Discovery In Depth – Breaking Tension, Or “You Saved The Universe And Nobody Cares”

Stories are important to us. They convey ideas and they make us feel emotions. They help us understand things we might not otherwise understand, and they offer different perspectives on a confusing and scary world.

Science fiction stories are particularly important, because they help us develop our feelings about the unknown. ‘Arrival’ dealt with many themes, the most obvious being “how would we feel about the arrival of an alien race?” It also dealt with how we perceive time, and how we might react if we had 20/20 foresight as well as 20/20 hindsight.

But science fiction doesn’t have to be weighty and intellectual. Sometimes, it can simply help us realise how we feel about things like adventure and devotion – or isolation and terror.

But in order to make us feel anything, science fiction has to tell us a story.

sunset

But what even is a story?

Well, it’s easy to think that a story is simply a sequence of connected events. But a story, a real story, is more than that. A series of events is actually just a plot, and a plot is one half of a story. The other half is tension, otherwise known as “suspense”, or “emotional connection”.

To understand the difference between plot and tension, and to understand why both are important, let’s use an example, which I’m going to title ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’:

  1. Ensign Tilly is on her way to Engineering to begin her shift.
  2. On the way, she stops to get coffee.
  3. Then she accidentally spills the coffee on her uniform.
  4. So she goes back to her quarters to change into a clean uniform.
  5. Then she heads back to Engineering and arrives late.

That is a plot. It’s a sequence of connected events that make sense because one leads to the other.

However, there is no tension, or emotional connection, or context, to the plot laid out above. It’s possible that you, as a reader, have personally been in that situation before, and so you already have some emotional connection to Tilly, but for most people this is just a series of things that happen to Tilly – at best, we can infer that she feels annoyed or embarrassed by these events.

So let’s take this plot and make it a story:

  1. Ensign Tilly is on her way to Engineering to begin her first shift in her new role as Engineer’s Mate, and she feels nervous about making a good impression.
  2. Because of that, she wants to make sure that she feels alert, so she stops on the way to get a a nice shot of espresso with hazelnut syrup.
  3. Because she’s nervous, she doesn’t pay attention to what she’s doing and she spills the espresso on her favourite, best-fitting uniform.
  4. So, she hurries back to her quarters to change into a grubby uniform from yesterday, because she’s behind on her laundry.
  5. She finally makes it to Engineering, fifteen minutes late, flustered and self-conscious.

Hopefully you notice the difference. It’s important to note that the events haven’t changed. The exact same things have happened to Tilly, in the exact same order. But this time, we’ve got a little more context, and a little more information that allows us to empathise with her situation.

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Further, right off the bat, we have tension. This isn’t just another day – this is a big step in her career, and she wants to make a good impression. Just from that, we now know that there’s something at stake, something for our character, and hopefully our audience, to care about.

If this were a book, we might explain Tilly’s nervousness through her inner monologue, or a description of her feelings by the author. In Film and TV, she might discuss it with a friend, or we may simply leave it to Mary Wise to show display nervousness in her performance. Given this is Star Trek, she’ll probably explain her feelings in her Personal Log voiceover. If this was a musical, we might have a ten-minute song with a thousand Starfleet dancers whirling around Tilly as she sings about destiny and dreams and some other bullshit.

The point is, this is now a story. It has plot, and it has tension. But what is tension?

As mentioned above, at its most basic level tension is simply “something to care about.” Tension is broadly made up of two components – stakes, and threat.

Stakes just means “something a character wants or needs.”

  • It could be as simple as the need to live, which is usually the central source of tension in action movies – “Will our hero survive this fight? Will she escape the crashing plane in time?” etc.
  • It could be more complex, like a promotion, or a relationship with a romantic interest, or to solve a murder.
  • It could be enormous, like saving the world from destruction, or small, like catching a train on time.

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Threat is pretty self-explanatory, but a proper delineation would be “the chance that something will go wrong.”

