Star Trek: Discovery is a bizarre contradiction in every terms. In some ways it has great respect for series continuity, and yet in other ways, no respect for continuity at all. It’s dialogue and writing is smarter and wittier than any Star Trek series that’s come before, and at the same time dripping with so much stupid you get drunk off it. It is far more exhilarating and fun than any other Trek series, and yet at the same time you are at greater risk of breaking your TV with your remote for its fridge logic than ever before. It has some of the very best moments of Star Trek, but none of the very best episodes. There is no unmitigated praise to offer the series, and yet also no unmitigated critique either.
All in all, if Star Trek fans go into the series assuming that it’s set in a closely-related parallel universe, rather than the Star Trek universe they know and love, they can have more fun than they’ve had with Star Trek in a long time. At least, so long as they also go in knowing to expects gobs of drunk stupidity along the way. Knowing to expect it helps you stomach it. This review was difficult to write because there was simply so much good and bad to say. It was the “best of Trek, it was the worst of Trek,” so to speak. So let’s explore the good first, and then the bad.
The characters feel real and have genuine emotions
One refreshing aspect of Star Trek: Discovery was that the characters actually expressed emotion. At times, the characters of the Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise, and to some extent Deep Space Nine were simply too stoic. They didn’t show nearly as much fear during their peril, grief during loss, insecurity in weakness, or passion in love as you might expect of real people. In contrast, Star Trek: Discovery has been infused with a pathos from beginning to end that is matched only, perhaps, by the final scenes of the Wrath of Khan. In short, the crew of Discovery is played by actors who can act with energy and passion.
You see the bridge crew openly weep at the loss of a comrade. You see love stories with real romance and real passion. You see officers becoming deeply insecure when faced with their own weaknesses. Courage isn’t stoicism in the face of danger. It’s performing your duties in the face of legitimate fear. And so when crew members on Discovery display genuine fear, where you can see in their eyes, expressions, and actions a genuine sense of anxiety for their lives and well-being, their actions and sacrifices in the face of that fear take on a real sense of courage that often rivals what you might see in other Star Trek series.
And beyond that, the characters just feel real. “Leisure” time and ordinary conversation in other Star Trek series feels too scripted at times, too stage-play-ish. You don’t have the realness of conversations that meander, non sequiters, a sense of real social vitality behind the professional lives of the crew. Discovery shows us a crew that laughs together, plays games together, has dance parties together. (I’m sure readers can point to examples all over other Star Trek series, but they didn’t ever feel so vibrant.) Here’s an example of the crew socializing together:
Star Trek Discovery has some truly fantastic Star Trek characters
Captain Picard is still the absolute best Star Trek character, followed shortly by Spock, Doctor McCoy, and Data. Star Trek Discovery, however, has produced some truly excellent additions to the list. Here’s a few (though there are other great characters not listed here):
Commander Saru is to Discovery what Spock was to the Original Series. His species, the Keplians, is one of two that evolved on his planet, and the other is considered predators of the Kelpians. His race is primitive and not warp-capable, so Saru is the only Kelpian in Star Fleet. As a prey species, he has a natural instinct for danger, and experiences radical empathy for those around them (without being a direct empath). For this reason, he is a masterful “first contact specialist.” He is able to remain calm in situations that appear dangerous but which are not, and also able to detect danger in situations that appear safe but which are not. He is competent as a leader, good at making quick, principled decisions in times of moral ambiguity. Here’s a small helping of Saru:
Captain Christopher Pike is perhaps right alongside Captain Picard as my favorite Star Trek captain (although he doesn’t quite edge out Picard). We only ever saw Captain Pike twice in the Original Series, so we don’t have a whole lot of Pike to compare him against. In reality, I think that Discovery’s Captain Pike is actually a perfect rendition of Captain Kirk. He is, perhaps, an even better Captain Kirk than the version played by William Shatner, and certainly a better version than the one played by Chris Pine.
