Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Season Three!
I am an enormous Star Trek fan. Of all the many stories and franchises that I love (in movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books), I don’t think there is any that I love more than Star Trek. And yet, as a Trek fan, I have been suffering for many years, waiting for good new Star Trek to arrive. I love The Original Series, and I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Starting with season three of TNG (which still stands as one of the greatest seasons of Trek ever made), I was spoiled by regular new Trek that just got better and better, through the seven seasons of TNG and then the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine (which still stands as my very favorite of all the Trek series.) I expected Trek to continue to get greater, and yet, after the finale of DS9 in May 1999, I have repeatedly been disappointed. The final two TNG movies (Insurrection and Nemesis) disappointed. The next two spin-off shows, Voyager and Enterprise, both disappointed. (Although Enterprise did finally find its legs in the middle of season three. The end of season three, followed by season four, were terrific, the best Trek in years. Sadly the show was cancelled at the end of season four.) The true successor to DS9 was Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which built upon DS9 in almost every way. The three J.J. Abrams Trek movies disappointed. (The first one is enjoyable, but it gets a lot wrong and is full of lazy plot-holes and contrivances that drive me nuts. Star Trek Into Darkness is an abomination before the Lord, and Star Trek Beyond is forgettable.) I was excited for the potential of Trek’s long-awaited return to TV, but the first season of Discovery was terrible and the second season wasn’t much better. Picard started strong but tumbled into ridiculousness. The animated comedy Lower Decks has been a sole bright light (I found it mostly delightful), but that’s not really what I’m looking for in Trek. I went into Discovery season three with very low expectations, but also, as always, hope in my heart that maybe the show had course-corrected.
Well, I’ll say this: I didn’t hate it!
That represents a huge improvement over Discovery seasons one and two… though this series is so far below the quality of almost any Trek series from the Original Series through to Enterprise that it’s sort of hard to believe… and in fact I really don’t consider this to be Star Trek at all.
What’s good in Discovery: season three? Well, at the end of season two, the series jumped into the far future, far beyond any previous Trek. I’d been saying since the start of the show that they should have set the show further in Trek’s future, because the makers of the show couldn’t be bothered to pay one whit of attention to Star Trek continuity, be that narrative or visual. And, lo and behold, that was a hugely positive change! Without the weight of nearly every scene pissing me off for being completely wrong for the decade before the Original Series, I was able to better enjoy the show for what it was, rather than being ceaselessly angered by what it wasn’t. The show had fun exploring this brand-new future setting, with (mostly) new planets and situations, and I (mostly) enjoyed these adventures in this new, far-flung future.
As have all of the modern Trek shows, Discovery looks beautiful. For decades, Star Trek on TV was produced on incredibly tight budgets, and so I continue to delight at getting to see Star Trek on TV realized in a big-budget way. Each episode contains movie-quality visual effects. This season featured some gorgeous location work that, combined with the terrific CGI effects, beautifully realized a variety of new sci-fi planets and environments. It’s fun to see Trek realized on such an expansive scale.
The tone of Discovery has been all over the place, but here in season three I thought they were able to better center their stories on the type of optimistic futurism that Star Trek should be all about. Season three of Discovery depicted a galaxy that wasn’t a happy place, but our main characters were the types of heroic Starfleet officers that I’d been missing in the show’s first two seasons (except for Captain Pike in season two). (For the most part. Stamets’ selfish, babyish behavior in the final two episodes was embarrassing; conduct unbecoming a Starfleet officer.)
Although for the third year in a row, I thought the series’ over-all season-long story arc was a big dud (more on that below), I appreciated that, for the most part, each individual episode was able to be a satisfying story on its own — even the many episodes in the second-half of the season that ended in a cliffhanger. This was a major weakness of the show in seasons one and two — that the episodes just blended together — and I liked this return to a more classic Trek approach in which each episode was able to tell what felt like a complete, satisfying story. And while the over-all season-long story arc of the Burn didn’t work at all, for the most part I was pleasantly surprised at the degree that I was sort of enjoying many of the individual episodes, when considered on their own.
The first two seasons focused on Michael Burnham, and also on Saru, developing those two into fully-realized characters. Tilly also got some attention, as did Stamets. However, pretty much every other Discovery character was ignored, remaining flat nobodies. There’s no question that here in season three the writers tried to remedy that and to develop the supporting characters. They mostly failed (more on that below), but I did notice and appreciate the effort. I liked the story of Detmer’s PTSD. I also liked seeing the emphasis on the Discovery crew as a family unit, something that’s been a staple of previous Trek shows but was almost completely absent from seasons one and two. Here too, this felt like an attempt to return to a tone that felt more “right” for Star Trek. Also, I was happy that Discovery, from the start, depicted two gay characters, and I was pleased to see a non-binary new character, Adira, introduced this year. It was also great to see that their boyfriend, Gray, was played by a transgender actor. (Though unfortunately, sigh, I didn’t think the show did a good job servicing either Adira or Gray. More below.)
