Discovery in Depth – Continuity and The Shelby Method

My first look at ‘Discovery’s Season 2 Premiere, ‘Brother’, was a chaotic ejaculation following an unexpectedly positive reaction to the show’s latest episode. However, there are heavier themes and ideas to explore in the world of ‘Discovery’ critique beyond “Just how explicit am I allowed to be in describing the things I would let Jet Reno do to me?” and “At some point I need to see Tilly and Stamets sing ‘Faith of the Heart’ together during the ship’s Karaoke night.”

One of the frequent topics of discussion with regards ‘Discovery’ is its fit within the Star Trek canon – which is shorthand for “does it keep continuity with what has come before / what will come after in other shows and films?”

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never cared that much about continuity with the rest of the franchise. Canon gets violated in Star Trek more frequently than the Prime Directive, very often with the same series violating canon that the series itself established several episodes earlier (see: beaming through shields).

However, several recent instalments in the franchise haven’t just ignored broader franchise continuity – they’ve ignored their own continuity from just a few scenes or even just a few moments before.

To explore this phenomenon, I’d like to introduce “The Shelby Method” of continuity.

shelby1
No, not that Shelby.

Continuity – The Shelby Method

If you’ve seen ‘Memento’, you’ll be familiar with its main character Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce. In it, Shelby is unable to form new memories – events occur, and within a few minutes he will have forgotten them entirely, finding himself in new and strange situations with no clue as to how he got there.

It’s notable for being a great little movie, with a wonderful cast, and for being Hollywood darling Christopher Nolan’s first widely-distributed film and the beginning of his $2.4 billion filmography (but sure, feel free to keep complaining about the plot holes in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’).

=ê™e

It’s also notable for inspiring what I have now coined as “The Shelby Method” of film and TV storytelling, most notably used in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

It works like this:

The significance of any information, plot development or dialogue is retained across the next two camera shots, after which it can be abandoned completely in favour of superseding information.

In short, if you’re telling a story for film or TV and you need cool stuff to happen, there is absolutely no need for previous events in the story to stop the cool stuff from happening.

For example, in ‘Into Darkness’:

  1. Admiral Marcus fires on the Enterprise
  2. causing her warp core to become dislodged
  3. causing Kirk to sacrifice himself whilst kicking it back into position
  4. causing Kirk to die
  5. causing Spock to scream “KHAAAAAN!”

Now, as your brain works through that sequence of events, and you begin to think “Hang on, why is Spock shouting ‘KHAAAAAN!’ when it was Admiral Marcus who was more responsible for Kirk’s death?” Spock is already down on Earth, chasing Khan through the streets of San Francisco, and now McCoy is resurrecting a Tribble with Khan’s blood, and now Spock’s on a hovering garbage scow, and now McCoy’s shouting at Uhura, and now Spock’s whaling on Khan with a lump of metal, and now he’s screaming like an animal, and by now you’ve already forgotten about that bit with the warp core, haven’t you?

spock_screaming_khan

If clever tricks of perspective and carefully-orchestrated special effects are considered “Movie Magic”, then the Shelby Method is “Movie Con-Artistry” – it’s the practice of moving the story along so quickly and dazzling or otherwise overwhelming the audience such that you prevent them from committing the events of your story to their long-term memory. You turn your audience into Leonard Shelby, remembering only the last few brief seconds of what they’ve just experienced.

Another example would be in Season 1 of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, episode 8, ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’, where Discovery‘s First Officer, Saru, betrays Burnham and Tyler and attacks them, sabotaging their mission to gain a war-winning advantage against the Klingons.

And as Saru lies in sickbay, explaining that he wasn’t even being mind-controlled, he was just emotionally overwhelmed, and you start thinking “Well, the last time a First Officer behaved that way, it was Burnham, and she spent six months in prison, and that’s the entire driving theme of this series, so is Saru going to at least get a court martial?” and then the peace planet emits a huge energy pulse summoning the Klingons, and Burnham and Tyler walk onto the bridge, and Lorca says something, and the communications officer says something, and we cut to the Klingon leader Kol, and then we end on a cliffhanger, and then at the beginning of the next episode the scene continues and everyone’s trying to figure out what to do about the Klingons, and Saru is there too, as First Officer, and

Wait, shouldn’t Saru be in the brig?”