Captain Pike is bold, daring, principled, and courageous. He takes risks, bends the rules when needed but absolutely respects the spirit of their principles. He trusts and relies on his crew. He models Star Fleet and Federation ideals in his walk and talk. He puts himself in danger before any of his crew. Here’s a great scene of Captain Pike that highlights his willingness to speak truth to power (note: some may highlight this as a continuity errotellsr, as the Federation in DS9 has no moral qualms with the use of mines, but whatever):
If the writers had tried to sell this character as Captain Kirk, fans would have nitpicked endlessly, as there are three seasons of Star Trek and seven movies to compare him against. But by selling him as Captain Pike, we can basically get what Captain Kirk was, without any of the nitpicking. It’s a shame he won’t be joining the series for Season 3.
Ensign Sylvia Tilly is a breath of fresh air. She is this series’ version of Reginald Barclay, but with far more spunk, wit, and competence. She stutters, stammers, and doesn’t know when to stop talking, but frequently saves the day with her lateral thinking and good-hearted loyalty. She is also horrible at improvising on the spot, which led to great fun when she had to pretend to be her malicious Mirror-universe counterpart, who was captain of mirror-universe Discovery. She is in many ways a stand-in for every Star Trek fan with aspirations of being a Captain of a starship (Ensign Tilly’s ultimately goal).
Engineer Jet Reno is basically a background character. She shows up in only 4-5 episodes, but always manages to anchor every scene that she is in. She is an engineer, a “gearhead” as she calls herself, who has hitched along with Discovery after being rescued by Discovery’s crew during the first episode of Season 2. At the time of her rescue, she’d been keeping several of her crew-mates alive on life support while stranded on an asteroid, through her creative genius and expansive engineering knowledge. Played by a real-life comedian, her character frequently engages in hilarious and biting meta-commentary on the show itself. Exhibit A:
Star Trek Discovery has some truly fantastic Star Trek moments
There’s a moment in Season 2 where Captain Pike is seeking a time crystal from some Klingon monks (more on this absurdity later). The price, they say, is a glimpse of his future. And in that future, he sees himself completely paralyzed, scarred, and in pain — a haunting shell of his former self. This is a surprisingly faithful rendering of Pike’s trajectory in the original series, where he ends up as a paraplegic in extraordinary discomfort for the rest of his life. And in that moment, you see in his eyes genuine fear. This future terrifies him. And then the Klingon monks tell him that if he takes the crystal, that future is set in stone. There is no way to prevent it. Here’s the video:
In the midst of that real fear, Captain Pike collects his senses, and says to himself (out loud): “You are a Star Fleet captain. You believe in service, sacrifice, compassion, and love. No. I’m not going to abandon the things that made me who I am because the future contains an ending I had not foreseen for myself. No. Give the crystal to me.”
In my opinion, it’s among the best character moments in all of Star Trek because it showcases the quiet courage that is at the center of the Star Fleet value system. It’s the kind of heroism that you want to emulate, that you want your kids to emulate. And there’s many moments like that, where you see characters making choices that matter, at great cost to themselves. This may not be your grandfather’s Star Trek, but in may ways, it’s still your grandfather’s Star Fleet and Federation.
The show is meticulous in recreating the aesthetics of the original series
We only see the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise a handful of times, towards the end of Season 2. But when we do, it’s a perfect rendition of the bridge we saw in the Original Series. It’s completely updated, of course, with modern effects and modern computers. But the aesthetic is the same. The uniforms worn on the Enterprise are slightly different, but perhaps even more classy versions of the Original Series uniforms. Even the turbolifts have the same handheld activators. The communicators, phasers, and food replicators are exactly as in the original. (When not on the Enterprise, however, you might as well assume this took place long after The Next Generation, with perhaps a few callbacks here and there. Further, for all their efforts to create aesthetic facsimile of the original Enterprise, they depart in weird respects, like giving the Enterprise hundreds of one-man fighters it can launch in battle.)
The characters are refreshingly genre savvy
Genre savvy means that characters are familiar with the sorts of things that they can expect to encounter in their genre. Take, for example, Agent Sully in the X-files. After multiple seasons of experiencing the abnormal and paranormal, you might expect her to stop being nearly so skeptical each episode, and act with more experience when encountering the new and unknown. That’s what it means to be genre savvy: if you live in a world where X is the sort of thing that happens, then you don’t act bewildered and incompetent when X happens. You take it in stride and react with competence and decisiveness, because you’ve trained for this.
