While the first season of Star Trek: Discovery was being filmed, the studio (CBS) and original showrunner Bryan Fuller parted ways. The twist was that, while CBS wanted a new direction for the show, it felt that so much time and money had been already been spent that Fuller’s episodes had to be broadcast almost exactly as he’d planned them.
Discovery was clearly meant to be quite tightly focussed on a Hero’s Journey and redemption arc for the character Michael Burnham, against the backdrop of a Federation whose utopian idealism was being challenged as it fought a war with the Klingons. Once Fuller left, Discovery almost immediately started killing off characters and plotlines that had seemed central to the show.
It’s impossible to watch the first season and not notice that the production team are desperately trying to keep the potter’s wheel going, but clay is flying everywhere. Much of it is clearly being worked out as they go along.
This was exactly the shot in the arm Star Trek had needed.
By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation ended in 1994, it had become the first TV show to be referred to as a “franchise”. The whole point of a franchise is to stamp out identical product: for the next ten years, Star Trek was incredibly lucrative, but featured storytelling you could set your watch by. Each attempt to shake up the format quickly found itself back humming the same tune.
Discovery… didn’t do that.
The previous Star Trek series all followed the strict act structure of broadcast TV: there were running stories, particularly in Deep Space 9, but each episode still made sense on its own. Discovery had some stories sprawl halfway into the next episode, or dismissed them in a scene, or seemed to forget about something they set up until they suddenly remembered. Characters we meet for two minutes get elaborate backstories; a couple of the bridge officers with speaking parts in every episode didn’t even get names. Stories were played fast, with all the emphasis on emotional impact, not plot mechanics. The result was a bonkers version of Star Trek where the only things you could see coming were the “big surprise twists”.
And from this chaos emerged, seemingly organically, a great overarching story more in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek than anything we’ve seen for decades. The crew of the Discovery, a diverse bunch of weirdos and misfits faced with a war they didn’t want to fight and leaders they couldn’t trust, collectively took things in hand, and suddenly the Starfleet we know and love emerged: a brainy, compassionate, weird organisation that ushered in a new era of peace.
Many fans disliked Discovery. Part of the appeal of any long-running series, surely, that it’s a machine for delivering what its fans already like. Discovery’s first season was not comfort food; it was a weird Heston Blumenthal concoction that looked like a choc ice but tasted like chicken vindaloo.
The second season has just started, and part of its mission is clearly to boldly reassure the fans. New-fangled stuff like the spore drive and Klingon War have been dropped. Captain Pike, canonically Captain of the Enterprise before Kirk, has arrived – in a sixties style yellow jumper, no less – to take command. The Klingons now look like the ones Worf used to hang out with. The transporter chief has a VISOR, like Geordi from The Next Generation, but not as advanced, Because That Would Violate Continuity.
The first episode of the second season is good: fast-moving, exciting, building on what went before. But the thing that concerns me is that the writers seem very hung up on how their show relates to the rest of Star Trek. There is something lovely, dark and choc ice vindaloo about the line, “I’m going to start crying like a baby Tribble in the kill zone”, but it’s a line that relies on the old shows to work. The second season opener subverts a few clichés, but they’re Star Trek clichés.
It’s early days, and this is still the best TV version of Star Trek for a very, very long time, but given a little breathing space to think about what this show’s about, the writers seem to have concluded that it’s about Star Trek. That’s the path of least resistance for a show whose first year seemed gloriously and perversely intent on avoiding any sensible path at all. Discovery will be a great show when it realises that it can be a great show in its own right.