Well, of course not. Because as per the Shelby Method, Saru did nothing mutinous within the last two camera shots, so what possible reason could there be for him to be in the brig?

Congratulations, you’ve just been Shelby’d.

butiwascollage


Orders and Uniforms

So, let’s take a look at ‘Brother’, the first episode of DISCO’s second season, and let’s see if we can keep up, starting with the final moments of the ‘Previously On’ segment at the very start:

  1. Discovery enters maximum warp straight from Earth to Vulcan
  2. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  3. but the sender of the signal can’t communicate via audio or even transmit their registry number
  4. and it turns out to be the Enterprise
  5. and she’s Captain Pike’s ship
  6. with Spock aboard
  7. and we see the Enterprise approach Discovery under her own power with all her lights on
  8. and we cut to a montage of photos from space probes and telescopes
  9. and Burnham talks about an ancient (hundred-thousand year old???) story of creation
  10. and we see Burnham’s introduction to Sarek
  11. and then to Amanda
  12. and then to Anakin-Spock
  13. and then Anakin-Spock makes a holographic dragon float around the room
  14. and then he closes the door
  15. and then we’re back on Discovery
  16. and the Enterprise is completely disabled with no systems online and all her lights off
  17. except life support
  18. but all crew are alive, including Spock
  19. and it’s Tilly’s idea to communicate via Morse Code
  20. and Enterprise has just signalled via Morse that Captain Pike and an engineer and a science officer are beaming over
  21. and they beam over
  22. and Spock isn’t there
  23. and Pike takes command of Discovery under Starfleet’s orders
  24. and explains that he wanted to deliver the news himself and so asked Starfleet not to notify Discovery
  25. and the Enterprise engineer comments on how badass Discovery is
  26. and Pike explains that at least Enterprise picked up the new uniforms
  27. which Discovery‘s crew don’t have
  28. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  29. called “signals”
  30. which appeared simultaneously “over the past 24 hours”
  31. and then simultaneously disappeared, except for one
  32. which Discovery‘s crew has never heard of
  33. and Enterprise‘s science officer is arrogant in explaining the issues they cause
  34. and when they tried to scan the red bursts, their systems went haywire
  35. and Pike and Burnham talk about Spock
  36. and Linus the Saurian has a cold
  37. and we see Discovery‘s vast, lit-up, spacious roller coaster interior which is big enough for manned service pods
  38. and Saru theorises on the origin of the Red Bursts
  39. and the science officer explains that six hours ago
  40. one of the bursts “stabilised long enough to get a fix on its position”
  41. and Pike explains that they were on route
  42. when the ship’s systems completely shut down
  43. and that Starfleet is sending a team to tow the Enterprise home
  44. and then Pike asks Saru for his command codes
  45. and Saru explains that he can’t hand them over without a DNA test
  46. and then Linus sneezes on the arrogant science officer.

Okay, that’s a lot to take in. And maybe it all makes sense as you read it from top to bottom.

lightsonlightsoff
Lights on, lights off.

But, surprise surprise, all that formatting I added wasn’t random. Let’s put it together in a more categorised fashion, starting with all the reds:

  1. Discovery enters maximum warp straight from Earth to Vulcan
  2. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  3. and it turns out to be the Enterprise
  4. and we see the Enterprise approach Discovery under her own power with all her lights on
  5. and the Enterprise is completely disabled with no systems online and all her lights off
  6. and it’s Tilly’s idea to communicate via Morse Code
  7. and Pike takes command of Discovery under Starfleet’s orders
  8. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  9. which appeared simultaneously “over the past 24 hours”
  10. and then simultaneously disappeared, except for one
  11. and when they tried to scan the red bursts, their systems went haywire
  12. and the science officer explains that six hours ago
  13. one of the bursts “stabilised long enough to get a fix on its position”
  14. and Pike explains that they were on route
  15. when the ship’s systems completely shut down

So, here’s a question: what is the current state of the Enterprise? Are her systems completely down to the extent that they need Morse Code to communicate? She flew up to Discovery under her own power, but then her systems are completely dead except life support. All of her lights and engines are on as she approaches Discovery, at a time when she can’t even send an audio message, or even her registry number, but then they’re off less than two minutes later.

discoveryinterior
I guess Time Lords are canon in Trek now. Yes, that is a manned service pod flying around inside the hull of Discovery.

