Discovery In Depth: Michael Burnham, The Hashtag Protagonist

Following on from my previous article where I gushed fondly over what ‘Discovery’ might have been with Captain Georgiou at the conn, I would like now to take a closer look at the show’s main protagonist, Michael Burnham.

Burnham is a fascinating subject. Divisive amongst fans for all sorts of reasons (some of which are none too savoury), it’s difficult to think of a Star Trek character which has prompted more discussion and debate. Everyone can agree that Neelix is a shitbird and that Data deserves to know what a hug really feels like, but it’s tricky to find any broad consensus on Burnham.

I’m writing this after Episode Five of Season Two, ‘Saints Of Imperfection’, has aired, which means:

  1. Expect spoilers and
  2. As with my Tilly article, I am sure everything I write will be completely invalidated by the next episode to be released.

First of all, it’s worth covering some of the basics.


The Basics

Michael Burnham is a mostly unique character in Star Trek in that she is a central protagonist in a story that follows her specifically, and where she is not an authority figure.

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Other Trek shows have had lead characters, but they are usually the “Captains” or the central authority figures of an ensemble, and their role as a protagonist is usually incidental – the stories in which they feature actually focus on the ship/location and the crew in general, of whom the Captain simply happens to be in command. Indeed, in any given series, particularly TNG onwards, the episodes in which the Captain is the central character will usually be in a minority, and the role of protagonist will be distributed among the other cast members. In effect, they take turns.

‘Discovery’ bucked this trend by focusing squarely on Burnham, and her personal journey as the mutineer and disgraced officer, eventually gaining apparent redemption – and even then she remains an officer on the ship in question and not its Captain.

Indeed, the Captains of ‘Discovery’ are invariably components of Burnham’s story, lacking arcs of their own: Georgiou gets fridged in the second episode to add to Burnham’s tragedy; Lorca is an impostor who shows her the other side of betrayal; and Pike is the “new Captain”, testing Burnham’s personal trust as well as her faith in science.

With this in mind, getting Burnham “right” as a character is paramount to the effectiveness of the story which is centred around her as an individual. Although the show is called ‘Star Trek: Discovery‘, implying that it focuses on the journey of the eponymous vessel, much like ‘Deep Space Nine’, ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’, really it should be called ‘Star Trek: Michael Burnham‘, because it is she who we follow – the ship itself is incidental to the story.

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In this article, I’m going to break down why I believe that Burnham doesn’t “work” as a character – specifically, why she doesn’t work as a protagonist in this protagonist-driven story, and the problems that it causes for the narrative.

We’re going to look at her character traits, or lack thereof. We’ll review the writers’ over-reliance on backstory and “origins” rather than motivations, and we’ll see how these extensive origins actually limit her character development rather than augment it. And finally, we’ll look at the role of the audience’s journey through the narrative, and why it is important for that journey to align with the protagonist’s journey throughout the course of the story.

First, though, I want to address a particular bugbear of mine when it comes to descriptions and criticisms of Michael Burnham, and of characters in general.

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What Burnham Is Not

I’ve frequently seen Burnham described as a “Mary Sue”, which is an assessment with which I personally disagree and which I feel is unhelpful, for the following reasons:

Accuracy

The term “Mary Sue” is relatively loosely defined, and even those conditions which are codified are entirely subjective. And even then, most of the definitions don’t apply to Burnham. She does not seem like an author-insert, with few of the show’s creators or writers seemingly having much in common at all with the character.

Further, Burnham is absolutely not shown as flawless. Smart, yes, and with a broad range of expertise, but given her first episode features her grasping firmly onto the idiot-ball and ruining everything for everyone, it’s safe to say she is capable of fucking up. Nor is Burnham portrayed as being particularly likeable, struggling as she does to form friendships even before her descent into mutiny.

Given that the main elements of Mary Suedom include author-insertion, wish-fulfilment and self-idealisation, it’s notable that Burnham doesn’t tick any of these boxes. Similarly, she can hardly be accused of “upstaging” established characters, given that she is the main character of the show itself.

Inherent Sexism

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Lifted from a Google image search.

“Mary Sue” has a masculine equivalent, “Marty Stu”, and I am sure that everyone who uses either term believes they do so equally and without regard to gender. Nonetheless, accusations of “Mary Suedom” – specifically, of unrealistically positive character traits, abilities, and idealisation –  seem to be made far more frequently against female characters than male characters.

For instance, it’s interesting ‘The Force Awakens’ is so broadly accepted as being a direct remake of ‘A New Hope’, and yet Rey is identified as a Mary Sue where Luke is not identified as a Marty Stu. Both characters share similar traits, backgrounds, abilities and character arcs, and yet Luke emerges from online debate relatively unscathed, it seems.

Which leaves me wondering if the Mary Sue accusation would still be levelled against Burnham if her gender matched her first name.

Relevance

My main contention with the Mary Sue argument, however, is its relevance to in-depth critique of any work of fiction.

Ultimately, it gets thrown around as a catch-all term for a character whose talents strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and yes, that is a valid critique, but it’s also a reasonably shallow one that pretty much goes nowhere.

You can still have a rounded character with a lot of talent. Jean Luc Picard is apparently good at just about everything: he’s a natural leader; a talented pilot; he was the only first-year cadet to ever win the Academy marathon; he was a scientist; an archaeologist; a strategist; he could sing; he could fight; everyone around him looked up at him with adoration and respect.

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By all these counts, Picard is a bit of a Mary Sue himself – and yet I don’t think any fans of the show would ever call him that, because we like him. We’re emotionally invested in Picard, and so the usual criticisms that would be levelled at a character with multiple talents are abandoned. And if the label of “Mary Sue” is only going to be applied against characters that we don’t like, and not the ones that we do like, then its value as a critique of a character or piece of writing becomes ancillary at best, and vindictive at worst.

Put simply, why is Michael Burnham a Mary Sue, but Picard is not? I imagine the answer is not due to an in-depth analysis of either character.


What Burnham Lacks

If we agree that Burnham is not a Mary Sue, then let’s take a look at what Burnham actually is, by which I mean, let’s review some of her character traits as presented over the course of the show.

If you’ve seen the Plinkett Review of ‘The Phantom Menace’ then you’ll be familiar with the “characterisation test”, in which Mike Stoklasa asks his friends and colleagues to describe different characters in the Star Wars franchise to see how they compare to one another.

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For those of you familiar with RedLetterMedia – on the left is Jay Bauman when he was still playing Andy Dwyer in ‘Parks And Recreation’, before he sexied up for ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’.

