Right off the bat, I need to express some sympathy for the writers of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ who, it turns out, were not only hostage to the whims of their capitalist overlords but were also working in a pretty fucking hostile work environment, according to this Hollywood Reporter piece.
I would also like to personally apologise for this piece of trash that I wrote a while back, for which I now feel quite guilty.
But here’s the thing with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’: it was a deeply flawed finished product that grew from a seed of warmth and greatness. If it had stayed true to its conceptual heart, it could’ve been magnificent, but it was a victim of either its writers’ ambitions or, more likely, the meddling of arrogant executives.
Take Captain Lorca, the Mirror Universe interloper. That is a fantastic and fun storyline that could very easily be a classic episode of Star Trek. It’s a great subversion; normally, we follow our heroes trying to blend into the brutal Mirror Universe, and seeing the twisted mirror of a Prime Universe captain trying to do the same would have been wonderful – for one episode, or a two-parter at best.
But any writer worth their salt should have known that it lacked the substance for a series-long subplot. If you have to do it that way, at least show the aftermath. Show Admiral Cornwell dealing with the betrayal, or Saru questioning all of his loyalties and the lessons he had learned. Don’t just ditch it and move onto the next GRIPPING PLOT TWIST.
Or have a look at the series as a whole, and the casting of a black woman as the main character, and a Malaysian woman as her mentor. That would have been fantastic, if they had not then literally cannibalised Michelle Yeoh and given Sonequa Martin-Green an unsympathetic character with no personal goals or motivations. And then made conversations between women a rare treat for the audience.
The show even gave us Trek’s first on-screen gay couple – and then kept them celibate for nine episodes before treating a kiss between them as a mid-season emotional climax. Almost as though two men in love kissing each other should be a strategic missile deployed for maximum twitter hashtags rather than a normal, everyday occurrence.
My point is that I genuinely believe that ‘Discovery’ was germinated with a soul of progressive love. I can only assume that it is that soul that the show’s die-hard fans cling onto, despite the fact that only mere glimmers of it appear in the finished product.
Which brings me around, rather circuitously, to my main point:
Alex Kurtzman, one of the writers of ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’, has just taken over ‘Discovery’ as its show-runner, and I have never been more worried about the franchise.
If ‘Discovery’ was a failure born with a spark of good intentions, ‘Into Darkness’ was a nightmare destined to malice from its very conception. ‘Into Darkness’ possessed no virtuous intent nor hidden beauty, neither from its beginning nor through to its very end.
If you haven’t read my previous treatise on ‘Into Darkness‘, or if you have and would like a reminder, this was the film that:
- Constructed a two-minute scene to end with Alice Eve undressing, so that a shot of her in lingerie could be included in the trailer.
- Cured death by having Dr. McCoy inject a tribble with human blood (and then, obviously, never revisited that concept or its repercussions).
- Had a Sikh character with an Indian name, originally portrayed by a Mexican, played by a British white man (the cultural distaste of which can be understood by typing “British Empire” into Google).
- Featured Spock, a character famous for remaining in control of his emotions, ragefully beating a man with a lump of metal.
- Established James Kirk as someone who sexually harassed a member of his own crew into relocating to a distant part of the galaxy.
- Followed the most mind-numbingly stupid plot that has ever been written, featuring six dozen torpedoes which either are or are not deadly weapons depending on which scene you’re watching.
- Turns both Uhura and Spock into a bickering teenage couple willing to jeapordise a mission for the sake of having an argument.
- Refers to the iconic, expository speech “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise,” as an “oath”. Like when a U.S. President gets sworn in with the oath that goes “America: the big country. These are the times of the United States.”
- Is generally just so painfully stupid that thinking about it again has me burning with a hot anger that I usually only feel when I stub my toe or when I watch scenes featuring Captain Holt from the first half of the second season of ‘Brooklyn 99’. HE WAS A THREE-DIMENSIONAL CHARACTER, DAMN IT, AND THEY TRIED TO FLANDERISE HIM, THE BASTARDS.
(As a side note, I once had someone tell me that ‘Into Darkness’ is a great film, but you need to read the accompanying comicbook to appreciate it. Which was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, until the same person said in the next sentence that the comic book was amazing because it also featured a crossover storyline with DC’s Green Lantern.)
One thing to bear in mind is that Alex Kurtzman has written for some well-loved projects, including many JJ Abrams collaborations such as the first Trek Reboot film, ‘Fringe’, ‘Alias’, and even ‘Xena’.
He has also written for such classics as ‘The Amazing Spiderman 2’ (the second Andrew Garfield one), ‘Transformers’, ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, ‘The Island’ (“You’re a v-v-v-v–virgin?”) and the Star Trek video game.
It’s also important to remember that he’s been involved with ‘Discovery’ since the very beginning with both “Creator” and “Executive Producer” credits, but crucially not involved in the day-to-day creative elements except for the pilot, and now as a director of the first episode of the second season.