  • Our action hero is alone in her living room – there’s little uncertainty that she’s going to survive this ordeal, so we have no tension.
  • Our hard-working protagonist wants her promotion, and it’s a small company and she’s the only person in the town with the right experience and qualifications, so it seems pretty likely she’ll get the promotion, so why do we care?
  • Our main character needs to catch his train on time. He gets to the station five minutes early, and so stands on the platform for a little while until the train comes, and then he gets on it. Great! Story over.

We need both stakes and threat to create tension, and we need both tension and a plot to make a story. These four concepts are all of equal importance in telling a story that is compelling, captivating and meaningful.

Sometimes tension can be easy to create, flowing naturally from the events of the plot. Our character has to cross a tightrope across a deep ravine in order to escape the pursuing Nazis trying to kill her. We all understand the concepts of tightropes and of gravity, so as soon as we see our protagonist look down at the rocky river bed hundreds of feet below, we can instantly feel the tension.

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But it’s not always that easy. Most of us audience members have never commanded a Cold War-era nuclear submarine in combat, so when Ramius and Ryan have to evade destruction in the finale of ‘Hunt for Red October’, the film has to work a little harder to help us understand what is at stake and why it’s uncertain. It does this by having characters explain what is going on and what might go wrong, and by having scenes earlier in the movie which explain some of the concepts but with less tension.

It’s vitally important to make sure that both the stakes and the threat are understood by the audience. This means that the audience needs to be able to emotionally connect with whatever it is that’s at stake, and they need to understand how and why there is uncertainty in achieving them.

In our ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’ example story, the tension comes from her desire to make a good first impression on her first shift (the stakes) combined with that being put in jeopardy by her being late (threat). If we care about Tilly doing well in her new promotion, then we care about the events that have transpired and possibly caused her to fail.

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Once you build tension in a story, there’s three things you can do with it:

  1. Break it, frequently through humour, subversion or incompetence.
  2. Escalate it, usually by letting events reach a natural and sensible conclusion.
  3. Increase it, either by increasing the scale of what is at stake, or by increasing the chance of failure.

The bottom two, resolution and escalation, are nearly always preferable, but you need to choose which based on where you are in your story – in the middle of Act 2 or at the end of Act 3 you want to resolve the current tension, otherwise you want to escalate it. Breaking the tension is usually the thing you don’t want to do without good reason, for exactly the reasons we’ve already explained – stories need tension, and if you break the tension then you lose it, and if you lose the tension then you lose your story.

Just to finish off this basic explanation, let’s look at those three options and apply them to ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’:

  1. Tilly apologises profusely to Lieutenant Stamets for being late. He tells her that it’s no big deal, and it’s nothing to worry about, there’s nothing important to do around here anyway.
  2. Tilly apologises profusely to Lieutenant Stamets for being late. He tells her that he’s disappointed in her, that he had high hopes she’d be professional and reliable, and he feels as though she’s now broken his trust in her.
  3. Tilly apologises profusely to Lieutenant Stamets for being late. He tells her that he’s angry with her, and that if she’s late again, he’ll demote her back down to Assistant.

If you’re like me, then your strongest emotional reaction will be to either Scenario 2 or Scenario 3. That should be clear because they’re both more emotive in terms of Stamets’ reaction. But beyond that, they work with the tension, whereas Scenario 1 merely breaks it.

By having Stamets dismiss any importance around Tilly’s tardiness, the tension – the combination of stakes with uncertainty – is completely dissipated. The only way to build any tension up again is to introduce a new plot element – maybe they discover a problem with the warp core that they now need to fix. But if you need to re-establish tension, then you may as well skip the bit where Tilly spills her coffee on her uniform and just start at the point where they discover the problem with the warp core.

By having Stamets respond with sadness and disappointment at Tilly’s unreliability and to then indicate a permanent change in the relationship, we resolve the tension built up by Tilly being late. We resolve it negatively, but that’s okay – this would lead into a good “low point” for Tilly, and as such would fit in the middle part of a story.

