By this point in our lives we should all be familiar with the premise of a prequel. You take a movie, TV, comic, etc and go back before the story and tell another story in that same universe. It has been done to varying degrees of success and failure. The most notorious of these is the Star Wars prequels. Each prequel has it’s own issues and problems surmounting the issues that crop up by going backward from your main story, but they all suffer from one: how do you keep a story interesting when you already know where it’s going to go? Discovery has that problem.
We’ve seen this story before
DSC suffers from this problem in multiple ways, but the main problem is that we’ve seen this story before. The story of DSC, for those who don’t know, is the Federation-Klingon War. This was was alluded to multiple times in the first six series. The first time we meet the Klingons in the episode “Errand of Mercy” this was a continuation of the same longstanding conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. The conflict would not be fully resolved until The Next Generation and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where the Federation eventually became allies with the Klingon Empire. We’ve seen the conflict with these two powers play out over a very long period of time. In fact, Deep Space Nine revived the conflict in seasons 4 and 5, and showed these two powers at war again. We’ve seen this conflict before, but that’s not the only thing we’ve seen.
The central theme of the series is playing the tension of Starfleet and the Federation as a multicultural, peace loving, science driven society having to deal with fighting a war. It’s a conflict that forces the characters to look at themselves, and their ideals, and see if their belief systems are compatible with the challenges they face. It’s similar to how American’s were forced to process the atrocities of the Vietnam War with American Idealism. It’s not a coincidence that a series developed in the height of Vietnam finds itself doing this. It is a theme that Star Trek has mined over and over since the beginning. From “Errand of Mercy” itself, “Balance of Terror” to “Day of the Dove” or “The Savage Curtain.” In fact, The Undiscovered Country and First Contact dealt exclusively in this idea. The apex of this type of storytelling can be seen in Star Trek Enterprise’s third season, and the last third of Deep Space Nine in the Xindi Expanse and Dominion War story arcs.
The Dominion War story arc played on the post-Vietnam and post-Cold War sensibilities of the writers. You can practically see the paranoia of the Red Menace in the writing. Secret Dominion agents had infiltrated every level of society. The Klingon government lied to their people to maintain a war in a far flung realm of space. The Federation government planted a disease in Odo to infect the Founders (a disease designed to wipe out an entire species, DS9 “Treachery, Faith and the Great River”), and that’s about the time Starfleet attempted to launch a coup against the Federation (DS9 “Homefront”) out of fear of secret dominion agents. This was all before the war even started. Then once the war starts you see our own protagonists having to deal with the repercussions of being prisoners of war (DS9, “Soldiers of the Empire”) and having to grappling with seeing if their own ideals can be reconciled with a war that could wipe out those very ideals ( DS9 “In the Pale Moonlight,” “Inquisition,” “Honor Among Thieves” among others), and also with the very real realities of war, most notably displayed in the episode, “Siege of AR-558” where a group of Starfleet officers have been holed up fighting Dominion forces for five months. The episode is one of the darkest things Star Trek has ever done. One of the characters loses his leg, one of the officers carries a necklace made of Jem’Hadar ketracel white tubes, and all of them are broken by the experience. Quark has one of the best conversations of the franchise with his newphew, Nog.
“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people – as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts … deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers … put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time … and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don’t believe me? Look at those faces, look at their eyes …” – Quark, DS9 “Siege of AR-558”
Enterprise also explored these same themes, just in a more concentrated way, in season 3. It, however, had a post-9/11 bent to it. Instead of an existential war with a huge power, this dealt with an unknown, hidden, factional enemy that we didn’t fully understand — the Xindi. The Xindi had launched a terrorist attack and killed millions of people. It’s a thinly veiled 9/11 metaphor, and in a similar manner the hunt for the Xindi in the expanse, a remote harsh environment, is a metaphor for the War on Terror. The setting examine’s the crew of the Enterprise and their ideals in a high pressure, high stress, violent conflict at a period of time in which the Federation (and their ideals) were not firmly established. It took the conversation out of the 24th century and brought it closer to home and analyzed it from a more recognizable setting, one that many Americans were living (the season began in 2003, just as Iraq was heating up and one day before the two year anniversary of 9/11). In retrospect, it was a daring arc, and one of the first explorations of a post-9/11 world.
