Bad Writing and 'Battlestar Federation': The Disappointment of 'Star Trek: Discovery'
Star Trek: Discovery is a mixed bag that I had a number of issues with. None of these issues are the sort of pedantic quibbles of Klingons not looking like that, or griping that Klingons didn’t get the cloaking device until it was given to them by the Romulans many years later than depicted in this timeline, or of bitching that despite being earlier than previous entries of the television universe, these ships seem to have better technology like magic hull-sealing shields and the like.
Look, we may be scathing and bitchy nerds on this site, but that doesn’t mean we’re whingeing dweebs, alright?
No, the problem with Discovery is two-fold: bad writing and an atrocious choice of show direction.
The following has spoilers ahoy, so depart if you care.
The show starts brilliantly, I’ll give it that, the characterization of Michelle Yeoh’s captain and Sonequa Martin’s first officer are spectacular. Yeoh’s light humor overlaying a core of sadness is an acting clinic in and of itself. And Martin’s protagonist is a fantastic and layered character, a human raised by Vulcans, orphaned by a Klingon massacre.
And then the plot oddities start hitting one after another, slowly souring me until I was just waiting for the second hour to finish running out.
First, we have the eponymous “Vulcan’s Hello,” that is quite lovely once explained: that the Vulcans established relations with the Klingons by realizing that the only way to be respected was to open fire first every single time they ran into each other. Except that the Vulcans kept this a secret, never told the Federation, and two hundred years later they only find about it through an impossible secret mind meld? The levels of sense this makes is somewhere between burrito and pumpernickel. So much for history books in the future. And yet they could have kept all of this basically intact if they’d just made it public knowledge and had the Captain’s sad but determined response be “I know the logical thing to do is to fire first, but we are the Federation and we do not fire first.” There, done, basic plot intact but now it has some goddamned pathos to it.
Second, we have the cliché junior officer learning secret impossible information, demanding everyone listen to them based on yelling “trust me” over and over again, culminating in committing mutiny. I’m sorry that your captain finds “but I received an interplanetary hallucination from my adopted dad telling me to attack that ship over there” a less than convincing reason to start a freaking war. I have a pathological inability to respect authority and yet this sequence of events that pops up with disturbing regularity in some form or another makes me hate the character involved and wish they’d follow orders like a good soldier. I may or may not start muttering about snowflakes under my breath, and that’s not something I like to do.
Third, so the Klingon dude (let’s call him T’Maga) has this elaborate plan that basically involves lighting an old Klingon sacred signal flare and getting the heads of the clans to show up. His plan is to yell at them “we should unify because Klingon” and then when they respond “we fight because we’re Klingon, what else you got?” he … well nothing. He has no plan. He has no dramatic speech. They just sort of fight the Federation because they’re there, so might as well, guess we’re unified now, meats on the menu again boys, cheerio. In a universe of searing speeches sometimes literally cribbed from Shakespeare, this is just a let down. Just make it a plausible Klingon “this is OUR Independence Day” and we’ll be generous with our suspension of disbelief, but you have got to give us something. Pretending nuanced political stuff is happening and just having nothing there is about the worst way you could possibly write something like this.
Fourth, so now with the ship disabled, the battle lost, and the Captain preparing to suicide run a torpedo over via space scuba gear, the mutineer has switched tracks to an entirely new line of completely unsupported supposition presented with the compelling rationale of yelling “just truuuuust me”. That plan: we should disable the ship and then beam over and capture T’Maga because making him a martyr guarantees a war. What is the basis of this line of reasoning? Nothing. But they do that, and naturally on a ship the size of an aircraft carrier he’s the second guy they run into. Aaaaand despite the entire purpose of this plan being to capture him, and it being her plan, Lieutenant Mutineer murders him right in the back. It’s really too bad phasers don’t have a stun setting, huh?
Finally, and this is where I regress back to the poetical having spent the last few paragraphs getting more and more irately snarky, it’s most upsetting because so much of this show teeters on the edge of greatness. Not just because fixing up all this aforementioned bad writing would have made the show better, but because it teased us with being so very much the Star Trek we grew up with before switching over to World War Klingon.
The disappointment is accentuated by a first half hour that made me fall in love with this show, with the sense of wonder and, ahem, discovery. Of scientists and adventurers boldly exploring the universe and seeing it for its majesty and gargantuan size. Of staring at the unknown with a gleam in your eye. Of the sort of spirit that drives us to stare at the stars and claw to reach them. Of the souls who set out for distant shores. Of thinking deeply of the future and quickly to survive the present.
And instead we end up with a show that’s yet another entry into the catalog of gritty space war dramas. There’s a place for those, don’t get me wrong. Lord knows I love my Battlestar Galactica and the dozen offspring that have filled out that subgenre. But it’s not what made Star Trek great and different. This is a show that taught us to dream, taught us to explore what made us human. Star Trek in many ways is a genre of one, because what made it great is something that’s rarely even imitated, let alone successfully so. The first half hour of the pilot gave us back Star Trek at its greatest, but the last hour and a half and the preview of the season to come gave us Battlestar Federation.
That’s a tragic failure of vision, has nothing to do with fan pedantry, and isn’t fixable as merely bad writing.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.