Let’s Talk About Star Trek Discovery’s Pilot (This Was Inevitable)

Hello good people of the Earth, its solar system, and the great Milky Way. I appreciate you taking the time to join me in a discussion of a new star-spanning TV (kinda, it was made for a streaming service) show: Star Trek: Discovery.

(Please note that since the natural acronym for this show is STD, I will instead just call it Discovery. Because having “STD” all over this blog post would be distracting and, probably, unintentionally humorous for dumb reasons.)

As you may have noticed in last week’s post, I am a big fan of Star Trek. I have been called both a Trekkie and a Trekker (I prefer the former), for good reason. The first TV I watched was TNG. As a kid, I once watched Star Trek: First Contact at least once a day, every day, for a month. To this day, I can still repeat most of the lines of the movie as they’re spoken. It’s also still one of my favorite films. Captain Picard and crew are the reasons I got into science fiction…which, as you may have noticed, I write novels of now. Since then, I’ve experienced the greatness that is Deep Space Nine (once you get passed the rocky start) and even enjoyed the bombastic Voyager. Sometimes. (Freaking “Threshold,” I don’t even know where to start.)

My point is that Star Trek is significant to me. Like I discussed last week, it represents an optimistic view of our own future: an Earth that has unified and stepped beyond petty hatred of our differences to celebrate how our differences can better bring us together. It is, at its best, a show about how conflict―not just martial but every kind―can be resolved through thought, evaluation, and consideration of every party’s position. Most of the best episodes of Trek have little to do with space technology at all (“The Inner Light,” “The Visitor,” “The Offspring,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “The Measure of a Man,” just to name a few).

So, given my many thoughts and opinions on Star Trek, I went into the new premiere with dubious excitement. I hoped it would be good, but I expected to be unhappy with it―primarily because I have not been a fan of how recent Star Trek movies have driven for the action sci-fi side of the line.

Now, as a disclaimer, countless people have discussed how Discovery intersects with canon in both good and bad ways. I am not going to do that here. Countless others have called out the idiosyncrasies, anachronisms, and holes created by making Discovery a prequel to The Original Series. I am also not going to do that here.

What I want to talk about is characters and relationships.

If that sounds familiar, GOOD. It means you’ve read posts on my site before and know that I take the actions, motivations, and connections between characters very seriously. The primary person I want to talk about―because that’s what characters are and should be: people―is Michael Burnham.

This human raised by Vulcans is our main character and the lens through which we are experiencing the unfolding drama. While this is unlike other Trek series featuring a strong captain surrounded by an ensemble cast, there’s no reason it can’t work if done well. That said, this approach relies on Michael being a character we can empathize with and understand.

And therein lies the problem.

As many people have noted, over the course of the first half of the pilot episode, Michael puts her life at risk to investigate an odd object more closely than ordered, encounters a hostile lifeform, smashes into that alien (killing him) instead of simply flying away, tries to convince her captain to attack the aliens preemptively on a misguided belief, and then physically assaults her captain in an effort to take over the ship.

That is a lot of things to happen in 40ish minutes of show. Throughout these occurrences, we as the audience are trying to keep up with a series of rash, emotionally driven decisions being made by a character we do not yet know. These decisions are supposed to have weight, but we have no reason to feel that weight as the relationships are blank nothings to us.

Right at the top of the premiere, we learn that Michael has been Captain Georgiou’s first officer for 7 years. That is a LONG TIME. For frame of reference, 7 years is the canonical duration of all 3 major Star Trek shows in the modern era (TNG, DS9, and VOY). Riker was Picard’s first officer for as long as Michael has been Georgiou’s.

Why does this matter (you ask me, slightly bored)?

Because the 2 act like they barely know each other. Their interactions are stilted and, frankly, nonsensical. This isn’t a crack on the acting; it’s a shot at the writing. Think of anyone you have known closely for at least 7 years. Heck, think of someone you’ve known closely for 2 or 3. I mean, someone you have interacted with on a daily basis for at least 2 years.

Would you, based on a single situation that they are not directly responsible for, yell at that person and physically assault them when they disagree with you?

Of course not! You have spent years learning about each other and that’s not how relationships work.

Since we’re told from “go” that these characters are long-standing colleagues (if not friends), the complete destruction of their relationship over the following 30 minutes is baffling.

When you are writing characters, remember to treat them as people. They should have histories, back stories, and experiences all their own. If you were to ask them what their favorite memory is, they should know. Discovery kinda does this, to its credit. Michael, Saru, Georgiou, Sarek, and others have backstories we get hints of in the first episode (though Sarek doesn’t count for Discovery‘s credit. He’s Sarek.). Step 2 of good character writing is then ensuring that those histories directly connect to the character’s motivations and actions moving forward. When those characters are interacting with each other during a crisis, their actions, choices, and decisions should be informed by everything that has come before. This doesn’t happen in Discovery.

Frankly, the relationships in Discovery would work better if the characters were only supposed to have recently met. Of course, I understand that telling the story with 7 years of “history” is supposed to create a greater emotional burden on the audience when something bad inevitably happens right at the top of the show. (Wild guess having not seen Ep. 2: Georgiou dies.)

But that’s dumb.

I leave you with this thought before I just go on forever talking about the weird writing decisions in this show’s ½ pilot.

For the most part, media has turned toward the bombastic. TV shows and movies want to show us things that are exciting, riveting, etc., all toward garnering our dollar (or 15). The problem is that so few of the companies involved are willing to invest toward first building characters we know, love, and/or find fascinating. (Examples of rushing this: the DC cinematic universe, the new Mummy movie, etc.)

“Chain of Command” from TNG works well because we know Picard and crew closely. “The Visitor” crushes us emotionally because we understand how deeply Sisko loves his son. Even “The Menagerie,” the oft-referred to TOS episode in which Spock mutinies against Kirk, works because we know who these characters are. We care about them.

Writers of anything: do not just throw characters into emotional circumstances without taking the time to meaningfully establish them first. Honestly, I think it’s better to introduce them after the emotional moment and have us join them in the fallout then to join them a split-second before it happens when we simply won’t care.

The best option is to lay the groundwork for who your characters are long before their lives are swamped in conflict and worry. Give us the emotional anchors to understand who these people are before taking us on a journey with them.

That’s the secret of all great Star Trek and all great writing, in general.

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