This post was originally written prior to the premiere of Season Four. Many of the comments still apply…
I also have a short letter to my fellow fans below
Dear Writers of Star Trek: Discovery:
First of all, I want to thank you. Your hard work over the past several years have breathed new life into a television franchise that I had thought was left for dead back in 2005. By embracing modern TV story-telling, you have managed to update a now 55-year-old franchise, brought on board new fans, and brought along older fans as well.
[Yes, there are also that vocal minority out there who either can’t handle the fact that a black woman is the head of Discovery and that there aren’t 95% white people, that there are (gasp) gay characters or (oh no) explicit progressive storylines even though Trek has always been that way, or any number of other bogus complaints. But then you were never going to win them over anyway]
Hopefully you can tell from my opening that I’m a fan. I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was 5-6, and I am a fan of your show too. It’s because I’m a fan that I’m writing this to you, because while I have enjoyed the first three seasons, I have concerns that I would like to share with you. While I realize that the upcoming season is already written and partly filmed, I still would like to address them to you here.
Trauma ≠ Drama
Wow have our characters been through a lot. War, loss, betrayal. They’ve sacrificed seeing their entire families for the good of the universe! I cannot recall a time when our characters truly seemed to be having a good time, except maybe for the party in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” and even that was more of a cathartic release than anything else1I will add updates relating to Season Four via these footnotes.
Once again, the emotional thrust of Season 4 was trauma. Book loses his planet, which informs his decisions for the rest of the season (including some VERY dubious choices that aren’t all that consistent with his character). Dr. Tarka lost Oros, which leads him to become the antagonist of the season. And on it goes….
I want to see our characters relax. Or have fun. Or laugh, not out of relief but out of joy. There are many ways to tell a dramatic story, and they don’t all involve traumatic events on a weekly basis that would individually drive any normal person into therapy.
Own your choices
One of the things that has frustrated me throughout the era of New Star Trek is the frequency in which you’ve picked up interesting plot threads only to quickly discarded them later. The May subplot from Discovery season two was an interesting idea linking the use of the spore drive to possible damage to the mycelial network. Alas, it was only a plot contrivance to bring back Dr. Culber (don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Culber is back, but once it happens, May and her effects on Tilly are abandoned all together)2Ho boy. Here’s another place where I’m going to get some negative reaction, but Book should have stayed dead. Not only does Star Trek do that thing where they hand wave away Bad Actions by Our Heroes, but Book’s death should have been the final piece of the puzzle to Michael learning the lessons of command that go back to the first scene with Rillak in the first epsiode of this season.
Also, Where’s Gray? While I get that COVID restrictions affected Ian Alexander’s availability, simply shipping him off to Trill and then never checking in on him was certainly a choice..
More egregious is how you dealt with Detmer’s PTSD in season three. After being put through the wringer and then abandoning (willingly) their families and all they know to go into the future, it’s completely understandable that at least one character would have a mental health crisis as a result. To your credit, you let this unfold over a few episodes, and Emily Coutts does a great job showing someone on the verge of a breakdown. It’s also nice to have the focus shifted to someone who doesn’t get a lot of attention (more on this later).
But then (in a great scene performed well by both Coutts and Wilson Cruz) Detmer admits to Dr. Culber that she’s not doing okay, Saru holds a movie night, and apparently the healing power of Buster Keaton fixes all? Come on. You’re telling a serial story, and one of the advantages of that is that things linger. People don’t just wake up the next day and say “I’m all better now,” like they do in episodic television.
Not only is this insulting to anyone who has had a mental health crisis, but it ultimately seems to serve as a) really another chance to develop Saru’s character and b) a rather clunky way to remind the audience that the sphere data is still around, since we never see or hear from Zhora again. Too often, you’ve treated the emotional state of peripheral characters as a means to advance Michael’s (and to a lesser extent Saru’s and Tilly’s) story. And I think that’s unfortunate.
You have a crew. Use them.
Speaking of Michael. You have created a wonderful character in Michael Burnham. She’s someone we really hadn’t seen in Star Trek prior to Discovery, and it had been long over due for someone who looks like her to be center stage.