Now, I don’t have any friends and I hate my colleagues, so I’m going to have to do most of the work myself, but let’s take a look.

The rules are:

  1. Describe a character as best you can
  2. without referring to what they look like
  3. or what their job/role is.

I’m going to add an extra rule for this particular exercise, the purpose of which will become apparent later:

  • Without describing the character’s background or origins.

So, let’s go through the characters of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and see how this pans out:

Tilly

  • Awkward
  • Nervous
  • Ambitious
  • Kind
  • Optimistic
  • Reckless
  • Smart
  • Friendly
  • Inexperienced
  • Supportive
  • Vulnerable
  • Determined

Stamets

  • Passionate
  • Driven
  • Intelligent
  • Loving
  • Brash
  • Arrogant
  • Caring
  • Inconsiderate
  • Pensive
  • Headstrong

Saru

  • Compassionate
  • Considerate
  • Skittish
  • Thoughtful
  • Contemplative
  • Resentful
  • Suspicious
  • Passive Aggressive
  • Encouraging
  • Loyal
  • Surprisingly Jacked

Not all of these traits are necessarily positive, and that’s okay. Stamets is a bit of a dick sometimes, especially when his work is challenged. That might make him a bad person (I don’t personally think it does), but it doesn’t make him a bad character. Likewise, Saru held onto his grudge against Burnham for a good long while, and it may have been justified, but it’s not an endearing trait in its own right.

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Burnham

  • Intelligent
  • Stern
  • Brave
  • Foolish
  • Likes ‘Alice In Wonderland’
  • Spock’s Sis Raised by Vul Xenoanthr Occasionally Awkward

Not only are the fewer means of describing Burnham based on her actions in the show, but when you put those words side by side, you can see just how much more emotive the descriptions of each other character are by comparison:

traits
If it’s in a table then it must be true.

I’ve highlighted those traits that I think are the most provocative to most audiences, and maybe you disagree with the emphasis, and that’s fine. But in general, it’s more engaging to watch characters with strong emotional traits like those highlighted in orange – the others, traits like “Considerate” and “Pensive”, are good too, and necessary – but they are not as exciting or engaging to the audience.

By way of example, see Tyrion from ‘Game Of Thrones’ – he’s a fan favourite, a very endearing character with a lot of sympathetic traits. He’s also extremely cunning, witty and devious. And whilst Tyrion’s inherent tragedy makes audiences love him and root for him, it’s only because of his snippy comebacks, his clever insights and his surface-level arrogance and cockiness that we engage with him in the first place.

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Burnham doesn’t have traits like that. She’s smart, yes, but her first big on-screen action is one of outright stupidity and betrayal. She isn’t funny – she doesn’t make the audience laugh, and neither is she particularly sympathetic. She’s brave in the face of death, sure – but she’s hardly idealistic, beyond the tacked-on “morals” at the end of the first season.

Now, one defence of this particular lack of strong characterisation on Burnham’s part is that she’s a central viewpoint character, otherwise known as a “protagonist”. And it’s true that protagonists are generally less overtly characterised than their supporting cast – think Luke compared to Han and Leia, or Kirk compared to Spock and McCoy.

You need your viewpoint character to be a little less extreme and a little more accessible, because they are your audience’s window into the world you’re creating. So the protagonist has to be a bit more boring in order for the audience to “imprint” on them and get sucked into their story, rooting for them to succeed and achieve their goals.

Which raises another issue with Burnham…


Prot-Agony

Burnham is what you’d call a “pro-ta-gonist” or a “lead character.” She’s the character whose journey we follow throughout the run of ‘Discovery’. She’s the first character we’re introduced to and the character with whom we spend the most time, as well as being the character who interacts with all of the other characters the most.

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Rachel Thorn, British improviser of ‘Between Us’ and ‘CSI: Crime Scene Improvisation’ fame, once explained that improvised theatre lives and dies on the goodwill of the audience. When the audience has no idea of what to expect or even what kind of show they will be seeing, it’s vital to get them as comfortable as possible so that they can enjoy and easily follow the story that you’re telling.

For protagonist-driven improvised stories, Rachel further elaborates, it is therefore vital not to squander the audience’s goodwill, and the improvisers must clearly establish a protagonist and one or more objectives for which they can strive – narrative elements with which any audience will be comfortable and familiar. And the improvisers must establish these things quickly, before the audience gets too uncomfortable and starts counting the minutes until they can politely leave.

For non-improvised science fiction and fantasy stories, this same principle applies. When there are shows that run the range of cultural familiarity from as wacky as ‘Farscape’ through to as conventional as the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot,  it’s important to give the audience familiar narrative concepts to which they can cling as they get to know the world in which the story takes place.

And those two examples hold true. ‘Farscape’ softens the impact of its colourfully bizarre universe by having a conventional, accessible lead character. Meanwhile, ‘Battlestar’ lacks any central lead character, but benefits from a society that very closely mirrors our own in terms of social progression, political structures and military hierarchies.

Indeed, the Twelve Colonies are essentially just “Britain and North America with spaceships,” with familiar concepts of laws, presidents, elections, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, card games, and outdated religious fundamentalism. Even the technology level is mostly equivalent to 1980’s terrestrial equipment, with the only exceptions being the FTL drives, efficient launch thrusters on starships, gravity plating, and intelligent robots.

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So, when you have a universe such as that in Star Trek, with hugely advanced technology which includes forcefields, teleporters, tractor beams, holograms and cloaking devices, and you have weird, unfamiliar races like martial Klingons, permanently-terrified Kelpiens and emotionless vulcans, as well as a post-scarcity socio-economic Federation built on near-absolute egalitarianism, well, you need a familiar, accessible protagonist.

Which is a problem, because Burnham isn’t a very good protagonist.

And that’s because she is not a character who has any clear personal goals.

  • In ‘Conscience Is For Kings’ Lorca offers Burnham the chance to serve in Starfleet again and possibly redeem herself. She refuses, twice, instead of seizing upon an opportunity to at least try to atone for some of her crimes.
  • In ‘Lethe’ she describes how bored and unengaged she is with her duties aboard the ship.
  • In ‘Despite Yourself’ and ‘The Wolf Inside’, she treats her first chance at command (albeit of a Terran ship) with abject boredom. There’s no passion either way – she isn’t visibly anxious or excited or appalled or scared in any given scene – she remains stone-faced and grim throughout.

Most of the time, Burnham seems merely to be along for the ride, doing what she’s told as she’s told to do it. There is no scene where she pleads to be given a chance to prove herself, nor even where she just has to watch longingly as other officers go off on adventures without her.