In other Star Trek series, it takes characters way too long to figure out they are in a first contact situation. In fact, the characters usually figure these things out long after audiences have. And there’s a refreshing moment in Discovery when, on a hitherto unexplored (and presumably uninhabited) world, the pollen from nearby trees starts to act strangely, coalescing into a shape near the explorers. Immediately, Commander Saru hands his phaser to someone else and says to everyone (matter-of-factly), “This may be a first contact situation. Please point your phasers at the ground and look non-threatening while I attempt to communicate.” (I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the direct quote.) If only characters in other Star Trek series were as quick-on-their-feet when dealing with sentient life in unexpected places.
Discovery, of course, has it’s own “groundhog day” episode, but once again, characters were genre-savvy and competent in dealing with the issue. And also, in a refreshing twist, the story was told from the vantage point of a character who did not remember prior iterations of the time loop. She is, in fact, walking down the hall when one of the crew’s scientists approaches her, explains to her in clear and unambiguous terms: (1) they are in a time loop, (2) he’s the only one that remembers, (3) it’s probably because of the tardigrade DNA they injected in him in a prior episode, (4) what they’ve tried and haven’t tried in order to escape it. And so off they go, to fix the problem (or to try again). If only characters in other Star Trek series could be so direct and complete when trying to communicate the bizarre to their crew mates.
The show tells a story in a way no other Star Trek does (except later seasons of DS9)
Traditional Star Trek, with Deep Space Nine as the primary exception, was intensely, implausibly episodic (with later seasons of Deep Space Nine as the primary exception, until now). This could in fact be described as one of the defining conventions of Star Trek. Each episode, the crew makes a discovery or encounter that could radically change everything, and upon closing credits, everything is reset and the stage cleared for the next episode. It means that each week, the show starts in the same familiar place it always does, and by each episode’s end, we’re back at that same familiar place. Star Trek Voyager was so notorious for this that Voyager has been aptly referred to as U.S.S. Reset.
This even leads to continuity problems. For example, upon discovering that a transporter accident created two different versions of Commander Riker, we should have seen a dramatic revisioning of the transporter not as a transportation system, but as a human cloning machine. This discovery should have consequences, and one of weaknesses of the franchise is that rarely do any such discoveries have meaningful consequences beyond the immediate episode. Few things happen that have any lasting significance in the in-story universe.
Star Trek: Discovery is the complete opposite. There is almost nothing episodic about its stories, and everything has consequences. Discoveries and encounters in prior episodes have meaningful impact on episodes to come. This is really refreshing, because it gives a real sense of continuity to the story that is sometimes missing from other Star Trek series. You can jump into almost any episode of The Next Generation or Voyager, and there’s no need to know what comes before or after. But Discovery, as a series, tells a story in a way that no other Star Trek series does. It has beginning, middle, and an end, and the writers clearly have a direction they are taking the crew, an ending in mind for them (at least for the season).
In many ways, Star Trek Voyager was a missed opportunity. With its unique premise, even while maintaining its broadly episodic structure, it could have told a story. But as it were, getting back to the Alpha Quadrant felt like an afterthought in the final episode of its seven seasons. It’s not clear that the writers had any inkling of how Voyager would get home until they wrote the last episode. In truth, Discovery could have used some more episodic storytelling as well. It swung the pendulum too far the other way, where no particular episode shines on its own. But I think that Voyager would have been improved with at least some sense of direction and momentum in its storytelling.
The show is thrilling beyond belief
Never in the history of Star Trek has there been so much epicness. Seriously, not even the Star Trek movies get quite so epic in its storytelling. The entire Federation is on the line in Season 1. The entire galaxy is on the line in Season 2. The action and the plotting are breathtaking. There’s drama up the wazoo. People die. People love. People betray. People sacrifice. It’s a thrilling adventure from beginning to end, and if you can stomach the crap we’ll talk about in a moment, you’re sure to have bounds of fun.
After all, it kept Shelby involved and invested. She even went back and watched early episodes on her own that she had missed. (Shelby never does that with Star Trek.) She was the one that was eager to move on to the next episode and binge into the night. This is just to illustrate, perhaps, that this really is “Star Trek for the masses.” It’s going to entertain like no other Star Trek before. And it succeeds at doing that, to a rather surprising degree. It’s super fun.