I particularly loved the new character of Book, played by David Ajala. He was a fun, charismatic, compelling new character. It’s fun to see a real love interest for Michael… and even better to finally see a character on the show who seems to be her equal! (Though the writers lose points for giving him the same name as a character from Firefly. Couldn’t we have thought up something more original?) (Also: when I first glimpsed Book in the previews for Discovery season 3, I thought perhaps he might have been the character of Craft, from the Short Trek “Calypso.” I was excited to think that Discovery might connect with “Calypso” (a fun Trek short by Michael Chabon) in some way this season! It didn’t wind up happening — I hope we do get there at some point in a future season.)
So… what didn’t work?
As I’d noted above, the season-long story — of the mysterious “Burn” that had wreaked havoc upon the Federation of the future, destroying dilithium and so making warp travel between planets nearly impossible — was a huge flop. I wasn’t much interested in this mystery right from when it was first introduced. I was OK with the set-up of the Burn as an explanation for why the future Federation had crumbled, and fallen backwards technologically. But when they kept coming back to Michael’s obsession with finding the cause of the Burn, I immediately got annoyed. I was (for the most part) quite enjoying the episodes in the early going, and I wanted the show to allow those episodes to stand on their own, to focus on giving us new adventures in this new future era, rather than trying to sustain a new season-long mystery. Had that season-long story built to a satisfying payoff, I’d have been OK with it. But the opposite happened — the resolution of the story of the Burn was a huge disappointment for me; the low-point of the season; and the failure of that story wound up dragging the entire season down for me. I strongly disliked the ridiculous explanation we got that, basically, an angry child caused this galaxy-wide devastation. It seemed a lame, inconsequential explanation for such a galaxy-shattering event. I did not find Su’Kal to be remotely interesting or compelling. And the explanation made zero, and I mean zero, actual sense. This is made up fantasy gobbledygook, not the type of science fiction with an actual core of science fact within the fiction upon which Star Trek should be based. As usual, the Discovery creators couldn’t even be bothered to follow through on what they themselves had set up. (I’m still sore about how season two set up a premise of the seven signals appearing across the galaxy, and then immediately contradicted that by having new signals appear throughout the season, even though at the end of the season they still referred to their being only seven signals… and also how they never explained how those signals would appear, instantaneously, at the incomprehensibly vast distances separating the different parts of the galaxy.) We had exactly the same problem here. When Su’Kal almost causes another Burn at the end of the season because of another one of his mental melt-downs, we see a visual effect of a shock-wave whooshing out across the planet, shaking the rocks and disrupting the atmosphere. But the set-up was that the Burn disrupted ALL dilithium across the ENTIRE galaxy nearly INSTANTANEOUSLY!! (The variance they’d later detect was merely a fraction of a second.) Not only does the “revelation” of Su’Kal’s involvement not actually provide any sort of explanation for how all dilithium across the entire known galaxy could be disrupted, but the visual effect shows the exact OPPOSITE of a galaxy-wide simultaneous event. And so, the failure of the whole Burn storyline winds up bringing down the entire season for me. There were actually a number of episodes that I quite enjoyed this year — the first time I can really say that about Discovery! And yet, because the whole thing ended in such a weak anticlimax (I think the season finale was the worst episode of the season), it makes be feel very “bleh” about the season, and it sours the earlier episodes that I’d enjoyed.
I’ve also long-since grown tired of the way the show has to make EVERYTHING be about Michael Burnham, and how Michael has to ALWAYS be right and everyone else wrong. Look, I like the character of Michael Burnham! And Sonequa Martin-Green is a terrific actress, one of the best to ever appear in a Trek series! I am OK with Michael’s being the hero, just as Captain Kirk and other Trek leaders have been in the past. But by making Michael superhumanly infallible — and by giving the character a BIG DRAMATIC MOMENT that reduces her and others to tears in pretty much EVERY SINGLE episode — the show is undermining this character, not helping her. Because it just gets silly after a while. Even when they try to make Michael fail (such as when she gets dressed down by Sara and then Admiral Vance), things played out in such a way that we the viewer knew that Michael had actually been right and had saved the day, once again. (This has been a problem with the series since the very beginning; Michael’s mutiny against Georgiou was sort of validated by the fact that the Klingons WERE intending to start a fight with the Federation.) I don’t love the idea that no one in the entire galaxy has been able to solve the mystery of the Burn in the CENTURY since it happened — and yet, Michael comes in and solves in after just a few adventures. That just feels silly to me.
