Now we’ve watched, as far as I can tell, just about the full run of … season 2? Season 3? of Star Trek: Discovery. Or there are a couple of episodes to go. I don’t know. I can’t keep track and that’s a (very minor) part of the problem.
Follow-up after checking: we are 11 episodes in, and there’s been a bit of a pause (maybe) and there are apparently a few more episodes coming on this season. So.
This was brought to my attention, and seems to be an interesting viewpoint from author Steven Erikson, who thinks the show is a “clusterfuck”. I’m just going to go through the whole thing bit by bit, for shits and giggles and because I’m still ramping up over here, and post responses to some of the pertinent points.
Did I really use that word in my title? I searched high and low for an alternative, something, anything to describe what has been done to my beloved Star Trek. But nothing else quite fits as well as that single word: clusterfuck. But even typing it makes me wince.
Well it was pretty harsh, and overall the framing of his critique is a bit more indignant and strident and self-inflated-seeming than I would go with, but I guess he’s entitled to his opinion and his means of expression and I don’t entirely disagree with him on most of it. And his suggestions aren’t invalid, far as I can see.
And he gets harsher from there because it seems like he really doesn’t like this show.
Alas, any sort of in-depth critique of ST: Discovery cannot help but turn into a rant, it’s that bad. So frigging bad I don’t even know where to start, but I’ll give it a good try.
Well, I’ve been guilty of ranting about things in the past and I’m sure I’ll be guilty of it again in the future, but for now I’ll just say this was a pretty fucking genteel rant, Steven. But let’s crack into it.
I won’t even bother naming names in this, but on the creative, show-running side, there’s a choke-hold on Star Trek: it’s desperate, it’s haunted by its own mediocrity, it’s utterly unoriginal and incapable of innovation, it’s ignorant of anything remotely scientific, and it’s under siege by a fan-base that knows more than it does when it comes to what Star Trek is actually about.
This certainly seems to be true. I don’t personally mind about the scientific inaccuracies but I will concede that Trek is meant to be “better” than Wars, let alone Doctor Who, when it comes to science fiction over science fantasy. I don’t know if Star Trek: Discovery is more guilty of breaking this rule than any other Trek, mainly because – like I just said – I don’t personally mind. It’s all science fantasy to me, and a spore drive and time travelling wossname is no better or worse than any other lovely preposterous bullplop Trek does.
As for being attacked by Trekkies, I guess I’d have to abstain from voting on that one. From what I’ve seen, some Trekkies hate everything. Some of them hate anything that happened after The Original Series. Some of them hate everything after Deep Space Nine. Some of them just hate Enterprise and Discovery, and some of them just hate Discovery. Some of them hate the reboots.
On the other side of that, there are solid Trekkies I know of who like the reboots, and some who like Star Trek: Discovery too. So this whole thing is impossible to get much of a bead on, especially with all of these people insisting that they’re the actual Trekkies and their opinion is the actual one.
Star Trek fans, circa 2019, colourised.
Speaking of the Abrams reboot movies … I wasn’t aware of this, but apparently the people in charge of the reboot had some difficulties with the original Star Trek people and there’s been some legal in-fighting, and the reason Discovery is so wildly un-Trek is because it’s the product of the reboot people rather than the original Star Trek people somehow. Now, I liked the reboot movies. So that can’t be all of it.
This is apparently a good summary but I haven’t bothered to watch it yet. Erikson mentioned it, is all.
I was deeply confused, and remain confused (although I have now added a thick layer of fuck-it sauce and now everything just tastes like fuck-it) by the timeline and which universe is which, although it has all started to hang together. Star Trek: Discovery happens after The Cage pilot episode of The Original Series but before the first actual episode, so Pike is still in command and Spock is there and … mmm, fuck-it.
Mysterious signals from deep-space fifty thousand lightyears apart, the nearest one of which would take years to reach by Warp speed. Uhm, folks, a signal from, say, thirty thousand lightyears away, is actually thirty thousand years old. Astronomy 101. So, what’s the effing hurry? Did no-one – I mean no-one – put up a timorous hand in the writing room, to point out this fact?