In effect, her mistakes at the Binary Stars and her subsequent criminal conviction seem to have left her dejected and depressed, and that’s actually pretty realistic. But it isn’t engaging! It’s not easy for an audience to latch onto a character like that for more than an episode or two, but Burnham seems determined to wallow in her self-pity for nearly a full season.

burnhambored

What Burnham needed was a crusade. She needed to be handed some task or assignment that she could cling on to as her one chance at redemption. As a xenoanthropologist, she needed to be given the task of bringing a Federation ally into the war against the Klingons, or even of figuring out the cultural triggers for the Klingon Empire that might facilitate negotiations, maybe even a truce. And then we, the audience, needed to see her commit herself fully to that task, devoting herself to it with enthusiasm, maybe even desperation.

For a moment, that was very nearly the Tardigrade. But that problem is promptly resolved with thoughts and prayers by the end of the same episode in which the problem is introduced. Then we’re just back to indifference.


Let’s take a look at the character of Alicia Florrick, from ‘The Good Wife’.

alicia1

First off, if you’ve not seen ‘The Good Wife’, can I suggest you put all other projects and commitments on hold until you have at least finished the third season? You won’t regret it.

So, Alicia starts her journey as, essentially, a discarded trophy wife. She’s an attractive, young mother married to a disgraced politician, from whom she has separated following his scandalous involvement with prostitutes and alleged corruption.

She retains custody of her two children, living separately from her husband, whilst still publicly putting on a show of being a supportive, loving partner despite his indiscretions. She is, in fact, trying to be “the good wife”, as defined by society’s gender norms of powerful men doing despicable things and being forgiven by the women whose trust they abuse and whose lives they devastate because men are allowed to make any number of mistakes as long as they offer some kind of remorse afterwards because seriously, fuck the patriarchy.

We start the show with Alicia starting her new job as a low-ranked lawyer at a law firm owned by Will, a man her same age and whom she went to law school with. Whilst she left her legal career to become a political accessory, Will stayed in practice and advanced his career, and now as a favour to Alicia brings her in as a junior associate so that she can regain her independence and provide for her children.

Right from the get-go, Alicia is motivated and determined to prove herself as a capable lawyer and a loving parent. Every episode tackles her struggles to balance her responsibilities as a parent, her role as a prop for a rubbish politician, and her career as an ambitious young attorney.

Alicia’s personality, on the other hand, is… well, she’s pretty milquetoast. It’s frequently noted in the series itself that she’s a bit of a wallflower, especially compared to the serene authoritarianism of Diane Lockhart or the devastating straightforwardness of Kalinda.

kalinda

That is, until Alicia grapples with a case and takes the lead, when you realise that she’s competent, well-prepared, knowledgeable and actually pretty ruthless when she needs to be. She grabs cases in her jaw and doesn’t let go until she’s shaken them to death. She’s assertive, and cocky, and dedicated, and that shines through because of her motivation and her commitment to her objectives.

So even though Diane gets to tackle the chunkier, more philosophical matters around feminism and representation, and Kalinda gets to go around smashing cars up with baseball bats and weaponising her sexuality in a frankly terrifying manner, and Will gets to be smarmy and cocky and Cary gets to be sneaky and devious and Eli just gets all the best lines (God bless you Alan Cummings)…

… It’s Alicia that we follow and that we root for (most of the time). And it’s easy to root for her because she has qualities and traits that we, the audience, can relate to and also aspire to, and we can enjoy seeing her succeed because she cares so much about the things she does.


This tracks through other stories, too:

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All of these characters work as protagonists because they are strongly motivated by clear, sympathetic goals, and their goals are central to the main plot of the story. They also have agency to achieve those goals and to take actions that will directly effect the progression of the story. And that is what marks them out as successful protagonists. On the other hand:

So we look at Burnham in Season 1 of DISCO, and we see someone who:

  • Doesn’t want to engage with the wider story of the Klingon war;
  • Has no long- or medium-term motivations or goals;
  • Lacks the rank or authority to have any agency in the outcome of the war.

withoutgettinginvolved

That last one’s debatable, as she certainly gets sent on lots of important missions. But that serves as something of a contradiction given that she’s a disgraced officer with no rank, and in any case she never seems to have any motivation to go on those missions herself.

So, let’s look at Season 2 so far, where Burnham:

  • Has no knowledge or understanding of the Red Bursts or the Red Angel, hence no ability to interact with this aspect of the storyline;
  • Has made no decision to involve herself in the Red Bursts or the Red Angel but has simply been dragged into it by Pike;
  • Has no established on-screen relationship with her foster brother, Spock;
  • Has no other personal investment in the plot itself.

Which then leads into the question: what are Burnham’s goals this season? We’re five episodes in, and we have no established objectives of Burnham’s. The Red Bursts are Pike’s mission; Spock’s disappearance is something that she had to be guilted into reluctantly engaging with by a dying Saru.

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Burnham herself has no goals in this story – she has no horse in this race, beyond the fact that she is incidentally related to Spock.

Now, the same is also true of characters in The Original Series, The Next Generation, and to a lesser extent ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Voyager’. Neither Kirk nor Picard nor Riker nor any of the others have clearly-defined long-standing goals, and neither do they have particularly emotive character traits in the vein of Tilly or Saru.

However, these characters all take turns playing the protagonist on an episode-by-episode basis, which sadly means they all need to be suitable protagonist material, i.e. not so strongly characterised that the audience can’t imprint upon them.

Further, whenever one of these characters becomes the protagonist of an episode, they are usually given strong motivations which engage them with the larger plot. In both Riker’s and Geordi’s episodes, usually this motivation begins and ends with their penises.

For Kirk and Picard, it might be as simple as their need to protect their ship and their crew from whatever space-wuzzle is currently molesting the ship.

For Data, it will be some kind of insight into the human condition, whilst for Beverly it’s usually more driven by her relationships with others, or by reading her grandmother’s erotic memoirs.

blazinbev
Blazin’ Bev at it again.

Whilst the potential for such motivations exist for Burnham, she herself never truly grasps them, and we are left with a character who seems broadly disconnected from whatever story is occurring at any given moment. Her nuzzling with Ash on the planet Pahvo does not tie in with and is a distraction from the broader mission, and from Saru’s betrayal.

