This is a subtle issue. Subtle to the point that I may just be making it up. I could be completely wrong. I’m just going to throw it out there and see if it sticks.
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is a show full of people in rooms, talking.
I can already hear your objections, and your cries to the effect “so is basically every show, dickwad, what were you expecting?”
The best way to explain this is by example. And for once, I’m going to compare ‘Discovery’ to itself. I’m not going to bring in external sources, and I’m not going to hold it up to the standard of previous Trek shows. Just ‘Discovery’ – it’s best, versus its worst.
Storytelling Done Right
The very, very opening of ‘Discovery’, waaaaay way back when Captain Georgiou was a role model and not a cliché, before we even had that fucking awful opening theme song inflicted upon us, had a great little scene. A few parts of that cold-open were a bit shonky, but there was a great bit at the end where, unable to communicate their location to the ship, Georgiou starts walking randomly in the sand.
As she and Burnham walk, they talk about how they would react to being stuck on the planet, but there’s a dynamic to the scene created by the fact that Georgiou is clearly up to something, and Burnham can’t understand what it is. There’s a power tilt, which ultimately ends in the reveal of the Shenzhou and Georgiou’s plan all along – to trace out the Starfleet emblem in the sand.
It’s a good moment.
Here are some other good moments throughout the series:
- In the second episode, Burnham negotiating her escape from the destroyed brig with an impassive, disembodied computer that is bound by simple rules. She’s clearly smarter than the supercomputer, but also completely at its mercy.
- When the away team boards the Glenn in the third episode, ‘Context is for Kings’, and meets the shushing Klingon, followed by the tardigrade chase. The scene shifts from muted tension to dramatic action via a bit of humanising light-heartedness.
- The final Mudd scene in ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ is total garbage because of the “And now your punishment – a girlfriend!” element, but the lead-up to it, with Mudd strolling the corridors with the three Starfleet officers, completely confident of his own dominance, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath him, makes for a great shift in authority.
- If I’m being honest, most of the structure of ‘Magic to Make…’ is fantastic, with lots of interplay, lots of interaction and lots of development happening within the scenes themselves. It’s just the content that ends up being dumb.
The thing that makes these scenes great is that they develop and change in their own right – specifically, the characters’ states are different at the end of the scene to at the beginning. Following in order:
- Burnham and Georgiou go from being lost on an abandoned planet, to Burnham having learned more about Georgiou’s ingenuity in a time of crisis.
- Burnham goes from being imprisoned, helpless, with eight minutes of oxygen, to having conned her way out of the brig to freedom.
- The away team goes from calmly exploring a dead ship to literally running for their lives.
- Mudd goes from being a cunning, sadistic criminal in total command of the situation to falling for a con himself, with the Starfleet officers transitioning from being hostages on their own ship to being back in control.
Now, not every scene has to have these changes in state – it’s perfectly fine to have a more sedate bit of exposition every once in a while. And sometimes, characters don’t change physical state or power state at all – it can just be an emotional change that they experience.
Storytelling Done Wrong
The end of Episode Twelve, ‘The Wolf Inside’ (Jesus Christ these episode titles are trash – I never thought it was possible to sink lower than ‘Operation: Annihilate!’, but apparently I was wrong. ‘The Wolf Inside’ just sounds like a lycanthrope’s memoir, or maybe a new computer processor company. Fuck me, I mean, reading the episode list is like reading the back of a power metal concept album, look at this shit:
- ‘The Vulcan Hello’ – a slow-paced melodic ballad about a village blacksmith and his various creations.
- ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ – a grand, orchestral operatic piece about the triumph of Azanog, Champion of the Star League.
- ‘Context is for Kings’ – Drums and heavy vocals dominate this tale of two warring kingdoms and the plight of their peasant soldiers.
- ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry’ – Slow-tempo mystic piece describing the dark rituals done in the name of Unholy Maganoth the Despoiler.
- ‘Choose Your Pain’ – High-energy thrash song with a great hook and chorus.
- ‘Lethe’ – A soldier lost in a strange land of fairies and elves, with no memory of who he is or where he came from. Some great bass riffs.
- ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ – Wonderful operatic piece with guest vocals by Christopher Lee.
- ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’ – A cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, with Latin lyrics sung in Gregorian chant.
- ‘Into the Forest I Go’ – Yet another fucking song about ‘Alice in Wonderland’, seriously, that’s like twelve this year already. Nice guitar solo at the end.
- ‘Despite Yourself’ – Duet between the lead band’s singer, and the frontman of Axebite; could’ve done without the flute segments.
- ‘The Wolf Inside’ – Literally just a song about a werewolf.
- ‘Vaulting Ambition’ – Weird, spoken-word track covering the rise of Azanog and his subsequent descent into Lovecraftian madness. Should’ve stayed on the B-side.
Where the fuck was I? Oh, rubbish scenes, right.)
So anyway, at the end of ‘The Wolf Inside’ Ash Tyler the Human reveals that he was actually Mr Lammers, the theme park manager all along. Sorry, no, that he was actually Voq the Klingon all along. Which is fine. But the scene itself is so dull, and it’s difficult to describe why, but here goes:
At the beginning of the scene, Burnham is angry and confused that Ash started speaking Klingon and attacked Mirror-Voq. At the end of the scene, Burnham is angry and confused that Ash said he was Voq. Somewhere in the middle he attacks her and gets knocked out, but most of the scene is just the two of them talking, with some sporadic cut-aways that are indicative of Ash losing it, and that we’ve already seen.