Yeah but actually, this whole thing is easy enough to explain once you have time travel in there. They just needed to make it clearer that the signals were being planted in the past so they would show up right at that moment wherever the Discovery was when they saw the signal, and then vanish again, leading the Discovery around by the nose. But that is impossibly convoluted. Still possible, though.
Now, how sensor data even works when you have warp speed … maybe we’re better off just avoiding that altogether. Because it seems to me sensors would be picking up signals from ships from all over the galaxy in tens of thousands of years’ time depending on where each ship was and where it then flew at faster than the speed of light … just no.
The signals all appearing and then vanishing (nobody took a screenshot? The signals vanish so you couldn’t find out where they’d been? Jesus) and then reappearing one at a time though, it all seemed like a huge McGuffin that we should have left behind after the first episode. But that’s a larger question of Trek series structure. I don’t care for this attempt at an overall arc storyline. Deep Space Nine did it well enough, but that was about as far as I think they should have taken it. And they still dropped stand-alone episodes in there. They should have seen from the Enterprise arcs that it wasn’t working out, and tried something different. Lots of sci-fi shows have successfully done overarching plot arcs.
A junior officer-in-training constantly makes herself the center of attention, and yet everyone keeps saying what a great captain she’d make.
I’m with Erikson on this one, Tilly shits me to absolute tears and my favourite moment so far was when Stamets made her say “I will stop saying things.” I get that she’s brilliant in some really specific way and her daffiness is meant to be charming, but no. It’s just grating, and there’s no way so many characters would consider her command material. Potential, maybe, once she goes and does another twenty years of training. All their encouragement just comes off as cruel and shallow.
I’m also unconvinced by Burnham, she’s just not as interesting and compelling a character as I think we’re supposed to consider her. I wouldn’t follow Erikson necessarily as far as declaring her a total Mary Sue as he seems to be flirting with, but she’s not a load-bearing character. And Star Trek: Discovery got some load on it, son.
In fact, I think I’d be way more interested in her without the connection to Spock. She could still have been a human raised on Vulcan, but we’ve basically already had that with Spock (a halfbreed) himself. We’ve also had a Klingon raised among humans. So why not make Burnham something else, to bring depth into another Trek species? Like the Andorians? She could have been a human raised by Andorians. Or the Tellerites, which have apparently been a member species since the beginning of the Federation but we never really see. Their culture of argument and assorted other facets could make for a fascinating character.
Does anyone know who the rest of the bridge crew are? I mean, we keep seeing them and stuff. But this plays into the structural problems with the whole series. No time! Onto the next action scene!
Agreed. There was one episode where we got a really beautiful and poignant look at one of the characters and her backstory, but it was handled appallingly. And then she died. Fucking infuriating.
If you want to build tension, you work at it from page one, and that requires 1) patience, 2) planning, 3) subtlety and nuance, 4) faith that your audience has an attention span longer than that of a cockroach.
Agreed, although #4 there might just be overestimating today’s audiences. Sorry to say.
Does anyone really care whether Burnham and company live or die? I don’t. I can’t even decide if I like anyone on that ship. How can I? I barely know them. The action sequences, the endless rushing about, overwhelms everything else. The stick keeps swinging, wildly, out of control, in a frenzy of set-piece special effects scenes, each one striving to be bigger, louder, more conflagratory than the last one. It’s pretty much Transformers in space, with all the misanthropy thrown in for free.
Again, I rather agree. I like Stamets, and I love Saru, and Pike adds a solid 75% to the total character of the entire crew as a good Captain should … but the rest are just nothing.
Oh, and they spent so goddamn long getting Spock to actually appear on screen, I thought they were leading up to something interesting but it turns out they were just stringing us along. He might as well have appeared five episodes sooner and added some fun smarmy one-liners in a sibling-rivalry context. We haven’t seen a brother and sister in Trek before, although I’m sure I’m just not remembering some example or other. We had Quark and Rom in Deep Space Nine but that was about it. Oh, the Delaney sisters in Voyager, but they were a running joke. They could have done so much with this.