But all that fun comes at a cost. Are the costs worth it?
Things discovered and invented in Discovery should matter more than they do
Paradoxically, even as Star Trek Discovery makes prior episodes and events matter to what comes next in the series in a way that no Star Trek has done before, it also suffers from the opposite problem as a series: Discoveries are made, and encounters occur, that should have meaningful impact on every Star Trek series to come. And yet they don’t.
A prime example includes the spore drive, a way of transporting anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of an eye. This should have at least been mentioned in Star Trek Voyager, during Star Fleet’s attempt to bring Voyager home. By the end of Season 2 of Discovery, we still have no good reason why it was not. It is beyond all plausibility belief that with the departure of the Discovery into the future, all knowledge of even the existence of this mode of travel was lost. I can pretend that transporters and replicators are a thing. I can’t pretend that the greatest invention in Star Fleet’s history since the warp drive, which was so instrumental in defeating the Klingons in war and which saved the universe multiple times over, was simply forgotten.
(The show tries to set it up at the end of Season 2 so that the spore drive was classified and then knowledge of it destroyed, because … ??? No clear answer is given. Just because. Despite the fact that scientists across the Federation were collaborating on it. That stuff doesn’t just vanish.)
Another example is the time suit invented by Michael Burnham’s parents on behalf of Section 31, and reinvented in the course of an hour or two in Discovery’s engineering bay based on blueprints provided by Section 31. If Klingon-harvested time crystals and time traveling suits are a thing before even Kirk is on the scene, then they should still be a thing a hundred years later. But yet, even when prior (or future, as it were) series posit the existence of a time war waged by forces based hundreds of year in the future, or a whole post-Star Fleet organization dedicated to traveling and fixing the timeline, there’s no hint that they use time crystals as their chief resource, or that the technology for doing what they do was discovered all the way back before Kirk’s day.
Of course, this is also well within Star Trek tradition. After all, Spock calculated the exact trajectory whereby an ordinary Klingon warbird could circle really really fast around Earth’s sun and end up hundreds of years in the past. Time crystals aren’t even needed for that — just a plain old rickety warp drive and a sun to circle. Shouldn’t that discovery have had some consequence in series to come? And yet it’s a method that’s never mentioned or used again, just like the time crystals of Star Trek Discovery. So despite Discovery’s massive continuity issues, such continuity issues are familiar to Star Trek.
However, they could have solved it all by just setting the story 200 years later. There was no good reason not to.
Some story elements aren’t even properly Star Trek
There are elements of the story that feel like they belong to another genre or franchise, including the grave threat of Season 2: a malicious artificial intelligence named Control, once tasked with processing intelligence and making strategic recommendations to Star Fleet. Having gained some measure of sentience, it is now spacing whole ship crews and threatening all sentient life in the galaxy. (A warning from the future shows that, without drastic intervention, it succeeds at destroying all life in the galaxy. This presumably includes the Borg?)
This isn’t Star Trek, this is a repurposed Terminator. It is basically Skynet, repackaged in Star Trek garb; heck, it even sends part of itself back in time (to the present) to help prevent efforts to stop it. You even have scenes where it uses a ferrous, fluid glob of nanoparticles to take the shape of other people (resembling very much the fluid metal of the T-1000). There’s even scenes where protagonists use phaser “shotguns” to blast a hole right through the resulting imposter, only for the hole to “close up” and repair itself — again, just like the T-1000.
I could believe that this is a Star Trek story, if I wanted to. But what I’m reluctant to believe is that such an artificial intelligence gains sentience, spaces the entire crews of dozens of Federation ships (that’s thousands of Star Fleet officers killed), and then — with certainty, because the show makes this clear — would have commenced to wipe out the entire galaxy. Heck, the Borg couldn’t accomplish that, with far superior technology and resources. Why would Control so especially successful at it?
And what I definitely can’t believe is that, after all this, the Federation would even tolerate the existence of Data or The Doctor, or any other “sentient” artificial life form. If a single artificial intelligence — with only the Federation technology available to it — could wipe out the universe, then Data and sentient holograms are certainly too great a risk. And Lore (Data’s evil brother) should have terrified the Federation. I can’t see that Control was especially intelligent or especially resourceful. However, Star Trek Discovery has simply, and irrefutably, demonstrated that if an AI has bad intentions, there’s no stopping it.