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Finally, we can have Stamets respond with anger, and offer an ultimatum – “Don’t be late again or I’ll demote you.” This is an escalation of the tension – now it’s even more important that Tilly arrives for her shift on time tomorrow, because otherwise her career is over. Maybe later, a Klingon will sneak aboard Discovery to carry out his revenge against Tilly’s alarm clock, defeating it in glorious battle, and leaving Tilly to oversleep tomorrow and be forced to choose between arriving late to her shift again, or going to work without showering first.


Now, these are just the bare basics of storytelling, and there are lots of different ways to implement these concepts. HOWEVER, any successful story will nontheless have a plot and tension, which is made up of stakes and threat. From the Cohen Brothers’ most unconventional and high-brow work to the most primitive CGI-laden blockbuster of the century, if people enjoy watching it, it will be because the story builds tension within a coherent plot.

So, why have I just spent nearly 1800 words describing all of the most basic, first-chapter-in-a-“How-To-Write-Your-Own-Screenplay”-book concepts of story construction?

Well, the answer to that is the same answer I always give for my bizarre behaviour – because I wanted to whinge about ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Specifically, I want to go back to whinging about Season One, and some unfinished business I’ve got with events from that narrative. But I’ll also be looking at some minor points from Season Two, so buckle in, fuckos, we’re going on a ride.


Episode 13 of Season One of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, titled ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’, features a story about saving the Mycelial Network. The Mycelial Network is a universe-, or rather multiverse-spanning phenomenon which maintains all life in every universe in existence. The evil Terran Empire’s flagship the ISS Charon drew power from the network, and in so doing was poisoning it, threatening the entire network with destruction, and hence endangering every single lifeform in every single universe.

network

So, those are the stakes. All life, in every universe.

There are literally no higher stakes than that. That is literally all things that can possibly be at stake.

And it’s awful.

It’s awful because no living human being can grasp the full meaning of “all life in all universes”. Hell, we can barely cope with figuring out how many people are standing in a park. Which means there’s no way to form an emotional response to it. Stakes need to be human in scale – they need to be within emotional and intellectual reach of the audience.

But what about the threat?

Well, roughly 24 minutes into the episode, we get this line:

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This comes after Tilly explains that the shockwave from destroying the Charon will almost certainly destroy Discovery and her crew. This is an unusual approach to tension, with the fate of all universes at stake, and then adding to that the certainty that even if the crew succeed at their mission, they will all be killed in the process.

Now, this is a really interesting element to introduce, and has a very ‘Passing Through Gethsemane’ from ‘Babylon 5’ feel to it (or “Suicide Mission” from ‘Mass Effect 2’ if you’re that way inclined), and is actually a great way to add weight to a story. You’re guaranteeing the negative consequences, making the threat certain. That’s the highest it can be.

Which means we have maximum possible stakes mixed with maximum possible threat.

But don’t worry, because literally five minutes later, at the 29-minute mark, we get this line:

goinghomeafterall

This comes after Tilly has described a way for Discovery to survive the assault on the Charon unharmed, and Stamets adds that not only that, but that they will now be able to find their way back to the original universe whence they came.

Which means within a space of five minutes and about three scenes, we’ve gone from maximum-possible threat to essentially zero threat. They have already overcome any uncertainty before they have reached it.

Eight minutes later, we watch the Discovery make its attack run, fly through the Charon, through the massive star-like energy ball within it, and out the other side. Sparks fly, and the ship shakes, but no damage is done, nobody gets hurt, they complete their mission, and then escape back to their own universe.

unscathed

This whole sequence obliterates any tension within this story arc, for the following reasons:

  1. “All Life In All Universes” is a completely unthinkable scale of danger for most non-Q audiences.
  2. The threat to Discovery – stakes which a human can understand – is completely diminished when Tilly and Stamets solve the problem before they ever meet it.
  3. At no point do we, the audience, understand what could go wrong or why.
  4. Nothing does go wrong, and so our characters overcome nothing.

