Chaos in the Writing Room! The Ongoing Clusterfuck that is Star Trek: Discovery
[NB: This critique was written prior to Episode Six, Season Two. That particular episode has done nothing to change my mind.]
Did I really use that word in my title? I searched high and low for an alternative, something, anything to describe what has been done to my beloved Star Trek. But nothing else quite fits as well as that single word: clusterfuck. But even typing it makes me wince.
Normally, I try to avoid turning a critique into a rant. By nature, I’m pretty laid back and those who know me personally can attest to that. Alas, any sort of in-depth critique of ST: Discovery cannot help but turn into a rant, it’s that bad. So frigging bad I don’t even know where to start, but I’ll give it a good try.
What I’m about to discuss is not a hate-fest; I’m not even angry. I’m simply frustrated, and baffled. The flaws in this series are so fundamental to the most basic rules of both storytelling and world-building, that I simply cannot understand what they think they’re doing.
With this second season of Star Trek: Discovery I have struggled from the outset to maintain my interest, my willingness to immerse myself in this new iteration, giving it the benefit of the doubt time and again, desperately clinging to those mere handful of scenes that promised something better. Those moments when the actors actually had more to work with than the usual headlong, frenetic action sequences; those moments when the camera actually stopped its frantic rotating; those moments when dialogue served more than one function (the explicatory) and we, the viewers, were allowed to hang around to let the words sink in, or even linger for a second or two to catch our breaths.
And yet, the more I watch, the more I feel like a man in the crowd around an accident scene, gawking at tragedy with gleaming eyes. And since that’s not something I would ever do, it’s not a pleasant feeling.
There are many excellent writers in television, writers who have helped create exceptional, intelligent, entertaining and nuanced dramas. Unfortunately, none of them work on ST: Discovery. And, I’m fairly certain, none of them ever will. I won’t even bother naming names in this, but on the creative, show-running side, there’s a choke-hold on Star Trek: it’s desperate, it’s haunted by its own mediocrity, it’s utterly unoriginal and incapable of innovation, it’s ignorant of anything remotely scientific, and it’s under siege by a fan-base that knows more than it does when it comes to what Star Trek is actually about.
It is also legally constrained by a tangled, idiotic mess of property rights involving merchandising (see Midnight’s Edge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K828aSkhRHk), which might allow for some forgiveness, except for the fact that the production team running ST: Discovery happens to be on the wrong side of that battle (you might have thought that the Abramverse Star Trek, aka, the re-boot films, was finally done and dusted and good riddance, but no, that team just switched hats, film to television, and ST: Discovery is their baby, and yes, they’ve learned nothing, nothing at all). This explains their desperation, once you realize that the source of that desperation is simple greed.
Watch the Midnight’s Edge video cited above for a more thorough explanation. Then remind yourself of this one salient observation: if the Abrams team had actually done a good job with the franchise, none of us would have a thing to complain about. Unfortunately, they took our favorite characters and turned them into underaged, unqualified, self-entitled sociopathic assholes (see the end of the second reboot: Kirk and Spock are all smiles as they board their brand-new ship, having crashed their previous one into the city of San Francisco. Not a moment spared for remorse, grief, or horror at the body-count in their wake. ‘Not my fault! Let’s go have a beer!’ And Starfleet happily hands them over the keys to their latest most expensive starship, so the mental-sixteen-year-olds can trash yet another one of Daddy’s cars).
Time spent as junior officers where you watch and learn and otherwise shut the fuck up? Competence learned the hard way (you know, actual work, time invested and all that)? A decade of taking orders from the grown-ups before attaining the responsibility of rank? Learning the ropes? Operating in a military hierarchy dependent upon the ability to take orders and do as you’re told? Discipline? Patience?
You know, realism, not adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy? Well, you won’t find any of that in the Abramverse.
So the stupidity ducks its head and slinks over to the small-screen. Pops up again and does the same stupid shit all over again. Imagine the ego necessary for that. No, really, just imagine.
But let’s start getting specific. We’ll start with content and, later, move over to story structure.
- A starship captain confesses that he almost flunked astrophysics (Pike). Astrophysics! They’re in space! And he’s the captain? Well, thank you, sir, for that confession. You really put this ensign at ease!