Although the alternative, an adopted Tellerite, would still have been better. Because Spock already had a half-brother, he doesn’t need to be piled on with more bullshit family.
Consider the role of Chief Engineer as an example. When do we see the guy and what’s he doing when we do see him? Well, either it’s his love-life or it’s the frigging spore-drive. Ever seen him in a Jeffries tube with a wrench in his hand? No. Oh, he taps awful fast on the big screens, but then, everyone does that. Does this guy care about his ship? Its engines? Not that I’ve seen. Does he have the emotional attachment real chief engineers have for their vessel, consistent with the tradition? No.
This was really fascinating because Stamets, like I said, is one of the best characters as far as I’m concerned. But I thought he was almost entirely a spore drive and general sciencey type, not Chief Engineer.
And if the argument is that more could have been done with his character, I couldn’t agree more. Make him a new Chief to go into the Trek Pantheon, or else give us a different character as Chief Engineer – an actual proper character – and go full Mos “the Artist” Karturi with Stamets.
That was a reference to my books, if you don’t get it you can go right to Hell.
When it comes to the welfare of a ship you’re on, and therefore your own welfare, who would you rather have as your chief engineer: this guy or Scottie? This guy or Geordi? This guy or O’Brien? This guy or Trip?
Hey now, don’t be leaving out B’Elanna Torres, Steven. That’s sexist. But I’d rather have Torres so your original point stands. I mean, I’d still like Stamets on board, but not as Chief Engineer.
And no, it’s not about him being married to a guy; in fact, I like the efforts at inclusivity that much of the casting exemplifies, and those dubious few ‘fans’ prattling on about SJW’s taking away their Star Trek: you’re idiots, because ST has always been about social justice. What bloody show were you watching? No, the guy could be married to a mushroom for all I care (oh, hang on, I think he is).
Yes. And zing, well played.
On the subject of what audience exactly they’re catering to:
In other words, we can watch and enjoy the Space Fantasy worlds of Marvel Comics and Star Wars, and get plenty from them. But when it comes to Star Trek, we look for something different. We’re not distinct groups as such: we are, in fact, capable of holding different expectations for different franchises.
I don’t mind Star Trek: Discovery, although I’m increasingly irritated and feel increasingly cringey as I watch it. And it shouldn’t go that way. When we watched Enterprise, I felt cringey right from the start and then the feeling gradually faded into “hey, this isn’t awesome but it may just be Star Trek after all”. Discovery doesn’t seem to be going in that direction.
I know plenty of Trekkies who like this show as a Star Trek show, and others who like it (ish) just as a sci-fi show. But it’s really not whelming me in either sense at this point, despite the retconny attempts made to explain some of the problems in recent episodes. All in all, while I wouldn’t go that far with it, I have to side with Mr. Erikson here.
De gustibus non est disputandum.
Opinions are like arseholes. I got my arsehole replaced with an extra opinion.
I know you know what I mean. And that I learned that one from Stover himself.
You said there’s no point discussing matters of taste. I said the same, except of course my taste counts more. Not sure who you learned a saying from really matters.
Wait, why does your taste count more?
(The thread didn’t have the option of a Reply Here text)
I mean, hey, like what you like. Erikson’s clearly not a fan, and wants something else, and – hey, that’s okay!
It was a joke. You know, opinions are like arseholes? I don’t have an arsehole so I get two opinions.
Also it’s my blog and I am like unto a God here.
But yes, like I said in the original post, lots of people don’t like the show and lots of people do. Entirely their call and if they enjoy it, that’s great. I don’t want to spoil that for anyone and I kind of feel like Erikson went a bit far in his “ranting”. I greatly prefer The Santa Clarita Diet myself.
I showed the post to our housemate, Perry, who is a massive Trekker fan, and he frowned when he saw the bit about Erikson complaining about Pike almost flunking a subject about astrophysics or what ever it was, and said “Yeah his job is to be on the bridge and know how to make the right calls, pardon me if he’s not great at everything”.
He also pointed out to me that the comments around Tilly being a wonderful captain some day are likely in part due to her ability to have faked the appearance/tone/voice of the Alt-Tilly in the Murderverse Dimension (maybe that’s where Zack Snyder comes from?).