If we go back to ‘Tilly And The Coffee Incident’ and Stamets’ three possible responses, this is the equivalent to him telling her it’s no big deal. Any tension we might be feeling is completely destroyed because it turns out the thing that both Tilly and the audience were worried about doesn’t matter anymore.

By taking out the tension, you’re transforming a story into a plot. There’s no longer emotional attachment, so you’re just back to a sequence of connected events.

To hammer the point home, let’s do a comparison. Here is the story as it occurs on the show:

  1. Discovery has to destroy the Charon in order to save all Life in all Universes.
  2. Tilly explains that this will destroy Discovery and everyone aboard.
  3. Saru gives a rousing speech to keep the crew focused.
  4. Tilly discovers that they can escape after all if they adjust their equipment.
  5. They adjust the equipment.
  6. Discovery attacks the Charon
  7. and succeeds on its first attempt.
  8. Discovery escapes. Everybody survives, nobody is hurt.

wayoutafterall

This is just a series of things which happen. But if we just switch some of those events around (and add a couple more):

  1. Discovery has to destroy the Charon in order to save all Life in all Universes.
  2. Tilly explains that this will destroy Discovery and everyone aboard.
  3. Saru gives a rousing speech to keep the crew focused.
  4. We see a montage of the crew coming to terms with their fate and preparing for one final, deadly mission.
  5. Discovery attacks the Charon
  6. and the Charon responds by firing all its weapons at Discovery
  7. badly damaging Discovery and killing several crew, forcing her to wave off and try to attack again.
  8. Discovery lines up for one more attack, ablaze and filled with smoke, the floor covered in debris.
  9. A wounded Tilly notices a resonance cascade in the Charon‘s power generator
  10. and theorises that if Discovery jumps to warp at the exact right second, her warp field might destabilise the cascade and cause the Charon to overload.
  11. Tilly struggles to focus through the pain from her wound as she coordinates with Detmer, carefully calculating the ship’s trajectory, until
  12. at the very last moment, Tilly signals Detmer to engage the warp engines, detonating the Charon‘s power generator.
  13. Discovery escapes, but many of the crew are injured or dead. The ship itself is burned and battered and falling apart at the seams.

I’ve tried to avoid using intentionally emotive language in the second version, but hopefully it’s clear which version carries more tension, and therefore more emotional weight. It’s just an example of the changes that could be made, and the key thing is that it wouldn’t require much more in the way of production effort – just a few changes to the CGI, and a bit of extra set-dressing and makeup.

Crucially, it wouldn’t require much more screen time, as we’re simply taking the scene where Tilly and Stamets work out the solution beforehand and changing it a little, then inserting it later in the story. If more time was needed, then I’m sure a bit of editing could be done to the five-minute sword fight aboard the Charon in which no major characters are killed.

And more importantly, there are real and predictable negative consequences to the actions taken by the crew. In ‘Wrath of Khan’, the Enterprise is fighting to save itself from Khan and the Reliant, and in the process many crew are injured or killed, most notably Spock, the most iconic figure of the franchise.

spock

In ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’, the Discovery is fighting to save All Life Everywhere, and the biggest negative consequence that follows from this is quite literally a few sparks flying on the bridge. This again destroys any tension and, further, it undermines the the severity of such an important mission. It makes saving the Universe seem almost casual – there’s nothing to suggest that the crew couldn’t do this another twenty times if they need to, and that’s not fitting when all of existence is at stake.

For Stark contrast, take a look at ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, where only half of all existence is at stake, and we still get the very serious consequences of some of our favourite characters who … don’t feel… so good.

You noticed the pun I dropped in there about “Stark contrast”, didn’t you?

The point is, in the space of ten minutes, Discovery saves the entire universe of universes, but they did so without any tension, any emotional connection, for the audience, which means the audience isn’t invested, which means the audience doesn’t have any emotion riding on the outcome.

They saved the universe, and nobody cares.