Almost gone are the morality plays
Star Trek is all about morality plays. It sets up a central question: Is Data a sentient life for with rights? Is it OK to kill an endangered space whale to save the ship? When two patients are dying, is it OK to prioritize saving the one you know best? Is it appropriate to violate the Prime Directive to save lives? To what extent should the Federation tolerate oppression and cruelty in the internal politics of its member races?
Once it sets up these questions, Star Trek will then leisurely have the characters explore the question from multiple angles, revealing the ambiguities and the grays in the issues at hand. Eventually, the crew must make some sort of principled choice, and they may or may not always choose the right one. Sometimes the situation plays itself out without their having to make a choice at all. But the questions are always asked. These sorts of morality plays are the bread and butter of conventional Star Trek. And while Discovery has moments like this, it has few real episodes like this. And something crucially Star Trek is lost in the omission.
The technobabble is stupid beyond belief
Star Trek, as a franchise, has always required a substantial amount of suspension of disbelief. Its technological premises are at times wildly implausible (transporters, replicators, sentient holograms, etc.). But once you accept those premises, the franchise establishes conventions around them and generally sticks to them, so that the logic of its stories tends to be fairly self-consistent. The techno-babble of The Next Generation and Voyager strains credibility at times, but you have general parameters to it: warp fields fold space and makes ships move, transporters disassemble matter and can’t go through shields or storms, deflector dishes do magic things when all else fails.
So pulling magic out of their technology is not at all unusual for Star Trek. And yet, Star Trek Discovery takes the trope where no Star Trek has gone before. It picks up this ball and runs so far with it you can’t even see the field anymore in the distance.
There’s a moment in the movie Iron Man that taught me how to recognize when writers are pulling one over on audiences. It takes place in the cave, where Tony Stark is dying because shrapnel is embedded in his chest and inching its way towards his heart. His fellow captive creates an electromagnet to arrest the shrapnel’s progress, preserving Stark’s life. As the electromagnet is powered by a car battery, Stark spends time inventing a miniaturized arc reactor to power the electromagnet. Once complete, he and his friend Yinsen examine it with awe. The following conversation occurs:
Yinsen: That does not look like a Jericho missile.
Stark: That’s because it’s a miniaturized arc reactor. We had a big one powering my factory at home. This should keep the shrapnel out of my heart.
Yinsen: But what could it generate?
Stark: If my math is right, and it always is, 3 gigajoules per second.
Yinsen: That could run your heart for 50 lifetimes.
This is what we call a narrative slight of hand. In the course of a few lines of technobabble, Tony’s chest-implanted arc reactor shifts from “keeping shrapnel away from his heart,” to running his heart. It’s clever, and it works. For the rest of the movie, and all subsequent movies, shrapnel is never mentioned again, and we just have this vague idea that Stark needs this arc reactor in his chest to survive. Without it, he quickly passes out and dies. It’s functionally a battery for his heart.
I tolerate these narrative slight of hands when they are necessary and infrequent. They are most necessary when adapting existing franchises to a new medium. This is what wildly implausible comic book adaptations require of writers adapting them for TV or film. When there’s no good way to explain something central about the character (Tony’s arc reactor), you have to make something up and hope audiences don’t notice when it stops making sense. But this sort of narrative trickery is neither necessary nor infrequent in Star Trek Discovery. It’s the bread and butter of Discovery’s technobabble, and it gets so completely ridiculous at times that it makes you want to vomit.
Here’s an example of the progression of ideas: “Fungi is the only form of life that is found everywhere in the galaxy.” → “Since fungi exists everywhere, it is all connected in a separate plane of existence called the ‘mycelial network.” → “We can tap into this network, and since fungi has a memory of everywhere it’s ever been and ever will be, we can travel to those places too!” (Even if it’s somewhere in the middle of space where fungus doesn’t live.) → “Fungi is what seeded the galaxy with life.” → “If the fungi in this network dies, all life in the universe dies. Because this fungi is powering all life in the universe.” → “But wait, not just this universe. ALL universes, including all parallel universes. Because ALL life in ALL universes is powered by this fungus.” I’m not even kidding. I wish I were. It’s so bad that some of the best moments of the show are when characters point out just how ridiculous it really is. (And they occasionally do.)
