I finally broke down and started watching Discovery. And…it’s not great. There is a lot to pick apart, and a lot of…let’s call them unforced errors. And finally, it suffers from a serious flaw – the creators and showrunners think they are far more clever than they really are. It’s kind of annoying, because there are also some really excellent notes too.
To begin with, let’s look at the elephant in the room. Discovery has substantially higher tech levels than the Enterprise in the original series. And is set a mere 10 years before the original series. Which makes for a lot of disconnect. I look at it one of two ways – either this is the more realistic tech level, considering what has happened in the real world, and if the original series (ok, TOS from here out) had the ability, they would have done it this way. The other approach is that it’s another reality, where TOS never happened. I tend toward a hybrid of both. TOS happens, but also this is the tech level that would have been there had these concepts (and the practical ability to make them happen) been available in 1966.
The other elephant is the Klingons. I will get more into this later, especially the way that every show-runner since Roddenberry has made them less and less realistic.
So, let’s see what I though of this incarnation of the Trek franchise.
Discovery Has Issues
I don’t mean issues within the larger Trek continuity. I mean internal issues. Well, it has both, really, but mostly internal issues. Some of them can be chalked up to terminology issues and a seeming lack of familiarity with how military structures work. But there are more than just that – casting issues, continuity issues, Klingons, scripting, and more.
Let’s look at these one by one, starting with the overarching one – how does a military work. This is mostly about Tilly & Burnham, honestly.
Starfleet Personnel Issues
Tilly first. One of the main conceits of the show is that Discovery is a highly classified test ship, owing to the spore drive. Highly. Classified. So, let’s put a ‘cadet’ onboard? Honestly, I think the script does her a major disservice with that label. Tilly does not seem like a cadet – one who has not passed out of the academy – but more like a graduate who hasn’t chosen/been assigned a track yet. A Midshipman. By using that rank, you signify she is a qualified graduate of the academy, on a final assignment before locking into a specific track. I suspect that they didn’t use this our of a combination of two things – ignorance of the rank’s existence and meaning, and a knee-jerk rejection of the ‘man’ at the end. That’s stupid, but that’s how things are.
Anyway…Tilly’s presence on Discovery pre-war might be ok (and that is not something I would argue, but Starfleet isn’t real, so they can put their most junior officers wherever they want), but once the war kicks off, having someone that junior on board is weird. At the beginning, she isn’t the spore expert she becomes, so her position is not as important. The presence of a cadet on the most highly classified ship in the fleet strains suspension of disbelief. It’s an internal problem with the show, one that would have been rectified by making her more of a spore expert right off the bat, or even just making her Ensign once the war kicks off.
Burnham is another problem. Again, she is a convicted mutineer on the most classified ship in the fleet. I’ll let that sit for a moment. And remember, there was literally no ‘Caine Mutiny’ type of instigation, she just disagreed with the CO. Oh, and helped start a war, getting that CO killed in the process. So yes, let’s by all means put her on the Discovery. And more, make her a bridge officer…er, enlisted. Specialist is an odd rank choice, but it fits. That said, I get using her, I suppose I could even accept having her stationed on the ship. It just seems off to me to place a mutineer on the bridge, where she could literally do the most damage. This is compounded by the revelation that Lorca is from the annoying mirror universe, and as such would have less tolerance for mutiny than a Federation officer might. And yes, that takes his relationship with mirror-Burnham and their rebellion into account. He knows this isn’t her, and that she wasn’t rebelling against the Emperor, but against her captain.
These two examples are perfect examples of ‘demands of the script’, where internal continuity and suspension of audience disbelief takes a back seat to the writer’s plot. Sometimes it works better than this, here the disconnect, for me, is greater.
I want to be very clear here. This is a complaint about the writing and how the characters are being used in the world Discovery inhabits. This is not some version of ‘toxic fandom‘, both actors are very good at what they do. The writers, on the other hand…
I have to say, I love the cast. I really do. I already liked Doug Jones, Jason Issac, and Michelle Yeoh. So, make no mistake, this is not at all about who is in the cast, or anything else. This is all about Shazad Latif being cast as both Voq and Ash Tyler. Make no mistake, he is amazing as both characters. The problem is that it is explained, more than once, that the process to make Voq into a copy of Tyler involved not only removing organs, but shortening his bones. What they failed to show was Voq being of a different height than Tyler. Oops. And when Tyler fights Voq in the mirror universe, they are the same height and build. In fact, I don’t recall there being any height differences between humans and Klingons that can’t be chalked up to different actor heights.