For the sake of balance, let’s have a look at ‘Discovery’ getting tension right, and for that, we need to go back a bit to the Harry Mudd episode (yes, that Harry Mudd episode, misogyny and all) titled ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’.

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In this episode (simplified down hugely), a vengeful Harry Mudd seeks to murder Captain Lorca and steal the secrets of ‘Discovery’. He does this with the use of a time-travel gagdet which allows him to re-live the half-hour over and over again, remembering everything he learnt from his previous attempts.

What Mudd doesn’t know is that one of the crew, Stamets, has been affected by the Spore Drive, and is also capable of retaining memories through each time-loop. So now Stamets has to try and stop Mudd before he kills the crew and steals the ship – and he can only do that by convincing the rest of the crew of what’s really happening.

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Straight away, we’ve got a plot, stakes and threat. The plot has already been laid out. The stakes are the Discovery and the fate of the crew, and the threat comes from Mudd’s nearly God-like advantage of being able to repeat the same sequence of events over and over, learning from and changing them each time – the Star Trek equivalent of the Konami Code.

Even better, the episode helps the audience to understand this threat by showing us repeatedly the dire consequences of Mudd’s near-victory. Over and again we are allowed to delight at the creative methods Mudd devises to brutally murder his nemesis, Lorca, made all the better by the fact that up to this point, Lorca has been nothing put a passive aggressive edgelord.

That’s the power of repetition at work.

So you take the following ingredients:

  • A sequence of connected events which form a plot
  • Tension and emotional connection for the audience, made up of:
    • The stakes of defeating Mudd, saving the crew and protecting Discovery
    • The threat of an enemy with a near-flawless advantage

You bake these in the oven with some neat special effects, strong acting, well-paced editing, narrative focus from the director, and some emotional highs and lows as our characters confront their inner demons, and

BOOM

That’s magic, baby. Magic to make the sanest person go mad, indeed. All of this is what makes the bulk of this episode so enjoyable, and is what makes it such a shame that it ends on such a daft note (with the crew letting Mudd go free with all of Discovery’s technical secrets, and being punished by being reunited with his loving fiancée – because women be bitches, am I right?).

(I am not right.)

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That’s enough of praising the show, let’s get back to whingin’.

Another great example of tension-demolition comes from Season One, directly after the above ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’, and has the similarly-overwrought title ‘The War Without, The War Within’.

At the 29-minute mark of a 48-minute episode (of this “well-paced adventure show”), Stamets outlines the main problem that the crew need to overcome this episode:

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He’s referring to the mycelial plants that power the ship’s Spore Drive, which will allow them to jump to the Klingon homeworld of Qo’Nos in order to survey their subterranean caverns in order to-

Whatever, this isn’t important.

What is important is the tension in the story, and there is none.

This scene transitions into the next scene where Stamets barely explains his plan – the most coherent explanation we get comes from Tilly:

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Over the next ten minutes, we get a single scene in which we see Tilly doing some work or other on this incredibly ambitious project whilst Burnham distracts Tilly by talking about her own lovelife.

At the 39-minute mark, we are treated to the following visual:

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That’s the terraforming process complete. They manage to change the ecology of an entire moon (and it is an entire moon, that’s confirmed on-screen) in a few seconds.

And, not to get off topic here, but can we talk about how fucking terrible that CGI looks? The one thing people keep telling me is that as a “DISCO-hater” I’m just angry that the show doesn’t look like TOS or TNG, because now it’s got a “big budget” and “really good visuals” – but just look at that image above! I’ve literally seen more convincing visuals in fucking ‘Star Trek: Online’, nevermind the rest of the on-screen franchise.

