After getting home from traveling, I used a free week of CBS All Access to binge Star Trek Discovery. This is a spoiler review of the second season that harkens back to a great episode of Deep Space Nine called In the Pale Moonlight. There’s major spoilers including picking apart some of the Discovery plot points. If you really like the show, this take probably isn’t for you, but if you’re more critical about your sci-fi, read on. Spoilers abound.
The second season of Discovery was a big letdown and disappointment. It suffered from a number of problems in the writing, both general and specific, that made it feel both frustrating and unsatisfying. The main conceptual problem that I noted in my season one review—that the series is more of a reboot than a prequel—is still present. The writers seem to want to set up the characters of the original series, but their little homages only serve to make the disconnect more apparent. You can’t get there (the original series) from here (Discovery), so why not just treat it as a reboot or a different timeline?
The main problem with season two is a strange disconnect between story and character. It feels like one group of writers created the plot line of the Red Angel while other writers created the character moments. The plot writers took the idea of raising the stakes too literally, and the characters have awareness of those stakes (the end of all sentient life in the universe) because Spock learned it from the Red Angel in a vision, but it’s all too on the nose. There’s too much deus ex machina—or Red Angel ex machina—driving the story. By the time the Red Angel is shown to be Michael Burnham herself—and she’s gotta fly through space in the middle of a raging battle like Iron Man—the whole season feels kind of ridiculous.
Inserted into this ridiculousness are some forced and ill-timed friend and family moments. Characters come back from the dead or from believed-to-be-dead just to have ‘I can’t believe it’ drama. The parents of Spock and Burnham show up on the ship to say goodbye just before the great (and unnecessary) battle, and everyone else takes a break to write emotional letters back home when they should be going over tactical ops. Saru’s sister arrives piloting a fighter just days (or is it weeks?) after being freed from a life of ignorance of other life in the universe and space travel. You almost wish someone would step up and point out the absurdity of it all.
After this, we come to a moment during the final battle when the whole story kind of falls apart. To understand this moment, we’ve got to go back to an earlier episode where Discovery comes across a mysterious ‘dying’ Sphere that holds 100,000 years worth of exploration data. The crew downloads it all into the (ridiculously massive) computer storage on Discovery, and now it’s the crux of the final battle because the AI antagonist ‘Control’ needs it to evolve. The crew can’t destroy the data because it’s defending itself, so they plan to jump the Discovery over 900 years into the future so Control can’t get it.
In the battle, Spock and Burnham are stuck unable to open a wormhole to the future. They figure out that Burnham as the Red Angel needs to go into the past from this moment to draw together the forces needed to win. What they don’t figure out is she could simply go into the past and stop the starship Discovery from downloading the data in the first place. No data, no battle. If you can jump all across time and space to create a future, why make it all lead up to a great battle that you might loose unless all these improbable allies show up at the last minute to bail you out? Why can’t these two characters raised on Vulcan who are supposed to be pillars of reason figure out this simple logic problem?
Instead, everyone supports Burnham, and most even decide to follow her into the future from which there is no return because they joined Star Fleet to sacrifice themselves. It’s like they’re all suicidal or at least fatalistic. And we, the audience, must go along for the ride even as we shake our heads at the writing. I end up wondering if the writers meant to do this. Were they aware of the flaw in the reasoning or the circular plot points? (Is season three about how the mysterious sphere is actually Discovery herself returning from travels through space and time?)
I imagine that there’s disconnect in the writers’ room and either no one figured out the problems or they somehow reasoned it out a different way. To me, it seems like more fun to consider they did this on purpose. I imagine a missing scene with Spock shaving off his beard (and removing his facial hair follicles) where he realizes his mistake and records a personal log. He laments how he sent his sister 900 years into the future on faulty logic and he rededicates himself to logic in memory of her. He vows to never speak of his sister again, not even to his parents, because of his crippling embarrassment at his error plus the Star Fleet directive to keep it a secret. Even his half brother Sybok in Star Trek 5 fails to find this when searching for his most painful hidden moment and delving into his family background. Still, maybe the writers meant to do this because it’s really the only way to get from this emotional and not-too-bright Spock of Discovery to the one I met as a young boy watching the original series.
Maybe my disappointment in Discovery is heightened by coming across this clip of Sisko from the Deep Space Nine episode ‘In the Pale Moonlight’. Here’s a character struggling with dark thoughts, taking a look at himself and his motivations for drawing the Romulans into a (necessary) war by lying, and wondering if he can live with it. While DS9 is much darker than Discovery or any other Trek series, there was always a sense that the characters were part of something greater than themselves. I don’t get that from Discovery even though the characters believe that of themselves. It’s like they all have fake self-esteem, praising themselves so much that they never consider how their actions affect others. Burnham hops in her time-traveling Iron Man suit, violates the prime directive and manipulates allies toward an unnecessary battle where many will die, and leads all her friends 900 years into the future without much contemplation or introspection at all. She’s perfectly fine with it. She can live with it.
And I’m not buying it.
Star Trek Discovery pales in comparison to other Trek series, and there’s no sense it could ever have an episode that comes close to ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ from DS9. There’s more Trek to come, and with the Picard series on the horizon, maybe Star Trek can get back to some of the excellence it appears to have lost.