But that said, Jade, Perry, and I – we all love Tilly. That she’s also presenting a type of autistic person so incredibly well on screen (speaking as someone who has been officially diagnosed as autistic and spent a lot of time reading up on and learning about the subject), and she’s also just really pleasant as a character.
That said – I agree that Stamits could be given more to do. But then, really, whenever I think of a Star Trek Engineer, the line that comes to mind is “I cannae do it captain!” and an image of a moustachioed fellow behind a console spouting techno-babble.
However, I do get the impression that there’s a long-game being played here, and as such, I am loathe to be overly critical of what at present is an unfinished story – one that has managed to take the Kill Your Gay trope and – (OKAY, SPOILERS HERE, SO I AM GOING TO JUMP A FEW LINES DOWN OUT OF BASIC SPOILERY CONSIDERATION SO THAT RIVER SONG DOESN’T GET ANGRY AT ME)
and create a new Not Yet Trope of “Resurrect Your Gays” (Jade’s line, not mine, but I like the line regardless.)
As concerns Michael – I am so very invested in her plight, her story, her decisions, and where she ends up. Sonequa Martin-Green is first and foremost an acting powerhouse, and she had me from the first episode. She’s a marvel to watch. And watching her bounce off equally strong actors? Oh man. Watching her and Anson Mount (Pike) bounce off one another? Or her and Michelle Yeoh? Or Doug Jones? Bring it on.
Granted, I know Star Trek is more about ideas than emotions, but the playing up of character frictions, having people snark at one another, argue with one another – gods it’s fun! Stamets arguing with and working with Jett Reno, or with Spock in a more recent episode, where Spock utters the absolutely BRILLIANT deadpan line of “I really like science” – this iteration really works for me, and for Jade as well, who in comparison to me, enjoyed pre-Discovery Trek quite a bit (she’s well-versed in all things TNG onwards, what I sometimes perhaps unfairly refer to as BB Era – the Berman and Braga Era).
And part of that has to do with, I suspect, upon a considerable amount of analysis, on the aspect ratio used for filming. Most Trek shows prior to Discovery used a 4:3 aspect ratio. Discovery instead went for a 2:1 ratio. Which makes the show feel much more cinematic. That, alongside a changed approach to lighting, makes the sets look and feel, to my eyes, less like props.
I went looking for some information around this, and found one commentator on Reddit who talked about this topic intelligently enough that I’d like to share their thoughts:
“In earlier eras, film stocks and lenses were both much slower than what we have now. You had to put a lot of light into a scene in order to film it. Contrast between light and shadow was difficult to achieve without either overexposing the scene or ending up with an excessively grainy shot. That’s why TV shows like Star Trek and The Next Generation have such flat lighting in general. The DPs on the shows wanted to light scenes creatively, and did to a certain extent, but the technical requirements of lenses and film stocks demanded a certain lighting setup which was neither naturalistic nor particularly artistic.
Now we have *super-*fast lenses available to rent at TV-budget prices, and we have electronic cameras that are as sensitive or more sensitive than the best film stocks of prior decades, with more dynamic range and less noise. So it’s now technically possible to light scenes for TV in ways that were simply not practical until pretty recently.”
(Origin of this text: https://www.reddit.com/r/startrek/comments/74g9kj/spoiler_is_it_just_me_or_does_star_trek_discovery/dny9zht/)
In line with that, is the approach taken by the cinematographers and designers of the show (via Wikipedia this time, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_Discovery):
For the visual scope of the series, Kurtzman felt that the show had to “justify being on a premium cable service”. The showrunners were particularly inspired by Star Trek: The Motion Picture and its “wider scope”, with Harberts explaining that the series is shot in a 2:1 aspect ratio which “just lends itself to a very lyrical way of telling the story.” He added that some of the series’ visuals were influenced by the modern Star Trek films from J. J. Abrams.
Some of these influences, per Goldsman, are “the ability to be creative cinematically…the intimate discourse, the humanistic storytelling with the giant canvas that is Star Trek. A more kinetic camera, a more dynamic way of existing, a much greater use of practical sets so when you’re running down a corridor, you’re running down a corridor. A sense of rhythm…there is a sense of litheness, a kind of fluidity in the characterisations.”