- Mysterious signals from deep-space fifty thousand lightyears apart, the nearest one of which would take years to reach by Warp speed. Uhm, folks, a signal from, say, thirty thousand lightyears away, is actually thirty thousand years old. Astronomy 101. So, what’s the effing hurry? Did no-one – I mean no-one – put up a timorous hand in the writing room, to point out this fact?
- A junior officer-in-training constantly makes herself the center of attention, and yet everyone keeps saying what a great captain she’d make. Sure, and here’s your ship to command, the USS Titanic. First Mission: map that cluster of icy asteroids. I’ll stay back here to start writing the letters of condolences to parents and loved ones.
- Section 31. It’s mandate: to ‘cross the line,’ making all the vaunted values and virtues of the Federation nothing but empty words at worse, or at best, tedious impediments to getting what you want. Ends justifying the means. Making the future as morally bankrupt as the present. Now isn’t that a cheery thought?
- Burnham’s voice-over (logs?) eschewing telling us where the hell the ship is and what it’s supposed to be doing or anything useful,
insteadengaging in self-indulgent navel-gazing, thus accurately reflecting this narcissistic Abramverse, to a T.
- Is there anything that Burnham can’t do? I mean, where’s her cape? Oh, wait, Georgiou was wearing it, replete with Doctor Strange’s hooded cowl, when she crashed the Klingon Hair-Growing Party using so over-the-top tech that she might as well proclaim herself Goddess Empress of the Universe.
- Does anyone know who the rest of the bridge crew are? I mean, we keep seeing them and stuff. But this plays into the structural problems with the whole series. No time! Onto the next action scene!
- Spock’s old man leaves the Discovery while it’s at ‘maximum warp’ (and what’s with all this ‘maximum warp’ stuff anyway: maximum warp burns out the dilithium, as any Trekker knows), even as they’re speeding out to the anomaly. I still picture the poor guy, rowing his shuttle across empty space. Only twelve thousand more years before reaching Vulcan! First night sleeping on the sofa, guaranteed.
- Stuck half-way into the
sporeverseand the spores will eat through the ship’s hull ‘in one hour.’ Pike’s response: “So we have one hour to get this done.” Sure you do, provided you plan on flying half a ship back to the nearest space-dock, where you’ll be stripped of your command and court-martialed, while the Discovery spends six months getting new hull plating. Unless, of course, your ship’s hull miraculously heals itself just in time for the next harrowing adventure. Hmm, which one will it be?
- Beaming to and fro across half the galaxy because, well, we’re in a hurry.
Oh man, I could go on and on but frankly, it’s exhausting just recalling how illogical, inexplicable and ridiculous these story-lines are; how thoroughly these poor actors are handcuffed by the breathless pace, the incomprehensible technobabble delivered as if they’ve all done four lines of coke, not to mention all the shouting, all the senior officers arguing on the bridge, the fist-fights, insubordinations and mutinies (all’s forgiven, of course. I mean, this is a pre-school play-room, after all, with the toddlers in charge and at the end of each day everyone gets a gold star).
Imagine running a navy this way. I can’t. I guess, lacking the life experience of people like WWII vets Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon, really starts showing after a while, doesn’t it?
Now try this on for size. A story structure in which all the pieces of the puzzle (relating to the central dramatic thread) are discovered, or earned, or simply reached, in increments through the course of the episode (thus building tension), so that when we get to the moment of highest action, jeopardy, and imminent disaster, the actors are free to do what’s necessary, to simply get it done, which we can watch, marveling at their ingenious solutions or impressive prowess, or their capacity to stay cool under extreme duress.
Now picture a story structure that ignores all of that, instead taking us headlong into that moment of great jeopardy when, with the countdown on, everybody involved stops to talk it all out. What has just happened? Well, you’ve ruined all tension, unplugged the jeopardy, slowed the pace to allow for a bunch of expositional stuff to be laid out, the dilemmas to be reconfigured (yet again), and yes, everyone’s standing around while the ship around them tears itself apart and, quite possibly, people are dying. While you talk it out, with perfect pauses in the vessel’s banging and shuddering, each one timed in and around the dialogue where appropriate.