While I was happy to see the show set in the far future, and I enjoyed the visual depiction of the new planets, ships, space-stations, etc., I was also often let down but what felt to me like a failure of imagination on the part of the writers and designers. This season of Star Trek was set a MILLENNIA in the future. That’s a mind-bogglingly long time in the future. And yet, the depiction of life and technology seemed only a smidge more advanced than what we’d already seen on Star Trek (and in particular on previous seasons of Discovery, which already visually looked far more advanced than even the TNG era, which was supposed to take place a century after Discovery seasons one and two). OK, starships now have detachable nacelles; the computer interfaces are all 3-D holos; people have personal transporters. Those were cool. But pretty much everything else looked and felt pretty similar to what we’d seen before. Even with the explanation that the Burn had completely disrupted Federation society, I feel like we should have seen a far more adventurous, different depiction of this future era. I understand the limitations of what can actually be accomplished on a TV budget (even one as vast as that of Discovery), but still, I’d have loved to have seen more. Also, the show repeatedly seems to forget that the U.S.S. Discovery would have been an out-of-date relic even in the TNG era. So how could the ship stand up for one second to an attack by any other starship in this future era? How could characters like Adira and Book know to use Discovery’s technology without a second thought? (If I was zapped into the year 1,000, I’d bet I’d be completely flummoxed!!)
This show just doesn’t do sci-fi very well, which is a crazy thing to think about a Star Trek show. But that’s how I feel. The Original Star Trek still stands up today because it was created by a group of men and women who were futurists, who thought long and hard about what this utopian 23rd century future might have looked like. They didn’t just make things up with no rhyme for reason. They thought about how the Enterprise worked, and why it worked. Yes, of course things like “dilithium crystals” were made up. But there was a foundation of science and thoughtful speculation that underlined everything. By contrast, let’s discuss the way Discovery insists on depicting an enormous, vast chasm of empty space within the starship Discovery, through which its turbolifts travel. There was one visual effects shot back in season two that depicted this, and it made my head explode. Instead of correcting that, this season Discovery doubled down on that idea, and we got an entire action sequence in the season finale set in this huge empty turbolift space. This boggles my mind!! How could such a fast, seemingly endless space possibly exist inside the starship Discovery?!! It can’t!! It’s lunacy!! And it explodes any type of plausible reality for the show. It’s just magic, just there because someone thought it looked cool. It represents, in my mind, a complete failure at all levels by the production team of the show. I don’t believe that anyone making this show knows anything about Star Trek, or about science or science-fiction in general. It makes me crazy.
They don’t seem to know much about drama or character development, either! I’d mentioned above that I was happy to see the show try to devote more attention to the supporting characters, and I was. And yet, at the end of the season, what did we actually learn about any of them? Heck, I’ve watched three seasons of the show and I still don’t know many of these characters’ names!! I know the names of Detmer and Owo now… but I couldn’t tell you the name of the black guy, the Asian guy, or the blonde woman on the team. (And what was with the brunette woman who mysteriously appeared as a member of the bridge crew for the final three episodes. Were we supposed to think she was always there, like Nicky and Paulo from Lost?) And while I liked Detmer’s PTSD arc, it ultimately fizzled. We got a few scenes of her looking stressed on the bridge, but we didn’t actually get to explore her character, or to see her and others really wrestle with the psychological effects of abandoning everyone they’d ever known, forever, by jumping 1,000 years into the future. I now know a few more tidbits about Owo (like that she can hold her breath for a long time), but I don’t really have a sense of who she is as a person. We don’t know anything about what she thinks, what she likes/dislikes, etc. Compare this with the Original Series. That was never intended to be an ensemble in the way later Trek shows were — that show had the stars (Kirk, Spock, McCoy), and everyone else was a supporting character. But the show immediately and indelibly established Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. Were they throughly fleshed out in the way a good modern TV drama would develop its characters? No! But I sure as heck knew their names — and I also knew a lot about them, and we got to see how they were DIFFERENT from one another. Sulu and Chekov would respond differently from one another, as would Scotty, as would Uhura. They weren’t just carbon copies delivering technobabble.
Star Trek has always had a sort of classic, timeless approach to the dialogue. Discovery, by contrast, has always tried to be much more current. (Picard did, too — see: the cursing Admiral.) This has never sat well with me. When Adira calls Stamets “the bomb”, I groaned. That lingo is already a few years out of date — and it’s insane to think a kid 1,000 years in the future would use that phrase. It undermines the show, in my opinion.
Similarly, while I love that the show’s casting has continued Star Trek’s proud history of pushing the boundaries of diversity, I think the show stumbles when it tries to be too on the nose with its agenda. This whole seasons boils down to Dr. Culber telling the transgender kid Gray (a character who only Adira can see, and who was briefly given form by Su’Kal’s hologram, but is about to vanish again) that he is “seen”. That’s such a 2020 turn of phase, that I groaned hearing it out of the mouths of one of our futuristic heroes. I love the idea of taking the idea of truly “seeing” someone for who they are and making it a centerpiece of a Star Trek story. There’s an interesting idea there! But having a character straight out say that felt 1) extremely anticlimactic, as this entire season’s story came down to that one idea spelled out for the audience, and 2) kept the show far too grounded in this specific time and place. Star Trek should be better than this; more sophisticated; more nuanced.
So even while I enjoyed certain moments and episodes in Star Trek: Discovery season three far more than anything in the previous two seasons, I still wouldn’t consider this good Star Trek. Heck, it’s hardly a good TV show of any kind. The show still doesn’t do nuanced character work very well, and it still doesn’t do sci-fi ideas very well. So that doesn’t leave much, does it?
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