In ‘Into The Forest I Go’, she states openly that she has “no other purpose” than to plant the sensors on the Klingon ship –  but she makes this argument from the perspective of her having the best skill set to achieve the mission goals – we see her as a crew member attempting to maximise efficiency, rather than seeing a young officer desperately seeking redemption. Indeed, her very tone is a peculiar mix of argumentative disdain and matter-of-fact objectivity. She doesn’t display the necessary passion for the audience to connect with her emotionally and root for her.

otherwiseihavenopurposehere


More Backstory Than Story

So far, we’ve looked at what Burnham isn’t, but we haven’t really looked at what she is. Let’s do that now.

Remember that little characterisation test I ran above, with Tilly, Stamets, Saru and Burnham? Remember that extra rule I added? “Without describing the character’s background or origins.”?

Okay, let’s reverse it. Let’s only talk about each character’s background and origins. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to treat the two-part pilot of ‘Discovery’ as being background, since it is effectively a prologue and is separated from the series’ beginning proper by a full six months:

Tilly

  • The best theoretical engineer in Starfleet, in or out of the Academy.
  • Has a rocky relationship with her mother.

Stamets

  • A peacetime scientist roped into the war to develop his technology for military use.
  • Is married to the ship’s doctor.

Saru

  • Member of a species governed by fear of death, a prey species exploited by a predatory race.
  • Served under Captain Georgiou for many years.
  • We later learn that he is the only member of his species to leave his planet and encounter alien races.

These are all breathlessly brief. And that’s fine! We don’t need a shitload of backstory for our characters – in reality, they never existed until we first see them on the screen, so the most interesting parts of their lives should happen on-screen.

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Burnham

  • The orphan of a Klingon attack which killed her parents when she was a child.
  • The only human to be fostered and raised by Vulcans.
  • The foster-sister of Spock and foster-daughter of Sarek.
  • The target and survivor of a terrorist attack by Vulcan Logic-Extremists opposed to her integration into Vulcan society.
  • Psychically linked to her father Sarek, who saved her life via mind meld after the terrorist attack.
  • The first mutineer in Starfleet, betraying her captain.
  • Responsible for starting a war with the Klingons (but also isn’t, really, but we’ll get to that).
  • Sentenced to life in prison for her crimes.

Woah. I mean, even excluding the events at the Binary Stars, that only covers the last three points. Burnham has an incredibly detailed background, and almost all of it from when she was a child, and all of it established in the first couple of hours of her screen time.

What’s particularly notable is that the list of her backstory elements is longer than the list of her characteristics. It is also longer than her list of goals/motivations, because she barely has any motivations that she demonstrates on-screen.

What’s more significant from a characterisation and narrative perspective is that these are all things that happen TO Burnham, rather than being things which DESCRIBE her. Put another way, besides her mutiny, none of these things represent decisions that Burnham herself took, and so their effect on her personality must be inferred, as it is not implied.

If we look at Stamets, we see that he was a scientist before the war, whose work was deemed to be of military interest. We also see that he’s happily married to the ship’s doctor. This implies a person who is passionate, committed and inquisitive, pursuing science for science’s sake rather than because of its applications.

We can infer that he might be resentful of the path that was forced upon him, but we really need to see that manifest in the character – based on his background alone, he may be a patriot who is happy to contribute to the war effort, but is sad that his work will be seeing military use before it benefits any peacetime projects. Or not, but these are inferred traits.

amosunf
I got bored looking for pictures of Stamets, so here’s a picture of Amos. You’re welcome.

In Burnham’s case, all of her background elements do not imply much about her character. They may suggest that she has suffered trauma, that she had a distinct upbringing, but no aspect of her personality is implied by any of those events:

  • Did the loss of her parents make her resentful towards Klingons, or did it make her want to reach out to other cultures to prevent other children from becoming orphans?
  • Did she commit herself fully to her Vulcan upbringing, or does she have a rebellious side that saw her seeking out her native Earth culture?
  • Was her mutiny a justified, moralistic act, or was it a result of her ambition, or some quest for vengeance?

Now, these questions can be answered on-screen, but if these questions require on-screen exploration then they should become the story that we follow in their own right, and should not be the backstory to a different narrative. If a character’s background does not directly inform on their personality, then that background is essentially pointless, and simply clogs up the narrative.

Specifically: we, the audience, never meet Michael Burnham’s human parents, and so we have no idea of what kind of relationship she had with them. As a result, we do not know what effect their death had on Michael as a character, nor do we understand the full extent of Michael’s feelings towards the Klingons. Neither do we see her growing up on Vulcan as a human orphan, and so we have no concept how that upbringing shaped her personality.

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In order to understand all these backstories, and how they might lead to her committing mutiny as she did, these backstories need to be depicted on-screen – at which point, it is the backstories that become the story that should be told, rather than the subsequent events for which we, the audience, lack the necessary emotional context to understand the character that is Michael Burnham.

Trimming this down to two sentences:

As a writer creating a character, you cannot simply bolt on past events to the character’s origins if those events do not directly inform the character’s personality. Every aspect of a character’s backstory should be relevant to how the character behaves, and cannot replace strong motivations and defining character traits with which the audience can emotionally connect.


Going back to ‘The Good Wife’ and our friend, Alicia Florrick, Alicia’s backstory is very simple:

  • She gave up her law career to become a wife and a mother to two children.
  • Her husband betrayed her and disgraced himself publicly.
  • She separated from her husband, but maintains a public connection with him to support his rehabilitation.

alicia2

As mentioned previously, Alicia is a strong character with clear motivations. But her backstory is simple – it’s three short lines which require very little elaboration. Her sacrificing of her own career implies devotion and selflessness*. Her husband’s betrayal implies vulnerability and a trusting nature. Her commitment to remain publicly supportive of him implies loyalty and selflessness.

(* – A note to point out that she could have kept her career and still demonstrated those qualities, but we’re talking within the context of the show’s setting and early 2000’s America.)

Alicia does not have a particularly remarkable backstory beyond her disgraced husband. She is not a victim of terrible tragedy, nor is she the granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln. Her backstory is personal, and relatable to lots of people who have suffered betrayal, and broadly sympathetic. There is no mystery to it, neither does it require on-screen depiction for the audience to understand it.

If Peter, Alicia’s husband, was instead the protagonist of the show, then we would need more backstory, particularly around why he would betray his loving wife and risk his political career the way he did. But he is not the protagonist, and this is not his story.


The short version of all of this is simply to say:

The beginning of a protagonist’s journey should be the beginning of the overall story that is being told.