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This is literally a shot of a random planet from a trashy MMO, and it still looks better than bloody ‘Discovery’

And just in case you don’t believe me:

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Another STO shot. And I don’t even play the fucking game, I loathe it.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yes, so anyway, Stamets’ plan works without a hitch. There literally isn’t even a moment where it seems like it won’t work. They just launch their 42 pods, which are apparently enough to terraform an entire planet, and yes, I know that it’s just 42 because it’s possible to literally count, here, look:

podslaunched
“Why did you go to the trouble to count these?” you may ask. Well, first off, it’s just multiplication – 7 launchers each with 6 pods. And secondly, as per my explanation above for erratic behaviour – because I wanted to whinge about ‘Discovery’

Okay, so 42 pods, all fly down to the surface, plant their spores, fire some electromagnetic pulses, the spores grow, and that’s it. Then everyone starts patting Stamets on the back like he did something incredible, and we even get this line from Admiral Genocide:

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Okay, so her name’s not actually “Admiral Genocide”, I’m being facetious. It’s “Admiral War Crimes”

Well, what’s she congratulating him for? Was there meant to be anything special about what just happened? If it was special, both of the following needed to happen:

  1. The threat of failure needed to be setup.
  2. Stamets’ method of overcoming this threat of failure needed to be shown.

Instead, we simply have the following:

  1. Stamets needs to grow more Mycelium.
  2. Stamets explains (sort of) to Tilly that they need to terraform a moon.
  3. They terraform the moon.

That’s not even leaving anything out, that’s literally the sequence of events around this sub-plot.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But this episode was more about relationships than it was about the spores.” And I’d agree – but that simply raises the question of why even include this subplot at all? If it’s just there for a thing to happen, then have the thing happen off screen! If you’re not going to add any tension to any of it, why devote three scenes and eight minutes of screen time to it at all, if the summary is: “We needed to do a thing, so we did it.”

But even if you do need to show it, why present it as the climax of the episode? There’s a couple of scenes that follow in which Burnham tells Ash to go fuck himself for trying to kill her and now begging her to take him back, and then we get the reveal of Emperor-Captain Georgiou right at the very end. But these are both presented as codas, or epilogues – the scene between Ash and Burnham to tie off their relationship, and the scene with Georgiou to land a cliffhanger for the final episode of the season.

So this big, “beautiful” moment with the terraforming and the fungi-growing is presented as the crescendo of the episode, as though something great has just been achieved. But according to the script, nothing has been achieved – nothing was overcome. We don’t even see them building the array of seedpod-launchers, as they’re just suddenly present in the shuttlebay, ready to go when the plot needs them.

Let’s move on, before I get really angry.


64minutes

Alrighty, so, in the latest episode, ‘New Eden’, the crew of Discovery face a terrifying threat – radioactive debris from a planet’s rings has been knocked out of orbit and is descending towards the planet, threatening an extinction-level event – i.e., all life on the planet, including 11,000 humans, will be wiped out in a matter of hours.

If this seems familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the plot from ‘Deja Q’, the Season 3 TNG episode in which a planet’s moon is on a collision course with the planet itself, an event which will wipe out all life on the planet.

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In both scenarios, they rule out weaponry, as destroying the debris or the moon will only make matters worse. Neither ship’s tractor beams are capable of doing the job, so a creative solution is needed. In both cases, the answer involves gravity manipulation.

But for all the similarities between the two scenarios, ‘Deja Q’ gives us a much better story out of it, and we’ll cover why soon.

First of, let’s cover the tension, which works well for both stories:

  • The stakes are sound – all life on a planet. In ‘Deja Q’ there’s no immediate danger to the Enterprise, but in ‘New Eden’, Pike, Burnham and Owosekun are also on the planet, adding a more personal stake for the crew.
  • The threat is well established – all their existing technology won’t help, the obstacle is just too potent for the crews to deal with conventionally.

Great! We’ve got something to achieve and obstacles to overcome in order to achieve it. Strong start.

Except, that’s not the start. Not in ‘New Eden’. First mention of the planetary threat occurs at 22 minutes into the episode – almost exactly (in fact just slightly over) half-way into the episode.

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Meanwhile, this threat is established in literally the first spoken words of ‘Deja Q’, in the Captain’s Log spoken by Picard at the very beginning of the cold open.