So now we come to Discovery, which is taking these two stories (a large, existential full scale war, and a war in the midst of a post-9/11 world) and combining them. The problem is that we’ve seen all this before. We know what the arguments and counterarguments are, and we know how their going to shake out … because it’s set ten years before The Original Series.
This is even all before we get to the central event that I’m sure will catalyze this on screen debate — the spore drive. Specifically, the fact that it relies on another, possibly intelligent, being to power it. This dilemma is pulled straight from the Star Trek Voyager episode “Equinox.” In that episode a science vessel, akin to a smaller Voyager, found a way to supercharge their warp drive by using intelligent aliens as fuel. So a Starfleet crew is making an immoral choice in order to fly faster than they ever been before because they perceiving themselves to be in existential danger, and the morality of this decision plays out over two episodes. The only real difference between “Equinox” and DSC is that we are seeing this from the perspective of the Discovery‘s crew and not from an outside perspective. We live with them as they make their morally compromising choices. It’s Star Trek: Breaking Bad.
There’s no sense of danger
So lets take this problem, and extrapolate ways that the story can get around it. You can use this type of arc and make it interesting in two ways: make it exciting, and make us care about these characters. If you can do those two things, then the moral dilemmas can still be interesting. The only problem is that there’s nothing at stake. Because we know that there will be five series that take place after this one, which are also set in the Federation. Therefore, we know that nothing really matters in this war. In the fourth episode we see the Discovery tasked with rescuing a Federation planet because lives are at stake, and we know that if the Klingons take this planet the war is as good as over because it’s a major dilithium processing station. Granted, it was a B plot, but the problem was that it didn’t matter. We know that whether the Discovery makes it or not that the Federation will win the war. We know that regardless of whether their ideals are challenged on a personal level, on an institutional level those ideals are passed on to their successors in the other series. We know that regardless of what happens on screen, it doesn’t matter, because we know where it’s going to end up. This results in anything and everything in the story doing one of two things: it either breaks canon or it doesn’t matter. That’s not a good position to be in.
They sacrifice characters for plot and mystery
The second corollary to this problem is that if the characters are worth loving then we will still care. No one watches The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones for the dragons or zombies. They watch those shows because they love the characters and they want to see what happens to them. The problem with Discovery thus far is that they’ve sacrificed characters for plot and mystery. The focus of the first two episodes was setting up the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons, and everything else be damned. They spent two episodes establishing plot traits for one character and then abandoning them (and the only other characters they bothered to develop were killed in those episodes). Then the third and fourth episodes are more preoccupied with the mystery of the spore drive, the ship itself, its captain and the tardigrade more than it was introducing the crew of the Discovery. The show hasn’t slowed down to actually introduce us to anyone, although I hope it will eventually.
Right now they’ve developed Burnham and made her likable, although I still don’t care what happens to her. They’ve introduced a strong cast of main characters between Tilly, Lorca, Stamets, and even VoQ, but the show is more preoccupied with the mysteries and the plotting of each episode. Each episode of the show they have an existing mystery, solve that mystery, and then are introduced to a new one. It stinks of Abram’s “mystery box” method of storytelling. While the mystery box method of storytelling has it’s merits, it only works when you are either telling a short form story (like a movie) or if it’s less interesting than the characters. Lost is a perfect example of a show that knew how to manipulate the mystery box while actually telling a character driven story. The show fell apart when the mysteries became more important than the characters. Discovery has barely gotten off the ground and they haven’t bothered to connect me to anyone like we did Jack and Locke (by episode for we already had a good grasp of Jack, Locke, and Kate). Each episode has only offered a smattering of character moments, usually while their on the way to do something else, telegraphing that what they were about to do is more important.
A show I’ve been watching in tandem with Discovery is The Orville. It’s not a perfect show, and as far from a prestige drama as you can possibly get. However, in the first four episodes I’ve learned a lot about each of the main characters. I’ve learned so much in fact, I actually care about what happens to them. The Orville possesses all the warmth that is lacking in Discovery, and makes me care about its characters. When a show by Seth McFarlane makes me care more about its characters than a prestige drama does, then you have a problem.
With a show like DSC, I doubt we will get those touching character moments in Quark’s or around a poker game that help connect us and humanize this cold space scifi. Until they can make us care about these people, this is just going to be a Deep Space Nine remix.