Maybe the underlined bits will help:

  1. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  2. but the sender of the signal can’t communicate via audio or even transmit their registry number
  3. and we see the Enterprise approach Discovery under her own power with all her lights on
  4. and the Enterprise is completely disabled with no systems online and all her lights off
  5. and it’s Tilly’s idea to communicate via Morse Code
  6. and Pike takes command of Discovery under Starfleet’s orders
  7. and explains that he wanted to deliver the news himself and so asked Starfleet not to notify Discovery
  8. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  9. and that Starfleet is sending a team to tow the Enterprise home

Well, now it seems like Pike had some extensive communications with Starfleet after the Enterprise‘s systems went completely down. Enough to transmit her status, to get a response, to request that Starfleet not contact Discovery themselves so that he can pass the message along, and gets a response about the status of the towing team, and then sends a garbled distress signal unable to even identify his own ship via its registry number.

enterpriselightson2

Which all happened before the Enterprise lost all power to all her systems, because we see her travelling towards Discovery after the show establishes that her communications are completely down.

I’m struggling to get my head around this, so let’s have a look at the blue bits (with a bit of red in there, admittedly):

  1. Discovery enters maximum warp straight from Earth to Vulcan
  2. when twenty seconds later she picks up a Priority 1 distress call
  3. and Pike explains that at least Enterprise picked up the new uniforms
  4. which Discovery‘s crew don’t have
  5. and Pike explains that Starfleet ordered Enterprise to investigate seven massive “red bursts” from all over the galaxy
  6. which appeared simultaneously “over the past 24 hours”
  7. and then simultaneously disappeared, except for one
  8. which Discovery‘s crew has never heard of
  9. and the science officer explains that six hours ago
  10. one of the bursts “stabilised long enough to get a fix on its position”

Which means, whilst Discovery was at Earth, and all the crew were getting their medals, and Burnham was chatting with Sarek about that one time he tried to wipe out an entire civilisation, the blue uniforms with metallic division colours were the standard uniform. Then they beam up to the ship, head into warp, and somehow nobody told Starfleet’s most advanced starship about the Red Bursts, or about the change in uniform.

uniforms

Meanwhile, we find out later that Enterprise sat out the war (as Starfleet’s “instrument of last resort”???? Despite the Klingon ships being in orbit over Earth????) on its five-year mission, presumably returning to Earth at some point before being dispatched to investigate the Red Bursts. Which would be a minimum of six hours before Discovery leaves Earth for Vulcan.

If it even returned to Earth at all. In any case:

  • How does Enterprise have the new uniforms before Discovery?
  • How does Enterprise know about the Red Bursts before Discovery?

If you can’t figure it out, then congratulations.

You’ve just been Shelby’d.


Magic Eyes

My previous examples took place over longer periods of time: several scenes and about twenty minutes of screen time in ‘Into Darkness’, and roughly five minutes and a handful of scenes in ‘Discovery’.

Now I want to take a look at a single-scene example, with the relevant events taking place within 66 seconds of each other.

So, under the command of Captain Pike, Discovery approaches a massive interstellar asteroid.

  1. Needing more information, they use telescopic cameras to take images of it
  2. and Burnham advises that the closer they are, the better a picture they can get
  3. so they move closer
  4. and as they do they cause a repulsive effect between them and the asteroid “like two similarly charged magnets”
  5. which pushes the asteroid onto a five-hour collision-course with a pulsar
  6. and then they detect a Starfleet vessel on the asteroid
  7. which they show in a zoomed-in digital overlay on the main viewscreen
  8. showing a crash-landed ship
  9. which they try hailing but get no response
  10. and they can’t zoom in any further to see the ship’s registry
  11. so Burnham reminds Saru that his eyes have “a larger optical window than [human eyes]”
  12. so Saru’s pupil dilates and he reads the registry number.

Well, by now you should know what’s coming next:

  1. Needing more information, they use telescopic cameras to take images of it
  2. and then they detect a Starfleet vessel on the asteroid
  3. which they show in a zoomed-in digital overlay on the main viewscreen
  4. and they can’t zoom in any further to see the ship’s registry
  5. so Burnham reminds Saru that his eyes have “a larger optical window than [human eyes]”
  6. so Saru’s pupil dilates and he reads the registry number.