Now, however, he’s apparently heading up both the show itself as well as the writing team. And I genuinely, and with the greatest of sympathy, hope he creates a much more positive atmosphere for the people of ‘Discovery’. But it’s still a scary development for a fan, such as myself, who wants to see Trek shift away from ten-minute long fight sequences and back towards a marginally more intellectual pursuit.
Because the Star Trek that Kurtzman seems to insist on creating is a creature with no soul. The 2009 reboot film just about managed to get away with it by keeping its ambitions grounded – it was created to be a lightweight action adventure film, and it broadly succeeded. It didn’t need to be meaningful or deep, it just needed to be inoffensive.
Then ‘Into Darkness’ comes along, and decides against finding any kind of meaning in the rebooted franchise, but instead goes for the “Shocking Plot Twist Every Minute” trope that would be picked up by ‘Discovery’ (but curiously not by ‘Beyond’, its cinematic successor). John Harrison is secretly Khan; Dr Wallace is secretly Dr Marcus; Admiral Marcus is secretly evil; the torpedoes are secretly people; McCoy is very obviously an evil Nazi scientist.
And it was this kind of storytelling that really torpedoed ‘Discovery’s first season. We could never have an episode without a shocking cliffhanger or a surprising reveal. We could never sit back and enjoy the universe, watch the characters really grow and develop, without shaking everything up every five minutes with a shocking and ultimately predictable “surprise”.
And that was a real shame, because the cast of ‘Discovery’ is fucking on-point. None of the performances are lacking and the characters are all solid foundations for development. And, despite my clear reservations about what we know of Season 2 so far, I was genuinely, and very deep down, hopeful that the show would somehow move on from its crass and ill-made beginnings and find something positive to do with itself.
But Kurtzman’s track record destroys that hope. He is not a master of nuanced storytelling, and has demonstrated that repeatedly in the projects he has worked on. And that’s alright, that can work for a two-hour movie or the odd episode. But an entire season of high-octane emotional shouting and fistfights is absolutely the last thing ‘Discovery’ needs to become.
A character like Saru, for instance, is never going to grow past being “the guy who is scared all the time until he isn’t” until we get a more sedate, thoughtful story that can show us a more rounded character in less intense situations.
A character like Tilly is never going to be able to grow fully into a capable and responsible officer if she only has experience at dealing with betrayal and explosions.
And Burnham is never going to turn into the compelling protagonist we need her to be if all she can do is get outraged at and then solve every new devastating problem the crew faces before getting thrown into the next exciting action climax.
We didn’t fall in love with Spock because he once fought Kirk with big fancy blades. We fell in love with Spock because he finally cracked into a broad smile when he realised his best friend was still alive before immediately regaining his composure.
We didn’t fall in love with Data because he was a metal badass who broke Borg necks. We fell in love with Data because we watched his friends debate in a quiet courtroom his autonomy. And also because he tells his cat that he is pretty and good.
We didn’t fall in love with Sisko because he could punch Jem’Hedar. We fell in love with Sisko because he loved baseball nearly as much as he loved his son, and because when we first meet him he resents his posting to a backwater like Bajor, and by the time he leaves us he’s planning the house he’s going to build there.
We didn’t fall in love with Harry Kim. And that’s okay, because as soon as he opened his mouth we could just tune him out and think about The Doctor instead.
And this is it. Right now, I don’t really care about any of the crew of the Discovery. But I think I could, if they were to get a few decent stories under their belt with plenty of time to wander around and simply be. It was great to see Burnham and Tilly chatting shit whilst on a run through the corridors – it was a simple scene that didn’t need to go anywhere or be plot relevant. But it was nearly unique in that regard, because you can’t leave room for scenes like that when you’ve got so many “secret identity” plotlines and brutal killings to squeeze into a limited number of episodes.
It would be great if we could get an episode in Season 2 where, I dunno, where they’ve got to transport some sound-sensitive alien ambassador to a summit or something. And everyone has to go around the ship unable to shout or scream, they just have to have normal conversations with one another and emote at a reasonable volume. And nothing much really happens, but Saru meets the ambassador and they talk about their shared sensitivity, and Stamets tries to teach Tilly how to calibrate the engine but Tilly starts teaching him because she clearly knows more about it than he does, and Burnham and Detmer sit down to finally reminisce over a bottle of whisky about their time on the Shenzhou whilst getting steadily more drunk, toasting fallen shipmates and singing ‘Jerusalem’, and then they get carried away and end up getting shouted at for being too loud.
But with Kurtzman now firmly at the creative helm, I doubt we’d even get a quiet scene in a turbolift. I doubt a character could even pour themselves a hot earl grey without something bursting into flames or a war being declared or the earl grey revealing that it was evil mirror-universe fruit tea ALL ALONG.