Another example: They obtain a time crystal from some benevolent Klingon monks. (Because both Klingon monks and time crystals are apparently a thing now.) The last time Star Fleet had a time crystal, it had to be powered by the energy of a supernova. So the scientists who created the first time traveling super-suit using a time crystal had to station themselves next to a supernova to even use it. And this is the technobabble that ensues (paraphrased, since I can’t find the exact clip / quotes):
“But we don’t have a supernova, so we could never make it work! It’s useless!”
“Hey, I have an idea! We still have a little bit of that dark matter asteroid that we picked up 13 episodes ago!”
“Oh yeah! That should do the trick! That has even more energy than a supernova, if we channel it right.”
The actual scripting made it sound smarter than that, but not much. So… really? They’ve been carrying a rock for 13 episodes with more energy in it than a supernova? All they have to do is connect some wires to it? And they just now decide to make use of it? Why couldn’t the prior scientists who invented a time suit uh, I don’t know, go find a dark matter asteroid instead of camping out by a supernova? Surely those dark matter asteroids aren’t nearly so difficult to find as a star that’s about to explode, and not nearly so risky either. If they really house that much energy, shouldn’t they be a resource that’s in demand?
But that’s par for the course with Discovery. Absurdity upon absurdity is patched over with smart-sounding dialogue, but if you pause for a second, nothing makes sense. In fact, it makes anti-sense. Because if you accept the technobabble of this episode, the technobabble of last episode that used to make sense stops making sense. Narrative sleight of hand happens so often that you just stop caring. The plot that happens is what the writers wanted to happen. Who cares if it made sense to happen that way. <Shrug.> No other Star Trek series pulled this kind of crap on the audiences. (Except, perhaps, the Janeway-and-Chakotay-turn-into-salamanders-because-warp-10 episode. But even that isn’t as bad as some of the crap on Discovery.)
The plot choices are even stupider
Fridge logic is plot logic that seems to make sense while you are watching it, but stops making sense during the time it takes to go to a fridge afterwards for a snack. Just about everything in Discovery is fridge logic, especially in Season 2. Spoilers galore here, be warned!
So, they want to destroy some data that’s sitting on their ship, that they collected from a dying alien who spent a hundred thousand years observing the galaxy. Buried in this data is information on artificial intelligence. The crew must destroy this cache of data, so an artificial intelligence can’t steal it and use it to learn how to become sentient. Because once the artificial intelligence becomes sentient, there’s no stopping it from destroying the galaxy. (Warning from the future says it succeeds.) But… since the same artificial intelligence has already taken over dozens of Federation ships and spaced their crews, it’s not clear how this abstract thing called “sentience” (1) has yet to be achieved, since it seems pretty sentient already, or (2) once achieved, would give it some magical strategic advantage that it doesn’t now have. But, whatever.
But the crew can’t delete the data, because the data itself has become sentient and is protecting itself. It won’t let them delete the data (or self-destruct the ship when they try), in the interests of self-preservation. (However, none of this seems to seriously bother the crew. It’s fine if their data cache is sentient and controlling their ship. Just not the seemingly-already sentient AI that is trying to get it.) And so they must get it into the future. So they build a time machine in their garage, er, I mean, their engineering bay. Using blueprints from a secret Star Fleet database, that just happens to have been invented by the main character’s mother twenty years prior. And they do this over the course of an hour.
And they succeed. At creating a time-machine suit that is so advanced that, for the past entire season, the entire collective body of scientists across the federation has no idea how this suit could possibly work or exist. And yet, it was built based on blueprints the Federation already has. But just kept secret from itself. Until they recreated it over the course of an hour in Discovery’s engineering bay, with materials they had on hand (except a time crystal, which they had to retrieve). And thus they made a suit so advanced it can skip across all of time and space like a TARDIS.