Now it may seem like I’m zeroing in on one particular writer in one particular episode, and that might lead to the wrong conclusion. This bad structure happens all the time in ST: Discovery. It’s why all the technobabble has to be delivered in a breathless, shouted rush. It’s also why we’re hurried past all that technobabble as quickly as possible (because, really, it rarely makes any sense anyway). Because explication halts the pacing. AT THE WORST TIME.
You get this lesson drilled into you after Week One in an Introduction to Screenwriting class. Or in a fiction workshop, for that matter. And in either one, any competent teacher will tell you why it sucks.
If you want to build tension, you work at it from page one, and that requires 1) patience, 2) planning, 3) subtlety and nuance, 4) faith that your audience has an attention span longer than that of a cockroach.
Action is not a substitute for tension, just as it isn’t a substitute for characterization (nice try with the voice-overs, though). Believe it or not, action is a time-sink, one in which the intellect is immediately disengaged in favour of visual spectacle. It’s flat-out lazy and, I suspect, the default for mediocrity in general. At least, it seems to be in this case.
I mean (and here I’m addressing the creative team of ST: Discovery), you didn’t really want us, the audience, to actually stop and think about what it all means, did you? Just like with the ‘science,’ right? Just dispense with it and go for outright fantasy, make it up as you go along, break every internal rule that proves inconvenient, and smudge it all with fast scene-cuts and plenty of special effects.
I would imagine you being contemptuous of your audience if I didn’t suspect that this is the best you can do. Sorry for saying that so bluntly. But maybe you are all handcuffed by directives coming down from above. I’d buy that, you know. I have no trouble believing that the real incompetence, the absence of creative talent, imagination and ambition, is coming from higher up the food-chain. In fact, I suspect that it’s so. Scratch that initial suspicion, then.
There are creative-types in the industry who could, if given the chance, right this ship. Maybe not Discovery itself, but the franchise. It’s just too bad that they’ll never get that chance.
Or might they?
There is a shake-up going on and the re-merger of Paramount and CBS seems imminent. With a new guiding light in charge. I do hope she cleans house regards Star Trek. Thoroughly. The Abramverse sucked on the big screen. It sucks on the small screen, too. What’s the definition of insanity again?
As anyone familiar with my ten volume fantasy series knows, I do all right with deep-and-comprehensive story-mapping. But even I would be hard-pressed to salvage this dog’s breakfast of a series. That said, could I get my hands on the new Section 31 spin-off … first thing I’d do is kick open the door to find the best television talent out there, and then I’d … oh well, if wishes were horses…
You still here? All right, how to fix this? Here’s one option.
Walk softly and carry a big stick.
For purposes of drama, the emphasis is on the first half of that statement. Let me reword that: emotional impact comes from the ‘walk softly’ part, not from swinging the ‘big stick.’ You need the ‘walking softly’ before you ever wield the ‘big stick.’ There’s no short-cut. Stories that rush to the big stick are stories that have little or no emotional impact.
Does anyone really care whether Burnham and company live or die? I don’t. I can’t even decide if I like anyone on that ship. How can I? I barely know them. The action sequences, the endless rushing about, overwhelms everything else. The stick keeps swinging, wildly, out of control, in a frenzy of set-piece special effects scenes, each one striving to be bigger, louder, more conflagratory than the last one. It’s pretty much Transformers in space, with all the misanthropy thrown in for free.
Walking softly means taking your time. It means nuance and subtlety. It means faith in the audience’s perceptivity and intelligence. The invitation to empathy – so vital in making us care – takes time. Shoving us into the face of characters doesn’t work: they’re coming across as shrill, undisciplined and out of control, all of them. Or, in the case of a few, as sociopathic to boot. In each one, their personal demons take center stage, making them all appear profoundly, almost pathologically, narcissistic. Duty, responsibility, discipline, all take a back seat to that face in the mirror. Frankly, it’s nauseating.
Which is why the ship, the Discovery, becomes nothing but a backdrop to their struggles, meaning we can’t care about that ship the way we cared about the Enterprise. Consider the role of Chief Engineer as an example. When do we see the guy and what’s he doing when we do see him? Well, either it’s his love-life or it’s the frigging spore-drive. Ever seen him in a Jeffries tube with a wrench in his hand? No. Oh, he taps awful fast on the big screens, but then, everyone does that. Does this guy care about his ship? Its engines? Not that I’ve seen. Does he have the emotional attachment real chief engineers have for their vessel, consistent with the tradition? No.
