Is STAR TREK: DISCOVERY overcompensating? (editorial review)

SPOILERS NEVER GO OUT OF FASHION!

It’s been a year and a half since we saw Michael Burnham leading the U.S.S. Discovery and her crew into the far future. Eighteen months for us, 930 years for them. Either way, it’s a whole new world for us and for the actors/writers/producers (hey, anyone remember 2019—before the pandemic?), and a whole new galaxy for the show. And it seems like we’re going to need to get used to both 2020 and 3188!

Okay, so it’s time to start these editorial reviews again. When last we left CBS’s flagship Star Trek series, I had a LOT to complain about:

  • The show was way too serious.
  • The plots were too convoluted.
  • The scripts were overly contrived showing lazy/sloppy writing.
  • There was almost no banter between characters.
  • Michael Burnham remained an undeveloped character—coming from a place of controlled logic from a demanding Vulcan upbringing, Burnham was never much “fun” as a character and often uninteresting to watch (despite SONEQUA MARTN-GREEN being a strong actor)
  • The writers jumped from beat to beat without giving the characters a chance to breathe in between.
  • The stories felt too dark and seemingly hopeless most of the time.
  • Trek canon was, more often than not, completely out the window.
  • For a franchise born from “exploring strange, new worlds,” we almost never made it down to an actual planet.
  • The series didn’t feel like Star Trek…only a sci-fi mish-mash with Star Trek elements hung on it like decorations on a Christmas tree.

So when STAR TREK: DISCOVERY jumped to the far future and added a new co-showrunner, MICHELLE PARADISE, to join the always-controversial and always-rumored-to-be-fired-and-never-actually-being-fired ALEX KURTZMAN, I wondered if the series would finally be able to course-correct in its third season. I really wished it would because it’s hard to be a Star Trek fan with such mixed and often frustrated feelings about a current Star Trek TV series.

Well, folks, be careful what you wish for…

In many ways, I did get what I wanted from season three…almost as though the show-runners were reading my blogs (which they certainly weren’t, I’m sure!) and making the appropriate fixes. The first thing I noticed was this scene in the opening teaser:

So two things happened there. First, Burnham is standing on a planet! When was the last time Sonequa Martin-Green wasn’t filming Discovery on a soundstage??? And not just any planet—in the best traditions of Game of Thrones, the Discovery production team traveled all the way to ICELAND(!!!) to film this episode and (I’m told) the next one. And in that way, the episode looks amazing. I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, and now I want to even more…just maybe not the desolate part.

Second, we finally see some raw emotion out of Michael Burnham. The woman who started off colder than any Vulcan she emulated has now finally done the primal scream…twice! The first time is when she confirms that there is still life in the galaxy, meaning the bad guys didn’t win 930 years earlier. And then it’s just time to let it all out and take in her new reality. After running almost non-stop from beat to beat for two seasons, this episode finally lets Burnham take a breath.

Then I noticed this:

Didya hear that??? BANTER, my friends, BANTER!!! Already, reviewers are saying that new character Book (played brilliantly by actor DAVID AJALA) has more chemistry with Burnham than her old flame, Ash Tyler (played by SHAZAD LATIF), managed to develop in nearly two full seasons. Book has already become a new fan-favorite character. And why? Well, it’s partially because David Ajala has good acting chops and partly because he and Sonequa do have some nice natural chemistry. But really, folks, it’s because the writers gave them something to work with…BANTER! If they’re comfortable enough to joke with each other, then you as the viewer can start to share the chemistry. So…yay.

I kinda watched mostly on autopilot for the next 7-8 minutes as Book provided us with the mandatory “welcome-to-the-dystopian-future” exposition as we went into Mos Eisley Spaceport…er, I mean, the Mercantile.

So let’s see…about 120 years ago, all the dilithium in the Federation/Galaxy/Universe suddenly exploded in a way it never had for centuries (or probably millennia) before. So that happened. Probably not a natural phenomenon, but an intriguing mystery to solve. Of course, back in the “old days,” we’d just Star Trek IV the problem (of Doctor Who/Quantum Leap it) by traveling back in time to fix whatever once went wrong and make the universe right again. So naturally, the writers had to insert the necessary plot constraint: all time travel technology was outlawed after the temporal wars.

(Suuuuuure it was. We find out later that, without the Federation and the ability for most races to travel at warp, the galaxy has pretty much descended into anarchy. So if there isn’t anyone left to enforce even the Endangered Species Act, I’m guessing they’re not really able to crack down on rogue time travel research. And since Star Trek has more ways to time travel than Ben & Jerry have flavors of ice cream, it’s doubtful that all NO time travel is happening anywhere in the Milky Way. But hey, if you want to ride the Discovery bus for season three, the fare is believing that there’s now no time travel. Okay, I’ll believe it for now. Moving on…)

Anyway, I was jolted out of my passive viewing by the segment that everyone is talking about, and that’s the “this is Michael Burnham’s brain on drugs” scene:

Quite the acting tour de force by Ms. Martin-Green! And again, it seems the writers are trying to bring more “life” and humor to the character of Michael Burnham and, at the same time, help explain her a little better to the fans…both of which are a noticeable course correction from the first two seasons.

