quarreled with new interpretations before. But it’s not so much that I need Discovery to BE like DS9 or Voyager. It’s that I want it to stop feeling like it wants to be Star Wars or Mass Effect without making Trekkies mad. I want it to explore what it means to be human, or anyway part of the collective the Federation has and will become. I want it to offer a dose of optimism that we will choose to do better. And I want it to take risks. I don’t want a show with a plodding arc that literally takes us to a point where it writes itself out of existence, simply because they’ve trapped themselves in a time frame that is unworkable with the story they want to tell. If you wanted a show that doesn’t fit with the timeline or the technology already set up, maybe you aren’t writing the right show. I’m not asking for The Original Series Two. But I am saying that by wrapping itself up in a time period and with existing characters whose fates are already known, it’s constrained itself out of any sense of momentum or progress.

I am hoping that, next season, this show will come into its own. There are big plot indications it might well do that. But for the first few seasons, I feel that Discovery has been hampered by a slavish attempt to replicate the wrong things about Star Trek. I hope it finds new life soon.

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Kris ‘Pepper’ Hambrick lives in Seattle, where she teaches people about salmon and talks too much about fandom, film history, and her theater, Hello Earth.

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Kris Pepper Hambrick

Kris Pepper Hambrick

Kris ‘Pepper’ Hambrick lives in Seattle, where she teaches people about salmon and talks too much about fandom, film history, and her theater, Hello Earth.

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