When it comes to the welfare of a ship you’re on, and therefore your own welfare, who would you rather have as your chief engineer: this guy or Scottie? This guy or Geordi? This guy or O’Brien? This guy or Trip?
And no, it’s not about him being married to a guy; in fact, I like the efforts at inclusivity that much of the casting exemplifies, and those dubious few ‘fans’ prattling on about SJW’s taking away their Star Trek: you’re idiots, because ST has always been about social justice. What bloody show were you watching? No, the guy could be married to a mushroom for all I care (oh, hang on, I think he is). My point is, I don’t see him as a chief engineer. I don’t buy him at all, and this in spite of the fact that he’s probably the best actor in the show.
He has no obvious relationship to his rank and title on board the ship. He doesn’t embody what it is to be a chief engineer on a starship. You need only compare with all the other chief engineers in all the other ST series, to see what I mean. He’s a chief engineer as written by people who have no idea what it means to be a chief engineer, and this lacking shows.
Who’s the helm officer? I have no idea. Who’s head of Security? Oh, right, that woman glowering from the other table because, well, that’s what all Security people do and in fact, that’s what they all are, in toto. Apparently. Astrogation officer? Beats me. Communications? Huh, do they even bother?
Science Officer? That would be the one doing everything but being the science officer; you know, the one brought up on Vulcan who then takes everything that happens to her personally, and therefore needs to fix everything, personally, because, well, she was responsible for an entire war, personally (no, she wasn’t. Hasn’t anyone ever realized that?), and has serious personal issues that has her being insubordinate, ignoring orders, pointing phasers at other officers because … because … she knows stuff about them, and is otherwise utterly unreliable except when it comes to saving everyone single-handedly.
The rest of the crew? No idea. Not a clue. Nada. Do they even exist?
This is a starship, probably the most expensive single item the entire Federation produces. Its crew must be devoted to the welfare of that ship. Their lives and that of their fellow crew-members, depends upon it. Let’s see them doing their real jobs. This is important. It’s the walking softly part of the drama. It creates the emotional core of the story. Every story. Any story that involves them. You can’t short-change this.
Every Star Trek series reflects the time in which it was produced. But a very particular kind of reflection. From the original series onward, Star Trek has set out to challenge the mores of the time. With Star Trek: Discovery and what we have seen of Section 31, this time the reflection serves to reaffirm the status quo, not challenge it. Hence the lines we got in a recent episode about Section 31 ‘crossing the line’ of propriety; and to taking the totalitarian theme so far as to assign the equivalent of ‘political officers’ aboard the Discovery (you know, the guy who needs a shampoo and a haircut).
Are you kidding me? Got your resident KGB on board? Your Gestapo? WTF? Since when has a Star Trek iteration ever been used to justify no-holds-barred black-ops, rendition, assassination, torture and all the rest, all in the name of … what? Terrorizing alien civilizations? Intimidating them into compliance?
Just who are the good guys again?
Section 31, as presented to us thus far, does the dirty work, because, goes the argument, dirty work is always necessary. In other words, we’ve not progressed in this fictional future. We’ve just got nastier toys. So folks, I bet you all can’t wait to find your heroes among the murderers, the assassins, the subterfuge, the betrayals and the imposters of Section 31. But then, I don’t know, maybe you will at that. Grimdark in Space? Just might work, since unabashed evil is fascinating.
Thing is, this vision of the future is being severely limited by a truncated vision of the present, one where the moral dilemmas of our age are taken as immutable and eternal. The moral bankruptcy will never end and indeed, must now be celebrated. When I stand back and look at this from a creative standpoint, I see a paucity of imagination, possibly even creative cowardice. Most definitely, I see a betrayal of all that Gene Roddenberry stood for.