This difference is key, because it gives ‘Deja Q’ the time it needs to escalate the tension around the catastrophic asteroid, a tension which is escalated and escalated until it is finally resolved nearly 44 minutes later. In contrast, because of ‘New Eden’s pacing issues, it has less than half its remaining run time to resolve the issue.

And, indeed, it actually has less than that. Because at the 32-minute mark, once again almost exactly ten minutes after establishing the tension of the story, the problem has been solved. Why DISCO writers will insist on resolving their big action set piece narratives in less time than I need to take a dump is beyond me, but they seem to do it every episode.

Regardless, ‘Deja Q’ gives itself the time it needs to escalate the tension of the situation. The Enterprise makes its first attempt to push the moon to a safe orbit within the first two minutes, until they realise that they can’t push the moon hard enough without burning out the ship’s systems.

shortonboth

This is the first escalation of tension. The second comes at the 30-minute mark, where Geordi uses Q’s suggestion and attempts to science the asteroid into having a smaller inertial mass. This starts to work, until an enemy entity opens fire on the Enterprise, forcing them to cancel their attempt.

The ultimate resolution of this tension is via of a pseudo-Deus Ex Machina by Q, who sacrifices himself to get rid of the enemy entity, regains his powers, and restores the moon’s orbit as an act of compassion.

The key takeaway from all this is that we have a plot, and we have tension, therefore we have a compelling story, as follows:

  1. A moon is crashing towards the planet, threatening to kill millions.
  2. The Enterprise tries to stop it once, and fails due to the magnitude of the task.
  3. The Enterprise tries to stop it a second time, and fails due to enemy interference.
  4. Q sacrifices his own life to give the Enterprise a chance to stop the moon.

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Now, let’s take a detailed look at ‘New Eden’.

The tension is established half-way through the episode, as discussed. And in response, Saru announces with full conviction:

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You’ll note that he didn’t specify anything about ‘Discovery’ itself, which he certainly allowed to become a catastrophe.

All very heroic, and all very good. And sure enough, we later cut to Tilly, using her genius-science-brain to figure out a creative solution to avert catastrophe, which is great. Then she runs up to the bridge all Tilly-like and starts getting all excitable with Detmer, which is also great.

HOWEVER

However, do you remember what Detmer said when she first alerted Saru to the danger? Here, I’ll remind you:

64minutes

That “64 minutes” bit is what’s called “A Ticking Clock”, and is a very effective, reliable way to add threat to your story, increasing the tension. In fact, it’s an important element to this story. Y’see, in ‘Deja Q’, the Enterprise had a good 25 hours to sort its shit out:

25hours

That’s also a ticking clock, but because of the timescales involved, it’s much less important to building threat – it’s still useful, but minutes is better than hours when it comes to building tension.

So, ‘New Eden’ has a rapidly ticking clock. What does the crew do with those precious 64 minutes?

Well, um…

Nothing.

Literally, nothing.

Here’s Airiam, the very next time we see the bridge crew:

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Four minutes left! A full SIXTY MINUTES has passed and they’ve done nothing. No failed attempts to stop the debris, accidentally making it worse. Hell, they’re not even out of the concept stage yet, check out this dickhead:

phasersdumbass
It was a dumb idea when Riker suggested it in ‘Deja Q’, and it’s a dumb idea now, so just shut the fuck up, Rhys. No, wait, Bryce? Shit, I always get all these walking status reports mixed up.

Sixty minutes have passed, 94% of the time they have to avert this catastrophe, and they’ve done nothing. Which means that not only are Saru’s words ringing hollow in the ears of the audience, but it also dissolves the significance of the stakes – after all, if it’s so important to save the people on the planet, why haven’t you tried anything? They haven’t even come up with a plan! They’re still spitballing!

rikerdumbass
I wasn’t kidding when I said that these episodes had a lot in common.

So that ticking clock was clearly pointless. I mean, sure, Saru & Co. might be trying to avoid making the situation worse, but it’s an extinction-level event, it’s not as though they can make it much worse. Especially when there’s just four minutes left before it’s all over.