They are building this suit because Control (our malicious, sentient-wannabe AI) is chasing them to get the data on the ship’s hard drive. So they need to get Discovery to the future, out of reach of Control’s hands forever. So they built a time suit, to open a portal, so Discovery can go through the portal. Why does it need to be a suit? <shrug> No one knows. It just has to be a suit for some reason. Anyways, Control is closing in, will be there within the hour, with dozens of AI controlled ships. So my big question: they have a spore drive. Just jump 30,000 light years away. That should buy you at least a few years until you figure out how to delete the data. Or something. Why they cannot just skip across the galaxy to buy some time? Who knows. They never even attempt an answer.
And through this all, they cannot contact Star Fleet for help. Because, interference? It’s never really explained. They just can’t. Spock’s mom and dad are on Vulcan, and sense that Discovery is going to the future (never to be seen again). So they hop on a shuttle and fly off to Discovery to say goodbye. And once they hug goodbye, they fly off again to go back to Vulcan. Let me repeat: Sarek can jet over from Vulcan and say goodbye, and then go home again. And yet nobody can contact Star Fleet. Meanwhile, Tyler jets off to secretly recruit the Klingons to help fight Control. He shows up with a Klingon armada at the last minute. But he can’t contact Star Fleet, either. Commander Saru writes a goodbye letter to his sister on his home world, and transmits it. She ends up showing up at the final battle with another armada to help. But neither he nor his sister could contact Star Fleet. Why? Who knows.
Literally, they have a time suit that can skip across the galaxy and all of time and space. It’s a freaking TARDIS. In fact, in the heat of this great battle, they use the suit to travel through space and time to set signals across the galaxy, the very signals they have been following all season long, which turns out to be all the places they needed to be in order to get the resources they need to fight this final battle. (Ordinary time loop story mechanics; makes no sense but whatever.) And even with this magnificant device, they still can’t contact Star Fleet. Again, why? Who knows.
Meanwhile, Burnham uses this time suit to set seven signals across the galaxy, in the very sequence that Discovery detects them. These are the signals that were leading Discovery on to their various adventures. But then we remembered that in the very first episode, the seven signals all appeared at once! And then all but one of them disappeared (their first adventure). So did she set the signals twice, once simultaneously, and then again in sequence? How can Federation detect a little red burst across 30,000 light years, instantaneously? Why is nobody else chasing these signals but Star Fleet? How does this little time suit even create this signal? <shrug> None of this is ever explained. None of it makes any sense.
Culber, the ship’s doctor, had his neck snapped in the middle of Season 1. He’s dead. Dead as dead can be. So in the middle of Season 2, fungus from the mycelial network infects Ensign Tilly and gives her a vision of an old childhood friend. The fungus kidnaps her and translates her substance into the mycelial network (how? I dunno), in order to help hunt a beast that’s killing all the fungus. The whole network is dying. And she finds Culber, who is living in the mycelial network. He’s killing the fungus by covering himself with plants that the fungus is allergic to, to protect himself from being eaten by the fungus. Where does he get these fungus-killing plants that the mycelial network has never seen before? Who knows! We don’t care, apparently.
But wait! How did Culber get there? Well, when he died, his mental energy moved into the mycelial realm, because apparently he was in love with Stamets and Stamets is somehow connected to the fungus? And once there, the fungus physically recreated his body for him. It can do that because it’s fungus: fungus lives off of decaying biological matter, so it can of course create a pristine body out of nothing to house a mind-spirit. And then of course, it tries to feed on this this newly embodied mind-spirit that it created, so Culber has to defend himself with fungus killing plants he conjured out of nowhere. (Seriously, he’s in the mycelial network. Where did he get those??)
So they try to bring Culber back to Discovery, but he can’t go, because his body was created by the fungus in the mycelial plane, so it can’t exist in normal space. So they politely ask the fungus to recreate his body again in normal space. They feed the fungus his DNA, and voila! Culber is now back. And he’s pristine. They just resurrected someone who’s been dead for a season, because the same fungus that allows them to skip across the galaxy can also preserve and then recreate dead people out of nowhere. And they never mention or make use of this again. And none of this makes an ounce of sense.
This is just the beginning of the fridge logic. Shelby and I have talked for hours about the logic of the show, and couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it.