Similar to the Abramverse re-boots, Star Trek: Discovery seems to be geared towards an imagined audience: one that encompasses both traditional Star Trek fans with that of fans of block-buster action-flick SF (often the kind that more rightly qualifies as Space Fantasy rather than Science Fiction: Star Wars, Transformers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers). But this is a simplistic approach, trying to shoehorn a square block into a round hole. We’re not that simple or straightforward in our tastes. In other words, we can watch and enjoy the Space Fantasy worlds of Marvel Comics and Star Wars, and get plenty from them. But when it comes to Star Trek, we look for something different. We’re not distinct groups as such: we are, in fact, capable of holding different expectations for different franchises.
Is that too subtle a concept for your standard executive producer to comprehend? It seems so, if the ongoing history of missing-the-target with Star Trek is any indication. They flat-out don’t get it.
On ST: Discovery, the action sequences bore me. Am I alone in that? I don’t care how much those scenes cost. They bore me. Because I don’t care about the characters. Whatever version of the Federation is being presented here, it seems directionless, insipid, possibly fascistic (those uniforms!), and morally dubious. But to be honest, I’m filling in a lot of blanks, because we haven’t gotten enough background info to get a real sense of this non-canonical version.
There’s been no time for the background: we’ve gone from a war with the Klingons straight into another crisis, double-barreled in that the two arcs (the signals and Spock) are clearly going to converge. You know, there was a reason for episodic stories: they helped ground us in the day-by-day function of the Federation. Thus far, all we’ve had is Crisis Mode x2 and counting.
Can one deliver the ‘walking softly’ and all the background stuff in an engaging and dynamic manner? Yes, one can.
If only this present team knew how to do that.
In fact, that stuff is what provides emotional depth, a sense of purpose, exploring the normal role of officers and crew-members in Starfleet, and this serves to ground whatever story one then creates. Without any of this, we end up desperately seeking context. The series attempted to address this need with the interpersonal stories of the main characters, but alas, these stories occur in a vacuum emptier than space itself.
The irony is, those legal rights issues went a long way toward blocking the background, foundational stuff. The problem with willy-nilly inventing yet another alternate timeline, is that it requires just as much foundational world-building as does an original setting. Relying only on the differences between your new timeline and that of the canonical timeline, reveals an utter lack of understanding of consequences: the knock-on effect: the fact that each difference changes everything, and therefore you can’t lean on the ‘invisible’ canon and expect it to fill in all the new gaps.
In other words, ‘Prime’ doesn’t stand alongside canon: it wipes it out. And once canon has been wiped out, the ‘Prime’ version, no longer alternate, has to be unique and self-defining and therefore completely unrelated to whatever has gone before (in the minds of the audience).
And guess what, the audience isn’t having it.
This distinction may seem blurry, hard to pin down. Star Trek is an ethos, consisting of numerous series over a long period of time: and that leads to specific expectations. The name ‘Star Trek’ is not transferable into another universe if that universe is blind to the original ethos, or indeed, seeks to negate it, co-opt it, or otherwise steal money from the original’s fanbase.
The sheer contempt for the fanbase that must be going on in order to justify this simply boggles my mind. And since it’s all about merchandising, allow me to explain something about merchandising that all (us) collectors already know…
- There is a difference between collectibles and toys. It is, in fact, a crucial difference.
- Collectibles are evocations of nostalgia, or periods in one’s life, said objects being a material representation of that. They exist on timelines; by that, I mean that they are historical, for each and every collector.
- In general, collectors are older, precisely because they’re building on personal life histories in which what they collect belongs, like chapters in their lives.
- This means that what they collect has been around for a while, accruing its own history.
- And this means you can’t just swap it out for something new.
- Nor can you short-cut your way into the collector’s wallets or purses by making your products look way cooler and stuff.
- Trying to swindle collectors is a bad idea, because now you’ve pissed them off, and once that happens, you have lost all credibility.
Is this all theoretical? No, because it’s what happened to the Abramverse merchandise. Nobody wanted it. They still don’t. Will Star Trek: Discovery’s sleight of hand fool collectors? Not likely. Cat’s out of the bag: they know what you’re trying to do. They’re miffed, indignant, insulted. You sat too hard on the golden egg, and now your ass is yolk.
That said, I imagine this group is all in. Too late to cut losses and walk away. Besides, it’s more likely to be a boot to the backside.
Okay, rant over. Any more advice on how to fix this, someone’s gonna have to pay for. And no, I’m not holding my breath.