The failed promise of Star Trek Discovery

It’s unfortunate that in a year with a Star Trek show as good as Lower Decks, Discovery, which is arguably the flagship franchise of Trek on TV, was so painfully mediocre. Discovery season one was, at the time it came out, the best first season a Trek show ever had, and with a few small tweaks to costume and structure, season two was even stronger. 

Star Trek Discovery season two was perhaps the most character-driven a season of Trek ever got. It invested us in the lives and relationships of Burnham and Saru, Spock, Pike, Tilly, Stamets and Culber, Owosekun and Detmer, Georgiu and all the rest.

On top of that it told an interesting story of time travel and AI that touched on many themes and anxieties that had their bones in Star Trek as far back as the original series. It asked questions about the duty to protect sentience, the desire to control and to predict chaotic events, automation and reliance on machines.

Discovery’s use of time travel in season two was sharp, and kept the stakes high. The central mystery was tied to the character and thematic conflicts of the season, allowing the solution of the central mystery to be simultaneously an interesting bit of plotting and a cathartic resolution of  the relationships that dominated the season. The end of Discovery season two established a premise for season three that took Star Trek precisely where most people really wanted it: back to its own future. 

And then Star Trek Discovery wasted a season on the worst sort of brand maintenance, and in the process, reduced many of its central relationships to incoherent nonsense.

Saying something nice

But before we get into the postmortem of a season of television that failed, let’s take a moment to talk about the few things Discovery got right. Book is an excellent addition to the cast. This combination of Deana Troi and Beastmaster had a consistent character arc built around his status as a loner and his integration into a community that allowed us to understand his past (through the conflict with his brother,) a sense of who he was (don’t insult the man’s cat,) and gave him both relationships with others in the world and the opportunity to forge new relationships with the principal cast. If you are going to introduce a new, ongoing, cast member into an extant show, Book is a textbook example of doing so well.

I am somewhat more critical of the introduction of Adira. It’s good that Star Trek has decided to include a non-binary character in the central cast. And, as a character, Adira is more interesting than some of their precursors like Wesley Crusher. However centering so much of Adira’s story directly on either a plot-forced relationship with Stamets or with their struggles integrating becoming host to their own dead lover, who the show demands must be made visible, feel heavy-handed and unsubtle at best. In particular, the scene in which Adira announces their preferred pronouns to Stamets felt like nothing but a bit of social scripting introduced to train Generation-X audience members in the appropriate way to respond to Kids Today. However, the precocious ingenue is a time-honored (if occasionally detested) component of Star Trek, and Adira is certainly not the most vexatious example of this trope. That a show so in dialog with the past of Star Trek as Discovery has been should include one should not surprise. And ultimately, Adira remains one of the net-positives of the show. I do hope that they are allowed to continue developing as a character as the series goes on – their arc being less complete than that of Book – but I like the dynamic of introducing a new Science Friend as it’s clear that Tilly will continue shuffling toward a command-track position. Just, perhaps, the scriptwriters should ease up on the throttle on the found-family narrative and allow Stamets to be a colleague rather than a surrogate father.

The relationship between Owosekun and Detmer was also a highlight of the season. I don’t think any character from the established cast was given as much space to grow and develop as Detmer, and Owo’s support of her was well done. It’s a shame that Detmer’s arc was resolved by half-way through the season, leaving little for her to do other than stand in the background, and that, rather than using the relationship between Detmer and herself, and her established abilities to give Owo her heroic turn in the finale, the scriptwriters simply penciled in a special skill.

Finally there was the exit of Georgiu. I’m divided here, because there was so much wasted potential in Georgiou’s storyline; but she did have a solid character arc, she behaved consistently, and (being honest) Michelle Yeoh remained the most entertaining actor performing on Star Trek this year. Her scenery-chewing swings between horny, cruel, protective and gleeful remained the source of much of the show’s levity. 

There was a while when Georgiu seemed to be an interesting critical figure. Her position as a time traveler and as a mirror-universe figure, her multiple displacements, made her an effective stand-in for much of the deconstructive critique that marked the period of Star Trek between Deep Space Nine and Enterprise and this lent her interaction with the ever-so-Rodenberryesque principal cast a form of metatextual dialog which, during the first half of season three, pointed toward an actual theme.

Of course this was bungled in favour of naked fanservice and brand maintenance as she was somewhat unceremoniously shuffled over to her spin-off Section 31 series, in a two-part episode that fell painfully flat.

Brand maintenance was the name of the game for Discovery season three though. So I suppose this isn’t too surprising. 

A story in search of a theme

What was Discovery season three about? Think about it for a second, really try to think about it. What was it about? We could start by taking inventory on where we came from. Discovery season two established that the crew were a found-family. Our named-cast agree, together, to follow Michael into the future in order to protect the Sphere Data and prevent the arisal of the Control AI that would destroy all life in the galaxy.