If your protagonist’s journey actually starts quite a bit before the story you’re telling, then you need to start there in order for your audience to connect with the protagonist. If it starts after, then you shouldn’t be wasting screen time on anything but essential world-building.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Luke never knew his father. Luke has always dreamed of escaping his life as a moisture farmer to go off on adventures. He has no other backstory (at first). Luke’s first adventure begins within twenty minutes of us meeting Luke for the first time.
  • Sarah is a young mother who has lost custody of her child due to her reckless lifestyle. She is desperate to prove that she has the means to provide for her daughter and get her back. Her first opportunity to change her fortunes occurs within moments of her meeting a mysterious doppelganger, scant minutes after we meet Sarah herself.
  • Katniss lives a life of relative poverty with her younger sister; both of their parents are dead. She is desperate to protect her sister. Her first major act of protective self-sacrifice occurs within the first twenty minutes of our introduction to Katniss.

katniss

In all three of these examples, each character has very minimal backstory. In the cases of Luke and Sarah (‘Star Wars’ and ‘Orphan Black’, respectively) we learn more about their origins in later instalments in the series, but crucially their introductions are minimalist and require very little exploration – Luke is a bored farm boy daydreaming of a more exciting life, Sarah is a scruffy waster who needs to create a better life for herself so that she can reunite with her daughter. Both of these characters are compelling and imprintable without the complex backstories that are later introduced.

For both Luke and Katniss (‘The Hunger Games’) we spend longer getting to know the worlds which they inhabit before the adventure begins. We see space battles and robots and Storm Troopers before we ever meet Luke, getting the essential world building out of the way early on. Before Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games, the social structure of Panem and some of its cultural concepts are explained to the audience.

A skewed example is that of Eleanor in ‘The Good Place’, an Arizona trashbag who lived a mediocre life of petty selfishness. One day, she wakes up in the Afterlife and realises that she has been mistakenly assigned to the Good Place, when really she ought to be in the Bad Place. This forces her to begin a journey of self-realisation and moral redemption in order to earn her place in Paradise.

In the case of Eleanor, the audience genuinely does require a deeper exploration of her backstory. But this fits thematically with the retrospective nature of ‘The Good Place’ and the ideas with which it wrestles – that of self-reflection on ones’ own actions, and the morality of the decisions we all make. As such, we do see more of Eleanor’s story in the form of flashbacks, and we do learn more about her upbringing and her personality before her death, and how this sculpted the character we see on screen.

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Most importantly, though, the story being told is that of Eleanor’s journey to self-realisation and redemption, and so the story of ‘The Good Place’ starts at the beginning of Eleanor’s journey.

What splits this approach from that of ‘Discovery’ is threefold:

  • Eleanor has strong emotional characterisation in terms of her selfishness and biting sense of humour coupled with her resentment, regret and developing guilt.
  • Eleanor has strong, clear goals to motivate her, and to which she commits fully.
  • Eleanor’s backstory is not complex, and does not require a journey of its own – we do not need to follow Eleanor from birth to understand how she is the way she is today.

Conversely:

  • Burnham lacks strong emotional characterisation.
  • Burnham lacks strong, clear goals to which she is fully committed.
  • Burnham’s backstory is complex, meandering, and requires far more exploration and screen time than it is afforded in the course of the show.

So, why would the writers focus so heavily on Burnham’s backstory, and not her motivations and characterisation?

Well, to answer that we need, after much delay, to address the title of this essay:


The Hashtag Protagonist

So, let’s say you’re writing your weird Star Trek fan fiction about a resentful, embittered fish-out-of-water Starfleet cadet who has been coerced by her family to relocate to a distant frontier, leading into a high school / college coming-of-age drama about independence and social acceptance, with a sub-plot of eugenics (genetic engineering of humans) as an analogy for drug use, sexuality and the general breaking of taboo that comes with being a young adult in a strange new world.

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You’re more or less writing this for yourself, even if you do misguidedly post the early chapters on your trashy sci-fi review blog, and so you don’t really care about how you can get this garbage piece of amateur-hour Twilight-meets-Voyager’s-‘Threshold’ bullshit to #Trend on #SocialMedia. Which means you also don’t care about unique selling points which can easily be turned into #Hashtags.

But when you’re writing your overly-long, barely-researched, poorly-worded blog post about narrative flaws in the latest Star Trek series, which you hope might go viral enough for you to seriously consider a career as a blogger so you can kick your bullshit soul-eating office job to the kerb and finally live your best life, you do care about hot-button issues and key, memorable terms which can easily translate into attention-grabbing #Hashtags, so you’re careful to include such things in the article itself so that you can plaster those #Hashtags all over your #SocialMedia posts hoping for #ReShares, #ReTweets and #Mentions. Because you’re a bag of #CheapTrash in the shape of a human.

Put simply, the easier it is for you to break down the key components of your piece of writing into #Hashtaggable #TwoWord #MemorablePhrases, the more likely you are to gain traction on #SocialMedia. And #SocialMedia is widely accepted as the most powerful marketing tool currently in existence.

#EnoughHashtags

Now, let’s say that you’re a mediocre producer and a terrible writer, and you have somehow been handed the reins of a successful, widely-loved franchise.

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Let’s just assume that it’s a given that your primary goal extends only as far as driving subscriber numbers to your studio’s new streaming service. All other concerns are secondary.

And let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that you possess enough self-awareness to know that you lack the ability to create a genuinely engaging show which will draw viewers in on its own merits.

What do you do?

Well, you’re trying to appeal to an online audience, which means social media and online advertising is going to be even more important to your marketing strategy, and hence the success of the show/streaming service. Not least because you can include links directly to new episodes in your various tweets and posts. The more shares you get, the more clicks you get to your new streaming service, the more subscribers you gain. More subscribers equals more money

So, the solution is simple.

Roll on the hashtags.

Now, when I talk about hashtags, I do mean literal #Hashtags, but we’re also looking at sentences shorter than 200 characters (leaving space for links and images). We’re looking at anything that is short, snappy, and provocative, and slots in nicely into tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram stories.

I think you know where this is going.

#SpocksSister

#RaisedByVulcans

#FirstMutineer

#KlingonWar

#DisgracedOfficer

#OrphanedByKlingons

All of these backstory elements serve a single purpose – to turn a character into a collection of high-concept premises. A collection of hashtags and social media-friendly concepts which draw attention and make it seem like the story you’re writing will be treading new ground.

My hypothesis is that when ‘Discovery’ was being conceived, the people in the room focused entirely on the marketable premises that they thought would drive internet traffic and online word-of-mouth, and never actually got around to turning these backstory elements into a cohesive character.

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I like Sonequa Martin-Green. She’s a good actor, and she seems to have genuine enthusiasm and charisma when she isn’t playing an emotionally repressed human raised by a race of emotionally repressed aliens.

