It’s been 18 months since I first looked at Star Trek: Discovery and its prospects on CBS All Access. Now that the second season is done, how is Starfleet’s weird science experiment holding up?
On the face of it, the show seems to be doing well. CBS renewed the show for a third season only a few weeks after season 2 launched, and seems to have confidence in the show’s streaming model.
A direct spin-off starring Michelle Yeoh is in the works, and there’s at least idle chatter about another spin-off featuring Anson Mount as Captain Pike. There’s also a host of other Star Trek projects in development, including a hotly anticipated? Picard series. It’s hard to tell if CBS All Access has plans to offer anything other than Star Trek.
Creatively, though the show is a mess.
What Is This Show About?
Discovery is the first Star Trek series built around the idea of serialized storytelling. It has succeeded at focusing each of its first two seasons around a specific plot and theme, but it has failed miserably at making its themes coherent and resonant.
The revolving door in the writers’ room is part of the problem. Alex Kurtzman has been on the show from its conception, but is its fourth show-runner. Michelle Paradise started in the middle of season two and will join Kurtzman as the show’s fifth show runner for season three. Both are capable writers, and Discovery may settle down into consistent storytelling if they can actually stick around.
Even allowing for musical writers, though, it’s hard to see how seasons one and two could have been memorable for their stories.
Season one threw a a mysterious captain, a revolutionary never-heard-of-before drive technology, and a war with the Klingons into a pot. Discovery emerged to bounce wildly through dimensions, time, and surprise reveals of hidden identities. Some of the show’s surprises (Voq) were carefully planned; others (the time jump to “lose” the Klingon war) looked like frantic improvisation. I’m a tolerant viewer, but even I felt whiplash.
Season two was more focused, but led the characters by the nose through a “seven signals” railroad plot. There was also an almost desperate focus on the doings of Captain Christopher Pike, Lieutenant Spock, and the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Some of the Enterprise stuff worked. Anson Mount was superb as Pike, creating a rich character who can now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Star Trek universe’s many great captains. Ethan Peck was solid as a younger Spock, creating a version that fit Nimoy’s portrayal without copying it. And the Discovery version of the Enterprise was a great mix of the classic design and the current show’s aesthetic.
Wherefore Art Thou, Discovery?
But it was sometimes hard to shake the feeling that the Discovery was getting pushed out of its own show. We spent a lot of time with Pike and Spock. Meanwhile, a lot of Discovery’s original characters got pushed into subplots. They got screen time — sometimes more than you might expect — but they didn’t drive the action.
That’s a shame, because Discovery’s original characters work. Sonequa Martin-Green is a superb lead, and her take on Michael Burnham was the glue that kept season one from flying apart at the seams. Saru, Stamets, Tilly, and Culber all add new and interesting personalities to the vast line-up of Star Trek characters. Minor characters like the bridge crew are steadily evolving into individuals. Even Tyler is all right, when you consider he is by definition the character that nobody knows what to do with.
These characters are worth following as they grow, but it’s hard to develop them when the series is dragging them from point to point in an overarching plot. It’s even harder when the show turns away from them to focus on guest stars and single-season characters. (The death of Cornwallis as Pike watches is a case in point, being equal parts epic and nonsensical and at no point engaging the main characters.)
Discovery has the characters it needs to be to be an excellent Star Trek show. But so far, the characters have come second to the narrative — and the narrative isn’t engaging. Maybe that will change in season three, as the Discovery explores what is effectively a new setting. Is it too late to go back to omni-competent Starfleet officers roaming through standalone adventures?