It causes me to cringe at least once per episode of seasons 1 and 2. It doesn’t have to be this way.
- Plot for the sake of “making a scene” scenes
- Pro-whatever lines are shallow
- Drama at the expense of professionalism, science, and thought
- Characters made to defy themselves
- Resorting to magic
- Selectively treading on canon
The problem and the beauty
Discovery has a writing problem, centered I believe, in laziness. That’s an offensive thing for me to say, given all the work that I’m sure is put into every aspect of the show. But I think it is the central factor in what makes a growing number of moments worthy of cringing and eye-rolling. I’d like to point out the details of this problem in the hope that the writers fix them.
Two factors make me so critical: 1) it is a Star Trek show — and one that’s placed within the timeline established by canon. 2) the writing in earlier Star Trek entertainment tended to get better over time, no matter how embarrassingly it started out.
Now, I probably will keep watching Discovery. There are plenty of things to like about it. The season-long story arcs are a welcome addition and it’s SO pretty. Never mind that it’s a complete visual departure from everything that was supposed to existed at that time. The production value of effects, set design, and camerawork is impeccable. The costumes are very impressive and with the exception of extended fingertips, very believable. The transition they thought up for the spore drive jumps? I could see and hear that all day.
I’ve made it through 2 seasons and I’m still curious. At least I will be until such a time when the writing becomes unbearable to watch — and that could certainly happen since the writing problems seem to be getting worse.
Plot for the sake of making a scene
The first effect of lazy writing is that major portions of the plot seem to exist for the sole purpose of providing an excuse to make scenes that “make a scene”, where the dialogue and cast are clearly trying way too hard to make a scene either dramatic or funny. It’s like nothing can happen without someone commentating and no characters can interact without it being about conflict or atonement. There are only the two dynamics and every single relationship cannot be occur without both, no matter how little screen time is given to those characters together. It’s kind of pathological, now that I think about it.
Causing a scene is at its worst during action sequences and countdowns. “There isn’t time!” is bandied about constantly to throw away options but there always seems to be time for slow, heart-wrenching conversations while lingering on the edge of doom with their misty eyes gleaming in the lens flare. There is also always time for “posing scenes”, where emotional weight is supposed to come across from the mere staging, posture, and gazing of characters. While these can be important, they’re paced uncomfortably in the show and overused for the ‘oh you thought they were dead / hopeless’ scenes and the ‘but now they change their mind’ scenes. These of course are the scenes I’m talking about.
Consequences are meaningless
The effect this has on me is that after a while, no plot development ever seems to really matter in the long run. After watching so many episodes I’m pretty sure that if there is a dramatic scene to be had by reversing a previous event or limitation — that reversal can and will happen to allow the dialogue to be written and delivered with gusto. It sadly turns this space opera into a space soap opera.
Related to this are the cavalcade of MacGuffins, those things that exist solely to smooth the path to those dramatic scenes. Not only are MacGuffins lazy writing in general but these particular ones are especially so, since they’re getting introduced within an existing timeline where they didn’t exist.
It’s a common problem in prequels since, well, the “sequels” were created back when there were more limitations. It’s natural to want to innovate and add what we know now to build upon previous work—but that really only fits for further sequels. I think the urge to do this is too strong for people to resist it, when making a prequel.
So hence, everything from my beloved spore drive to holographic video chat are reduced to plot devices in ways that hearken back to the “it’s an easy fix” scene in Thank You For Smoking. Thank goodness for time crystals, indeed. Ugh.
What’s more, I think the characters themselves even become MacGuffins. Commander Airiam probably exemplifies this best: really only existing as a character when it became important for a very temporary portion of the plot. In the old series, she would have just been yet another Red Shirt but in Discovery they try to put up enough window dressing to make you care. And that’s the problem because it’s not enough to make us care, drama or no. Particularly after the body count that’s already been tallied by this series, coupled by the distinct possibility that she (like anyone or anything) could come back in a later episode. MacGuffins with no consequences.
Pro-whatever lines are shallow
Every so often there are these one-liners… I want to like them but I just can’t. The lines in question are usually to promote the excitement around things that should be promoted: science, engineering, diversity, inclusion, empowerment. The problem is that they’re awkwardly shallow and delivered like a product placement. I expect to see a PSA message to appear at the bottom of the screen in the silence that follows each of these lines. I also at times expect to hear crickets, filling this void.
