Don't Cry for Me, Discovery

 Both Star Trek Discovery and The Mandalorian have returned to our screens in recent weeks. These shows, rightly or wrongly, carry the weight of their respective franchises on their shoulders. Decades of films and TV episodes have created rich mythologies for writers to mine and fans to enjoy. I am a fan of both Star Trek and Star Wars, and I am happy to see them continue. But the two franchises are taking very different paths, and as a viewer and fan, I find myself reacting quite differently to these two approaches. 

In this post I'll look at Star Trek Discovery. The next post I'll follow up with my take on The Mandalorian.

Star Trek Discovery was a show whose production I followed eagerly. For years I had been hoping that Trek would return to TV, its first, and best, home. Everything I heard about the show ratcheted up my excitement for it. And then it premiered and...I wasn't sure what to think. The main character mutineed and started a war, because her captain didn't listen to her? Because she thought she knew better than her captain, who had been shown to be a respected officer? Because, despite being raised as a Vulcan, she became overwhelmed by emotions? It certainly didn't put Michael Burnham in a good light. This was as frustrating a first episode for me as Next Generation's "Encounter at Farpoint," which devastated me when Picard surrendered the Enterprise. Of course, Next Gen got better.

We are a little more than half way through the third season of Discovery, and it feels like someone slapped the Star Trek label on some sort of reality show about a group of people all dealing with their own personal traumas. And crying a lot.

I think there's a place for that sort of drama, showing people with everyday lives, filled with doubts and fears,  experiencing catharsis, and so on. But that's not what a Star Trek show should be focused on. Yes, Star Trek has had characters go through emotional experiences and growth. But for the most part, Trek has been about asking questions, making the viewer think, not showing people constantly struggling with emotional trauma or becoming overwhelmed by emotions. The crews of these starships (or stations, with DS9) are portrayed as being the best of the best; highly competent and capable people. In the heat of action, they don't break down or put their own needs ahead of their duty to their ship or captain. In Discovery, it seems as though our main character, the nearly perfect Michael Burnham, is always putting her needs and beliefs ahead of everyone else, no matter how that may jeopardize others.

Burnham has been called a Mary Sue by many, and I think it's accurate. So far, there's nothing she hasn't been able to do, solve, or fix. She burns her captains and her friends repeatedly by disobeying orders, yet seems to feel no remorse, because  she was "right." This is not the kind of person you want on your team. The comparison can't be made to Kirk and Company, because honestly, Kirk was not the maverick everyone likes to think he was. Most of that image comes from the movies, and stealing the Enterprise in STIII. In the TV show, he rarely outright defied Starfleet orders. One of the most obvious and memorable times he did was in the episode Amok Time, and that was to save Spock's life. Kirk rarely took actions that put his crew in jeopardy. And as captain, he was in the position to make decisions that sometimes conflicted with Starfleet orders, as commander of a vessel on the edge of explored space. Michael has been at best a first officer and yet still goes behind the backs of her commanding officers (in the case of Georgiou, even assaulting her commander) to get her way.  And it seems like she learns nothing from her actions. Nor does the show imply she should! That is perhaps the single greatest problem I have with Discovery at this point. I had thought with everything leading up to the Unification III episode she might be on the verge of leaving Starfleet, which would make sense, but it seems she will be staying. Unless she learns some humility and respect for others, I don't see how she can function in a chain of command.

The other characters get so little screen time comparatively, it's hard to say much about them. I do love Doug Jones' Saru. He manages to mine the most out of the part, bringing subtlety and grace to his performance. May Wiseman has made Tilly quirky and likeable. Most of the rest of the cast are seen so infrequently it's a crime. But so many of the interactions between Michael and her crewmates seem to involve breaking down into tears. Look, I'm an emotional person. Once I hit middle age, I started crying at Hallmark card commercials. But enough is enough. When you have Michael and/or someone else crying in every single episode, it's emotional overload. Trek is at its heart an adventure show. There's room for some emotional content certainly, but when it's every single episode, it blunts the edge of its effectiveness. It also -and I hesitate to say this, but as a woman, I feel a need to point it out - strengthens sexual stereotypes about women being unable to handle pressure. There's nothing wrong with crying, in the appropriate time and place. But as shown on Discovery, it seems like our main character is doing it all the time. It's just too much.

I also have a bone to pick with the science, or lack of it, on the show. This season's over-arching premise is pinned on "The Burn," similar to how last season it was the Hunt for the Red Angel. In The Burn, all dilithium everywhere suddenly exploded, leaving most of the galaxy extremely limited in terms of space travel. Now, this really doesn't make a lot of sense. The Burn took place about 100 years prior to when season 3 takes place, or still about 800 years after season 2. So in all that time, there hadn't been any changes to interstellar travel? For 800 years, starship propulsion remained relatively the same? That seems ridiculous. Think about all the progress we have made from 1900 to now. It seems inconceivable that new forms of space travel wouldn't have been developed. We already know that the Romulans use a singularity to power their warp drive (in the 24th century). So I'm a little dubious about the lack of progress. The Burn seems like a MacGuffin to keep the characters busy but it's too central to the plot to be so poorly conceived. 

There also seems to  have been little progress or changes in other technology, or in people. The space station at Starfleet Command looks relatively the same as any other Star Trek set. Humans and aliens appear about the same. It would have been nice to see the writers really use their imaginations and give us a civilization that was truly alien to the Discovery crew. But they might as well have travelled just 50 years into the future for the lack of any obvious differences.

In general, the show seems written by people who have little interest in the actual science and technology elements of the show. Most of the science, like The Burn, seem weak and not well thought out. Familiar Trek technology, like the transporter, is often abused, with it performing feats far beyond what we understand it capable of (similar to the inane transwarp beaming from the Abrams films). 

Oddly though, Discovery is self-reverential when it comes to the Federation and Starfleet, which it frequently conflates. We've gotten tons of speeches about "We are Starfleet" and how the Discovery crew will uphold the principles of that fine organization, but at the same time we have our star, Michael Burnham, running around, indiscriminately killing people (she flat out disintegrated a ton of aliens in the first episode this season). Sometimes it seems like it's either all out action or all out crying.

Ostensibly the show is trying to mirror our society by showing how divided everyone is, and somehow, the Discovery crew will bring them together. But it seems like a lot to sustain over an entire season. Personally, I'd welcome a more episodic approach.

Star Trek Discovery is unlike any previous Star Trek show not only in that it focuses primarily on a single character, but that it has decided to put feelings ahead of ideas. It wants you to feel with the characters, rather than think about the ideas presented. In some ways, this is more akin to how Trek has played out on film rather than on TV. The Wrath of Khan was much more about feeling Kirk's sense of age, Khan's desire for retribution, and Spock's sacrifice, than getting caught up in the question of the morality of using the Genesis device. Certainly the show works for many people. But I'm still waiting for a Star Trek that gets back to exploring both inner and outer space.


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