And that’s when it hit me—this line:

“I’m overcompensating.”

Obviously, the writers intended that sentence be a humorous way of explaining Michael Burnham’s behavior and decisions in the series so far, and perhaps they are right. But might it not ALSO describe what the writers themselves are doing??? Hmmm, let’s think about that…

After stepping on exploding canon mines for the past two years, they take the Discovery 930 years into the future to give themselves a completely new canvas to paint on. Overcompensating perhaps?

And then, as they decide to show an alien planet, the production crew doesn’t simply wander out of the Toronto studio into the surrounding wilderness of Ontario, they fly everyone six hours all the way to frickin’ Iceland!!! And once there, the first thing we see isn’t simply Burnham having a chance to process what just happened but to have not just one, but TWO extended primal screams.

And of course, trying to bring a little more humor to the character of Michael Burnham—and to the show in general—not only do they give us much-needed banter, but then they have this extended “babbling Burnham!” truth-fest showing off the comedic acting chops of Sonequa in a very challenging series of hyper-fast monologues. Some might call all of this…overcompensating.

Now, is any of this a bad thing? Not necessarily! In high school, such efforts might earn the student extra credit for going above and beyond. And I certainly didn’t resent any of this “overcompensation” by the writers or feel angry or frustrated by it. But it was noticeable.

In fact, just after having my revelation during Burnham’s drug trip, I found that I couldn’t NOT see the various efforts that the episode made to overcompensate in course correcting. For example…

To make sure they established that this was still Star Trek, the producers were certain to show familiar species. So we got Andorians and Orions, and both looked reasonably close to canon (although the Andorian make-up did seem to have been overdone a wee bit…making it harder—but possibly more rewarding?—for all those blue-skinned cosplayers out there)…

Orions and Andorians working together…what is the universe coming to???

Now, just seeing those two races alone would have been awesome. And maybe even a Tellarite…which we did, in fact, see later on. But we ALSO got a Lurian (Morn!) plus what is being billed as a Betelgeusian, which was an obscure background alien created for Star Trek: The Motion Picture back in 1979…

Lurian, Betelgeusian, and Tellarite…time to start up a band!

Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that! But again, it did seemed a bit like overcompensating to me—as did their choice to turn Book quickly from an untrustworthy, lying scoundrel into a sympathetic, good-hearted hero. (Anyone else get some emotional whiplash on that fast shift?) And not only that, Book isn’t just a hero; he’s a SUPER-hero…complete with the power to talk to animals and make plants grow with his mind. Granted, it’s not the proportional strength and agility of a spider with the ability to cling to walls and shoot webs, but as superpowers go, it beats out a bunch of them (like the ability to talk to fish or control rags).

Anywhoo, none of these overcompensations was a deal-breaker for me. I won’t be canceling my All Access subscription, and I’ll likely be sticking around for a while longer depending on what happens once I see how they’re handling the rest of the crew.

As for my overall review of the episode itself, as my friend Dave Haegney, Jr. said, it was certainly the strongest season opener for Discovery yet. I responded: “That’s the equivalent of saying, ‘It’s the largest state in New England.'” In other words: not necessarily setting the bar particularly high.

And honestly, I found much of the episode somewhat boring because, after two full seasons of just not caring about Michael Burnham, I still didn’t really care about her…at least not yet. Figuring out the future took a lot of ‘splaining, and action sequences for the sake of action sequences are fine but not really satisfying if you don’t really care about those involved.

A flag not-so-full of stars…

However, and this is a BIG however, I really enjoyed the final scene inside the remnants of the Federation relay station. Sure, it was a bit hokey, but it did a nice job of giving the show a new purpose. Granted, that new purpose is nothing we haven’t seen before. The idea of fixing a dystopian future by restoring something that used to be a great force for peace and cooperation is fairly common in sci-fi—from Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda to Filmation’s Ark II, from Mad Max and Logan’s Run to Star Wars and even Battlestar Galactica. So now it’s Star Trek‘s turn.

But at least it’s something…and it’s hopeful. Star Trek has always been about hope (except recently). So yeah, maybe tearing the Federation literally into pieces and then trying to put those pieces back together might be overcompensating in making the Discovery storyline more about hope, but for now at least, I’m paying my fare and getting on the bus…

…and hoping that I don’t feel the need to get off before the final stop.