I also think that it’s important to have new Star Trek shows led by protagonists from diverse backgrounds.

I think it was pretty much vital for a Star Trek show released in 2017 to feature a WoC (“woman of colour”) as its lead character. The franchise has always had a legacy for inclusion and diversity, even if in reality it often missed the mark.

What I do not think was vital was to stymie the development of Star Trek’s first WoC lead character by turning her into a social media mule.

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Here’s my proposition:

People of any background, race, gender or sexuality can be compelling, engaging and relatable protagonists, without the need for attention-grabbing backstories.

Michael Burnham did not need to be Starfleet’s first mutineer to be an interesting character. Nor did she need to be Spock’s Sister, Sarek’s Daughter, or any of the other gumpf that hovers around her.

Michael Burnham just needed to be a competent, confident and idealistic Starfleet officer, as with Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and… well, like those four who came before her.

Archer gets to sit in a corner muttering about Vulcans.

We know for a fact that this approach would work with Michael Burnham because we have already seen it work with Captain Georgiou. Georgiou was a competent, confident and idealistic Starfleet officer, and she was perfect. Georgiou had no special background, no ties to the wider franchise, and she would have made an amazing protagonist for this series, as I’ve maintained since the very beginning.

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All we needed for Michael Burnham to function as a character was for her to act like an intelligent, moralistic but mostly normal human being. We didn’t need her to make stupid, unfathomable decisions which involve betraying her captain for poorly-explained reasons relating to a complex backstory.

Now, there’s a more cynical issue to cover, which I’ll try to tackle as elegantly as I can, which is:

Am I correct that Michael Burnham was conceived as a constellation of hashtags to help push an online marketing campaign.

Or, was it first decided that ‘Discovery’ needed a black, female protagonist, and out-of-touch executives and showrunners did not feel that audiences would connect with such a character on her own merits, prompting them to concoct a lot of dramatic, high-concept backstories in order to “sell” her to an uncertain market?

Because if I’m being 100% honest, I could genuinely accept the truth that Alex Kurtsman, Les Moonves et al would be willing to bow to changing market pressures to make their new show more inclusive, whilst also having no clue how to market a black female protagonist to an audience that they barely understand themselves.

What I wanted out of ‘Discovery’ was a show where the protagonist is a smart, capable black woman, with an awesome Malaysian female captain, a socially awkward female cadet, and two men in a loving marriage who show normal levels of affection towards one another –

And for all of that to be completely, 100% status quo, unremarkable, par for the course.

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But between the fridging of Captain Georgiou and Commander Landry, the lack of women actually engaging with one another in the earlier stages of the show, and the generally dark, grim and miserable tone of the entire series, I honestly don’t think the creators of ‘Discovery’ are capable of thinking in those terms. I could genuinely be convinced that to someone like Alex Kurtzman, the very idea of a black woman leading a show is so bizarro-land that it mandates extra layers of dramatic intrigue just to be palatable.

And fine, that might be a stretch. But a quick review of Kurtzman’s IMDB page reveals that the projects for which he has either produced or written are all centred around white protagonists, predominantly male (with notable exceptions being ‘Sleepy Hollow’, in which the secondary lead is a black woman, and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, his only show to feature a black female protagonist.)

(As a side note, the same issue also bothers me with Stamets and Culber’s physically distant relationship. Through all of their scenes together across 14 episodes, they have kissed each other twice. Fan explanations for this have been “maybe they’re just not a physically affectionate couple”, which is fine, but it’s annoying to me that the first main gay couple we get on Star Trek should specifically have that fairly unusual trait, especially when it so neatly helps to avoid offending conservative audiences.)


The other concern with this focus on backstory is that it takes focus away from who Burnham is as a character.

Let’s look at ‘Lethe’, the sixth episode of the first season of ‘Discovery’. In it, Sarek is wounded by a terrorist attack, and is left dying on a damaged ship in the middle of a nebula. Burnham goes on a mission to psychically link with him, keeping him alive and hopefully locating his ship so that he can be rescued.

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As Burnham attempts to psychically reach out to Sarek, he rebuffs her, kicking her out of his mindspace as he tries to close himself off from outside intervention. This leads to confrontation and revelation between father and foster-daughter, as they explore a key moment in both of their lives, in which Sarek chose Spock over Burnham to have the opportunity to join the Vulcan Science Expedition.

The issue with this is that, even though Burnham is our protagonist, we spend the episode learning more about Sarek and his relationship with his children, than we do about Burnham and her relationship with her father. And that’s a subtle but important difference, because the focus is on Sarek, and an exploration of his character – it is merely Burnham’s role in the story to reassure him on the decisions he made.

Winding on to Season 2, and we end up in a similar situation during ‘Point Of Light’, the third episode, in which Burnham’s foster mother, Amanda, boards Discovery. Throughout this episode, the pair of them discuss the matter at hand – Spock, Amanda’s son and Burnham’s foster brother, who is on the run after allegedly killing three Starfleet officers.

And again, all of the talk and discussion centres around Spock and his journey. And Spock is a character we are yet to even meet in this series! We learn very little new about Burnham herself, beyond the fact that she did something horrible to push him away from her. But what is then discussed is how this act affected Spock, and not how Burnham may have come to live with it as she grew up.

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Which means we’re taking Star Trek’s first black female protagonist and using her as a tool for expanding the characterisation of two existing white male characters. Her own development and growth as a character is sacrificed for the sake of Sarek and Spock.

This is all a symptom of giving her a complex backstory, and specifically a backstory which is intimately entwined with two significant characters from the existing Star Trek universe. Spock and Sarek are both more interesting to the writers, it seems, and at this point they’re more interesting to the audience, because Burnham has so little motivation and characterisation.


On The Other Hand, The Exact Opposite Might Be True

Now, let’s get one thing clear:

I can already hear all of your objections to everything I’ve just written.

You’ve watched ‘Discovery’, too, and you love it! And you love Michael Burnham! She’s a character you connect with! And all of my criticisms above are because I’m oversimplifying, missing important subtext, or just wilfully misinterpreting to fit my racist, misogynistic agenda.

Which, well… y’know. I guess. Whatever.

Well, let’s address this. With an analogy. Because I love analogies.


Towards the end of Season 6 of ‘Game Of Thrones’, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark are preparing for battle with Ramsay Snow, the dick-removing dickhead who has laid claim to their home, Winterfell.