The producers worked closely with pilot director David Semel to make the series look as cinematic as possible, including filming the bridge of Starfleet’s ships in such a way as “not to shoot in a sort of proscenium box…to be able to get the camera into spaces where, you know, to shoot it in interesting ways, which is a combination of choreographing a scene to motivate the camera moving, and also lighting.”
The cinematographers for the series wanted to emphasize on set sourcing, with lighting built in wherever it would naturally appear to help create a more realistic feel, and distance the series from the “stage” feel of the original series.The lighting could also be controlled to create completely different situations, such as the lighting of a Starfleet red alert. Harberts said that the cinematographers wanted the series to have a “Rembrandt texture”.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this has led to me feeling as though the screen feels less like a set and more like a real place. But I understand this is not everyone’s preference, and that there’s a tie here to nostalgia to a certain extent as well.
Point of order 1: Like I said in the main post, I don’t care about the Trekkie cred of opinion-holders because they’re all over the shop, so it’s an irrelevant qualification at best, and gatekeeping at worst.
Point of order 2: What the fuck is a Trekker fan? You can be a Star Trek fan, or a Trekker / Trekkie. Do you mean he’s a fan of fans? Or have you nicknamed Star Trek “Trekker” the way some people call rugby “rugger”?
Yeah, I had no problem with that. Actually I rather liked it, because it was a very clear bit of backstory and character building. I can imagine that, rarefied breed as Starfleet Captains are, something like that “big red F” would be something he is haunted by, if only jokingly. He obviously still got granted a command, and a good pne.
Possibly, yeah. She did that well.
That’s a good point, I didn’t think of it in terms of that sort of spectrum. I can see the appeal.
I’m afraid she still shits me, but I guess I’ll … try to do better?
Right, so like Stamets, except he has a worrybrow instead of a moustache, and the console is holographic in front of his face and often revolving 365 degrees with the camera.
Agreed on this too, it’s why I’m still watching. There are glimmers, and Hell I gave Enterprise two or three seasons – full-length old style TV seasons – and was glad I did, so these guys can have the same. Just don’t expect me not to opine about that shit.
That’s … true? Look, if there’s one complaint you can’t level at this iteration of the franchise, it’s falling victim to tropes. There might be a few, but if anything they err on the other side of the problem and I have no problem with that.
That’s cool, I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
No I’m with you, it doesn’t even have to be about emotions. Character and dialogue and intelligent interaction is great to watch. We’re probably not going to agree on how much of that is on show in Discovery, but that’s fine.
Don’t you think the “emotion and snark” angle might have been better served, not to mention the whole concept of the Vulcan species preserved, by Michael being adopted into a Tellerite family? The idea just occurred to me as I was writing the blog post and now I can’t let it go, I think it would have been great – and way better for her character and her acting chops. Why do we need to keep piling stuff onto the Vulcans – and Spock in particular? There are other worlds in the Federation.
True. I snipped all the copy-pasted stuff about the techniques, though it was interesting. I just don’t have much to add there. It’s not a huge deal to me, although obviously it makes the show look “less Trek”. However, they’ve been playing with that for a long time. The look and feel of Terok Nor in Deep Space Nine, and the overall near-industrial look of Enterprise, were good attempts while still keeping with a theme.
Discovery benefits from almost two decades in advancement of special effects technology, and blows a lot of it (to my mind) in weird camera-pans and attempted-gritty realism that just makes everything look gloomy. Which isn’t to say that the camera movements and setups aren’t sometimes great! They definitely are. It all just adds up to a net loss for me, in terms of watchability. But that’s just personal taste, I’m glad this style appealed to you and helped bring in a new viewer.
What’s fascinating is that people had the opposite complaint about the movie reboots, which were apparently made by the same crowd! Those had the Trek look dialled up to 11, and lens flares thrown in. There was some gloom and gothicry (there always is in alien enemy ships and habitats though, always has been), but most of it was pure Trek bubblegum with halogen spotlights behind every camera.