Guest review supplied by Nadine West @andiekarenina…
Let me be clear: I absolutely love the individual members of the cast and crew of Star Trek: Discovery. During Season 1, I was obsessed with “After Trek”, the Netflix banter-with-the-stars show that was available to watch once the episode of the week had aired, because Sonequa Martin Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp et al were just all so darned adorable. Their respect and love for each other shines through, and the showrunners have made sterling efforts to craft a piece of popular science fiction that embraces diversity with true Trekkian IDIC fervour. I would squeeze every man, woman and tardigrade involved in the series, make them mojitos and cupcakes, and have their babies.
And yet. And yet. There is a big problem, and the problem is that now, at the end of Season 2, I am so unbelievably sick of this ponderous first person Star Trek that I could scream.
Let me explain. Just in case you don’t know, the designations of first and third person come from prose fiction: first person means a narrator who tells the story as “I”, like in Jane Eyre or To Kill a Mockingbird, and third person is where no one character is speaking, where the author can move more fluidly around the stories of the characters, who are “he/she”, like in Of Mice and Men or Harry Potter. First person means you’re deep inside one head, seeing only what that person sees, and you’re also a bit stuck there…and you begin to see my drift. I am so sick to the back teeth of being stuck in Michael Burnham’s head that I want to smash my way out of her fictional skull with a claw hammer and experience anything, ANYTHING, beyond her frame of reference.
Now I know Trek has always had central characters. Yes, there were more Spock episodes than Sulu episodes, more Picard episodes than Geordi LaForge episodes. And yes, there was a point at which the Voyager writers’ room forgot that any character except Seven of Nine existed, but I blame that on the hip-to-waist ratio hypnotism effect and forgive them. But broadly speaking, all previous Trek series have been confidently, vibrantly third person storytelling which allows us to see a full spectrum of characters’ lives – both those in our regular crew AND those we meet along the way. Some token examples amongst so many: in TNG, we saw more minor characters like Deanna Troi drive many episodes, delved into her complex relationship with her mother (all hail Lwaxana!) and even saw her involved with complex storylines like working undercover as a Romulan officer to aid Romulan defections (Face of the Enemy, TNG 6:14). In DS9, Quark, Dax et al drive several humorous and moving episodes: in Voyager, even the omni-tedious Tom Parris gets to be the star of his own Sliding Doors-style narrative in Non Sequitur, amongst many others. Even cameo characters – Joan Actual Collins, anyone? – are allowed room to grow and become firm fan favourites.
Let’s turn, then, to Season 2 of Discovery. If Season 1 was focused on Michael Burnham, then Season 2 developed a kind of Michael Burnham OCD which deformed everything else around it. Tilly’s genuinely interesting confidence growth arc? Sidelined. Ariam, a fascinating character with great story potential? Featured, corrupted, spaced and exploded in five minutes flat for dubious plot reasons. Stamets and Culber’s hideously painful reunion, separation and resolution? Nah, eight lines of dialogue across five episodes ought to do it
Stamets: Everything is super perfect now you’re back from the dead, golly gee.
Culber: I have seen too much. I am no longer the man you knew. We must break up.
Stamets: *sad eyes*
Culber: Now I shall have a fight with Tyler.
Stamets: *sad eyes*
Culber: I shall now go and work on the Enterprise for reasons.
Stamets: *sad eyes, melancholy astrophysics*
Culber: PSYCH! I shall stay with you now you are injured and we might die, love puppy.
Stamets: K. I’m very bleeding. I miss my spore drive.
I exaggerate. But honestly not by much. The writers clearly also have no idea what to do with Jet Reno, my actual favourite new Trek character in eons, so they just give her two lines of “generic acerbic lesbian bantz” every three episodes. As for everyone else on the bridge who’s not Saru, you would have to google their names before you could discuss them. Don’t pretend to me. You refer to her as “redhead who looks a bit like Willow from Buffy with the face-thing” too. Indeed, at the end of Season 2, Admiral Cornwell (Who? The one who’s been hanging around without much to do who isn’t Michelle Yeoh, that’s who) is summarily exploded by a photon torpedo in what is clearly intended to be a heart-rending moment…but since we know next to nothing about her, we simply go “eh, torpedoes” and shrug, before flashing back to yet another endless scene of Michael and Spock droning on about their feelings.
And droning feels like the operative work here: S2 Discovery was remarkably one-note from start to finish, because it abandoned episode variation in favour of through-arc. There’s no room for more light-hearted, positive, even fun episodes here, when everything is wall-to-wall Vulcan childhood trauma and looming apocalypse. (Sidebar: tv writers? Enough apocalypse already, guys. Seriously. Umbrella Academy, Sabrina, Thrones, Disco and sundry others – make us genuinely care about saving ONE life. I promise you faithfully that it will be more emotionally powerful than all your “oooh the world nearly ended but it didn’t” shenanigans, however much brass-and-string music you wheel out. Wrath of Khan, guys. Joyce on Buffy. Re-watch and learn.)
By far my favourite episode of this series was the most traditional Star Trek episode of them all, New Eden, closely followed by the next most traditional, Sounds of Thunder. In New Eden, the crew discover a human civilisation on a remote planet, living in prelapsarian harmony; our crew must wrestle with the dilemma of whether to leave them in their innocence or to tell them the truth some of them half suspect – that they belong to an advanced and intergalactic species. In Sounds of Thunder, we meet Saru’s species and their eternal enemies, the Ba’ul, and our preconceptions of the history between these two races are skilfully and enjoyably subverted. These two episodes stand out because they are the best of Trek: outward looking, full of the spirit of – ironically – discovery, and focused on exploring the universe and the moral dilemmas that arise as we learn more. In both of these episodes, I genuinely cheered at the intelligent writing and plotting that took me out of Michael bloody Burnham’s endless psychodrama and into the starry galaxy instead.
Perhaps next season, with the confirmation of a new showrunner and the option to re-boot a little, Discovery will begin to find its feet and its wider horizons. I’m sceptical, but I’m a Star Trek fan, so I live in hope.