Similarly there are lines that seem to be attempts at relating to current day pop culture or hoping to be turned into memes. I also consider these as sad, groan-inducing moments on par with the pro-whatever lines. They have no place in the Trek universe, further cracking our suspension of disbelief beyond the larger issues.
Drama at the expense of… everything Star Trek?
So this fictional universe has a few basic tenets of the premise. The people who serve in Starfleet are all about professionalism, science, and critical thought. They are the highly trained products of societies that have fundamentally evolved beyond our current world. So in the case of those one-liners, they’d be woefully out of place in that context. A large portion of the dialogue and actions taken by the characters are too irresponsible to fit this setting.
Starfleet officers simply wouldn’t behave that way. I doubt that people so prone to losing their shit would have been accepted or kept in service. That’s kinda what training is there to prevent, right?
Then there are the plot holes. Few stories can be made without plot holes but these holes are very un-Trek-like. To pick one example among many: Transporters.
There can only be so many times that transporters are forgotten and transporter range is ignored before it becomes clear that the writers are not spending the effort to think like a Starfleet officer. “It’s the only way!” is another line I keep hearing, yet again I can reference the tiny tale of Airiam to point out a dozen other ways that tragedy could have been averted with just the transporter alone. At times it verges on pathetic, with the smartest people in the known universe together on a bridge crew — all staring at the drama, unable to think of the most basic Trek solutions.
There is plenty of established Trek tech that is being continually and conveniently forgotten in favor of melodrama.
Characters made to defy themselves
Remember when I mentioned relationships only being shown as only conflict and resolution? Well I’d say that keeps going… and going until it seems that the only reason for characters to exist is to be introduced as one way just so they can be transformed into the opposite of themselves. This unfolds whether the character is really the same person or they’re a different version of them. Anyone who hasn’t been reduced to a MacGuffin has gone through this switcheroo at least once. I get why. It’s tricky and witty but it’s also become the way of all characters — and therefor, tiresome. It doesn’t help the show. There are other ways to depict depth.
Resorting to magic
Probably the worst offense of laziness for a show based on science and evolved society is the regular practice of relegating science to pseudoscience; to nonsensical mumbo jumbo; to “magic” that defies explanation. With most things in previous Trek, rules were defined and then they were stuck to. If they were loosely defined at first, they got better defined later, often in ways that are closer to actual known science. But in Discovery?
Out of nowhere we get interplanetary species surgical grafting, multi-dimensional fungus that spans all of space-time, harnessing ultra-powerful dark energy, and (I must bring it up again) time crystals! We get characters not only resurrected by the universal fungus but living for who knows how long within the fungus (that somehow in addition to being a “network” is also a “land” with gravity, fauna, flora, and human-breathable air) simply because they were on the mind of the fungus master who loved them. Science? No. Magic, plain and simple. Magic MacGuffins for causing one drama scene after another.
Selectively treading on canon
Until it became clear that they’d be doing the same cop-out as the reboot Trek movies (alternate universe, yo! we can do whatevs!) I think it was especially irksome that they were cherry-picking what to keep, what to forget, and what to recklessly trample over from the previous Trek shows. Though once the cat was out of the bag I still found it irksome. Tiresome as well.
It would be different if the trample targets were only things that now, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see should be changed to support the central concept of the series (remember: advanced, enlightened society?) like not being sexist, cisgender, or otherwise. But instead, bizarre things beyond that are chosen like making phasers operate as lame pistols or the away suites waaay cooler than they ever were before. Is this someone’s personal preference, is it lack of respect, or is it indulgence to traipse about wherever they please as show creators? I don’t know but it comes across as lazy. Particularly when another set of oddball details are overtly addressed that are immaterial to the story, like holograms vs view screens. Why? Why. I groan.
If by some unlikely event this article reaches the Discovery creators: please do take all this into consideration. I really just want it to be better. I want to like the show more. There is so much going for it. There’s so much good work already being put into it. That’s why it’s so painful to see these problems dragging the show down.