Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 – Boldly Going Nowhere

Who else could be front and centre? (CBS Television Studios)

***Minor Spoilers Ahead for Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery***

For my sins I’m not a fan of the original series, and whilst enjoying The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 it would be inappropriate to call myself a Trekkie, out of respect to those who derive far more enjoyment from the shows than I.

However the Star Trek franchise does hold a special place in the hearts and minds of viewers, myself included. Like Doctor Who it’s a universe that has spanned decades, re-inventing itself continuously and picking up fans along the way. Despite a historically “geeky” sci-fi genre the recurrent message is hard to argue with; open minds, broadening understanding and moving forward.

The great irony of Trek, like many IPs that sit in the pantheon of legendary cinema or television, is that it suffers from one inescapable flaw. A lot of it isn’t very good. There are 10 derivations of Star Trek, either in continuity or remakes, which add up to nearly 800 episode or films. Even the most ardent Trekkies will tell you that TNG doesn’t really hit it’s stride until Season 2, or for every amazing TOS episode there was one really weird one.

So where does Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 fit in the myriad of Trek properties?

Starfleet’s Best and Brightest

There have been some beautiful scenes in Discovery (CBS Television Studios)

It’s undeniable that as far as appearances go, Discovery continues to be head and shoulders above anything else we’ve seen in the Trek outside the blockbuster films. Production value is something earlier series suffered with, and whilst at the time a man painted green with a waste-paper basket on his head was a terrifying alien, looking back the word “quaint” mercifully jumps out in lieu of something harsher. Discovery suffers no such issue, hopping from intricate, well made set to interesting and diverse landscapes from episode to episode, with top notch CGI interspersed. CBS are estimated to have spent $8M an episode and you can really see that money on the screen.

The Plot of Season 3 started well, despite fizzling out towards the end. It followed on from Season 2 which was a robust if not a fairly paint-by-numbers [insert Borg surrogate] season, and Season 1 valiantly attempting a re-work of the Klingon war, which didn’t quite hit the chord. You can’t complain about the ambition of Discovery, but often it falls short of these goals, becoming a touch convoluted or dragged down by some odd writing choices. What happens around the main plot isn’t bad though, and the world building is one of the stronger points of the show, which is always pushing towards something new in the Trek universe.

We will come onto this in greater detail, but the representation on display in Discovery continues to be commendable and progressive. TOS gave us the first interracial kiss on television between Kirk and Uhura, and Discovery takes great leaps in representing sex, gender and race on screen. Through the immutable Star Trek spirit, the show illustrates how these differences are immaterial in achieving our common goals. Whatever one may feel about the execution, the message is an undeniably positive one.

Here is where the unburdened praise of Season 3 stops. A polished show with somewhat interesting story arcs that hold your attention for a while, with themes of harmony in keeping with the Star Trek ethos. You would be forgiven for thinking; what’s not to like?

As somewhat who has watched every episode of Discovery I can tell you. The watching is what not to like.

Flattering to Deceive

Critics vs Audience, a growing discrepancy as Critics play it safe and Audiences tell you what they really feel (Rotten Tomatoes)

The biggest issue with Discovery is not one it bears alone, but a growing destructive force in movie and TV land which is eroding the quality of properties left right and centre. It is a theme which is spreading through society, cultivated by an online world that cares only for the instant, single emotion that the viewer, reader or scroller receives as they initially engage with content.

To this end, Discovery’s biggest issue is that it is overwhelmingly superficial. A box ticking exercise in the mundane that any avocado-on-toast-munching millennial blogger will rate highly as a “brave new direction for the series” before even making it to the second episode. As an avocado-on-toast-munching millennial blogger myself, it’s undeniable that the show looks good, and yes it does the basics a big budget streaming show should be doing in 2020 but to what end?

Behind the glossy sheen there is nothing of substance. Sure I can rate Mars as the best planet ever from my telescope, but when forced to endure a harsh and inhospitable surface the experience is suddenly less appealing. This best describes my watching experience of Season 3, a battle against expectations as I try to remind myself of the promise it showed early on, grinding through episode after episode hoping that over the next jagged cliff would be an oasis, only to find another abhorrent tundra.

There is no one reason I feel this way, as it stems from failings in multiple areas; disciplines that are increasingly left by the wayside as clicks, views and Metacritic scores become more important than making a decent, watchable show.

Writing Discovery

Who knew there was a “worst prosthetics” and “most forgettable baddie” vendiagram (CBS Television Studios)

If you’ve ever tried creative writing you will know that it is hard. Mistakenly people think that creativity is the hard part, the ability to sketch out a plot, the twists and turns and a satisfactory ending that leaves people happy. But the hard part isn’t the idea, it’s actually delivering it. Anyone can have a great idea, whether it be for a television show, politics or a device for de-skinning onions.

