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 in order to make us feel anything, science fiction has to tell us a story.
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’:
- Ensign Tilly is on her way to Engineering to begin her shift.
- On the way, she stops to get coffee.
- Then she accidentally spills the coffee on her uniform.
- So she goes back to her quarters to change into a clean uniform.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- So, she hurries back to her quarters to change into a grubby uniform from yesterday, because she’s behind on her laundry.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Once you build tension in a story, there’s three things you can do with it:
- Break it, frequently through humour, subversion or incompetence.
- Escalate it, usually by letting events reach a natural and sensible conclusion.
- 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’:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
This whole sequence obliterates any tension within this story arc, for the following reasons:
- “All Life In All Universes” is a completely unthinkable scale of danger for most non-Q audiences.
- 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.
- At no point do we, the audience, understand what could go wrong or why.
- 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:
- Discovery has to destroy the Charon in order to save all Life in all Universes.
- Tilly explains that this will destroy Discovery and everyone aboard.
- Saru gives a rousing speech to keep the crew focused.
- Tilly discovers that they can escape after all if they adjust their equipment.
- They adjust the equipment.
- Discovery attacks the Charon
- and succeeds on its first attempt.
- Discovery escapes. Everybody survives, nobody is hurt.
This is just a series of things which happen. But if we just switch some of those events around (and add a couple more):
- Discovery has to destroy the Charon in order to save all Life in all Universes.
- Tilly explains that this will destroy Discovery and everyone aboard.
- Saru gives a rousing speech to keep the crew focused.
- We see a montage of the crew coming to terms with their fate and preparing for one final, deadly mission.
- Discovery attacks the Charon
- and the Charon responds by firing all its weapons at Discovery
- badly damaging Discovery and killing several crew, forcing her to wave off and try to attack again.
- Discovery lines up for one more attack, ablaze and filled with smoke, the floor covered in debris.
- A wounded Tilly notices a resonance cascade in the Charon‘s power generator
- 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.
- Tilly struggles to focus through the pain from her wound as she coordinates with Detmer, carefully calculating the ship’s trajectory, until
- at the very last moment, Tilly signals Detmer to engage the warp engines, detonating the Charon‘s power generator.
- 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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:
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:
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:
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.
And just in case you don’t believe me:
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:
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:
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:
- The threat of failure needed to be setup.
- Stamets’ method of overcoming this threat of failure needed to be shown.
Instead, we simply have the following:
- Stamets needs to grow more Mycelium.
- Stamets explains (sort of) to Tilly that they need to terraform a moon.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- A moon is crashing towards the planet, threatening to kill millions.
- The Enterprise tries to stop it once, and fails due to the magnitude of the task.
- The Enterprise tries to stop it a second time, and fails due to enemy interference.
- Q sacrifices his own life to give the Enterprise a chance to stop the moon.
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:
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, do you remember what Detmer said when she first alerted Saru to the danger? Here, I’ll remind you:
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:
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?
Here’s Airiam, the very next time we see the bridge crew:
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:
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!
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:
- Debris is crashing towards the planet, threatening to kill thousands, including three crew members.
- It will happen in 64 minutes.
- Tilly puzzles on the problem in sickbay.
- The bridge crew take no action for 60 minutes.
- Tilly runs up to the bridge and explains the plan to save the day.
- 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:
Or even just talk to Q about relationships:
Or even just watch Q get stabbed for being a complete turdburger:
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.
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.