A theme park ride
And in this way, it was like a theme park ride — loads of fun all the way through. But none of the story twists and turns have any substance; it’s a facade. It’s all just a pretext for taking you on the next turn on the theme park ride. The thrill is in the inertia of the story, the vertigo of its heights, the adrenaline of its surprise turns, and the weightlessness of its sudden drops. But once you step off the ride, you have no reason for any of it. It exists solely for the sake of entertaining you, and it succeeds very well. But it leaves you with nothing that can be remembered very clearly after the fact, and nothing that makes any sense after you’ve thought about it for even a moment. Holding together the sights and sounds of the ride is just scaffolding and the art of narrative illusion. It’s narrative sleight of hand, all the way through. And it’s an illusion that fails the moment you turn your head to look at it from a different angle, or step off the ride.
It’s not that the technology doesn’t make sense. It’s that the story doesn’t make sense. The writers don’t respect the viewers enough to treat them as anything but credulous fools.
Not a show for children
And finally, this isn’t your grandfather’s Star Trek in one other important way: Rated TV-MA, it’s not suitable for children. And that’s a travesty. Star Trek has typically always been the sort of show that you can watch with your kids. Even though some of the heftier philosophical themes would wholly escape a five year old, most episodes are entirely appropriate for family viewing. And this simply isn’t the case with Star Trek Discovery.
There’s a 3-4 f-words scattered throughout the series. There is certainly some gore; you see bodies that have been torn apart by a beast. You see bodies that have been in what can best be described as a transporter accident (although it’s really a spore-jump accident). You see the severed head of a baby at one point. There’s a scene where someone is stabbed through with a sword. Phaser injuries bleed. People suffocate in space. And the truth is, none of this was necessary. It was all gratuitous.
To be sure, the show started off and advertised itself as darker than it really was in later episodes and seasons. There’s also no outright nudity (that I can remember). I will say, none of it struck me as any worse than hard-PG-13 movies like Infinity War. (But don’t get me wrong, this is not an endorsement.) I think that the thresholds between TV-14 and TV-MA are different than the thresholds for PG-13 and R. Since content is being broadcast, so to speak, it’s easier to earn a TV-MA rating. But I also think that was their intent. They wanted to signal that this was a more “mature” take on Star Trek.
From a Latter-day Saint point of view, viewers should be aware that there’s a number of scenes that seem designed to normalize LGBT relations. One of the main characters is a gay man in a committed relationship with another character. But what can we expect? Star Trek has always been at the leading edge of progressive moral worldviews. Modern progressivism is a child of the secular humanism that informed Star Trek of three decades ago. So it’s hardly surprising that they openly depict LGBT relations as normal in Star Fleet. It’s simply the next step in the evolution of a franchise that was always heading that direction.
How to react to this as a Latter-day Saint viewer is hard to say. This is the world we live in now. We are going to encounter LGBT people in committed relationships throughout our lives, and even among friends and families. Gone are the days where it’s appropriate to look with disgust, turn our heads, and cover our children’s eyes when two men kiss in public. As Latter-day Saints specifically, and Christians generally, we must adopt a new mode of response that conveys love and compassion, not disgust, towards our LGBT brothers and sisters, even if we do not embrace their worldviews as our own.
While those days may be gone, the days will never be gone where it’s appropriate to, after such encounters, have conversations with our children in our homes about the importance of loving all people, avoiding self-righteousness, and acknowledging that not everyone shares our moral assumptions — and then, from that foundation, reinforcing our doctrinal belief that sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. We must walk a delicate line, as we raise children with sound doctrinal understanding, but who also see those who differ as friends, colleagues, and people worthy of Christian love. We can lean into our understanding of covenants: not everybody has made the same covenants with God that we have.
But this doesn’t mean that we can’t be selective in what we show out children during their formative years. I’m not going to show Star Trek Discovery to my kids, at the very least because of the occasional gratuitous violence. I’m probably never going to introduce it to them — if they ever want to watch it, it will be upon their initiative as adults. The world is full of good entertainment that doesn’t carry with it gratuitous gore, violence, and implicit worldviews that look with disdain on our Christian beliefs and doctrines. And there’s also five other Star Trek series and three times as many movies to choose from as well. My kids will have plenty of Star Trek to swim in.