The thing is, nothing in the scene is surprising – particularly because Ash’s reveal is so heavily telegraphed, but also because once it happens, of course he’s going to attack Burnham and start doing evil shit. And of course he’s not going to get away with it because of that meddling Kelpian (also the fact he’s on a ship literally full of genocidally xenophobic arseholes).
The alternative seems, to me, to be obvious – have him actually do something, not just stand there talking. Maybe he and Burnham are in a firefight with the alien rebels when Ash gets set off, leaving Burnham stuck between her once-lover-now-traitor and a bunch of Vulcans and Andorians who want to kill her.Maybe she’s in a stand-off with a murderous subordinate keen to advance up the Terran ranks by assassinating her; at first, Ash has her back, giving her the upper hand, before he goes completely rogue and starts attacking all of the humans that he sees.
There are lots of ways that Ash’s revelation could have been explored in a more interesting fashion, and the same goes for Lorca’s big reveal in ‘Vaulting Ambition’. Sure, there’s the bit where Lorca breaks out of the Agony Booth, but the actual reveal, the revelatory bit for Burnham, is just another scene of her and the Emperor in a different room, talking. Why not have Burnham figure it out as Lorca is being brought to the Emperor, right after she’s convinced the Emperor to release Lorca because she thought he wasn’t his mirror counterpart?
Christ, all this subterfuge makes these sentences hard to parse.
This kind of flat, dull non-scene is sadly endemic throughout the series. Here are a few more examples:
- In ‘Choose Your Pain’, the bridge crew watch Lorca’s fighter escaping the Klingon ship whilst Saru says some stuff, then they beam Lorca and Ash aboard.
- Also in ‘Choose Your Pain’, Burnham and Tilly “heal” the Large-igrade by saying a prayer over it.
- Christ, also in ‘Choose Your Pain’, rather than any actual experiments being done, the solution to navigating without the Large-igrade is explored by three people standing in a line, talking.
- Also in ‘Lethe’, multiple playfights between Sarek and Burnham are punctuated with conversation, but ultimately change nothing.
- The finale of ‘Into the Forest I Go’ is an “epic fight” between Burnham and Kol, two people who have never met and who have no relationship, and the fight itself ends in stalemate.
- In ‘Despite Yourself’, we get one scene of Burnham explaining the Mirror Universe to everyone, followed by another scene, after everyone has just rushed to the bridge, in which Burnham continues to explain that Tilly is the captain. Surely a much more fun way to do that would have been to simply have the other ship ask to speak to Captain Tilly? Have a mad rush to find her, get her on the bridge, brief her along the way? This scene also ends up failing to advance the plot.
- In ‘The Wolf Inside’, Burnham talks with Lorca by having the brig cleared out and taking him out of the booth – not that we see any of that. Why not have her try to talk to him whilst making it look like an interrogation in front of her crew?
- Also in ‘The Wolf Inside’, Burnham and Tyler beam down to the rebel planet, establish a tense ceasefire, maintain a tense ceasefire, Ash and Voq fight which changes nothing, everyone stays sat down in the tent, the scene ends in a tense ceasefire.
- ALSO in ‘The Wolf Inside’, after spacing TyVoq, Burnham has Lorca brought to her ready room so she can “interrogate” him. They sit at a table, talking.
- In ‘Vaulting Ambition’, Burnham meets Emperor Georgiou in the latter’s Throne Room. They talk. Then they go up to the Emperor’s dining room, and talk. Georgiou decides to kill Burnham, so they go back down to the Throne Room, and talk some more. A few nameless people we’ve never met get murdered. Followed by more talking. The ultimate outcome of the entire episode is that Georgiou probably won’t kill Burnham, for now.
- Also in ‘Vaulting Ambition’ (there’s been a lot of shite in just three episodes) Stamets and Mirror Stamets wander around an imaginary spaceship. Talking. Then Stamets meets the mushroom-ghost of his dead husband. They do kiss (for the third time in ten episodes) but mostly they talk. After enough talking, Stamets wakes up from his mushroom coma.
These scenes all contain perfectly good performances, fine acting, some really ropey dialogue (but that’s forgivable) and some nice-ish sets and costumes. But the scenes themselves are just straight-line, A-to-B affairs: get in, deliver the necessary plot information / characterisation, get out, onto the next.
This is way too subjective a topic for the nearly-nineteen-hundred words I’ve already written, and your mileage may absolutely vary, but I spend so much time watching ‘Discovery’ just bored, waiting for the next plot development to get shat out by whichever character happens to be talking at the opportune moment.
The same is true of the action scenes, some of which I’ve included above. Action scenes are great when they radically change a situation and allow us to learn a lot more about our characters. When they’re just inserted in there to break up the talking scenes, they end up being just as boring, no matter how flashily they’re choreographed.
The test is this – what are the characters actually doing? Are they just talking? Or are they negotiating, bargaining, teaching? Are they outsmarting or tricking or even conning? Are they threatening, or defying?
The same with fights – what are they fighting about? What are they fighting for? What are the stakes? What’s the history between the fighters? Who wins the fight, and why do they win the fight?
These questions outline, for me, ‘Discovery’s greatest weakness so far – so much of the dialogue is info-dump. So much of the action has zero consequences. More of the story is driven by things that happen off the screen, or out of our characters’ hands – but that’s another article for another day.