Michael and Saru, once rivals, have fallen into a gentle and supportive friendship as she has helped him recover his connection to his people and overturn a form of systemic repression that subjugated Kelpiens throughout history. Michael has been promised the opportunity to reunite with her mother.

Stamets and Culber have been reunited, as the Mycelial Network repays Stamets for his efforts in the two seasons of the show to protect the integrity of the universe even at the expense of his own success and notoriety as a researcher. Stamets, in particular, has learned how to set aside his personal desires and act in the interests of the collective.

Tilly remains the loyal friend and Michael’s mentee. Georgiu remains the dark reflection of the other mother who Michael failed – the pull toward utility and practicality to balance the selflessness of her mother’s own arc. And Pike stays behind to spin off with Spock and Number One. This is fine. We always expected that Pike would be a one-season treat. The sphere data is an enigmatic other. The season ends uncertain whether it will be an ally or a threat – just the certainty that it appears aware in some way.

So what would make sense from here? 

We could build off the sense that Michael needs to pick up the mantle of leadership. We could see her building ties in the future, feeling at home, and having the feeling that she should lead. We could see Saru finding himself a bit too rigid, a bit of a fish out of too many waters. Put Saru on the bridge when Osyraa’s regulators board; have it go the same. Let Michael have her die-hard sequence and then have Saru demand Michael take command rather than Tilley. We end in the same place. Saru retired to Kelpinar, Michael as captain. Tilly has been Michael’s mentee since season one episode one so having her remain so, with an eye toward assuming a command role at season-end, (and perhaps a promotion) would have continued to give Mary Wiseman something to do aside from following Saru around being his folly. This would give us a thematic through-line that leadership requires not just genius and thoughtfulness, but some of the willingness to throw oneself into an uncertain future that Michael represents. In fact, such an arc would hark back to the white rabbit motifs of season one. Michael has always been one to go down the rabbit hole.

Or we could lean into the changed politics of the burn and examine what the Federation really is. This would require reconfiguring the order things happen in a bit of course. The introduction of the Emerald Chain in the first episode was the place to plant seeds about the chain’s instability in the lack of Dilithium. 

We could have then met the painfully mis-used Aurellio – who could have been the initial representative of the Chain to the heroes. He could have praised Osyraa’s vision and ability to unite people in the face of adversity. While the Federation retreated to its starbase of pure abstraction, Osyraa is down in the dirt, trying to hold the galaxy together. Then we learn about the exploitation of pre-warp species. But still there’s an excuse. If we don’t bring them in we might lose the galactic culture. They are important. And then the slave camps. Then the horror that girds Osyraa’s rhetoric. Because as the political story is told, we already know the Emerald Chain is a horror before Aurelio ever tries to make a defense of it. As a result, the scene is absurd. There is no way that Stamets could be persuaded, not when we, the audience already know what’s behind the curtain.

And then there’s the central mystery.

This is the great void at the heart of Discovery, season three, and the center of its failure.

The burn is nonsense.

It’s not a political consequence of the Federation. This possibility is explored during the Galactic Tour and then abruptly dismissed. Nor is it a weapon of an enemy. And there were so many enemies to choose. It could have been whichever faction enforces the outcome of the Temporal Wars. It could be the extra-galactic AI of Picard season one. Or the sphere data. Or these could be the same – the burn could be Control’s last shout of “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” It could have been the Emerald Chain who set off the burn. 

Instead it’s a Kelpian child who was grieving  the death of his mother. This might have worked, if Star Trek wanted to propose that the universe was an absurd place where only our bonds to each other allow us to cling to rafts of reason beneath a deep abyss of chaos. But Star Trek is far too deterministic for this. It’s a clockwork world of blank hologram faces, binary states, a clearly defined right and wrong. It’s a world where you cannot return to the past because There Are Rules.

And there are rules. Except when there are not.

And so the theme becomes brand maintenance; it booms “I am the Guardian of Forever” and hopes that people remember not just that this is literally audio from The Original Series but also that there was almost a spin-off to The Original Series brought about through a time travel story (Assignment: Earth). There are rules. You cannot travel in time. Except when the demands of Michelle Yeoh’s contract, and of the spin-off roadmap demand that time travel must be done. It winks at the audience and hints about what might be next.

It does the same with the sphere data. All the show does with this remaining thread from the last season is wink and hint. Wink and hint. Nothing is settled. Nothing concrete is learned. It’s deferred. We can’t give away the game for Season 4 or we’d have to actually try something new.

The first season of Discovery had a thesis: that the humanist values of Star Trek as envisioned by Roddenberry were good, actually.

The second season of Discovery had a theme: that this good was sufficient to overcome the end of everything; and that deviating from Trekian Humanism was a path that would lead to ruin.