So, let’s take a look:

  1. Debris is crashing towards the planet, threatening to kill thousands, including three crew members.
  2. It will happen in 64 minutes.
  3. Tilly puzzles on the problem in sickbay.
  4. The bridge crew take no action for 60 minutes.
  5. Tilly runs up to the bridge and explains the plan to save the day.
  6. The plan works. The day is saved.

This is another great example of ‘Discovery’ breaking the tension through incompetence. They did it in ‘What’s Past Is Prologue’ by solving all their problems before they ever encountered them, and they did it ‘The War Without, The War Within’ by just never building any tension in the first place. And they do in ‘New Eden’ by making the crew look like a big bunch of dumb idiots.

Now, I don’t want to be too harsh on this episode, as I enjoyed it personally, and I genuinely appreciated that they faced environmental problems that required savvy and creativity to overcome. These are all positive steps forwards for the series as a whole. But I do need to call out the failings where I see them, and they are significant.

And if you think that this doesn’t matter, because ‘New Eden’ is actually meant to be about loftier, more philosophical matters, like faith and rationality, then that’s fine, but so was ‘Deja Q’. Hell, ‘Deja Q’ wasn’t about the moon at all, it was about Q’s journey into humanity, and his contrast with Data, and it was about accountability, facing consequences for your actions. Hell, ‘Deja Q’ manages to run a good “save the planet” story and yet still leaves plenty of time for Data to talk about his breakfast:

nutrientsuspension

Or even just talk to Q about relationships:

interpersonalrelationships

Or even just watch Q get stabbed for being a complete turdburger:

yellsinpain

And that’s not even covering the bit where Data saves Q at his own expense, or Q feeling guilty over Data’s sacrifice, or all the debate between Picard, Riker and Geordi over whether or not it’s worth putting the planet below in danger just to protect Q from the Calamarain.

allamarayne
No, I said “CALAMARAIN” – get the fuck out of my DISCO review, Emissary!

And the point here is not to point out that TNG is “just better” than DISCO (although it is) – but rather, to point out that you can still have complex and heady themes alongside a more pragmatic story element, and build tension for both. ‘Deja Q’ is the proof that it can be done. Hell, ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’ proves that it can be done, too. It’s as though the writers of ‘New Eden’ simply chose not to.

I’ll point out here as well that in ‘Deja Q’, the resolution of the problem is a Deus Ex Machina of a kind, as Q uses his literal God-like powers to correct the moon’s orbit. But, importantly, he only gets his powers back because he behaves in a way we’ve not seen before, by selflessly sacrificing himself after experiencing guilt and remorse for the first time in his life. We learn something new about Q, and we see a different side to his character, and that’s yet another great emotional connection for the audience.

In ‘New Eden’, we already know that Tilly is smart, so seeing her solve the problem doesn’t really tell us anything new about her. Neither do we learn anything new about the crew (beyond the fact that Detmer’s wonderfully cocky) because they don’t take any action themselves, and they don’t make any decisions. This means we don’t even get character growth out of this whole affair, rendering it meaningless.


The whole point of ‘Discovery’, its ethos, if you will, was to leverage bigger budgets, modern special effects and a young, fresh production team to create Star Trek for the new generation. They’re intentionally trying to increase the amount of action and excitement in the show – that’s a stated goal by the creators.

Which then brings into question – why the hell can’t they do it? Why do they fail to build that tension in almost every episode? And it is nearly every episode – I’ve just picked out the three simplest examples here.

As I said at the start of this monstrous article, stories are important. They are important because they make us feel things, and that’s more important than anything else. They give us emotional connections to concepts we may face one day – or that we have faced before – and allow us, the audience, to grow as individuals by developing our own ideas, our own conceits and our understanding of the world.

Which means that getting stories right is important, too. You have to build that emotional connection with the audience, you have to build that tension, in order for them to invest themselves in the story you’re trying to tell. Otherwise, there’s no point in telling the story at all – you may as well just list a sequence of events.

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.