Soap operas and serious dramas seem worlds apart, but they actual have a very simple difference: themes and character development. Soaps don’t have them. They move from one plot point to another without caring about character growth or moral lessons. They focus only on what will be the most shocking happenstance the writer can inflict to make you go “Oh, geez! That’s awful!”
Shocking happenstances aren’t bad. For instance, in the Battlestar Galactica reboot when Adama is shot by Boomer at the end of season one it’s shocking as hell, but it’s also part of a long nature-over-nurture debate involving Boomer’s hidden programming vs her self awareness as a human being. Adama, if he lives, will also have to deal with the fact that his most trusted pilot is his sworn enemy and should he react to the programming or the woman?
Discovery desperately wants to be a drama. It has good characters with good relationships. They have very well defined outlooks that clash in very specific ways. No one on Discovery is a cipher. But, somehow, again and again, the show simply screwed the pooch on its conflict resolution blowing any chance at a unifying theme and character growth out the door in favor of shocking the audience.
Let’s take Lorca. He’s a bad dude from beginning to end. He’s got a wake of dead bodies behind him. He manipulates people through very precisely observed weaknesses. He’s got his hands in several different character’s heads including Burnham, Tyler, Stamets, and Admiral Cornwell. He’s got plans that are beyond the government’s intentions and knowledge. As a Star Fleet captain he’s a pretty decent villain.
His resolution as an evil twin from another dimension, handled before the ending of the season, is a complete waste of the character and premise and seems done just to defy viewer expectations. Not only does Lorca immediately lose any of his power as a reflection of our own society, he loses his power over the crew itself so that opposing him is a no-brainer. He might as well have randomly morphed into a giant spider. Of course we had to shoot him! Look at those fangs! That’s soapy.
Lorca was also dispatched before he could really do anything to negatively influence our crew. What position has the Discovery really been put in this season that was an overt ethical challenge that they failed? None that I can really think of. The Tardigade’s treatment was a good first step, but they properly solved that dilemma almost immediately. The water bear lived. No real harm done. Stamets certainly broke the law by making himself a chimera, but it’s not truly unethical as he did it to spare the tardigrade and never used his powers to hurt anyone else. It’s more of a self sacrifice. Other than being tricked into eating a Kelpian, Michael hasn’t done anything particularly bad. Neither has Tilly, who’s still an innocent toothy grin by season’s end. There’s no lasting mark here. When the next season starts these guys won’t be dealing with fighting the new outlook Lorca poison them with. There will be no taint of war and compromise when they visit their strange new worlds. They’ll just be your average, squeaky-clean crew.
The last problem with Lorca’s spiderfication is that no one really got to face off with him in a philosophical way. Burnham beats him in combat. The crew learns he’s a spider off-site and just goes along with it because, again, fangs. No one challenges his ethics directly or gets their’s challenged in return. There’s no thematic struggle and no real resolution. The spider gets stomped, end of story.
Even individual character arcs, like Tyler’s PTSD, are consistently dumped. He’s not damaged by what this war has done to him, he’s just got a spider inside him. Stomp it. All is forgiven. Stamets was a major character in the beginning of the show with the biggest moral qualms about everything that was going on. By the end he’s just a plot tool with a dead husband. And what of the hero of the show, Michael Burnham? What does she learn? Her fatal flaw was jumping the gun by mutinying for her own sense of right. At the end of the series she mutinies against Star Fleet for her own sense of right. She doesn’t even think twice before rejecting authority again, but this time she’s rewarded. I mean, how great would it have been if Michael was so damaged by her mistake and so wrapped up in not repeating it that she can’t see evil in the form of a captain who’s actually wrong coming?
And now we get to the finale. Lorca’s ethical testing of Star Fleet’s limits is replaced by someone we barely know and is an obvious spider from the beginning. Mirror Philippa shows no signs of reform, so opposing her is also a no-brainer. The crew is tricked into doing the awful duty of destroying Qo’nos, so refusing to do it when the reveal hits is also a no brainer. None of these people have once abandoned their moral compass over the course of the season, so of course when the time comes they’ll do the right thing. I mean, how great would it have been if Michael, still loyal to the image of Philippa and seeped in her own tragic history with the Klingons thought killing them all would be a good idea for just a moment? There’s no real tension in the end scene other than whether Philippa will go rogue and drop the bomb anyway, and why would she with no real stake in the war or even this universe? She literally goes “meh!”