There is no consistently taller Klingon appearance. This meshes with the other Klingon appearances in the series. Fixing this wouldn’t have required much – actors have been walking on lifts, boxes, or in trenches to hide height differences for decades. No expensive CGI needed.
I won’t be looking at the tech levels – as I covered above, I am working on the assumption that this is just another reality (or set thereof), and that this is the tech that TOS would have used had it been available or affordable in the 60s. I am, however, looking at internal continuity issues.
And that means ‘spore drive’.
By explicitly having Discovery set in the same universe as TOS, we encounter a tremendous problem. In the intervening decade between the beginning of Discovery and the first TOS episode, spore drives seem to have vanished. And never been mentioned again, in any Star Trek series or movie. Which, in the real world, of course is because it hasn’t been written yet. But in-universe, the problem is that the spore drive would have been of absolutely supreme strategic and tactical importance later in the Trek canon. Think about the Borg, the Dominion, and so on. Likewise, the algorithm developed on Discovery to break the Klingon cloak would have changed the outcome of every Federation / Klingon encounter in the canon. Just based on season 1, Discovery has managed to introduce a revolutionary technology set, and simultaneously establish that it gets dropped totally within a decade. An explainer from the show that this is a decade before TOS would have happened, but not in that exact timeline, would avoid this.
The second main internal continuity error is the nature of the human-spore drive interface. Once the super-macro tardigrade leaves, Lieutenant Commander Stamets sets himself up as the interface. The show makes it abundantly clear that the only requirement was that the interface be sentient, and willing. And injected with tardigrade DNA. Which is totally fine, but then it becomes all Stamets all the time. Nothing in the show indicates that he is special in some way – and in fact the dialogue makes it clear that in this regard he is not special. Which means that the later degradation he experiences due to overuse as the co-pilot is completely unnecessary and wholly avoidable. Rather than develop a corps of spore interfaces, Discovery just works Stamets nearly to death, placing the ship in needless danger. This is much more a mirror universe approach than a Federation approach.
Thirdly, there is a staggering lack of development in Earth space. No starbases, no construction yards, no defense bases, nothing at all. I am not sure why. It is possible that there is a coming construction boom due to the way the war with the Klingons happened, but at least in season one, that isn’t clearly stated.
Basically, Discovery exists in a prequel space that contradicts the existing canon, and that really wasn’t necessary.
Oh, Klingons. What happened here? First, they changed the appearance yet again. Which is rather annoying. I accepted the changes from TOS to the movies / Next Generation as making the aliens alien. Purists claim that TOS’ look was due to Roddenberry demanding that you could recognize the actors. I doubt that, preferring to think that it is far more likely they didn’t have the technology or budget to do anything different. So, this isn’t related to the original change in Klingon costuming. The changes here are deeper, and make them internally flawed, and so deeply flawed that they cease being realistic.
First, I understand some of the changes. Next Generation made a lot of the duplication in Klingon anatomy. So the doubled nostrils and so on make sense. Sort of. I mean, I guess. It looks like crap, and just doesn’t seem to be how a duplicated air intake would work – since it’s in the same place, thus not offering any evolutionary advantage. The other issue, the baldness, feels much more like an attempt to make them more alien, without any real thought behind it. The post-facto exposition (Klingons shave hair in war) falls flat too. The whole appearance feels calculated to just make them weirder, and serves no other purpose.
Where the Klingons fail the most is their culture. They took a scheming Soviet Union analog, that Next Generation turned into a poorly translated Bushido culture, and made them less viable as a society than the Terran Federation. Ok, so the Next Generation (TNG) Klingons are honor-driven, and internally cohesive, but touchy about it. So, you have a society on the edge of dissolution. The houses seem like, in TNG, a historic holdover – it matters when it matters, otherwise it doesn’t impact daily life.
Discovery changed that to a total mess. In this, the Klingon houses are far more fractious, and at each other’s throats as the rule. Voq and L’Rell do hint at a formerly unified Empire, but that isn’t shown. What I saw was a Klingon race that is basically in a long-running succession war. Not really a civil war, but more like the Warring Kingdoms period of Chinese history. To me, it also felt like there was unification under Kahless, which ended with his death. If the Discovery Klingons are any indication, the race has been at near-war amongst themselves since. Based on previous entries in the canon, Kahless dies some 800 years before they developed warp drive.
While war does spur development, there needs to be stability to build on that development. I just feel that the Klingons show in Discovery are not the kind of species that can reach warp, and should have torn themselves apart long before the series.