But you seem to have made a conscious effort to make everything revolve around her to the point where the rest of the wonderful cast you have put together has minimal impact on the actual story. Consider that in three seasons, Michael has done the following3In Season Four, Michael Burnham is in the captain’s chair from the get-go, so she by definition is the center of attention. This is fine, to a point. There are times though, like in “The Examples,” where I wish someone had said “You know, beaming down into a dangerous sitation might have been ok back in the 23rd century, but we’ve long since learned captains don’t lead away missions anymore.” The fact that Rhys (through some rather awkward dialogue) makes a case to be included in the mission only to be sidelined almost completely makes this even worse.:
- Started the Federation-Klingon War
- Rescued the Terran Emperor from an attempted coup
- Negotiated the resolution to the Klingon War
- Literally saved all sentient life in the galaxy
- Successfully convinced the Trill to abandon generations of tradition by asking them multiple times
- Reversed in months hundreds of years of discord that led to the near collapse of the Federation
- Defeated the Emerald Chain by fighting their leader one-on-one because I guess the Emerald Chain has no power structure
I know this is likely to earn me some flack, so let me reiterate: I think Michael is a great character. But you seem to be going out of your way to make every single plot point place her at the center of it all. And that too often gives short shrift to all of the great actors you have on the show. I’m hoping that now that she is captain, you’ll give her the chance to delegate to others a bit more.
Can we have just a little bit of peril?
Finally, this is more for a possible season 5 based on what I’ve seen in the most recent trailer, but can we dial the stakes back just a little? Season one dealt with one of the most pivotal events in Star Trek canon, the Federation-Klingon war, yet now the stakes there seem tame! Season two was all about protecting “all sentient life in the galaxy.” Season three dealt with merely why all dilithium exploded and the collapse of the Federation. It seems like once again this year, the story is the epitome of Big Stakes4Yup. Big Stakes again..
Maybe this goes back to my first point, but I miss the days when the issue was confined to a single planet. Or a group of people. Or even just one person. Star Trek for me has always been more about big ideas and not big explosions and big consequences. I’d love it if we could have more stories like “New Eden” that culminated, not with big explosions and fighting, but with two people talking and ultimately working together.
This penchant for turning to flashy action-oriented solutions has undermined (in my opinion and to varying extents) plot points in all three seasons so far5The ending of Season Four was indeed flashy, but damn do I love the design of Species 10-C and the embracing of entirely non-humanoid lifeforms.. How I wish Captain Lorca had been a character damaged by war and not a mustache-twirling villain from the Mirror Universe (oh, and can we please have a moratorium on both the MU and Section 31?). The end of season 2 works best, but it still trades logic for excitement (why exactly did they wait until the very last moment to start building the time suit?). And yes, you did have one excellent scene in “There Is a Tide…” where Admiral Vance and Osyraa attempt to negotiate a treaty but that ultimately goes nowhere by the final episode (and I’ve already hinted at what I thought about the resolution of that story above).
In short: please resist the urge to resolve big, complex story ideas with simplistic action.
I know I sound like I’m complaining a lot. But I really do enjoy this show. I just feel like I could enjoy it even more. Once again, I congratulate you on successfully updating the Star Trek franchise for a modern audience. My suggestions are more suggested tweaks than anything else. Regardless of whether any of these things are addressed, I look forward to what’s in store for season four.
An Open Letter to Star Trek Fans
Dear Fellow Star Trek Fans:
I will keep this brief. We can be better. There is a small but loud minority out there using their own bigotry, misogyny, and other prejudices to blindly rail against Discovery and the other new Trek shows, and they deserve to be shunted aside. That doesn’t mean these shows are above criticism though. I worry that some of you have become so determined to drive those motivated by the wrong things out of the discourse, that you’ve gone too far the other way and decided that any critique must come from bad intent. No incarnation of Star Trek has been perfect, and that’s ok. I offer these thoughts not to senselessly dump on the show, but to stimulate discussion about how it can be even better. I hope you read this with that in mind.
[If you choose to use the comments section as a dumping ground for the usual “STD SUX” nonsense, those comments will be deleted]