In the third season of Discovery there is no such thesis, no such theme. There is a half-baked story of petrostates when the oil runs out; an attempt to engage a dialectic of Star Trek and Mad Max and find the oneness between these futures. But instead of pinning the rise and fall of the action to a thesis or a theme, this season is just a collection of events, an absurd and meaningless process of moving characters like game pieces into the configuration necessary to carry forward the franchise.

About that dilithium

Star Trek Discovery situates the Federation as a humanism. Season one makes it clear that what makes the Federation good is what makes Starfleet good is what makes Star Trek good and that this is a deliberate centering of its subjects. The show seems to ask that same question De Beauvoir did, “How could {people}, originally separated, get together?” In season one, the Klingons ask, but should we want that. Shouldn’t we cling to our difference? And Star Trek answers no. By coming together, Michael finds absolution, Saru finds community, Stamets finds love and kindness, Tilly finds someone to look up to. These disparate, different, people build a community that is centered around their relations, they build each other up. This is what makes the Federation good

In season two, Section 31 shifts away from Federation humanism and toward a kind of cybernetic utilitarianism. Build a good enough machine and it will predict how to bring people together. It will maximize happiness and oops we made a paperclip maximizer that’s going to kill us all better do a humanism quick. Season two shows us not the Klingon rejection of humanist community but rather a tecnnocratic subversion of it. And then season two tells us why that, too, is wrong.

In season three, all the Federation is, is a collection of ships and bases, and having run out of gas it dissolves. Well except for the hard kernel that later reterritorializes the absence left by its own collapse, and the collapse of the Emerald Chain left behind. But this reterritorialization isn’t the same humanism. We’re told, by our half-baked materialist Osyraa that the Federation is choking on its idealism. It’s a realm of abstraction, of computer generated holograms built explicitly to occupy the uncanny valley, of programmable matter that can be anything (as long as that thing serves plot expedience) and of force fields. So many force fields. But aside from the crew of Discovery, the actual population of the Federation is reduced to three. Aditya Sahil, Vance and Kovich. Three old men. Each isolated within his function. The lighthouse keeper. The admiral. The enigma. There is no community here for Discovery to be a part of.

The show seems to understand this and so it throws its characters into whatever scrap of community they can muster. And so Michael has her plot-convenient crisis of faith because of her community with Book. Stamets adopts his coworker for reasons that are never made clear in the show. It’s not like even the most evil elements of the future are homophobes; so Adira’s queer identity seems like a weak basis for Stamets to decide he must be their surrogate dad. And Saru adopts an elderly Kelpien (one who must be chronologically far older than Saru) rather than continue his duties as captain – something that had been previously very important to him. These honestly bizarre character choices can only be justified as the scriptwriters realizing the lack in their story and attempting to fill it with something, anything. After all. A family is a community too.

So what is the Federation? Is it a community of worlds? If so all that is left of it is N’Var – where the community of worlds has been made manifest in reunification. Is it a family? If so it has become a very small one. Is it just the fuel to make the ships go? The text of Discovery suggests that. But this is just material culture.  Fanon talked about the structure of a nation a lot. He thought a nation was vast and impossible to perceive all at once, what Timothy Morton would have called a hyperobject. When a group of people get together, in the existentialist-humanist sense of the world, then they, the culture they create, the boundaries they set, the land they work, the wars they fight, the vast totality of all those lives is the nation. A culture cannot exist without a nation as culture exists in the agreeing of the members of a nation on what constitutes that culture. A material culture arises out of a nation, but it is the people who compose it. It is the people who invest the material culture with anything resembling meaning. And so, absent any people to be the Federation, it has no culture. Liberation demands a nation too, as liberation is, by necessity an action we do together. And we even get a hint of that in the void the Federation left in its passing – Osyraa is all too happy to fill that with naked power. But without that sense of culture, without the sense of something built, we are left with yet another thing undone at the end of the season. Because there still isn’t a nation at the end. Just a single found family in the absurd void of space. And frankly, Voyager already did that story.  The failure of Discovery to move beyond the themes of the first two seasons in any significant way but also to resolve any new questions or contradictions leaves me with a Sisyphean sense of the story.

I still like these characters. I like Michael and Book. I like Saru in all his contradictions, and Tilly’s uncertainty, I like Stamet’s incendiary emotional pallet and the smooth water that Culber brings. I want to see these characters have adventures that are invested in meaning. We aren’t there right now. As it stands, we leave Michael pushing the rock of Federation Humanism up the slope of history, having it now slipped from her grasp three times, each time to be recovered so she can start again.

I can only imagine her happy.

One thought on “The failed promise of Star Trek Discovery

  1. Pingback: I’m back? | Simon McNeil

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