In space, no one can hear you scream. That’s good, because I wanted to scream after watching the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. Of course, saying I don’t like something is one thing, supporting that with arguments takes a bit more work.
As you probably figured, discussing an entire season of a show will spoil it. I have some comments regarding plots and character arcs that will spoil most of what happens.
If you don’t want it spoiled, turn back now, or read my review of the first episode.
So, onward, to a spoilered look at the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.
Ensembling a cast
Discovery’s first season is one big story, broken down into fifteen episodes. The main characters of the show are initially Michael Burnham and Mr. Saru, and the show later adds Captain Lorca, Lieutenant-Commander Stamets, Ensign Tilly, and Ash Tyler. That’s a cast of six. There are a lot of other characters on the show, but the focus is on these ones.
That should be enough to carry a show, right? It’s in a similar number range to shows like Killjoys, Suits, or even Full House. The thing is, while I watched, I felt like the show had too few characters. It took me a while to figure out why I felt this way.
I concluded the problem is not that there are too few character, it’s that all the characters feel flat. We learn very little about any of them over the course of these fifteen episodes. Yes, a lot happens, but what does it really tell us? What do any of these six characters do for fun? What’s their favorite food? Do they ever laugh?
After watching the whole first season, I wouldn’t want to have a beer with any of them. Stamets and Tilly, maybe, because they at least resemble real people. Unfortunately, I still wouldn’t know what to talk about.
Everybody in the show seems to be no more than a tool to advance the plot. They make stuff happen, but I don’t care about it at all. The characters should drive the plot, not the other way around. The characters in Discovery are driven by what the writers want to happen, and are really just sock puppets. It makes it feel as if something is missing.
Deus ex Technica
You know how you should travel faster than warp speed? You take some spores from a transdimensional plant and feed them into a chamber, to enter a transgalactic mycelial network. Oh no, you can’t navigate. Well, luckily you have this gigantic killer multi-dimensional tardigrade, which is really just a big fluffy misunderstood animal. But, oh no, the process hurts the tardigrade, what to do? Well, you sequence DNA from the beast into a human being to make them multi-dimensional too.
The above-mentioned ‘science’ is the plot of two of the actual episodes of the show. Star Trek science has always been a bit flaky, but Discovery takes it to a whole new level. When you give the protagonist a problem to overcome, and the solution they use doesn’t logically follow from the rest of the story, then you’re in Deus ex Machina territory.
Discovery falls into this trap nearly every episode. Star Trek has always used science to solve plots, but it usually sounded plausible and logical. This show just makes it sound weird. On Discovery, it’s usually far-fetched mumbo jumbo, only touching real science with a toe. That wouldn’t be so bad if the rules were foreshadowed, but that doesn’t happen. It made me angry instead of engaged.
Mycelial networks to travel across the galaxy? Crystal lifeforms that can break cloaking devices? Other dimensions that wildly diverge from ours, but mysteriously have duplicates of us all? The ability to transform a Klingon into a human that completely fools sensors but breaks their mind? Mind-melds that subconsciously cross space-time when the initiator is unconscious? It’s all in Discovery, and more. It all solves plots, and none of it makes sense.
The main arc
All of this I could forgive, if the main characters were interesting, with interesting arcs. Michael Burnham, though, isn’t interesting. Heck, she’s barely a character – and no, that has nothing to do with her being black, or her being a woman.
First off, they made her Vulcan-trained. Most actors seem to play Vulcans as always coming across angry — and Sonequa Martin-Green who plays Michael is no different. I don’t think she laughs anywhere in the first season, and smiles maybe twice. The others don’t even have being Vulcan-trained as an excuse. Lorca is never happy, and Mr. Saru has a stick up his ass the size of a tree. Stamets and Tilly are better, and actually have a sense of humor, and a personality, and guess what, I actually liked those characters.
So, Michael is always serious. Also, she has no hobbies and no stories to tell. She falls in love, but the chemistry between her and Ash is about on-par with that between two hull plates. The only thing she actually has instead of a personality is her hatred for the Klingons from that time they killed her parents – always go with the tired and worn clichés, I guess.
How does that Klingon hatred arc pan out? You guessed it: Michael learns that Klingons are really people too and they should be treated kindly. In the first and last episode she’s put in a similar conundrum: the Klingons are poised to attack and Michael might stop them with violence. The first time she chooses violence, but in the final episode she’s learned her lesson and chooses peace.
Two problems with that. First, her solution unites the Klingons at a moment when they are about to destroy the Federation. Contrary to everything we ever knew about Klingons, though, they decide to use their newfound unity to stop fighting and make peace. Yeah, deus-ex-crap.
Secondly, Michael never actually learns that Klingons are really just people. Well, okay, she apparently figures it out in prison after the second episode, or something. She goes into prison a self-centered arrogant Klingon hater, changes off-screen, then comes back being hated but kind. The main arc that carries the first season happens off-screen. Dear writers, that’s really, really stupid.
The rest of the cast has no better arcs. Lorca is an asshole and a coat hanger for a plot twist (a good plot twist though). Mr. Saru doesn’t actually change much; he remains an arrogant condescending coward, only he becomes slightly less cowardly. Stamets infects himself with dangerous DNA, but his multi-dimensional problems magically solve themselves when Tilly spores him, I think. Tilly is just Tilly. And Voq/Ash… I… who was doing what-now? And why? I still don’t get what Voq was trying to achieve, but I guess it worked out.
Most of the cast are just there to create cool-looking events and faux-exciting plot twists, as is the science. I couldn’t find any character growth or depth, or just one scene where people actually look like they’re having fun. The best episode is probably the groundhog day invasion of the ship, but the villain’s reason is so lame and the conclusion so dumb that I still hated it.
The last thing I wanted to highlight is the utter stupidity of a lot of the characters. The show is rife with idiot plotting. What kind of psycho mutinies against her mentor/captain to start a war? What idiot kidnaps the captain of an enemy top-secret ship, only to let him get away with a half-baked human-Klingon-hybrid spy who doesn’t know he’s a spy? Who thinks it’s a good idea to save a ruthless emperor from an alternate dimension from death because they look like your old mentor? Who then puts that same emperor in charge of your last-ditch plan to save the Federation? And what kind of idiot takes control of a vast empire of war-mongering people at the eve of their victory and then tells them to retreat?
The answer is: no sane person. The writers made it happen, but that doesn’t make it logical or sensible. It’s just idiot plotting all the way.
Discovery looks awesome, its ideas and cast are a fresh take on Star Trek, and it had some themes and plot twists going for it, but the execution and writing is just absolutely F-ing terrible.
Oh, but season two is coming. Well, they can’t do any worse, I guess.