We, the audience, watch as Jon relentlessly clutches onto the Idiot Ball, ignoring all of Sansa’s sage advice and experience dealing with Ramsay Snow, and sociopathic megalomaniacs in general.

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Stolen from chrysreviews.com – originally lifted from here.

Jon joins battle with the same reckless, headstrong manner with which he does everything, gets pretty roundly crushed by Ramsay’s superior strategy and intellect, and is only saved by Sansa’s forthright and proactive decision to summon aid from the Vale. Glorious knights sweep across the battlefield, routing Ramsay’s army and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

To the audience, Sansa has shown the superior intellect, political nounce and restraint of a competent leader. Not only does she outclass Jon, but she also out-names him, being Ned Stark’s last (known) legitimate child, and the last (known) living person currently in Westeros carrying the name Stark.

So naturally, in the next episode, the Lords of the North name Jon Snow the new King of the North, and Lord of Winterfell, and-

Wait a god damn moment.

How on earth are people rallying around this soppy sack of pugilistic masculine insecurity? Jon Snow is at best a decent duellist and at worst a god damn liability as soon as any degree of lateral thinking is required. Time and again we have seen him fuck up, make stupid, self-destructive decisions, and in general just be a flaming, shoddy, scruffy, beautiful mess of a human being.

To say that it’s disappointing to see him take the crown instead of Sansa is an understatement. It feels narratively cheap, like the writers have no idea what they’re doing – the events of the story do not follow from A to B to C.

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The obvious answer is that all the sweaty, hairy Northern Lords saw Jon Snow lead the armies of the North, and also he’s a man, and also his soulful eyes and gorgeous hair give them feelings that they’re not quite sure how to process, and so of course they’ll pick him to be their leader.

But it’s not who we, the audience, would have picked.

And so it feels wrong.

The problem is that we, the audience, did not share the same journey as the Lords of the North. On our journey through the narrative, Sansa has grown from a prissy and useless teenager into a savvy, cynical political operator. Jon has shown literally zero character growth, on the other hand, and has remained as reckless and dumb as he was when we first saw him back in Season One.

Indeed, even short-term, our journey took us through the private meetings between Jon and Sansa, and the debates that they had on the best path forwards, and the many examples of Sansa correcting Jon on his ridiculous inability to think in anything but straight lines.

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Now, to the audience, the Lords’ choice to crown Jon is just plainly wrong, and although we can take a step back and reason it out and come up with our own headcanon as to why it made sense to them, all of that is a distraction and breaks immersion in the story. By definition, if you have to detach yourself from the story being told just to be able to understand the story being told, then you’re no longer immersed in it.

Ultimately, to understand the Lords’ decision, it needed to be their journey that we followed, and not Sansa’s or Jon’s.

Separation between character journeys and audience journeys can be used very effectively, and the prime example of this in ‘Game Of Thrones’ is Joffrey. Time and again, we see his horrible, dreadful behaviour rewarded. This is painful to watch as an audience, because we know just how much of a fucking shitstain Joffrey really is. When other characters don’t know this, and subsequently don’t treat him like a shitstain, we get indignant, even furious.

How can Sansa still be fawning over him when he was such a prick to Arya? How can she be so stupid? So blind? Why is Joffrey not currently suspended from the spire of the Sept Of The Seven by his smelly britches?

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But the intended effect is achieved – we, the audience, hate Joffrey and despise Sansa. Joffrey is established as a snivelling, sneery little shit whom we can all root against. Sansa is established as an oblivious, shallow child with no self-awareness.

Disconnect between the audience’s journey and a character’s journey can have a powerful emotional impact, but it will usually be a negative one, and so must be used wisely.

Now, how does this link into Burnham?


The Audience’s Journey

At the end of ‘The Vulcan Hello’, the first pilot episode of ‘Discovery’, Burnham betrays Captain Georgiou and attempts to fire on a Klingon vessel, which at present sits in space opposite Georgiou’s ship. No communication has yet been established.

In the lead-up to Burnham’s mutiny, we see her and Georgiou talking, with Georgiou insisting that she will exhaust all attempts at peaceful contact with the Klingons before adopting any military protocols. There has been no formal contact between Starfleet and the Klingons in decades, and so Georgiou sees this as a chance to forge a second “First Contact” – a chance to establish negotiations and build mutual understanding.

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Then, a Klingon beacon lights, sending a summoning call all across the Klingon Empire. Burnham leaves to go and talk to her father. They exchange a few pleasantries, Burnham explains the situation, and then we cut to Burnham on the bridge explaining to Georgiou that the only solution is to fire on the Klingons.

Georgiou refuses, Burnham pleads with her. When Georgiou still refuses, Burnham knocks Georgiou out cold, storms onto the bridge and tries to enact her plan before Georgiou can stop her.

And a lot of people, including myself, got really annoyed.

I got annoyed because I couldn’t understand how anyone in their right mind could come to the conclusion that Burnham had come to. I’d spent just as long with Georgiou as I had with Burnham, and so Burnham turning up out of the blue with her “hot take” that an unprovoked attack was the path to peace seemed utterly unconscionable.

And the reason I felt that way was because my journey, the audience’s journey, was disconnected from Burnham‘s journey. I didn’t see Sarek explain his suggestion to her. I wasn’t with her when her parents were killed by Klingons. I didn’t see her grow up with resentment and bitterness.

Burnham and I experienced different journeys.


The gap between the audience’s journey and a character’s journey can only be filled with “headcanon” – assumptions, inferences and guesswork to explain how two separate events can link together in a logical way.

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XKCD, delivering pure gold as usual.

And, because I want to piss off as many people as I possibly can, no, tie-in novels do NOT count – if you’re making a film or TV series and marketing it as a film or TV series, you don’t get to address the weaknesses in your story by afterwards telling people that they need to read a novel that somebody else wrote.

If your story relies on the audience to craft their own headcanon, then you are not fulfilling your role as a writer. Ambiguity within a story can be a good thing if it’s thematic and appropriate to the events of the story. It’s fun to try and guess whether or not Ellen Tigh is a Cylon, or who Rey’s parents really are.

But we shouldn’t be left to play guessing games as to the motivations of our protagonist. We shouldn’t be headcanoning our way to explaining major plot points in the show – particularly when we’re just 50 minutes into it and we’ve barely met any of these new characters, or gotten to know any of this new universe (and regardless of Star Trek continuity, it is a new universe, with the prequel setting and the changes in Klingon culture and revised technology levels).

And here’s the reason why:

If Burnham is on a path to redemption, what is she redeeming about herself? What is it about her way of thinking that she needs to change?