Finally, and this also goes to the above ‘internally unrealistic’ point, is the conversion of Voq to Tyler. I first thought it was torture, but then saw the bit I’d glossed over, where L’Rell’s house had done it to redeem Voq’s failures. So, not torture. But, apparently, done while Voq was fully conscious. What the actual fuck is that about? Why would this process require him to be awake, and more, how would that not impede the whole conversion?
It all adds up to Klingons being broken by scriptwriters who don’t understand the importance of things that exist at the periphery.
Mirror Universe / Terran Empire
If the Discovery Klingons are bad, the Terran Empire is just worse. I refer to this as the Drow problem. In R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels, the Drow (dark elves) live in a culture of terror, assassination, betrayal, and murder. This is to align them with their chaotic evil alignment. Where this fails is that it isn’t a sustainable culture. Cultures require a layer of stability. The Drow, and the Terran Empire, don’t have this.
What we have been shown of the Empire in Discovery is a culture than can’t actually work. When you advance by assassination, torture those who disagree, and are comfortable killing off your entire council of nobles, you have a problem. Let’s look at it like this…you are good at a task, say being a starship engineer. To attain rank, you had to kill the person above you. But now what? Competent underlings will try to kill you, so why have them? Incompetent underlings will break the ship, so you can’t have them either. So you settle for competent but not too competent underlings, and spend all your time waiting for someone to try to kill you.
This destroys the concepts of institutional knowledge, and promotes the concept of not allowing skilled people to develop. Once again, you find your society unable to progress. Savagery like the Terran Empire shows works for a time, but is not sustainable. History shows us that again and again.
On a more personal note, I have decided that using the mirror universe like Discovery did is a crutch. It is fan service – which isn’t always bad – but is a symptom of deeper problems. Discovery had to take the titular ship out of the fight. Using the mirror universe as a way to remove Discovery was weak. More on that below.
So, the Terran Empire is internally implausible, designed to fail – especially at scale – and generally poorly written and conceived.
Pulling The Issues With Discovery Together
Discovery, like Superman, is too much. The ship’s spore drive enables this one ship to strike the enemy and literally vanish. This isn’t something that the Klingons can counter. Discovery is literally able to be everywhere, and nowhere. Keeping the show from being the adventures of the indestructible super-ship required removing either their ability to be anywhere, or removing the ship entirely. They chose both. Sadly, this wasn’t needed. Better conceptualization would have allowed a highly advanced ship to be there, but not to be so vastly overpowered.
Discovery also brings a savagery that is wholly needless in the Klingon and Terran Empire customs of eating sentient beings. This is, technically, not cannibalism of course, but brings the same distaste to the show. What is far more disturbing is the absolute lack of reaction to these developments. When the revelation that Klingons ate Georgiou, her protege shows no reaction at all. None. Far worse, when mirror universe Georgiou reveals that she and Burnham ate Kelpiens, Kelpien XO Saru shows no reaction, and in fact that doesn’t seem to impact his relationship with Burnham. This indicates that there is an acceptance of sentientivore activity in the Federation. I read this as cultural relativism taken to the logical, and reprehensible, extreme. This is a Federation that presents a disturbing amorality. And beings that seem to be ok with their species being food.
But It Isn’t All Bad
I liked large parts of the show. Not enough to counter the above issues, obviously. I like the characters a lot, and the actors are excellent. Discovery has a lot of things going for it in that department. The development of the characters, absent the issues above, was also excellent Tilly especially showed a lot of development in this season. Despite my distaste about the mirror universe, their use of Tilly as the cruel captain of their Discovery was instrumental in that development.
One weak point was Tyler – while not knowing how, he was too easily spotted as a plant. Other than that, which was all but totally unexplored, Tyler was well written and well acted.
Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd was odd. I always remember Mudd from TOS as a charming rogue, someone fun at a party, but not to be trusted. While Wilson is excellent, this Mudd is, like so much, more savage than expected. He runs counter to TOS Mudd, and that isn’t fun. However, Rainn Wilson plays the hell out of the character, and rises above the inexplicable changes from the scriptwriters. I was never a fan of The Office, but Rainn Wilson has been amazing in everything else I have seen, Discovery is no exception.
Star Trek Discovery season one was an interesting watch. It is very stark in the dichotomy between excellent characters and actors and weirdly incompetent plotting and themes. I’ll see what happens in season two, and be back with more.
One final thought though, and this is kind of a symptom of the whole thing. In the Trek fandom, everything is abbreviated – The Original Series is ST:TOS, Next Generation is ST:TNG, Deep Space Nine is ST:DS9, and so on. Which makes Discovery ST:D. Sigh.