Discovery has the ideas. Even the third season started with a brilliant premise. A future universe with limited warp capability – something never done before in Trek which asks a new question: what happens in an interstellar universe where the ability to travel great distances is bartered and rationed? It even started to answer that question with an intriguing opening episode, before the show, its plot and the writing slowed right down to impulse speed.

It’s been a recurring theme with Discovery, which abandons the episodic formula common in older Trek for a season by season arc. The problem with basing your over 10 hours show on a singular plot is that you have a lot of time to fill. A three and a half hour film will usually contain some dry spells, a few unnecessary scenes or at worst an entire subplot that doesn’t need to be there. Season 3 of Discovery contains all of the above, and a lot of it.

Which I wouldn’t mind, if the characters were likeable (more on that later) or if the writing was any good. After all, TNG could go 3 or 4 episodes barely acknowledging the Borg, as did DS9 in its war with the Founders. However where these series gave us interesting dynamics, character development, new planets and cultures to learn about. Discovery does none of these things.

Instead we get caught up in soap quality drama at every turn, with one dimensional characters dumping their feelings on the viewer like it’s going out of fashion. It comes across weird in Trek, and though Discovery is perhaps a little more “touchy feely” than other Trek, Season 3 ramps the hammy relationship talk and character insecurities a notch too far for me.

On the other hand, one of the few genuinely interesting emotional dynamics, the effect of the time travel and leaving their loved ones behind, is not nearly played out enough. After a few episodes of characters experiencing PTSD, they appear to get over it after a couple pep-talks and some team bonding. Good for them, but where is that genuinely traumatic process of coming to terms with never seeing your family or friends again? When it suits the show trauma is brought into focus, but as the script demands it that trauma dissipates to allow the plot to happen.

Again a forgivable crime, especially when considering that Trek on the whole has enjoyed some pretty poor writing at times. Where the plot failed however, these legacy series always had one crutch on which to fall back on; a notable, charismatic and ultimately likeable cast.

Discovering Characters

Tilly is alove or hate, but it feels odd that we don’t get much meaningful time with the lieutenants (CBS Television Studios)

Season 3 more or less retains the same cast as Season 2, with a few new additions. Both David Ajala as Book and Oded Fehr as Admiral Vance add rather than subtract from the overall, with Vance in particular adding the sterner “Starfleet” presence that is otherwise lacking elsewhere in the show. In my opinion the deficit of this presence is indeed one of the larger flaws of the season, contributing to the feeling of a paint-by-numbers drama… IN SPPAACEEE.

This is not helped by the direction that some character arcs went in Season 3. For example, Anthony Rapp’s Stamets and Wilson Cruz’ Culber have for the most part been a positive representation of a homosexual relationship on screen. Developed characters in their own right who love each other and deal with the complexities that any relationship entails whilst being members of a hierarchical crew. Despite this, in Season 3 their relationship often seems to be the only reason they find themselves on screen, with Stamets in particular relegated to either the Doctor’s annoying boyfriend or the guy you plug into the spore drive.

When he does find something to do, it’s being the mentor to Blu del Barrio’s Adira, who is having issues of their own with their non-binary partner who died. Now they only see them as a part of their trill symbiote’s inherited memory. Sounds weird? Well in truth it kinda is. Adira is introduced as a scientific genius, but within a couple episodes just becomes another relationship B plot with little other significance. Their arc culminates with Gray Tal (Adira’s deceased memory partner) for some reason being given form by a holodeck on steroids, and so Adira, Gray and Stamets have a group hug. At this point I switched over to Gossip Girl for a little fast paced action and god forbid, some space stuff.

To be clear, the representation itself is not harming the show or its quality. If done the right way it could certainly enhance it. The disappointment with Season 3 is the representation feels self gratifying, rather than those characters contributing to the overall plot or adding anything beneficial to the show in themselves. After being used on one occasion to find some information Adira becomes surplus to requirements, and their purpose reverts back to equal parts underwhelming drama and half arsed commentary on gender roles. These angles are a hard sell in a sci-fi show, and without charismatic actors to sell romance plots or intelligent writing to demonstrate complex issues they quickly become boring or at worse grating.

Elsewhere the character threads are minimal or a touch confusing, with a bloated cast and a disproportionate amount of time being dedicated to a few zany characters. At its heart, Star Trek is about the Federation. An intergalactic body that believes in peace, unity and the furthering of understanding. Members of the Federation and crew of its starships are therefore the bastions of this mentality; individuals who are deeply principled, combined with the discipline and brilliance required to undertake what may be dangerous missions.