And “meh” is the best reaction I can give to this finale. I avoided writing about last week’s episode because it was all setup and no story. And that really was a mistake. Not only was it dull to watch, but the finale itself definitely needed more time to percolate. The accusation of “rushed” I keep hearing from others who’ve reported on it is an understatement. Burnham says “no” to genocide without a second thought, places the mentally-challenged L’Rell in power, and ends the war in about five minutes of running time.
Fan-wank was off the charts in this one. Just off the top of my head there were Orion’s, fried Ceti Alpha brain slugs, Clint Howard, Trills getting tattoos, and mentions of Mintakens and Nausicaans. And, then, of course, the ultimate act of fan happy-endings, the Enterprise shows up.
And yet, in a lot of ways, this is one of the best Discovery episodes in a while. Our crew gets deposited on one of the most enjoyable sci-fi outlaw worlds since Mos Eisley. Tilly antics are off the charts. I laughed out loud a couple of times. Drugs, whale meat, bi-sexual orgies. What more can a sentient being ask for? And that’s the frustrating thing about this show. We’ve got these great characters who do great stuff in the right situations, but they’re constantly betrayed by screwing the landing.
So what is Discovery’s theme this season? Is it that mutiny is ok under the right circumstances? Is it that unifying your enemy makes them less powerful? That corruption is always external? That good people are always good? I don’t really know. And what about it’s main backdrop, war? What was said about that? Did this even need to be a war show, or could it have just been a mirror universe/bad technology arc? What did all its disparate parts add up to? Nothing is really dealt with in a way that makes sense, including the insidious problem of the Federation basically installing the Klingon’s new leader. What are the ethics in that?
Finally I’ll talk about the soap opera ending to end them all, the arrival of the Enterprise in the last minute to, I guess, set up season two. This was a mistake on a number of levels other than pure, wanton, service to the audience. The Discovery crew deserves a ride into the sunset and they didn’t get one because another problem eclipsed it. And the umbera doesn’t just cover their happy ending, but the cast themselves because no one watching was thinking about the current crew or what their next adventure will be when the Enterprise shows up. They’re thinking about if they’re going to see Spock and who’s going to play him and Pike, and Number One, and will Jose Tyler actually be Hispanic this time?
Remember how annoyed people were that The Next Generation’s second episode was a direct ripoff of an Original Series story? Well, this is that, but if the actual Original Series crew also showed up and did stuff. It’s not allowing this crew to stand on their own. The star power of the crew we already know is inevitably going to outshine them. That’s not really fair to them or us.
And it’s not even a good cliffhanger. Much like the midseason ender we’re left with zero tension. Ok, it’s the Enterprise. So? She’s not covered in tentacles or bleeding plasma. She’s just there. The shock of seeing her is presented as value enough like a long-thought-dead sibling walking through the door. That’s soapy.
Well, whatever. I promised myself if they ended the dumb Klingon war I’d watch the next season, and I will. Discovery is still a huge mixed bag with a lot of promise. As a jaded asshole I can’t say I’m expecting the next season to improve things. At the very least I can look forward to some dumb entertainment with characters I like, but shouldn’t 21st century Star Trek be more than that?
Thank you for this! I stopped watching Discovery after the first episode of Part 2, and I’m happy to just be filled in by recaps. In episode after episode, Discovery’s producers have seemed more interested in sloppily deconstructing Star Trek’s core themes and values rather than advancing them. I’ll be interested in seeing whether they reform with the next season—your “average, squeaky-clean crew” almost sounds like the best-case scenario—but I’m not betting the farm. Thank goodness for creators like you who are exploring how to break new ground without nuking the source material!
Honestly, given that they’ve given Burnham her commission back, I’m wondering what their planning at all next season. They’ll either have to get rid of Saru (or Burnham), promote Saru (unlikely, there’s a new Captain on Vulcan), or demote Burnham again.