21 thoughts on “Is STAR TREK: DISCOVERY overcompensating? (editorial review)”

  1. “I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, and now I want to even more…just maybe not the desolate part.”
    Well, good luck with that, Jonathan: the “desolate part” is about 99% of Iceland. Worth a visit though, it’s really breathtaking.
    And great review, I’m feeling a bit of the same: it felt like just too much was happening, and seeing how she was presented in the previous seasons, the reactions of Michael Burham felt kind of out of place. Waiting for the rest of the season to see if everything falls in place somehow…

    1. I actually have a friend in Iceland, Guðjón Sigmundsson, whom I’ve only met online. I’ve known him for 13 years, but I’d love to finally meet him and his brother Thomas in person. As for the desolation, it depends on the season, I suppose. I’ve been to Antartica, and it’s also mostly desolation. But it’s the most breathtaking desolation you will ever see when covered in snow and ice.

      I’ve read in reviews that episode two might not be to people’s liking…more a bunch of bungling comedy than we’ll probably be happy with…overcompensating again, perhaps? But I’m willing to give the series another few episodes beyond that to find its footing.

  2. I agree with everything you said.

    On the downside–again–they have problems with navigating the evenness and consistency of characters, plot inconsistencies, confused/inconsistent use of sci-fi tech, and have a knack for adding meaningless, extended, and predictable action sequences. And, I agree, the directing in this one was majorly over thought, overwrought, and–at times–cringingly self conscious.

    There’s way too much to point out here. Here were some major issues for me: 1) Is Book a self-centered, heartless smuggler or a kind conservationist with a rough exterior? As a writer, you need to decide this at the beginning and keep his character consistent throughout. You can watch the premier twice through and still not understand Books transformation from the beginning to the last 15 minutes of the show…; 2) ummm… if Book had his own personal transporter, why the extended walking sequence at the beginning of the story; 3) Did you really think that the bad guys wouldn’t be able to follow B&B to the ship; 4) the deux ex machina that saves B&B in the end wasn’t even hinted at previously, so it just seemed like a bad-writing/short-cut way to extricate our heroes. After after attempting to out-clever themselves with a transporter mediated chase scene, the writers clearly wrote themselves into a corner and took the easy way out; 5) The Starfleet outpost thing at the end was a bit much. How long was that guy waiting and why set up another goofy mystery for no real reason?; 6) when you see a drawn out scene and you are totally conscious that the character is having a ‘moment’ you know there is a problem with the directing. Sadly, I could go on.

    On the okay but puzzling side, they continue to heavily borrow from hackneyed science-fiction tropes, with a lot of emphasis on Star Wars and apocalyptic genres. How many times do we have to rework a Cantina scene at a rugged trading post in a Sci-Fi movie? Why the dystopian twist? Why does the Federation have to self-destruct, albeit not completely (after The Burn.. ummm… err.. Burnham… oh, yeah. That’s the ticket.) At least this time, however, they put it all into a more humanistic context.

    On the positive side, the episode wasn’t bad and was better than 90% of the last two seasons. They seem to have finally come around to having at least a clear plot in an episode. Let’s hope this carries on. Burnham was more consistent as a character this episode. I don’t know whether to credit the charisma of Book to David Ajala or the writers–at this point I’d say it’s 75:25 in Ajala’s favor. Kudos to Ajala who did a lot with what little was given to him. I like that the writers seem to be going in the direction of working with at least some higher ideals in mind and put hope (the hope of reassembling Star Fleet) at the center of the season. (Then again, they decided arbitrarily to apocolyptically dismantle it, but still…)

    I’m still more than a little concerned. The thing that killed the first two seasons for me was shoddy writing–poor plot, poor character development, ill conceived sciencefiction devices (e.g. micelial drive and the entire Red Angel/time travel thing), and a knack for contrived and misplaced comic relief. We got a taste of that with ‘drunk Burnham’ this episode and from the promo clips at the end, I worry, again, for Tilly this season.

    They do have a top notch cast–these guys have such incredible potential. I do hope, though, that they do not mess it up in the writers’ room. Loyal fan that I am, though, I’ll still be watching.

    1. I don’t think so. The two concepts sound very different. Bryan Fuller took the Federation into some dark places. Discovery essentially castrated it. Fuller’s proposal is cleaning up the mess. Discovery is putting the pieces back together. I wouldn’t equate the two.

    1. As Harlan Ellison once said, “Gene Roddenberry has just one story idea that he does over and over and over: The Enterprise meets God and God is a child.” Gene’s other series seemed to diverge from that…mostly. 🙂

  3. That last scene was… interesting. Mr. Sahil was not a commissioned officer, unlike his father, grandfather, etc. That and the hokey ‘only a commissioned officer can raise this flag’, gave me a very feudal dark ages vibe.