So why is it then that by the end of the series Mary Wiseman’s Ensign Tilly, widely regarded as Discovery’s resident screw-up and all round prime annoyance finds herself as the acting First Officer? Why is it that Michelle Yeoh’s Phillipa Georgiou is free to prance around as she likes despite being a criminally insane tyrant? There is too much randomness on display, and little consistency in character choices or any varying perspectives to differentiate the crew. When Doug Jone’s Saru became Captain I was expecting to see an assured, by-the-book portrayal that could offer a measure of authority and contrast, but after only a few episodes he became just as insecure and random as everyone else. Better or more charismatic actors may pull it off, but it’s an uphill struggle when your character is jumping through hoops to serve the meandering plot.

Of course there is one character that stands above all that plot nonsense.

Michael God Damn Burnham

Probably just found out they weren’t naming the ship after her (CBS Television Studios)

If you are of a certain age you may remember Chuck Norris Jokes.

“Chuck Norris killed two stones with one bird”
“Chuck Norris doesn’t get wet, water gets Chuck Norris”
“Chuck Norris doesn’t read books, he stares them down until he gets the information he needs”
etc etc.

It was a childish game to prod fun at the invincible Chuck Norris, who in every D-list movie or TV show seemed to beat up hoards of baddies without so much as a scratch, and find the answer to every solution with barely any effort.

See where I’m going with this?

Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is an infuriating character. In the 90’s and before it was bad enough to have a Chuck Norris who trivialised every challenge in front of them, but this show aired in 2018 and we are simply past that. The term “Mary Sue” is chucked around a lot nowadays in the wake of Rey, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and more. Whilst there may be merit in that debate, at least in that case we are talking about super heroes or space wizards. Michael Burnham is just a human, who it would seem by a force unknown to science cannot come out of any situation anything other than on top.

This happened in Seasons 1 and 2 sure, but at least there was a façade of struggle there, even if it was thin to say the least. In Season 3 we throw off the pretence of character development so that the Burnhamator can be all she can be. A genius, one-woman army who is beyond the skill of her enemies or reproach of her superiors. The sheer number of times she disobeys orders, undertakes reckless missions on a whim or flip flops between the needs of the many and the needs of the few to suit her current objective is staggering in a relatively short season.

Nothing sums up the magnitude of her untouchability as her one “disciplinary” – a scene that is meant to be emotional. Following about the 10th time Burnham disobeyed a direct order Saru finally gives her a minor demotion from first officer to chief science officer. The two stand there holding back tears like teenagers going through a break up, whilst the decision makes absolutely zero difference for the rest of the series. Burnham continues to do whatever she likes without reproach and to top it all of she makes captain by the end of the season. What is the lesson here? Where is the growth? In the Trek universe founded on principles and unity, one untouchable character seems to be playing on god mode where she can do whatever she likes. If you were waiting for some poignant message or symbolic gesture there simply is none.

Clearly the character is badly written. I nearly said flawed, but of course flawed is the one thing Michael Burnham isn’t. I could forgive this even a smidgen if Martin-Green added some charm and warmth to the character. A little bit of charisma that made light of her character’s invincibility. If there was just a teeny weeny bit of self awareness, a wink to the camera that she was going to do the impossible and succeed; maybe all could be forgiven.

As it is, she plays Burnham so earnestly that at times it borders on parody. It’s not that Martin-Green has no range at all, but Burnham seems to only have 3 presets – ecstatically happy, deadly serious or completely devastated. This leads to awfully repetitive scenes, as she sternly stares down her commanding officer insisting she did what was necessary, before having a “TV style” emotional breakdown. This doesn’t stop her going on to save everyone with a flourish, smiling manically to the adoring crowd. She also whispers a lot, for reasons which aren’t entirely obvious but sure as hell noticeable. It’s been suggested that Martin-Green struggled to suppress her accent when putting a little more oomph into her performance. A pity, because this is the Michael Burnham show, so it would have been nice for Burnham to shine at the centre of it.

Where next for Discovery?

Perhaps a little more of the same, but the people seem to want it (CBS Television Studios)

Despite some pretty huge flaws, Discovery still has some stuff going for it. Season 2 was pretty solid, and Season 3, whilst suffering on the plot delivery and character journey, did an OK job at setting up the far future, a period that we haven’t yet encountered in the Star Trek continuity.

I really hope that now Burnham is captain the show writers will tone it down a little. Historically Star Trek Captains are there primarily to give a platform for other members of the crew to flourish, and it would be great to see more of the Lieutenants. Thus far they largely fade into the background whenever Burnham is on screen, or appear on hand to whoop excitedly whenever she saves the day.

Discovery will have to be careful of the competition from its own ranks though, as new Trek properties appear on the radar. Despite receiving mixed reviews Star Trek: Lower Decks was an enjoyable take on the Trek universe, with a second series on the way. It would also seem that following their popularity in Season 2 of Discovery, Anson Mount and Ethan Peck will return as Captain Pike and Spock respectively in their own series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

To this end, if Discovery isn’t careful, its over-indulgence in Burnham as well as a chaotic and “not very Trekkie” tone could leave it in the wake of newer and more popular series.

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