I’ve come to the conclusion that Star Trek: Discovery’s main problem is that it’s in too much of a hurry to actually deal with any of the ideas it brings up.
This article makes a pretty compelling argument that Discovery’s most interesting element is the way it challenges Star Trek’s idealism. But It also seems to work from the premise that suggesting maybe the Federation isn’t that great amounts to a valuable piece of commentary in itself, without sparing any attention to how effectively the concept is presented.
That’s maybe because Discovery doesn’t present the concept very effectively at all. Because it’s in too much of a hurry.
The idea that the Federation isn’t the utopian ideal it’s cracked up to be isn’t actually that interesting an idea. It’s not even a new idea within Star Trek—it was a major recurring theme in Deep Space Nine. It’s an idea that appeals to a lot of modern critics because it’s hard for science fiction to be taken seriously today unless it takes an inherently pessimistic view of humanity, which says more about our current cultural moment than it does about Star Trek.
Still, Discovery very much wanted to be taken seriously, so it played up how different it was from classic Star Trek at basically every opportunity. But the real difference is in the show’s production values and storytelling style, more than the actual thematic substance.
Probably Discovery‘s most controversial figure is Captain Gabriel Lorca, who thinks of himself as a soldier not an explorer and wants his crew to be soldiers, too. Over the course of the first season, he’s shown to be manipulative and amoral in a way that doesn’t reflect well on his superiors, who basically give him carte blanche because he seems to be good at fighting wars.
But his personality aside, we don’t see Lorca didn’t actually do anything nearly as questionable as Sisko became an accessory to murder in order to drag the entire Romulan Empire into a war based on a lie. The primary difference between them is that Sisko felt bad about it for about an hour afterward.
And from a storytelling standpoint, that’s actually an important difference. Where Deep Space Nine and Discovery both had heavily serialized plotlines that dealt with a lot of the same issues, Deep Space Nine actually took the time to explore the ideas they were bringing up, whereas Discovery mostly just throws them at you and moves on.
The show’s best moments to date come in episodes 4 and 5, where we learn that the scary monster that appeared as the central threat in Episode 3 was actually just misunderstood. In Episode 4, the protagonist—whose fall from grace came after she rushed to judgment in Episode 1—discovers that instead of a menace, the creature is actually the solution to the crew’s biggest problem. In Episode 5, she learns that her discovery in Episode 4 means that a potentially intelligent creature is being subjected to a torturous existence in its new life as a military asset. It’s a classic Star Trek reversal and moral dilemma.
Unfortunately, it’s the last one the show has time for. Episode 5 also introduces a new character whose backstory become the subject of a guessing game that sucks up screen time for half the season. The show ditches the Klingon war almost entirely after its midseason break by sending the crew to a parallel universe instead. The parallel universe storyline raises some fascinating thematic ideas of its own, but doesn’t take them anywhere because it’s time to reveal that new guy’s mysterious past. Which raises some interesting questions about identity and the nature of self, but there’s no time to explore any of that because it’s time for another massive plot twist. And on it goes.
I think the key to understanding Discovery is that the show had to sell CBS’ new streaming service basically singlehandedly, which meant it needed to be more than a good TV series. It needed to be a sensation. Every week needed to have something that would get people talking, so they loaded the series with mysteries and plot twists and earthshaking events that Change Everything and made sure that everyone came back to stream the next one.
Given all that, it’s impressive the show turned out as good as it did. It seems like the creative team has a genuine desire to make a show that says something meaningful about humanity, and framing the show around the inherent conflict of multiculturalism against xenophobia was a timely idea. But the show can’t take those ideas anywhere, or actually say much of anything, because that would take time that they need to spend setting up the next plot twist.
Maybe things will settle down in the second season. I hope so. On top of everything else, watching the show proceed at this pace for much longer would just be exhausting.