Because that’s what a redemption is: it isn’t simply admitting you were wrong, it’s about facing the same challenge again and, this time, besting it.

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I couldn’t be bothered to find yet another picture of Burnham, so here’s a picture of Gunny instead. You’re welcome, Dusters.

In order to understand what Burnham needs to do to find redemption, we need to understand what drove her to mutiny in the first place. Was it:

  • Childhood trauma at the hands of the Klingons?
  • An irrational devotion to her foster father and a willingness to blindly follow his advice?
  • A rebellious nature and a lack of respect for authority?
  • All three of the above?
  • Something else entirely?

If it was a result of childhood trauma, then the audience needs to see that trauma first-hand.

If it’s an irrational devotion to Sarek, then the audience needs to see that manifest in other ways – we need to see her blindly following other advice that he gives her.

If it’s a rebellious nature, then we need to see a track record of her disobeying orders because she thinks she has better ideas than her commanding officers.

If we don’t see any of these things, then we can’t connect with Burnham because of the separation between our journey and her journey. If the only way to understand Burnham is to take a step back and start trying to piece her together like a puzzle, then we are, by definition, not immersed in her story, but rather are acting as air crash investigators trying to coldly reassemble a downed jetliner.

If we’re not immersed in her story, if we’re actively frustrated by behaviour that seems erratic to us, if the burden of characterisation is laid upon the audience and not the writers, then you end up in a situation where half the audience don’t connect with the character, and the other half of the audience accused the first half of just being ignorant, missing subtext or intentionally disliking the character because she’s black and/or a woman.

When you look at protagonists done right, the ambiguity disappears:

  • Nobody disagrees that Ripley is motivated to save Newt because of her maternal guilt over the loss of her own daughter.
  • Nobody disagrees that Johnny Rico only joined the Mobile Infantry because he was a dumb kid who wanted to impress his girlfriend, or that he later became a slave to hatred and revenge.
  • Nobody disagrees that it is Clarice Starling’s ambition that motivates her to interview Hannibal Lecter, or that she later becomes emotionally invested in the case.

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The fact that Burnham’s motivations are so open to debate, and the fact that such debate relies on supposition and assumption, is a sign of an objectively poorly-written character, that fails to achieve the very purpose of a protagonist – to provide a genuinely emotional connection for the audience.


When Peter Florrick, Alicia’s husband, approaches her and asks for more public support, asks her to make more sacrifices for the sake of his career, we’re right there with her when she tells him to fuck off. If we’d followed Peter around for three seasons, and not Alicia, we might instead feel that she was being unreasonable, or unsupportive, or downright petty or vengeful, because our journey would align with Peter’s.

But because our journey aligns with Alicia’s, we can unambiguously root for her. She doesn’t need Peter – he needs her! Kick him to the kerb, Alicia! You do what you want! Go fuck Ozymandias, you’re your own person!

(As an aside, if anyone appreciates that ‘Good Wife’ / Ozymandias reference, please let me know in the comments. I… I just really need the validation.)

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Intruder Alert

By clouding Burnham’s motivations in ambiguity, complex backstories, and a lack of strong characterisation, not only do we lose emotional connection to the protagonist and to her journey through the story, but we bring ourselves full circle, back around to that “Mary Sue” segment near the beginning of this article.

One of the inherent traits of a “Mary Sue” is that of “author insertion” – the inherent “otherness” of an unfamiliar character in familiar surroundings.

Given that this is Burnham’s show, it is impossible for her to be an “author insert”, because the thing into which she is being “inserted” is a show which has been written with Michael Burnham as the protagonist.

HOWEVER, the emotional detachment from Burnham that is felt by many in the audience creates a feeling of “otherness” about her. She feels like an outsider, an uninvited guest despite the fact that this is “her” show.

This goes part-way to explaining why a character like Picard does not seem like a Mary Sue – because the audience’s journey is aligned with Picard’s journey, he feels at home in the stories in which he appears.

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I’m genuinely just tired of looking at pictures of Burnham now, so here’s a picture of Naomi. You’re welcome, Beltalowda.

I still firmly maintain that Burnham is not a Mary Sue, for the reasons given earlier (most of all because I don’t like the term or its associations to begin with).

But I do understand the feeling that many seem to have of her being a square peg hammered into a round hole. Her actions and her choices feel strange, she feels like a mystery, an enigma, and it’s impossible to objectively identify her motivations based on the text of story.

The writers’ inability to properly establish her as a protagonist leave her feeling like an outsider in her own story.


In Summary…

We’ve reached the end of a marathon deconstruction of Michael Burnham, and protagonist characters in general. And if you’ve made it this far, I thank you.

To recap what we’ve covered:

  • Michael Burnham is not a “Mary Sue”, and if she is, then so is Jean Luc Picard.
  • Michael Burnham lacks strong characterisation, although that would be forgivable for a protagonist.
  • However, she also lacks strong motivations or goals, which is unforgivable for a protagonist.
  • Michael Burnham has far too complex a backstory, and it fails to characterise her.
  • This backstory itself seems to be more in service to marketing, or potentially to the fact that the show’s creators were uncertain about a black female lead.
  • The backstory distances the audience from Burnham’s journey through the main plot.
  • The misalignment between the audience’s journey and Burnham’s journey serves to make her actions seem erratic and unrelatable.
  • This then causes Burnham to feel out of place, despite the story being crafted specifically for her.

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An Ending

We have reached the end of this monstrous article, nearly 11,000 words in length. I hope you have found it engaging and provocative – or that you have at least appreciated the effort I put into stretched analogies and barely-relevant screenshots.

Although this article is titled “Discovery In Depth”, this series so far has really been about storytelling in general. ‘Discovery’ just happens to be the perfect example of bad storytelling that’s currently being released.

All the same, this is likely to be one of the last articles I write covering ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. I will still be following the show, and if anything crops up that is particularly egregious it may warrant a rant.

But that fact is that it has become tiring to talk about. The layers of incompetence in the writing require special effort to peel back and dissect, an the layers multiply with each new episode. Ultimately there are less exhausting subjects to write about.

I still, however, have to write up an analysis of The Great Big Crude Star Trek Survey (which is still live, by the way). I have also got a few other shows that I would like to talk about, which may offer new insights and new material.

Thank you all for reading. Good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.

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.

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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.

idolgif

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.

tightrope

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.

tillysad

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:

makeitoutalive

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.)

lorcadead


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:

growthem29m

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:

terraform

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:

congratulate
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.

descendingmoon

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.

extinctionlevelevent

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:

catastrophe
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:

4mins32seconds

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:

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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.