So, does Saru’s vision allow him to… add pixels to the digital screen overlay?

If not, then couldn’t anyone read the display better by just walking closer towards it?

If it’s not a digital display, then why does it appear like a window popping up on a Macbook?

screencollage1

And in any case, are Saru’s eyes really better than high-tech cameras with telescopic lenses?

If you want to track this yourself, then go to time code 27:44 and start watching. Within one minute and six seconds, you’ll be at Saru’s pupil dilation.

Which means that within one minute and six seconds, within the same scene, with all the same cast members, on the same set, we introduce telescopic cameras, forget about them, zoom in digitally on a distant object, and Saru develops magic eyes.


What’s The Point?

So, why is the Shelby Method a thing, and why does it matter?

Well, it’s a staple of writers like Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who have throughout their careers relied on overloading the audience with new information so quickly that the audience can’t pierce their baffling, confusing, often nonsensical storylines.

This lifts the burden of having to make sure their stories are in any way satisfying, cohesive or clever. This goes as far back as ‘Lost’, where new plot threads and mysteries were introduced every episode without ever being solved. And not just ‘Lost’ or ‘Star Trek’. For another defining example, go and take a look at ‘Prometheus’.

Crafting a smart, sensible story is difficult. And it takes a long time. And it often means that you have to sacrifice that cool thing you really want to include because it just doesn’t make sense.

magnets

A few years ago, a friend of mine was asking for advice on a medieval fantasy book they were writing. In it, their characters frequented a sailor’s tavern. My friend had lovingly described every detail of this tavern, from the trophy fish on the wall to the shanties that were sung to the all the nets and floats and fenders and other maritime trappings that added so much character to this wonderful setting. They were so in love with it, and justifiably so, that they had made it one of the main settings for their story – a comfortable port of call to which their characters frequently returned.

The problem?

The story all took place a hundred miles inland.

On the edge of an ancient desert.

My friend had asked me to help them figure out how to make this awesome maritime tavern fit within the narrative they had constructed. And I couldn’t. The best solution I could come up with was that it had been ironically decorated that way by its owners. Kind of a trendy hipster “out of place / fish out of water” bar. Which was hardly a satisfying explanation.

What I should have told them is:

“Don’t worry about it. Just introduce new plot elements every other sentence. Keep adding more events and details to your story. Move it along so fast that your readers don’t have time to wonder why a sailor’s tavern is a hundred miles inland next to a desert.”

My friend was having this quandary because they cared about the story they were telling. This was a passion project, and they wanted it to be as good as possible. This wasn’t some product they were churning out to hit a commercial target. They’d been labouring for years on the story that they wanted to tell.

pulsar

If the writers of modern day Star Trek want to ignore the franchise’s larger continuity, then that’s up to them. If it gets in the way of them telling the story that they want to tell, then I say, go for it. Violate that canon. Every other entry into the franchise has done before them.

But here, in ‘Discovery’s second season, they can’t even be bothered to stick with their own continuity, even within the same scene. They make a cool thing happen. Then they need another cool thing to happen, but it contradicts the previous cool thing. Don’t worry – they just space the two cool things out with at least six lines of unrelated dialogue and they’re golden.

And if you didn’t notice, then congratulations.

You just got Shelby’d.

5 thoughts on “Discovery in Depth – Continuity and The Shelby Method

  1. My favorite was “Burnham bartering with Lorca, promising to surrender to him” when he’s already captured her. The series is just stupid.

    Like

  2. I hated every Canon violation in all of trek. Especially the combadges of the Enterprise C crew. It’s still a TMP badge.
    Beaming through shields are Borg or JemHadar and they have special tech.
    Thing is. STD isn’t Canon. It’s based on JJTREK and is still 25 % different from them.
    Plus they willingly spit on all of the Canon.

    Like

  3. Its good to have a name to put this phenomena to. I noticed it back when I was reviewing the new Dune books by Brian and KJA. Those books seem to only care about the exact moment that the reader is interacting with the page and no continuity or canon, even things from their own books seem to matter outside of that moment. Its one dimensional writing by definition.

    The Shelby Method has a good ring to it.

    Like

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