  4. I read the review and the comments on the review to help me decide whether to give Discovery a chance in season 3 since I skipped the first two.

    Right now, I’m thinking thumbs down based on the original trailer and the reviews, but if they really get their act together, I’ll use the spoilers as a intro to start watching mid-season.

    Also, there are so many Trek shows and rumors of shows that I am even more likely to wait for one or another of the new shows to see if it’s better. DS9 redux? Voyager, Part II? You should do a blog posting covering all the shows and rumors of shows because I’m mind-boggled right now.

    1. Well, the shows that are pretty much confirmed are the new kids cartoon on Nickelodeon with Kate Mulgrew, “Strange New Worlds” with Anson Mount as Pike, and maybe a Section 31 series still in the pipeline. Anything else isn’t wroth reporting on yet.

  5. It was an interesting opening episode to be sure, reminding me at times of of independently-made sci-fi short films on YouTube. It’s as if removing (almost) everything recognisably Trekky about it made this more interesting to watch. And I suppose if they’ve been flung off into the far future, then they’ll rarely have to worry about canon. At times it looked like they’d imported the equivalent of Imperial Stormtroopers, since none of the baddies could shoot for s**t.

    The Trekverse has recently had a high bar unexpectedly set by The Lower Decks, which visibly relished and cherished everything that had come before it. I’m therefore kinda dreading the arrival of the Disco and its oddball crew. I fear it will only be a matter of time before they all start brushing each other’s hair while pontificating about the social injustice of the universe. I know that Star Trek has always been socially relevant, but it also needs to be entertaining first.

  6. If they hadn’t screwed the pooch from the beginning by not sticking to cannon they wouldn’t have had to go 900 years into the future to start over. It sucked on day one. It still sucks three years later. I don’t see that changing.

    1. I hear you, Shane.

      Personally, I’m less concerned about canon than I am with story telling and internal consistency. I don’t care so much about whether they somehow reconcile the first two seasons of STD with previous ST series. It might require a lot of useless screen time with a lot of squirming and twisting to do it. Hardly seems worth it.

      First and foremost great ST needs great story telling. The STD writers seem so preoccupied with shocking the audience, special effects, overdone costuming/makeup, space battles, poor sci-fi ideas, and differentiating themselves with the past that they forget that great Trek really depended on strong stories and an idealism/optimism for the future. (If you are going to tell a story–yet again–in a parallel universe, at least make it original and keep the characters consistent. It is truly hard to do a great story about time travel paradoxes. So if you are going to do a whole season about this kind of thing, it takes a lot of brain strain to make sure that all the puzzle pieces fit together in the end. And you have to do the grunt work before you write the entire season or the paradoxes don’t end up fitting together in the end and the whole thing just falls flat….)

      Star Trek isn’t Star Wars: you don’t need fantastic space battles and futuristic chase scenes to drive things forward. But if you do this kind of thing, you need to fit it into a ST context. They didn’t have photo-realistic CGI in the ’60s, but we bought the primitive special effects because we were so vested in the story we gladly suspended our disbelief.

      Everyone is doing the sci-fi apocalypse these days–I guess the world is pretty much been turned upside down that it’s somehow vogue to make our sci-fi futures reflect our feeling of forboding. But remember: TOS was–if nothing else–an escape from the cold war and a glimmer of hope for a bright future. Subsequent series always carried this forward. Even DS9 with its darker tone always looked towards hope for humanity. At least this season, as Jonathan Lane has pointed out, the Federation may be decimated, but there is still hope that it might rise again.

      I guess we’ll see how things go. As I said before, at least the first episode this season was better than 90% of the episodes of the past two seasons.

      1. I hear ya. But great stories can’t be great if they don’t recognize and continue the established story points that went before. IE cannon. The established cannon is the foundation of story telling in a franchise with (now) 8 different series, 13 films, over 50 years of history, countless novels and comic books and I don’t know how many video games. STD’s writers chose to ignore all of that. Then they blamed fans who were upset by their disrespect of something we love. Their are fan films with shity acting, lousy effects and mediocre stories but they’re still than STD because they stick to cannon. To myself and a great many others STAR TREK is not just a TV show. Its a rare and precious gift of what humanity could be. STD’s characters are no different than us. They are not the wiser more enlightened version of humanity STAR TREK has always presented.

  7. Haven’t watched it yet (need to get Netflix again this side of the pond). Spoilers be damned, I read your write up (because I like reading them). I liked the idea of booting the story into the far future, well out of the range of canon, but it sounds like CBS can’t win. However, I take your point, they are 2 seasons in, it’s a little late to start finding your feet now. Still, it looks good.

    That said, I will never forgive them for the mycelial drive – not least because I don’t know how to spell it! 🙂

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